Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Charlie Brown's competition

There’s a 4-letter word that rhymes with tree,
It’s the greatest word you ever did see,
Especially great in times like these -
For money doesn’t grow on trees.
Save some here, save some there,
Cash is lacking everywhere.
This is the story of one fine day,
When Ed decided not to pay
A tree lot 20 bucks and more
To get a beauty through our door.
Amateur woodsman Ed may be,
But he certainly knows how to cut a tree.
So into our woods he gingerly tread,
With a stocking cap upon his head,
To find the best tree in our lot.
Don’t laugh at what he finally got.
It’s all he had to choose from, so
Ignore the fact it didn’t grow
Full and straight with boughs galore,
Like gorgeous trees we hunger for.
Charlie Brown’s now famous twig
Has morphed into a stick quite big.

This tree has fewer branches than our bank in Ellsworth.

That money word that rhymes with tree?
It's FREE!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The poignancy of taking care of my mother these two weeks has not been lost on me. What do I see when I look at my mother? I see her gnarled, crooked joints in her hands and feet, stigmata of her rheumatoid arthritis. I see a C-section scar, reminding me of the pain and labor she endured to bring me and my sister into the world. I see her eyes that have been witness to both wonderful and tragic memories, now with muscle contractures that clamp them closed, requiring her to receive therapeutic Botox shots to release the spasm. I see wrinkles from decades of worrying and fretting over others. I see the gray, thinning hair. I see loose skin from weight loss after weeks of tasteless hospital food. I see the signs of trauma - bruises and surgery scars from hip replacement and ankle fracture fixation in September. I see the tremor from her parkinson-like disease that is exacerbated by stress and anxiety about her future. I see the plain gold wedding ring she wears from her indescribably loving marriage that was cut short when Daddy died in 1980. I see the thrift store clothes that she buys herself so that she can send money to the kids and grandkids on their birthdays.

As I hold her frail hands, I can see them years ago, tearing pieces of gum, giving half to my sister and half to me. I remember the feeling of her hands lightly tracing letters of the alphabet on my back. I relive the mornings when she would come into our bedroom, sit on our beds with a wet washrag and gently rub each eye, saying, "Wake up, little left eye! Wake up, little right eye!" Those hands put tooth fairy money under our pillows and signed our report cards. They wrapped our birthday presents, they cooked our meals, washed our dishes, and tucked us in at night. They plays jacks with us, and gin rummy and checkers. They massaged our backs when we were little tots as we rested in her lap during church sermons.

Her feet walked with us all over downtown Memphis on lovely summer mornings, stopping at Court Square to feed the pigeons. Her mouth called us to supper, complimented our piano playing, kissed us, laughed her contagious laugh, and sang hymns in church, while at home, we were favored with happy songs like Pony Boy and Red, Red Robin. Her arms gave us countless hugs; her ears were always willing to listen to our troubles and our successes.

Mother's frail 85-year-old body stands as a testament to her dedication to and love for her family, but of course, the most important part of her body is not visible on the outside. It has been the heart and soul of her that has made all the memories possible. Love is what drives her, has always driven her.

She once cared for us when we were helpless, and now we care for her. She once made us take our medicine, and now we make her take hers. She once taught us to walk, and now we are teaching her to walk again. How can we do otherwise? How else could we possibly show her how much we love and appreciate her? It is a privilege, for as much as we all wish the accident had never happened, Mother is actually giving us an opportunity to serve her as she has served us for so many years.

"Her children arise up and call her blessed" (Proverbs). It is time to give back, and we are honored to do so.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I Have the Power!!

‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving, dark and quiet. Sounds very relaxing, until you realize it is one day before Thanksgiving and the power just went out after a very bad windstorm with up to 70 mph winds here in Maine. On top of that, we have a well run by electricity, so with no power, there was no running water and we couldn’t flush the toilets. We are also now on digital phone service, so when the power goes, the phone goes, too. Our cell phones receive a very weak signal out here, but they were our only tie to the outside world.

We live in a rural setting neighborhood without street lights anyway, but without any lights of any kind in the houses, the area was pitch black. Inside the house, we got the candles out and sat in front of the wood stove, which was great to have for heat since the furnace was nonfunctioning. I read aloud to Ed from our new book, a biography of Harry Truman, but after a few chapters, I worried about using up my battery-powered reading light, I turned it off and we sat in the quiet. It gave me lots of time to think, of course.

We could have had it much worse. Our daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Chris, and the girls got major wind damage to their roof with shingles all over their yard and resultant leaks inside. Chris, sick already, climbed a ladder in the middle of the rain and wind and took pictures. They still had power. Matt and Sarah in Old Town got lucky. Their house which they just moved into last weekend sustained no damage and they still had power. Three different households affected in three different ways.

Our family celebrates Thanksgiving on Friday so the kids can go to their in-laws on the actual day (they married into big families). So we were lucky in that with the roof damage and power outages, we had an extra day to figure out how to cope. Others were not so lucky. I felt so bad for the thousands of Mainers who were planning on baking and cooking Wednesday, only to find their stoves and refrigerators out of commission. Our power returned at 2:30 a.m. this morning, but when I logged onto the Internet news sources, I saw that many Mainers will still be without power all day today, Thanksgiving. I feel so sorry for those people. No Macy’s parade. No turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie. Some, like us, have some ruined food in the freezer (ice cream I bought for Thanksgiving), and some, like us, are on wells where they have no running water and no toilets, and some, unlike us, have no heat source other than an electric oil furnace. I really feel empathy for those who were to have hosted their family’s Thanksgiving feast, which is hard to do without electricity and running water.

Everything, of course, is high tech these days. The power went out in the middle of the night Tuesday night, and Wednesday when I got to work, I used my work computer to check e-mail and log into the electric company’s web site to report the power outage on our street. By later that morning, thousands were without power. I was surprised when I got home from work that we were still without electricity, and after the aforementioned evening of reading by battery light and candles, we went to bed. The power came back on over 24 hours after it had gone off, again in the middle of the night, and 20 minutes later the phone rang. It was an automated call from the electric company, wanting to verify that, “if your power has returned, press 1,” which I gladly did.

So on this Thanksgiving morning, very early, my main thought is that I am thankful for electricity. How we depend on it! How we are connected by it! My second thought is still about the thousands without power on this special day. My third thought is about the electric crew (apparently from several states) who spent their night before Thanksgiving outside repairing lines.

Oh, well - there is nothing that reinforces the journey to simplicity than sitting in front of a wood fire by candlelight in absolute silence! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Banana Peels?

In a life such as mine, one filled to the brim with interests, hobbies, fascinating people, work, family and friends, there must be projects that are always put on the back burner. Some things are consistently simmering back there, but occasionally I take one pot off and replace it with another. My stovetop is only so big and my front burners are limited.

Unfortunately, one of the perpetually placed things on the back burner is The Book. No, not the great American novel - this is a book my sister, Joy, and I are writing in collaboration, and it’s a book of children’s sermons.

When Ed was in active ministry, at one point I decided to start the familiar (to me) tradition of children’s sermons in the service. (For those of you who don’t go to church, this is the time in the service where the kids come down to the front, usually sit on a front pew or on the floor, and someone gives a short “lesson” and sometimes hands out “favors” to help them remember the point of the lesson.) I felt there was a need, and boy, I just love stories! I love to hear them and I love to tell them. Over the years I have heard countless children’s sermons. Most were ordinary, preachy, or, well, just plain boring. They either talked over the kids’ heads or were given condescendingly. In the defense of those brave souls who tried to do this, it’s not as easy as it looks to give a children’s sermon. You may have kids whose ages are anywhere from 1 to 12 - quite a broad range. You have kids with limited attention spans. You have kids who have attended church all their lives, and others who never heard of the story of Moses. In addition to all this, you have to remember that the adults are listening, too, and they might as well get something out of it. And in my case, I tried to match the “moral” of the story with Ed’s regular sermon (as well as the hymns), as we always tried to make our church services a seamless entity with a major focus.

In spite of the challenges, I started really enjoying giving children’s sermons. I looked at published books for ideas, but as I had experienced in real life, the sermons in those books were not interesting to me. If I was going to be a good storyteller, I had to really be passionate about the story.

What stories am I passionate about? My own! My life has been so enriched by crazy characters, situations, childhood memories, and I decided I had a fertile background for such stories. So I ditched all the books and started to write my own. I added to these things, tidbits I came across in my reading or on the news, things I observed maybe years ago or just the day before - hmmm...maybe these were actually the seeds for this blog which didn’t germinate until years later!

While I was in middle and east Tennessee giving children’s sermons, Joy was in west Tennessee going to her own church and lo and behold, she started giving children’s sermons as well. People were complimenting us both on our stories, and finally one day the idea began to take root about trying to get them published. Being separated by miles of Tennessee land at first, then by miles and miles of the Eastern seaboard after we moved to Maine, was a challenge, but using the Internet, phone, and occasional visits in person, we formulated a good start for our book. Taking our cue from two of the stories, we fashioned an intriguing title of “Banana Peels and Bumblebees.”

Alas, the demand is not really there for children’s sermon books, it seems. It’s such a specialized niche, and, really, even if a few churches in a city bought it, it would be only a maximum of one copy per church! A friend of mine volunteered to show some excerpts to a published Christian author of her acquaintance to get her critique, and the author gave us a thoughtful response. She detailed our strengths and weaknesses and suggested we might be better off retooling the book for use in families, as more and more families, she said, are having “spiritual” times together. We started the revisions, but life started getting busier, Joy’s girls got to be teenagers with all that entails, and my grandkids started growing up with all that entails, and we sold our house and moved and, well, there it sits on the back burner.

The point to all this: Just like the journey to simplicity, retrieving these stories from our lives required a great deal of introspection. It took observation and awareness - the ability to take any - any - ordinarily mundane and apparently meaningless situation or something somebody said or some other life experience, and squeeze it and wring out the meaning, because I believe you can find meaning in almost anything. There are life lessons in every little thing we experience, every person we come across, everything we see and hear and touch, everything nature gives us, and every other thing life throws our way. The key is to catch the moment and be able to put it into a story.

Frequently, the idea of finding meaning in your life is interpreted as one big thing - what you were called to be, your mission, looking at your life as one big experience. But Joy and I look at meaning in the little things - the memory of our dad picking crabgrass or directing the choir. The memory of our mom eating bananas, or of the time we brought an abandoned kitten back from a cliff in Chattanooga to our home in Memphis. These are some of the stories of our lives. We all have these stories, sitting in us waiting to be observed, given meaning, and shared. The more you find your own stories, the more you learn about yourself, about your relationship with those around you, and about your relationship with God. I encourage you to take some time to find the stories of your life and write some down, for your kids or grandkids or parent or friend - or even just for yourself. You will be amazed at the richness of your life and what it offers to others. Heck, even get a book published! (Then give me the name of your obliging publishers... I have something they might be interested in!)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


A thread on clutter and organization on one of my MT sites this morning made me think. What’s so hard about dejunking and decluttering? It’s emotional, that’s what. We may think we are just disorganized or apathetic to clutter, but it’s all a response to emotions. I remember going through my Past Boxes in 2005, trying to decide what to keep and what to toss. I laughed, sobbed, and smiled my way through them. Of course, I put stuff in my Past Boxes for a reason - I thought they were worth keeping.

What about all the other accumulated stuff in the house? A lot of it is created by the emotion of fear: “What if I throw this away and need it again some day?” Guilt: “I shouldn’t have spent good money on this in the first place. If I give it away, it means I’ve wasted my money.” Grieving: “I can’t bear to part with this because is reminds me of someone who’s not here anymore.” Envy: “I can’t downsize because the rest of the neighbors have such nice stuff!” Paralyzing anxiety: “I don’t know where to start, so I just won’t start!” The fact is that it is highly probable that living in chaos is a form of avoidance - our minds are too harried to make important decisions in our lives that need to be made, or to come to terms with our life circumstances, whatever they may be.

I’m not saying emotions are bad; on the contrary, we have to feel them and work through them. That’s what’s hard about downsizing. You have to take a long, hard look at yourself and your priorities, what you consider beautiful and what you consider junk, what you are keeping just for yourself and what you are keeping for future generations to enjoy. It’s not easy; in fact, it can be quite painful - but cathartic.

My mother-in-law and my mother both lived through the Great Depression. Each woman came out on the other side of it changed in some way. My mother-in-law, who was financially well-off when she died, let the Depression turn her into a hoarder. Like Scarlet O’Hara, by God, she was never going to go hungry again! So she became a miser. My mother, on the other hand, came out with the idea that, as she had suffered, she didn’t want anyone else to suffer, so she spent the rest of her life being generous, giving away everything she had to give, living a meager lifestyle herself.

We are all tied up emotionally in our “stuff.” The trick is to dig deep within yourself, analyze the emotions, helpful and debilitating, behind your lifestyle, then act on it. The bad news is that these are decisions you will have to continually remake as long as you live. The good news is that you will learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Happy Birthday, Charlotte!

How did that song go? “....moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.” Yes, some of that and Broadway too was thrown in as the theme of Charlotte’s 3rd birthday party yesterday. Kids could have a photo op for “publicity photos” and take home sunglasses and fake microphones. There were hot dogs and lots of movie popcorn and candy. The annual video documenting the year in creative ways, made by Rachel, her mom, was its usual spectacular self, carrying on the movie star theme in the “premiere.”

One day if Charlotte, the young drama queen (following after her cousin Amelia, the high school drama queen), ever makes it to star status, the pictures of her at 3 years old making faces, wiggling her jean-clad butt, and video of her singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” in its entirety will be valuable indeed.

This is the girl who never stops. Getting her dressed is harder than putting a belt on a wet snake (I know - I had to do it yesterday). It is amazing to see the difference between Charlotte and her 5-year-old sister, Caroline. She is totally extroverted, a true party girl, and she will try anything that looks interesting or fun. Yeah, I know. Good luck, Rachel and Chris, huh? Yikes!

So, dear precious Charlotte, happy 3rd birthday! Can I have your autograph?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

September 26, 2008, and Beyond

What I’ve learned since Mom’s accident:

1. Life can change in an instant. A few weeks after Mom’s wreck, our daughter Rachel broke into tears on the phone. “Why did this have to happen?,” she sobbed. "Everything was perfect; why did it have to change?” Why, indeed? Because that’s life. It’s unplanned, unrehearsed, and can throw you for a loop in the fraction of a second it takes for you to decide when to turn left, change lanes, go faster in the rain, follow too closely, or even mundane low-risk quick decisions we make each day. Sometimes we all want to shout, “Rewind! Back up! Let’s try that again!” but the die has been cast, and we have to adjust.

2. If you’re in the hospital, please make sure you have a personal advocate, family member, friend, or someone who is concerned about you and can watch out for you. We have had the privilege during this time to meet some dedicated, talented nurses and doctors and hospital staff. We’ve also had to deal with neglect, incompetence, miscommunication, medication mixups, apathy, hostility, and just plain rudeness. It is a scary thing to be a patient in a hospital. You need all the backup you can. Believe me.

My sister wrote everything down - people she talked to and when she talked to them, Mom’s vital signs, condition, improvement or deterioration, tests, what the social worker said, what the doctor said, what the nurse said, what Mom ate at mealtimes, what meds she got (or didn’t get). She started her notebook so she wouldn’t forget all the loads of information she was trying to process, but it turned out to be a detailed journal of Mom’s medical journey. That notebook has been a lifesaver for us - even though it appeared to make the hospital staff quite nervous at times.

3. If life goes according its customary route, we will all get old. Plan for it. I’m not talking just about retirement living expenses, folks. I’m talking about Living Wills, regular wills, powers-of-attorney, names on bank accounts, Medicaid supplements, insurance policies - the works. Organize your information so it is easily retrievable in case of emergency, remembering to shred old documents with personal information. Fortunately, our mother still has a sharp mind and can tell us where to find these things. Some aren’t so lucky. I often use our dad as a role model. He was the epitome of organization, keeping meticulous detailed records of, for instance, utility bills that were 30 years old. He could track decades of expenses. When he died unexpectedly at age 64, we looked in his file cabinet and there was a folder marked “Death” with all the funeral/burial information we needed. Do you have loved ones? Plan ahead. Please.

4. One word - Friends. These are the times when you rely on your friends. From e-mails of support to phone calls to visits to referrals - our friends have been there. Mom, my sister, and I have the most amazing circle of friends, many of them the result of lifelong relationships, unbreakable bonds. Thank God for friends.

4. Just one more word - Family. If you grew up in an abusive or dismal household, try to break the pattern and change that for those you are responsible for. If you grew up in an incredibly supportive household, please pass that spirit on. Our family, always close, has grown closer through this maze of hospitalization, rehab, placement, with so much up in the air and so many details to attend to. My sister, who is local to Mom, has handled the brunt of this mess with responsibility and caring. I love you, Joy, and I am so proud of you. I know it’s been hard and will probably get harder. Hang in there.

So in essence, in the midst of feeling lost and heartbroken and worried, the only thing you can do in a situation like this is learn what you can and pass on what you learn. Consider it passed.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Ed and I are fixing to have company. I’ve sensed this for a long time, but only recently has the sense become so strong. Every day, as the news folks crunch the numbers on Wall Street, the housing market, and other indicators of the economy, I know that in increasingly larger numbers, more people will be coming to join us - on the Journey to Simplicity.

Of course, there’s Voluntary Simplicity and there’s Kicking and Dragging Simplicity, and I suspect the latter will be a big driving force in the exodus from consumerism, but that’s OK. Harder, but OK.

I suspect more and more of these people are waking up to the fact that maybe they are spending foolishly, maybe they are living beyond their means, maybe they’ve never taken time to examine their priorities, maybe they bought too much into advertising telling them what they “need,” or maybe it’s just a case of people living a normal American middle-class life, not excessive but comfortable, buying within reason what they wanted to, traveling when they wanted to, not having to take a calculator to shop for groceries, indulging their kids a little (or a lot), knowing the bills will get paid on time, having fun buying Christmas presents - I mean, that sounds like a good, agreeable way to live. I should know; I’ve been there. I’m not talking about excessive opulence here. I’m just describing the typical, comfortable, relatively anxiety-free life many of us have had. Until now.

Some folks who never had to cut corners are cutting corners. Some folks who have been cutting corners all along will have to cut even more corners. Some folks don’t even have a corner to cut.

So, with the understanding that Ed and I are no experts and still have a lot of road to travel to Simplicity, we have a piece of starting advice for those joining us on the journey: Take a few minutes of deep breathing to absorb the panic and anxiety, sit down with a nice cup of hot tea and a notebook or tablet, and make a list of your priorities. Because money is not the only thing in the balance here. We spend money, yes, but we also spend energy, time and resources on our priorities. How much more productive can I use my money, energy, time and resources? What is very important to me and what is not so important? Where do I make cuts? See, everyone has his/her own perspective on this. For me, having my high-speed cable internet is important. It is the way I communicate with my family and friends, the way I send and receive pictures, the way I pay my bills, the way I find free software and patterns, and the way I browse the newspaper since I canceled newspaper delivery. I would eat peanut butter for a week if it allowed me to keep my internet. For others, they don’t give a hoot about the internet; maybe their priority is organic food, and they eat less in general to be able to afford it. For others, their books are their precious commodities, and they might be willing to eat whatever is on sale so they can have money to buy books. It may be a special hobby or interest that others deem a priority, and these folks are willing to scrimp and save in other areas in order to engage in that. Others are willing to sacrifice little pleasures if it means being closer to sending their kid to college. Still others want to be able to spend time with family, if that means no new clothes this year.

I’m not here to give a lecture on cutting expenses. I am here to say that this is one task you can’t designate to someone else - a financial adviser, your pastor, or even your savvy second cousin. Establishing your priorities is the first step on the Journey to Simplicity and it has to be done by you. I’m warning you this is not an easy task. Do you know how it feels to look at your face in a magnifying makeup mirror? Seeing the wrinkles, imperfections, blemishes, sagging? Well, looking at your life from Simplicity’s point of view is exactly like that. You see the waste, the excesses, the “What was I thinking?!!” purchases. It’s not pretty, but it has to be done.

It has to be done because one just can’t jump into this journey unprepared. Simplicity’s road is long. Simplicity’s road is bumpy. It has twists and turns and sometimes you feel totally lost. Sometimes it curves back on itself and you have to go over the exact same path again! Sometimes you’re walking in rain and storms, and at other times, the view is so beautiful that it will make you cry. Some parts are so shaky and unpredictable that holding hands with someone is the only way to get through them.

So to all the people who are eyeing this incredible road: Welcome! We’re just taking baby steps, going slowly. There are many people who are traveling this road who have certainly sped past us, and others behind us whom we are trying to encourage. It used to be more of “the road not taken,” but I think in the near future it will get pretty crowded. To all of us - May the wind be at our backs!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Wait

What is it like to be in the critical care waiting room of a trauma center?

9. 1. 5. 9. Those are the only numbers that matter in the critical care waiting room, because they are the only times the patients can have visitors and only then for one hour. Everyone in the waiting room plans his or her schedule according to those four times - 9:00, 1:00, 5:00, and 9:00. As infrequent as it is, it is still the only hope and comfort one has to look forward to in this pale yellow room with hard green chairs and gray paisley recliners. There are 3 TVs and lots of magazines scattered about in the room, but all eyes are mostly on the big clock at the front desk. The room is constantly occupied, so much so that they have to close it down for a few hours every Thursday morning just to clean.

Look around - this room holds many people, and with each person is another story - of tragedy, trauma, infection, coma, and death. So many stories. So many tears.

There are some smiles and laughter, of course. There has to be, for the worried ones could not survive without a break in the anxiety. Some of those worried ones have been living in the waiting room for months. Their suitcases and myriad bags tell of the many nights they have slept in recliners, and the many mornings they have shuffled into the bathroom to take a shower. There are hair brushes and toothbrushes and all the signs of personal hygiene. There is not much privacy here. No one worries about snoring or being seen with dirty hair or no makeup. On the contrary, instead of embarrassed strangers, they are a family, not for the most part with ties of blood, but with ties of suffering and hope, pain and recovery. They share a bond, they ask about each other's loved ones, rejoicing in any sign of improvement, no matter how small. They relate how long they have been "living" in this room. Here background or race doesn't matter. Understanding, though, does.

Every visitor has to first sign in at the desk and get a photograph taken for a sticker ID. This photograph is worse than a driver's license photograph, worse than a passport photograph. We pass the time trying to figure out whose picture is the worst. It is as if the camera purposefully chooses the most horrible perspective in order to mirror the mood of the wearer. After a few hours, the ID expires and you have to get a new one printed out. The photograph never expires, though. It is there forever.

Visitors wear this ID all day. When a CCU visitor passes another person in the hospital wearing the ID, both people smile in empathy. They might recognize each other from the waiting room; they might not. It doesn't matter. You are one of us. I am one of you. We know our priorities. One priority is our sick loved one, and the other is the clock which gives us those short hours we live for. 9, 1, 5, 9.

Every so often the ring of a telephone jars the quiet conversation. Everything stops. The books, the TVs, the cell phones - all are placed on hold as a clerk or visitor answers the phone and yells out the family's name. Your heart tries to beat out of your chest. Is it the doctor bringing bad news? No, it's not for you. You've been granted a reprieve. You can try to relax until the next time the phone rings.

After a few days, you realize that some recliners are off limits, because they are being used by the "regulars" who have made the waiting room their home. This tradition is given great respect. It reminds me a little of going to church, where certain people have their usual pews. Except these people sleep there and eat there with their bags of cookies and chips and snacks and sodas. It's almost like a camping trip, except you are so totally exhausted and anxious and worried. Beyond exhausted.

If the phone is not ringing, the choppers are landing overhead or an ambulance rushes past. There's been another wreck or another fire and the trauma center again does what it does best.
This is a place where nobody really wants to be. It doesn't matter, because you have to be there. You get through another day, help one more person find the elevators or the cafeteria, and then at 10:00 p.m. you go to the desk and receive your blankets and pillow. You snuggle down, trying to find a comfortable position in an uncomfortable recliner, and fitfully sleep. Occasionally another family comes in the waiting room in the middle of the night and moves chairs around so they can be together. The choppers and ambulances never completely go away. Morning comes before you know it, and it's time to wait your turn with the shower, the sink, or the toilets, get some breakfast, and start watching the clock. 9, 1, 5, 9. Those are the only numbers that matter.

Friday, September 26, 2008

One of the dreaded calls

My post this week will be only the fact that my dear Mom has been in a car accident and has some injuries, so my mind is understandingly on more pressing matters. I am so far away!

Friday, September 19, 2008


It wasn't the summer for gardens this year. Oh, we got some good tomatoes and a few beans, but everything else just withered. Not having a green thumb, I don't know if it was too much rain, not enough rain, wrong temps, lack of sun, too much sun, not enough good dirt, or some or all of the above. Whatever the reason, we were disappointed in our attempt to grow some of our own food this summer.

The sunflowers, though, came right on cue, thank goodness. Sunflowers just make me smile. Their colors are so vivid and bright, they stand so erect, even under their own heavy weight, and they grow as if they just want to be noticed. "Hey - Here I am!"

Sunflowers make me smile. I need to smile these days. Every time I turn on the news and hear the dire reports about the failing economy, natural disasters, and the lies being told in the presidential election, I either get mad or depressed. We certainly need more smiles in the world.

I laugh a lot, too. I laugh at corny Readers' Digest jokes. I laugh at my son imitating a horse (or memories of that!), or hearing him tell a story of going to the wrong airport in Chicago. I laugh at Baby Blues and Pearls Before Swine comic strips. I laugh when I talk to my cousins in Arkansas. I laugh when Rachel calls to tell me something funny the grandkids have said, or tells me of her "senior moments" at age 30. I laugh when my son-in-law Chris tells one of his hilarious stories. I laugh at daughter-in-law Sarah's expression when Ed does something stupid or inexplicable. I laugh with my sister; the kids always say that they love to be there when Joy and I get togther, as we laugh all the time. I laugh at "headlines" in the tabloids ("Abraham Lincoln was really a WOMAN!" - this with a doctored picture of Abe in a wig and bonnet, with a promise of "Bonus picture inside!" which I mistakenly read as "Bogus picture inside!"). I laugh at caricatures of chickens. Laughing is great for the abs, great for the heart, great for the spirit.

But some days are devoid of the hearty laugh, and that's OK. I compensate with things that make me smile. Memories of the kids when they were growing up. (Memories are dependable smile generators.) A tasty homemade meal made by Ed, bursting with flavor, or a crisp York apple straight from Virginia. A finished quilt. Talking to a friend on the phone. Working with beautiful fabric. My CMT certificate. Seeing a photograph of my dad. Going through my "past" box. Autumn with its brisk air, pumpkins, and football games. High-speed Internet. The pleasures of transcribing a clear dictator. Memories of getting on those airplanes last month and surprising my mom. Thinking of a birthday present my friend Sally sent me, wrapped and waiting for the 27th, and apparently another surprise on the way from my friend Audrey.

And, of course, those sunflowers.

I hope you have many, many smiles today!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Pleasure of Food

Yum! It’s time for apples, pumpkins, and all the delicious food of fall. Ed and I are doing pretty well trying to eat local, seasonal, and fresh food and baking our homemade bread. We also enjoy reading about food. I thought this week I would list our favorite books on the subject. The listings below are from These books are informative, funny, well written and are a veritable joy to read, especially aloud. Bon appetit!

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden (Paperback)
by William Alexander (Author)
Key Phrases: stirrup hoe, corn bed, sod webworms, William Alexander, Christopher Walken, New York (more...)
  (47 customer reviews)

Joie de Vivre: Simple French Style for Everyday Living (Hardcover)
by Robert Arbor (Author), Katherine Whiteside (Author) "I LOVE BREAKFAST..." (more)
Key Phrases: New York
  (27 customer reviews)

Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet (Paperback)
by Alisa Smith (Author), J.B. Mackinnon (Author)
  (1 customer review)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.) (Paperback)
by Barbara Kingsolver (Author), Camille Kingsolver (Author), Steven L. Hopp (Author)
Key Phrases: United States, New England, Appalachian Harvest (more...)
  (300 customer reviews)

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Paperback)
by Michael Pollan (Author)
Key Phrases: industrial food chain, killing cones, steer number, George Naylor, Joel Salatin, General Mills (more...)
  (447 customer reviews)

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Hardcover)
by Michael Pollan (Author) "If you spent any time at all in a supermarket in the 1980s, you might have noticed something peculiar going on..." (more)
  (168 customer reviews)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Living on High Speed and Commercials

It's been a week now since our cable Internet/TV was installed, so I thought it would be a good time to report on how we are handling it and how it has affected our journey to simplicity and if it has tempted us to waste time.

I've always chosen to look at the TV and the Internet as two different services, which they are, so I'll have to write about each one individually:

INTERNET: All I can say is WOWEE! I remember a TV commercial for high-speed service that asked the question, "Where do YOU want to go?" My friend Sally says that sometimes she gets online, and decides she really doesn't want to go anywhere and would rather be doing something else, so she logs off. Surprisingly, that has been true for me as well. After all, with music and quilting (I'm working hard, Sarah and Matt!) and everything else in my life, I don't need to be on my home computer to keep me pleasantly occupied. There are some days I check e-mail, check into a couple of transcription sites, and I'm done. But on the days when I do actually want to "go somewhere," my new Internet speed is like taking a plane to Memphis instead of driving. Whoosh!

I pay lots of bills online - what used to take 15 minutes now takes about 1 minute. I can actually send and receive pictures by e-mail. Rachel sent me a video of Caroline getting off the school bus on the first day of kindergarten and I actually got to see it!! Apple notified me that I had updates to my computer, and lo and behold, I didn't have to pack up my computer and take it to one of my kids' homes to use their cable connection in order to download the updates!

I have a software program called Delicious Library for organizing all my books. I haven't been able to use it for a year and a half because when I scan the books' bar codes in, the software looks up for the information, and dial-up wouldn't cut it. Already I've entered 2 shelves of my 5 shelves of quilt books.

Oh, yes, the Internet is even better than I remembered it.

TV: We got high-speed just in time to watch most of the Democratic convention and all of the Republican convention. That was really cool. I still can't get over how clear the picture is after using "rabbit ears" for a year and a half with poor results. I'm watching just a few shows that I used to watch - What Not to Wear on TLC, for instance. But I usually save these shows for my weekend, which is the time period we used to watch our videos together (when I could stay up late).

There is one major shock, though - COMMERCIALS! Have they gotten worse in a year and a half or has it always been this bad? Good grief! It seems like 5 minutes of show followed by 10 minutes of commercials! We've been watching videos for a year and a half without, of course, commercial interruption. It is so annoying to be subject to them again.

So, one week into our experiment into major culture reinitiation, so far, so good. We've still been reading on Teddy Roosevelt's biography together, so we haven't been sucked into a new addicting technologically rich/priority-poor lifestyle. It is our hope that we can stay aware of when we use these technologies so they don't become purely mindless entertainment or unproductive distraction. I hope, if we do see ourselves slide into a downward spiral of wasted time, we will have the guts to cancel the TV part, at least.

I think awareness has everything to do with the journey to simplicity. Being aware of what we are eating, what we are buying, what we are spending time on, how we are impacting the environment - awareness is the key.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fifty Years of Progress

What goes around comes around, they say. The first picture shows my cousin, Timmy, and me, as we tried to push an old reel mower through the front yard in 1956. The second picture shows me this morning, pushing a comparable new reel mower through our sparse backyard.

When we had this new ranch built, our contractor skimped on the seeding of the yard, and we couldn't afford to get it professionally done, nor could we afford to buy more dirt, so we are making do. We left our old power mower at the former house, so when it came time to get another mower, Ed opted for this beauty, which, of course, is quite stylish now that everyone is trying to protect the environment and save on fossil fuels. I went out this morning to mow, didn't have to pull and tug to start a power mower, didn't have to plug in anything or gas up anything - just grabbed the mower and went. It was efficient, kept the neighborhood quiet on this Saturday morning, and gave me plenty of exercise (especially on the hill). One small step for a woman - one giant leap for the journey to simplicity!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Reflecting on my history of “flight fright,” there were several contributing factors, as other people have suggested. One, fear of heights. Two, claustrophobia. Three, fear of the unknown. And four, which I consider primary, has been the feeling of being out of control.

I figure I’m in control when I drive my own car. Even if Ed or my sister or one of my kids or friends drives me around, I trust their judgment and skills completely. It gets more tricky on mass transportation, but at least if it’s on the ground, it feels more secure. After all, I could have always exited a bus or train at the next stop if I had been uncomfortable.

In a plane, you’re pretty much stuck up there, totally dependent on other factors, the least likely of which is a terrorist being on board. Did the plane get inspected in a timely manner? Did the plane’s mechanic know what he was doing? How did the pilot sleep last night? Is the pilot healthy or suicidal? How are the air controllers feeling at the airports we will be using? How are their relationships - are they worried about something enough to be distracted? How is the weather? Any predicted storms or strong winds? All those questions went through my mind. Then, of course, one has to expand them. Assuming our pilot and plane are fit - what about other pilots and planes nearby?

My main problem, other than a tendency to chronic worry, is that I have a troubleshooting mindset. Whenever the hospital gives details of a new transcription platform or software purchase, or a new way of doing something, my mind immediately lands on everything that “could” go wrong. I have the gift/curse of being able to see both good and bad possibilities if we implement this new policy. So it is understandable that, going into any situation in my life, I apply the same logic.

What finally calmed me on the plane? Was it the fact that my head finally acknowledged that I had fewer risks than when I rode in a car? Was it the fact that my dear Matt and Sarah were by my side, encouraging me all the way? Was it the fact that I concentrated on the people I would get to see on each end of the journey? Was it the fact that I went into the whole thing with a good attitude? Yes, all those - but one more.

It was the fact that I surrendered. I have posted over and over about the Serenity Prayer being my guiding vision - To change the things I can, accept the things I can’t change, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Short on words, big on advice. I had to put my plane experience in the category, certainly, of “things I couldn’t change (control),” and surrender to acceptance. No matter how much I tensed my jaw, no matter how tight my muscles got, no matter how fast my heart was beating, I finally realized that up there in that plane, what would happen would happen, and there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it. I might as well relax!

I have found that if I meet the “things I can’t change/control” with acceptance, that gives me a lot of energy left to deal with the things that I can change/control - like the fact we are (hopefully) getting cable installed this Wednesday, and we will be spending the ensuing weeks coming to terms with how we use it and how able we are to use it wisely on our journey to simplicity. That’s where I need to focus my thoughts.

Of course, like our determination to downsize and simplify, this is a challenge that will have to be met over and over again. It is not a one-time decision. Just as the high-speed Internet and TV will be there to challenge our choices every day, the next plane ride I take will again be another chance for me to either surrender to events or surrender to fear. In both situations, I hope my experiences have taught me enough about life to handle them wisely.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The sky's NOT the limit!

I’m back in Maine, which means, of course, that I survived the four flights that I had dreaded. With an optimistic attitude and a little lorazepam, I made it. I never did have to use the “freak-out” coupons that Matt and Sarah gave me, so I’m framing them. I bought a Continental Airlines plane keychain accessory to attach to my keychain, so every time I pick up my keys, I can say with satisfaction (and a bit of wonderment!), “Hey, I did that!”

This trip, besides giving me some absolutely incredible time with my family and friends, has given me yet another reason to believe in myself. Every time I look at my keychain, I will again realize my potential. Every time I gaze at the unused “freak-out” coupons on the wall, I will remember that I overcame a paralyzing fear of flying.

As with anything, the encouragement I received from my family and friends proved instrumental in my success. Ed gave me his blessing to make the trip, and Sarah and Matt took an understandable risk in accompanying me, considering my past experiences. I appreciate the fact that no one tried to belittle my anxiety, and instead of saying, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’ll be fine,” they acknowledged my anxiety and tried to ease my fear, and they all understood the significance of my ability to conquer it. Their support was invaluable.

Once again, I have come to realize that I am still capable of doing more than I think I can do. Without such challenges to give me the opportunity (and necessity) to expand my comfort level a little, how will I otherwise realize my potential? This is not to say that I am now anxious to take silly or dangerous risks just for the challenge. But I know that in a case of a fear that prevents me from doing something I really want/need to do, it is worthwhile to tackle. And thus I take one more step in my growth.

While in Memphis, I was amused to see the cross-stitch picture I had given my mother many years ago. It features a small chicken sitting atop a huge egg, and under it, just these words: Never say “I can’t." I will try to take that to heart. I may say, “I don’t want to,” or “It makes me uncomfortable to,” or even “I'm scared to,” but I’ll try not to say, “I can’t.” Every one of us has unique challenges. What may freak me out may be easy for you, and what makes you sick to your stomach may be effortless for me. For whatever reason, most of us are afraid of something and that fear is holding us back in some way. We doubt our abilities, negate our power, and succumb to pessimism - all of which drains our energy and limits our lives. Here’s to the challenges - and here’s to family and friends who choose to encourage and inspire! Thanks, everyone! You are all my heroes!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Taking Flight in Stages

Have you ever sung opera on a plane? I have. Have you ever sobbed uncontrollably on a plane for no reason? I have. Have you ever had a perfect flight in perfect weather, and when asked at the end of the flight, “Did you enjoy it?” replied rudely, “NO, I DIDN’T!!” Yep, I’ve done that too.

I’ve only flown twice in my life - both times a few days apart in October 1994. Ed and I were flying from Tennessee to Maine to close on our Victorian house. We had tickets to fly from Nashville to Boston, change planes, then fly to Bangor. We had plans to reverse the trip exactly on the way back. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. The flight was without turbulence of any kind. It was even years before 9/11. Yet I freaked. I didn’t have the foresight to visit my doctor to get an anti-anxiety medicine, so I tried to make do with a Tylenol PM. It didn’t work. I was totally in panic mode. I tried everything I could to distract myself. I sang opera (in a very quiet way). I recited poems. I cried. I tried to read a book. Then I cried some more. Finally, the guy in front of us turned around and said in an exasperated voice, “Lady, if you see me break this window and jump out, THEN you can panic. Until then, just SHUT UP!” I was so anxious, I had not even considered the fact that other people were paying attention to me. When we were exiting the plan in Boston, the flight attendant smiled, handed me a plastic pin and said cheerily, “Here are your wings! How did you like your first flight?” I said truthfully, “IT WAS TERRIBLE!” Well, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was terrible. Ed decided then and there to just lose the money on the second flight tickets and we rented a car to drive to Maine. He said, “No way am I getting on another plane with you until you've had a few days to calm down!”

On the way back, we retraced our steps and drove the rental car to Boston, and managed to survive another panicky flight home.

OK, so I'm scared of flying. A lot of you out there (my cousin, Tim, for one) think flying is as easy as taking a taxi. But it freaks me out. I have nightmares about it. My palms get sweaty just thinking about it. Hey, I can watch a detailed surgery on Discovery Health and can look at pictures of open sores and horrible skin conditions in a medical textbook and say, "Cool!" Just don't ask me to get on a plane!

Fast forward to 2008. In all these ensuing years, a lot has happened. 9/11, for one, changed the very fabric of flying. The government has fined airlines tons of money because they’ve been neglecting or ignoring safety inspections and requirements. Each year I am more aware of my mortality. And into this quagmire of anxiety I go again.

I’m leaving with my son, Matt, and daughter-in-law, Sarah, on Wednesday morning to fly to Memphis (changing planes at Newark). They had planned on going to Memphis to visit family by themselves, but asked me to accompany them on the spur of the moment. (This was before they knew the details mentioned above, and before they were totally aware of the extent of my panic attacks about flying). And just on the same spur of the moment, I said, "OK!" Ed was agreeable to my going (which shocked me), and Uncle Sam’s rebate check allowed me to buy a ticket, and I soon thereafter went to the doctor to get a lorazepam prescription. I had to buy luggage with wheels (didn’t need any before on car trips), had to buy some of those travel size toiletries for security inspection (didn’t have that much security on our trip in 1994), and, of course, print a copy of my obituary just in case (it’s sitting on my sewing machine). Matt and Sarah gave me two professionally designed coupons that they lovingly created, each good for one “freakout” - with specific instructions in fine print not to copy or reproduce them (and don’t believe I didn’t think about it!). They advised me to ration them, maybe use one on the way down and one on the way back, because when the coupons are gone, they’re gone. They assured me they would emotionally support me through two “freakouts,” but after that, they will pretend not to know me.

So here I am - full of two competing emotions. I’m insanely excited to see my family and surprise my mother - and I’m scared to death of getting on those planes. But I’m determined to get through this with a good attitude, because, even though there are many things about the trip I cannot change, my attitude is something I can certainly control. I’m going on this trip with the attitude - even if I feel as if I’m just acting - of this being a great adventure and exciting and, yes, even FUN, and I am going to concentrate on the positive part of the trip and downplay the negative. If I go into it with the idea that it will be scary and I will be unmanageable, I’m sure that it will play out that way. So I’m going to act. They say when you feel depressed, if you smile and try to act like you’re happy, your amazing body and mind will actually start to come into line with happiness - in other words, fake it enough and you won’t have to fake it anymore. So that’s my plan. I'm going to act as if I'm up for an Academy Award. I'm going to be the most joyous, excited, fun-loving plane aficionado that anybody has ever seen.

I’ll post next week on how everything turned out - if I’m still around. I’m not such a bad actress, either. All in all, I’d rather be acting the part of a carefree traveller than a dying opera singer. The curtain goes up at 6:38 a.m. next Wednesday. Wish me luck! (More importantly, wish Matt and Sarah luck!)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Temptation, Thy Name is Cable

Every once in a while, Ed will make a wry observation that my blog continually veers from the subject of “journey to simplicity.” Of course, that’s absolutely true, but I took some time this week to think about why.

I’ve been posting to this blog almost 2-1/2 years. I started it when we had decided to downsize, the first step being to put our huge house on the market and all the decisions that came with that. These were hard decisions - giving away/selling a lot of our stuff, trying to figure out what was important in life, what was truly valuable and meaningful. As reflection usually does, my introspection broadened and soon our adventures in downsizing were expanded to include my coming to terms with aging, my frustration with my co-workers, my procrastination, and my relationships with family members (hence this year, the birthday posts). I eventually learned that a journey to simplicity encompasses all this and more - because it gets to the very core what one considers to be life’s priorities and the kind of person one wants to be.

However, the main reason for expanding the blog is that, although we will never reach the goal of perfect simplicity, we have done rather well in these 2-1/2 years and on the whole I am pleased with our progress. We moved to a smaller house. We cut down our quantity of “stuff,” and what we have left we treasure. We have gotten used to low water pressure, shoveling snow off the cars, a cramped sewing room/office, and small closets. We have cut expenses. We try to buy most of our food local if we can. I gave up coloring my hair. I let some magazine subscriptions lapse. We go to the library more frequently and borrow books instead of buying so many. In essence, we are traveling fine, not much hassle, and there’s not as much to report in the journey as there was at the beginning. But without a doubt the hardest things we had to adjust to (sometimes kicking and screaming, I assure you) is s-l-o-w dial-up Internet and no cable TV.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of times I am trying to download pictures from family and friends and it takes forever - so long that I have to leave the computer altogether for 5-10 minutes for each picture because I can’t abide sitting here and watching that blue status line creep along. Paying bills online is a nightmare. Ordering things online is likewise frustrating. Getting updates from Apple is virtually impossible - even overnight is not long enough to download them. I can’t watch videos - even a 1-minute video of Charlotte singing or Caroline reading is off limits. My medical transcription sites take so long to just to download one thread that I just avoid them unless I have plenty of time. I have access to an interesting blog with incredible pictures from a lady on Prince Edward Island who posts daily, but the download takes forever, so I don't visit as often as I'd like. I can’t use my Delicious Library software to scan and catalog all my books because it has to access for the information on each book. The list of why I miss my high-speed Internet grows longer by the day.

The TV part is harder on Ed, since he stays at home all day and has to fill his time after I go to bed at 7 p.m. five nights a week. His favorite shows used to be the cooking shows, history shows, and travel shows. My favorites were medical shows, TLC’s What Not to Wear, Designed to Sell, and any old reruns I could find of shows from my childhood. We’d hardly ever watch sitcoms, but give us a good biography and we’d be glued to the TV. Of course, it became a habit like anything else, and the TV would be on more and more hours a day. We’d start with the local evening news and keep it on until the late evening news, then I’d turn it on in the morning while I was getting ready for work, and Ed would turn it on when he got up and sometimes it would stay on until 10:00 in the morning. Ever since we moved, we’ve managed to get two channels with our rabbit ears - ABC and PBS, with at times inadequate picture and sound quality. We refused to get satellite for a variety of reasons, and took our chances on what we could get free. Needless to say, the TV is not on much around here anymore, unless we are watching movies from the library, the rental store, or our stash on the weekend.

I give you this detailed background to set the stage for a drastic change in our near future. Ed has always said that blessings carry curses and vice versa, and neither category is unadulterated. Well, we are about to get the blessing and curse of Time Warner cable access for TV and Internet. They are just finishing up in our neighborhood (after starting a full year ago and working on and off), and I actually have a real order number for installation in the coming few weeks. “How exciting!” you say. “Whatever is the problem? This is what you’ve been waiting for - the breakthrough - the ultimate luxury - the things you sacrificed when you moved out of town!” Aye, but the curse always accompanies the gift, does it not?

I love the sign that says, “Lord, lead me not into temptation; I can find it myself just fine.” And therein lies the curse: Are we ready for these old temptations to return to our lives? Have we been put on a diet for 2-1/2 years, only to wake up at one of the biggest buffet tables we ever saw? Have we learned enough in our journey to simplicity to handle this? That’s the temptation - that’s the fear.

Ed is afraid if I get high-speed Internet, I’ll hole up in this tiny office and he’ll never see me again. I worry if he gets cable TV, he will waste too much time when he should be doing more constructive things like cutting wood and walking the dog. (It also should be noted that I can “veg out” in front of the TV just as easily, justifying that I’m simultaneously doing quilting or reading, and he can now get on the Internet and look up stuff he wants to order, so these temptations are not exclusive to either of us.) There is no question that cable TV offers some great educational and life-enriching programs. But anyone can watch the “good stuff” 24 hours a day if he/she has a mind to. Then where does real life go? As far as the Internet, I tell Ed I will spend a shorter amount, not longer amount, of time on the computer because things will get done faster. Yes, he says, but I will use the time I “save” to go to more places and spend more time visiting with my online MT friends, etc. Activities expand to fill a time vacuum. It's as if you go to the store to buy a pair of pants for $50, they are on sale for $25, so instead of pocketing the extra $25 you saved, you spend it to buy something else. Your spending has expanded to fill your wallet vacuum. (The frustrating thing is, he’s probably right.)

I also know we could arrange to get the cable Internet without the cable TV, but I’ll bet there will be a package offer with a tempting price and besides, I would love to see some football this fall, and, oh yes, getting to watch the Macy’s Parade live instead of, on the day after Thanksgiving, watching a VHS tape recorded by Rachel the day before would be such a treat! Did I mention all the quilting and sewing shows I used to watch? Yes, but will I end up watching quilting shows instead of actually spending the time quilting?

Maybe we can just “try” the TV with an introductory offer and cancel later. Uh-huh. Right. On the other hand, maybe we have grown wise enough to handle what used to be out of control.

Do you see the dilemma? We have worked hard along our journey to simplicity, and now all of a sudden, temptation has moved into our neighborhood and will be knocking on our door any moment. Are we prepared? It is possible to regain cable TV and Internet without losing ourselves in the process? Have we gained enough wisdom in the last 2-1/2 years to be able to hand these two “gifts”? Are we up to a difficult challenge? Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Apostrophe Has a Tale

(Today I'm sharing a story I wrote for 5-year-old Caroline. By the way, thanks, Matt, for the inspiration!)

There was once an apostrophe who was confused. He knew he was important, but he wasn’t sure where to go and what to do. So he went to the question mark to ask her opinion. “Where do I belong?” he asked. Well, the apostrophe soon learned that question marks can’t answer questions - they only ask them. So he didn’t get any help there.

Next he went to see the exclamation point. But the exclamation point was just too excited to help out the apostrophe. All he did was shout, “TRY THE PERIOD!!!” So the apostrophe went to see the period, who wasn’t any help, either. Every time the apostrophe started asking his question, “Where do I belong?” he could only get out the “Where do” part before the period said, “Stop.” Oh, my, that seemed a bit rude to the apostrophe.

He tried the comma next, but the only clue the comma gave him was, “We look alike, my friend. Where do you belong? All I know is that I belong down, and you belong up.” The semicolon was too confused to help the apostrophe, because he couldn’t make up his mind if he himself was a period or a comma. But the semicolon did say cryptically, “I think your purpose is to show something belongs to someone, and I think you work a lot with the letter S.”

Frustrated by his experience, the apostrophe started wandering around. He soon came upon a sentence. Hey, it thought, that sentence looks like it could use an apostrophe! The sentence was this: A bird fell out of its nest. The apostrophe thought that, since the nest belonged to the bird, it must be right, and without even asking for permission, he just hopped right into the sentence, and landed between the T and the S. The new sentence now looked like this: A bird fell out of it’s nest. The apostrophe was so happy that he finally found a job. But the other words were upset. “You don’t belong here!” they shouted, and they pushed him right out.

Poor apostrophe picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started searching for a new sentence. It wasn’t long before he saw a good possibility. The sentence was this: The dog chewed its toy. “Oh, boy!” said the apostrophe. “Surely this sentence needs me! The toy belongs to the dog, doesn’t it?” And he plopped right down, again between the T and the S, and the new sentence was this: The dog chewed it's toy. Before he could relax, though, the other words became indignant. “You don’t belong here!” they said. Then they shoved the apostrophe out.

Soon he came across this sentence: Cats are for loving. “All right!” he exclaimed. “I can work with the letter S!” and he jumped right in, so the sentence now read like this: Cat’s are for loving. But it wasn’t long before the letters were saying, “Hey, that word is plural (more than one cat) and doesn’t need an apostrophe! You don’t belong here!” and they gave a big shove and he fell across a whole page until he landed just short of yet another sentence.

The apostrophe heard tiny voices, and when he looked up at the sentence where he had landed, all the letters were speaking at once. “Please help!” they said. “We just can’t be seen like this! It’s not right! Please, won’t you help us?” they asked. The apostrophe looked at the sentence. It looked like this: Its going to rain. The apostrophe had made enough mistakes for one day, and he didn’t want to jump in and get all comfortable if he would get kicked out. But the letters were insistent, so the apostrophe closed his eyes and jumped with all his might and landed right between the T and the S, so the sentence now read: It’s going to rain. “Yay!” cried the words. "We are happy now! You fixed everything! Now we are not ashamed to be seen!”

“But I’m not showing belonging!” he replied. “We aren’t using you for belonging,” the letters all explained. “We’re using you to make a contraction!” The apostrophe soon realized that his job was not to jump in every ITS that he saw. He should wait until he found an ITS that meant “It is,” and he could make it a contraction, which means one word made from two words. So “it is” becomes “it’s.”

The apostrophe was content, but he still wanted to show belonging. “Can’t I ever be used to show belonging, or am I just stuck in contractions?” he wondered. Then the word RAIN spoke up. “Oh, yes, little apostrophe!” she answered. “Why, look at me! I can have several jobs, too! I can be spelled RAIN or REIGN or REIN and pronounced exactly the same way!” “Hey, that’s cool!” said the apostrophe, appropriately impressed. “But what else can I do? Am I only able to make contractions?”

The word RAIN giggled. “Silly apostrophe!” she laughed. “Of course you aren’t used just for contractions! Why, look here!” And she pointed to all the wonderful belonging ways that apostrophe, with his friend letter S, could do. Caroline’s vocabulary. Charlotte’s new bed. Mommy’s books. Our family’s car. Papa’s pipe. Nana’s cookies. Grammy’s quilt. Daddy’s computer.

Finally the apostrophe realized that he could be used in so many places correctly that it didn’t matter to him that there were some words where he didn’t belong. At last he felt useful, and he lived happily ever after.

If you read a lot, you might come across the apostrophe sitting calmly in a word where he doesn’t belong. Maybe he’s just forgotten what he learned, or maybe he’s trying to trick you to see if you notice! Just tell him to move on to a word that really needs him. Then the sentences won’t be embarrassed, and the apostrophe will feel valuable for all his days.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Happy Birthday, Joy!

Everybody has funny, embarrassing stories about their siblings, right? Well, I thought I did, too. Until I gave it some thought. I tried to think of an instance where my only sibling, Joy, stood alone and did something amusing. The problem is, every time I think I’ve got one, it’s not Joy alone - it’s Joy and me together.

Being the only two children, sisters at that, and less than two years apart in age, raised in a family where the mom stayed home, made it inevitable that we would do almost everything together. Add to that the fact that we always shared a bedroom and always shared a small closet - well, we might have been twins. By the time I started school, and two years later Joy started school, we had formed a lasting bond which only strengthened as we grew. After all, we attended the same school, the same church, had many of the same friends (and were familiar with each other’s friends). We watched the same TV shows. We took piano lessons from Miss Vuille. We shared the same wonderful parents and grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousins. The see-saw picture above tells it all. You can’t ride a see-saw by yourself.

This is not to say we never fought. Of course, we argued (but really, not much!). And I’m not claiming we were virtually identical. On the contrary, at bedtime Joy kissed posters of Davy Jones and I kissed posters of Abraham Lincoln. We could be very different. But we were raised as two peas in the same pod, sharing a remarkable assortment of memories.

I’ll bet we spent a third of our lives together in the back seat of the family car, back when gas was cheap. From our early years when Daddy was teaching Mama to drive a stick shift in the fairgrounds parking lot (“You’re gonna KILL us!” we screamed as the car jerked around), to later years when we travelled on memorable family vacations as teenagers, the back seat of the car was our second home.

Now, I’m telling you straight - you can’t share a back seat with a sibling for this much time without learning to get along. These were the days before iPods and DVD players for the car, before cell phones, before laptops, before all the modern distractions which can enable two kids to sit side by side yet be light years apart. Heck, we started out before there were seat belts! So we became creative. Remember the old Bingo game for car trips with the little “windows” to close over things you see - like cows, trains, etc.? We loved those! We played word games, sang songs, learned the French alphabet, counted license plates, asked truckers to honk their horns, and even took “notes” on our journeys. Of course, our snack-filled “goodie box” was kept in the back seat, too. Yes sir, on vacations, the back seat was the place to be!

Around town, it was a different story. Our ride to church was about 20 minutes long, and when you go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, and every other Saturday, you can sometimes get bored. But not us. That’s because we usually had to pick somebody up. You wouldn’t believe how many people we could squeeze in the family car! Even today I can’t believe it. Daddy was a choir director, and to make sure all the members had a way to get to practice, he’d go pick a few of them up himself. He would have tied them to the roof if he had thought they wouldn’t get to practice otherwise. So Joy and I would be squeezed into the back seat with, at various times, women who smelled like smoke, perfume, mints, or lemon and oatmeal cookies. We could always squeeze in another person. Little Mary Pat (a soprano’s daughter) was so skinny, we could always fit her in and never even know the difference.

Every other Saturday, we would get our grandfather and drive a couple of hours away to see our grandmother, who was in a state institution (she was anorexic before the medical community knew much about that disease). So we’d be riding with Paw-Paw, a simply marvelous man who smelled like chewing tobacco and Listerine. On those trips, Daddy would drive (sometimes Paw-Paw’s huge ocean liner of a car) and Paw-Paw would sit in the front seat with him, and we’d share the back seat with Mama - a real treat for us, not to mention the fact that she’d take out a piece of Juicy Fruit and give us each half. Unfortunately, on those trips we also shared the back seat with Paw-Paw’s precious cans - one for his spittoon and one for his worms. (He’d sometimes try to get in a little fishing back then.)

Sometimes, on our way home from church on Wednesday or Sunday night, after we dropped off the myriad crammed-in passengers, we’d beg Daddy to drive us to Dairy Queen before we went home. “Dairy Queen?” he’d usually say. “What a waste! Those cones cost 10 cents apiece, and I can go to the grocery store and buy a whole half gallon of ice milk for 42 cents!” Occasionally, though, we would catch the car going in that direction, and the whoops and hollers coming from the back seat filled the car.

Did you know you can get drinking water from a faucet in a car? When the back seat got too tiring and we’d get thirsty, we’d start whining for something to drink. Daddy would turn on the fan, put an imaginary cup up to the dashboard, and hand it back to us, which we would pretend to drink in the spirit of the moment. Funny, it actually could quench our thirst.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the twin boys who lived next door. Mama volunteered to take them to school with us, as if we didn’t have enough strangers sharing our back seat at other times. Their names were Ronald and Donald, and one of them sat up front with Mama, and the other one shared the back seat with us. These were, let’s say, boys who were not boyfriend material. Luckily, the ride was not that long.

Sunday is Joy’s birthday, and I just wanted to go down memory lane (in the back seat, of course) to remind her that we have lived a third of our lives together a car, sharing the back seat just like we shared a room, a closet, and a whole host of fantastic memories. Happy birthday, dear Joy! I love you!

Friday, July 04, 2008


I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school and high school, but alas, no one could teach history very well. I really don’t blame them; they probably had lousy history teachers, too.

History can be the most boring subject you ever heard of (think dates and places and battles to memorize), or it can conversely be the most exciting subject in the world. A good history teacher realizes that history is more than dates and places and battles - it is mystery, intrigue, successes and failures, aspiration, greed, sacrifice, suffering and sorrow, anxiety, pride, and everything other experience that makes up the human condition. History is about people - and when the personalities and idiosyncrasies, the defects as well as the admirable characteristics of those people get lost in all the boring “facts,” history gets lost as well.

I certainly did not become animated about history from textbooks. I owe my fascination to my dad, who insisted that family vacations were not complete without several stops at historical places. That brought history to life for us.

I’m more into American history, and Ed is more into world history (especially ancient history), but I’m glad we both enjoy learning about the past. Many of the books I read aloud to him are historical nonfiction. For the last year, it seems, we’ve been “stuck” in the 1700s. We started out with the book about our second president, John Adams by David McCullough, which focused especially on his remarkable relationship with his wife, Abigail. It was very well written and enjoyable to read! Then we watched The Adams Chronicles (a 1970s miniseries which had its moments but was somewhat disappointing, so we donated it to the library). Last month we finally got to see the HBO miniseries based on McCullough’s book, which was splendid, and now we are almost finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Sometimes when we wake up in the morning, we have to reorient ourselves to the 21st century!

Back in school, my history teachers implied that the American Revolution was led by old men who all respected and liked each other, who had one common vision, when in fact, most of the men were young, and there were, as to be expected, intense feelings in the group - envy, disdain, annoyance, impatience, and vitriolic hatred as well as respect - and that sometimes given grudgingly. Each man had a vision of independence from Britain, but each man had his own ideas of how to accomplish that and what his individual role would be in the new country. And the characters! If one of my history teachers had told me that Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son who fathered his own illegitimate son who fathered yet another illegitimate son - well, history class would have been a lot less dull. And if my teacher had mentioned the fact that old Franklin enjoyed playing chess with women while both were lounging together in a bathtub - well, that would have sparked some interest, too. Who knew that Thomas Jefferson had money problems because he was a shopaholic? One of the reasons he sold his library to the Library of Congress was because he needed the money to pay debts. He wanted the finer things in life, especially for his beloved home, Monticello, and he managed to obtain them, regardless of the financial consequences. Ah, at last we understood the Louisiana Purchase! Jefferson saw 828,000 square miles of territory and said, “Hey! I want to buy that!”

So today, July 4, is the first Independence Day for me when I actually appreciate all the history bundled up in it. Memorizing dates and battles has never been my area of strength...but I can tell you that Adams and Franklin and Jefferson and others were crossing the Atlantic ocean in ships that had to carry livestock that they could slaughter for food during the voyage. Nothing like watching your dinner walk on board your vessel with you, huh? Happy 4th!

Saturday, June 28, 2008


It was interesting to see in the news this week that Bill Gates is retiring from Microsoft. Some have called him a “self-made man,” but that phrase really is not a correct one. Sure, he has always been talented and creative and intelligent and has been a hard worker and passionate in his career, but self-made? None of us is really self-made. From the teacher (or parent) who taught him the alphabet to his employees who helped make Microsoft successful to the customers who buy his products, there are many, many people who helped Bill Gates along the way. As it is with each of us.

I was born into a loving family to two of the most wonderful parents in the world. I was brought up to respect others, to be tolerant and generous, and I was given on an extensive education, partly in the classroom, and mostly at home. I have not become rich or famous, nor have I invented anything of use to the world. But what life I have carved out I owe initially to that unconditional love and inexhaustible teaching that for a long time I took for granted. Besides my family, what other amazing teachers have I been blessed with? Miss Vuille, who taught me in elementary school how to play the piano on a “keyboard” made of cardboard, using workbooks where the half notes were nurses and the black notes were soldiers. Miss Stryker and Mrs. Watkins, who taught me how to read. Mr. Knight, who taught me French. Miss Gillespie, who taught me choral singing and joie de vivre. Mrs. Ray, who, along with my mom, taught me how to sew. Mr. Fleming, who taught me how to play a pipe organ.

Actors on awards shows have always been belittled for their endless “thank you” speeches. But if you think about it, those actors are facing the fact that they really do owe lots of people their gratitude. The make-up and hair artists and costume designers who made them look incredibly perfect, the lighting people who did the same, the casting directors who hired them, and all the other skilled workers in the industry, in addition to acting coaches, fitness coaches, voice/dancing teachers, agents, the theaters carrying their movies, and the family and friends who encouraged them. The soloist realizes she is lost without her backup singers and orchestra. The rugged young actor remembers who gave him his first break. Those Hollywood celebrities are indeed not self-made, and sometimes even they realize this.

I was thinking about this today because two weeks ago I finally finished that quilt for Rachel and Chris that had been 6 long years in the making. I did it by my (as of December 2007) self-imposed deadline - their 6th wedding anniversary, which, by the way, is today. Now I am halfway through another quilt, one for my 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter Charlotte, who is moving from a crib to a “big girl bed” very soon. To whom do I owe my ability to quilt? Back in 1987, when I was the choir at Trinity United Methodist Church in Memphis, another singer always had a quilting project in her lap during choir practice. I had sewn clothes all my life, and had learned to cross-stitch and even crocheted once, but I had never seen anything like what she was doing. I finally was intrigued enough to ask her about it, and she graciously invited me to her house near the church one evening for a one-hour quickie lesson on how to quilt. I took to it with passion and never looked back. I owe my quilting life to this young lady, who took the time to pass on her creative knowledge.

All through my 53 years, a myriad of caring people have supported and taught and encouraged me and made me who I am today. They have affected my hobbies, the books I read, the things I want to learn, how I interact with my family and acquaintances, and everything else that makes up me. They’ve taught me how to forgive and ask forgiveness, how to let go of mistakes, how to build on successes, how to tolerate those who are different, and, most of all, how to be grateful and appreciate what I have been given. Some have invested an extraordinary amount of time with me; others have just been there to point the way and wish me luck. Still others will hardly realize that they have had an impact on my life, as I am just one of many whose lives they touched.

Thank God we are not self-made! If that were the case, humility would be in even shorter supply than it already is. For those of you who have helped me and taught me and encouraged me and loved me, words cannot adequately express how much that means to me. I will never be able to thank you on national TV, but this will just have to do. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without you.

Friday, June 20, 2008


When work, commitment, and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible. - unknown
If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived? Find your passion, whatever it may be. Become it, and let it become you and you will find great things happen FOR you, TO you and BECAUSE of you. - T. Alan Armstrong
Passion requires focused direction, and that direction must come from three other areas: your purpose, your talents, and your needs. ~ Steve Pavlina
Passion, it lies in all of us, sleeping... waiting... and though unwanted... unbidden... it will stir... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us... guides us... passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love... the clarity of hatred... and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion maybe we'd know some kind of peace... but we would be hollow... Empty rooms shuttered and dank. Without passion we'd be truly dead. - Joss Whedon

When I looked up the word passion today, I found definitions of everything from suffering to anger to enthusiasm to love. Indeed, one definition is "any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.”

I have always been excited to have passions in my life. Some of my passions have been lifelong (passion for music, for instance), which broadened as I got older to encompass a wider range (the Celtic harp). I’ve had passions for grammar, spelling, punctuation. I’ve had a passion for Lincoln. I’ve had passions for sewing, quilting, and cross-stitch. I even have a passion for medical transcription, which is a relief, because I have to do it every day.

I love the first quote: “When work, commitment, and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible.” The passion described here is more than an interest or a hobby. Passion has to be something that when you think about doing it or making it or seeing it or hearing it, your heart automatically speeds up. (Maybe I have a passion about flying, since that’s usually my physical reaction! LOL). It’s a driving force that, as the quote says, comes from deep inside, almost uncontrollable. Sometimes it makes life worth living, sometimes it makes it exciting to jump out of bed in the morning, sometimes it serves a greater purpose of benefiting others as it fulfills one's self.

My family has a lot of different passions - I mean REAL passions that energize them from the inside and spur their lives on. Passions that make their eyes light up when they talk about them. Some passions I don’t even understand what’s so great about them, but hey, that’s the beauty of passion. Mine has meaning for me, and theirs has meaning for them. My various family members have passions for Star Wars, theology, gardening, car seat safety, history, teaching, scrap-booking, books, music, wood-working, acting, animals, shopping garage sales for things they can transform, music, Mac computers, and others I probably don't even realize. Such variety!

I wanted to post about passion this week, because of our son’s extraordinary achievement. He has created a web site called and it went live last Saturday. Matt has a passion for Mac software - software with details of quality workmanship, elegant design, and user-friendly interfaces - and in all this, his passion is clearly evident and growing. He decided that the internet needed a site where Mac developers, programmers, coders, and designers could contact each other and come together to create great projects, find suitable working partners, and other things to shake up the Apple world. As I said, he started the site on Saturday, and as of today, Thursday, there are around 500 registrants from all over the world! Matt brought this amazing thing in to existence and we all watched as it grew incredibly in just a few days. This is the power of passion, when it’s paired with talent, channeled by vision, and steered by commitment.

Congratulations, Matthew! When work, commitment, and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Making a Statement

I talk to myself, both aloud and in my head. We all do this, of course. The experts say that examining your self-talk is vital, because when you say something enough, you program your brain to believe it. People who consistently say, “I’m ugly” or “I always mess up” or “I’m never on time” can say these negative things so often that their brain impulses actually hardwire the message, which makes it even more likely to be thought, and so on. My personal one has been “I’m a procrastinator and unfinisher, and that’s just the way it is.” You say it so much, you don’t even question its validity anymore.

When it comes to doing things, I have certainly had my share of conversations with myself. As I lay in bed last night, I thought of all the statements I had made about myself and the effect those statements have had on my life. Words are more important than we give them credit for.

“I want to do this.” This is one mantra of childhood. Kids in their naive and hormone-laden states want to do everything - even things that are unwise, dangerous for them or other people, or things they are not mature enough to handle. Many adolescents lack judgment and all they can think of is what they want. “I want to sleep in and skip school today.” “I want to have sex.” “I want to drive as fast as this car will go.” “I want to get revenge on this teacher.” “I want to see what it feels like to get high.” Add to this the wants for material things, technology, clothes, games, etc., and the first fourth or so of one’s life can be consumed with trying to satisfy all those wants. As an adult, it becomes “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to be loved” or “I want to be content in life.” You see, wants are not always bad, but when you want something you know would be good or healing for you and don’t do anything to achieve it, then it’s empty. As an adult, “I want” is just not enough.

“I should do this.” This was my childhood mantra. I was a good girl. I was a good student. I was a good church member. I was a good daughter. I knew what was expected of me, and usually I did it. I’m not belittling that, of course. I’m glad I could be a good family member and citizen. A sense of personal responsibility is admirable. But as adults, if we find that our lives are totally filled up with doing things because a nagging voice says we “should” and nothing else, and we do these things with no passion, no purpose, and sometimes with dread, it turns an admirable statement into a negative one, and drains our energy and eats into our lives.

“I could have done this.” Ack - the regret syndrome. Oh, the wasted life! The unaccepted challenges! The road not taken! Sometimes this becomes pathetic, but sometimes it’s funny. I remember when Matt was in, I believe, 6th or 7th grade, one of his friends was a good runner. Matt had never done fast sports, only karate (a much slower, more intentional skill), and one day he ran a race against this other boy. As he told us later about how he lost, he ended the story to us with a smile and said, “I could have beaten him...if he had had his shoes tied together!” It’s good to laugh at ourselves! But we shouldn’t be consumed with glory dreams of what might have been. We can learn from the past, but we really have only the future.

“I’m afraid to do this.” Boy, don’t I know it! This is the other half of a kid’s mantra (ergo Caroline’s standing in the street in her first set of roller skates, panicking). I’ve had those moments as an adult. “I’m afraid to commit to a health regimen.” “I”m afraid to kayak on the bay in Bar Harbor.” “I’m afraid to attempt this difficult quilt pattern.” “I’m afraid to take the Certified Medical Transcriptionist test.” “I’m afraid to fly to Memphis.” Of course, all these will be followed with the word “because,” as in “...because I might give up,” “....because I might drown.” “...because I am not skilled enough.” “...because I might fail,” and “...because I might crash.” If we admit fear, that’s being truthful. If we let fear paralyze us so we never try anything, well, that’s a big waste.

“I can do this.” Now we’re getting somewhere. As I mentioned in an MT chat room yesterday, when I passed the CMT, it sparked something within my brain that said, “If I can do this, maybe I can do something else that seems scary or difficult.” Do I really have the wherewithal to give up Cokes for the rest of my life? Am I mentally capable of a commitment to daily exercise? Can I actually make a quilt and finish it in a reasonable amount of time before I start another one of the myriad projects in my head? Am I actually physically, emotionally, and mentally able to get on another plane after freaking out on one 14 years ago? I made a list of things that up until now I had said,”I want to...,” “I should do...,” “I could have done,” and “I’m afraid to do...” and started associated these goals with a whole new statement - one with energy and promise. I can do this. I CAN DO THIS!

“I will do this.” This is the commitment statement. This is the one where you’ve discarded all the negatives, accepted the certainly that it is possible, and have gone one step further to commitment. After the goal is met, the feeling is indescribable, and feeds on itself to other goals and challenges and self-confidence. This can be overwhelmingly powerful and gratifying.

Finally, there is one more statement. For a couple of weeks, I have been visiting a site called It’s dedicated to encouraging people to transform their lives to their God-given full potential - not only physically in fitness and good health, but spiritually and emotionally and every other way from the inside out. They recently featured a teenage girl with leukemia, someone I didn’t know anything about but whom everyone was praising as such an inspiration because of her positive attitude about life. They said that her favorite statement was “I get to.” In spite of her chemo treatments, nausea and vomiting, and physical deterioration, she could still say, “I get to live another day.” “I get to give back to the society.” “I get to use this illness to encourage others.” She died last week, and the online community's outpouring of grief was tremendous.

I wondered what using her statement would do in my life. “I get to exercise today, because I have all my muscles and limbs and am not in a wheelchair!” “I get to fly to visit my family in August and get there in one day instead of driving for solid week there and back!” “I get to work in this fantastic career, where I not only use my skills, but I learn wonderful new things every day!” “I get to accept this new challenge, because win or lose, the struggle will only make me stronger!” “I get to participate today in this incredible journey called life!”

Now, that’s what I call making a statement. What a wonderful way to hardwire your brain!