Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas of Tears

A lot of folks joke about "homemade" presents, but I'm a big fan. If I had the time and didn’t wallow in procrastination, I would be able to make all my Christmas gifts each year. This year I unfortunately made nothing - but the kind of gifts I received this year can’t be bought. And, coincidentally, they all involved the word “Daddy.”

My sister, bless her soul, has been spending countless hours working on our family genealogy on our father’s side. Unlike our mother with her close family, Daddy (who died at age 64 in 1980) presented us with only one memorable relative - his mother, who died when we were adolescents, so we didn’t know her that well. Our dad, as I’ve posted before, was one of a kind. His experiences in life gave him a social conscious that became his passion and directed his choices. In his life, he did everything from touring in a bell ringer group to being a clerk in the army to being a choir director for decades. What led up to this remarkable man’s life? Who are the people and what are the events that shaped his mind? My sister, using Daddy’s journals and detailed records, went on a fascinating journey, starting in 1747 when Thomas Tiffin was born “somewhere in North Carolina.” Every once in a while she would send me e-mails of various facts she had learned, and I had often wished I had them compiled in a chronological story format to enjoy. She gave me that this Christmas in a book she created, including family history up to our current kids and grandkids, with scanned photos ancient and new. She did all the work and I (and future generations) get to reap the benefits. What a gift! What a treasure! I cried, of course.

Then my daughter and her husband worked tirelessly to transfer our silent home movies (from the ‘50s through the ‘70s that my father took) from VHS to a digital format, burned onto DVDs. She gave them to me with a poignant letter about how watching every minute of these hours of family history affected her, how she realized she had been born into a family that loved each other, and loved her. She said she cried many times during the process. She cried tears of joy that she had been born into such an environment, and she cried tears of sadness that my Daddy, her grandfather, died a month before she turned 2 years old, and she described the heartbreak of never knowing him - and that this gift of home movies was basically his gift to her almost 30 years after he left this earth. I got a double gift - the gift of my precious home movies in a format that assures their continued existence, and the gift that my daughter had such an emotional reaction realizing how blessed our family has been. She wrote, “It was surreal to see my parents get married, my pregnant mother walk around, and to see Papa stroke my baby back and Paw-Paw tickle my baby feet...I can only hope that one day my girls will remember their childhood and family as fondly.” She cried when she presented it to me, and I cried when I received it.

Finally (besides giving me comfy gloves and slippers that I needed desperately) my son and his wife presented me with the ultimate homemade gift when they told us recently that Sarah was pregnant with their first child which will be born this summer! More tears of happiness from me - and I still can hardly believe that my “baby” is going to be a daddy, and that around July 2010, I will get to hold our third beloved grandchild.

I cried a lot this Christmas season. I was blessed to see the march of time from 1747, through my father’s exceptional life, through the growing-up years of my sister and me, then through making preparations to welcome a new baby to the family and beyond. I got to travel through memories of the past and hopes and dreams of things to come. I found it highly appropriate that this Christmas, I felt a little like Scrooge and his whirlwind journey through time.

All the money in the world could not buy the “homemade” gifts I received this Christmas of 2009!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Two years and counting

I used to love Cokes. Occasionally I’d drink Dr. Pepper, Sprite, or even Pepsi, but Coke was my lifeline. I’d guess I used to drink at least a bottle or two a day. Since I have always hated coffee, Coke provided that caffeine for me.

I write about Cokes in the past tense because as of yesterday, December 20, 2009, I have been without a Coke for 2 years. It doesn’t sound like much, considering Ed has been sober for 25 years, but it’s a big thing for me. This time in 2007, I just finally decided that Cokes had no redeeming value (hey, even ice cream has calcium!) and no telling what the high-fructose was doing to me, so I quit cold-turkey.

Standing here in 2009 and looking back, I can’t believe I managed to do it. I understand one of the difficulties in giving up cigarettes, because I now have to drink something else with fast food, with pizza, first thing in the morning, and all the other times Coke was by my side.

The older I get, the more excited I become when I do something or overcome something that I just knew I couldn’t do or overcome. You’d think by age 55 I would know more of myself and my capabilities, but I’m constantly learning. Of course, I have a ton of bad habits and personal weaknesses to work on - but to say that in December 2009 I’ve been without Cokes for 2 years? That brings a smile to my face!

I think I’ll celebrate - with a Coke! (Just kidding!)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A lesson in lenses

Part of the advice given to the newbie medical transcriptionist from the experienced transcriptionist is usually, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more and realize what you don’t know.”

Rachel found that out this week. She got glasses. She used to wear glasses for a short period of time as an adolescent, but thinking she didn't really need them, she quit wearing them. She seemed to do fine with school and everything else - graduated from high school and college with excellent grades, went into teaching, etc. Recently, however, she is feeling her “old age” of 31, she says, and she realized she was having trouble reading fine print. She made an ophthalmology appointment and lo and behold, she needed glasses. She told me that she was shocked when, after receiving her new glasses, what a difference it made. The clerk asked her to read a sample of fine print with her glasses, then asked her to read it without the glasses. Rachel was amazed in the difference in clear vision and blurred vision. She didn’t know what she was missing until she saw clearly.

Ed said when he first got glasses as a child, he finally realized the things he had missed seeing. Once he realized what sharp vision was like, he understood what poor vision was like. Until that happened, he assumed he was seeing the same way as everyone else.

Both Ed and Rachel “didn’t know what they didn’t know” until the situation changed and their eyes were opened, so to speak. Assumptions can be a dangerous part of life. Like Ed who assumed his vision was supposed to be that limited, we are often so darn sure of what we think we “know” until something happens to challenge our perspective.

Ed and I have gotten into the habit of doing the crossword puzzle in our daily newspaper. In yesterday’s puzzle, I had one of those words that I absolutely knew fit the clue. The number of letters fit, the middle letter fit, and the whole word was a sure thing. I penciled that word in and tried to work around it. Then I got to a point where I was stuck. Some of the words I was lettering in didn’t make sense. It got to be very frustrating. Finally after a good deal of time, I realized by trial and error that the very word I had put down in the beginning, the sure bet, the word I just knew was the right one, was - of course - wrong. Once I got the right word, everything else fell into place.

You’d think we humans would have become smart enough and wise enough to realize we don’t know everything. One of my favorite movies is “Christmas in Connecticut.” The heroine has been living a life totally incongruent with her real identity. She is a magazine feature writer who writes about her life - and claims to live on a farm in Connecticut, cook divinely, is the perfect homemaker and wife and mother. In real life, however, she lives in an city apartment, is single, has never been to a farm (much less lived on one), and can’t even boil water. The trouble starts when her publisher decides to visit “her farm” for Christmas and despite our heroine's desperate attempts to maintain the farce, keeping up appearances becomes harder and harder until it all blows up. She gets fed up with the mess she has caused by pretending to be something she is not. She says in essence how she is disgusted with herself because she appears to have all the answers, and everybody believes that, but in reality really she is clueless. She got tired of being expected to know everything and having to pretend she did.

Yet we still fight on to preserve our way of thinking, even if our basic assumption is as unworkable as my “sure thing” word in my crossword puzzle. We are so stubborn (or arrogant) sometimes to think we have life down pat, we know more than anyone else, we have nothing to learn, and frequently that stubbornness gets us in tight spots because we refuse to let go. When we start out with a false assumption as our foundation, and build from there, the life we are building always topples in some way and we have to start over. Also, when we are so sure of our thinking and pathway, we are blind to life’s little pleasant surprises when they appear. Whether we are politicians, preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or dishwashers, a sense of humility is always appreciated. Even if you are one of the world’s expert in one thing, I can guarantee you there are thousands of more things you don’t know or understand - the preferred outcome being, of course, that you become wise enough to “know you don’t know.” I don’t think we can even look at the universe and think we know all the answers. Without humility, there can be no awe.

It is true that the longer I am a medical transcriptionist, the more I realize I don’t know about anatomy, body systems, instrument names, medicines, and everything else. And that is, as Martha Steward would say, "a good thing." It shows I am growing in wisdom, I am ready to learn, I never become so rigid that I let self-confidence become arrogance, and I never lose my respect for the complexity and miracle of life itself. Sometimes you see clearly and realize your vision was always flawed before - or you keep insisting you see fine and don't need any changes. Sometimes you figure out substituting one word for another in the crossword puzzle can alter the whole outcome - or you throw the whole paper away in frustration because you can't grasp the possibility that the answers you are so sure of may be wrong. Sometimes you can realize your weakness, swallow your pride and say, "I'm was my fault...please forgive me" - or you can be stubborn and defend your actions to the grave.

These are the choices we have in life. The hymn I sang at my dad's funeral was "Be Thou My Vision." Sometimes a new way of looking at things can make all the difference.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Street of Gold

Welcome to the season of giving...and getting, of course. One of the hard things about Christmas is to separate our wants from our needs, and, as I am always reminded to do, continue to get our priorities straight.

Depending on the world’s material goods to make us happy is a dangerous detour on the Road to Simplicity. Easier said than done. I remember the day I caught Ed looking at a pricey clothes catalog. He had put at least 20 of those sticky pad pages in it, marking things he would like to have. I remember how he laughed when he realized it, and his observation was, “I’ve bookmarked this like I have money!” Ever since then, when we see those bookmarks sticking out of our catalogs, we both smile at the dichotomy. Most of the time, they all go into our catalog collection basket and then to recycling - bookmarks still intact, almost as a compromise between our wants and our needs and what we choose to spend money on. They are saying, “I want this, I really, really want this, it would be perfect for me, I deserve it, I wish I had the money for it,” then relinquishing those wishes to the recycling center. For in reality, we enjoy wishing and dreaming, but we know our priorities and our limits. We know those things marked would be a pleasure to have but their presence in our lives will not make us happy. In fact, we can be perfectly happy with less than we think.

In the Season of Consumerism, I am reminded of one of Ed’s best sermons. It was on this verse from Revelation:

“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.”

Ah, yes, the street of gold and the pearly gates. One of Ed’s seminary friends frequently said, after doing something good, “Well, that’s another jewel in my crown!” He meant, of course, that one day in heaven he would be rewarded for all his good deeds - and that reward would be precious jewels. The idea that heaven is filled with things that are precious on earth is one that a lot of Christians believe wholeheartedly. What does that mean, exactly?

Here is where Ed turns things upside down. If the street of heaven is paved with gold, and the gates are made of pearls, maybe it’s because those things are worthless in heaven! If you want to take this Bible passage literally, you might conclude: “Pearls and gold and jewels are everywhere in heaven precisely because they are worthless, not because they are precious.” We know that it is usually the rare things that are expensive in this world of ours. If all our streets were paved with gold, and diamonds were covering every roof of every house, their very abundance would mean they had no value, wouldn’t it? Common equals cheaper; rarity equals expensive. Maybe this passage is demonstrating to us that heaven’s priorities are not our earthly priorities - and maybe that will make us stop and consider how our lives would be changed if we examined the way we live using heaven's standards.

Of course, when folks are trying hard to pay for heating oil, wondering if they can pay the rent or mortgage, losing their jobs, going hungry, running up unpaid medical bills, I know it is comforting to think that after death, they will finally “make it.” They will have gold and jewels and pearls and everything that says “wealth.” It sounds kind of like winning the lottery. But if you really look at the implications of that verse, you may come to Ed’s conclusion. If God thinks gold and pearls are in reality worthless, what does God think is valuable? If we ask those kinds of questions at the beginning of this Season of Consumerism, maybe we’ll come out at the end a wiser and simpler people.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quick Guide to Life

Stress is everywhere. The latest edition of my favorite magazine, “Experience Life,” has articles titled, “Overcome Anxiety,” “Relax and Renew,“ and “How to Avoid Holiday Overload.” As if we didn’t have enough stress with the economy and unemployment, here come the holidays, and all the commercials trying to convince us that this toy will make our kids happy, or that this piece of jewelry is the only way to show your love, or this technological gadget will make our lives complete.

I’m not the world’s expert on stress by any means, but after thinking for awhile, I came up with three ways I try to handle stress. They sound simple, but they can get really complicated. The Journey to Simplicity is frequently not simple.

Change and the wisdom to know
Go with the flow
Let go

The wisdom to know is from my favorite prayer, the Serenity Prayer. I’ve blogged about it several times and it never loses its power for me. “God grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If we sat down and made a list of things we worry about, and divided those up into “what I can change” and “what I can’t change,” already our lists would be shortened. And yet... there are some things you may realize you can’t change on your own, but integrity demands you follow through anyway (such as voting for a lost cause on election day). Of course, as admirable as it is to want to change society for the better, and as much as I would encourage it, the fastest and most productive way to effect change is to change yourself. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Going with the flow is a tricky one. There are times you need to go with the flow, and there are times you need to fight your way upstream. Again, the wisdom to know the difference is the key. Our daughter, Rachel, has a tendency to be anxious, especially when her best laid plans go awry. I wrote letters to both kids until they were 18, when I had them bound and gave the collection to them. I included a final letter from their dad, giving advice to each child. For Rachel, he told her she needed to be more like the tree that bends in the wind, and less like the tree that is so hard and inflexible that it breaks in a storm. The expression, I believe, is that we make plans and God laughs. Things rarely turn out exactly as planned. And yet...integrity sometimes demands that you hold your ground or fight against the current. Ah, the wisdom to know the difference!

Let go, “Let go and let God.” Release the lifeline, open your hand, let go of everything you think you need for security. Let go of your need for control. Let go of your need for excessive material goods, let go of your need to please people in a way that violates your integrity, let go of expectations. That latter one is so hard. I gave a children’s Advent sermon once where I held up a sign with the word EXPECT in big letters on one side. I told the kids that the Jews expected the Messiah, they expected a king, they expected a glorious revolution. They wanted God to fulfill his promise to them. Then I turned the sign over. On that side was the the same group of letters rearranged - the word EXCEPT in big letters. The Jews got God’s promise fulfilled, EXCEPT it wasn’t in the way they EXPECTED it. Sometimes we have to let go of expectations. Yet....sometimes you have to expect a miracle, or expect happiness, or expect that things will work out. Some people call this release of positive energy, others call it faith. There are times we believe something utterly unrealistic, something others may mock or scorn, but we know in our hearts it can be WILL be done. In those cases we have to hold on to our expectations with all our might. Sometimes you have to hold tight to expectations for yourself. I never would have given up Cokes or learned to tolerate flying if I had not expected so much of myself. I learned that I can accomplish more than I think - I now have that expectation.

So it all comes down to wisdom - to know when to hold your ground or give in, to know what you can change and how to change it, to know when to hold on and when to let go, to know when to expect success or to allow life to bring surprises, to know when to work toward your dreams, and when to let go of your dreams, or just change your dreams.

I used to think wisdom was knowledge, but eventually I learned the difference. Knowledge is easy to get. In fact, I know a lot of smart people who know more than I will ever know about anything, but I think they lack wisdom. It’s quite elusive. In the end, it is the one gift I hope we gave to our children, not just for the holiday season, but for all their lives - the wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Overnight lessons

I had a dream last night that I lived in a big house with many rooms (when I dream, the house always symbolizes myself - the multifaceted being that I am!), and as a surprise, friends from my life showed up to spend some days with me. The funny thing was that a few of them I didn’t remember ever meeting before, and they only stayed one night, but some more familiar faces stayed several days and beyond. Unfortunately, as delighted as I was, I spent the whole time rushing around cleaning and straightening (as I had had no warning that they were coming) and never spent time with my visitors.

When I awoke, I started thinking of all the people who have come in and out of my life; some have only stayed for a few moments, and others for decades. No matter how short or long their interactions with me, they have affected me in some way. Former neighbors, fellow students, the friends of my children, teachers from official school and “the school of life,” parishioners from past churches were Ed was the pastor, choirs I have sung with - all have left their mark, no matter how superficial or transient my association was them may have been. Of course, those are people I physically encountered. Then there are the people that I have never met in person, but whose life situations, personalities, generosity or lack thereof, wisdom or foolishness, taught me things that made me a better person - the patients I transcribe about, people I see or read about in the news, authors of books that changed my life. There are even people who have skills that inspire or teach me - such as Sylvia Woods (the Celtic harpist), Caroline’s violin teacher whom I never met, and even the anonymous folks who post videos on You-Tube - such as the one I saw the other day which showed very clearly the technique of putting in an invisible zipper!

All the people mentioned above and many others apparently come to visit me throughout my life. Some faces I recognize, some are strangers, some are friends I haven’t seen for years, and some are friends and relatives I saw yesterday. They are all a part of me. I have learned from them what to do or what not to do. I have received from some of them inspiration and reassurance that maybe I can learn something new. I have received from others a warning about how greed or power can warp my priorities. I have learned from some how to deal with grief and loss, or how to bear up under unimaginable circumstances.

The second lesson from the dream, of course, is that I need to live in the present. I couldn’t enjoy my visitors because I had my mind on other things. The other day I was driving home from work and I had the discomforting experience of seeing the rising moon in the sky in front of me and the setting sun in back of me. I had the feeling that I was caught between two worlds - the future and the past. Somehow the whole drive made me feel in limbo - that whatever I was doing in the present was not real. It’s the time of year again when we think about, as Scrooge had to, Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, and you can add Thanksgiving to those time delineations as well. Planning and scheduling - are we having Thanksgiving on Thursday or Friday in our family this year? Who is hosting? What should I bake? Do Matt and Sarah plan on having us out for Christmas Eve this year? If so, should we try to spend the night with Rachel’s family so we don’t have to drive back to Hancock at night? Should we even buy a Christmas tree this year? What presents should I buy and when? What should I wear for the family Christmas picture we take on Thanksgiving?......and on and on. And each of these questions is matched with “Well, what did we do LAST year?”

I have always had a difficulty living in the present, not just living, but being fully and wholly engaged in the present moment. I’m a great planner and list-maker. I haven’t finished sewing my blouse, but already I’ve bought fabric for the next thing to sew. Last night’s dream just reminded me once again of what I need to work on. Of all the teachers in my life, my dreams (where my mind processes my life experiences) have been exceedingly important. The insights they provide have been invaluable on my journey.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Excuses

I’m one of these poor souls who gets into the Christmas spirit early. I usually start listening to Christmas CDs in my car around September. It’s really not my fault. There are two good reasons for this: 1) I’m a seamstress/quilter/crafter. 2) I’m a choir director’s daughter.

Everyone knows if you make some of your Christmas presents, you have to get started early. Many years have I ignored this caveat and spent late nights with little sleep trying to finish a project near the deadline. (Projects invariably take longer than I assumed they would.) So, as much as I get frustrated with seeing stores change over to Christmas merchandise the day after (or day of or days before!) Halloween, I need to get in the Christmas spirit if I am planning to make one or more of my gifts. I also need to be able to buy the holiday-related materials for my projects.

On top of that, I’m a choir director’s daughter. Choirs always have a Christmas program, and, well, you need lots of weeks to practice, so as a choir member, you’re used to singing Christmas music starting in October.

Now, we hear all about how hard it is to be a PK (Preacher’s Kid - just ask Matt and Rachel), but nobody ever talks about the wild lives of a Choir Director’s Kids. Here is a rundown of what you would have done as a CDK growing up in our family: For one thing, you're inducted into the choir early - like 12 years old. The choir needs another soprano or alto, and the choir director's daughters just fit the bill. If you play the piano, you will have to fill in for the organist when a substitute cannot be found. Church is your second home - Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and some weekends. Your parents take you to the church on some Saturdays, where you go into the tiny dark choir room and take music out of file drawers and stack it in piles on a long pew in the sanctuary. Then you take all the sung anthems (choir music) out of the folios (music holder folders) and place the new anthems in said folios, in the order in which they will be used. While you’re there, you are even asked to tidy up the place! But it’s not all work and no fun. You can always find a few minutes to stand at the pulpit and pretend you’re the preacher. You can do a lot of things when you’re the only people in the building.

Of course, Christmas at church was special for Joy and me. I mean, really - the choir was singing our names! “While by our sheep, we watched at night, glad tidings brought an angel bright. How great our Joy! (echo: Great our joy). Joy, Joy, Joy! (echo: Joy, joy, joy). Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high! (echo: Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high!)” I’m not counting, but that’s 7 Joys in each refrain. My sister en”joy”ed every moment. I got her back, though, when we got to “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play...” Of course, those are within the lyrics - but titles were actually in the bulletin, where we could see our names in print. She got “Joy to the World” in the bulletin, but I got her back with “Carol of the Bells.” (I just don’t understand that nasty rumor that Joy and I were always competing.)

The sad thing is - I work on Sundays now and haven't been in a choir in over a decade. I also don't know if I have enough time to make any of my Christmas gifts this year. Nevertheless, it's in my genes to have my eyes focused on December 25 months ahead of time.

Halloween will be over tomorrow night, then it’s all speed ahead!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dear Charities:

Dear Worthwhile Charities:

I understand your need for money. Indeed, times are tight for all of us. We all must step up to the plate and help our fellow man/woman. I give regularly to several charities, and have for many years, the primary two being Habitat for Humanity and Komen Breast Cancer Research. I understand that if I give you $10 one year, I am on your mailing list for the rest of my life. I appreciate your return-address stickers, your labels, your little cards, your calendars, and your heartfelt letters stating your cases.

I remember a letter to an advice columnist a few years ago from a lady who received such "gifts" in the mail. She said she felt guilty keeping them if she didn't send any money back, but was she supposed to just throw them away? The columnist said the items had not been solicited, and therefore were hers to keep and do whatever she wanted with them.

Knowing that I cannot possibly send money to every charity that writes me, I have to selectively choose which ones to support. For every one I support, there are at least 30 more of you that send me solicitations. It seems like such a waste - you are paying for envelopes, paper, plus your little "gifts," and I am sending you nothing. I guess it is just a risk you take. Maybe you feel that people are more likely to send money when they receive a little nicety.

But this year you have gone too far. You are sending me nickels and dimes. You state, "Just send this nickel/dime back to us with your check." Now this really upsets me because it puts me in a quandary. I don't like quandaries. I like to do the right thing. I certainly don't like guilt. Yet, here I am with these nickels and dimes. I can't afford to support your charity, so I can't send a check, yet I have your nickel or dime. I don't really see the value in paying 43 cents postage to mail back your 10 cents. I certainly can't throw it away.

I'm sure you started this gem of salesmanship because your marketing guys thought it was a great idea to pour on the guilt. I'm sure they did research that says people will feel guilty enough to write a check twice as fast if they get a nickel or dime than if they get some labels. You are deliberately putting people in a quandary. I may not be able to afford to donate to your causes, but I certainly don't want to take money from you instead!

So here is my compromise. We are keeping a jar of all the nickels and dimes from you good charities that we receive. When the Salvation Army bell ringers appear, we will take the jar and drop its contents in their kettle. That way, the money still stays in the charity realm. It just changes hands.

Now, honorable charities, I would really appreciate it if you ask your marketing guys to use their collective genius and think of another way to ask for donations, because your current method is not playing fair with our consciences. Take a cue from our Good Shepherd Food Bank here in Maine. They sent me a 3 x 5 card with an envelope. No gifts, no gadgets, no guilt. In 12 precise sentences, it states the facts of their need far greater than your 2-page letters and stickers. I am sending them a check next week.

Keep up your good work, my friends. I hope you prosper. But please - nix the coins. Thanks.


Carol Tiffin James

Saturday, October 17, 2009


We have holidays to honor mothers, fathers, grandparents, bosses, secretaries, plus the usual weeks to honor various careers. (A favorite topic on MT Chat is “What did your company do for Medical Transcription Week?”) I saw a topic on the web today that asks this question: If you could create a new holiday, what person or event would it honor and how would you want people to celebrate it?

I didn’t even have to think about it. I would create a “Tell the Boss Day.” Let me explain. I read a letter in one of the national advice columns years ago that said something like this: “If you find that someone in his/her employment capacity did an outstanding job, went above the call of duty, helped you in some special way, or represented the company in an admirable manner, complimenting that employee is a wonderful think to do. But go one better - TELL THE BOSS.”

Ed and I have done this many times. It’s the best feeling in the world to go “up the ladder” and tell a restaurant manager that our waitress did such a great job. Sometimes we do this in front of the employee; other times, we don’t know if the employee ever realized our intervention. People tend more to complain than to compliment, so when a customer makes a boss aware of an exemplary employee, I imagine that would brighten the boss’s day too. Everyone involved - the complimenter, the employee, and the boss - can benefit from a major attitude shift toward the positive. Most of the time, it involves just a little effort to pass on the commendation.

At my job, I try to go the extra mile if I can, especially as our hospital’s mission is quality, timely patient care. For instance, if a patient is admitted and a recent office note has not been yet transcribed and the dictator verbalizes how helpful it would be if she had access to that note, I will find the note and transcribe it if possible, then send an e-mail to the dictator that it was ready to view. I will most of the time get a gracious thank-you. On other occasions, I have sent e-mails to doctors asking for clarification on a misspeak in their dictation - and they write back that they are so thankful that I was paying attention enough to catch the error in question. Those are very satisfying moments for me, of course. Any MT will tell you that a compliment from a practitioner is always well received. However - if that practitioner had actually contacted my boss to relay the “job well done” message, that would have been even more exciting!

(Oh, and by the way, this works with parents, too. There is nothing in the world like having a stranger, friend, teacher, or whoever, come up to you, stating, "Your child has such nice manners!" or other such compliments.)

So since my suggestion for such a national holiday is unlikely to be granted anytime in the near future, I propose that we all take advantage of our opportunity to make every day Tell the Boss Day. Pass it on!

Monday, October 12, 2009


I’ve been listening to two new Christmas harp CDs I bought last week. The performances are incredible! I can picture in my mind those professional, talented fingers just gliding over the keys, seemingly effortlessly. They put my poor attempts at harp-playing to shame.

I used to wonder why I even try to play the harp. If I want to hear harp music, all I have to do is pop in a CD and hear professionals execute exemplary form, perfect rhythm, and flawless technique. I’m also an adequate pianist, but why spend time playing on my old digital keyboard, when I can download from iTunes the great Van Cliburn playing a Steinway?

After questioning myself, I cannot deny that the above statements are logical and practical. But beyond logic and practicality, there is something else going on here. It’s the ability to create. To lean the harp against my body and pluck one string after another and hear them vibrate their beautiful sounds - there’s nothing like it. To sit down at the piano and be able to play “Moonlight Sonata” or “As Time Goes By” as I touch the keys and give my expression to the pieces - wow! Oh, certainly, I wish I knew more of what I was doing. I wish that on piano and harp I used the correct fingering, hit all the notes I should, and could create a seamless performance. But perfection is not the goal here. It is creation.

Ed and I recently watched a show on PBS about crafts in America. The show highlighted the apprentices and masters still in this country who try to create objects of beauty, from jewelry to pottery. The section that impressed me most was the part featuring people who make violins. I never thought about where violins came from or who made them - at least the non-mass-produced kind - but the whole process looks intriguing, starting with a cutout of a violin-shaped piece of wood and taking it from there. I could see the pride in their work, their joy at creating something so beautiful. Each violin is its own unique self.

And so are my performances. Every piece I play is different - it has its own beauty and imperfections. But it’s mine - I own it - I create it from the depth of my soul. I take an inanimate, silent instrument and bring it to life. I take various fabrics and sew them into a one-of-a-kind quilt. I take flour and water and salt and a couple of other ingredients and bake a loaf of bread that didn’t exist yesterday.

God has many nuances, but one of those is the Creator. Ed always said that when we make something in this world, we are co-creators with God. We see the joy of bringing something to life with our stamp on it. It doesn’t matter who wrote the music, built the harp or piano, wove the fabric, or grew the wheat - the bringing it all together is the thing that brings me incredible satisfaction.

An old “rule” for quilters is that you leave one error in your finished quilt - to remind you that only God is perfect. In other words, give up trying to make the perfect quilt or play the perfect song. The satisfaction is from the creating, not the perfection. Those harp CDs are lovely, but actually sitting down to a harp and plucking it - that’s the real joy!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Birthday Reflections

There are two times every year when I reflect on my life, values, goals, weaknesses, desires, and priorities. One is, of course, on December 31. The other is September 27, my birthday. Hence, the following list of things I have learned in the last 12 months:

1. I don’t want to play for any more weddings. Most weddings are lovely, but the hassle of accompanying them on piano or organ is just no longer worth the trouble. I receive much more pleasure being just a guest and enjoying the festivities, rather than waiting for cues from the minister, wondering if the piano is in tune and if I have good lighting, trying to lengthen or shorten pieces according to the wedding party movements, and other distractions. I might consider singing for weddings in the future, as that is not so time-consuming, but I think I will retire my accompanist availability.

2. Speaking of singing, I have learned this year that I had no idea how important it was to me. I started singing at an early age, and my father, a choir director, roped me into singing in the choir at age 12, and I’ve been singing ever since. I’ve sung in churches, schools, nursing homes, and countless other places. I’ve sung with the choruses of two operas. I’ve sung as the mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors. I’ve sung in church dinner theaters. I’ve sung solos, duets, trios, quartets, in small choirs of 6 and larger choruses of more than 200. I’ve sung at weddings (including my sister’s) and funerals (including my father’s). I’ve sung in French and Italian. I’ve sung torch songs sitting on a piano in a sequined purple evening gown (see picture above, courtesy of the best photographer Memphis ever had, Earl Major), and I’ve sung stirring Mozart and Handel arias on Easter Sunday. I’ve always taken singing for granted...that is, until I had my thyroid surgery in August. I panicked when I tried my first note after the surgery, and even though the surgeon assured me that my voice would come back as the swelling went down and my tissues healed, I wondered what I would do if it didn’t. I can’t imagine a life without singing. As I gradually get my singing voice back, I think I will never take it for granted again.

3. I’ve learned if you have specialized shoes for playing the organ, and you don’t use them for over a decade and store them in a plastic bag which at times has sat in a storage unit between moves between houses, they will mildew and you have to throw them out.

4. I’ve learned that my electronic piano that I’ve had for 20 years sounds a lot worse than I thought it did, thanks to a week of playing my sister’s perfect, shiny baby grand piano. The comparison is simply incredible.

5. I’ve learned that instead of printing out family photos at Walgreen’s here in Maine, sticking them in an envelope and taking them to the post office to be mailed to my mother in Collierville, Tennessee, I can upload them to Walgreen’s online, pay for them, and request that they be printed out at the Walgreen’s store in Collierville, where my sister will kindly pick them up for her!

6. I’ve learned never to trust a corporation, specifically a credit-card company, because they will stick it to you no matter how good and reliable a customer you are.

7. I’ve learned that my sister Joy has more generosity, patience, and strength - and our mother has more resilience and determination - than I ever thought possible. For Joy to take our mother (and her dog) into her home after Mom’s wreck and surgery demonstrates a love that knows no bounds. Joy had to turn her dining room into a hospital room, put up with potty chairs and wheelchairs and sleepless nights and everything else to take care of Mother. For our mom to come through the trauma of an MVA at 85 years old, hip and ankle surgery, constant pain, immobility, and having to leave her own home and her independence behind - without giving up and staying in bed the rest of her life - awes me. She was determined to get out of that wheelchair and walk again, and now even does light household chores. What remarkable role models my family has in these two strong women!

8. I’ve learned that having grandchildren is fantastic, but having a granddog is kind of fun, too!

9. I’ve learned that remembering my age is much easier when I’m 55 than when I was 54. Those increments of 5 really help.

10. I’ve learned in reading a book about the beginnings of American exploration that Hernando Desoto joins many of his fellow conquerors/explorers in having carrying out horrible atrocities and now I wonder why they honored him with the Hernando Desoto bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis. We have peculiar heroes.

10. Finally, I was astonished that America in my lifetime would elect a man of color as President of the United States.

So this is what I have learned over the past 12 months. Life is certainly full of learning experiences, and I'm sure there will be many more to come!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yes, I love those "party's"

I know I'm considered part of the infamous "grammar police." And I know that not everyone is so picky about punctuation and spelling. But really - I saw a web site for a Halloween costume for adolescent/young teenage girls for a skimpy Dorothy (WOZ) costume that floored me. The costume, trashy though it may be, is not what startled me. It was the "comments" section.

Now I realize the web is considered an informal setting, and I do know that that site is not a professional one, but, oh my! I can't imagine that this is the way our kids are taught to write!

Its a great costume and really sexy. it makes me, a little chubby (not fat, just not skinny, normal basicly) look tottaly skinny its easy to move around in, and is just awesome. i love mine [...]i am siked for halloween cause i will look amazing! NEED TO GET THE RIGHT SIZE. Dont get it to small or to big. too small and you can't breath, to big and it jsut looks gross, i got mine a bit small but it looks amazing still/ i deffinetly recomend it.

I love this product! Dorothy has always been my favorite storybook character, and now i get to be her myself! i used this at a Halloween party, and the boys were checking me out! also its real comfy! the one problem- i have medium sized thighs and a big rear so the white made my thighs look a little big and the skirt emphasized my behind, which would have been fine except the fact that the teachers were there! oh well! no one else seemed to notice! but be warned... even if you're self conscious in this outfit, it still looks hott!

The Dorothy Costume is so cute and you get alot of people telling you how cute it is. But wear shorts if your a tall person!

I cant wait to wear it to all my Halloween party's!!

Please - PLEASE - someone tell me this is not the norm! It just makes me sick to my stomach. Have grammar, spelling, and punctuation gone out of style now? Are they still being taught in schools? Am I just an old fuddy-duddy? (Don't answer that last question to someone who just celebrated her 55th birthday!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Two approaches

It’s been a little over a year since we got high-speed internet, and I still do not take it for granted. Every time I’m shopping on a web site, for instance, I hit the “see all” button and all the products pop up on the screen. I couldn’t do that with dial-up, which let me see a few objects at a time. When I pay a bill online, I appreciate my fast internet connection. When my daughter sends me pictures of the grandkids, I can receive them all without a problem. I am so thankful!

Of course, “being thankful” and “taking for granted” are mutually exclusive. If you have one, it’s pretty unlikely you have the other.

What other things have I not taken for granted since we moved out of the giant house in town into the small house in the country? The sound of birds, the ability to walk around without much traffic, our new soft mattress, having our first couch in a decade, the peace and quiet. Every day, I thank God I still have a wonderful job that I enjoy.

Ever analyzing the past, I realize that I took so much for granted in the old house. The big closet, the garage in the winter, the huge exercise room, my sewing room, extra rooms for guests, a 4-block walk to work, and the ability to step outside our front door and get the mail (we now go 1/2 a mile). It is true that we don’t realize what we have until it’s gone.

Going further back in my life, it was easy to take people for granted. I took it for granted I would have my sweet cousin Mike and my best friend Bernie for a longer time than they were allotted in years. I loved my Dad so much and was devastated when he died at age 64 (when I was 26). I didn’t take him for granted per se, thank God, but I took it for granted that he would always be here.

I took my body for granted in my younger years, its ability to physically do pretty much whatever I asked without pain. An ache in my right knee and a left ankle/heel with plantar fasciitis and who knows what else changed all that.

Part of the Journey to Simplicity is to encourage the “thankful for” and discourage the “for granted” feelings. At first, I was overcome with sadness and regret when I thought about the people and things I have had in my life whose presence I took for granted. But then I became just more determined to learn from that - and to appreciate everyone and everything I have now. I do not want to look back in years to come and regret a “take-for-granted” approach to my world that I might have had in 2009. I know some lessons we have to keep learning over and over, but I certainly hope this one sticks. It is a painful lesson, but I truly believe that mastering it is one step closer to a fulfilled life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sew Amazed!

I used to sew most of my own clothes. I started sewing in high school in Home Ec classes (do they even have them anymore?). Mom sewed simple dresses for my sister and me until we were old enough to sew ourselves. In 1989, the quilting bug hit and I tapered off fashion sewing and branched out into quilting. For many years, my former sewing machines, and later my present machine, mostly sat unused except for straight stitching for piecing quilts, an occasional embroidery for my uncle's handkerchiefs, and zig-zag for applique. Nothing difficult and nothing really creative - usually just simple straight stitching.

Now my quilting friend Sally has returned to sewing clothes again, and apparently having a wonderful time doing it. Her infectious enthusiasm, my ongoing disappointment with store-bought clothes quality, the lack of clothing choices in Maine, the frustration with ordering clothes on-line and their not fitting when I receive them (and the continual difficulty of successfully fitting my body) led me to think about getting back into sewing clothes myself. Yeah, it would be kind of fun to get back in the swing of things! Once I decided to do so, I knew I had to renew a working relationship with my sewing machine.

My machine is a New Home/Janome Memory Craft 8000. I can't remember the year I bought it (it was well before we moved to Maine) but I do remember it was expensive and close to top of the line at the time.

I've been taking the manual to work every day and studying it at lunch. I am flabbergasted! I had forgotten (or never known) that my machine can do so many things, so many stitches using so many feet. (For you non-seamstresses, the pressure foot holds the fabric down and different ones serve different functions.) My machine came with an assortment of feet, and through the years I bought more, yet I have hardly used most of them! I know nothing about most of them! I can't believe I have to learn all the wonderful things my machine can do - things I've never utilized for whatever reason. I have had the power all along to make anything in my imagination with this machine sitting here right in front of me. It's as if I had used an iPhone just to make telephone calls!

I think at some point in our lives we're all like my sewing machine. We can do so much more than we think, certainly more than we attempt. Our various talents and gifts (yes, everyone has them!) are lying dormant, just waiting to be called upon. Our accumulated wisdom is waiting to be put to use. Our life stories are waiting to be told to teach another generation. Our creativity is asleep. Opportunities for personal growth are wasted. We are either sitting in the corner unplugged, or are used minimally with neither artistry or challenge to enrich our lives and the lives of others.

I think that when I start up my machine and use all its features, I'll be reawakening something within myself also. Whether it's learning to fly on a plane, transcribing a very grueling dictation, passing my certification test, or mastering a difficult piece of music, I always appreciate another opportunity to smile and say to myself, "Wow! I actually did that!" Or, using Matt's favorite quote from the movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town: "I'm not such a loser after all!"

Friday, September 04, 2009

Chances and Choices

I’ll be turning 55 this month, and, as is common with me in the past few years, it’s time again to get introspective. I have been thinking about all my life, how my life has been intertwined with the lives of others, how my life’s progress has been determined by the choices I have made along the way, as well as chance circumstances that changed my course. Everyone talks about nature and nurture, and along those same lines I’d like to talk about chances and choices.

Of course, the odds of my being here at all were low. My parents had been married for 12 years and had given up (at least relatives had) on ever conceiving. Then, like a miracle, Mom became pregnant with me, and two years later, my sister was born. I was influenced by our neighborhood, our family church, and the school I attended. I was influenced by my dad’s interest in music and my mom’s ability to sew. Our annual family vacation trips instilled in me a love for history. All these experiences were basically out of my control; these were the circumstances that Life handed me in the beginning.

I made a choice one year to be a Candy Striper at Methodist Hospital. How little I realized that that decision would set my life on another course and spur my lifelong interest in the medical field - a choice that charted another course for my life. (When I went to work after I got married, I applied for an entry-level job with that hospital, and from that day on, I never had a job that was not in a hospital.)

I tried to go to college because it was what every “smart” kid was supposed to do, and it was something my parents wanted for me that they had never had. I only lasted one year at Lambuth College, and I just decided that college was not where I wanted to be.

Meanwhile, Ed James had been married for a short time, divorced, served in Vietnam, worked on his family’s farm, and had been in and out of Lambuth College so many times it seemed ridiculous. That one year I was there was one of the times Ed was there, too. The odds of our getting together were low. His family was wealthy; mine were not. He and his family were drinkers; we were teetotalers. He and his family smoked; we did not. He was not drawn to music or French or anything else I was interested in. He was crude, unorganized, and undependable. I already had a boyfriend back in Memphis. Yet --- Ed and I met and fell in love during that one year. If I had been there the year before, we would not have met. If I had been there the year after, we would not have met. That one year was the pivotal time.

Of course, the most intriguing choice in my life was our decision to move from Tennessee to Maine in 1996. We told Rachel, age 18 when we moved, that she would be going to the University of Maine, and Matt, who was 13 when we moved, was given no choice in the matter either. What has become of that move? Rachel went into teaching, fell in love with Matt’s 7th grade science teacher, and got married. Several years later, Matt fell in love with another University of Maine student and got married. Their spouses were native Mainers who had never been to Tennessee, had no reason to visit Tennessee, and undoubtedly never would have met our kids, had we stayed in Tennessee. Rachel at the time was not happy at all about the move to Maine, understandably. She had friends and a boyfriend and was not anxious to uproot her life for the unknown. “What if it’s destiny, and your future husband is waiting for you in Maine?” I asked her. She said, “It would be my luck that his mom in Maine is telling him that his future wife is in Tennessee and we’ll just pass each other on the interstate.”

Now we have 2 granddaughters born of our daughter’s marriage, who never would have existed had we stayed in Tennessee. Our choice to move has forever changed the lives of our children.

Our choice to move to Ellsworth put us right in the perfect location for our daughter to meet her husband (who taught in the Ellsworth school system, where she was student teaching). It also put me 4 blocks from the local hospital which just happened to have an opening for a medical transcriptionist the first month we were here. I had finally found my calling - the job that would use all my gifts and bring me so much satisfaction - 13 years and counting.

These are just the major life choices/chances. My life has also been enhanced by seemingly insignificant interactions that have changed me a great deal - the young lady in the church choir who got me interested in quilting, the older lady in our rural church in Tennessee who taught me all about sourdough starter, the man playing a Celtic harp in a local store at Christmas one year who got me wanting to learn harp, and other people who were just minimally involved in my life but who played a major role because they helped enlarge the scope and passions of my life.

Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if choices and chances like these had been different? I can see the threads in my life branching off just like a family tree, with each instance/choice/chance encounter giving off its own thread in a new direction, each path in life arising from the one before it - all make up the person I am today - my likes and dislikes, my achievements and failures, my joys and my regrets, my politics, my faith, my hobbies, my memories from the past and my hopes and dreams for the future.

I’m so glad things turned out the way they did. I must not rest in contentment, though. Sometimes when you get settled in life, you think the tree has stopped branching. You build your nest and think things will always be the same. Not so. The tree keeps growing, the threads keep intertwining, and life continually surprises. The choices we made years ago are still coming to fruition, and the chance encounter we have tomorrow may just change our lives in ways we never could have imagined.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A decade of living

Our 35th wedding anniversary was yesterday, and for a splurge, we bought ourselves a 10-year journal. The whole idea intrigued me - here in front of me, pages ready for information, is a book that will detail the next 10 years of our life together.

Each page has one date, for example, January 1, and four lines for 2009, four lines for 2010, all the way up through 2019. The next page has the same layout for January 2, and so on. Of course,we’ll be starting 2009 in the middle of the year, but that’s OK. I’m planning on recording the highlights of each day; Ed wants to record the temperatures and weather conditions. It will be fun to take one date, say, August 24, and see what we did on that date through all ten years.

The journal also has a section with blank undated but numbered pages for extra room if the requisite four lines are not enough to record a special day. Each dated page has a little blank where we can write the page number to turn to for the “overflow.”

Also the journal has a special section for our medical and car upkeep. There is a page for each year, 40 or so lines, one column for medical, one column for our car. We can write down our doctor appointments, lab tests, etc., in the first column, and car repairs, registration records, etc., in the second column.

My dad was a big record-keeper. He could show you the record of a utility bill that was decades old. He could tell you what he spent on a family vacation 20 years before. I really like the idea of being able to look back on things like that.

As I opened the new journal yesterday and discovered what it had to offer, my mind just took off. Ten years! In ten years, this book will be filled with all our activities, our joys and sorrows, births and deaths, quilts/clothes I’ve made, trips, weather, books we’ve read - you name it. The future is a mystery, for sure, but this we can assume: In ten years, Caroline will be learning to drive, and Charlotte will turn into a teenager! I will be able, should I take that option, to apply for Social Security! Rachel will be in her 40s, and Matt in his late 30s, Ed in his (gulp) 70s! What will our house look like? Will we have painted inside by then? Will we finally have grass? Will we have given up and purchased a snow blower? Will I have finished Matt and Sarah’s quilt? Will we have a new grandchild in the family? What will technology look like - the technology that changes almost every day? What inventions will be the norm that we’ve never dreamed of? Will there still be newspapers? Who will be president of the USA? Will we still be in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many digital pictures will I have on my computer (since I have over 20,000 today)? Will there even be digital pictures, or will some other technology for photographs appear? How will our health be? How much will gasoline cost? Will researchers have made great strides in curing cancer and other diseases? Will I still be blogging?

Of course, after all these questions went through my head, I realized that I was sounding like soap opera teasers: "Will Debbie marry Bill? Will Amanda find her son she abandoned years ago? Will Stanley recover his vision? Will Ramona awake from her coma?"

Well, we have plenty of time to find out where our personal soap opera goes, and we will diligently write it down as the future unfolds. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I had the pleasure this weekend of visiting with my grandkids other grandma, Alice. We were talking about yard sales, and the subject came around to Beanie Babies (which she had gotten at a yard sale for the girls and brought with her). Alice said that she knew a woman who “back then” thought Beanie Babies would be a good investment, only to increase in value. At least that’s what people told her. At any rate, she now has a Beanie Baby worth practically nothing, for which she originally paid $700.

You hear the word “investment” tossed around frequently in a troubled economy. Everyone wonders what to invest in. Stocks? Real estate? CDs? Oil? The choices are many.

Investment has three major definitions. The first: “The action or process of investing money for profit or material result.” The second: “A thing that is worth buying because it may be profitable or useful in the future.” Both of those, of course, deal primarily with money. I like the third definition: “An act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.”

I think a lot of life’s results are the results of what we deem worthy of investment. Most of the time, we don’t really see it as investment. We associate the word investment with money so much that we forget the third definition - time, effort, or energy. Money, of course, can also be used in the third definition - you can invest money in causes, such as the environment, that you likely won’t see immediate benefit but which you feel will “pay off” in the future.

At work, for example, I’m trying to teach other MTs that taking the time (unpaid time, off the clock) to learn our word expander inside and out, to build glossaries, to find shortcuts, is an investment in time that will eventually make them more productive after a while. Of course, during the time they’re doing the “investing,” it seems to be a waste. The payoff comes later - but it will come.

Then we stretch the definition of payoff to involve others. I’ve told this story before, but there once was an elderly man who was planting an apple tree. A young boy came by, watched for a while, then said, “You know, old man, you’re never going to live to eat one single apple of that tree.” The old man replied, “I know, but others will.”

The best investments, it seems to me, result in a payoff not for ourselves, but for other people, whether it involves money, time, effort, or energy. We had a local man die last year who bequeathed an investment of a million dollars to our new emergency room. He will obviously never reap the benefits, but he did it anyway. Ed invested in the future of the ministry when he paid a year’s tuition anonymously for a deserving fellow student at the seminary where he was attending. We invest in future generations when we recycle and look for alternative forms of energy. We invest in the future when we spend time with our children and make memories with them, when we take action to help families become functional again, when we write a poem or piece of music to be enjoyed in years to come. We could never have heard the great composers if they hadn’t invested time in writing and editing their symphonies, or the great singers such as Beverly Sills, if they hadn’t invested time in learning and practicing.

Our society is so addicted to the instant gratification that we forget some investments take a long time to “pay off.” Long-term benefits versus short-term pleasures. It can be a hard lesson. Sometimes in the Journey to Simplicity, we don’t see the results of your choices until they become cumulative. Then we can finally see some results - but it can take years of wading through difficult choices.

My hope for the world is that we are choosing our investments wisely, and that we have the patience and wisdom to understand exactly what we are investing and why.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Scenario

Here’s a shocking story: Last week, a group of people wearing masks strapped a woman down on a table, knocked her out, and with a sharp knife they slit her neck!

The group of people, of course, consisted of a surgeon, anesthetist, and various nurses. The woman was me, and the “slit in the neck” was a thyroidectomy.

I once wondered what aliens would think if they came to Earth and saw the scene described above. Would they get the idea that I was being harmed, with all those people bending over me with knives? I thought that was kind of ironic - someone from another planet might have tried to rescue me, when in reality, the people were helping me, not hurting me. The aliens just wouldn’t have had the whole picture, and would have jumped to the wrong conclusion.

I frequently think of that Bible verse, “now we see through a glass darkly.” This is why we really can’t judge others, because we can’t ever have the whole picture of someone’s life. We don’t know what their upbringing was, if they were lucky enough to have a strong family unit, as we may have had. We don’t know the obstacles they had to overcome, the peer pressures they encountered, the abuse they suffered, the hopelessness with which they were burdened. We don’t know if they had lousy teachers or a learning disability. We don’t know if they are genetically predisposed to addiction. We don’t know, and even if we think we know people well, we cannot know them well enough to be able to pass judgment. Our focus is too small, our fund of knowledge is too limited.

Every time I transcribe a report of a pregnant woman taking illegal drugs or a patient with severe lung disease who still insists on smoking, my tendency is to shake my head at their choices. I must try to remember that I don’t have the whole picture. I’ve been very blessed in my life, and many, many others have had struggle after struggle, for whatever reasons not known to me. Empathy, yes. Judgment? I’ll think I’ll pass.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Hanging on...

In the days when I used to cross-stitch on a regular basis, I cross-stitched this pattern of a raccoon. We hung it in the parsonage where we could see it every day. One day, Ed mentioned to me how lazy he thought the raccoon looked, laid back, just lying around on the tree branch, without a care in the world. I was astonished, actually, because I had always thought the poor raccoon was hanging on for dear life, stressed to the max, trying not to fall to a certain and painful death!

Besides our different takes on life (Ed is more tranquil, I’m more type A), this conversation really impressed upon me that handling anxiety is one of my weaknesses. When we went to AA decades ago, their mantra of “Let Go and Let God” irked me. Let go? Are you nuts? Do you know how much of a fall that would be if I let go of this branch to which I’m clinging with all my might? No, thanks!

As a child, I had few worries, just the usual anxiety about going to the doctor or dentist, getting a shot, that sort of thing. Later in school I was anxious about making good grades, pleasing my teachers, fitting in, etc. After I got married, I worried about money among other things, and when Ed was drinking, I had stresses coming and going.

When I had kids, of course, the anxiety increased exponentially at an alarming rate. (I can guarantee that when you have kids, you have just presented yourself with a lifetime of anxiety.) Now I had two more human beings to worry about - accidents, psychological health, physical health, whether they had enough friends, whether they were eating right, even kidnapping by strangers. Then when they started school, I was experiencing the same anxieties for them that I had put upon myself at their ages. And on and on...

Until, yes, they learned to drive. Major, major parent stressor. Not only did I worry about the possibility of wrecks, I had to worry about where they were, with whom, what they were doing. Later on, it was worrying about college tuition on top of all the other stuff. Next, came marriage. I thankfully never worried about the mates they chose, as I think both my son-in-law and daughter-in-law are super people. But there is always financial anxiety - are they doing OK? Are they making good decisions? Are they surviving the normal pitfalls and stresses of married life?

Then Rachel had kids, and Matt may be following in a year or two...

That’s right. The stress and anxiety is never-ending. I’ve heard people say, “I know I need to make a change, but now is not the time. There’s too much on my plate.” Well, even if one’s schedule deflates somewhat, there will always be stress because so much of it is self-inflicted - and in our heads, where we don’t always notice it - that overpowering, paralyzing worry. It is possible to not have anything appointments or to-do lists penciled in on the calendar, and still spend the day stressed because of what it going on in one’s brain. The need for relaxation and replenishment is not just limited to the physical realm.

I also heard once that 99% of the things we worry about never come to pass. Now if you can keep me from worrying about that 1%, that would be great. Thanks.

I think “letting go,” - of past mistakes, future worries, and present problems; of greed, thoughts of revenge, malice; of the need for excessive material things, popularity, acclaim; of all the “what ifs” - is one of the hardest things in life to do. It’s scary, it’s accepting vulnerability, it’s fear of the unknown. I also think a lot of these worries boil down to this: Am I strong enough/are my parents strong enough/is my husband strong enough/are my kids strong enough to handle life’s challenges? Again, my favorite prayer: To change the things I can, accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. Just a few words that pack a major punch.

I still have the raccoon picture, but these days I try to interpret his quality of life a little differently. I try to use him not as a symbol of hanging on for dear life, but as a reminder that life is indeed dear - and having faith that I will grow in wisdom and patience and courage and all the other attributes that make up my response to life, which will allow me to react to circumstances and change in a healthy way. "Letting go" is that first step on the Journey to Simplicity and Contentment, and, like so many other decisions, is a choice that has to be renewed on a daily basis.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

And the Beat Goes On

I’m sure it was collective deja vu for most of us when the Michael Jackson death media coverage started. News stations were in a conundrum concerning which picture of Michael Jackson they should use for a graphic. Young Michael? Older Michael? Dark skin? Fair skin? Afro or silky straight hair? Before, during, or after plastic surgery? It reminded me so much of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Elvis Presley postage stamp. I think they even took a poll - would we rather see young, fit, dashing Elvis in jeans, or old, fat, Las Vegas Elvis in a rhinestone jumpsuit?

Which picture was the real Michael Jackson? Which picture was the real Elvis? Neither - and both.

There is not really a way to get a complete snapshot in time of anybody. In the instant it takes to press the camera button, our bodies are busy transforming - old cells dying, new cells regenerating, catabolism, digestion, repair. Each second the arteries get older and probably more sclerotic. Hair is falling out. Hair is growing. Cells are aging. Things like blood pressure, temperature, pulse, electrolytes, and hormones are constantly fluctuating from one second to the next to try to maintain homeostasis. It’s like the old joke: What time is it? 2 seconds past 3:15... no - 3 - 4 seconds...make that 5 seconds... As soon as we try to freeze time, another second has passed and things are different. And today was tomorrow yesterday, and tomorrow will be today the next time we wake up in the morning. Past, present, and future are all blending in together roaring down in a waterfall and we can’t even tell them apart.

Our brain is involved, too, for every experience we have changes us in some way. While I was in Memphis last week, I couldn’t turn off an alarm in my niece’s bedroom where we were sleeping, so I just unplugged the clock (which was plugged into an electrical strip on the floor). As I was rising up, my upper arm hit the corner of her dresser top covered with a glass protector - and immediate pain was the result. I knew I would sport a lovely bruise by the next day (I did) which would last for several days (it is), and I remember thinking to myself, what did I expect, I’m such a klutz, why can’t I watch what I’m doing, etc. I changed that fast through that experience - One minute, I had no bruise, the next second, I had an injury and beginning bruise, and the next second, I was reminded yet again of how clumsy I am and how prone I am to injury. I realized before this that I was a klutz, but every time I demonstrate that fact, my brain sort of underlines it. Again and again. In a split second, I changed my physical, mental, and emotional landscape.

I got to walk down Memory Lane on this trip to Memphis - but Memory Lane has been primarily demolished and rebuilt. It’s true you can never “go home.” Old is replaced by new. Oh yeah, the Luau Restaurant used to be there. How long has it been gone? Let’s see, over 30 years, because our 35th wedding anniversary is next month, and eating at the Luau was one of the “to do” things on our honeymoon list and they closed it before we got around to it (that’s why we say we are on a perpetual honeymoon - we never finished the to-do list).

It’s not just buildings, of course. The people have changed. My mom is older and more feeble than when I saw her last. So are my aunt and uncle. My cousins and I stood around at a visit in my sister’s home last week, and no matter what came up in conversation, it was usually followed shortly by one of us exclaiming how old our parents - and we ourselves - had become. Where did the time go?

I look at pictures of myself through the years. Which is the real me? None of them - and all of them. One of the harder parts of aging is the realization - and acceptance - that we will never look that young or fit again. It’s easy to see that we have changed physically. But also emotionally, spiritually, mentally - and those things cannot be illustrated in a photograph. I think it’s true what they say - that, although the fat and wrinkles and gray hair, dimming eyesight and hearing, teeth problems, memory loss... wait, this is depressing... What I mean is that although the signs of aging are attributes we fight and curse, the wisdom gained in that exact same timeframe makes it all worthwhile. Even with some forgetfulness and “body adjustment problems” (klutzopathy), I feel a mental, spiritual, and emotional clarity at 54 that I never felt years ago. I feel by this time I have gained some insight into my priorities and the importance of forgiveness, patience, kindness, generosity in my life. Every encounter I have had so far in this life journey - whether it’s singing in an opera or listening to the cashier at the grocery store - has given its unique print on my life. The hurt I have given people has changed me, and the hurt others have given me has also changed me. Incredibly moving events have changed me. Things I hear on the news have changed me. Births, deaths, weddings, and divorces of friends and family have changed me. Old photographs document just a small portion of those changes. I may say that I’m not that 19-year-old in the wedding dress anymore, but I’m also not the 54-year-old smiling in the photograph with Mother and sister Joy this past Sunday, either; indeed, one second after that picture was taken, I had changed again.

So if you want to ever put me on a stamp, I don’t care which picture you use. It will be only a facsimile of the real me. (Thank goodness!)

Friday, July 17, 2009


One of the worst human emotions is the feeling of helplessness, being out of control of your own experience and destiny. The global economy and current financial crisis is doing its share of exacerbating this. As a medical transcriptionist, I’m seeing more and more patients come in with depression concerning this frightening state of affairs.

Of course, I generally am an optimist by nature. Sometimes I have to work at it though, like overcoming my panicked anxiety about flying. Then I have to rise above my basic fears and start thinking logically. I am so happy I was able to do that last year.

There are self-help books everywhere telling us to seize our unlimited power to be able to control our own lives. A cursory search of yields titles such as Take Charge of Your Life Before It Takes Charge of You; Take Charge of Your Mind; Take Charge of Your Money Now!; Take Charge of Your Thoughts; Take Charge of Your Health....and on and on. It is true we have the power - more power than we ever dreamed. Scientists are still discovering all the capabilities of our brains and bodies have to do incredible things. We should take control of our lives, our health, our money, our environment, and whatever else we can assume responsibility of.

I think sometimes, though, we get so caught up in the quest for control over our lives that we forget there are some things beyond our control. That’s reality. As my favorite prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to change the things I can, accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’m a great planner and organizer (not such a great carrier-outer, though!) and I like to keep control. I want to control my health, my time, how many lines I transcribe a day, etc. Sometimes I need a reminder to just let go of the rope and drop the tug-of-war game.

Flying does this for me. The only way I learned to fly without a panic attack was when I accepted the idea that, while I’m up there, I have absolutely no control. It’s that simple. When that sinks into my brain, I stop fidgeting, stop incessantly worrying, and find that calm center in myself that I didn’t know I could have when I’m 30,000 feet up going 500 miles an hour.

I’m flying today again, so I just had to write about this to remind myself. Control is good, but life’s reality is that we can’t control everything. That’s where acceptance comes in. So I take a deep breath and here I go...Memphis-bound!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Just call me Grammy

Tomorrow night is a special night for me: 6-year-old Caroline is coming to spend the night with us for the first time. Oh, she and her parents lived with us for a short time years ago when their house was being built, but she was just a toddler then, and her parents were there, too. Now it will just be Ed, me, and Caroline for a whole night.

When I first became a grandmother, I realized that I had never really had a grandmother role model. My paternal grandmother was a diabetic, half-blind old lady who lived in the room at the back of our house. She used to come out for birthday celebrations when my sister and I were little, but then she “took to her room” for the rest of her life, keeping her room dark, and all the interaction I had when we got older was catching glimpses of her down the hall, usually of Daddy trying to get her to take her medicine.

My maternal grandmother was anorexic, although they didn’t know about eating disorders back then, and she was hospitalized for most of my growing-up years. We traveled the 2-hour drive to see her every other weekend, take her out to lunch, etc. I remember that she loved to brush my waist-length hair, but a lot of the time she was confused or anxious. I don’t remember when she was younger and emotionally/mentally healthy.

When I became a mother, I finally got to see a grandmother in action, as I watched my own mother build a relationship with my kids. That was a fulfilling thing to see, but it’s not the same as being a child and forming your own idea of what a grandmother should be, how she should look, what she should do, how she should act - from a child’s point of view.

So through the last 6 years, I have had to figure out my own role as grandmother, and that includes learning to share the grandmother role with the other grandmother, who is a couple of decades older than I am. “Nana” has been a wonderful grandma for the kids, and we never try to compete, but instead use our unique talents and gifts to shape our own relationships with the girls.

Sometimes I wonder what Caroline and Charlotte (and any future grandkids from son Matt and his wife, Sarah) will remember about me. One day, they may write down their memories as I do. Maybe they will recall my playing the harp, or my making them Halloween costumes, or my love of Lincoln. Or, it may be just everyday things - things I can’t plan and can’t control, but things that will end up having sentimental meaning for them. Sometimes you can’t make memories; sometimes you just provide the environment and let them happen.

So, although we will take Caroline out to eat tomorrow night, and although I have a new book I’d like us to read together, this visit will be mainly unplanned and spontaneous. As a grandmother-in-training, I will pour out the love, hugs, and kisses, then sit back and let Caroline take the lead. I can only plant the seeds, and I’m sure I will be fascinated to see what comes up!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Room Upstairs

My two precious grandchildren were visiting Saturday, and if you want a taste of the simple life, just sit and observe a 6-year-old and 3-year-old. For some reason, ours have a fascination with our attic.

We have one of those attics that I grew up with (except it’s completely floored), with the retractable stairs in the hall ceiling. Charlotte, the little one, has always been willing to do anything physically challenging, so she has always climbed right up and climbed back down without a hitch. Caroline, the older one, could read at an insanely early age but has always been wary of the physical realm, so it took her a couple of years to get comfortable with climbing up and down.

At any rate, now they are two attic fans (no pun intended!) and can’t understand why most of the year, they can’t climb up and stay up there for an hour or so. In the summer, it’s too hot, and in the winter, it’s too cold. They had luck this week, though, because Maine has been experiencing unseasonably cool and rainy weather, and the temperature was perfect for some attic visiting. One by one they climbed up. Before long, they decided to make their own “room.” This entailed scouring the corners of the attic in search of things they wanted in their “room.” I had to nix Charlotte’s idea of “wallpapering the walls” with rolls of my Christmas wrapping paper, but other than that, I pretty much let them have their way. They took the wrapping paper roll and put a lampshade on it to make it a lamp. They took a stool, a kid’s rocker, and a booster chair to sit on. I got tickled when half the things they found, they asked me, “Grammy, what is this?” Of course, it didn’t matter what it was intended for; they wanted it in their “room.” They had it all - shoe racks, teapots, pieces of ribbon, sewing kit, dish strainer, suitcase, miscellaneous books - quite a collection. When they finished (the only way they decided they were finished is the fact that their parents called them down to get into their pajamas and leave), I had them pose in their “room” and took a picture of their smiling, proud faces.

That’s really the essence of simplicity - you don’t waste time wishing you had more things or different things - you just work with what you’ve got. You find the valuable things in unlikely places and find creative ways to use them. I, of course, spent part of the time wondering if I should put everything back or leave everything for their next visit, and the rest of the time trying to keep them from falling down the stairs as they searched for treasures. When Caroline asked if I could keep the “room” intact for a while, I promised I’d try, and that elicited, “Grammy, you’re the best Grammy in the whole world!” and a big hug from both girls. It was then I realized that all three of us had indeed found our treasures.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lights, camera, action!

The film is grainy and sometimes jumpy, frequently with artifact of dust, etc., crossing the screen, but the picture are priceless. They are silent home movies taken of my sister and me when we were growing up. Daddy not only took movies of the family; he also took movies of people at our church. He’d finish a roll, get his movies developed, come home with small reels, set the projector on the dining room table aimed at a white wall, and we’d get to see for the first time what he took. We’d laugh or be embarrassed as the case may be, then he’d spend some time with his little splicer machine, cutting from one reel and splicing it onto its appropriate big reel. He always liked to keep family movies separate from church movies, so “I won’t bore the church with family pictures or the family with church pictures.” This means we have wonderful documentation not only of our family but of our church from about 1957 until Daddy died in 1980.

We still have the original reels, but we transferred it all to several VHS tapes, and now will gradually shift to DVDs, trying to keep the movies current and viewable.

We have separate reel-to-reel audio tapes, of course. Daddy would sit us down after every vacation trip and we went over for posterity everything we did and saw on the trip. But we have no actual video with me or my sister talking when we were young.

Today, of course, kids are recorded for posterity from before they are born - starting with ultrasound, labor, birth, and going on from there. Almost every moment of their lives is documented, especially the highlights: Birthdays, holidays, learning to walk and talk, first day of school, learning to ride a bike, acting in plays, graduations, weddings - it’s all there with sound and pictures. Of course, to these kids, such as Caroline and Charlotte, this is something they will be used to. Even now, Rachel occasionally slips in a DVD of the girls when they were toddlers and the girls have fun watching themselves. She also makes a DVD of the highlights of each girl’s year on her birthday.

I remember when the VHS camera first came out. I asked Daddy if he was going to get one, and he said he’d just leave the "new stuff" to us. We got our first VHS camera in 1990, so our kids don’t have the “new stuff” documentation of their lives until they were about 7 and 12 years old.

Now technology has changed dramatically. There are no more reel-to-reels, no more tapes. In the new world, there are digital camcorders, digital cameras (even phones that take pictures!), DVDs, Blu-ray, and whatever else comes next (Matt thinks it will not be a “thing” at all, it will all be digital downloads) to both record and view our lives. Not only can we record the movies and photographs, we can edit them with a click of a mouse and even send them to friends and family digitally immediately. How I wish we had had this technology when my sister and I were growing up - to be able to see ourselves, of course, but to also have the ability to see our parents through the years.

Life was slower then. It had to be, because everything took longer. Daddy had to find a dark room to even take his film out of the movie camera or the film would be ruined. He then had to take it to a store to get developed, then had to pick it up a week or so later, decide how he wanted to edit it, and find time to sit down in the evening with his splicer in order to get the job done. Even viewing the movies took time. Fellow baby boomers can relate to the memories, I’m sure: Getting the screen out of the closet and setting it up. Finding something sturdy to set the projector on, making sure the projector was at the optimal distance from the screen. Getting the appropriate reel, threading the projector, turning the lights in the room out. Then sitting back and watching the silent show. The only good thing about its being silent is that anybody could talk aloud during the movie, laugh, cry, whatever, and no one says “Shhh...” The required darkness of the room came in handy when our faces turned beet red with personal embarrassment. There is a Family #2 reel in which my sister's pajama pants slid down as she was running from the room when she was a very little girl. It's infamous now, of course.

The documentation from those reels is all the product of our father, who scrimped and saved on other things so he could afford the expense. I can still see the flickering light and hear the loud whirring of the projector. Daddy didn’t realize it, but he made double memories for us - once when he took the movies, and again when we viewed them. They continue to bring us pleasure. I think he would be so proud today that we still cherish them and are still trying to update them in a form for future generations to enjoy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Memories, anyone?

Good Housekeeping magazine’s July edition has an article called “The Price of Happiness.” The author, Brett Graff, says there are three ways to “get the most bliss for your buck.” The first suggestion is “Load up your memory bank.”

Of course, the article does mention that memories are not always free; for instance, a ski trip creates great memories, but you have to have skis first, and they will be expensive to purchase.

We found ourselves in this predicament this spring. We needed a new couch. We haven’t had a couch since we gave away ours to Rachel when she got married six years ago. Not only did we want a couch to cuddle on while we watch TV on the weekends, but we needed a sleeper sofa because in our little ranch we have no guest room and no extra beds. While our previous 3-story Victorian gave us enough room to open up a hotel, now we don’t even have an inflatable bed.

What does this have to do with memories? We are ready for 6-year-old Caroline to spend the night with us for the first time by herself, and the poor girl needs a place to sleep, right? Hence the couch. Trying to simplify, Ed and I thought long and hard about spending so much money on a couch. Was this a necessary expense, or were we just trying to rationalize a new purchase? We weren’t trying to replace a perfectly good old couch; we didn’t have one at all. We really were tired of spending the evening in two separate chairs, and we really wanted to make memories with Caroline. The justification outweighed the concerns, so we took the plunge.

I remember that when the kids were growing up, I was acutely aware that we were making memories. Even times I did not consciously realize I was making memories, I was still doing so. I laugh sometimes when I talk to the kids about their childhood memories, because some of the “staged” ones didn’t “take,” while instead they remember some oddball thing from the past. I’m the same way, of course. While I remember a great many experiences with my relatives, my first memory is of the person. I remember that my grandfather smelled of Listerine and chewing tobacco, that he had an infectious hearty laugh, played mean ragtime on the piano, and he always carried a cane which he would toss and catch in the air for fun. He always made sure we had a big store-bought Easter basket every year and a brand-name toy for Christmas. I remember Great Aunt Bessie, filling our little house with cigarette smoke early in the morning when she stayed with us for a week at a time, how she finally gave up smoking at an elderly age and went to hard candy instead, how she used to tell funny stories about her childhood pets, and her laugh was more of a snicker/chuckle with a half-smile but we could always tell she was really amused. She sent us homemade peanut brittle for Christmas. We knew our parents’ eccentricities that made them so lovable - Dad hated crabgrass, was always frustrated when he saw misspelled words on signs, and called bad drivers “Friend!..” because he knew otherwise he would be saying a derogatory word and he was not that kind of man. Mama accidentally killed our goldfish, let us keep a wild bird flying around the house for a while, let us use her real rubber jacks ball, hid our Easter eggs, and tucked banana peels in chair cushions and other sundry places, then forgot she had done so, and later they would show up in less-than-perfect condition at unexpected moments.

Buying things do make memories, experiences make memories, but it is the infusion of the human element that cements and seals them. Sometimes I wonder what our grandchildren will remember about us. Will they remember the “tree faces” nailed to three of our trees outside? Our attic? Babe? They will undoubtedly remember Ed’s pipe smoking and beard and almost-bald head, as well as his role as family cook. They will certainly remember me as the one who always had a camera, taught them some French, read them lots of books, and was someone who was willing to climb in their little tent in the basement and pretend there were big snakes all around us. The fact is that our whole being and interaction with kids is what makes memories. The good memories are not restricted only to holidays and birthdays; they are the everyday experiences of enjoying life with someone you love.

Our couch was delivered a couple of weeks ago - one more tool in the grandparent memory-making business!