Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?


On Creating Space

One year ago today, I launched a thirty-day discipline to write for this blog every day during the month of April. I had hoped that after the month was over I would continue to write regularly, but life intervened! What started as a goal to continue to write a couple times a week faded to maybe a couple times a month, and a year later I find myself having posted only twice so far in 2014. One was a summary of 2013 and one was a rerun from five years ago, so they hardly count.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing. I’ve written stuff in my head, I’ve jotted down notes, and I’ve even started drafts. But they haven’t yet seen the light of day. I don’t have time to fine-tune the writing, or the idea I have doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or I fear the topic is too controversial and I’m quite frankly scared to enter the fray (think commentaries on gun violence or health care or some other hot button topic…).

Probably the issue of time is at the heart of my inability to write regularly, despite my best intentions. In my life, there is always a new deadline; it’s an occupational hazard for editors of what are supposed to be regular publications. I struggle enough to keep up with all the deadlines for the seven publications I’m currently editing that adding another deadline for this blog looms large. If I’m going to write more regularly (which I really want to do!), I need more space in my life.

As I’ve thought about how to create space, I can’t help drawing an analogy from my life as a writer and editor. Of the seven publications I edit, only one does not have a page limit. Take the almost-monthly news update I produce for the Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health Services. More than 20 years ago, when it was created, we decided that it should fit on one piece of paper – using both sides. Keep in mind that this was still in the days of hard copies and snail mail. Over the years that length limit has not changed, despite the fact that it is mostly online now and could easily be much longer. I continue to maintain the discipline of sticking to those two sides of one piece of paper (or, more accurately now, two Word document pages). Some months, there is barely enough to fill the two pages and so I space things out a little more, or add a seasonal graphic to fill an empty corner. But more often than not, there’s too much copy. I could decrease the margins on the page, or decrease the font size, or eliminate space between news items to gain a few extra lines, but beyond a couple small exceptions to the font size thing, I have disciplined myself not to do that. Instead, I’ve become really good at editing out unnecessary words or even sentences, taking what I or someone else thought needed two paragraphs and making it say the same thing in just one. It’s amazing how many words you can get rid of if you have to and still maintain the meaning! Sometimes I’ll decide that an item I thought was really important isn’t important after all, or it can easily wait until next month when there might be more space. In almost 22 years, I have never gone over the two-page limit!

Now if I could just apply the same discipline in my life… Sigh! I wrote awhile back about my “multi-tasking life,” referring to all the juggling I do to manage many different projects and volunteer assignments, in addition to my part-time job. In the months since, I really have been trying to decrease my responsibilities, to get control and create some space in my life – to get it down to “two pages,” so to speak. I’ve decided to step down from one responsibility this summer, and I’m decreasing my part-time hours from 12-15 a week to 6-10 a week starting July 1. Next year I’m looking forward to creating even more space when I step down from a couple other responsibilities. I’ve recently even had a little (although not enough) practice saying no when I’ve been asked to take on something new, although I’ve also ended up saying yes to a couple shorter-term things I really wanted to do.

To push the two-page analogy a little further, it might even be nice to get my extra-curricular responsibilities down to just one page, but to do that, I would have to do some serious editing and make some hard decisions about what’s really necessary. In the meantime, as I keep working on the discipline of creating space, here’s hoping some of those partly-written posts and/or thoughts rattling around in my head will eventually (perhaps even soon!) find themselves on the virtual pages of this blog!

Life Lessons from Tubing

DSC09894Earlier this month, Dale and I spent a leisurely afternoon tubing down the Yellow Beeches Creek. We took one car to the end of the planned trip and the other car and the inner tubes to the beginning. A little more than three hours later, we emerged from the creek, loaded our wet selves and the tubes into the first car and drove back to the beginning to reclaim the second car. This was a pleasantly cool way to spend a hot summer afternoon, and I certainly didn’t feel obliged to think about whether there was any larger meaning, but nonetheless I couldn’t stop myself thinking about “life lessons from tubing” as we floated along.

Partner with others: While you can go tubing by yourself, it’s much more difficult and not nearly as much fun. Logistically, tubing is a bit of a challenge especially if you plan to go any distance. Having a car positioned at both ends of the run, which requires at least two people to make happen, avoids long walks either at the beginning or the end carrying heavy awkward inner tubes. In life too, there are few things you can do entirely by yourself; adages like “two heads are better than one” or “it takes a village” are true, even though the so-called “rugged individualism” that is so much a part of the American psyche often works against partnering. It’s tempting to think we can do things entirely by ourselves – and sometimes perhaps we can – but lots of efforts in life are much more successful if we work together with others.

Go with the flow: The creek flows in one direction, and as someone pointed out, tubers don’t have to make decisions about which direction to go – they just go with the flow. Sometimes, this is a lesson I need to pay attention to – when I’m inclined to resist what’s happening in my life, to tense up when life isn’t going as I hoped, or to be frustrated when my neatly-planned schedule is disrupted. So I tell myself to relax and just go with the flow. On the other hand, occasionally the tube may be headed for a rock in the middle of the creek and you have to paddle against the flow to avoid hitting the rock. Similarly, sometimes just “going with the flow” in life means we accept things we shouldn’t accept without question or protest. I’m constantly trying to sift out when I should just relax and let things be, and when I should speak up and do something that will definitely go against the flow and perhaps incur criticism or even anger from others.

Be comfortable with unknowns. As we floated down the creek, Dale and I knew where we wanted to end up and we had a general idea of how long it would take to get there. But along the way, it was really hard to tell exactly where we were. Towards the end of the run, we kept thinking we must almost be there – just around the next corner, perhaps? – only to find that no, it wasn’t around the next corner or the next. We also wondered how well our inner tubes would hold up. We’ve had them for a long time, and who knows when they might begin to disintegrate? Plus, the creek was fairly shallow in spots and we scraped bottom several times. When might the sharp edge of a rock pierce one of the tubes? We also didn’t know how much the creek had changed since the last time we tubed this stretch. Would the rapids be bigger or smaller? Were some spots no longer passable?

The life lesson here is obvious, I suppose, but for me it bears repeating. I am not one who deals well with uncertainty and unknowns. It’s often hard for me to go with the afore-mentioned flow when I don’t know where it will lead. I like to know where I’m headed or what the outcome will be; I like issues to be clear and unambiguous. But the reality is that I can’t always know the destination or the outcomes, and few issues are ever entirely clear or not muddled by shades of gray and various complexities. I try to be comfortable with that, but my discomfort with the unknown often creates stress for me. (Perhaps a little paradoxically, while I wish issues could be clear and unambiguous, I also actually prefer shades of gray to black and white when it comes to explaining and understanding many religious, political and social issues. Go figure.)

DSC09895Appreciate different perspectives. You see an entirely different creek when you’re in it than you do when you’re driving beside it or crossing a bridge over it. As we were floating down the creek, damselflies perched on us and a water snake slithered by – things you would likely not see from the bank and certainly not from a bridge. A friend who lives near the creek told Dale he ties a garbage bag to a tree at a popular rope swing site to encourage people not to litter. We looked for it as we floated by, and sure enough, there it was – again not something we would have been seen from most other vantage points.

I think about this lesson in a number of different contexts, including a significant conflict situation I was part of some time ago. After a meeting, someone quoted the person who was the center of the conflict as saying something rather inflammatory. I had been in the same meeting and remembered what he said quite differently, and said so. The one doing the quoting declared with confidence, “Oh, that’s what he said,” to which I responded, “I don’t remember it that way.” We brought different perspectives to the situation and so were inclined to interpret things to match our own perspectives. What struck me was that even when I said I didn’t remember the quote the same way, the person didn’t acknowledge that maybe she remembered it incorrectly. She was so sure she was right. I thought I was right too, but since we both couldn’t be right, I tried to think about what was really going on. For me it was a classic example of how important it is to consider the other person’s perspective (walk the proverbial mile in his or her shoes), recognize that we all bring our own prejudices to a situation, and be just a little tentative about our own “rightness.”

Take appropriate precautions. When Dale and I talk about going tubing, we always pay attention to the weather. We don’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm and risk being in the creek when there’s a flash flood which can easily happen around here during the summer. We also don’t go when the creek is high after a significant rain. Of course, we don’t want it to be too shallow to float without repeatedly scraping the bottom, but we are painfully aware of the risks of high water. Years ago, when we were in college, Dale went canoeing with a friend early one spring when this same creek was pretty high and the water was still very cold. The canoe capsized and Dale and Daryl found themselves in the freezing cold water. Dale was able to grab a tree branch and scramble to shore, but Daryl who was not a swimmer desperately hung onto the canoe and was carried downstream by the strong current, getting colder by the minute. Meanwhile Dale ran along the shore frantically trying to figure out how to rescue Daryl. If two men hadn’t appeared downstream to help, the outcome could very easily have been disastrous and tragic. Enough said about the importance of taking proper precautions!!

Our inner tubes are stored away in our basement waiting for the next time we get the hankering to go tubing. Maybe the next time I’ll just enjoy the ride and forget about trying to draw life lessons, but then again, there are always new lessons to be learned.

Bed and Breakfast Adventures

When Dale and I travel, we like to stay in bed and breakfast inns as much as possible. We like the personal touch, the people we meet (both hosts and guests), the delicious breakfasts which usually mean we don’t need to buy lunch, and the local information, tips and recommendations we get about the places we’re visiting. We usually find the listings online, read reviews when they are available, and make our choice based on location, price, and amenities.

We have often remarked at how lucky we’ve been with our choices, given that all we have to go on is the online description and whatever reviews we can find. With the possible exception of the time I had a steak for breakfast that was so tough I couldn’t cut it with a knife no matter how hard I tried, we’ve always had excellent food and service in lovely homes with great hosts. Of course, there was also the time we had reservations to spend an anniversary night at the aptly- (and as it turned out, unfortunately-) named Creekside Inn in Lancaster County. There had already been a lot of rain during the day, and while we were out at a dinner theater after having checked in and dropped off our luggage, it rained buckets again. Upon our return to the inn, we discovered that the creek had overflowed its banks into the house and no one was allowed in. Since we weren’t that far away, we drove home to sleep and went back the next day to retrieve our luggage. That adventure was in no way the fault of the inn, however – unless you blame those who built the house in 1781 for putting it so close to the creek!

Our streak of good choices ended with our recent vacation in Oregon. Four of the five B & Bs we stayed in we would recommend to others; the fifth one not so much. It wasn’t awful, just a bit creepy with a hostess who probably should have retired several years ago. However, it was the only one I could find in the area along the Oregon coast where we wanted to spend the night.

P1600047 The first warning sign was when the street where the B & B was located abruptly ended and instead the parking lot of a landscaping/nursery business had spilled over into where the street should have gone through. We could see what we thought was probably the B & B on the other side, but how to get there? We found our way around the block and parked by the house. Initially, when we walked into the yard and up to the front porch, we were attracted by all the pretty flowering bushes and perennial plants, but then we were put off by the motley array of flower pots, a park bench with a towel-covered cushion, and empty and dirty cat food dishes all cluttering the porch. We also noticed that the porch boards were sagging a bit, and a black cat peered at us from around the corner (not that we’re superstitious or anything – in fact we love cats!). In general, the house looked to be in a state of disrepair and needed a lot of handiwork to restore it to its former glory.

When we rang the door bell no one answered. So we called the number listed on a sign on the door that said “Reservations only. Call 541-xxx-xxxx.” A woman with a thick accent answered the phone, and when I said we had a reservation for the night, she said she’d be right there. An older Japanese woman soon came to the door, and proceeded to ask me if I had talked to her on the phone or if I had perhaps talked to her manager. I couldn’t remember. She was acting as though she wasn’t expecting us, so I asked in a bit of a panic, “Do you have a reservation for us?” “Oh yes,” she said. She showed us to our room, suggested a couple of restaurant possibilities in the town for dinner that night, and told us about breakfast plans for the next morning.

We went out to the car to get our things to take up to the room. A young boy, probably around 10 or 12 years old, was walking by carrying a skateboard up the hill. He asked us, “Are you staying at that bed and breakfast?” We wondered why he asked: did the house have a reputation of being haunted, or was he just curious or trying to be friendly? We should have asked him those questions ourselves, but I think by that time we were afraid of what he might say!


Inside, the house was cluttered with stuff of all kinds, ranging from genuine antiques to lots of “kitsch” like an “Elvis is in the house” do-not-disturb sign; Japanese dolls displayed here and there in their original boxes; an eclectic array of paintings on the walls, including Asian and European art, a clown painting and basic landscape scenes; and an equally eclectic assortment of furniture styles, with an emphasis on Victorian.P1600032

We were the only guests that night, so every time we were within earshot, the hostess suddenly appeared and started talking to us, almost like she was starved for company. At breakfast (which was quite ample and a bit heavy), we learned a lot about her without having to ask any questions ourselves – she just talked. She told us she is 83 years old. While she is still quite energetic, she also seemed trapped. Her first husband was an American serviceman in Japan, but they divorced and she remarried; her second husband died some years ago. She has a house in California as well as another house besides the bed and breakfast in the same town in Oregon. She said she wants to sell the house in California but would have to pay $1 million in capital gains taxes and doesn’t want to do that. Dale and I couldn’t help thinking that the house must be worth millions if the capital gains are $1 million! She also freely admitted to us that she is an alcoholic, shopaholic (there was ample evidence of that all around the house!), and a gambling addict, regularly going to Las Vegas to indulge her habit. It sounded like her addictions had contributed to the demise of her first marriage. All these revelations seemed a little like “too much information” to share with guests and contributed to our sense that she was trapped by her addictions.


This photo was on the wall in our room. Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, apparently stayed here in 1998, probably when the B & B was in better shape!!

We couldn’t wait to get out of there and on our way, knowing we would never return even if we happened to pass through the area again and we wouldn’t recommend the place to anyone. Apparently, though, others do return regularly. She kept talking about and showing us photos of guests who came back year after year, and we saw evidence of this in her guestbook.

In the end, everything turned out fine. The room was quite adequate for one night, the breakfast saw us through the day and Dale really liked the blueberry french toast casserole, it was an interesting experience, and we’re glad we gave her someone to talk to for a little while. But having been a bit freaked out from the beginning by how difficult it was to find the place, the sagging front porch, the suggestion that she wasn’t expecting us, a general impression that the house and the whole town had seen better days, we never felt entirely comfortable. Some people we know, including our friends who used to be missionaries in Japan, would have loved talking with the hostess, but as introverts and not always being able to understand her accent, we found the conversations difficult and a bit off-putting. However, the experience won’t stop us from continuing to choose B & Bs whenever we can!

Weighty Matters

Yesterday, I went for my monthly weigh-in as a lifetime member of Weight Watchers. I’ve been within two pounds of my goal weight for more than five years now, and as long as I maintain my commitment to go to a meeting once a month to weigh in, I’ll likely stay on goal. But it’s not easy….

During those months as a child when I was mostly confined to bed with rheumatic fever, food was something I craved. I don’t know if it was because I was bored and eating was something to do, or if there was something else about the illness that increased my appetite. What I do know is that I gained weight while I was ill. After I was up and about again, I once heard my mother say to someone, “She waddles!” referring to what I looked like when I walked after having gained weight while in bed. Those two words affected my self-image for a long time and to some extent still do. Not only did I gain weight while I was ill, but I also developed earlier than a lot of my peers, so for several years I felt like a giant. Eventually, I turned into an average-sized adult, not overweight, but by then the damage was done to my self-image. It has always been hard for me not to think of myself as fat.

I lost ten pounds without trying during my first couple years of teaching high school; the associated stress and anxiety apparently melted the pounds off. But that’s probably the last time I lost weight without needing to put forth a great deal of effort. When I became pregnant the first time, I weighed the least I ever have in my adult life. Over the next years and after two pregnancies, I gained weight that was hard to shed. Sometime in the 1980s, I mustered the self-discipline to lose 15 pounds. But then those 15 pounds slowly began to come back, plus a lot more. By the mid-1990s, I was significantly overweight, although never what I would consider obese. With our 25th wedding anniversary trip with the Pelicans planned for June 1996, I once again put forth a great deal of effort and lost about 50 pounds by the time we went to North Carolina to celebrate.

I kept the weight off for a while, but then gradually it crept back on. I never gained back the full 50 pounds, although I was getting close. I joined Curves, the fitness program for women, in December 2003 and lost about 15-20 pounds through diet and exercise, but within a year, I was diagnosed with cancer. The combination of recovering from major surgery and enduring six months of chemotherapy sapped almost every ounce of energy I had, and so I quit going to Curves. Unlike some people who lose weight when they’re on chemo, I gained weight. I blame not only the lack of exercise, but also the steroids I was on as part of the chemo regimen and the fact that I didn’t discipline myself very well on what and how much I ate – I was just glad when I was able to eat and enjoy food, and carbohydrates in particular usually tasted good.

I clearly remember one time at church when a nurse asked me, “Are you on steroids?” When I answered yes, she went on, “I can see it in your face.” From then on, I was self-conscious about the puffiness in my face that increased and subsided as treatments came and went. People would say, “You look good,” and I never knew exactly what they meant. After chemo was over, people often told me I was looking better, so I must not have looked as good as they claimed while I was still on chemo. I knew I must really be better when that same nurse finally told me I looked well!

But the fact was that I was 20 pounds heavier than before chemo. So back to Curves I went; however, losing weight seemed to be an even bigger challenge this time around. I’m not sure why, except that there was a lot of stress in my life at the time, and I think I “fed” the stress. Finally, in May 2007, with the encouragement of my boss who had just lost a significant amount of weight, I joined Weight Watchers. I went with her to the meeting where she celebrated achieving lifetime status and I joined that night. Over the next eight months, during a very stressful time at work when I was in charge of closing a training institute where I worked after funding ended and my boss left, I faithfully attended meetings and counted points, and slowly the pounds came off. I think my success with weight loss then had something to do with its being one thing in my life I could control, when the work situation felt very much out of my control. All told, I lost about 30 pounds, and in January 2008, I celebrated achieving Weight Watchers lifetime status.

I no longer slavishly follow the Weight Watchers plan (OK, I can hear WW leaders all over the country collectively gasping in dismay!), but I do go to a meeting once a month. It is my way of being accountable. My WW membership is free as long as I stay within two pounds of my goal weight, and in more than five years of being a lifetime member, I’ve never had to pay. I lose a pound one month, gain a few ounces the next month, but never enough to put me more than two pounds over my goal weight. I’ll admit that as each monthly weigh-in approaches, I’m particularly vigilant and sometimes I have to do some serious point-counting or cutting back on certain favorites like chocolate to make sure I don’t go over. But the bottom line is that because I am committed to attending a meeting every month, I don’t ever want to have to pay, and I really don’t want to gain back all those pounds I’ve lost several times, I’m able to stay on goal. I’ll never be a “skinny-mini,” but I’m trying to be okay with that and finally get beyond the “waddling” comment my mother made all those years ago. Hurray for me!