Resolutions


I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  My only attempt several years ago with a friend was miserable for us both, partly because life intervened, making our goals suddenly not priorities, and partly because some of our goals turned out not to be the right ones after all.  I’ve learned the hard way that I’m too stubborn to change my habits until I’m ready…a change in the calendar isn’t going to do it.

However, a year ago I attended a personal values session held by my employer.  It was the most impactful session I’ve ever attended.  We were each given a deck of 36 cards with values on them like spirituality, financial security, and healthy relationships.  We then had to sort out all 36 of these good things into 3 groups:  most important, important, and least important.  Sounds easy enough, except we could only keep six in the most important group.  That was agonizingly difficult, so much so that I could see some colleagues only finalize their list because time was up.  We then developed stop/start/continue plans for our six.  The exercise changed my focus for my life.

So when a friend asked me at lunch recently if I’d developed any resolutions for the new year, I resolved to pull out the notebook from that session.  What I found was simultaneously encouraging and disheartening.  While I’d indeed followed my plans pretty well for half of the six values, I’d fallen way short on the other half…I’d actually forgotten two of them.  The list was still the right list; I had just failed miserably at some of them.

So while I don’t consider them resolutions, I’ll be refocusing on that list of values I identified as most important to me.  I want to live my values; they matter to me, even when I fall short.  I guess I’ll make just one resolution–to not give up on becoming the person I aspire to be.

If you’re interested in identifying your top six personal values, here’s a list to work with…good luck!

http://www.icarevalues.org/Value%20Cards%20v4.d.pdf


When we need love the most


When our son–our oldest–was a toddler, our local newspaper included a parenting column. I got one of my most valuable parenting lessons there:  when a child is acting the least lovable is when they actually need the most love. It’s so powerful not just because I found it to be utterly true with my kids, but because I’ve also realized that it doesn’t apply only to children.

Children misbehave when they’re tired or bored or frustrated or scared. So do adults. This tip has helped me check my own reactions to others’ behavior on countless occasions. I can’t say it’s always worked, but when I remember it and respond with gentleness and love instead of anger, the outcome is usually dramatically better. Love defuses negative emotions; I’ve come to believe that it can fix virtually anything. In Disney’s Merlin, the title character called love “the most powerful force in the universe.” I believe it.

As I’ve matured in my faith journey, I think I know why love is so powerful:  God is, fundamentally, love. Showing love is a little like having our own super power. And there’s simply no downside to responding in love–it always leaves me feeling better when I do. It has taken me much practice and self-control, especially sometimes as the mother of two teenage girls. But it’s worth it, they’re worth it. And I’m worth it, for my peace and for my relationships.

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”  –George Sand


Hope


This Christmas was different. We did all the traditional family stuff:  put up our tree and the family momentos, made gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, and drove around to look at Christmas lights. It’s always been one of my favorite times of year, and it was again this year. But it was still different, with a whole new layer of meaning I hadn’t experienced before in my 50 years.

You see, I’ve never really understood Christmas. I can recite the familiar story about as well as anyone can. I understand its theological meaning:  that God Himself chose to walk among us, suffer for us, and in so doing, save us from ourselves. I understand all of that, but I still feel like I don’t really understand. It’s always been just a story to me, no different than other stories unrelatable by the great distance of time and an element of the miraculous. I’ve long understood the story only with my head, but never my heart.

But this year was different. For a lot of reasons, this year I came into Christmas needing hope. I needed to believe, that in spite of all of the dark and pain and ugliness, there will be a happy ending. I desperately needed hope…I was looking for it. But the funny thing is that the Bible says that that’s all we really have to do:  to look for it. There’s no magic key to life or to peace, only to have the desire to seek God. This year, simply by seeking Hope, I actually found it, and in so doing, I also began to understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh shall receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”  –Matthew 7:7-8


Home


There were two especially dark times when Megan was ill. The first, unsurprisingly, was when she was sickest. You can tell when doctors aren’t sure your child is going to make it from their pained facial expressions and the careful words they choose when they answer your desperate questions seeking reassurance. The other bad time was after she came home the first time, when the worst of the crisis had passed for the moment.

For the first time in the two months since our wee hour race to Little Rock with only the clothes on our backs, we could all eat dinner at home together and sleep in our own beds. It was almost bliss, marred only by the knowledge that it could end at any moment. The next few weeks were a much needed relief, if not exactly normal. There were the grueling, twice a week Little Rock trips for chemo, including one sudden trip by ambulance:  a fever is dangerous in someone whose immune system has been wiped out. But otherwise, we were together and home, beginning to recover, physically and emotionally…until the call. I knew by then what a bone marrow transplant meant. It meant splitting our family in two again, only this time for up to a year. A year of significant uncertainty and risk. A year of juggling holidays and birthdays and school and work. A year of trying to keep things normal for our other daughter. A year of trying to keep myself together, shaky as I was after what we’d already been through. It was a blow that nearly knocked me down. But you do what you have to do, especially when it’s your child. I picked myself up and sadly packed for a year. We drove the 600 miles to Cincinnati and did our best to settle in.

A month later, with Megan improving, her doctor shocked us during a routine check – she could go home! This time the packing and long drive were joyous. We were home, together again. We ate dinner together. We spent the holidays at home. And I told myself that I would never take these simple privileges for granted again, though I sometimes have since then. On this second anniversary of our long drive into the frightening unknown, I am thankful. Thankful for my daughter’s remission. Thankful for the meals we eat together. Thankful for laughter and sharing the small talk of the day. Thankful to sleep in my own bed. My teenage girls already know, from having had their lives suddenly blown up, that boring is good. I am so very thankful for this boring day together.

“If the only prayer that you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  –Meister Eckhart


Light


As the days grow shorter, I’ve begun to notice the lights in the homes on my drive home in the dark. There are so many kinds. The pretty Christmas lights this time of year make me smile. Some outdoor lights accent a home just so, making you feel welcome, even if you don’t know the people who live there. But most lights seem ugly and harsh. Many farm lights, high up on telephone poles, have that yellowish tint of a bug light; they may be ugly, but I grew up in the country and know what a godsend those REA lights are, a shield holding back the blackness over a tiny oasis. The light from a TV is depressing when it’s the only light coming from a house. But the worst are the soul-sucking fluorescents, blue and unnatural.

Most of the lights from the homes I drive by are so ugly, I think, because they are so artificial. We were meant to sleep when it’s dark. It seems like the only legitimate ability we should have to stave off the inevitable night is the light of a fire, which in addition to its gifts of light and warmth, also gives our tribe reason to band together.

I recently read an ex-seafarer say that “a single light bulb on a small ship can be seen from miles away at sea.” It’s a powerful image, yet they weren’t talking about lights at sea at all, but about people:  we can all be lights in the darkness for each other. If we each choose to be a light, the sea will sparkle.

“There are two ways of spreading light:  to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  –Edith Wharton


Grandparents

My late grandmother made this small nativity, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. We had another casualty this year…the donkey fell off of the mantle directly onto the tile hearth, entirely missing the soft carpet directly in front of it. I was very lucky he broke into only three pieces. Some Gorilla Glue and poster paint later, and he looks nearly brand new. He looks significantly better than poor Mary, who suffered an identical fate nearly twenty years ago, on a mantle four houses and three states ago. I reconstructed Mary from many more pieces and no paint on hand, a job my husband labeled as hopeless. But the set means a lot to me, and you can’t have a nativity without the mother of God.

Unpacking the Christmas decorations every year is a walk down memory lane, but I look the most forward to the family pieces:  this nativity and another cheap plastic one from the same grandmother when I was very small; a ceramic lighted tree made by my other grandmother, and which will one day be my Christmas tree in my nursing home room; the lighted Christmas bells which hung over my grandparents’ door when I was very small, and now hang over ours; and the little wind-up Christmas carousel we found in my late aunt’s things when cancer took her way too early. If I ever die in a house fire, it will be trying to save the Christmas boxes.

Grandparents are special, and these things bring back many happy memories. They are all gone now, but I had the special blessing of knowing all four of my grandparents as an adult. There was grandpa who always happily made the effort to saddle up the horses for us kids to ride, and his feisty Irish wife; theirs was a true 60-year love affair. My other grandmother was an amazing cook, forever ruining me on store bought cookies and sweets. I easily turn my nose up and walk away from them to this day…compared to grandma’s, they’re not worth eating. But her husband, one of only two people to have shown me complete and unconditional love, was the one who made all the candy at Christmas. Peanut brittle and divinity and homemade caramel corn and both chocolate and peanut butter fudge. I never knew he was the candy maker until a couple of years ago…I always just assumed it was grandma. So again this year I’ll dig out the family recipes and think of where I come from. I’ll think of happy childhood memories, and I’ll miss these strong people who helped shape my life, giving me both roots and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. I miss them, but a part of them lives on. Here are two of grandpa’s best recipes–you’ll be glad if you choose to give them a try. Happy holidays!

Peanut Butter Fudge

Bring 2 c. sugar and 2/3 c. milk to soft ball stage (until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a soft ball, generally after about 15-20 minutes of slow boil).  Quickly add in:

1 c. marshmallow creme 

1 c. peanut butter

1 t. vanilla

Pour immediately into foil lined 8×8 square pan, let set.

Grandpa Kaufman’s Caramel Corn

1 c. butter

2 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. light corn syrup

1 t. salt

1/2 t. baking sofa

1 t. vanilla

6 qt. popped unsalted/buttered popcorn (about 1 1/2 c. unpopped or 3 microwave bags)

Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add baking soda and vanilla.  Pour over the popped corn in a large roaster, mixing well. Bake one hour at 250, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from pan quickly, before it sets up.  Cool completely, break apart.


Garden


I pulled up the last prolific pepper plant this Thanksgiving week, after the second hard freeze finally took it out. The freezer is jammed with this year’s haul; they should last us all winter. The last tomato plants came out the week before, but we still have a few green ones to enjoy before the long wait for next year’s crop.

It’s always sad to see the garden go, and I think about the next one I’ll plant all winter long. My absolute favorite is the tomatoes. Everything’s better with home-grown tomatoes:  hamburgers, salad, BLT’s, even tacos. I’m now down to growing only peppers and tomatoes, after years of growing lots of things. After all of that practice, my garden is down to a science:  3 hours of ground prep and planting in the spring, then just 30 minutes a month of maintenance through the summer, after a friend’s painfully obvious recommendation of black fabric to keep the weeds down. More tomatoes than we can eat and peppers all winter for very limited effort and cost–it’s a great return on investment.

I garden now just like I live:  increasingly stripped down to the bare essentials, with years of experience to guide me as to what matters and what can be put aside. I don’t need more zucchini or cucumbers than my whole block can eat, and I sure don’t need the work it takes to grow them. Just like I don’t need a lot of the junk that I chased for too much of my life. In the same way that I’ve honed my gardening to minimal effort for optimum gain, I’ve also honed the way that I spend my precious, limited time. I now spend more time investing in people…it’s the only thing I’ve found that makes this long, hard life worth living. I find time for family, for friends, for coaching others. I spend far less time than I once did on housework, on watching TV, and at work. There’s limited meaning in those. My house will be too clean…and too quiet…someday soon. And for the first time in my life, I am spending a little time trying to make the world a better place, even if it’s only a tiny drop in the bucket. My stripped-down life means I now have a bit of time to be a voice for the voiceless, to support the targeted, to add one more voice for tolerance. I may no longer grow a big garden, but I’m eager to see what my new harvest will bring.

“A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good attentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”  –Liberty Hyde Bailey