Dementia, Music, and Talking with God

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Last Thursday Mim and I took a day-trip to Lake Geneva for Rainbow Hospice Care’s 14th annual “End-of Life Conference.” The theme this year was “A Focus on Dementia.” The whole conference was excellent! This is what continuing education is like for people in our business – assisted living.

The morning keynote speaker was Teepa Snow who helped us understand the functional limitations of individuals in each of the seven stages of dementia. She taught us how we can be most helpful when we try to provide care for residents in these stages, as well as how to care for their family members. As Teepa’s speaking and actions evolved into the typical behavior of a person in each stage of dementia, a lightbulb went on in our minds. So that’s why… Now I understand… Behaviors of many past residents came to mind.

The closing keynote speaker was Jolene Brackey, the author of Creating Moments of Joy. Throughout the past 15 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, we have given away many copies of her book. The majority of people we have cared for have had some degree of dementia, and this book provides practical examples of how to provide “moments of joy” for these individuals. We’ve made the book required reading for anyone who works with us, and we routinely give the book to the families of our residents with dementia.

fullsizeoutput_22a6Jolene Brackey didn’t disappoint us as a speaker. At the end of a long day of learning for all of us at the conference, she provided us moments of joy as she told us stories and gave us practical examples for sharing joy freely with our residents.

One of the afternoon Breakout Sessions that I found particularly interesting was “Music and Memory.” From my own experience, I’ve known that music still communicates with many people who have very advanced dementia. I used to play the piano monthly for a senior respite organization in a nearby town. One of their clients was a man in his 50s who had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He would sit in the group all day long without saying a word. But when it came time for the sing-along, he would join in and sing enthusiastically, remembering all the words of the golden oldies and hymns I played for them.

fullsizeoutput_22a8The “Music and Memory” Breakout Session was an update on the progress of a non-profit organization called “Music & Memory.” The vision of “Music & Memory” is to provide the means for caregiving organizations to give an iPod with a personalized playlist for each person in their care. The playlist includes the favorite songs of each individual, often the popular hits of their high school years. Research has shown that people, even in the advanced stages of dementia, exhibit signs of happiness when they are listening to their favorite music.

In this session, we were asked to pair up with another session participant to learn about their favorite music – something we would need to do with a resident or their family if we were to try to create a personalized playlist. My partner was a college student, whose favorite music type is heavy metal, and whose favorite band is Metallica. In contrast, I’m nearly 70 and my favorite music type is sacred piano, and one of my favorite performers is Steve Hall. Our music vocabularies had almost no overlap. If I had to prepare a playlist of her favorites, I would really struggle. But I enjoyed talking with her and learning a little about heavy metal music. I now have a little better understanding of the incredible breadth of music that can speak to our souls.

Thinking about the power of music is something I’ve been doing for several months. As you may know from previous blog posts, I’m writing a book with the current working title of Talking with God through Music. I’ve actually been working on this book for over a year. Originally I intended it to be a daily devotional with personal reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started writing the book in late 2016, and I started the project by writing reflections on hymns of thanksgiving. Then I worked on Christmas Carols. The more I wrote, and the more I organized my favorite hymns into different categories to figure out where in the year they should be placed in the book, I decided it made sense to start the book with a month’s worth of hymns based on Psalms – the hymn book of the Bible. I finished writing the Psalm section of my book the last time I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, a few weeks ago.

Now that I’ve written 31 reflections on Psalm-based hymns, I’ve decided to publish this collection of hymns and reflections as a separate book, Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns. My plan is to use this 68-page book as a prototype for the larger book. I experimented with a lot of new things in writing this book, and I want to find out if all my extra homework is worth the effort. I did quite a bit of research into each hymn to be able to provide information about the author, the composer, and the historical context, along with my personal reasons for choosing the hymn as one of my favorites. I also learned to use music-writing software to create a melody line for each hymn so that readers can actually see the music and lyrics next to my paragraphs to help them remember what the hymn sounds like – to be able to sing it in their mind or even out loud.

I hope that readers will give me feedback on the prototype that will help me tweak the style and format for the larger book. My goal for the final book is to help readers discover how music, hymns in particular, can enrich their ability to talk with God. Music is the language of the soul. As St. Augustine said more than 1500 years ago, “Whoever sings prays twice.” And, as we were reminded last Thursday, music is an amazing means of communication for everyone, regardless of their cognitive state.

fullsizeoutput_22a7If you would like a copy of Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns, let me know. I’ll be happy to send you one. I’d really appreciate your feedback on the concept and structure of the book before I put together my next book. My goal is to submit the text of the prototype to the publisher this week, and to receive the printed copies within a week or two. I’ll write another blog post when I have the books in hand.

 

Memoir of a 70-Year-Old Super Hero


Do you ever fantasize about being a super hero like Superman, Wonder Woman, or even an old fashioned hero like Roy Rogers or Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

I just finished reading a book about a woman that I can somewhat identify with. She’s about my age. She quit her job as a counselor and social worker to begin a new adventure. She plays the piano to relax. Several years ago she moved to Honduras and began an amazing adventure. She became a super hero in my mind, although she would never make that claim herself. Here’s a blurb from the back cover of the book, EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My Seven-Year Journey as an Aid Worker into the Heart of Honduras.

51smFhUIbL._SX322_BO1204203200_In her 60s, and living in Seattle, Ellen Lippman Finn on a whim signed up for a homestay visit to learn Spanish in Honduras. What began as a two-week vacation became a journey that would transform her life.

It would be love at first sight for the former social worker and jazz musician. She fell hard  for the people living in Copan Ruinas and the surrounding mountains of western Honduras. She divested herself of her possessions in the U.S., and moved permanently to the area, where she felt at home for the first time in 50 years.

When Ellen first moved to Honduras, she focused her energy on raising funds to provide school supplies for children living in the rural villages nearby. One school she visited had no blackboard, no desks, not even any books. The teacher taught arithmetic by drawing numbers with a stick in the sand.

But the lack of school supplies was just one problem. The extreme poverty of the area meant little food and serious malnutrition. Ellen turned to her North American friends to raise funds for food and clothing as well as school supplies.

I first heard about Ellen several years ago from the daughter of one of our assisted living residents. At that time Ellen was raising money to give Christmas baskets to rural families. For $25 you could provide a family a gift basket that included toys, clothes, and food for the whole family. We still donate money for four baskets every Christmas to Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors), the organization Ellen created.

Each short chapter in Ellen’s book is the story of some kind of adventure she experienced while living as an aid worker in Honduras. Some of the stories are funny, like her description of learning to ride a horse – the only way to get to a particular rural mountain village. Others are sad, like the story of a father carrying his small son wrapped in a blanket to get some medical care, but by the time he arrived, the son had died. Some are scary, and many are heart-warming. All together these stories provide a complex picture of what life is like in that area of the world.

As word spread about how Ellen was able to raise funds and work with the local people on projects that would improve the living situations in many of the poor mountain villages, more and more people came to her for help. Unfortunately, the drug traffickers learned of her reputation, too, and put her name on their hit list. They didn’t want her working in their territory. Ellen escaped Honduras just in time, recuperated with a friend in the States for a few months, and then moved to Guatemala, where she is continuing her work as Buenos Vecinos in that country. Meanwhile, the particular drug traffickers who were out to kill her have been arrested and are currently in prison. That means she can make occasional trips back to Copan Ruinas to visit her friends there.

This is my 70-year-old super hero. Some of her success stories are listed as an appendix at the end of the book – with thanks to her donors.

  • Communities served: 80 in Honduras, 10 in Guatemala
  • Ongoing nutrition and health programs for many schools
  • School supplies for students in 80 communities
  • Teaching materials for more than 100 classrooms
  • Christmas baskets for more than 250 families yearly
  • Shoes for more than 2,000 kids
  • Construction projects completed: 
    • 20 schools and classrooms
    • 2 school playgrounds
    • 2 bridges so children could access the schools from their homes
    • 1 community medical clinic
    • 1 cooperative bakery
    • 11 water projects
    • 1 library serving 7 villages
    • 16 school bathrooms and wash sinks
    • 30 villages received school repairs and renovations
    • 60 schools received shelves, desks, and blackboards
    • 11 clinics received furniture

That’s just some of the items listed in the book. See why she’s my super hero!

One of the themes of the book is Ellen’s evolving perception of her role as an aid worker and her relationship with the people she is working with. There’s one long chapter near the end of the book that explores that theme in depth. Good intentions don’t necessarily result in good outcomes. Establishing boundaries can be extremely hard, especially in life and death situations. Trying to be helpful can get very complicated. Even for super heroes.

I highly recommend reading the book. Here’s a link to it on amazon.com.  I guarantee the book will make you laugh, cry, and think.

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A New Year… A New Word!

2018 is the fifth year that I’ve chosen a special word to be my focus for the new year. Unlike making up new year’s resolutions, choosing a special word can be an inspiration for the whole year, not something to measure yourself against until you fail, and then forget about. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

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Last year my special word was HOPE. I chose that word because I was worried about the future. The 2016 elections were so negative. How would our politicians ever be able to work together again for the good of the country? National and even local politics are not usually such a strong influence in my personal, everyday life, but last year was different. I was really scared about many things happening in our country. I needed to have HOPE that things could get better.

One of the first things I did to try to better understand what was going on nationally, was to read Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened. It was a fascinating book, and much to my surprise, it was the first thing to begin to restore HOPE for me. To view her perspective on what some of the opportunities are for making the world a better place for everyone to live in – all countries, all races, all religions, all socio-economic groups – was inspiring. Even though she lost the election, she didn’t give up HOPE. She realized that she needed to refocus, to figure out how else she could bring about some of the improvements our world needs. And she kept her HOPE that improvements could happen, even with the political situation as it was. Definitely an inspiring book!

2017 ended for me with another great book on HOPE, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, by Joan Chittister. This book is actually more about struggle than HOPE, because struggle is where HOPE is born. There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I’m sure I’ll read the book more than once.

I actually considered holding onto the word HOPE as my special word for another year so that I could study in greater depth the relationship between struggle and HOPE in my own life personally, as well as in the political, economic, and moral struggles our society is engaged in these days. But, then I remembered that every word I’ve had as my special word for a year stays in my mind with heightened awareness – I think forever! I still look for JOY in every day (my 2014 word). My 2015 word of GRATITUDE comes to mind every night when I go to bed and think of what things I’m especially grateful for that day. My 2016 word of KINDNESS has me thinking every morning about what opportunities I may have that day to be especially kind to someone. There’s every reason to believe that I’ll continue to think about the relationships between the struggles I’m facing and how they will strengthen the HOPE I want to see grow. I’ve decided to choose a new word for 2018. I may come back to HOPE, or any of my other special words some year, but not yet.

A special word that’s been creeping into my thoughts that last few weeks is PEACE. Not so much “peace” in the Middle East, or with North Korea, or Russia, (although that would be great), but “PEACE” – the word that I used as a closing on my Christmas Cards. The PEACE that is the calmness that I feel when I sense that God really is in control of everything. The PEACE that St. Paul wrote about to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV]

I guess these verses really encompass all the special words I’ve been focusing on over these 5 years. Maybe I need to spend some time thinking about my “special word vocabulary” as it continues to grow.

May God’s PEACE be with you. Happy New Year!

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Winter sunset at Christmas Mountain

Playing with My Circle of Pianos

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Big Red – my first piano

I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a piano as one of my best friends. I was born into a household that had a big old upright piano living in it. Big Red. I remember trying to read its name scrolled in Old English typeface – Bush & Gerts, Chicago – but Big Red is a better name. My mom taught me a couple little melodies to play on some of the white keys near the middle of the keyboard – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and something about “Birdies in Treetops” so that I could do more than just pound on the keys. When my big sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started to give actual piano lessons to my brother Danny (2 years older than me), I demanded my rights to the same advantage. He was 6, I was 4 when we started. Danny gave up on developing a friendship with Big Red within a year or two. Once he learned “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” all on the black keys, he thought he knew enough to quit lessons. I kept on until I graduated from high school, although I had to move on to different teachers when Nancy moved away to college.

Throughout my school years, as soon as I got home from school, I’d check the mail lying on the dining room table where my dad had left it (my mom was at work in Madison), run upstairs to change my clothes, and then go straight to the piano to practice. I’d play each song of my lesson 5 times, and then I’d play with Big Red just for fun. Sometimes we’d try to figure out new tunes that I mostly remembered in my head from when I’d heard them on the radio. Sometimes we learned new songs from “Singspiration Gospel Songbooks” that my mom picked up from religious bookstores whenever a new songbook was published.

That’s when Big Red and I really became close friends, spending time playing together after school. Big Red was able to figure out immediately whether I was having a good day or a bad day as soon as I sat down on the old piano stool. If I was feeling sad, Big Red knew just what songs to remind me to play to feel better.

Big Red and I drifted apart a little when I was about 10 and an electronic organ moved into our household and tried to distract me from my piano friend. I developed a close friendship with the organ, too, but never as close as my relationship with Big Red.

The next piano in my close circle of piano friends was Lonnie Lyon & Healy. I’d been living in Chicago with my new best friend Mim for about a year, but I knew that something was missing in my life. I needed a piano friend. The big music store in Chicago at the time was Lyon & Healy, and I heard from another friend that they didn’t just manufacture and sell pianos, they leased them for a mere $15 a month. One phone call and a week later, Lonnie Lyon & Healy moved into our apartment. She was a little spinet with a squeaky sustain pedal, but she quickly became a good friend. We settled into a routine of me getting ready for work about half an hour early, so we could spend some time playing together before I took the “L” downtown to my job.

After a couple years of playing together with Lonnie, she confided in me that she was getting tired and wanted to move back to the store for awhile. I said OK, and went looking for a new piano friend.

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Sally Sohmer – the first piano I bought

That’s when I met Sally Sohmer in the Lyon & Healy store at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago. She was a little bigger than Lonnie, but not as big as Big Red. The store called her a console. I thought of her as a short studio piano. I really liked the touch of her keys when I tried her out. I also tried out several of her cousins in the store, but it was an easy decision. I liked her the best, and she was going to come home with me. I knew we were destined to become really good friends. As Sally and I got to know each other better, we experimented with different kinds of music, especially the easier works of classical composers. We had so much fun with Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” We also began to explore more creative arrangements of hymns, like I had begun to find with Big Red when I was in high school. We also built up a bigger than necessary library of Christmas music.

il_570xN.717033260_mgycSally Sohmer moved to Wisconsin with Mim and me in 1992 when me moved back to the farmhouse where I had grown up, and that’s where we had some of the most fun of our lives. We discovered golden oldies. My mom used to buy popular sheet music before she was married (in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and her collection was still in the store room upstairs at the farmhouse. Mim joined our playtimes for this. She sang some of the most hilarious lyrics we’ve ever heard. “Pink Elephants” became one of our favorites.

A couple years after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim invited Jim Forrest to join our circle of people and piano friends. Mim had met Jim as a patient at the clinic where she worked, and she learned that he was a piano tuner and technician. Jim became our piano tuner – both for Big Red who still lived in the farmhouse and for Sally Sohmer.

After a few years of seeing Jim at least twice a year, sometimes more often, when he happened to be in Cambridge to tune someone else’s piano and we met for lunch, we learned that Jim’s real passion was being a matchmaker between people and pianos. That came up one day just after he had tuned Sally Sohmer. He said, “Marian, I have just the piano for you. It would fit perfectly in this end of your living room. It’s a Baldwin baby grand. It’s a beautiful 5’ grand that I’m rebuilding in my workshop right now. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll sell it to you for a really good price. You and this piano need to be together.”

Maxine-Marian at piano

Playing with Betty Baldwin while an assisted living resident watches

I responded with, “I already have a really nice piano. Two of them, actually. Why would I want another piano?”

Jim replied, “Ah, but neither of them is a grand. Have you ever played a grand piano?”

“No, I haven’t. But I’m very happy with the pianos I have right now.”

“Why don’t you just come to my workshop in Madison and play the Baldwin, so you can hear and feel the difference between a grand and an upright.”

Mim joined the conversation at that point, and said, “Let’s just go and try it. It will be fun to try it out, and then we’ll know if there’s a big difference, or not.” A few days later we did. I couldn’t believe the difference in touch and sound, especially hearing the high notes just ring out. I may be fickle, but I fell in love with Betty Baldwin on the spot. I sold Sally Sohmer to my brother Danny (not for him to play, but for his daughter Emily to learn on), and Jim found a new home for Big Red at a Victorian style bed and breakfast in Stoughton, where she would fit right in. (At least we could still visit my two old friends.)

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Stella Steinway

A few years later, matchmaker Jim told me that he had just the right piano for me. He was rebuilding a Steinway, the next size up from Betty Baldwin, about 5-1/2 feet. We repeated nearly the same conversation we’d had before, and I went to his workshop to try out the Steinway, just so I could hear and feel the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin. I fell in love again, and sold my Baldwin to Danny who ended up with two pianos, with his greatest personal musical accomplishment still being “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys.

Stella Steinway has been my best friend (except for Mim, and maybe a handful of other people) for ten years now, and I’m pretty sure our relationship will last for the rest of my lifetime. Then Stella will need to find another friend. I’m helping Jim match up pianos with other friends of mine – hopefully, no more for me. Stanley Steinway, Stella’s bigger brother, went to the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. I still play with him about once a month, or so.

The only other piano I play with any regularity is Stephanie Steinert, the piano at my church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Stephanie Steinert is a cousin of Stella Steinway, and they’re almost identical. Stephanie’s designer had worked closely with the Steinway Company over the years, and the style and quality of Steinert pianos rivals that of Steinways.

So, why am I reminiscing about all my piano friends today? Last week Stella and I had so much fun playing together that I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Last weekend our church celebrated All Saints Day, and I wanted to pick out some fun but appropriate music for the Saturday evening service I was scheduled to play. Saturday night services are a little more casual than Sunday morning services, and I usually play the prelude, the opening hymn, and communion hymn on the organ, and I play the offertory, closing hymn, and postlude on the piano.

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Messiah’s Steinert piano and tracker organ

I worked with my digital piano, Claire Clavinova (pretending to be an organ), first to find an appropriate prelude to play on the organ.  We came up with an energetic arrangement of For All the Saints and a fun variation of Shall We Gather at the River. The two pieces fit together nicely and timed out at 5 minutes 30 seconds, just about the right length.

So I was ready to move on to my friend Stella Steinway to play around with all the music we could think up related to All Saints Day for the offertory and postlude. I thought about old gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” and “When We All Get to Heaven” but I didn’t have any fancy arrangements of either song. Then I turned to my James Koerts 3-ring binder of spirituals I’ve down-loaded from the Internet. Stella and I just played and played and laughed. We finally narrowed down our offertory and postlude choices to just a few, and played them for Mim and Carolyn (one of our 96-year-old residents) so that they could help us decide. Carolyn chose a very jazzy “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the offertory, and Mim chose an equally jazzy “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the postlude. By the time we finished making our selections, all the spirits in our household were having a great time. It’s amazing what music can do for the soul. And my friend Stella Steinway never lets me forget that.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150 – New King James Version]

Little Hands

6360489455192162291563850737_TrumpDonald Trump gets very angry when people say he has little hands. I noticed his hands last night when he addressed the nation about his Afghanistan War strategy. He used his right hand to gesture a lot as he spoke, and I noticed that his fingers are relatively short. But obviously, his hands are big enough to hold a pen to sign executive orders, and big and strong enough to swing a golf club.

I have little hands. The only adult I know with hands smaller than mine is Mim. Her fingers are about a quarter of an inch shorter than mine.

IMG_2271I sometimes wish I had longer fingers. Most people who play the piano have longer fingers than I have. On both of my hands, my thumb and little finger can stretch over eight notes to play an octave, a frequent requirement when playing special arrangements of hymn tunes. If my hands are in the right position, I can even hit a ninth note, if needed. But absolutely no farther than that. The challenge comes when I need to fill in three notes of a chord with my other three fingers. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can’t, depending on the position of each note. Fortunately, I usually play hymn arrangements where I can freely substitute notes I can reach for the ones I can’t, and the music still sounds okay. (Good thing I don’t play too much demanding classical music where substitutions would be considered a musical crime.)

I really enjoy playing the piano (and organ, too). I can get totally lost playing a song like “Be Still My Soul” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” The music becomes a conversation between God and me.

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When I select music to play for preludes, offertories, and postludes for church services, I try to select music that can prompt others to communicate with God in the same way. I start the process of planning the music for the service by reading the scriptures assigned for that Sunday. Usually, that will bring related hymns to mind. Then I’ll search through my books of piano and organ arrangements and choose something that seems to fit the theme for the day.

For example, last weekend, the Gospel was Matthew 15:21-28, the story of Jesus refusing to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman because he didn’t want to waste his healing powers on the “dogs.” Those powers were intended for the Jews. But the woman persisted with great faith, and Jesus healed her daughter after all. It’s a difficult story to understand. What better hymn to reflect on that than “More about Jesus.” I really want to know more and more about Jesus to be able to understand this story better. As the song says…

More about Jesus I would know,
More of His grace to others show;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me.

More, more about Jesus,
More, more about Jesus;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me..

[Eliza E Hewitt, 1887]

“Coincidentally,” earlier that week I had downloaded a new piano arrangement of that hymn from one of my favorite websites, and I decided that would make the perfect offertory. For the people familiar with the hymn, they could silently pray the words as I played the music. For those who didn’t know the hymn, they could simply enjoy the music. (The tune name is SWEENEY.)

As I was looking for a postlude, I paged through a new book of arrangements I had ordered a few months ago, and came across “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” That seemed to me like a very appropriate postlude, considering how Jesus healed the woman’s daughter, even though she was a Canaanite. But, I thought this was another old hymn that would most likely be unfamiliar to most of the congregation. So, I decided to test Mim, a life-long Lutheran, to find out if she recognized the tune. I played the arrangement for her, and asked if she knew it. She said, Oh sure. That’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Well, she was right. The tune name is EBENEZER, which is commonly used for both hymns. I guess that made this arrangement doubly appropriate. The theme of that week’s Gospel is both about the deep love of Jesus and about the fact that Jesus’ love is for all people, not just the Jews. group handshake 1

So, what does all this have to do with little hands?

In my devotional reading this morning, I read 2 Corinthians 10:12-18, as specified in the devotional booklet, CHRIST IN OUR HOME. Here’s part of the reading…

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense. We however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us…

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.

[2 Corinthians 10:12-13, 17-18 NRSV]

The reflection on this text in CHRIST IN OUR HOME ended with:

Paul’s point is this: we boast and are proud of a … gift that God gave. In fact, to do otherwise might be to deny the gift that God has provided. God has given us many gifts. We can be thankful for them, be proud of them, boast of them, and use them to enlarge God’s kingdom.

God gave me little hands, and a wide exposure to sacred music – from the gospel songs of my Methodist childhood, to the more formal hymns of the church, to Evangelical praise songs and choruses. My fingers are too short, as is my ability to memorize long complex musical phrases, for me to be a classical pianist. But that’s not what God created me for. That’s not what I should compare my talents to. God created me to help create music in church, to help others pray and worship God. And for that, I am thankful – little hands and all.

Marian at Messiah organ 2

And best of all, I don’t have to get as dressed up for church as I would for a fancy concert hall!

Happy Birthday!

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My mom wanted a picture of her flower bed. That’s why I’m holding my birthday cake outside.

The earliest birthday party I remember was my brother Danny’s 7th birthday. I was 5. He had invited about a dozen of his classmates to come over after school on his birthday – September 11. Mom had organized lots of simple games to play, and all the games had prizes for the winners. Even though I didn’t know most of the kids, and I was much younger, being only a kindergartener and they were all second-graders, I was allowed to play the games. One of the games was dropping clothespins into a quart jar. Whoever got the most clothespins in the jar, won the game. I didn’t get any in the jar. But what was so wonderful about that, is that I learned that there was such a thing as a booby price. I won the prize for being the worst player of the game. Wow! What a new insight into life! You don’t have to be the winner to be special and win a prize. Even being the worst at something can be good.

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Danny

I think I was about 10 when I went to the best birthday party ever. It was for my friend Susan. It was in the summertime, I remember. Susan had invited about 10 of our classmates, all girls. She had told us in the party invitation to wear play clothes, not to dress up in party dresses. When we all arrived at her house, we piled into a couple cars and rode to a farm near Lake Mills. This wasn’t just any farm. It was a horseback riding stable. The stable owner paired each of us up with a horse and helped us climb into the saddle.  In my case, my legs were too short to reach the stirrups regardless of how much he tried to shorten the straps. He finally figured out that he could maneuver my feet into the leather above where the stirrups hung, and that would stabilize me enough to not fall off the saddle, especially if I held on tight to the saddle horn. I was in heaven. At that time in my life, Roy Rogers was my hero. My biggest dream was to have my own horse. That never happened. But that day, I could pretend, and I loved the gentle old horse that plodded along the trail, dutifully following the horse in front of her. Our ride lasted an hour. Then we got back in the cars and rode home to Susan’s house where she opened her presents and we had the usual birthday party supper – hot dogs, potato chips, Kool-Aid, birthday cake and ice cream. I think I can safely say I’ll never forget that day! Almost 60 years later I still remember it as the best birthday party ever.

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Susan is on the far left. I’m next to her, sitting down.

I could write on and on about special birthday celebrations, like:

  • The year Mim turned 30 and I gave her 30 presents. The most fun that year was shopping for presents that would reflect Mim’s interests at each year of her life – a sort of biography of Mim written in presents.
  • fullsizeoutput_20d0The year our mystery-loving friend Marilyn turned 40, and Mim and I gave her seven little presents, each being a clue to what her real present would be – a weekend trip to Waverly, Iowa, where we boarded a luxurious passenger train for a 3-hour journey, and we dined on-board with a 4-course gourmet dinner as we watched the countryside fly by.
  • The year I turned 50 and my co-workers decorated my office in black because they mourned my passing into old age.
  • Or, this year, when Mim will turn 70 on Saturday, and she will receive a 5-CD set of me playing some of her favorite songs on the piano – as she requested.

Birthdays are on my mind these days because summertime is the busy time of the year for birthdays in our household. Our resident Carolyn turned 96 on June 13. (Our other resident Anna had already turned 96 earlier in the year.) On June 24, I reversed the digits “96” and turned 69. Mim is already 69, and will turn 70 this Saturday, August 5. Then on August 22, Dulce (the girl we help support in Honduras) will turn 9, and on September 1, Leydi (the other girl in Honduras we help support), will turn 14. Like I said, summertime is the birthday season for us.

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Celebrating Carolyn’s 96th Birthday at Norske Nook – Denise (one of or colleagues), Anna, Mim, Carolyn.

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about how wonderful it is to celebrate birthdays. Honoring someone’s birthday is the perfect opportunity to let the birthday girl (or boy) know how special they are. One tradition in our home is to stand up all the birthday cards on the piano for a week or two as a strong reminder of how loved that person is. The birthday girl needs to be reminded of how special she really is.

“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.” [William Barclay] Celebrating birthdays helps us remember that.

I hope you are filled with love and joy as you celebrate your own birthday and the birthdays of your friends and family throughout the year – and every year. Happy Birthday!

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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.