Archive | December 2014

JOY – My Special Word for 2014

JOY Cross“Abbey, Mim & Me – Our Special Words for 2014” was the first blog post I wrote this year. I explained that rather than coming up with any New Year’s resolutions for 2014, I would spend the year focusing on JOY. The idea of choosing one special word to focus on for a whole year came from Debbie Macomber in her book, One Perfect Word: One Word Can Make All the Difference. The word I chose was JOY; Mim chose ENOUGH; and Abbey chose PLAY. To help me remember to think about my word, I bought an amber-colored glass cross with the words, “The JOY of the Lord is my strength” printed on it, and it hangs from a suction cup on my patio door. Every time I slide the door open, the JOY cross clinks on the glass door and I think about my word. Most nights I lay in bed before falling asleep and I think about the joy I have experienced that day.

I’m sure I’ve been more aware of joy in my life this year than any year in the past. The irony is that I’ve also experienced more than my usual share of sadness. Maybe that’s why God gave me the word JOY to focus on in 2014. I’ve been to lots of funerals for friends this year, and about half of them (4) have been for friends about my age – mid-sixties. But even at funerals, there can be joy, as we get together with old friends we haven’t seen in a long time and remember good times together with each other and with our friend who is no longer with us.

One of the biggest changes in our living situation happened early in 2014. For most of 2013 we had only one nonagenarian living with us. Before the end of January, another 92-year-old moved in. A couple weeks later a third 92-year-old moved in with a neighbor along with the understanding that she can rely on us for the general management of her care. Keeping up with three (now) 93-year-olds is keeping us very busy! All of them are very active. One is an avid reader and enjoys going out with friends and family. She has some kind of social engagement almost every week. The other two go to bingo once a week and have two or three other outings every week. All together, we have lots of good times together – a regularly recurring source of JOY.

The hidden JOY of being somewhat overwhelmed by all this added caregiving responsibility is that we now have six independent caregivers who help us out several hours a week so that Mim and I can take two afternoons off almost every week to do fun things – like going to movies and shopping at resale shops. (The best of many good movies we saw this year was “The Theory of Everything.” We both highly recommend it.) Mim and I were also able to get away for four quick mini-vacations – a first in many years. We visited friends in Wausau for a Wisconsin-style lobster fest. We went to Minnesota for the 150th anniversary of Gol Lutheran Church, Mim’s family church. And we went to our Christmas Mountain timeshare a couple times – once to celebrate our first wedding anniversary and once to just relax for a few days. We had lots of JOY to celebrate with each getaway.

Abbey head-on colorJOY would have been a good name for our dog Abbey. She brought an incredible amount of JOY to Mim and me and to everyone who lived with us during the eight years she was with us. When she had to leave us in November, there was a great big hole in our home. One of the 93-year-olds said the same thing every time she came into the house from one of her outings, “I miss Abbey so much.” Abbey would always be at the door to meet us. All three nonagenarians and Mim and me quickly agreed we wanted to get another dog to love us and be loved by us as soon as we could.

Within a couple weeks, Floey (short for Florence Nightingale, caregiver in training) joined our family. She’s been with us just over a month now, and already she’s taken on the role of bringing each one of us a daily dose of JOY.

Floey sittingJOY definitely was “the perfect word” for me for 2014. Focusing my attention on that special word helped me find and recognize and appreciate how much joy is in my life.

Which leads me to what I think will be my word for 2015 – GRATITUDE. That word keeps coming to mind whenever I try to think of what will be a good word to focus my attention on next year. I’ll decide for sure by January 1 – but I think GRATITUDE will be the word.

JOY Cross and Pond - closer

The Worst Sin of All according to Floey

Floey sittingMy new dog Floey and I are still getting to know each other. Christmas Day will mark the one month anniversary of Floey’s adoption date. Mim and I and all of our 93-year-olds are so happy that she joined our family. Floey loves all of us, but it’s clear that I am her favorite. She follows me everywhere. Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, and she’s sitting close beside me.

One day last week as I was reading my daily devotional book, A Book of Wonders, by Edward Hays, I decided to ask Floey what she thought about what he said. The title of the reading was “The Absolutely Worst of All Sins.” He said that in our culture, we tend to think of sexual sins as the worst sins of all. Then he added, “Yet among preliterate hunting and gathering cultures, like the Native Americans, children were taught that the worst of vices was stinginess. Not sex, but greed in all forms, was abhorred.”

I knew that Floey had been born on an Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. I wondered if any of their early Native American moral code had rubbed off on her. I asked Floey what she thought was the worst sin of all.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Stinginess.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “You didn’t hesitate at all with your answer. Why is stinginess worse than murder, or rape, or anything else?”

“Just think about it, Mom. You know that love is the greatest gift anyone can give, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, and she continued, “What is the opposite of being loving? It’s being stingy, right?”

“Floey, you’re really smart for a pup who’s not even a year old yet.”

Floey sitting - profile“Tomorrow, December 24, I’ll be 11 months old, but I’ve lived and learned an awful lot in those 11 months, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s good and what’s bad in life. When people, and all other creatures, as well, are kind and loving and generous, the world is a better place for everyone.  But whenever someone is stingy, they’re looking out only for themselves, and the world is a little less good for everyone – including the stingy one. They start worrying about getting and protecting their fair share rather than contributing to the good of everyone.”

“Wow, Floey. You’ve really done a lot of serious thinking for a pup so young! Since we’re having such a good conversation, let’s change subjects and talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately – the commercialization of Christmas. What do you think about that?”

“You’re not really changing subjects with that, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas is the best thing to happen to temper the sin of stinginess.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“What do you think about when you go Christmas shopping?”

“I guess I think about what each person on my list would like to get, and where I might find that gift for them.”

“That’s all about being generous, not being stingy, right?”

“I guess so…”

“Think back to your earliest memories of Christmas shopping. Tell me about them.”

“Those are good memories. Let me start with some background. It seems that every year in December we get some foggy days. Farmers call it ‘case weather.’ We just had some foggy days last week. Remember?”

“Yeah. I remember. But what does that have to do with Christmas shopping?” Floey asked.

“I’m getting to it. I grew up on a small farm. We had about 20 cows and between 300 and 400 chickens. My dad supplemented the milk and egg income with a cash crop – tobacco. Raising tobacco was somewhat controversial because my parents were opposed to smoking, but tobacco was the most lucrative crop we could raise. Essentially, tobacco is what paid for all the “extras” in our lives, like new clothes, piano and organ lessons, and when we were older, college tuition.”

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This picture shows my great uncle Fletcher (2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This photo from 1898 shows my great uncle Fletcher (the handsome one – 2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

“Raising tobacco was a lot of work, from planting it in the spring to harvesting it in the fall to stripping it in the winter. That’s where ‘case weather’ came into the picture. When tobacco was harvested in September, six to eight stalks were strung onto a lath. A lath is like a thick yard stick that’s about five feet long instead of three feet. The laths were then hung in a tobacco shed, the tobacco plants hanging upside down, to dry out. In December when we got several days of foggy weather (case weather), the dried tobacco was moistened from the fog. My dad took the laths of tobacco down from the shed and brought them into the barn. The barn was warm and humid from all the cows living in it. My brother and I had the job of stripping the tobacco leaves off the stalk, leaf by leaf, and laying the tobacco leaves into a press that bundled the leaves into bales of about 40 pounds. Every evening and every Saturday during case weather Danny and I spent many hours in the barn stripping tobacco for two cents a lath. That’s how I earned money for Christmas shopping.”

“Okay, Mom, now I see you’re getting to the point.”

“I worked really hard stripping tobacco the couple weeks before Christmas every year, and I usually earned between five and ten dollars. I felt rich! When I knew how much money I’d earned, I made out my shopping list. Usually, it included Old Spice After Shave for my dad, pretty candles for  my mom, stationery for my sister, and a model car for my brother. If I’d earned enough money, I might get everyone some candy or nuts, too. I always spent all my money on presents for them. It never occurred to me to be stingy and keep anything for myself.”

My family - everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

My family – everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

“That’s exactly what I mean, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t all bad. It reminds us to be generous to the people we love.”

“I guess you’re right, Floey. I’ll try to think of that when I see all those commercials on TV telling us to shop, just like I think of stripping tobacco for Christmas shopping money whenever I see fog in December. In both cases, I can remember that God wants us be loving and generous – and not be stingy.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. See why I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I see I have a lot to teach you. But that’s enough for today. I think it’s time for another walk. Can we run around the pond again? That’s so much fun!”

Floey standing

The Best Family Tradition of All – Baking Christmas Cookies!

Christmas Cookies

Some of the traditional Christmas cookies Mim and I bake every year. The Norwegian cookies are the golden ones on the right.

For the month of December, Joan Chittister has been focusing on the role of traditions in our lives in her pamphlet, The Monastic Way. On December 11 she said:

Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.

Mom-Dad on stumpChittister left out the best tradition of all from her examples – Christmas cookies! My mom baked at least a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies every December. One reason for so many cookies is that my parents were in a mixed marriage – my mom was Norwegian and my dad was German – so my mom felt obligated to bake both Norwegian and German cookies. Plus, she always liked to try out new recipes. I loved all the Norwegian cookies. The German cookies – not so much. My mom faithfully made the same Korth recipe for peppernuts every year, and every year they turned out the same – as hard as a rock. We let them age for at least a month, because no one ate them (except my dad dunked a few in his coffee), and then we threw the rest of them out for the birds.

Some of my fondest Christmas memories are spending a couple evenings every December decorating both light and dark cookie cutouts (sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies). My mom frosted each cookie and Danny and I carefully decorated them with every color of sugar my mom could find – red, green, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and multicolor nonpareils. We also used red-hot candies, and little silver and gold balls. Sometimes we would even cut up red and green gum drops to make leaves and berries to decorate wreathes. Our cookies were almost too beautiful to eat, although that never stopped us.

By Christmas we had stacks of cookie tins filled with hundreds of cookies. Even though we ate heartily, there’s no way we would ever eat that many cookies. But my mom had a better idea anyway. Just before Christmas she boxed up a selection of cookies for a lot of the older people in Cambridge who didn’t bake their own Christmas cookies, and we made a delivery run a day or two before Christmas.

When I was in my twenties and living with Mim in Chicago, baking Christmas cookies together was one of the first traditions we established. We had to negotiate on whose recipes to use. Over the years we’ve worked it out. We use her mom’s recipe for Krumkake and my mom’s recipe for Berliner Kranzer. We carried over the tradition of making lots of different kinds of cookies – more than we could possibly eat – and solved that problem by hosting the coffee hour after church the Sunday closest to Christmas. Our Lutheran church in Chicago had lots of retired Swedes as members, and Norwegian cookies were close enough to Swedish to bring back pleasant memories on their taste buds.

Christmas Cookies at Resurrection

The cookies are arranged. The candles are lit. The postlude must be starting. Mim’s ready to pour coffee.

When we were in our forties we moved back to the farm in Cambridge. Soon afterwards, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on one side. She came to live with us for the next five years. I can still picture her sitting at the dining room table in her wheelchair, rolling out Kringla, a doughnut-like soft Norwegian cookie, rolled by hand into a pencil-like shape and twisted to look like a pretzel. She also helped us decorate cookies. One day our youngest niece Emily joined us to work on decorating cookies together. What better activity to bring multiple generations together than decorating Christmas cookies!

From left to right - Marian frosting cookies, Emily decorating, and Selma and Megabyte supervising.

From right to left – Marian frosting cookies, Emily decorating, and Selma and Megabyte supervising.

Seven years ago, when we moved to our condo, my sister Nancy, who lived nearby, came over to spend a day baking Christmas cookies together. I think we baked about six different kinds in that one long day. By the end of the day we were exhausted, but we had something beautiful and delicious to show for our efforts. And it was fun working together, using the cookie-baking skills we had learned from our mother. The next year my sister passed away. Last year around Christmas time Mim and I went to see our niece Michelle, Nancy’s daughter. She served us Christmas cookies – just the like ones her mom used to make. The tradition continues.

Cindy, my brother’s daughter, is also carrying on the Christmas cookies tradition. Even though Cindy is gluten intolerant, she enlists her nieces to help her bake and decorate some of the most beautiful cookies I’ve ever seen.

Joan Chittister has it right –

Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees, [the Christmas cookies!] – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.

Now I need to get back to baking cookies. We’re trying three new recipes this year, plus baking most of our family standards. I plan to bring a selection to my brother’s family. I guess I might pack up a few cookie tins for some friends, too. But I don’t think I have to worry about the cookies not getting eaten. Our 93-year-olds like our Christmas cookies just as much as our youngest nieces and nephews, and the next generation beyond them…

Emily w decorated Xmas cookies

 

Living inside a Broadway Musical

Last weekend was like living inside a Broadway musical – like “The Sound of Music.” Life wasn’t an opera – our conversations were spoken, not sung – but the whole weekend seemed to flow from one musical moment to the next. It’s almost like we were taking the message of the Psalms – to sing to the Lord – very literally.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
[Psalm 98:4-6 NRSV]

Overture Organ w Sam

Sam Hutchison at the Overture Center organ.

Saturday started with a magnificent Christmas Carol Sing at the Overture Center in Madison. By the time we arrived for the free sing-along (about 15 minutes early for the 11:00 a.m. event), the main floor was already filled and we were directed to the circle (lowest balcony), which was already filling up quickly. About a thousand people had gathered to sing Christmas carols under the direction of organist Sam Hutchison and the powerful Overture Center organ. What a sound we made – from the mighty organ leading us in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to the gentle “Away in a Manger.” Hutchison introduced each carol with a brief explanation of its origin, and then directed us to sing with all our heart and soul.  Hutchison also played two organ solos. For the first one, “Chorale-Improvisation on In Dulci Jubilo,” he promised he would sound every one of the 4,000-plus pipes of the organ so that we could hear all the sounds possible from this amazing instrument. The Carol Sing ended with “The First Nowell.” Dozens of sopranos (including Mim standing next to me) sang the beautiful soaring descant on the refrain. What an inspiring way to end the morning!

After singing our hearts out, we went to a neighborhood bakery for lunch, and then home to rest up a little to be ready for more music. While at home, I practiced the music I would be playing for the Saturday evening worship service at Messiah. Then we turned around and went back to Madison for church.

Marian at organ-MessiahI played my favorite Advent prelude, an organ arrangement of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Mim sang “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” as the Advent candles were lit. As usual, Jeff delivered an inspiring homily, one that included the song, “I thank you, Lord, for each new day.” The service ended with a new favorite piano postlude, an arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This is the time of year for great church music!

Caroling in Overture Center

Caroling with the Madison Symphony Chorus in the Lobby of Overture Hall.

After church we ate a quick supper at Culver’s and drove to the Overture Center again for the Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert. But the real highlight of the whole weekend came before this concert began. The three-level Overture Hall Lobby served as an incredible space for another Christmas Carol Sing-along. The Madison Symphony Chorus lined the second-level railing to sing carols a capella with their director Beverly Taylor on the lower level, where concert-goers gathered to join in the singing. Our voices filled the three-level space with the most beautiful sound imaginable. I think it was a preview of the sounds we’ll hear in heaven when we sing with the angels.

For the concert, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus were joined by the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and two soloists – a soprano and a tenor. The music was as varied as could be – classical, black gospel, traditional Christmas, and contemporary holiday music. It was a fun concert. My favorite piece came just before the intermission – the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the symphony, all the choirs, and the audience making wonderful music together.

Madison Symphony Christmas Concert in Overture Hall

My view Saturday night from the top balcony in Overture Hall. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Symphony Choir, guest choirs, and a few extra heads in my line of vision.

But the music of the weekend wasn’t over yet. On Sunday afternoon, the Monona Senior Choir – a group of about 50 singers – performed a delightful Christmas concert in the community room of our church in Madison. This was one of those concerts where my mouth just froze into a smile because I was having so much fun listening to the music. The concert opened with an arrangement that blended “Joy to the World” with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” A few songs later, a good friend of mine, dressed in a red union suit, sang “Winter Underwear” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” The concert ended with two little girls, granddaughters of the director, signing “Silent Night” while the violinist played the melody. What a wonderful ending to my weekend of living inside a Christmas musical.

Monona Senior Choir cropped

Some of the members of the Monona Senior Choir, with director Jan Piddington – taking a break during their concert.

Music truly is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Advent and Christmas are special times to be reminded of this gift.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
[Isaiah 12:5-6 NRSV]

 

 

Bucket List for Advent

Claudia

Claudia

The best thing about Facebook is that it has provided a means to reconnect with several people from my past. One of those connections is Claudia, an old friend from my freshman year in college. I haven’t seen her in almost 50 years. Our only communication had been Christmas cards, until we somehow found each other on Facebook – I don’t remember how it happened. Now we enjoy reading, commenting on, and often sharing each other’s posts at least weekly, sometimes even daily.

Yesterday Claudia shared an idea from her pastor’s sermon – to have a “Bucket List” of things to complete before Christmas. “The actions on this list reflect and share the true reason for the season.” He provided eleven items to help us get started on our own bucket lists for Advent. Here’s his list, along with my comments.

  1. Help a total stranger. I don’t know who this will be, but I’m on the lookout for an opportunity.
  2. Do something special for a neighbor. Maybe I’ll take our new dog Floey to visit dog-loving neighbors.

    Floey waiting for me to finish writing this blog post so we can go for another walk.

    Floey waiting for me to finish writing this blog post so we can go for a walk and see neighbors.

  3. Extend grace to a family member (let them off the hook). That’s easy. My brother Danny and I don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything, but we still love each other. I think I’ll bring him a tin filled with a variety of the Christmas cookies that Mim and I bake every year using Mom’s recipes. I know that will bring back lots of happy Christmas memories for him.
  4. red kettleDon’t miss a red kettle. That’s a little harder for me. I haven’t given anything to the Salvation Army in years because of their strong anti-gay position. But, I know they help a lot of people. I guess no organization is perfect, and I want to be supportive of all the good they do. I’ll try to keep a little cash in my coat pocket so I can drop something into every red kettle I pass over the next four weeks.
  5. Give of your time to listen to someone’s story. That’s another easy one for me. At a minimum, I can ask each of our 93-year-olds to tell me about their childhood Christmases. That will certainly lead to some good reminiscing, and I’ll learn more about the good old days, and more about the significant memories of each person. And, the 93-year-olds will have the opportunity to relive those memories as they tell their stories.
    2014 Birthday - Ann w Marty 2
  6. Write a note expressing your thanks to someone who has blessed you. I’ll have to think about this one a little. I have been blessed by many people. Maybe I’ll have to write several notes.
  7. Double your tip. This should be fun! Even when the servers are grouchy, maybe a generous tip will make them feel better.
  8. Take a cup of coffee/cocoa to someone out in the cold. I might cross this one off my list. I don’t typically see people working out in the cold. Instead I might heat up a glass of spiced red wine for Mim to help her relax at the end of an extra busy day.
  9. Start a “chain of blessing” by paying the bill of the person behind you (drive through, checkout, etc.) Rather than doing this, I might invite someone who looks extra busy or hassled to cut in line ahead of me (if I’m at the end of the line) in a grocery or department store. I’ll be giving them the gift of a few minutes. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for someone else in another checkout line some day when they’re not quite so hassled.
    checkout line 2
  10. Give an anonymous gift of value to someone in need. Our church makes it really easy to do this. We can provide anonymous gifts to residents of the YWCA, and to families at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services Center and the Road Home (a service to homeless individuals and families). Suggested gifts are listed on a bulletin board in church with a code name for each person. Mim and I can identify the gift we want to give and simply bring it to church.
  11. Donate your time to help someone else. This will be one of my favorites. I’ll play the piano for the women’s worship service in jail twice in December. We’ll include an extended time of singing Christmas Carols in these services. Nothing makes me feel the Christmas spirit more than hearing the inmates enthusiastically singing their favorite Christmas carols.

Claudia ended her pastor’s list with the suggestion to add your own list items. Here’s the first addition I made as I customized her pastor’s list into my own Bucket List for Advent.

Giving Tuesday Generosity

  1. Make a generous donation to a favorite charity on “Giving Tuesday.” Today is December 2, “Giving Tuesday,” the day that follows the sequence of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. Today Mim and I will make an extra donation to Casita Copan, “a community-based organization in Copan Ruinas, Honduras dedicated to providing a loving and supportive family environment to kids in need.” We found out about this organization a couple years ago from a friend of a friend. We sponsor a little six-year-old girl, Dulce Maria, with a monthly contribution. Today’s extra gift is to help the organization meet the needs of others they care for.

I think I’ll print out my Advent Bucket List and keep it handy so that I can check off items as I complete them. I may think of other things to add to the list, too, to be sure the Advent Season of waiting is filled with doing the things I choose to do. I don’t want Advent to be just a pre-Christmas rush, a time of being too busy to keep my true priorities in line.

Advent Week 1