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“This Little Light of Mine” and a Home Town Protest

Well, it happened again. I turned up too much information, and I need to share it somewhere. It’s too much for the book I’m writing, so I guess it needs to go into another blog post, just like the last time this happened, when I wrote about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This time the song is “This Little Light of Mine.”

I’m still spending most of my days working on my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. So far I’ve written hymn reflections on 12 hymns for Advent, 21 for Christmas, and 9 for Epiphany. “This Little Light of Mine” is my last song for Epiphany. Then I can move on to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Eventually I’ll get to the patriotic hymns of summer, hopefully while it’s still summer. My goal is to complete the book before the end of the year, and to have written reflections on about 100 seasonal hymns.

But as I said above, I learned a lot about “This Little Light of Mine,” and I want to tell you about it.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR) series, “National Anthem,” produced in 2018, 

Fans know “This Little Light of Mine” as a beloved children’s tune, recognized around the world. But it’s also a spiritual, which was transformed by the nation’s civil rights movement into an anthem of singular power.

In the 1960s, during demonstrations for civil rights, the singing of “This Little Light of Mine” helped to steady the nerves of protestors while angry police officers threatened to beat them up. Freedom singer Rutha Mae Harris recalled, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. ‘Everywhere I go, Lord, I’m gonna let it shine…’”

Fifty years later, in 2017, the song was still having the same impact. Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used “This Little Light of Mine” to defuse tensions during a counter-protest before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We had originally said we were going to stand silently,” says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. “But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling – mostly homophobic slurs – at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren’t with us… [They] were getting amped up.” 

Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. “I know song can do that. So I just broke into ‘This Little Light of Mine.’”

In a moment captured on video, the clergy and volunteers … are shown standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of “You will not replace us” from the rally crowd. “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis,” Sekou says. “They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”

There’s another story about another movement for justice and the role “This Little Light of Mine” played. This story is from “Sojourners” magazine, December 13, 2013. 

Two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, … hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called “usury” – the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor. 

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” sang 70 customers inside the cavernous lobby at BOA headquarters. “Even in my bank, I’m gonna let it shine!” they sang, marching seven times along the gleaming glass and polished marble walls…. 

The writer of this Sojourners’ article ended the story saying,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice: sitting on a bus, ordering coffee at a lunch counter, or transferring your money to a credit union built for people, not profits. I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song reverberating around an office building, could enflesh the presence of God, even if they weren’t hot enough or bright enough to right the wrongs, nor turn oppression into justice nor usher in the kingdom of God. I didn’t know it could be enough just to catch a glimpse of that kingdom, wherever two or three were gathered in Christ’s name….  I didn’t know this little light might actually free people, here on earth, not completely, but at least give them a bit more freedom from things like debt, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or loneliness…. 

 

And then there’s a story I personally experienced just a couple weeks ago. But we didn’t sing “This Little Light of Mine.” About a hundred people gathered at Veterans Park in downtown Cambridge, Wisconsin, population less than 2,000, to support the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the 2010 census, the population of Cambridge is 96.8% White, 0.9% African American, and 1.7% Latino. We’re a typical small town of the Midwest. And although racial injustice doesn’t touch us very directly in our everyday lives, we do recognize injustice when we see it, and at least a hundred of us, probably many more, want to do what we can to bring about justice. What we did in the park that evening was listen to a couple speakers, hold “Black Lives Matter” signs, meet some of our neighbors who share our same concerns for justice, stand together in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and pray together, led by one of our local pastors. 

If we hold another demonstration in the future, I hope we sing “This Little Light of Mine” as so many other freedom protesters have done in the past. Why do I care so much about singing this song?

Although most people know “This Little Light of Mine” as a Sunday School song or as a Freedom song for peaceful protests, it is definitely a song that belongs in the Epiphany chapter of my book, as well. The word “epiphany” means “appearance or manifestation.” Epiphany as a church holiday refers to January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, and it commemorates the Wise Men finding the Christ Child and bringing him gifts. This is considered the first manifestation of Christ to Gentiles. Probably the most well-known Epiphany carol is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” 

But the Epiphany season is about much more than the Wise Men’s journey to find Jesus. It’s about other ways God has given us an “epiphany” – an “aha!” moment – about the nature of God and our relationship to God’s world. A common theme of Epiphany is light. It is with light, that truth is revealed to us. That’s why we sing “Jesus, the Light of the World,” another Epiphany carol. And Jesus told his disciples to be the light of the world, as well. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, New King James Version

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!  [sing 3 times]
Let it shine!   [sing 3 times]

Shine all over Cambridge, I’m gonna let it shine! [sing 3 times]
Let it shine! [sing 3 times]

That’s the song. Regardless of who is singing it, and for whatever purpose, the first verse is always the same. The simple pattern of the first verse can easily be filled in with new words to fit any justice issue – to shed a light on whatever injustice needs to be illuminated – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice, and so on.

As the writer of the Sojourner’s article explained,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice… I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song … could enflesh the presence of God…

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear”

I’m having the time of my life during this “Safer at Home” interlude in our lives. I average about eight hours a day on writing my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. I’ve written a dozen reflections on Advent carols, and thirteen reflections on Christmas carols, with eight more to go. Then there are ten more to write for Epiphany before I can move on to Lent and Easter. Eventually, I’ll get through the whole year of seasonal music. Meanwhile, I’m reliving Christmas these days. 

After I research and write each reflection for the book, I give it to Mim for feedback to be sure the text flows well enough to make sense to her. Yesterday I finished writing about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and gave it to Mim to read. She approved. But then I told her about my frustration of having to leave out so much information that I had gathered. I didn’t have room to include it all if I wanted to stick to the format of having just one page for each reflection. When I told her about all the interesting facts I was leaving out, she said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about it so you can include everything you want.” So that’s what this is – my extended reflection on the Christmas Carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” 

As we’re experiencing a colder than usual spring these days, imagine yourself back in the Christmas season, singing the carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”

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Tune Name:   CAROL
Composer:      Richard Storrs Willis 
(1819-1900) American composer and organist.
Author:            Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876) Unitarian minister.
Scripture:        Luke 2:13-14  
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

 

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Edmund Sears grew up on a farm in western Massachusetts, near the Berkshire Mountains. He once told a friend that as a child he imagined that the hilltops touched heaven and that angels rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands for God. 

His parents taught him and his two brothers the importance of moral values, and they encouraged them to study – once the farm work was done. He graduated from Union College in New York, and worked briefly as a lawyer and a teacher, but soon went to Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister, graduating in 1837, at age 27. 

The American Unitarian Association supported his work as a missionary in the frontier area around Toledo, Ohio for about a year. Then he returned to Massachusetts, where he accepted a position as pastor of a small Unitarian church in the town of Wayland. Meanwhile, he got married, and by the time his family grew to include four children, he realized he needed a larger church that could support his whole family. He accepted a call to a church in Lancaster, Massachusetts and served there for seven years. 

The mid-1800s were stressful times in the United States. Americans were dealing with the affects of the Industrial Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the issue of slavery. The social disruption resulting from all these factors put a lot of pressure on Sears as the pastor of a large congregation, where he was trying to provide both leadership and personal support to the members. Sears had a breakdown and retreated back to the small town of Wayland to recover. 

While recovering, Sears wrote the poem “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This poem is focused on two ideas: first, the angels that appeared on the night of Christ’s birth to announce, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men!” and second, the dismal condition of the world in his day (and still today as we sing the song). The third stanza (often omitted from today’s hymnals) emphasizes the “woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long.” The last stanza reassures us that the time of peace will come eventually as the prophets foretold. 

This carol has been controversial throughout its history. It may be the only Christmas carol that doesn’t even mention the birth of Christ. Since Sears was known to be a Unitarian, many religious conservatives claimed this carol proved his lack of belief that Christ is truly divine, and therefore the hymn should be removed from hymnals. Other churches rewrote parts of the carol to bring the birth of Christ into it. Because this hymn focused on the awful conditions on earth to contrast the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth,” this hymn is often considered one of the earliest hymns of the social gospel movement.

A year after writing this poem, Sears had recovered enough to accept a call back to the small church in Wayland to serve again as their part-time pastor. He also went back to writing extensively. He was quite outspoken about equal rights for men and women, and for the abolition of slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Sears declared from the pulpit that “when the human and Divine law were in conflict it was the duty of all to obey the latter.” In 1856, Sears preached a sermon entitled “Discourse” in which he not only condemned slavery as evil, but he directly condemned slave owners, as well. The sermon was considered such a strong argument against slavery that the Massachusetts Abolitionists printed it as a pamphlet to be widely distributed.

How the music for “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” became associated with the text is a mystery. Shortly after the poem was written, Richard Storrs Willis composed a musical exercise, “Study No. 23” in his “Church Chorals and Choir Studies.” Willis later wrote in a letter to a friend, “On my return from Europe in [1876], I found that it (the tune) had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.” No one knows who is responsible, or in what circumstances, the poem and the tune were joined together. However, the pairing has lasted for more than a hundred years, and it has become one of our favorite Christmas carols.

Imagine a choir of angels resting on the hilltops of the Berkshires as they return to heaven after their appearance on Earth for Christ’s birth. Perhaps with that image in mind, Sears wrote “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” As he pondered the angels’ message, and thought about all the anguish we’re still suffering down here, he wrote five stanzas. One of the most relevant stanzas to us today is seldom sung:

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And we, at war with earth, hear not the tidings, which they bring:
O hush the noise, and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing!

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Is Mim Going to Jail?

fullsizeoutput_200fAs usual, I was sitting at my computer, working on my next book. Floey walked over to me, sat down right beside me, and looked up. She waited for me to finish the sentence I was typing. “What’s up, Floey?” I asked.

“I’m worried, Mom.”

“Are you worried about the Corona Virus, Floey? I don’t think dogs can get it, and Mim and I are being really careful to stay away from people so we don’t get it.”

“No. That’s not it, Mom. Well, maybe I’m a little worried about that. But so many good things are happening because of the virus. Mim’s cooking almost non-stop in the kitchen. We had a chicken dinner. Then she cooked up chicken soup from the carcass. We had a roast beef dinner, and then pulled beef sandwiches. A pork roast dinner, followed by pulled pork sandwiches. Chili. Barbecue. I can hardly keep up with doing the pre-wash of all the pots and pans she’s using! And then we go for long walks every day, all three of us together. I couldn’t be happier, except I’m worried about something else.” A tear rolled out of her eye.

I wiped the tear from her cheek and put my hand under her chin. “What’s worrying you, Floey?”

“Remember, a few weeks ago you were doing your annual catch up of accounting for the year to get your business files ready to take to the accountant to do your taxes?”

“Yeah. I remember. I hate that time of the year. But that’s all done now. We dropped off the files with the accountant a couple weeks ago. Why are you worried about that?”

“I overheard you say something to Mim while you were working on the accounting. I think you said, ‘I’m afraid we may have to pay taxes this year instead of getting a refund.’ And Mim said, ‘Oh, no! I hate paying taxes to the government! I really disapprove of how they are spending the money! I don’t want to pay for wars I don’t agree with! Maybe we just shouldn’t pay the taxes!’ And then you said something about going to jail. Is Mim gonna go to jail??? That’s what I’m worried about!” Another tear fell from her eye.

“Oh, Floey.” I got up from my desk chair and sat on the floor beside her. I gave her a big hug. “No, Floey. Mim is not going to jail. We’ll pay our taxes whether we agree with how the government spends the money, or not. Mim was just frustrated. Did you overhear the rest of that conversation between Mim and me, Floey?”

“No, Mom. I was so scared when I heard the word JAIL that I went into the closet to hide.”

“Well, let me tell you the story I told Mim. Do you remember a couple years ago I used to go to the Dane County Jail a couple times a month to play the piano for the women’s worship service?”

“Yeah. I remember. You used to tell us about the conversations that happened at each service.  I remember you said that God was always there. Right?”

“Yeah. I did say that. On average, we had about ten women in each service. For security reasons, the jail limited the number of women who could be in the chapel at once, because no guards were present inside the chapel. The guards escorted the inmates from their cells to the chapel, and then they locked the chapel door and left us all together inside. 

52b21b2c62fef-image“Before the women arrived, Chaplain Julia and I arranged the chairs into a circle. The inmates, the chaplain, and I all sat together in the circle (except for when I left the circle to go to the piano). The chaplain started the service by introducing the theme for that particular service, and then we sang a hymn. Much to my surprise, the women always sang enthusiastically. Then we usually went around the circle, each person reading a verse or two of the selected scripture.  After the reading, we went around the circle a second time, each person saying what that scripture meant to them, or whatever else was on their minds, such as an upcoming court appearance, concern for their children, what might come next after their jail time, and so on. That time was followed by a time of silent prayer when the women could write down their specific prayer requests to give to the chaplain. During this time I played soft background music on the piano, whatever hymns came to mind, based on the conversations we’d just had. Then we went around the circle again, each of us praying specifically for the person who was sitting on our right. The service ended with us singing another hymn, and a final blessing.”

Floey smiled at me. I still had my arm around her as we sat together on the floor. “Those were good times of sharing, weren’t they, Mom.”

“Yes, they were. I played for the women’s worship service for about five years. During that time I got to know some of the women fairly well. Although county jail is intended for short-term incarceration, less than a year (prison is for longer terms), some women stay in jail for longer than a year as their cases wind their way through the legal system. I remember one woman in particular, Gloria (not her real name). She was in jail for about a year, and then she went on to serve her sentence of several years in prison. Her crime was not paying her taxes.”

“Really, Mom? Several years in prison for not paying her taxes?”

“Yup. She was a nice, fairly quiet woman, probably in her 30s. Both she and her husband were in jail, although they couldn’t see each other. And they had a special needs child, that we often prayed for in our worship service. Gloria didn’t want her little girl to be placed in the state foster care system. She was afraid that her daughter’s special needs would not be adequately met if she was bounced from foster home to foster home throughout the duration of Gloria’s incarceration. Fortunately, a long-term friend of Gloria’s, who lived out of state, finally was approved to care for her.”

“Wow, that must have been a real relief for Gloria.” Floey was listening intently to every word I was saying.

“Yes. The fact that a friend would be taking good care of her daughter really put her mind at ease. Shortly after that happened, the time came for her to leave jail and move on to serve her time in federal prison. I remember well what she said at her last women’s worship service. She had quite a testimony.”

“What did she say, Mom?”

“She said…

I’ve changed a lot over this past year in jail with all of you. When I first came here, I thought I was better than every one of you. My “crime” wasn’t like yours. I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t hurt anybody. I didn’t do drugs. My “crime” was white collar, and it was a statement of conscience. I was simply standing up for my beliefs. I didn’t pay taxes because I didn’t think I should pay taxes to fund things I didn’t believe in, like an unwarranted war. I was a good, church-going, responsible member of my community. 

But over this year, getting to know all of you, and others who are no longer in jail, I’ve learned that we’re all alike. Our specific circumstances in life may be different, but we’re all doing the best we can with what life has given us.

I’m glad for this year in jail I’ve had with all of you. Thank you for helping me learn that we’re all in this life together.

Floey put her paw on my hand. “That’s quite a testimony, Mom. I wonder how Gloria is doing in prison now. And how her daughter is doing.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever know, Floey. Obviously, I’ve lost touch with her. But she sure has given me a lot to think about. That’s why I told Mim this story a couple weeks ago when she said she didn’t want to pay taxes because she doesn’t approve of how the government is spending her tax money. Gloria felt the same way, and is spending years behind bars, isolated from her family and friends, because of acting on her beliefs.”

“Speaking of isolation, Mom, I guess we need to respect what the government is telling us to do now, even if we don’t completely agree with it.”

“I think you’re right, Floey. I’d rather spend some time alone, thinking about how I should be living my life, than going to jail to think about it there, like Gloria did.”

“You know, Mom, it’s good that God can help us gain insights wherever we are. Let’s go for a walk. I’m hearing lots of birds chirping this morning. Let’s go listen to them down by the marsh. Maybe that’s where God has something to tell us today.”

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The Message of a Kaleidoscope

As soon as I got home from playing at the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge on Sunday, Mim, Floey, and I hopped into the car and drove to Chicago for a late lunch at the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor. This was a special weekend. 

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Chicago looked like a magical kingdom in the clouds.

Forty-seven years ago I accepted a new job as an editorial researcher for The World Book Encyclopedia. I needed to find an apartment and move to Chicago fast to be ready to start work the next Monday. I had less than a week to get settled. For a couple days I slept on the couch of a childhood friend June, who was living in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago at the time. I spent a couple days walking the streets of different “safe” neighborhoods, looking for “For Rent” signs. One evening I went with June to a neighborhood Bible Study. Less than a dozen people were there. One of them was Mim. When June introduced us and explained to Mim that I was looking for an apartment, Mim immediately offered to let me stay with her in her small apartment (one bedroom, but she had bunk beds) until I could find a place of my own. The next evening we went to the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor to work out the details. The next day I went home to pack up my stuff and move into Mim’s apartment. 

Ch-1 MM on Spaulding

1973 – Mim and me in our first apartment.

Hard to believe that happened 47 years ago, and we’re still living together. The original building of the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor was torn down and replaced with a Shell gas station while we still lived in Chicago. But, the restaurant lives on in one of the northwest suburbs. Lunch wasn’t quite the same, but we had fun reminiscing about our first meal together. After lunch we drove by our first apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood, and then by the two-flat we owned in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. We spent the night in a dog-friendly hotel.

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Mim and Floey enjoying almost balmy weather.

The next morning we drove through the Edgewater neighborhood to see an apartment we had lived in for six years. That apartment was near the lake, so we took Floey for a walk along the lakeshore at Montrose Harbor. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny.

As we reflected on the many transitions we’ve made in our lives, we talked more about the transition we are currently in the middle of – going from full-time caregiving in our home to semi-retirement. Monday’s reading from Mornings with Jesus, (a Guideposts Publication) seemed particularly relevant. The author Heidi Gaul was talking about kaleidoscopes. Here’s an excerpt:

… Nestled on my porch rocker, I peek through the lens of a child’s toy, watching colors and shapes dance and play. As I twist the tube, patterns transform and change… 

In my mind’s eye, I see another picture reminding me how different we are as individuals and especially as Christians. Each of us adds something new to this ever-changing creation, displaying the touch of the Master’s hand. One might resemble the bright yellow chips as he visits bedridden members of his church; another, the soft green bit as she calms babies in the nursery…

If we follow Jesus, our “colors” will change according to whatever form of service we’re called to during that season of life. Our responsibilities may vary, but our purpose – furthering Jesus’s kingdom – doesn’t. We are created to serve with the humility and love Jesus shared. 

When we work together in harmony, the product of our labor is ageless and beautiful…

The images produced by kaleidoscopes suggest a new way of reflecting on the many transitions we go through in our lifetime. As Pastor Jeff reminded us in his homily last weekend, in each phase of our life, with each transition we go through, we need to remember what God has told us, 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and 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, New Revised Standard Version]

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My collection of kaleidoscopes. The one on the left was a Christmas present to me from Mim’s mother the first year she lived with us.

 

A Word for the New Year

fullsizeoutput_2bc7Almost every day for at least the last ten years, I’ve started my morning in the comfortable sitting area of my downstairs office. I light the seasonal arrangement of candles on the coffee table, and settle into my Lazy Boy recliner. I spend from ten minutes to an hour quietly beginning the day.

Before I start reading, I mentally sing a hymn to focus my mind into a worshipful or meditative state. I don’t sing out loud, because hearing my voice would be an unwelcome distraction. I don’t play the piano because that’s about ten feet away from where I’ve already settled into my chair. Singing the hymn mentally is just the right way to get my soul ready.

The first few years I sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” for this centering exercise. Then I sang “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” for a few years. One year I took a brand new hymnal I’d just received, and mentally sang one or two hymns a day, from page one to the end of the hymnal. Last December I decided to use “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to focus my mind throughout Advent. I sang one verse a day, until I came to verse 3.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in her ways to go. 

From that day on, I’ve mentally sung this verse every day. Even after Christmas. I’m still singing it every morning. I intend to use this song throughout 2020, and I’ve made WISDOM my special word for the year.

If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been selecting a special word each year for the past seven years.

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  • JOY was the word for 2014. I delighted in looking for joy somewhere each day.
  • GRATITUDE was my word for 2015. Throughout that year I developed the habit of listing at least three things each day that I was especially grateful for as I went to bed each night. I still do it.
  • KINDNESS was the word for 2016. I learned to look for examples of kindness being exhibited by people I saw around me, and thought about new ways I could show kindness myself. I made up new words to use as a second verse to the song “This Is the Day that the Lord Hath Made” – “What can I do to reflect God’s Love? I can be kind to everyone…” I mentally sing these two verses at the end of my quiet time every morning.
  • HOPE was the word for 2017. That was a challenging year all around the world, and I tried to focus on being hopeful, despite how fearful I was of the political situation.
  • PEACE was the word for 2018. I looked for hymns about peace throughout the year, and I started to write my book Hymns of Peace and Comfort.  I published the book last year.
  • LOVE was my word for 2019. I chose that word because I realized that of the four Advent themes – Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, Love was the only word I hadn’t used yet as a “special word.” With the help of Mim and our dog Floey, I realized last year how much our home is filled with love. Our house may never become uncluttered, but anyone who comes to our door knows they are alway welcome. We’re truly thankful for the love God has shown us through friends, animals, and each other.

I expect 2020 will continue to be a year of transition for us, from full-time caregiving into gradual retirement, whatever that means. That’s what Mim and I need to learn. And that’s why WISDOM seems like the perfect word for me to focus on this year. And that’s why mentally singing the third verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is the perfect way for me to begin each day.

HAPPY NEW WORD!     HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Love from all three of us – Marian, Mim & Floey

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Mim sharing our love with Quincy, one of Floey’s best friends.

Vacation Needed!

fullsizeoutput_200d“Hey, Mom, we need to talk. These last few weeks have been very different. You and Mim went away on vacation and you didn’t take me along. Instead you sent me away to stay with a couple different friends. Why did you do that? I don’t understand. Why did you go on vacation?” Floey looked up at me with a very puzzled expression on her face.

“I guess it’s time for a long talk about vacations. But first, tell me about your time staying with your friends. You had a good time with your friends, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. Denise is one of my favorite people. And her husband Steve, and their grandkids are fun people to spend time with. They fed me really well and they let me chase rabbits in their yard. I had a great time living with them for a few days, although I missed you and Mim. And then after a few days they took me over to Peggy’s place. I really like Peggy and her two dogs Buddy and Quincy. And Peggy’s sister Bridie was there too. I had a really good time playing with all four of them for several days. But it would have been better if you had come with me, and we all could have had a good time together. Why did you go away? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Floey, you have lived with us for almost five years, and you have never had the opportunity to learn about vacations. We used to take a one- or two-week-long vacation every year. But when we started doing assisted living in our home, about 20 years ago, we had to stop taking vacations. That was too bad, but necessary.”

“But why do you have to go away on vacation?” Floey asked.

“Vacations are important to our mental and spiritual health as well as to our physical health. Vacations allow us to escape completely from our daily routines. We learn to approach activities and challenges from a totally different perspective. On the third day of our vacation, on Saturday, we faced a significant challenge.”

“Oh, no. Tell me about it, Mom. Were you OK?” Floey looked quite concerned.

“Well, Floey, do you know why we took a road trip to North and South Dakota for this vacation?”

“I think you were going to a wedding out there, right?”

Mim baby pic adj“You’re right. Mim spent the first six years of her life in the Dakotas. Her dad was a Lutheran pastor and served four small country churches on the far northwestern edge of South Dakota. On Christmas and Easter he went to all four churches to lead worship services, a circuit of over a hundred miles on dirt roads. On normal Sundays, he alternated churches, leading worship at two churches each Sunday. Mim’s family has maintained close friendships with some of these church families over the decades since they left in 1953. Several months ago Mim received an invitation to the wedding of the grandson of one of their closest friends, the Howe family. We decided to plan our first vacation “in retirement” around this wedding. The wedding venue was to be the Howe Hereford Ranch, which spans the North and South Dakota border on the western edge of the two states. We took two days to drive the 950 miles out there, and stayed at the Tip Top Motel in Hettinger, ND, the town closest to the ranch, about 30 miles away by mostly gravel roads.”

“That was a long drive for just a wedding, Mom.”

“But it was a really special wedding, Floey. Mim got to see family friends she hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. When we still lived in Chicago, Mim and I took some summer vacation road trips to Hettinger, bringing Mim’s mom along with us, so she could visit with her many friends. But we haven’t been back to the Dakotas since Mim’s mom had her stroke in 1993.”

“Well, I guess the wedding was a good chance to see a lot of those old family friends. But tell me more about your vacation, and more specifically your challenges,” Floey urged.

fullsizeoutput_29d3“On Saturday morning we drove from the Tip Top Motel to the ranch to be sure we remembered how to find it. We got there about 11:30 and found the ranch buzzing with activity. Dozens of family and friends were hard at work getting everything ready for the 5:00 wedding – putting centerpieces on the tables in the barn for the reception, setting planks on top of bales of hay in the closest pasture for seating a couple hundred guests for the wedding ceremony, preparing salads in the ranch house kitchen, ironing the groomsmen’s vests in the living room, etc. We found Avis, the groom’s aunt in the kitchen, and we asked her for directions to Golden Valley Church – the country church where Mim had been baptized almost 72 years ago. We had packed a picnic lunch for ourselves before we left the motel in Hettinger. Our plan was to try to find the Golden Valley Church and have a picnic there. We had most of the day for exploring, with the wedding not being until 5:00.

fullsizeoutput_29d1“Avis gave us directions and warned us to be careful. They had received a lot of rain earlier in the week. She thought we could get through, but she wasn’t sure. We drove several miles over gravel roads when we saw the little white church on top of a hill. We turned off onto the dirt road. About a mile up that road we saw some muddy ruts ahead of us, but it looked like another car had driven around the dip in the road and continued up the road. We decided to try the same thing. Bad decision! We were promptly stuck in the mud, and we couldn’t drive out. We were good and stuck!”

“Oh no, Mom. What did you do?” Floey looked worried.

“Mim was driving and she felt awful. The only people we knew we could call for help were the groom’s family, people who were already as busy as they could be with wedding preparations. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to see if I had Avis’ phone number. I read it to Mim, who used her trusty old flip phone to call. Charlene, the groom’s mother, answered the landline phone in the ranch house. She said not to worry. She’d find someone to come tow us out. Meanwhile, Avis heard about our predicament and called Barb at a neighboring ranch, closer to Golden Valley Church. Avis called us back to tell us that Barb and her son, Brandon, were on their way to tow us out.”

“Wow. They sure seem friendly out there. Then what happened?” Floey wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“We decided to eat our picnic lunch in the car while we waited for out rescuers. As soon as we finished eating, a pick-up truck pulled up behind us. Barb and Brandon hopped out of the truck and I got out of the car.”

“What about Mim?” Floey asked.

Version 2“She stayed behind the wheel. She was wearing sandals and was afraid she’d get stuck in the muddy ruts just outside her car door. Then Brandon got a rope and a hook from his truck and hooked the back of our car to the front of his truck. Mim put the car in reverse and Brandon pulled the Prius backwards out of the mud. When on the hard and dry dirt road, Mim stepped out of the car, and the four of us stood and talked for about 15 minutes. Then Brandon directed Mim how to turn the car around safely on the dirt road (between a corn field and a hay field), and stayed till we were headed in the right direction to get back to the ranch. Then Barb and Brandon left. They also had to get home to get ready for the wedding.”

“They really were helpful strangers, Mom.”

fullsizeoutput_29d9“Yes, they were. We ended up sitting with Barb and Avis at the reception, and really enjoyed getting to know Barb better. But that’s getting ahead in the story. Mim still wanted to see Golden Valley Church, so we walked almost a mile up the hill to the church. It wasn’t locked, so we could go inside to fully explore the sanctuary, the basement kitchen, and the cemetery out back. Mim recognized several of the names on the gravestones. The church no longer has an active congregation, but the building is on the National Historic Registry. Former members of the congregation, including Avis and Barb, try to keep the building in quite good shape, and it’s still occasionally used for weddings and family gatherings.”

“After all that, did you get back in time for the wedding?”

“After exploring the church, we walked back to the car, and then drove as fast as we dared on dirt and gravel roads to get back to the motel in Hettinger to get cleaned up and dressed for the wedding. We arrived back at the ranch by 5:05, almost in time for the 5:00 wedding. Fortunately, the wedding started closer to 5:30 than 5:00.”

“Were you ever lucky the wedding started a little late!”

fullsizeoutput_29d7“Yes, we were, Floey. Mim actually drove the 55 mph speed limit on those gravel roads to the ranch – something I was sure she’d never do! It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day for the wedding. The ushers handed us each a bottle of water as they ushered us to the hay bale seating. It was a big, beautiful wedding with six bridesmaids and six groomsmen, plus a flower girl and a ring bearer. After the ceremony, we strolled leisurely back to the barn for the reception. As we talked with other guests, we quickly learned that our reputation had preceded us. We were the two women from Wisconsin who had gotten stuck in the mud up by Golden Valley Church earlier in the afternoon. What everyone was talking about was that we actually got cell service out in the fields. That was unheard of for that area. It had never occurred to us that our cell phones might not work out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone we talked with agreed that God was watching out for us. Somehow God must have kept some angels very busy boosting the signals to and from the cell towers.”

fullsizeoutput_29d8“Really? Do you believe that, Mom?” asked Floey.

“Sure. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, Floey. That’s what I meant when I said vacations enable us to think about different things, and to see things from different perspectives. Without all the daily distractions and constant interruptions that we try to block out at home so that we can keep focused on our usual routines, on vacation we don’t have to protect our routines. We can more easily see and think about how God is taking care of us, both through the actions of strangers and possibly even through some occasional divine intervention. That’s why vacations are important.”

“I think I see,” Floey responded.

“We have more examples of God watching out for us on this vacation – like when we were approached by a wild buffalo as we picnicked in Teddy Roosevelt National Park – but I think you get the idea…”

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Moving on to the Next Phase of Our Lives

ddKDiBP7QtqhQpiYFYQsPgMonday of this week seemed really strange. It was the first day of the next phase in our lives. The day before, Anna, our last long-term assisted living resident, moved on to her next life. She had lived with us for eight years, and had just celebrated her 98th birthday a couple weeks ago. She died peacefully last Sunday with Mim holding her hand.

Now Mim and I are beginning the next phase in our lives. We’re planning to be “retired” for several months while we recuperate and clean house. (We’re both in our early 70s.) But then we plan to work a little more. We have talked informally with Rainbow Hospice Care about the possibility of Rainbow referring families to us who feel they can no longer care at home for their loved one who is receiving hospice care. We would care for their loved one in our home for their last few days, weeks, or possibly months. But we aren’t ready to start doing that yet. We need a break first. That’s our plan.

In the immediate past phase of our lives we have provided assisted living in our home. We have done this for over 16 years.

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

The previous phase of our lives had been turning our remodeled farmhouse into a bed and breakfast. We welcomed a couple thousand people into our home over a five-year period. We began the B&B in 1998. We loved it, and we experienced steady growth in the business. By late 1999 we decided to put an addition onto our house to be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues. We named the addition our Nightingale Suite. We became one of a handful of B&Bs in Wisconsin that were wheelchair accessible. But in order to do that, Mim and I had to become politically active to change the Wisconsin B&B law to permit additions to be built onto B&Bs. Getting the law changed was the most frustrating experience of our lives. But with lots of help from other B&B owners and a few savvy state legislators, the law was changed, and we were able to complete our addition.

On September 11, 2001, the B&B phase of our lives began an abrupt change. After 911, tourism dropped drastically all over the country, all around the world actually. Our steady growth in “room nights” for our Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast came to an end. After  several months of having many more empty rooms than full rooms, we decided we needed to re-think how we would earn a living. That’s when we decided to re-christen Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast to Country Comforts Assisted Living, capitalizing on Mim’s experience as a registered nurse. In November, 2002 we welcomed our first two assisted living residents.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve been in the assisted living phase of our lives for 16 years and 5 months. During that time we’ve had a total of only 10 days without having a resident to care for in our home, and those days were all in the first few months of the business, 16 years ago. Fortunately, we have always had two or three excellent caregivers to give us a few hours off each week, and even an occasional night or two away. But even during our time away, Mim has always been on call as the nursing expert. 

In our 16+ years, we have cared for 20 people in our home, all but three of them through their last moment on earth. (Two recovered enough to go home, and one had to move on to a facility equipped to handle patients with advanced dementia.) In addition, we have cared for four other individuals outside of our home through their last days. We’re truly thankful for all the people, both residents and their families, God has brought into our lives throughout this phase of our lives.

Selma and baby Pun croppedkWe had good preparation for the assisted living phase of our lives by caring for our parents. In 1987, we cared for my mom for the last six weeks of her life. She and my dad came to Chicago to live with us while we cared for her. A few years later, in 1991, Mim and I took some time off from our work in Chicago to come to Cambridge to care for my dad throughout the last couple weeks of his life. And finally, in 1993, a few month’s after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side. We cared for her in our home for almost five years.

Although both Mim and I have loved being in the assisted living phase of our lives, we’re ready for a little break. And on Monday of this week, that break began. It feels really strange to be able to come and go as we please, and not have to be sure our residents are cared for while we’re gone.

“Christ in Our Home” is a quarterly devotional booklet published by Augsburg Fortress in Minneapolis. Yesterday the scripture reading was from the end of the first chapter of Matthew, where an angel of the Lord told Joseph in a dream to marry his pregnant fiancee, Mary – that God had a plan for their lives. The comments in the devotional booklet really caught my attention as I was reflecting on the changes happening in my own life.

I have a hunch that most of us can relate to Joseph, because most of us have had something happen in our lives that took us off our planned route… Joseph later found out that God had a plan for him the whole time. It wasn’t Joseph’s original plan, but it was much better…

When life diverts us onto a detour, it is comforting to remember that God is with us, that God is still in control. And when we trust and believe in this, there is no detour too great to cause us to lose our way. When our lives seem out of control, we can trust that God is still in control and has a plan for us… [p. 82]

Mim and I have exciting plans for the next phase of our lives. Whether things happen exactly according to our plans, or not, we learned from the B&B and assisted living phases of our lives that God’s plans may be even greater than ours. We’re eager to see what’s next!M-M Close-up - cropped

The Love of a Dog

fullsizeoutput_281cOn February 23 we celebrated Anna’s 98th birthday. Anna has been living with us as an assisted living resident for eight years now. Some of her family members came for a little party, and everyone, especially Anna, had a really good time.

One week later, Anna had a stroke. It was about noon on Friday. She had walked with her walker over to the kitchen counter for lunch. After she had been sitting there a few minutes, she started to look a little sleepy and unsteady. Both Mim and I got up to check on her, helped her into a wheelchair, wheeled her into her bedroom, and then helped her into bed. As Mim checked her blood pressure and had her squeeze her hands and did other diagnostics, our dog Floey jumped into bed with Anna, and refused to leave her side. Anna giggled at Floey’s devotion and she reached down to pet her. Floey is a good friend of Anna’s, but she’s never hopped into bed with her before. Floey knew something was wrong, and she sprang into action to help Anna every bit as much as Mim and I had. 

Floey showed Anna just how much she loved her, and how important she was to her. I foolishly tried to coax Floey out of the bed with a treat to be sure she wouldn’t be in our way. She wouldn’t budge. Her place was with Anna. She loves Anna, and she knew Anna needed her to comfort her.

That’s kind of like God’s love, I think. At least, I think I begin to understand a little more what God’s love is like when I see Floey’s love for Anna.

We don’t know the final outcome of Anna’s stroke. She might be with us another couple years to make it ten years with us at Country Comforts Assisted Living, and a hundred years on this earth. Or she might not. What we do know is that she’s in the care of a loving God. And Floey is helping us understand what that means. 

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Floey and Anna watching TV together

A Glimpse of God’s Love

Last Saturday, Mim and I tried to drive to Chicago, normally about a two and a half hour drive, for a memorial service. Unfortunately, we got only as far as the distant northwest suburbs before we decided to turn around and go home. Although the weather forecast for Chicago was to get only 1 to 3 inches of snow, visibility had diminished to just a few car lengths, and the roads were getting pretty slippery. We thought it would be wiser to write a letter to our friend’s adult children to explain how much we admired their dad and how much we learned about God’s love from him.

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Jon presented me with a chocolate cake when I retired from the CCHC board.

Jon Beran was one of three founding doctors of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a not-for-profit clinic on the far west side of Chicago – a very poor and violent, mostly African American neighborhood, and a medically under-served part of Chicago. Mim worked at the clinic in the early 1980s after she completed her advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner. I served on the board of CCHC when I completed my MBA. We both chose Jon to be our personal physician. He was a good doctor, a good listener, and perhaps the kindest, most gentle, and most humble person I’ve ever met. 

When Jon was in medical school in the early 1970s, he attended Circle Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that met in rented space – the Teamster’s Union Hall on the near west side of Chicago, close to Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The mostly college-aged and young professional members of the congregation enthusiastically committed their lives to serving Christ in their chosen professions wherever the needs were greatest. 

At that time, one of the most socially and economically distressed neighborhoods in Chicago was Austin, on the far west side of the city. A group of people within the Circle Church congregation decided to move into Austin to serve the people of that community. Circle Urban Ministries was founded as the network that would link a medical clinic, a counseling center, a legal aid practice, a youth center, and eventually a church. 

1980-Medical-ministry

Staff of CCHF in the late 1970s. Jon and Nita on left.

Jon and his wife Nita (a nurse) bought a house in Austin. They had two children and raised them in that neighborhood. (Their son has become an architect and their daughter has become a family practice physician, like her dad.) Both Jon and Nita spent their entire careers serving the people of Austin through CCHC. Nita passed away two years ago. Mim and I made it to her visitation. It was obvious by all the people from the neighborhood at the funeral home that Nita and Jon were very much loved by their community.

Mom crocheting

Mom kept crocheting afghans for babies of teenage mothers in Chicago until just a few weeks before she died.

One of my favorite memories of Jon relates to my mom. When she was in the last stages of liver cancer, Mom and Dad came to live with Mim and me in Chicago for her last six weeks. Although we got Mom signed up to receive hospice care while she lived with us, she needed to have a local doctor see her and prescribe medications. We asked Jon if he would be her doctor. Of course, he said yes. Mom was too weak to ride to the clinic, so Jon made house calls to see her. We lived pretty far from Austin, about a 30-minute drive or 45-minute trip on the “L” each way, but Jon came over to see her as often as she needed him, usually coming by “L.” He carried his stethoscope and other doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag. He didn’t carry a doctor’s bag because he didn’t want to look like a doctor who might be carrying drugs.

Besides caring for Mom’s physical needs, Jon also took time to listen to Mom talk about how she was trusting God to heal her. I didn’t eavesdrop on the whole conversation, but I know Jon somehow related her trust in God to the trust his children needed to have in him when he was teaching them how to swim. They needed to trust that he would take care of them even though they didn’t totally understand how everything was going to work. Then Jon prayed with Mom.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, my special word for 2019 is LOVE, as in the LOVE OF GOD. One of the books I’m reading to kick off my year-long reflection on LOVE is BUMPING INTO GOD: 35 stories of finding grace in unexpected places by Dominic Grassi, a Catholic priest who lives in Chicago. From the back cover of the book,

fullsizeoutput_2785A natural storyteller, Dominic Grassi invites readers to share his warm memories of life in Chicago over the past five decades. He shows how God is reflected in the people we meet every day: a butcher, a bookstore owner, a short-order cook. 

And, I would add, a special doctor named Jon. I’m sure thousands of people have caught a glimpse of God’s love by bumping into Jon sometime in their lives. I know my mom did. And so did I.

 

A Long Talk with My Dog – the best way to begin the New Year.

Floey looking at camera

Floey jumped down from the couch, stretched her whole body, and sauntered over to me. I was sitting at my desk. She plopped herself down right next to me. But instead of resuming her nap, she looked up at me and asked, “What are you doing, Mom? You look like you’re just staring off into space. What’s on your mind?”

“I’m just thinking about something I said, or rather, didn’t say yesterday, and I kind of regret the conversation.”

“Who were you talking with?”

“I went downtown for a haircut late yesterday afternoon.”

“Yeah. I remember. You took me out for a really quick walk, and then you left. Were you talking with the person who cuts your hair?”

“Yes. She cuts my hair really fast – like in ten minutes. But despite her cutting speed, she likes to talk with me the whole time she’s cutting. I don’t know how she can concentrate on getting my hair cut right, but somehow she does.”

“I wish my groomer was fast like that. She always takes at least 45 minutes, but she gives me a bath, blows me dry, trims the hair around my ears and paws, and gives me a pedicure. She talks to me, too, but I know she’s concentrating really hard on everything she does to me. At least she ends the grooming session with a really good treat. Do you get a treat?”

“No, Floey, I don’t.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what are you regretting about your conversation with your haircutter?”

“We really don’t know each other very well, and our conversations are usually just typical small talk – the weather, how our dogs are doing, any new restaurants we’ve tried, and so on. Yesterday she asked me if I have any goals for this new year. I told her no.”

“You don’t make New Year’s resolutions any more, so you don’t have goals, do you?”

“Well, sort of. Six years ago I changed from making New Year’s resolutions to choosing a special word to concentrate on all year long. The first special word I chose was JOY. Every day in 2014 I thought about finding JOY somewhere in the day. I loved the positive energy that came from finding JOY throughout the whole year. The next year I chose the word GRATITUDE. That was just as inspiring. In 2016, my word was KINDNESS. The next year was HOPE. And last year my word was PEACE. Every year has been really special by having a deliberate focus.”

fullsizeoutput_200f“I remember, Mom, in January of 2015, shortly after you adopted me, you explained “special words” to me, and as a young pup of less than a year old, I chose my first special word – LEARN, because I was going to concentrate on learning all I could to become the best companion to our residents that I could be. Remember, Mom?”

“I sure do, Floey, and you have learned a lot. Everyone agrees that you are our best caregiver of all.”

“Thanks, Mom. But let’s get back to your conversation yesterday. Why are you feeling bad about it?”

“Well, Floey, I should have told the person who cuts my hair (and the customer and hairdresser at the next chair who were listening to us) about how uplifting the practice of focusing on one special word for a year can be. Unlike when making a New Year’s resolution that you know will get broken before the end of the year, when you choose a special word, there can only be positive outcomes – the more you think about an inspiring word, the more inspired your life will be, even if you miss a few days of thinking about it. At least that’s been my experience in the six years I’ve been doing this.”

“One year, Mom, remember I chose a bad word. I chose the word MEOW because I was going to try to learn how to communicate better with the cats in the neighborhood. But the cats didn’t want to get to know me, so I eventually changed words. I borrowed your word of KINDNESS, and tried to be kind to those cats, even though they didn’t deserve it.”

“But even that worked out for good, Floey, because you focused on being KIND, and that enriched your life, didn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“Anyway, I wish I’d taken the initiative yesterday to explain my approach of choosing a special word every year. Maybe the women in the salon would have liked to try out this practice for themselves.”

“Mom, tell me what you wished you had said to them. How did the word PEACE work out for you in 2018, and what’s your word for 2019? Is that what you wanted to tell them?”

“I guess so. One of the special things I did last year to deepen my understanding of PEACE was to look for all the hymns I could find with PEACE as the theme. I selected 16 of those hymns to include in my next book of hymn reflections. Dona Nobis Pacem, Let There Be Peace on Earth, Peace in the Valley, Make Me a Servant of Your Peace – those are just a few of the hymns that focus on the PEACE of God. I loved doing that study.”

“How about your word for this year?”

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“As I was thinking about what word to choose for this year, I realized that the themes of the four Sundays in Advent are HOPE, PEACE, JOY, and LOVE. I’ve already chosen three of the four themes. LOVE is the only one I haven’t focused on yet. The more I thought about it, I realized the most concise phrase that summarizes the nature of God is GOD IS LOVE. I guess it’s time I try to deepen my understanding of God’s LOVE. So LOVE is the word I chose for 2019.”

“That sounds like a good word for you this year. Do you know if Mim has chosen a word?”

“I think she said her word is going to be PATIENCE. We’ll have to ask her more about why she chose that word for this year when she gets home. How about you, Floey?”

“I chose the word LISTEN. I’m really good at listening sometimes, especially to our residents. But other times, I just block out voices and other noises I don’t want to be bothered with. I have such good ears, I should make better use of the gift of superior hearing that God has given me. I’ll listen for birds, chipmunks, music, the wind – whatever sounds are out there – maybe even for you when you call me to come…”

“Well that would be wonderful! As soon as I know that you listen well enough to always hear me when I call you to come, we can start going to the dog park!”

“That’s great! This is going to be a really good year!”

“You’re right, Floey. And thank you for listening to me now. Talking about what I wish I’d said yesterday makes me feel better. Thanks. You’re already a good listener. You’re off to a good start with your new word!”

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