Tag Archive | Joan Chittister

I’m Getting Smarter Every Day

Floey's award for successfully completing the Intermediate Class.

Floey’s award for successfully completing the Intermediate Class.

“Congratulations, Floey. You did it. You graduated from Intermediate Class at Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison. I was surprised your teacher decided to award you your certificate, even though you will have to miss your last class. Apparently you learned everything you needed to know in five classes instead of six. Wow! I guess you’re pretty smart.”

Floey sitting smiling 07-06-15“Thanks, Mom. I knew I could learn all the stuff they wanted to teach us in class, but I learned a lot more, too.”

“What else did you learn, Floey?”

“The most important thing I learned is that there’s more than one RIGHT way of doing things. That’s something lots of dogs – and people, too – never learn.”

“Tell me more about that, Floey.”

“Well, some people and dogs communicate only with hand signals. They don’t use any words at all. At first I thought that was dumb. It’s fun to talk. But then I realized that sometimes there’s a good reason for it, like when you’re outside and a big noisy truck goes by. You can’t hear anything but an engine roaring. But a dog can still see a hand signal. I guess it really makes sense to learn both words and hand signals, so I made sure I learned both in class.”

“That seems like a good idea. I’ll try to remember to use both words and hand signals when I want to tell you something.”

dog walking - multiples“That’s OK, Mom. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice. Another example of different RIGHT ways of doing things is that some dogs heel on the right side of their person. I always thought dogs had to heel on the person’s left side. But the teacher said either way was RIGHT. At first I was skeptical. I thought the teacher was being too easy on the dogs that were heeling on the WRONG side. But I went and talked to one of the dogs who was heeling on the WRONG side, to politely tell him he was doing it WRONG, and he politely told me to mind my own business and listen to the teacher. I didn’t particularly like that dog.”

“I know which dog you mean. I didn’t particularly like his person either. Fortunately, they seemed to like each other.”

“Yeah. I really liked most of the dogs and people in this class, and I especially liked the teacher. She had so many good ideas, and she encouraged us to pick and choose the ideas that appealed to each of us the most. Boy, is she open-minded.”

“You know, Floey, I just read something about a week ago in Joan Chittister’s pamphlet, The Monastic Way. She said,

It takes humility to accept the fact that there may be other equally good ways to do things than the way we ourselves have always done them. It’s amazing how small our lives can really become. And at our own hand.

“Chittister may be on to something, Floey.”

“That’s right, Mom. That’s one of the big things I learned in this class. My way of doing things is usually the RIGHT way. But another dog’s way of doing things – even if it’s different from my way – can be the RIGHT way, too. There’s not just one RIGHT way to do something. It’s not a black and white world. It’s much more colorful than that!”

“I agree. I wish that’s something everyone would learn – people as well as dogs. Maybe the best way to teach the rest of the world is to try to practice open-mindedness as much as we can ourselves. Not everyone gets to go to a class like you did to learn that there’s always more than one RIGHT way to do something.”

“Sounds good to me. Now, do I have any more classes to take, or have I learned everything?”

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.”

Floey-Marian faces selfie

Floey and me thinking really hard about future educational goals.

Another Talk with My Friend Floey

Floeys Face 2

Floey

“Hey, Floey. What did you think about your new class last week?”

Floey grinned at me and replied, “I loved it! When you first told me I would be going to another class, I really wondered why. I passed my class last winter with flying colors. I couldn’t imagine why you thought I needed to go to another class. I’ve learned everything I need to know.”

I laughed a little, then said, “You’ve learned a lot in the seven months you’ve been part of our family, and that’s on top of all you learned in the first ten months of your life. But, you know, there’s always something more to learn.”

Floey sitting - profile“Boy, did I find that out in class last week! The two instructors had a little list of things we’ll learn over the six-week Intermediate Class. That’s no big deal. Although I’m not so sure I want to learn the “Go to mat” command. We’ll see about that one. At home I really need to go to the door whenever the doorbell rings to be sure it’s safe for you to let the visitor in. I need to protect you. I can’t do that if I’m sitting on a mat away from the door. But there are so many other things to learn in class besides what’s on the list. Did you see all those other dogs, Mom?”

“Yup, there were about a dozen, and they were all different kinds.”

“Most of them were about my size, or a little bigger, but there were a couple cute little white ones, and a great big German shepherd and another big dog with a hound dog face. Did you see the dog who said his mother was a dachshund but he had no idea who his father was? I bet his dad was a big, stocky beagle. He was really smart. The instructor asked him to help her demonstrate some of the things she was trying to teach us.”

“And, Floey, did you notice the dog to our left in the circle? She looked a lot like Abbey, your late sister. She was the same size and color, and her face was very similar – a very sweet dog.”

“Yeah, I did. And the dog on our right was really friendly. I liked her a lot. My goal for next week is to learn the names of all the dogs in class. And, I want to make friends with as many of them as I can.”

“That’s sounds like a good goal, as long as you learn the items listed on the curriculum, too.”

Floey-Marian faces selfie 2“Oh, Mom, that’s not the important stuff. I’ll learn that, too. But the really important stuff is to learn what I can from everyone else in class, and from all the surroundings. Do you have any idea how many things there are to sniff inside that building, and outside, too?  And during break time, I bet that German shepherd can tell me a lot about what it feels like to be the biggest, bravest dog in the world. And I’m sure the little white dogs can tell me all about the importance of having a big bark. I can hardly wait to go back to class again tonight.”

“Well, Floey, I’m so glad you like going to class and learning new things. I think I can learn a lot from your enthusiasm. And your curiosity. And your positive attitude. And your loving kindness… I’ve already learned a lot from you, Floey.”

“I guess we’re good for each other, Mom.”

“Yup, we are. I just read something about that in Joan Chittister’s pamphlet, “The Monastic Way.” On June 23 she wrote:

The relationship between humans and animals is necessary – not for the animal but for our own sense of kinship with nature and the full human development. Anatole France writes, “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

“But, Mom, that says ‘animal’ not ‘dog.’ Do you think that applies to cats, and birds, and goldfish? Certainly those creatures aren’t as significant as us dogs in awakening human souls.”

Mim with kittens

Mim and her kittens – a few years back

“Oh, I don’t know, Floey. Your other Mom, Mim, didn’t really know or love any dog until your big sister Megabtye came along in 1990. Mim was already 42 years old by the time Meg came into her life.  But her soul was awakened to the wonders of God’s creation through cats when she was just a little girl. Her mother Selma had her life enriched deeply when she was 83 years old and living with us after suffering a stroke, and a tiny kitten with a broken leg crawled into her life. Dogs are a really special part of God’s creation, but so are cats.”

Love in action: Mim's mom, Selma, caring for a stray kitten that had been dropped off at the farm.

Love in action: Mim’s mom, Selma, caring for a stray kitten that had been dropped off at the farm.

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. Are squirrels and goldfinches good for developing our souls, too?

“Haven’t you ever watched some teenage squirrels chase each other up and down trees? They are having so much fun, I wish I could join them in the chase.”

Monastic Way 06-15“Me, too. But you always hold me back from chasing them.”

“My soul finds delight in just watching their playfulness. Yours can, too.  And just listen to goldfinches singing. They are so happy it’s contagious. I think they’re praising God with their songs.”

“I can sing, too, Mom. Ann calls it yodeling. I have a beautiful voice and a wide range.”

“Yes, you do, Floey. God gave different gifts to every being in creation. That’s why it’s so good for all of us to be friends with each other. I think that’s what Joan Chittister was talking about.”

“Well, I really like what she quoted Anatole France as saying, ‘Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”  Let me awaken your soul some more, Mom. Let’s go for a walk and watch squirrels, listen to goldfinches, and see whatever else nudges our souls.”

“Great idea! God gave us another beautiful day. Let’s enjoy it!”

For Crying Out Loud

According to the idioms section of TheFreeDictionary.com, “for crying out loud” is “An exclamation of anger or exasperation, as in For crying out loud, can’t you do anything right? This term is a euphemism for for Christ’s sake.

For crying out loud, I’ve been reading Joan Chittister’s monthly pamphlet for more than four years now. The pamphlet for last month (May 2015) is the first one that I really haven’t liked. This year, instead of reflecting on beautiful paintings each month, she’s reflecting on one particular quotation for a whole month. Brother Mickey McGrath creates a new illustration of the quotation for the front flap of each month’s pamphlet.

The quotation for the month of May was by St. Catherine of Siena:

Cry out with a thousand tongues. I see the world is rotten because of silence.

Cry Out Pamphlet CoverThe quote is an order to do something – to cry out – because of a terrible observation – that the world is rotten because people don’t cry out. Unfortunately, the quote is more depressing to me than uplifting. That’s not the way I want to begin each day – being depressed.

Chittister’s reflection for Thursday, May 21, was probably my least favorite of all.

Silence is a virtue only when it prepares us to act well later. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a symptom of spiritual narcissism.

I took a little offense at that comment. Most people who know me would describe me as a quiet person. I rarely speak unless I think I have something worthwhile to say. If I have to make small talk, I will, but I don’t like it. It’s far from my favorite thing to do.

In contrast to making small talk, I see silence as something good. Silence is an opportunity to think, to learn, and to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. For crying out loud, I certainly don’t see silence as a “symptom of spiritual narcissism.” (Or is it? Maybe I need to think about that a little more – but not this week.)

Silence ripplesBut perhaps, I’m taking Chittister’s comments too personally. Toward the end of May I decided to re-read all the daily reflections in one sitting. I understand that her point for the month wasn’t to criticize the golden moments of silence that I treasure, but rather to criticize the silence that is the opposite of standing up for what is right – the  silence that is the opposite of working for justice.

In her introduction to the month’s reflections, Chittister quoted Pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote during World War II:

Martin Niemoller 2

Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

For 31 days I read a paragraph each day about the need to cry out for justice. On May first Chittister talked about all the injustices worldwide and ended with another quote – this time one by Helen Keller.

Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.

The next day she pounded the same point. “Evil can only remain evil as long as the rest of the world continues to be silent about it.”

One day she brought Anne Frank into the discussion, who had written,

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Finally. A ray of hope. Something uplifting. We can start improving the world any time we want.

snowflake-avalancheAnother day Chittister asked the question, “What did I do today to minimize the evil in the world, in my neighborhood, in my family?” Just in case we feel that we are too little and insignificant to have any real impact by what we personally say and do, Chittister reminded us of what Stanislaw Jerzy Lec said:

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Chittister summarized the month’s reflections with, “It is your voice and mine, alone as well as together, that are meant to raise the alarms. If we don’t point out the breakdowns in human community and make clear the unseen millions in need, they go on being unseen by the many.”

Okay. So this wasn’t my favorite month of “The Monastic Way” pamphlet. But, by the end of the month, I was maybe a little inspired by the message. For crying out loud, “the world is rotten because of silence.” For Christ’s sake, I guess I can join with others and “Cry out with a thousand tongues” to try to make the world a better place, especially for people who are treated unjustly. Now I just need to decide where to begin…

Cry Out

A Roundtable Discussion that Makes My Day

roundtableImagine starting your day almost every morning in a roundtable discussion with six other people plus yourself. In my case, the people are Joan Chittister, Henri Nouwen, God, Jimmy Carter, Christine Dallman, and M. J. Ryan – and, of course, myself. Wow! Quite a group of seven we are. Usually, everyone speaks up in the order listed. We spend about half an hour talking about whatever is on each person’s mind.

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

Occasionally the participants of the roundtable discussion change, but for the past four years, three participants have been constant – Joan Chittister (speaking through her monthly pamphlet, “The Monastic Way”), God (communicating through the daily readings of the Revised Common Lectionary – as listed in the daily devotional booklet, “Christ in Our Home”), and me.

Last year Henri Nouwen (“Bread for the Journey”) hadn’t joined us yet, but Edward Hays (“Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim” and “A Book of Wonders”) was in his place. Jimmy Carter (“Through the Year with Jimmy Carter”) is a newcomer this year, too. Christine Dallman (“The Personal Daily Prayer Book”) is also new this year, and she always prays about something a little different every day.

M. J. Ryan (“Attitudes of Gratitude”) just joined the group a couple weeks ago, and she plans to stay for only a couple months. She keeps telling us inspiring stories of people who exhibit a heart-warming attitude of gratitude. Her stories are really helpful in giving us a down-to-earth perspective on life. Pretty soon she’s planning to leave the group, and someone else will come along to join us as a short-termer. Debbie Macomber has often joined us as the floater. She’s the one who got me into the habit of having a special word for each year instead of doing New Year’s resolutions.

I’ll admit that some mornings the seven of us have an amazing discussion and I can’t help but think about it all day long. Other times, even though we had a great discussion, I don’t think about it at all throughout the day.

Usually I don’t say much in these discussions – I just listen and ponder what’s being said. But I discipline myself about once a week to speak up. Sometimes I transcribe these thoughts for my blog.

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen

A couple days ago, Joan Chittister talked about something Albert Einstein once said about being careful that we don’t limit God by trying to define God. Henri Nouwen said that we need to be careful that we don’t become too legalistic in defining what we claim to be God’s nature. God then spoke up about how helpful the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd can be to us, and how important it is for us to demonstrate the love and care that shepherds give their flocks.

Then Jimmy Carter wrapped it all up saying how important it is to remember that God is all about showing love and always being kind. He said that his favorite Bible verse is Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” [New Living Translation] I spoke up when I heard him say that. I said, “That’s my favorite verse, too!” Jimmy Carter and I have something in common beside politics! I didn’t know anyone shared my favorite Bible verse!

Jimmy Carter 2It was Christine Dallman’s turn to speak up next. She prayed, “O God, make us children of quietness ….” I smiled at that. I like to be quiet. Then she encouraged us to “Take time to unwind, time to be silent, time to reflect, and time to pray…” Imagine her saying that, just when I’m in the middle of spending two weeks by myself at our Christmas Mountain timeshare with plenty of time to be quiet – time to read, write, think, and pray.

As usual, M. J. Ryan ended our discussion by telling another story about gratitude. She told us about a woman who had suffered a stroke and had lost her ability to speak. She had been a great communicator and had been able to speak five languages. Now she struggled to find words to simply talk with her adult children. The children tried to help her by suggesting words that she might be trying to say, and the experience for everyone was just frustrating. A therapist, trying to help the family, suggested that when they are frustrated by her inability to express herself verbally, they should focus on her attempts to communicate by touch. This opened up a whole new world of opportunity to communicate the love they felt for each other that they had never been able to express in words.

Ryan went on to say that “the trick is to use a source of frustration as a trigger to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.” Then she gave a personal example.

For me it’s standing in line. I absolutely hate to ‘waste’ time; I live my life at a frenetic pace and don’t want anything to get in my way of doing all I have to get done in a day. Until recently, I was the person in the line huffing and rolling my eyes at the wait, jiggling and looking at my watch every few seconds. And when I finally made it to the counter, I was too aggravated from having to wait to be pleasant to the person on the other side of the counter. But since life is full of lines, I finally decided to change my approach. Instead of being annoyed, I decided to see waiting in line as a wonderful opportunity to slow down, to take a few conscious breaths, become aware of my body, and release as much muscle tension as I could. The waits are as long as ever – but now I am grateful for the chance to stop.

Hmmm. That made me think about some of the little aggravations in life that frustrate me… Is there some way I can change those moments into triggers of gratitude? Something to think about…

I’m truly grateful for this roundtable discussion every morning. What an inspiring way to begin my day!

roundtable of books

Why Was I Created?

Over the last few years I’ve had the practice of starting the day with reading from two or three devotional books by my favorite inspirational writers. This year I’m reading:

  • The Monastic Way by Joan Chittister (a pamphlet that comes monthly, with the readings of each month based on a common theme),
  • Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri Nouwen, and
  • Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.

I’ve mentioned some of the readings by Chittister and Nouwen in my blog, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned the Jimmy Carter book – until today.

Through the Year with Jimmy CarterI picked up this book at The Frugal Muse used bookstore last December, and I thought it might provide an interesting addition to my morning meditations. The blurb on the back of the book said, “Unique among the multitude of daily devotional books, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter combines the grace and wisdom of a deeply spiritual Bible study with personal stories and prayers for each day of the year, all drawn from the Sunday school lessons former president Jimmy Carter taught – and the life lessons God taught him.”

Last week, one of the readings was especially interesting. The title of the reading was “Called by God.” It started with this Bible verse: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” [Jeremiah 1:5] Then Carter cited a nationwide poll that had been published by USA TODAY. The question asked in the poll was, “If you could come face-to-face with God what would you ask?” The most popular responses fascinated me:

6%          How long will I live?
7%          Is there intelligent life elsewhere?
16%        Why do bad things happen?
19%        Is there life after death?
34%        Why was I created? What should I do with my life?

Carter commented, “Just as God had told Jeremiah, ‘I knew you in the womb, and even then I had a purpose for you,’ so God knew us in the womb and has a unique purpose for us.”

I told Mim about this poll, and she mentioned the popularity of the book The Purpose-Driven Life a few years ago. She wasn’t surprised that the most popular question people would ask God is what their purpose in life is. People want to know if there is a purpose for their life.

I remember thinking about that question a lot when I was in high school and college – what was I supposed to become? Or, what was God’s purpose for my life? Or, does God really have a plan for my life – or can I figure out for myself what I want to do with my life?

Marian TDS Caricature

Caricature of me created by a roving artist at a corporate Christmas party during my TDS years.

My ideas on that question have changed over the years. One of the most significant conversations I had with myself about the purpose of my life happened when I was working as a manager of financial systems at Telephone and Data Systems (TDS), a large privately-held telecommunications corporation. I wasn’t particularly happy in that job, mainly because I was routinely working 60 or more hours per week for the sole purpose of making more money for the Carlsons – the very wealthy family who owned the corporation. I didn’t see that any social good was being accomplished by all my efforts. I was convinced I was wasting my life by doing that job. When I reached that conclusion, I started to seriously look for another job. After having two interviews with the State about a position that sounded like a good fit for my skills and interests, I was pretty sure I would be offered the job, so I quit TDS. I didn’t want to waste any more of my life doing meaningless work for the Carlsons.

Oops… I didn’t get offered that state job. I guess I failed to convince the State that I was as good a fit as I thought I was… Which leads me to what Joan Chittister was prompting me to think about last week. The theme for the month of March is failure. The quote she is focusing upon is by St. Teresa of Avila, “To reach something good, it is useful to have gone astray.”

Chittister’s comment on Monday of last week was, “Failure is what teaches us that we belong somewhere else. Only by embracing this new possibility can we become the fullness of ourselves.”

When I failed to get the state job, I decided to spend a few months working full-time with Mim to turn our farmhouse into a bed and breakfast, and to do a little small business consulting on the side. That was 17 years ago. Our business, Korth-Jacobson LLC, has evolved over the years as Mim and I have recognized needs and opportunities to live the lives we think God wants us to live – and that we want to live. My unwillingness to stay in a job that seemed like a waste of time, coupled with my failure to get another job, gave us the opportunity to explore being self-employed – to explore doing the things in life we felt called to do.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in the late 1990s

Thanks to Jimmy Carter and Joan Chittister, that’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past week – the purpose of my life and the importance of the failures in my life – so far. And there’s still more to go… I’m sure I’ll experience more failures before I die, and I expect I’ll gain more insights into what God wants me to do with the life I have left on earth. (I hope there’s some time left for retirement!)

Canine Wisdom

F sitting 022815Floey came running over to me. Her tail was wagging as fast as it can wag, but she dutifully sat down and looked up at me. “Hey, Mom. Has it come yet?” she asked.

“What’s that, Floey?”

“My check for $50. Remember Ellen at ARVSS (Animal Rescue & Veterinary Support Services) where I came from said I would get a $50 graduation present if I successfully completed a beginner dog training class. And I did it! I graduated way back on February 9. I know you emailed a copy of my diploma to Ellen because I reminded you to do it. Has the check come yet? I can hardly wait to go shopping!”

“Well, Floey. It came, but I lost it. I’m so sorry.”

Her tail stopped wagging. “You lost it? You lost my check? You’re kidding, Mom. Where is it?” Her tail started thumping again.

“No, Floey. I really lost it. I emailed your diploma to ARVSS on Monday, and the check came in the mail on Tuesday. I wanted to cash it for you on Friday so we could go shopping during the weekend, but I couldn’t find it. I looked all over. I just can’t find it. It’s got to be here somewhere! I just can’t figure out where.”

F diploma“Did you look in the rack on top of your desk where you always put checks to be cashed?” Floey asked.

“That’s the first place I looked,” I replied. “I was sure it would be there. It wasn’t.”

“Well, did you look on the shelf at the top of the stairs where you put things to take downstairs?” she asked.

“Yes, I looked there next. I’ve spent a couple hours looking for it.”

F and Marian faces“So that’s why you cleaned off your desk and the work table in your office. I wondered why you were cleaning so thoroughly. You’re usually too busy to clean.”

“Yes. That’s why I’ve been cleaning up so much. I guess that’s a good side effect of losing the check – my office is the cleanest it’s been in months. But I’m so frustrated I can hardly stand it. I don’t know if I should pound the table or cry. I really feel bad, Floey.”

F looking up at me“Oh, don’t feel bad, Mom. I know you didn’t lose it on purpose. I don’t really need to have a $50 shopping spree. It would be fun, but it’s not something I need. What I need is a loving forever family – and thanks to you and Mim, I now have one.” Floey put her chin on my lap. She looked up at my face and said, “Mom, you need to remember what you read all last month in The Monastic Way. I’ve been peering over your shoulder every morning, and I know the daily readings by Joan Chittister were all about patience. Remember, the cover had a quote from St. Francis de Sales, “Be patient with everyone, but especially yourself.”

Face on lapFloey licked the tear that was rolling down my cheek. “Thanks, Floey. I remember the first reading of the month. ‘Patience is the quality it takes to fail and then to recover better, brighter, wiser than ever before.’ I certainly failed by losing your graduation present. I guess now I need to be patient to learn from my mistake – to be more careful about keeping track of important papers, like checks.”

Floey smiled. “My favorite reading was on Friday the 13th. ‘Patience is life without hysterics, without anger, without blame. It is the gift that keeps the world inching toward rightness.’ I think many dogs are born knowing this truth. The first ten months of my life weren’t easy, but I don’t blame anyone, and I’m not angry. With patience, I have now moved into the next phase of my life, and it is good.”

“You really are a good, patient dog, Floey. Thank you for helping me get over my frustration of the moment, and reminding me about how good last month’s Monastic Way was. Another reading that spoke to me was on February 22 – ‘We learn patience by repeating to ourselves over and over again, There is something in this moment that I am meant to learn. And then to stop and learn it.’”

F sitting w crossed legs -0022815Floey interrupted me. “I remember that reading. It ended with a quote from Barbara Johnson, ‘Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.’ I thought that was a good description. Even though I’ve never driven a car, I guess the feeling is like staying in a SIT-STAY position when a squirrel runs within ten feet of you! That’s patience!”

“Thanks, Floey. You are both patient and understanding. I think you have a lot to teach me.”

ADDENDUM
I drafted this blog post on Saturday. On Monday morning Mim found the check. It was inside its envelope in the paper recycling box under the kitchen sink. Mim had looked in that box before but missed it. We have no idea how the envelop floated into that box. That will remain a mystery. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying a clean desk top and office work table.

The Best Family Tradition of All – Baking Christmas Cookies!

Christmas Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Cookies at Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Chittister has it right –

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

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

Emily w decorated Xmas cookies

 

ENOUGH

Last December when I told Mim about the idea of selecting a special word for the New Year instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, she caught my enthusiasm and decided to select a word for herself, too, a word that would help her keep focused on one particular area for spiritual enrichment throughout the year. As you may recall, my special word for 2014 is JOY. I’m having a great time keeping my eyes and ears alert to detecting moments of joy, day by day, and being thankful for all the joy in my life.

Mim headThe word Mim chose is ENOUGH. When she told me her word choice, I seriously wondered if she really understood the concept underlying having a special word for the year. ENOUGH didn’t seem like a very inspiring word to me. But after eight months, I’m beginning to understand why Mim chose that word. What’s happened to me by Mim’s word choice is that while finding moments of JOY is the primary theme of my day-to-day living this year, the word ENOUGH has become the secondary theme. I sometimes catch myself thinking about what’s ENOUGH – enough money to pay the bills as well as think about retirement; enough food to feed everyone in our household, but not too much of anything that might spoil; enough time to get my work done, or at least the really important things on my to-do list…

Fruit StallImagine my surprise when I saw that the theme of Joan Chittister’s Monastic Way pamphlet for the month of August (Mim’s birthday month) is ENOUGHNESS. The painting Chittister selected to illustrate ENOUGHNESS is A Fruit Stall by 19th century English painter, Helen Allingham. The proprietress of the fruit stand is surrounded by dozens of baskets of different kinds of fruits with some fruits piled high against a wall. A woman carrying a small basket is looking at all the fruits to make her selection.

Chittister started her month’s reflections on enoughness with:

In our world, we are at the point in the West where consumption has come to trump need. So now almost no one knows what they really need anymore. But we are wizards at knowing what we want. It’s a universal disease. And it can be fatal.

Throughout the month, Chittister reflected on some of the wide-ranging consequences of not recognizing when you have enough and should stop accumulating more and more and more. On August 12, Chittister wrote:

It is neither abundance nor acquisition that will save the world. It is the simple virtue of enoughness, of knowing that what I have is sufficient for me, of knowing that what I give will end the destitution of others.

Later in the month, Chittister’s reflections became a little more political sounding. On August 27 she quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little.” On August 30 Chittister added, “What does it say about a society that can produce multiple billionaires, hundreds of millionaires, but cannot educate its students or pay enough to feed its workers? It says our time of greatness is running out.” Her tone actually reminded me of the Old Testament prophets who criticized the people from turning away from God’s laws.

Yesterday I asked Mim how it was going with ENOUGH being her word for the year, now that she’s been focusing on it for eight months.  She replied, “ENOUGH concentrates on today – not the future. There is enough food, time, energy, etc. for today. I don’t know the future. ENOUGH helps me concentrate on today.” Then she pulled out an email that a friend had sent her. Her friend quoted a paragraph from the May 28, 2014 issue of The Christian Century magazine.

JUST ENOUGH:  Marilyn McEntyre was at first wary when congregants were asked in a worship service to “write your spiritual autobiography in six words.” Then these words came to her:

“Eat the manna. More will come.”

To McEntyre this was an expression of her ongoing anxieties about “saving and spending, keeping and letting go, prudent stewardship and the practice of generosity.” Her six-word autobiography reminded her of the way her mother lived – not far from poverty yet “rich in trust and stories about just the right amount of food, money, help showing up just when it was needed.”

Mim said she keeps the email with her devotional books and re-reads it frequently. It reminds her to trust God to provide for all her needs.

ENOUGH is a word that can be pondered from opposite directions, from:

  • not having enough and trusting that needs will somehow be met, and
  • having too much and figuring out how to share rather than over-consume or accumulate.

Or, as Joan Chittister put it, “the simple virtue of enoughness [is] knowing that what I have is sufficient for me, … and knowing that what I give will end the destitution of others.”

enough

Happiness Engineer – One of My Favorite Job Titles

happiness-engineersLast week I received an email from someone with the job title of “Happiness Engineer.” It made me smile. The email was from WordPress, the Internet service I use for hosting this blog. Earlier in the week I had contacted WordPress through their website to let them know that I had been charged twice on my credit card on the same day for a one-year renewal of their hosting and software service. Someone at WordPress with the title of “Happiness Engineer” checked out my concern, apologized for the error, and assured me my account would be credited. The “Happiness Engineer” made me happy.

In another company, the person who resolves minor customer concerns like mine would probably be called a “Customer Service Representative.” I guess that’s an appropriate job title, although if I were the person doing the job, I think I’d prefer the title of “Happiness Engineer.” I think this title would help me keep focused on trying to create happiness as part of the solution to every problem I had to solve.

Dagmar Vasby

Dagmar Vasby – former Missionary to China and Africa, and my neighbor for many years.

“Happiness Engineer.” That got me thinking about some of the job titles I’ve had over my career: English Teacher, Editorial Researcher, Business Systems Analyst, Manager of Financial Systems, Business Consultant, Real Estate Broker, Innkeeper, Organist, and a few others. The one title I really didn’t like was “Functional Analyst.” I guess it was better than “Dysfunctional Analyst,” but that’s what I always thought of when I saw the title “Functional Analyst” after my name.

A week and a half ago I went to the funeral of a 106-year-old former neighbor who had been a missionary to China and Africa. She had many job titles, too – Missionary Nurse, Teacher, Mother to a widower’s five children, Writer, Speaker, Lay Minister, and many more.

At the lunch following the funeral I talked with several old friends, and I met a few new people. When I was introduced to one person, I was shocked to hear her say to me, “the author?” when she heard my name. I guess that’s my favorite new job title. I like being seen as an author.

In this month’s “Monastic Way,” Joan Chittister focuses her readers’ attention on a self-portrait by Mary Cassatt. She begins her pamphlet with these words:

Mary Cassatt - Self PortraitTo paint a self-portrait, the artist is required to look into a mirror or study a photograph of themselves as they work. They do what few of us ever sit down and do consciously: they look themselves square in the face and try to draw a picture of what they see there. The difference between what they see there and what another artist might set out to express of them is that the person doing a self-portrait knows what every line and furrow, every cast of eye and hunch of shoulder says about the soul within…

What does a job title have to do with a self-portrait? They both provide glimpses into who we are – as we see ourselves, and as other people see us.

Jesus talked about this, too. In all four Gospels, Jesus is recorded as asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answered by saying that some people said he was John the Baptist. Others said he must be Elijah, or one of the other prophets. And then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him by saying, “You are the Messiah.”

I guess we could say Jesus’ job title was “Messiah.” And we could say Peter’s job title was “Apostle” and “Father of the Church,” based on his early recognition of Jesus being the Messiah and his getting the early church in Jerusalem organized.

Smiley FaceAs I think about who I am – as if I were trying to do a self-portrait by giving myself the perfect “job title” to describe who I am, not just the work I do, but who God created me to be – what would the job title be? “Happiness Engineer” might be a good start, but I’m not sure that’s exactly how I think about myself.

I guess that’s something else I want to think about this year – what job title would I like to create for myself? What kind of self-portrait should the job title reflect?

Success! I finally memorized it!

child playing piano 2“Jesus loves me, this I know … “That’s the first song I memorized as a child. That’s a song little children still memorize today. Sometimes when I’m practicing the piano or organ at church, a little child will timidly walk up to me to watch me play. I’ll stop what I’m playing and invite the child to play a key or a pedal so they can find out what it feels like and sounds like to play a note or two. Then I’ll play “Jesus loves me.” Without exception, the child will smile. Sometimes they sing along. I think it’s a universal truth that it’s both comforting and fun to respond to something we’ve memorized.

“God bless our food. Amen.” That’s the first table prayer I memorized. I repeated it before every meal until I went to kindergarten and learned “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let this food to us be blessed. Amen.” For the past 60 years, I’ve repeated this prayer before meals.

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands …” I remember memorizing “The Pledge of Allegiance” in first grade.

Village Blacksmith“Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands …” I think I was in fifth grade when I had to memorize this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I was surprised to hear my mom recite the whole poem when I was trying to memorize just a couple verses. She’d memorized it in grade school, too.  She also had memorized “October’s Bright Blue Weather” by Helen Hunt Jackson and just about every other poem I was assigned to memorize in school. She remembered them all.

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 KJV) That was one of the first Bible verses I memorized in Sunday School. Apparently a lot of people memorized that verse, because nowadays you even see it posted on billboards.

Throughout my grade school and high school years my mom had my brother and me memorize one Bible verse a week. She wrote a verse on top of a chart. The days of the week were listed below the verse, across the top of a grid. All the chores Danny and I were supposed to do every day were listed down the left side of the grid. The top half of the grid was Danny’s. The bottom half was mine. Every time we completed a job (like make bed, wash dishes, etc.) we were supposed to read the verse on the top of the chart, and then write its reference in the grid. By the end of the week, the grid was filled and we had memorized the Bible verse. If we could still recite each verse by the end of the month, we would get a prize. As I recall, we had a 100 percent success rate. The first verse we memorized this way was Ephesian 4:32, “Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (I think my mom’s real motive for having us memorize this verse was to help us remember to be nice to each other and not to always be squabbling.)

Memorization. Is that a thing of the past? Do we still memorize anything?

I thought about that quite a bit last week. I really wanted to memorize a short reading by Joan Chittister that I’d come across in my daily devotional reading. It was really hard for me to memorize two simple sentences, much harder than it seemed to be in my youth. I finally memorized the 20 words, but I’m making myself repeat those two simple sentences several times a day, until I’m sure I won’t forget the quote.

What are those 20 words that I’m struggling so hard to memorize? Here’s the quote:

We are not born simply for the sake of personal survival. We are here to make life better for everyone.

That was the daily reading in “The Monastic Way” for last Thursday, December 12. That was also the day that some of the women inmates at the worship service of the Dane County Jail were talking about how much the other women in their cell block were helping them learn how to live better lives. That kindness was giving them hope for a better future. It was a perfect illustration of the principle Joan Chittister was stating – that I’ve finally memorized. “We are not born simply for the sake of personal survival. We are here to make life better for everyone.”

helping hands 12-17-13