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PLAY – the Best Medicine

A couple weeks ago Floey and I went for a long morning walk, and it really felt like summer for the first time this year. The sun had warmed the air to the mid 70s, a few white clouds floated in the bright blue sky, the birds were singing, and cornfields were showing off neat rows of 2-inch baby plants. Floey trotted beside me on her 16-foot extendable leash, watching carefully for any movement along the side of the road that could indicate a chipmunk, rabbit, or squirrel was hiding from us.

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As we walked along the country road that goes by our old farmhouse, a song that was popular when I was in high school popped into my mind – “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.” In my mind, Nat King Cole was singing it, and I was in the driveway of the farm, washing my first car, a 1963 Corvair. I remember I did that on perfect Sunday afternoons in 1966. That song made me smile and feel good 51 years ago, and it made me smile and feel good now as I was walking Floey.

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer
Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.

When Floey and I got back home, I said, “Alexa, play Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer by Nat King Cole.” My Amazon Echo gadget accommodated my whim, and I listened to the song just as I had remembered it.

Danny and Marian in first go-kart

We also built go-karts.

Summer is my favorite time of the year for lots of reasons. Most of my happy childhood memories took place in the summer – planting tobacco, baling hay, playing cowboys and Indians in the barn, walking down to the woods to explore, playing croquet on the front lawn. There was always lots of work to do, but there was always enough time to play, as well. Now that I’ve grown up, I find that it’s much harder to find time to play, although I’m usually most successful in finding time for play in the summer.

For the month of May, Joan Chittister wrote in the “Monastic Way” devotional pamphlet all about the importance of finding time to play. She started by quoting Proverbs 8:30, “I, Wisdom, was God’s delight day by day, playing with God every moment…”

fullsizeoutput_208aI’ve never used words quite like that to talk about “playing.” But as usual, Chittister gave me something to think about every day. One day she quoted Albert Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research.” She went on to explain, “Play frees our minds to think things we have never had the opportunity to think before. It enables us to come to know ourselves in other ways. It prompts us to think differently – about old things and new.”

Another day she said, “Adults get so work oriented, they forget to keep on growing. As a result we risk never becoming the rest of ourselves. To know who we are and what we can be requires a great deal of aimless activity…”

The next day she added, “To be really happy, we have to discover how to play as well as how to work.”

One of my favorite reflections of the month was on May 23. “Play … gives the mind room to think about more than the present. It provides the space we need to remember what life was like before arthritis of the soul set in.”

“Arthritis of the soul” is an image I won’t forget. I have a little arthritis in my knees, hips, and wrists. I don’t like it, and I do whatever I can to keep it from getting worse. I certainly don’t want to develop “arthritis of the soul,” and if taking time to play can prevent it, finding time to play will become a new priority for me.

So, how do I play as a “mature adult?” I’m not sure that rounding up my cousins to play cowboys and Indians in the barn will be quite as much fun as it was 60 years ago. Chittister had a suggestion. She said, “Get up tomorrow and go do something you’ve never done before. Then, decide if you’d like to do that again. If not, try something else the next day. Keep trying until you discover a whole new part of you. You’ll like yourself a whole lot better if you do.”

I think I have a few ideas of my own about how to play, too. Going for walks with Floey is fun and provides aimless time to think. Going on a treasure hunt with Mim usually ends up at a resale shop where all kinds of discoveries can be made – especially in the book department. Cuddling up with a good book can provide hours of escape from reality. Sometimes playing through a songbook of golden oldies on the piano can be unbelievably refreshing.

Now that the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” are here, I’m ready to play. I need to prevent “arthritis of the soul.” And, as Joan Chittister says, “There’s no substitute for knowing how to do nothing [i.e., play] without feeling guilty about it.” And now you know how.

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Floey and I also play with gardening on our deck.

Something I Started To Think about in Fifth Grade

fullsizeoutput_2003I was about ten years old when I first tried to understand what the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” meant. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Borgerud, and she very patiently tried to explain to the class the core beliefs of each political/economic system. Back in the ‘50s, we all knew that the United States was right and Russia was wrong with regard to all our differences. Therefore, it was clear that capitalism was good and socialism was bad. We knew that. What we were trying to learn that day was what those big words really meant.

I learned that “socialism” was based on the belief that everyone is equally entitled to all our resources and everyone should be treated fairly. Our resources should be owned communally, and everyone should work together so that the basic needs of all of us would be met. My initial reaction was quite positive. That sounded like what Christ modeled in the New Testament – that we should help each other and take care of the poor and the sick. I was surprised. That couldn’t really be what “socialism” was all about… Or, was it?

Then I learned that “capitalism” was based on the belief that the harder we worked, the greater would be our rewards. Those who were poor, deserved to be poor because they didn’t work hard enough. That sounded to me more like selfishness and greed and disrespect for the poor. That didn’t seem to be the type of behavior the Bible encouraged.

I was puzzled. I looked around at the other kids in the class to see if they were as confused as I was by what we were hearing from our teacher. I couldn’t tell. No one expressed any of the shock that I was feeling. I guess I must not be understanding what Mrs. Borgerud was really saying. I didn’t speak up. I just listened some more.

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Mrs. Borgerud came to live with us for assisted living care several years ago. She and Abbey became good friends.

Mrs. Borgerud explained that one reason capitalism was better than socialism was that it provided an incentive for people to work hard. If you want to be rich, you can be rich. You just need to work hard enough. In contrast, the weakness in socialism is that there is no incentive to work hard. You will get all your needs met whether you work or not. Socialism provides an incentive to be lazy.

I guess that made sense. But I was still troubled. I didn’t know anyone who worked harder than my mom and dad, yet we considered ourselves poor, not rich. I never went hungry, and I always had enough clothes – although they all came from Penneys or Sears, not from Manchesters where some of my classmates from wealthier families bought their clothes. I’m sure their parents didn’t work harder than mine. There didn’t seem to be much of a correlation between hard work and wealth.

And what about the special offerings we sometimes had in church to provide food and clothing for the poor in our inner cities and in Africa and India? What did capitalism have to say about meeting the needs of the poor? Was being poor really their own problem because they were too lazy to work?

It’s been almost 60 years since I first wondered about these things.  Ever since that day in fifth grade, I’ve been suspicious that there may be serious inconsistencies between capitalism and what the Bible says about how God intends for us to share our resources with our neighbors.

At times I’ve wondered if socialism follows the teachings of the Bible more closely. That sounds more like how the early church lived.

Now the group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. [Acts 4:32-35 NRSV]

Ellen M KogstadA few years ago Mim and I had a long conversation with Ellen, a friend of ours in Chicago. Her family immigrated from Norway to the United States when she was a little girl. Ellen still keeps in close touch with many of her relatives in Norway. Our conversation with Ellen was after one of her recent trips to Norway. She talked about how socialism has changed the way people think about caring for their less fortunate neighbors. “It’s the government’s job to see that their needs are met – not mine.” Her cousins rarely go to church, and they certainly don’t tithe. There’s no personal sense of responsibility to care for the poor. It seems that the advice given in Proverbs no longer applies to individuals in Norway.

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse. [Proverbs 28:27 NRSV]

Why am I thinking about socialism and capitalism today? I can’t help but think about what is the appropriate role of government, as our country is jolted from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. It seems we are changing in lightning speed from trying to be a “kind, gentle nation” to becoming a “tough, aggressive, me-first nation.” Selfishness is expressed in the new administration’s slogan of “America First!”

As I read the lectionary readings for January 29, 2017 in preparation for planning the music for Sunday’s church service, I read Micah 6:1-8, the Old Testament reading for the day. In the reading, God has a complaint against Israel. After all God has done for Israel, why aren’t they following after the righteousness they have been shown. The passage ends with these words:

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 NRSV]

I think it’s obvious from experience around the world that no political/economic system is perfect. But God’s standard of how we should act as a nation has been set – To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. With all the political squabbling that’s going on now, this is what we need to remember. This needs to be our guiding principal – personally and as a nation.

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Special Words for 2017

Floey sitting - profile croppedFloey came bounding down the stairs, ran over to my desk, and sat down on the floor right next to me. “Good morning, Floey,” I said.

“Good morning, Mom. Is it time yet?” Floey asked.

“Yes. I think the time has finally come, Floey. Are you ready to talk about our special words for next year?”

“I sure am. I’ve been thinking about this for months. I don’t think I chose a very good word to focus on for 2016. I want to do better this year. Do you remember what I chose last year?”

“I sure do, Floey. You chose MEOW. You wanted to learn to communicate better with the cats in the neighborhood, and you thought learning their language would help.”

cat talking and smiling“Yeah. But it didn’t work very well. The neighborhood cats all disappeared. I think they were afraid to come out in the cold last January, and then they just turned into lazy house cats, and they didn’t come out much in the nice weather either.”

“That’s right, and by August I think you decided to adopt my special word of KINDNESS to use as your special word for the rest of the year. Was that better?”

“It was better, but I never really felt committed to that word. That was your word, not mine. So I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking to come up with a better word for 2017.”

“What did you come up with?”

fullsizeoutput_1929“I kept thinking about a rather unpleasant conversation we had one day last summer. You said I was stubborn. And you said it in such a way I knew you thought it wasn’t good to be stubborn. I think our disagreement was all about taking time to sit at a curb before crossing a street, and then to sit again on the other side. Sometimes, I just don’t want to take the time to sit down, and to do it twice at every intersection seems like overkill. I just don’t see the point. Anyway, during that conversation you called me stubborn and you suggested that I should find a word that’s the opposite of stubborn to have as my special word for next year. Do you remember that?”

“I kind of remember.”

“Well I remember the conversation very well. I don’t like us to have disagreements. So I’ve thought a lot about opposites of stubborn. I came up with words like compliant, submissive, weak, yielding, and complacent. Those aren’t inspiring words at all.”

“I can see that, Floey. But couldn’t you come up with anything more positive that’s an opposite of stubborn?” I asked.

“Well, it took a while, but I finally did. I thought about words like willing, flexible, broad-minded, giving, and kind. And then it hit me. I thought of the word FRIEND. I want to focus on being a FRIEND. A friend is someone who doesn’t insist on getting their own way. Sometimes they will get their own way, but more importantly, they will think about what’s best for everyone, which may or may not be their own way. They will do what’s best for the other person just as much, or maybe even more than what’s best for themselves. So, for 2017, my special word is FRIEND.”

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Doris and her caregiver Abbey were best friends.

“That’s a great word, Floey. And it’s so appropriate! Have you heard the old saying that ‘dog is man’s best friend’?  The language of the expression could be cleaned up a little to make it more gender neutral, but the sentiment is true.”

“I’m sure FRIEND is going to be a great word for me to think about all year. I think that by the end of the year I’ll know how to be the best FRIEND that anyone could possibly have. I’m so excited!”

“That’s wonderful, Floey.”

“How about you, Mom? What’s your new word going to be?”

“I’m pretty excited about my new word, too, Floey. It’s HOPE. My special word for 2017 is HOPE.”

“I guess that’s a good word, Mom. But what made you choose HOPE?”fullsizeoutput_1ffa

“I have a really good reason for choosing it, Floey. HOPE is probably what I will need more than anything else in 2017. You see, after the presidential election last November, I was depressed, and I was really scared. In the past, sometimes I’ve been disappointed with the results of a presidential election, but I’ve never been really afraid of what might happen under the charge of the new president. But this time is different. I have no confidence in his competence or his integrity. I am afraid that he might carelessly do something that will result in economic or physical harm or even death to millions of people – both in this country and around the globe. You and me included. Like I said, I’m really scared. I sure HOPE I’m wrong. I HOPE that he truly wants to lead the country in good ways that will benefit all Americans as well as the rest of the world. And I HOPE that his unorthodox ways will lead to positive results. I need to give him a chance to be successful. I need to have HOPE.”

“Wow, Mom. That’s pretty serious. I knew the election was a big deal, but I didn’t think it would affect us personally. That’s scary.”

320943“Yeah, I know. That’s why I need to have HOPE this year. Sarah Young (the writer of the daily devotional book Jesus Calling) has written several other books in the same style – as though Jesus is speaking to us directly. In one of these books, Young quotes Jesus as saying,

Though difficulties abound in this world, rejoice that I am ever present with you. I can enable you to cope with any and all circumstances, strengthening you as you look trustingly to Me. No matter how hopeless your situation may seem, I assure you that all things are possible with Me….  [Jesus Lives: Seeing His Love in Your Life, p. 102]

“Young then cites Psalm 46:2 as assurance that God is really with us, helping us.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

“Young went on to reference Mark 10:27:

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.

“You know, Floey, I think the Bible has a lot to say about HOPE, and I plan to look into that this year, and hopefully I will become more hopeful about everything that’s going on in our world these days.”

Floey sighed and said, “Boy, Mom, we both have high expectations for our special words this year. Do you know what Mim’s new word is? I wonder if she’s decided on one yet.”

2015-floey-and-mim-on-couch-cropped“Here she comes, Floey. Let’s ask her. Hey, Mim, come join us. We’re talking about our special words for 2017. Have you chosen your new word yet?”

“I sure have. It’s HOPE,” she replied as she sat down with us.

“Hey, that’s my word,” I exclaimed. “You can’t have my word!”

“I certainly can! I’ve thought a lot about it, and I need to focus on HOPE this year. I’m going to turn 70 this summer, and I need to keep hoping that some of the changes I’m anticipating over the next few years will work out for the best. Even though I tend to worry, I need to remember that ultimately, God is in control. That gives me HOPE. That’s what I need to focus on – not worrying about the challenges and changes that are ahead in my life.”

Floey - thoughtful faceFloey looked from one mom to the other and said, “I can’t believe my moms are arguing over their special words for 2017!”

“You’re right, Floey. I guess I can share my word. Mim, I came across a benediction a few days ago that might be a good start for both of us in our focus on HOPE this year.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 NIV]

“Hey, I like that. Thanks for sharing it,” Mim responded.

Floey jumped up and trotted over to the patio door. “I think we’re all set. I’m going to learn everything there is to know about becoming a true FRIEND this year, and both of you are going to learn how to be more HOPEFUL. So, we’re ready. Time to go for a walk.”

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Two Thousand “Ducks in a Row”

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Just imagine 2,000 ducks waddling around a big pond. Some wood ducks. Some mallards. Some plain white farmyard ducks. Some old. Some fluffy little yellow ducklings. And they’re all mixed up. Now imagine that it is your job to organize them by species and subspecies, and then line them up alphabetically by name – from Abby to Zach. How long do you think it would take you to get all your ducks in a row?

It took me two weeks. Except my ducks are books. And yes, I estimate Mim and I together have about 2,000 books . This number does not include my digital books (about a hundred) nor my books of piano and organ music (another couple hundred). And it doesn’t include our cookbooks (probably another hundred or so).

Mim and I both like to read, and over the years we have accumulated many books. Mim says a good book becomes a friend – someone that we may want to go back to again and again at different times in our lives. We’ve accumulated friends, not just books. It’s not easy to part with friends. It’s not easy to part with books. But sometimes we try.

Twenty-four years ago when we moved from Chicago to Cambridge, we went through all our book shelves and gave away several boxes of books, the books we were pretty sure we wouldn’t read again. That’s when we got rid of most of our textbooks. But never fear. We found new books to enlighten our minds and enrich our souls.

Step-Down Bookcase

A mini-library in one of our B&B guest rooms

Eighteen years ago when we turned our farmhouse into Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast, one of our distinguishing amenities as a B&B was that we had a bookcase in every guest room. We wanted to have more than just a Gideon Bible in every room. We put a good selection of our favorite books in each room – devotional books, novels, biographies, coffee table style picture books, etc. Many of our guests picked up a book and enjoyed it during their stay with us. Some even asked to take a book home with them, and promised to return the book by mail when they finished reading it. We were happy to oblige – delighted to share our love of books.

Nine years ago when we moved from the farm to the condo we put hundreds of books in our down-sizing sale, but we still moved about twenty boxes of books with us to the condo.

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Some of the books in our down-sizing sale in 2007

We had my brother build a wall of bookshelves from the knee-wall to the ceiling along the hallway in the finished part of the basement. However, we never had time to organize our books. We simply unpacked the books and set them on the shelves in no particular order. We wanted to get everything out of boxes. Our plan was to organize the books later, when we had more time. That time never came. Whenever we wanted to pick up a particular book, we had to scan all the shelves until we found it. Sometimes we were successful. Sometimes we weren’t. And we spent a lot of time just looking.

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The book shelves my brother built for us – 6 sections of 4 shelves each

So why did I decide to get my “ducks in a row” over the last couple weeks?

By the end of June, the time finally came for us to empty the last of our belongings from the farmhouse. That included twelve more boxes of books! When we turned the farmhouse into a B&B-style retreat center we intentionally built up a nice little library of mostly inspirational books for guests of Whispering Winds to use. Some of these books were duplicates of our personal favorites. Others were new books that we picked up at resale shops and second-hand book stores in Madison. Even though we brought the big bookcase and a couple smaller bookcases from the farmhouse to the condo this summer, we still didn’t have room for all our books. I had no choice. I had to organize and filter all the books or Mim would never be able to get her car in the garage again.

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Bookcase in living room – reserved for our favorite authors

My first step in organizing 2,000-plus books was to go through all the books on the shelves in the basement, searching for our favorite authors: Max Lucado (34 books!), Philip Yancey (17 books), Frederick Buechner, Tony Campolo, Henri Nouwen, Edward Hays, and about a dozen other authors. I put these books in the big new bookcase (also built by my brother) that we moved from the farm to the living room of the condo, arranging the books by author and title. Then I went through the twelve boxes from the farmhouse, picking out the books of just our favorite authors, and inter-filing them on the shelves.

I put all the duplicates of these favorite authors in another bookcase – the one we designated for books to give to friends who may have an interest in a particular subject, author, or book. Mim often talks with friends about some of her favorite books. If the person is really interested in the book, Mim is happy to give them one of our duplicates – to keep permanently or to read and pass on to someone else. We don’t have a “lending library.” We have a “give-away library.”

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Our “Give-Away Library”

When I accomplished this first step of organizing the books of our favorite authors, I was elated. Finally, after nine years, our favorites are now organized so that we can easily find them whenever we want to read or simply reference an idea in them again.

Then I carried the twelve slightly lighter boxes downstairs, to organize these books with all the rest of our eagerly-waiting-to-be-organized books. I decided on the following general categories (which reflects our reading interests pretty well):

  • Bibles – old family Bibles and various newer translations (1 shelf)
  • Daily Devotionals (1-1/2 shelves)
  • Inspirational Stories (4 shelves)
  • Religious (6 shelves)
  • Biographies and Memoirs (3 shelves)
  • Bed & Breakfast and Travel (1 shelf)
  • Norwegian History and Humor (1 shelf)
  • Humor (1 shelf)
  • Dogs, Cats, and Other Animals (2 shelves)
  • Caregiving and Personality Types (1/2 shelf)
  • Health, Medical, and Alzheimer’s Disease (2 shelves)
  • Death and Dying (1-1/2 shelves)
  • Music Theory and Hymn Stories (1 shelf)
  • Writing (1 shelf)
  • Self-Improvement (1 shelf)
  • Current Issues (2 shelves)
  • Christmas (1-1/2 shelves)
  • Picture/Coffee Table-style books (1 shelf)
  • Fiction (7 shelves)
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The shelves lined with fiction

Using the 24 built-in shelves (six sections with four shelves in each section) plus five other bookcases downstairs, I was able to fit all the remaining books, each in its right place – the right bookcase, the right shelf, then alphabetically by author and title. By counting the average number of books on a shelf and multiplying that by the number of shelves, I estimate our library is now down to about 2,000 books. That’s after donating about ten boxes of books to St. Vinny’s.

When I described the process of getting all our “ducks in a row” in our home library to a friend, she asked how many of those books we have actually read. Mim answered, “All, except maybe an eighth of them.” That’s only about 250 books left to read. Fortunately, I’m sure we can find more books sitting in resale shops just waiting to become new friends when we need them.

So why do Mim and I think of some of these books as our friends? One book was one of my mom’s favorite novels. I feel a closeness to her whenever I pick up that book. Another book, OPEN HEART, OPEN HOME was written by Karen Mains, the wife of our pastor when we first lived in Chicago. That book prompted me to think about hospitality as something that should be an important element in my life. THE ECHO WITHIN by Robert Benson helped me think through my desire to write about ten years ago. ONE PERFECT WORD by Debbie Macomber got me started on the habit of coming up with a new word to focus on each year instead of coming up with New Year’s resolutions. JESUS CALLING by Sarah Young is a daily devotional that I’ve re-read at least four times. I’m reading it again this year after taking a couple years off. THE SHACK by William P. Young is a very weird novel that I read a few years ago when I had the flu. It made me think about the character of God more than anything else I’ve ever read. I’m sure I’ll read it again. All these friends have enriched my life in many ways.

I’d like to go on and on, telling you about more of these wonderful hardcover and paperback friends, now lined up like “ducks in a row,” but this blog post is already getting pretty long. I guess it’s time for you to tell me about some of the friends on your bookshelves.

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Dot-to-Dot Life

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Dot-to-Dot books were my absolute favorite activity books when I was a little girl – even better than coloring books – well, maybe my Red Ryder cowboy coloring book was the best of all – but other than that, dot-to-dot pages were my favorites. I could spend hours drawing lines from number to number to reveal a picture from what started out as just a mass of numbers.

mediumSunday morning I read a short paragraph from FIRSTLIGHT: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd.

During those times when I wonder what I’m going to do with my life and I’m unable to envision it, I recall a dot-to-dot picture of a giraffe – a gift from a four-year-old. The child had created the picture by moving his pencil from dot to dot, one at a time. It comforts me to know that when I can’t see the whole picture, all I really need is to see the next dot. [p. 175]

A couple weeks ago Mim and I went to my 50th high school class reunion. It was fun to talk with former classmates, to find out who is retired and who is still working, and to discover some surprises in what all of us have been doing with our lives.

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I’m in the front row, right in the middle, wearing glasses.

When we left high school, many of us had dreams of specific careers where we would spend our lives. In my case, I was going to be a chemist. Really! I changed my mind after my freshman year in college. I switched my major from chemistry to English and prepared myself to become an English teacher.

After college, I taught English for two years, and then I became an editorial researcher for The World Book Encyclopedia. The publishing business was interesting for a couple years, but then I switched again and began a new career path in business. I spent ten years working in the financial systems department of a large corporation in downtown Chicago and went to grad school evenings to get an MBA. Then I left big business and became a small business consultant, creating my own business. Then my partner Mim and I became owners of a bed and breakfast. Then I became a real estate agent. Then Mim and I turned our B&B into an assisted living business. Next we turned our farmhouse into a spiritual retreat center. Oh, and simultaneously with these “career changes” I became a church organist and a writer, publishing a weekly blog and a couple books.

So much for the idea of devoting my life to a one-track career. I really appreciate what Sue Monk Kidd said,  “It comforts me to know that when I can’t see the whole picture, all I really need is to see the next dot.” When I drew that first line from dot 1 to dot 2, I had no idea what the total picture of my life would end up looking like. In retrospect, that really didn’t matter. I just needed to live my life one dot at a time.

SKMBT_C28016070409180Joan Chittister focused on a related theme in the June issue of The Monastic Way. The 30 daily readings reflected on a quote by St. Catherine of Siena, “Be who God meant you to be and you’ll set the world on fire.”

The reflection on the first day of June boldly stated, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” [Chittister was quoting David Viscott, a psychiatrist.]

One of the things I learned from my own life experience, and had confirmed by the life experiences of some of my classmates at our reunion, is that God has given us many different gifts. Discovering what these gifts are is a lifelong adventure.

One of my classmates has written a book about his life story, That First Step. In the Foreword, Lee states, “There is nothing earth shattering or noble here, just a straightforward tale of a Navy Parachute Rigger who became an Air Force Master Sergeant.”

SKMBT_C28016070409240As I read the book, I learned a lot about day-to-day life in the military, about the job of a parachute rigger, and about the importance of packing a parachute just right so it definitely will open properly when the ripcord is pulled. I also learned about how Lee discovered his natural talents, his deep interests, and his amazing love for free-fall parachute jumping. Through the narrative of his story, I learned how he gradually discovered that his life was meant to be spent in the military – first in the Navy, then the Air Force. That was his life calling. Or, as he writes at the end of the book, “As I look back to those childhood days of playing soldier, maybe, just maybe, having this career was the fulfillment of my destiny.”

Lee has learned the truth of what St. Catherine of Siena said seven centuries ago, “Be who God meant you to be and you’ll set the world on fire.” Lee’s book makes it clear that he has had a very inspiring and rewarding career in the military. He has discovered his life purpose.

In The Monastic Way Joan Chittister defined “vocation” as “the call within us that tells us that we will never be really alive until we become what we are called to be… It is, Merton says, ‘the original selfhood given me at birth by God.’”

The next day Chittister added, “What we are given to work with in life is God’s gift to us. What we do with it is our gift to God.”

dot-icecream-1-coloring-pageOn the surface, my own career progression might look like I’m scribbling an abstract design on my dot-to-dot page rather than following the dots correctly. Fortunately, Sue Monk Kidd assured me that even if I can’t make out the complete picture of my life yet, all I need to see is where the next dot is. Sometimes I think I might be drawing lines with more than one pencil, but that’s okay. As long as there are more dots on my page, I’m still working on my gift to God.

Sue Monk Kidd includes the following story in her book FIRSTLIGHT:

Rabbi Joseph Liebermann told how he fell asleep one night and had a dream. In the dream he dies and goes to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waits for God to speak, he fears that the Lord will ask him, “Why weren’t you a Moses … or a David … or a Solomon? But God surprises him. He simply asks, “Why weren’t you Rabbi Lieberman?”

When my life is over, I doubt God will ask me why I wasn’t a Mother Teresa. The question I fear most is, “Why weren’t you Sue Monk Kidd?”

The most gracious and courageous gift we can offer the world is our authenticity, our uniqueness, the expression of our true selves. [p. 176]

When my life is over, I doubt God will ask me why I wasn’t Joan Chittister or Sue Monk Kidd or J. S. Bach. I just hope God doesn’t ask me the question, “Why weren’t you Marian Korth?”

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My earliest career aspiration was to be either a cowboy or an Indian.

Talking with Floey about Forecasts

Floey sitting - profile croppedFloey jumped off the love seat in my home office, trotted over to my desk where I was sitting, and sat down next to me. “Mom, it’s been a week, and you still haven’t told me about the third thing you were thinking about during your getaway at your Christmas Mountain timeshare last week. Can you take time to tell me about it now?”

“Sure, Floey. I’m ready to take a break from my computer, anyway.”

“Good. Remember, you told me all about reading Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s book, THE GIFT OF PEACE, and how inspiring that book was. Then you told me about how frustrated you got with technical problems when you tried to post last week’s blog post, and how much you need to become more patient.”

“You have a good memory, Floey.”

“Let’s hope your memory is as good so you can tell me about the third thing you thought about during your Christmas Mountain getaway. You haven’t forgotten, have you?”

“Actually, Floey, I thought about some old, old memories during my week away. Last Wednesday was the 25th of the month. For the past forty years, on the 25th of the month, almost every month (except December), I think Forecast Day.”

“Forecast Day? What does that mean?”

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On clear days, I could see across Lake Michigan from my window office on the 63rd floor.

“In the summer of 1975 I started working for Northwest Industries in the Finance Systems Division. I was 27 at the time and living in Chicago with Mim.”

“What did you do at Northwest Industries?”

“I started out with the catch-all title of Coordinator of Financial Systems. Basically, I worked with accountants, analysts, and their managers to be sure all the newly computerized financial systems worked together smoothly.”

“How did you get that kind of job? I thought you were an English teacher and an editorial researcher.”

“I learned on the job. I took the job because they said they would teach me everything I needed to know, and they would also pay for me to get my MBA, taking one or two courses at a time in the evening.”

“Did you get your MBA?”

“Yes, I did. It took me five years of evening classes, but I got my MBA from the University of Chicago in 1981.”

“More important, did you like the job?”

“Most of the time I liked it. Northwest Industries was a good place to work. The corporate office was on the 63rd floor of the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower).

“What did Northwest Industries do? I’ve never heard of the company.”

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One of my treasures from my Northwest Industries days is this pencil holder – a child’s boot from Acme Boot Company.

“Northwest Industries called itself a diversified holding company. It owned about a dozen companies. Acme Boot Company in Tennessee was the world’s largest manufacturer of cowboy boots and paratrooper boots for the U.S. military. Union Underwear Company in Kentucky and Fruit of the Loom in New York made and sold lots of “union suits” and other underwear. Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles was the largest bottler of Coke beverages. General Battery Corporation in Pennsylvania made replacement batteries for cars. Lone Star Steel manufactured tubular steel, like that used for the Alaska Pipeline. The Buckingham Corporation was the sole U.S. importer of Cutty Sark Scotch and Mouton Cadet wines.”

“Wow. I guess Northwest Industries was diversified!”

“Yes, it was. In order to manage these companies to make them as productive and profitable as possible, the corporate headquarters in Chicago, where I worked, used four cycles to plan and monitor performance for the companies. And that’s what I thought about at Christmas Mountain last week.”

“So last week at Christmas Mountain you realized it was the 25th, and you thought Forecast Day, and from there you thought about all four planning and monitoring cycles? I think you need to explain a little more.”

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“First, let me identify the four cycles: long-range plan, budget, forecast, and actual results. A brand new long-range plan was created every summer. That’s when everyone took some time to dream and plan how they would like to see Northwest Industries develop over the next four years. Each operating company prepared its own plan, and then our computer systems consolidated the plans.

In the fall an annual budget for the upcoming year was developed. This is where each company prepared specific plans for improving its productivity and profitability over the next twelve months, consistent with its long-range plan.

These two cycles were annual cycles and they focused everyone’s attention on planning. The other two cycles were monthly cycles and they turned everyone’s attention to monitoring progress against the plans.

The Forecast cycle was the most stressful cycle of all. On the 25th of the month, or if the 25th fell on a weekend or holiday, the last business day before the 25th, a complete set of financial statements was prepared along with narratives. The Forecast was intended to give corporate executives a preview of what actual results for the month and remainder of the year would be – before the month was over. The narratives explained why the forecast deviated from the budget, if it did, and what could be done to improve the numbers, if possible.”

“But, Mom, couldn’t those executives at least wait until the end of the month to get the final monthly numbers?”

“No, I think they thought if they knew ahead of time, they might be able to make some changes that would improve the final numbers, even for the current month.”

“Well, I think I understand the first three cycles – Long-Range Plan, Budget, and Forecast. Tell me about the Actual Results cycle.”

tumblr_m32egnnhYP1rsiwfpo1_500“The final numbers for the month were usually due from the operating companies by the 5th of the following month and they were consolidated by the end of that day. If Actual Results for any company differed from the numbers submitted for the Forecast cycle, individual company analysts were held accountable for not understanding and monitoring their businesses carefully enough. For example, one of the closest predictors of Sales for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Lost Angeles was the weather forecast. More Coke is sold when it’s hot and sunny than when it’s cold and rainy. If you want to know how much Coke will be sold for the whole month, and it’s only the 25th of the month, it makes sense to study the weather forecast.”

“That’s interesting, Mom, but why were you thinking about this stuff at Christmas Mountain? You haven’t had to care about these cycles for at least thirty years.”

“Well, like I said, on the 25th of the month I still think Forecast Day. At Christmas Mountain, on Wednesday, it was the 25th, and I thought Forecast Day. And, being at Christmas Mountain, I had time to think more about those days back in the 1970s and 1980s. I was probably more inclined to think about my Northwest Industries days because of my technology frustrations the day before when I was working on my blog. I remembered what it was like to wait for the computer to consolidate all the numbers, and then to wait again for the computer to print out complete sets of financial statements. I remember some months I physically ran copies of the statements to the executives at the last minute, just before they left for the day, so that they could carry these statements along with them to study on their train ride home. Thinking about these four planning and monitoring cycles brought back lots of memories. And then I thought, maybe it makes sense to think about how relevant these cycles could be in our personal lives today.”

“What do you mean, Mom?”

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“I think it might be a good idea to do a long-range plan for our own personal lives periodically – probably not every year, but at least more than one time – when we’re finishing school and beginning our careers. I also think it might be a good idea to come up with specific plans (like “Budgets”) every year. That may take the form of New Year’s Resolutions…”

Floey interjected, “Or choosing a special word to focus on all year, like we do.”

“Yeah, that’s the idea. And then comes the Forecast. I don’t know if that needs to be done monthly, although it probably wouldn’t hurt. I think it might be good to periodically review what we’ve observed and learned related to our word for the year and other experiences we’ve had so far in the year. As part of that Forecast review, we could decide if we need to make any changes to be sure we’re working toward the results we want to see in our lives. Following these cycles just might help us become the people God intended for us to become.”

“Wow, Mom. You’ve really been thinking hard about this. Are you sure you’re not taking this too far?”

“Maybe I am, Floey. But what is important is that at Christmas Mountain I have quiet time to think about things like this, and to listen hard to hear what God may be trying to tell me.”

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Floey and me taking a walk in the neighborhood.

“Okay, Mom. I’ll try not to be mad at you next time you go away like this and leave me behind. Maybe I can use the time when you’re gone to try to Forecast where I’ll be by the end of the year in learning all about my special word for this year – Meow – and learning how to communicate better with cats.”

“That’s the spirit, Floey. After all this heavy thinking, let’s go for a walk.”

“Great! We can’t let thinking get in the way of enjoying life! Let’s go!”

 

Making the World a Softer, Better Place

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Gracie helping Katie get ready for prom.

This past weekend I kept checking Facebook on my smartphone, waiting for news and pictures. It was a big weekend for my family. My great niece Mollie was in Fort Worth, Texas, competing at the national championships for gymnastics. Meanwhile, her twin sister Katie was on the prom court of the Cambridge High School Junior Prom. Supporting each twin was a matter of divide and conquer for the family. The father, my nephew Kevin, accompanied Mollie to Fort Worth, and took some great pictures. The mother, Shawn, stayed home, along with the younger sister, Gracie, and they helped Katie get ready for the prom. And they took great pictures, too.

It was an exciting weekend for everyone. But the abundance of blessings was really a mixed blessing. Mollie had to miss going to her junior prom because of it falling on the same date as the national gymnastics competition. Katie had to miss cheering for her twin sister as she competed in Texas because she couldn’t be two places at once. Interesting how blessings and sacrifices can be two sides of the same coin.

Shawn was the first to provide an update on Facebook. It was fun to see Katie all dressed up. It was a beautiful evening for beautiful young couples.

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Cambridge High School Prom Court – Katie is 3rd from right.

On Sunday, Kevin entered the following update about Mollie on Facebook.

Mollie is the Senior C National Floor Champion. She finished 2nd in the overall. Took 3rd in vault and 5th on bars.

Mollie was awarded an all expense paid trip back to Texas in October because she made the Junior Olympic National Team. She will meet the Olympic coaches and practice for four days.

Words cannot express how proud we are of her. Congratulations Mollie on an incredible achievement.

A tremendous thank you to Aubrie for the dedication and patience coaching Mollie. Thank you to our parents for helping Mollie get to where she is. Thanks be to God for giving Mollie this incredible talent for gymnastics. It will take her farther than she can ever imagine.

Thank you to Danielle J Lynch [Kevin’s sister who lives in San Antonio] and family for making the weekend trip! Thank you Adrienne Lacy [a family friend] and family for coming as well! Thanks to Chase’s sister Rene’ and her husband Patrick for the hospitality and friendship this weekend. It’s nice to have a fan base everywhere we go! 

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Mollie on Bars – one of four events gymnasts compete in.

Kevin posted several photos he had taken showing Mollie in action. Here’s one of the photos I lifted from Facebook.

My mom, Kevin’s grandma, would have been very proud of both Katie and Mollie. (And Gracie, too, for being a supportive kid sister.) But I think Mom would have been proudest of Kevin. Mom always worried about him. She thought he had way too much energy and creativity for his own good. He was always running. Everything he did, he did fast.

I remember one story Mom told about when she baked and decorated a batch of cut-out cookies for him to take to school to share for his birthday. As usual, he ran as fast as he could to get to the car to go to school, even though this time he was carrying a big round tin full of special cookies. He tripped and fell, and all the beautiful cookies broke into pieces. I’m sure it bothered my mom more than him. He still shared the cookies with his classmates. They tasted just as good whether they were broken or not. It seemed that nothing could slow down his speed of movement nor subdue his enthusiasm for whatever he was doing. (I think his girls all inherited those traits.)

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Kevin on stilts – 1984. Note the stepladder and electrical wires.

When Kevin was 13, he decided he’d make a pair of stilts and teach himself to walk around and see everything from a bird’s-eye perspective. After constructing the stilts, he realized that he needed a stepladder to get on the stilts. When he started walking with the stilts, he discovered he was lucky that the stilts were just short enough that he could still walk under the electrical wire that was strung from the pole to the house – without the stilts catching and pulling down the wire. Kevin’s guardian angel was kept very, very busy throughout his childhood.

Mom prayed for all her grandchildren every day. But I think she must have prayed for Kevin at least ten times a day. She knew that praying for him was the best way to keep him safe – just in case his guardian angel was taking a much-needed nap.

So why would my mom have been proud of Kevin today? In his Facebook post he demonstrated that he’s learned one of the most important lessons in life. He’s learned that we are who we are because of all the people who have helped us in our lives. Like the African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It took a village to raise Kevin, and it’s taking a village to raise Katie, Mollie, and Gracie.

I’m thankful that I can be part of this village, that all of us are connected to each other’s lives and well-being. As Joan Chittister said in this month’s “Monastic Way” pamphlet,

There can never be too much kindness in life – either for us or because of us. Every act of kindness makes the world a softer, better place. As Aesop wrote, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Thanks to everyone reading this post who’s making the world a softer, better place for everyone in their lives.

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Mollie and her coach