Archive | November 2015

Gratitude and Surprises

Gratitude words“Gratitude” has been an interesting word to think about for a whole year. Last December when I chose “Gratitude” to be my special word to ponder for 2015 (instead of making any New Year’s Resolutions), I had no idea how much my perspective on everyday life would be altered by thinking about being grateful every single day.

Gratitude jar with note

The first entry in my Gratitude Jar

As you may recall from my blog posts early in the year, I put a “Gratitude Jar” on my desk with the intention of writing down things I was grateful for every day, and stuffing the jar with these notes. I envisioned a jar overflowing with notes by the end of the year.

I just emptied the jar and I had a pretty small handful of notes. After the first week of looking at the jar, I decided I needed to create a little form on the note paper to make it easier to quickly jot down what I was grateful for. When that didn’t trigger me to write things down on a daily basis, I decided I needed to move the jar from my desk to my easy chair where I read my devotional materials. Obviously that didn’t help either. I guess having a “Gratitude Jar” didn’t easily fit into my routine. It seemed like a good idea, but it really didn’t help me.

However, what has worked well for me all year is to think about whatever I’m grateful for every night when I go to bed. This has become a habit that is the best new thing for me in 2015. I don’t limit myself to being grateful only at bedtime – more and more often these thoughts come into my mind during the day, too.

Towards the end of November, around Thanksgiving, several of the daily readings in Sarah Young’s JESUS CALLING book are about being thankful. On November 25, she paraphrases Jesus as saying:

Thank Me frequently as you journey through today. This practice makes it possible to pray without ceasing, as the apostle Paul taught. …

When your mind is occupied with thanking Me, you have no time for worrying or complaining. If you practice thankfulness consistently, negative thought patterns will gradually grow weaker and weaker. Draw near to Me with a grateful heart, and My Presence will fill you with Joy and Peace.

Yesterday in church Pastor Jeff described us as being big winners in the cosmic lottery. He encouraged us to open our eyes and be grateful for all the blessings we have received. To emphasize the point he sang the old camp song, “Rise and Shine and Give God the Glory.” That’s kind of what having “Gratitude” as my special word for the day has been helping me do throughout 2015 – to open my eyes to recognize and be thankful for all kinds of blessings in my life every day.

Marian at organ - tall picYesterday was a day of surprises for me – surprises to be grateful for. I went to church alone because Mim was away at a timeshare in Wisconsin Dells for a few days. Before the service started I was sitting at the organ getting my music set up. I looked back at the entrance to the sanctuary, and there came Mim. She had woken up early and decided to drive from the Dells to Madison for the service. Seeing her walk through the entrance was a nice surprise for me.

After church we decided to go out for brunch before Mim drove back to the Dells and I drove home. We were headed toward a Perkins Restaurant, but when we drove by a Hy-Vee Food Store I said, “Don’t they serve breakfast?” Mim said, “I think they do.” So I turned into the Hy-Vee parking lot.

The host was about to seat us in a booth when we saw Kay and Lynn, two women from church, sitting in the next booth, and they invited us to join them. They had just placed their order, so it was good timing.

We sat down and the waitress came right back. She looked at me and said, “I know you.” She was a little familiar to me, but I couldn’t place her. Then she said something about Chaplain Julia, and I remembered. She had been an inmate at the county jail, and we had gotten to know each other from my playing the piano for the women’s worship service in the jail chapel. She told me that she has been out of jail for two full years now, with no relapses. She has stayed sober and she has a job working at Hy-Vee. It was great to see her again, and to hear that she’s doing well. That was another great surprise of the day for me.

One of the things we always do in jail worship services is pray for each other. We sit in a circle, and we go around the circle, praying out loud for the person sitting on our right. I’m sure this waitress and I have prayed for each other many times. Seeing each other today was a totally unexpected reunion! I’m so thankful that Mim and I spontaneously decided to try out Hy-Vee for brunch as we “just happened” to drive by.

Gratitude Jar 11-30-15When I got home and started to write this blog, I pulled the handful of notes out of my “Gratitude Jar” and re-read them. The note dated March 31, 2015 said, “My heart is full of gratitude for people who pray with me and for me! Especially inmates!” I smiled when I read that. Life is full of blessings and surprises.

Yes. “Gratitude” was a good word to focus on this year. And, Sarah Young was right when she paraphrased Jesus saying, “Draw near to Me with a grateful heart, and My Presence will fill you with Joy and Peace.”

Gratitude bird

Gratitude for Thanksgivings Past

Mim - Blue Sky - adj

Mim

One day last week when Mim and I were out walking Floey, Mim asked me, “Are you looking forward to Thanksgiving this year?” I thought for a minute, and then replied, “Not really. I’m not dreading it, but I’m not excited about it. We don’t really have any special plans. Oh, we’ll have a nice dinner at home, but we’re not expecting a house full of friends and relatives, like has been the case for many Thanksgivings in the past. But Mim’s question got me thinking about Thanksgivings Past…

We don’t have a family Thanksgiving tradition that we’ve followed for years and years. We usually have a big turkey dinner, although Mim just reminded me of one Thanksgiving on the farm during our B&B days when we spent the day cleaning up the yard and we put a pizza in the oven for our big dinner when the work was done.

When we lived in Chicago we established a tradition for several years of having a big family dinner in our two-flat. Mim’s mom came down from Minnesota and spent a week or so with us. My mom and dad came down from Cambridge and spent the 4-day weekend with us. My brother and his family and my sister and her family all came down for the day.

Family at Thanksgiving in ChicagoWe fixed the traditional turkey dinner and served 20-25 people. We arranged our dining room table and several folding tables into a T-shape so that we could all fit around the “same table.” Our downstairs neighbor joined us and contributed the stuffing. It was a fun family gathering, although a bit chaotic to get that many people seated together in a moderate size dining room. My mom gave me a double set of stainless steel “silverware” for Christmas after our first Thanksgiving in Chicago so that we wouldn’t have to borrow from our neighbor next time. My mom felt that everyone should have enough china and silverware to serve a sit-down dinner for as many guests as they invite, even if it’s 24 guests – regardless of the size of their dining room. You can always squeeze a couple more people around a table, but everyone needs their own place setting.

Since Mim and I have lived in Wisconsin (since 1992), we haven’t had a regular pattern for Thanksgiving. Sometimes we’ve gone to my brother’s for a Thanksgiving dinner; sometimes to my sister’s; sometimes both! Sometimes we’ve hosted family and friends of our assisted living residents. All of these Thanksgiving dinners have been times of being thankful for good food and for the wonderful people who are a part of our lives.

My happiest Thanksgiving memories of all come from the time when I was a child and I was helping my mom get everything ready for the big dinner. Usually there would be about a dozen people all together for dinner. My first job of the morning was to crawl under the dining room table to unlatch the lever so that the table could be pulled open for two leaves to be put in place. Next Mom and I would put on the lace tablecloth together. Then I set the table with the “good dishes” and silverware. My next job was to carry up folding chairs from the basement and set them around the table, interspersed with the regular dining chairs. If needed, I added the piano stool and organ bench. Two kids could sit together on the bench.

roast turkeyMom never thought she knew how to roast a big turkey, so the Cambridge Bakery took care of that for her. All we had to do was have someone go to the bakery to pick it up when we were ready to eat. That was Dad’s job. Mom fixed all the rest of the food – potatoes, gravy, stuffing, corn, squash, green beans or peas, cranberries, fruit salad, clover-leaf rolls, and pumpkin pie. The beverages were apple cider (from a cousin’s apple orchard in Lake Mills) and coffee.

nut cupsJust helping Mom get all the food ready was fun. We worked together well. She told me what to do, and I knew how to follow directions. But the absolutely best job of all for me was filling the nut cups. That’s what made Thanksgiving special. Nut cups. I don’t know why that tradition has fallen out of favor these days. It’s a real loss. The nut cups themselves were small paper cups covered in brightly colored crepe paper. Mom always picked up bags of M&Ms, candy corn, candy pumpkins, Brach’s bridge mix chocolates, and a can of peanuts.  I carefully counted out an equal number of every piece of candy and every peanut as I filled each nut cup. I had to be fair. Then I placed a nut cup at the top of each plate to the left of the glass.

candy corn and pumpkinsWhen we hosted Thanksgiving dinners in Chicago, I carried on the nut cup tradition. I couldn’t find crepe paper nut cups in the stores anymore, so I made some square ones out of construction paper and put a Thanksgiving-themed sticker on each one. They also doubled as name plates so we could politely tell each person where to sit. The ingredients were the same except we substituted foil covered chocolates for the bridge mix and mixed nuts for the peanuts. (The Georgia Nut Company outlet store was just down the street from us.)

Thanksgiving chocolatesBack to Mim’s question, I guess what’s special about Thanksgiving this year is that I took time to remember all my Thanksgivings Past.

In yesterday’s JESUS CALLING devotional reading, Sarah Young wrote that Jesus told us:

As you sit quietly in My Presence, let Me fill your heart and mind with thankfulness. …

As you go through this day, look for tiny treasures strategically placed along the way. I lovingly go before you and plant little pleasures to brighten your day. Look carefully for them, and pluck them one by one. When you reach the end of the day, you will have gathered a lovely bouquet. Offer it up to Me with a grateful heart. Receive My Peace as you lie down to sleep, with thankful thoughts playing a lullaby in your mind.

The tiny treasures I’m discovering today are all kinds of wonderful Thanksgiving memories – especially nut cups!

Happy-Thanksgiving-Wallpaper-2012-1

 

The Best Thing about Darkness

There seems to be much more darkness in the world today than there was a week ago, when I last posted my thoughts on this blog.

Clock and Calendar

In the most literal sense, the sun rose 9 minutes later today than it rose a week ago, and it will set 7 minutes earlier than it set a week ago – a net change of 16 minutes more darkness today than last Tuesday. By next Tuesday we’ll lose another 15 minutes of daylight. I don’t know how these times are calculated, but I trust the chart that is displayed on www.SunriseSunset.com. And, in a general sense, these times are confirmed by my personal observations. I’ve noticed that it’s getting dark a lot earlier in the evening, and I’ve noticed the same thing has happened this time of the year every year of my life. We’re moving into a season of darkness, a time when there is more darkness than light.

In a global news sense, the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday night have brought a terrible sense of darkness across the whole world. How can there be so much hate in the world that people kill other people that they don’t even know? I don’t understand ISIS. But I don’t understand how we can turn a blind eye to people who don’t have food to eat and who will soon starve to death, either. And I don’t understand why there is extreme poverty in the world, in the United States, in Wisconsin, and yes, poverty, hunger, and homelessness even in my own home town. All around, we’re in a season of moral darkness, as well as having fewer hours of daylight.

eiffel-tower - night

The Eiffel Tower in Paris – the City of Light

Adding to this season of darkness, a friend of mine posted an entry on www.CaringBridge.com yesterday.

The days are darker and time seems to be going fast. After several consultations with my radiation oncologist and others on my cancer care team, I have chosen to start radiation once a day for 15 days. The team thinks it may shrink the [brain] tumors enough to slow down some of the cancer progress and symptoms. Discussion indicates possible life expectancy of two weeks, or two months, or who knows.

RuthAnn WilsonWell, those are all guesses. No one knows, of course. I will live every day the best I am able….

So far I have minimal pain and very loving care.

I have received many precious cards and letters from many of you. I treasure each one, and I enjoy reading them over and over, or having them read to me. I wish I could answer each one of you. Please know that I appreciate you so very much….

My friend is an inspiration to all of us who know her. Even though she is walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” she knows that God is with her, and she is comforted by God’s presence. Her strong faith and positive attitude are truly a comfort to all of us.

Lots of darkness is surrounding me today as I write this, but the best thing about a season of darkness was highlighted to me this morning as I read My Personal Daily Prayer Book by Christine A. Dallman and Margaret Anne Huffman.

Small deeds of goodness in the aftermath of trouble, like fireflies flickering against a dark sky, can blanket the world with sparkling lights.

When Mim and I still lived on the farm, sometimes on summer evenings, after dark, just before going to bed, we would walk our dogs to the end of the driveway to look across the road at the soybean field, glowing with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fireflies hovering just above the plants like silent fireworks. It was a beautiful sight, one that could only be seen in the darkness.

Fireflies over field

I can’t stop the days from getting shorter this time of year.  I can’t stop terrorists from killing. And I can’t feed everyone in the world who is starving. But I can listen to someone who is grieving. And I can send a card to let someone know I’m thinking about them and praying for them. And I can donate to the local food pantry.

I like the image of being one of the fireflies hovering over the dark field. Care to join me? Together we can make a marvelous display of hope above the darkness.

Fireflies close up

No Vacuum in this Mind

Vacuum - smilingMy mind is incapable of tolerating a vacuum. It always finds something to be anxious about, or some problem to be solving, or at least some imminent decisions to be mulling over. Often there are multiple urgent thoughts competing for my attention. Then my mind might start thrashing – a technical computer term that kind of means jumping from one thing to another so fast that nothing constructive gets accomplished.

I’ve had some major ponderings in my head this year. One of the biggest topics on my mind throughout the first few months of the year was getting a new car. My 2003 Camry and Mim’s 2003 Matrix were both running pretty well, but my mind decided it was time to start thinking about a replacement for at least one of them. Online, I narrowed my information gathering to 12 models. Then Mim and I started actually looking at cars in dealerships. On April 13, we made a decision on the spot to get a car that wasn’t even on our list – a Prius V. Fortunately, we love the car – especially how spacious it is and the great mileage we get. But most important, since April 13, there’s been one less thing in my mind to be mulling over.

Prius VBut never fear, another major topic took center stage in my mind. For the next several months, my mind worked overtime thinking up all the details I needed to consider for selling our farmhouse. On August 20 we closed on the house, and I could check that topic off my mind’s active list.

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven – our farmhouse

Jumping into its place was refinancing our condo and changing banks. We’ve been unhappy with the new management of our long-term bank in Cambridge for a few years, but we knew that changing banks is complicated these days. As of October 12, we are happy customers of Johnson Bank – mortgage, personal, and business accounts. One more thing checked off my mind’s list.

Those are just the big things my mind has been dealing with this year. There are always plenty of little things competing for attention in my mind. This morning my mind is “paging” (another old mainframe computer term) among selecting a new transport chair for one of our residents (the hard rubber wheels are starting to break down on hers after four years of hard use);  finding a new wallet for myself (the leather is starting to come apart); selecting a new computer (probably a MacBook, to replace my Windows laptop that seems to be sputtering again); and choosing a new word for 2016 (I really like choosing a special word instead of having new year’s resolutions. My word for 2014 was JOY. 2015 is GRATITUDE. I’m thinking of KINDNESS for next year but I haven’t decided yet – there’s still more mulling to do in my mind.)

I don’t know why those four items came to the forefront of my mind this morning, but that’s what’s in there.

MacBookThe quote to ponder in last month’s The Monastic Way pamphlet was, “The things we love tell us who we are,” by Thomas Aquinas. Joan Chittister’s pamphlet of daily musings about this quote focused on the choices we make and what those choices say about us and what we love.

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

On October 17 she wrote, “No one is born whole. We all get to be wholly mature, developed persons as a result of the choices we make every day of every life. ‘The self,’ the great educator John Dewey said, ‘is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.’”

Well, my mind is certainly busy working on all those choices I think I need to make. As I’ve been writing, a few more things popped into my mind to think about – like what books should I take along with me to read next week for another short Christmas Mountain getaway…

Obviously, my mind is going to keep busy making decisions, big and small. That’s okay with me.

Joan Chittister ended her October pamphlet by saying, “Choice is the holiest of the virtues. It preserves the best of the past and creates the best of the future. Victor Frankl writes, ‘Everything can be taken away from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’”

Thanks, Maria. That Gives me an idea.

A couple years ago, around the first of November, Chaplain Julia of the Jail Ministry invited the women inmates worshiping together in the jail chapel to tell each other about some of their family traditions related to Halloween and All Saints Day. She especially encouraged Maria to explain to us what her friends and family did in Mexico to celebrate the holiday, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Although Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and All Saints Day are Christian celebrations, different cultures around the world have adapted these days in different ways to incorporate the history and legends of their own societies. In Mexico, ancient Aztec beliefs are incorporated into Dia de los Muertos – the day to honor family members and friends who have departed. An ancient belief is that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to come to earth to spend 24 hours with their families. On November 2, spirits of adults can come down to earth from heaven to join their families for a day of celebration.

In preparation for these heavenly visits, many families set up a special altar in their home and decorate it with pictures of their departed loved ones, along with candles, flowers, fruits, and favorite foods of the departed to entice the spirits to come back home for the day. Some families take the food and decorations to the cemetery, to the graves of their loved ones. Then the extended family has a big picnic in the cemetery with all these special foods. The family spends much of the day reminiscing about their departed loved ones. In spirit, the departed souls join their earthly families for this day of remembrance and celebration.

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

With a little coaxing from the jail chaplain, Maria told us how her family in Mexico used to celebrate this special holiday. She talked mostly about preparing all the favorite foods of their departed loved ones, and getting together with their relatives at the cemetery for a big picnic and time of reminiscing. It was a very happy family celebration.

I’ve thought about Maria’s story often over the last couple years, especially around Halloween and All Saints Day. I wish we observed a tradition like that in our own culture. I think the closest thing we have to Dia de los Muertos in the U.S. is Memorial Day. Although I put flowers on my parents’ grave for Memorial Day, most of the emphasis of the day is on remembering veterans of U.S. wars. I think of the day as a patriotic holiday more than a family remembrance day.

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

For All Saints Day this year, I played the organ at the Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church. Besides playing the usual “For All the Saints,” I incorporated some old hymns that might prompt us to remember some of the saints who have touched our lives directly, such as our parents and grandparents. When the pastor read the names of the church members who had died in the past year, I played softly on the piano, hymns like “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” and “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”

When I got home from church, I thought more about how Maria’s family used to spend the time from October 31 through November 2 in Mexico, a time for remembering the saints of the church, especially the saints who have directly affected them, like parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends. I decided to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in my mind this year. Maybe we can carry it out in reality next year. I hope so.

I thought about my mom, my dad, and my sister – the three members of my family of origin who are no longer with us on earth.

Family portrait, about 1960

Family portrait, about 1960

My mom’s favorite meal (actually, it was the whole family’s favorite meal) was pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet corn (the kind Mom had frozen herself), a fruit salad held together with a sweet fluffy dressing, home-made clover leaf rolls – re-warmed in the oven so butter would melt on them, coffee, and schaum torte with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. That’s the dinner Mom usually made when we had company for Sunday dinner.

Just thinking about all that food makes me hungry for it, and prompts me to remember the wonderful times we had squeezing a dozen or more people around the dining room table to share the meal. I remember mumbling along with everyone as we recited the Norwegian table prayer together – in Norwegian. I never did learn it beyond the first phrase, Jesu Navn gar vi til bords…  

I’d love to establish a new tradition for my family for All Saints Day based on the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I’m not ready to abandon the tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters to our house on Halloween, but I’d like to add time on All Saints Day to remember the saints who have personally touched my life, family and friends who are now departed. I’d like to set up a little altar, maybe on the buffet, with some flowers, pictures of the special saints in my life and in Mim’s life. And then, we will have a special dinner with the favorite foods of our saints as we reminisce about them. I can already taste that pan-fried chicken dinner. (Maybe on alternate years, we’ll have to have lutefisk – Mim’s mom’s favorite!)

Thanks, Maria, for giving me the idea…

A family dinner about 30 years ago

A family dinner about 30 years ago