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.