Monday, December 16, 2019

Joy to You! Make it Easier This Year.

I recently enrolled in a program you may have heard of called "Toastmasters," designed to make one a better public speaker. No, not to add one more thing to my plate, but rather to hone the skills needed to do the job I have and love better. I took last week's blog post and crafted my first official speech out of it. This was designed as a speech, so forgive the formatting. The assignment; a speech about something that you are passionate about (although, it might have said; "your interests or your hobbies," with research-backed bits to support your premises. Must site research. It is meant, not as a lecture, but as a personal reminder to just me, so to speak. 

Intro: Too many things on one’s to do list creates chaos and craziness, neither of which contribute to a happy holiday.
Strategies for making it joyous again.

1) Think like a Stoic; how could this situation go wrong?
The ancient roman philosophers known as Stoics knew that a life of fear, anger, envy and grief was a sad life. They observed the workings of the human mind and came up with techniques to prevent negative emotions and methods to rid oneself of them if they dared appear despite said techniques.
Think for just a moment: How could this situation possibly go wrong? What is the worst thing that could happen? (I can get carried away here too, so keep it to a thought or two.) Now aren’t you glad it didn’t go all that wrong? How lucky are you today, to be right here, right now? Did you car or your feet or your great-great auntie get you here today? It could have broken down, been broken or been out of town. Is the heat working? The furnace could have quit and we’d all be giving our speeches in parkas and mufflers.
How can this be applied to Kwanza, Yule, Hannukah or Christmas? I can look around and think that the tree might fall down and kill the pet birds or dog, or burn and take the house with it, there might not be snow, we might all get the flu- again- this year, someone I love with all my heart might not be there this Christmas. And then, I can be so very grateful for who is there and what we do have. According to Stoicism, this is not borrowing trouble, this is a way to cultivate gratitude. 
2) Simplify activities, choose wisely;
Choose according to what you need, not what your second cousin needs, what your neighbor thinks you need, (“hey, son, gonna’ get those lights up? It’s just about Thanksgiving already.”) but what you actually need to thrive and be cheery and bright.
What is it that you most treasure at this time of year? Is it the neatly lined up tins of 37 different kinds of cookies, candy and treats to share with everyone? Why does it have to be 37? Would one tin of cookies do? Would no cookies be a novel way to be healthier this year?
Is it writing to each of your friends in a card, which, may, incidentally, have turned into an annual marathon of family photo-in-October/order-before-Black-Friday-to-get-the-discount-while-cooking the turkey and homemade pies slash be the first to get them in the mail? Would writing a handful of meaningful notes later, for New Year’s wishes, perhaps, be just as fulfilling? Or maybe delegate someone else to create an email message of holiday cheer with photos or a poem?

Is it spending an afternoon in the woods with your children choosing just the right tree, chopping it down while your fingers freeze and getting full of pine resin as you strap it to the car, and bringing it home to roost? Would an artificial tree that can be kept year after year and simplify the holiday rush be a satisfactory substitute? No, it would not. Never mind. Bad idea.

Is it making homemade candles for the Solstice Spiral or the kinara?

Caroling around the community?

Making sure you have a hand-knit gift for everyone, for every single day of Hannukah?

Pick. Pick one or two.

I hereby propose that a thing done with joy and reverence is worth a dozen done in haste.

According to Seneca, echoing the modern-day philosophy of abundance; “We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” If you interpret this to mean that using it implies being utilitarian about each and every minute, you miss the point, and miss incorporating what makes life wonderful.

3) It can be hard to let go, why is that?

Despite the success of movements like Marie Kondo; “Hold the object in your hand. Does it spark joy? If not, thank it, and let it go, preferably straight to the recycling bin,” or the Voluntary Simplicity movement before that, we are not hard-wired to let go. The basic human instinct to hoard what we have to guard against hard times to come is over-powering.

The need, however, to be constantly doing, and doing it better and doing more, is entirely a phenomenon of our fast-paced, American society. We create our own level of stress and eventually, break-down in health; mental and physical. OSHA has declared stress a “hazard of the workplace”. According to Mayo Clinic, 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments. Stress plays a role in causing headaches, high-blood pressure, anxiety, heart problems, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, depression and eczema.

In today’s world, our most prevalent attitude is one of hustling while the hustling is good, doing more, getting ahead. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. The realization that we have enough to be happy, right now, we do, is often fleeting, followed by the inevitable what-ifs.

Luckily, our earlier and more basic aptitude for finding joy in what is, here, in front of us, is even deeper and older. We know, instinctively, what gives pleasure; a good meal, a magnificent sunrise, a welcome hug, beautiful yarn on one’s needles, and the warm glow of caring and being cared for.

The courage to do less, to say no to time commitments without deep meaning for you and make space to breathe, be and enjoy what is, comes only when one has the conviction that this is the right thing to do.

Or does it? 

Maybe a trial run of taking on less, promising less, prioritizing what truly matters, and, for a week or so, for the season, for the year; doing less, (as suggested by Kate Northrup, author of "Do Less") can bring the rewards needed to make greater change, and bring greater peace on earth and in your own heart.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Outline for a Happy Holiday; Simple

5:15 on a Saturday morning, me having a cup of tea with you and writing, is my full-blown, Olaf-style happy place. The mittens I am going to work on in a little while are in that space as well. On the first Saturday in December? With so much to do and so little time? What in the world?

Something dawned on me the other day;

Making the home one in which we all feel the love, and the space for happiness, was the real job of pre-Christmas prep. You cannot do that when you are prioritizing every single outside activity and inner obligation. The math does not work. 

Advent implies expectant waiting, it means, literally; arrival or coming, and the thing that is coming toward us in the month leading up to Christmas, can look either menacing or welcome.

I have dropped the need to make everything picture-perfect this season. I do not plan on picking that mess back up off the floor. It is a thermometer of mercury, heated to boil, breaking and now scattered, rolling under furniture, out doors and away. 

I am going for peace, because perfection is a stress-bomb in the making. Peace is up to me and the rest is not. There will be food and gifts, yes, lucky us! And there is a real tree standing, as yet, unadorned, in the middle of the sunroom smelling like pine, the manger and its inhabitants have settled onto the usual table. But as to the rest, it can take its time. I am doing what makes the season happy, and finding harmony is at the top of my list.

A number of "must-dos" have been crossed off early, and it helps. However, a much larger number of "usual should-dos" have been eliminated. It will be a busy month, but the busy will be of our choosing and not imposed by what I think I should be doing.

Last night we got out and enjoyed the Christmas walk downtown among the small, local shops. The weather was right (you know; "winter-right", hovering around 30 F), and the lights were beautiful. It was the first time I had gone in years and years, a pity. The Christmas walks of my childhood, in the historic district and at the Ham House in Dubuque, were my favorite outings of all.

Today I am headed to Des Moines to celebrate 50 years of life, 43 of friendship, with a friend, because it is important; to her, to me. Life is looking well-lived  and as precious as it truly is. Happiness is right here. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

Request: "More Photos"

This is for Irena, Godmother to Duncan, who would like less yacking and more photos. Note for Irena; I just figured out yesterday how to get photos from computer to blog again. Here are the kids!

                          A stained-glass window student creation: by Gael and three others.

                                         Snow-boarding on the great slopes of Iowa
        Visiting the U of Chicago with Valentine; The Robie House across the street from campus
(*Note: I am working on the photo quality problem. I will meet with my tech guy as soon as he has a free minute. The pictures look good on the photo ap, and dreadful here...any ideas?)
                                                  Lunch with the sisters in Chicago

                              Homecoming, Davenport Central, senior year (Valentine in white on left)
                     Performance of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" Valentine as Gracie.
Boys helping and kayaking for Floatzilla; a world-record-setting annual attempt on the Mississippi River; greatest number of kayaks joined in one spot at one time.

                                       On Cate's windy rooftop garden in Chicago
It has become more and more of a challenge to get smiling faces in photos; next time I'll dangle a pack of beef jerkey in front of the camera...
Fall garland; my autumn knitting project completed in time for...Thanksgiving. I was grateful, and it must come down to make way for Christmas. Today is St. Nicholas and the stockings are hung and waiting.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Traveling the Great Southwest

Not this one, this one is home, a couple of weeks ago. 

                                Palm Springs, California, visiting a friend here from France.
Breakfast as served by the pool in Palm Springs on a sunny morning. Believe it or not, every single other hotel guest chose to take their meal inside, by the big screen t.v.

Rome, not in Italy, in Las Vegas. I was obliged to go to Nevada for work...and to wait for my Sunday plane. I was at a loss as to what to do in Vegas for three days; I do not gamble, smoke weed nor drink, and strippers are not my thing. So I visited and...hiked the desert; incredible!

                                        Ladies and Gentlemen...The Valley of Fire
I know, I know, I was with a somewhat younger, snap-chat crazed, group of hikers who thought it was important to pose...and I am not going to include the kissing of the cactus photo. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Evolution of Looking at the World

In an interview with French poet; Christian Bobin, he is asked the question; "Peut-on apprendre a regarder?/Can one learn to look?" Of course, there is some additional translation work to consider here, as in French, the one word "regarder" conveys layers of nuances, best translated by more than one word in English; "to see, to watch, to look, to gaze". This made me stop and think about how the ways in which we see evolve throughout life. The regard for looking does not need to be reserved for the realm of poets or artists. 

Bobin begins his story in the cradle, the story of watching and of resistance, because it is said they are one and the same. The play of light and shadows on the ceiling above, of mama moving away from the child, and baby finding consolation in the scene up above, are the beginning. Can you remember when seeing was resisting? Can you return to both in reverence and awe, finding joy again?

In each of us, there are times when all is wonder and light. Then there are the days of being locked in, physically, or soulfully, which may last for years.  We forget to look at what is right there in front of us; out of the car window or into the eyes of a child, a love, the mirror. Or the mirror is all that we see. The question is not whether one can learn to look, but how soon you are willing to try again. You were born knowing how to do that one thing. 

Each moment is a chance to pause and marvel, as you gaze upon what is. The snow out of your window is not the blue sky of Miami. The changing foliage of the autumn is not the fresh buds of spring. The sloppy rot of rain and mud from too much of a good thing is not the water of the ocean, lapping at your toes in the sun. They are what is today, and the beauty in them is yours to behold; the blue sparkles in the snow, the incredible colors appearing magically out of a once-uniform green, the rain makes tiny rivers down the gutters, flowing and gurgling as it catches the light.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Say..."Yes" Today

NO MORE! Please, I beg of you, not one more. 

I woke up, as mothers everywhere do, with a familiar feeling of desperate fear, rage. impotence at not living in the world as I believe it should be, at knowing that there is nothing I can do right this instant to protect anyone I care about from gun violence. I realized that I am in the same position of the mothers I once sent my empathy and love to daily via meditation and prayer; the ones living in war zones; in Kuwait, in the corner where Burundi meets the Congo and Rwanda, along the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh. I do not know what the day will bring. I cannot wake up and believe my children will be safe today. I woke up and said; "today is the day that I say NO. I become active in ridding the world of gun violence. Because I do have one difference in my favor; I live in a democratic country where I am free to speak my mind and make waves." 

Then I thought about it for a second and a half, and decided my approach would be different. I shall say "YES". Yes to love, yes to peace, yes to living in harmony, yes to seeing your side of the story, yes to working out our troubles in a way that promotes unity, not further dissension. I plan on making waves, yes, but warm ocean waves that gently rock and hold us up. If the fear and anger and frustration of those who are driven to harm can be soothed and healed from a little more understanding, a little more attention, I will hold them in my loving intentions today and every day.  I will teach more people to knit. I will cook more for my friends, for the show choir, for the track team, for the scout troop. I will listen attentively as my children tell me about their day. I'll be writing to my Congressmen and women as well. 

Drive the Marvelous Midwest

I often hear told, (and to be quite honest, I may, perhaps, have even said, maybe just once, while standing on the brink of a cliff above the roaring waves below or from a place surrounded by the Rockies majestically rising on all sides, or with my bum on a beach watching the sunset play out over the horizon), that while the Midwest is green and beautiful when not brown or white in the off-season, it is, essentially, boring on the scenery side.

As I go about my daily life, into the house, around the house, into a school, store, down the same streets, around the same town, there is a monotony and lack of excitement that prevails. Even as I am careful about admiring the seasons' changes and the minutiae of blossom, fruit and new life, the rut can be real.

However, out on the road, just a few miles out of the city, the sky here opens up wide and lets down the mysteries of the heavens. The green of the countryside takes on a kaleidoscope of color, texture and life that are mind-blowing and of the most glorious sights to behold. Fields? Some, but between the fields, around the fields, along the sides of the road and butting up to home, barn and forest, are waves of wild-flowers; the bright purple of cone-flowers; a true purple, not the raspberry-colored city cone-flowers, the spray of cream-white of queen Anne's lace as it riots out of all boundaries and mowing procedures here in the country, the sway of the drying brown reeds and weeds against the pale green of long, long grass. Trees are not green, my artist son will tell you, trees are yellow and blue and black, with hints of the green hidden among shadows and between trunks, trees tell our eye "green" and then follow with an entire chromatic scheme that would take a palette of a thousand shades to complete in a super-complicated paint-by-number.

The sky changes every second. It is only out in the countryside that one can appreciate the spectacular show of light, cloud, and moving parts. A canvas of magnificent colors awaits at any time of day; brilliant blues, sheerest whites, greys and purples. In the early morning or late afternoon, the added thrill of a sunrise or sunset brings the world up to full-on technicolor. Even facing away from the setting or rising sun, the whole world is lit up with a different glow from behind, and depending on the weather, it can range from golden to a mysterious green hue that causes one's heart to still, wondering what is to come next. 

I miss this in the city. When I am out in the summer, I like it shady; trees are my friends. I remain under them or under other shelter as long as the heat lasts. Even in the autumn, when I seek time out-doors, it is to better see the changing leaves and breath in the fall air...which smells like leaves. But in the country, along the byways and even on the huge highways, it all changes. 

One more thing; I hate to drive. Or rather, I had a really hard time, just a few years ago, not to fall asleep at the wheel. So driving was a dreaded necessity that I indulged in as little as possible. I could make myself get from A to B, with plenty of audiobooks, snacks. stops, cold water and loud music. Oh, and singing in the car when sleep threatened to take over; off-key, but loud enough to keep us awake. I would moan and ask once more: why did we not have the simple solution of trains, as other civilized countries provided their citizens? I was wasting time, in a train, I could have been working, reading, knitting.

It is in driving across Iowa and Illinois alone, with no other preoccupation, that I have finally had a chance and a reason to look up; to find and marvel at the beauty of what is here. They say there is a feeling you can only get out west, the "big sky" feel of great, open spaces. I feel this driving through my corner of the world too. It was a sensation I missed in Europe, where roads and trees seemed to be all-pervasive and it never felt as big or as uncrowded as home. The vastness is majesty.

I have a 3-hour drive back home today. I can't wait.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Eczema and the Secret of Habit

Summer is a time of miracles, things grow again, the garden and woods compel attention through their very sumptuousness of vegetation and bird song that is returned...and yet new once more, after months of cold and silence. Not venturing forth is a crime, even though doing so will exact a payment later.

More or less, each year, after a little sun, getting bit by half a dozen mosquitoes, using sunscreen, bug repellent, or all of the above on a glorious weekend in May; down I head, into the itchy hell-hole again. This is beyond my control, for now. (Some day, I shall control the sun's power too, just wait.)

What I am able to control is food, water, exercise, all of this is better than ever. Here is the secret; I just said "no". Thank you, Nancy Reagan. Eczema loves certain conditions, and certain foods in some people. When they are eliminated, it has a much lower rate of survival. So; gone and merci. 

Thank you as well, to a book I am re-reading; "Better than Before; Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives," by Gretchen Rubin. The basic tenet of the book is what is most helpful:

                                 "Decide not to decide." 

Think about it, or do not, just for a moment. Making a decision once is so much less tiresome than having to make it every single time one is confronted with a choice. 

In a nutshell; we do or do not do the very same thing every single day. It might look like this: get up and go for a walk, every single Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Go to the Y for a class every single Tuesday and Thursday. I do not eat sugar (or dairy, or whatever). Done. No more decisions to make. For a more strenuous elimination-type diet, this can be combined with the concept of a timer, see: Say au revoir to self-pity, or a limitation that lasts only a certain amount of time; a week, a month, a year. I have put wine on this timed approach (oh, and champagne, and margaritas...fine, anything with any alcohol.)

It is an empowering and liberating concept. But I really cannot linger to discuss it just now. My dog is pulling his leash off the door knob and losing his mind with waiting. He knows it is Friday too. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Photos, No Photo

Relief; someone else admitted to the unmentionable, unthinkable thought that I have not really allowed to emerge from the depths of my mind; that part of my life seems to be...a blur. The moments I know to have savored, for I do remember looking into the eyes of each newborn, breathing in happiness and admiring the peaceful play of toddlers, the creativity of children. However, it is more the feelings I recall, not necessarily the years themselves. Those many years for which I was and remain deeply grateful, were also the years of sleep deprivation and constant activity. I am not sure I remember it all.

When someone casually talked about this, (is it a phenomenon?), I had been of a mind that this was something I had really rather not know about. You know, no? The "am I suffering from memory loss or early dementia or x,y,z?" nasty feeling. It is a good thing then, that someone came up with the  fantastic miracle of photography. With pictures to help, I remember, or recreate memories, touching upon moments like the fingers and minds of the very elderly gingerly reach out to touch a treasured photograph. 

But capturing our lives on film has its place and its limitations. Especially now. Early this morning, I wandered down to the bike path with my pup, sans camera/phone/audio book/way to contact mama. Thierry had just left on a 100-mile bike trip, all of the children were sleeping in on day 2 of summer vacation, and it just felt like perhaps, no one would need me for the half hour or so I might be away. I yearned for an uninterrupted commune with nature. Same bike path, same woods, but ever-changing. The bursting creek had dried up just enough for the island to reappear and there were no puddles to tiptoe through today. 

It always feels like the presence of a deer is felt just as I realize it has leapt across the path in front of me. I did not so much see her, as feel the swoosh of a large body as it landed on the other side. The doe stepped a few feet into the trail, turned to me and just waited. I have not seen a deer along the bike path for over a year. She stood looking back at me, I gazed into her deep brown eyes, and we stayed that way for many minutes. Such quiet and majesty in one being. I thought she was expecting a baby to follow after her. I looked back, nothing. She must have thought I would move on and leave her in peace. We parted ways. I was humbled and grateful for the vision, the deer was probably just happy I was leaving. I have no photo, but maybe the very presence or purpose of my phone has made me miss the deer all these months...maybe not.

Here are times in the past months in which someone, at least, had a phone or camera, for posterity:

G, the Creative Arts Academy 6th graders got their own show; glass mosaics, developed in collaboration with a few real life artists, at the Figge Art Museum

At the opening of the show;mosaic at right is the larger version done of G's by a group of students.

                         Easter morning, my girls hunting for eggs

A trip to Nashville, for an interpreting conference.
We made it a road trip; 2 kids, 2 colleagues, 1 rental house, 1 car, 1 heck of a trip!

  My French-speaking colleagues, in the tropical paradise of the resort for the conference.

                          Ch and me, being tourists for a day.

At the conference; for the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators: I presented a session (to decidedly mixed reviews, all the way from "extraordinary; professional and highly competent", to "a waste of my time" (ouch) for the first time. Luckily, the other presenters were pretty fantastic.

 V (left) in costume after a school production of "Heathers". Nothing but rave reviews for this difficult show!

It is really, really hard to take photos at a track meet. Ch is the bright blue blur.

C (right), addressing the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council on Immigration in France, the topic of her honors thesis; research she conducted there last summer.

Back in April; before it became national news; the Mississippi began creeping up our shores, above; Thierry on a Saturday bike ride with me. Below; just the very beginnings of the water that broke through barriers, spilling into and wreaking havoc in our downtown.

Yes, that is a train, this is the day that workers were installing rock to raise the tracks high enough to continue running during the flood. The barriers and the crashing down of the barriers came later. I had almost forgotten we'd taken a bike ride together that day...

Thierry took more, later in the spring, and it still looks about the same today; rains have plagued the region this season:

Friday, June 7, 2019

Hearing Voices

Rumi was right; there ARE whispers in the wind, just waiting for your ears and mind and heart to open to them. It is the reason to meditate and to take time for quiet. 

In my childhood, I knew instinctively how to listen. Growing up Catholic, I was encouraged, and obliged to spend time in prayer, worship and contemplation. Then I got older and forgot, relying instead on prominent voices of society, of expectations, of being the best "me"; yes, but in order to do something that was always just out of reach.

One of these voices from the past returned to me, bringing a flood of memories and provocations, just the other day. The BVMs or Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary took front and center stage, out of the blue, rising out of the sea like a watery image from the past, great and vivid and life-like.

I accompanied my darling daughter, a junior in high school, on a visit to a couple of the colleges on her "where I would do anything to be able to attend" list in Chicago. Northwestern, the first on the day's agenda, was breathtakingly beautiful, on the shores of Lake Michigan, which, if you've never seen it, is most ocean-like in its breadth, color and beauty. The campus is self-contained and made up of a village of austere, New England-like buildings alongside brand new, glass-filled wonders. The scholarship is so renowned that they are not attempting to sell you on the school so much as inform you about the liberal arts program and the opportunities that are there because Chicago is there. I am for the liberal arts education model, in support of a well-rounded person capable of understanding the world on more than one level, so this held much appeal.

We made our way across the second campus of the day, and this took a leisurely moment, since the magnolia trees were blooming against a background of green sea-like lake and blue, blue sky, and each step was a marvel to behold; waves crashing against the rocks lining the campus. This was Loyola University. As we neared our destination, we came across a plaque mentioning the BVM's of BVM's! Now Loyola is Jesuit (the scholastic branch of the priesthood, if you will), and these particular BVM's are to education what the Jesuits are to the same. Mary Frances Clark and her friends were the founders of the first college I attended, and a fearless bunch of educators hors pair. Early in their lives, they took on the mission of educating girls to improve their prospects; from Ireland to New York to Dubuque, Iowa. Clarke College, now Clarke University, was founded by the sisters in my hometown. Here they were at Loyola. Their mission, invited by the Jesuits to found a woman's college, was to help girls and women pull themselves out of poverty through education, especially immigrant women whose lives were entrenched in misery in factories full of danger, or worse. The BVMs I knew as a student were no less revolutionary and dedicated.

                                 Mundelein Hall: with angels Uriel and Jophiel standing guard
                           Them angels be  4 Stories High (like Ursula in the Little Mermaid)

The more surprising connection? Without knowing any of this, it is here that my oldest daughter is about to begin law school in the fall, in order to become an international law and immigration specialist, at Loyola. My alma mater had caught up to us in this odd, tiny, extraordinary way. 

       The graduate in her own space, with family; brothers on left, Dad, Grampa, Grama, Child,          Mama, siblings in front.

For me, this was a reminder of the kinship of all and of the impossibility of ignoring this fact as I walk upon the earth. There is no true separation between people and places, except for the one we attempt to create through divisions and labels that suit us. The interdependence of each nation, person and critter, as small as it may be, is reality. As a woman and a mother, it is the responsibility I have to leave the world a better place than I found it. The answer, alas, is not simply telling my children how to live their lives (not that I do not do that every single day), it is to model a deeper level of care, of faith and roots, which comes from that still place inside  I cultivate.