You are Only as Old as…

For those of us who have “some snow on the roof” the phrase, “you are only as old as you feel,” generally prompts a good laugh! The truth is, since my hair began turning white, how I feel depends not only on the day, but what I did the day before!

As I settle in to my retirement years, I’m learning that the tasks that normally had no residual repercussions (like Spring cleaning) now take a week of recuperation! Heck! It takes me five minutes of rest to recover from putting on my pantyhose!

I also am learning that a weather report, which includes changing barometric pressure, can make my body remember every injury of my youth. The whiplash from a car accident, the knee injury from fall while running, and the repetitive use of my hands, cry out in the night in the form of arthritic aches and pains. In addition, aging internal organs don’t take kindly to anti-inflammatory medications. Hence the lingering scent of menthol and eucalyptus that pain relieving gels and creams leave on sheets and night clothes.

Well, let me tell you, in the past year my husband and I have taken on the task of preparing our home for sale, which is no small task. Yes, we are in the “downsizing generation” and my heart goes out to all our fellow retirees, who are in the midst of this anxiety-producing reality. Letting go of treasured and “inherited” items is no picnic, but that’s another story!

In the past year we have completely gutted and remodeled our downstairs bathroom, removed wallpaper borders from two rooms, painted five rooms (neutral colors), packed and toted four truckloads of “personal” items to a storage unit, refurbished two vanities, installed a new laminate floor, and replaced hardware in two showers. Right now I am extremely grateful that we replaced our kitchen eight years ago, when we were younger and had more energy, strength, and stamina.

Let me warn you, those DIY shows can change your life! All these endeavors were prompted by one of those shows. A young couple was viewing a house with thoughts of purchasing same. I remarked that it was a magnificent home, much like my own. However, they commented to each other that the home was very “dated” and that “so 90s!” I looked at my husband and said, “Ninties? Dated?” Then I realized the 90s were twenty years ago!

That show educated us to the fact that, if we want to get the best dollar and a quick sale, we had to provide a product someone would want to buy, and that young couples (who would be our “target market”) are very busy, and often lack the time, expertise, and money to make home improvements. We also watched other shows about selling houses that taught us the ins-and-outs of making our home welcoming to prospective buyers. Thus we began the process of “updating.”

To all those young TV personalities who climb up and down ladders installing new lighting, crawl on their knees laying down flooring, scrape, sand, paint, and rearrange furniture, all I can say is “appreciate your young bones, muscles, and cartilage, they don’t last forever!”

Don’t get me wrong! My husband and I are extremely grateful, we are still able to take on these large scale tasks, though we have laid aside the heavier tasks (roofing and concrete work). We realize that there are people our age (and younger) whose health prevents activities on this scale. Still, when I get up in the morning and, literally, every muscle and joint aches from the previous day’s work, I wish my body was just ten years younger!

Still, I had a conversation with my best friend just a few days ago, which revolved around the concept that “we are older than we ever were, but also younger than we will ever be again.” It made me realize that my mind has often been misdirected. When I was sixteen I wanted to be eighteen, when I was thirty I wanted to be twenty-one, age forty made me wish to be thirty, and so on. So today I am redirecting my thoughts and focusing on gratitude for the aches and pains, because they tell me I have lived a rich life and that I am still active and able. They also warn me when I have to “call it quits” and listen to my bones.

Even though, at times, I may “feel old,” there is no stigma in that! Therefore, I am going to focus on that other adage of retirement, “age is an issue of mind over matter…if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”

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A Season to Remember

Christmas is quickly approaching and I have been thinking about the many family memories contained in this amazing holiday season. It is a season which contains the power to bring healing to our wounded world. Advent, and the entire Christmas season, including the traditional twelve days of Christmas, give us the opportunity to ritualize a deeper appreciation for our ancestors, families, friends, and neighbors. Each year, the season encourages us to forgive shortcomings, release grudges, and reach out with hope to new beginnings. Whether we are religious and believe the truths in wisdom literature or secular and put our faith in science, this season calls us to contemplate the bounty of our world and the interconnected nature of humankind. Our existence is one of interrelatedness, complementarity, and interdependence. Our differences create the textures and tones that make our world tree vibrant and beautiful. In this blog, I invite you join me in becoming more attentive to the memories, people, and places which fill this season with the potential for greater patience, new birth, and continued growth.

My father’s parents were first generation Americans who emigrated from Poland in1904 and 1909. Until the day they died, my grandparents spoke “broken English” and were much more comfortable speaking their native tongue and celebrating Polish traditions. They settled in neighborhoods where priests, doctors, and shopkeepers spoke Polish. They died before I was born, so each holiday season I become a bit melancholy that they were never part of the family celebrations I remember. Similarly, my dad died when I was twenty and just two months after I gave birth to my first child. Holiday joy is always touched by a small sadness that my three children and their families will only know my dad through anecdotes and family photos. What stories and photos will you be sharing this holiday season? Who will you be missing? What bits of sadness will you be experiencing?

As a young child, the family gatherings I remember included my parents, their siblings, and their extended families, Uncle Frank, Aunt Lil, Uncle Walter, Aunt Betty and their children. When my maternal grandmother was alive, we often spent time with some of her siblings, “Uncles” Harry (aka Jerome) and Louie, who were actually my “great” or “grand” uncles. At Christmas, whenever I smell a cigar I remember them. Uncle Harry’s wife, Aunt Helen, was a kind woman, I remember her quiet demeanor and gentle smile. I played with their four children, Jerry, Joyce, Jackie, and Jeffrey. I recall that Great-aunt Hattie, Uncle Louie’s wife, made her own soap, loved baking, and had skin like alabaster. To the best of my knowledge, Uncle Louie and Aunt Hattie never had any children. I never met my great aunt Mary or her husband, though we often spent time with their daughter “Aunt Loretta”, and her husband, “Uncle Chuck.” (It wasn’t until my adult years that I realized, in terms of blood line, they were actually my first cousins!) We all lived in Chicago and, though some of my family never owned a car, we did our best to get together for important celebrations and holidays. At this time of year, I am filled with gratitude for the blessing of those memories. What do you remember about your childhood celebrations? Have you found a way to forgive the shortcomings of friends and relatives? What prayers of thanks are born in you this season?

I find it sad that we live so far apart these days. I have nieces and nephews who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away and I miss their presence, particularly during the holidays. Social media is a poor substitute for a family dinner. It is one of the greatest joys of my life, now that all my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are deceased, to spend time with my sister and my second cousin. There are many drawbacks to the social media experience, but I am grateful that it offers the opportunity to share photos, thoughts, prayer needs, struggles, and accomplishments across the miles. Who will you be contacting through the mail or the internet this holiday season? Do you have plans to visit relatives far and near?

At holiday time, “family” often has less to do with kin and more to do with kindred spirits. Two doors down from the two story brick home where I was born, lived two childhood girlfriends, Shirley and Carol, their parents, and grandparents, “Busia” and “Dziadziu.” Since my grandparents were deceased, their “Grandma” and “Grandpa” became mine. Their aunts and uncles were my second family. We attended parties and holiday celebrations as if we actually shared blood. Some of my best holiday memories took place in their third floor apartment gathered near a Polish żłobek (creche). Do you have someone you consider, or who considers you his/her “second family?” What family memories will they be conjuring this season?

In the years when my brother, brother-in-law, and nephew were in the Navy, and able to get home for the holidays, they often invited their sailor-friends, who could not get home, to our holiday feasts. For those celebrations the word family took on a even broader meaning. Today, when we invite neighbors to join us for a meal, we extend our family bonds. When we contribute to our parish food pantry, we get a sense of sharing a meal with our global family. When have you experienced the joy of your “global family?” How will you be reaching out this Christmas season?

Just about six weeks ago, I celebrated my best friend’s sixty-fifth birthday. We have been friends for at least fifty-five of those years. Her family and mine are so intertwined that we believe our blood must have intermingled generations ago, because we feel like sisters. (Seriously, her paternal bloodline seems to be connected to mine back in a town called Laczka, Poland/Austria, though I have not as yet been able to find solid proof.) Whether or not a bloodline is discovered, both of us know that we have a connection that is more powerful than blood. We have shared joys, sorrows, heartaches, and happiness. Her children are mine and mine are hers. The branches of our family trees have become so intertwined that permanent grafts have developed. Our friendship is a blessing and a true treasure for which I am extremely grateful. Whose friendship makes gratitude well up in your heart? Have you told those friends how much they mean to you?

I am grateful for all of you who will be using this article as a springboard to reminisce about your own holidays past and present. Please embrace the sadness along with the joy! I once read that we should never fear the shadows, because it just means there is a bright light somewhere nearby. I pray that you find the spirit of patience, peace, and joy, even in the memories that bring a tear or two, because tears are the evidence of great love. May you have a enriching Advent and a memorable holiday season!

Manage Your Fears

Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you unable to relax? Do you feel like your mind is being hi-jacked by anxiety? Do you feel more tired than usual without a change in your level of activity? Do you find your heart racing for no obvious reason? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” you may be experiencing an unmanaged fear-response.

Many of us know that fear has a physiological effect. When fear enters the mind, the body increases its production of adrenaline. This has been called the “fight or flight” response. The boost in adrenaline increases the heart rate and can make our hair follicles react. Have you ever said, “that makes the hair on my neck stand up”? In the short term, that physical response is a blessing, because it enables self-preservation. We have heard stories of the adrenaline boost that helped someone lift a heavy barrier to free a person who was trapped. Adrenaline helps us to be brave. Our bodies gear up and give us the strength to fight an adversary or protect a loved one. Adrenaline also gives a body the speed to flee when prudent.

In recent weeks we have been inundated with news that produces anxiety. Reports detailing earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and unprecedented violence, overwhelm our brains. Sometimes, for our own good, we just need to take a vacation from anxiety producing stimuli. I assure you, it is okay to shut off the news and social media to help manage your fears. I am not recommending that we stick our heads in the sand or become ignorant of the troubles in the world. I am advocating balance! As many have said, “prepare for the worse, hope for the best!”

In this day and age, we are surrounded by negative words and images. Take some time each day to pay attention to the beauty and love that also surrounds us. Focus on everyday simple words and actions. “Please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” are not just empty words. They are small phrases that require us to consider how we are interacting with another person. Many people have written about the benefits of a gratitude journal. From experience, I can tell you that my own fears are significantly decreased when I take time daily to count my blessings, reach out to help someone, and regularly express my appreciation.

However, for varying reasons, our minds and bodies may still get seized by fear which triggers a vicious cycle and keeps adrenaline pumping long after the danger has passed. Take heart! There are physical ways to stop that cycle! You have the power to manage fear!

The very first thing you can do is BREATHE! Be aware that adrenaline causes your body to shallow breathe and take too many breaths (called hyper-ventilating), which in turn, can cause numbness, tingling in your extremities, light-headedness, and greater anxiety. If this happens to you and needs immediate action. Find a paper bag and breath into that for several minutes, to prevent yourself from passing out.

If you are not hyper-ventilating, but feel anxious, take notice of where your breath is traveling. When you inhale does it feel like the air is going past your breast bone or does it feel like your breath is stopping just beyond your throat? If you are physically able, try to breathe in through your nose and think of the air going all the way down to your navel. Take a few of these deeper breaths. When you know you are able to breathe deeper and more slowly, proceed to the next exercise.

Breathe in deeply to a count of 5-7. After holding that breath for a short count of 3-7, exhale through your mouth by pulling in your tummy first for a another count of 5-7. If you can manage, take eight to ten of these long slow breaths. This breath-pattern signals your body to decrease its adrenaline production and allow you to become more calm. When facing stressful situations, practice this breathing often.

If your breathing is under control, but you find your mind is still racing, tell yourself, “STOP!” If you need, say the word out loud! Depending on the circumstances, you might even decide to clap your hands when you say the word. This alerts your mind and body that you are about to change your focus. Then immediately begin taking those long slow breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, concentrating on pulling the air past your heart down into your belly.

Another practice to help manage fear and anxiety is to focus on a pleasant visual image. Ask yourself, “where do I feel most safe, happy, or comfortable?” If you are able, picture that place clearly in your mind. I must admit, I have never been very good at imagining vividly, so I have a packet of magazine and calendar images that I keep in a desk drawer for this purpose. When I’m having trouble clearing my head of anxiety, I take out those photos and focus on the image. Then I begin the deep breathing exercise.

One of the reasons fear can take over is that our minds begin repeating negative messages. The terrible “what ifs” get hold and we have a tough time shaking them. A simple technique to help manage that negativity is to occupy your mind with positive thoughts. When anxious, begin repeating a comforting phrase. For example, “I can do this! I will get through this! Peace!” I have several favorite phrases that have served me well, they are, “Fear not!” “This, too, shall pass!” “Jesus, I trust in You!” and “All will be well!” Repeat your favorite phrase over and over until you feel your body responding.

In the days and weeks ahead, no matter what challenges might come your way, I pray that these simple techniques will help to bring you peace, courage, and hope. I assure you, light casts out darkness and you can manage your fear.

Grandparent Joys

Today my heart is singing an old Neil Diamond tune, “Hello, my friends, Hello!” It has been about a month, since I’ve been able to add to this blog. I’ve missed you and hope that with my entry here, this day after the 4th of July, I will be welcomed back into your hearts and homes. Let me first say that my husband and I have been nurturing our two grandsons (and our daughter’s fiancé) while she has been studying in India. We left the comforts of our Illinois home on June 4th. Now, one month and one day later, we on the thousand mile drive back home as I type this blog.

Here is what I have learned (or relearned) in the past month.

  1. Young boys and men eat A LOT!
  2. Northern Colorado contains some of the most beautiful places in our country
  3. Grandparenting has definite advantages over parenting!
  4. At my age, keeping up with 9 and 12 year old boys is exhausting…and FUN!

Since my husband and I have been empty nesting for a long time, I forgot how different it is to cook for five, when two are growing boys and one is a young man working 16-hour nights! Grandma pulled out all the stops! The favorites were Blueberry Pancakes, Chicken and Dumplings, Kiwi Upside Down Cake and Crepes filled with cannoli filling, sautéed apples, or peanut butter and mixed fruit. Here are the links to those recipes. 

http://www.foodrepublic.com/recipes/easy-blueberry-pancakes-recipe/

http://www.food.com/recipe/chicken-and-dumplings-72963#activity-feed

http://food.ndtv.com/recipe-kiwi-upside-down-cake-846631?desktop=true

http://www.thereciperebel.com/cannoli-crepes/

http://www.food.com/recipe/apple-filled-crepes-447745

http://juliasalbum.com/2014/06/crepes-with-strawberry-banana-and-peanut-butter/

 

We had the joy and privilege of spending some free time, when the boys were with their dad, to drive into Estes Park, Georgetown, Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Allenspark, Idaho Springs, Walden, and Greeley. Our future son-in-law also took us up into the foothills for some fishing in the Pinewood Reservoir and, when our daughter returned she treated us to a day in the Carter Lake area. If you are ever in the front range of northern Colorado, near Fort Collins, we highly recommend the following day trips. 

http://www.stanleyhotel.com/tours.html

https://www.georgetownlooprr.com

http://boulderteahouse.com/

http://www.rmnp.com

http://www.scenicusa.net/090210.html

http://www.colorado.com/history-museums/idaho-springs-heritage-museum

http://rockymountainnationalpark.com/things-do/scenery/scenic-drives/cache-la-poudre-scenic-byway

http://greeleymuseums.com/locations/greeley-history-museum/

http://www.co.larimer.co.us/parks/parkareas.htm

When I was a young mom, raising three children, working, and earning my Masters’ Degree, I’d reach the end of the day and be exhausted. I don’t know what I would have done without the support of my dear husband. As a grandmother, I am 40 years older, retired and, on occasion, I take responsibility for my grandchildren. Again, thankful for the help of “Grandpa.” At the end of those days we are both exhausted. The difference is that we are also filled with pride to know our children are raising fun-loving, hard-working, and simply terrific grandchildren! It let’s us know that, even with all the mistakes we know we made, we can honestly say we must have done SOMETHING right!

My final lesson was that exhaustion can be fun. There is nothing better, at the end of the day, than to hear my grandchildren say, “Grandma, can you make crepes again tomorrow?” It is revitalizing to hear them planning another putt-putt golf excursion “as a family.” It is heart warming to know that your future son-in-law has said, “Do you think your mom would be willing to make chicken and dumplings one more time before they have to leave?” Exhaustion melts away when the boys say, “Grandma, don’t forget “Nighty-night, sleep tight, don’t let Bugs Bunny bite.” It makes one realize that the funny circumstances and family stories that were begun while raising our children, have been passed on to the next generation. Hopefully, one day, Jacob and Ben will tell their children, “when my Grandma tucked me in at night she’d repeat poems from an old TV show and make up verses just to make us laugh!” 

Lord, we have had an exhausting month of love, thank you for these many grandparent joys!

Happy Mother’s Day

My two “Moms”

In a few days, here in the U.S., we will be celebrating Mother’s Day. With this in mind, I began to wonder, “Why do we celebrate Mother’s Day?” In a quick search of the internet, I found that a day honoring mothers has existed in many cultures for thousands of years under many names. I discovered that our own U.S. celebration began with one woman, Ann Jarvis, remembering her own mother during a memorial at a Methodist Church in West Virginia in 1908. It impressed me that one woman’s love and respect for her own mother was the one drop in the pond which sent ripples far and wide for over a century thus far.

Ann Jarvis’ recognition of her own mother led me to think about all our maternal roots. For many, like Ann and myself, the physical presence of our moms and grandmoms is gone. We can place flowers on their graves or have a Mass celebrated in their memories, but we can not hold their hands, give them a kiss, hear the sound of their laughter, or taste one of their delicious meal I’m sure that many of us wish we could have them back in the flesh just one more day! To those who are grieving this Mother’s Day I say, “Take consolation in knowing that, in their new lives, they are no more than a breath away.” Whenever you think of them, pray for them, or miss them, their spirit is right there with you. The love you shared bridges the chasm created by death.

Some of you may have the opportunity to see your mothers, and possibly grandmothers, every day. I hope you really appreciate what a gift that is. I know that close relationships aren’t always peaceful or as loving as we would like. After all, we are imperfect. Sometimes we have said hurtful things or have not been as attentive as we could have been. Now is the time to make those physical relationships the best you can by loving as generously as you can. Today is the time for forgiving and being humble enough to ask forgiveness when you have fallen short.

Lastly, some of you may never have known your mother. On this special day, I pray that you will honor the people who God has put in your lives to act as mother figures. Maybe you have an adoptive mom, mother-in-law, aunt, sister, teacher, or friend who nurtures your soul and challenges you to grow, because that is the heart of motherhood. In this regard many of us have been blessed to have several “Moms” in our lives.

If you happen to be Catholic, you are abundantly blessed because our faith tradition tells us that motherhood, and the celebration of Mother’s Day, is not merely a biological reality, and encourages us to look to Mary, Jesus’ mother, as our own spiritual mother! I have a good Redemptorist priest friend who will often say, “I need to talk that over with Mom,” when he is going to pray the rosary. I hope this Mother’s Day, we will all take the opportunity to develop a deeper relationship to our Blessed “Mom”, because I believe we truly please Jesus, when we show love for his mother.

As a Catholic I recognize another level to this Mother’s Day, because Scripture encourages us to consider Mary’s response to the Archangel Gabriel, “be it done unto me according to your word.” Our Church has called this response Mary’s “fiat,” literally meaning her “let it be so.” We are urged to look to Mary as our example of trust, courage, and love of God. Each day every one of us is called to make our own “fiat.” Mary’s example can give us the courage to say “Yes!” to God’s will for our lives. We are asked to open our hearts and allow Christ, “the anointed one,” to be nurtured and brought to birth anew in this world. We are all, in one sense, called to be mothers to Jesus Christ. Of course, we can never carry Him in a womb as Mary did, but we can carry Him in our hearts and share his love as she did. So, with that in mind, I wish each of you, man or woman, child or adult, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Happy New Year

Today I have GREAT news! It is a new year, all our attention is focused upon a future of possibility. We have another opportunity for a fresh start! All the mistakes we have made in the past are passed…the proverbial “water under the bridge.” Turing the calendar allows us to celebrate the triumphs of the outgoing year and physically tear up a symbol of whatever was negative in the year gone by. The days ahead are a blank slate!

Yes, I know that the news coming from Chicago and around the world is not very positive. Gun violence, man’s inhumanity, and the petty actions of our government leaders are still very real. However, a very wise college professor once made this observation, “Commercial news by its very nature must be sensational. The things you read in the newspaper or watch on TV must always have a hook that makes the story stand out. If newspapers ever become full of stories of daily kindness, compassion, generosity, and understanding, the world will be in serious trouble. If violence and brutality ever become the norm, those happenings will no longer deserve commercial space. They will no longer be news!”

That observation has brought me much hope in the times when I begin to feel helpless against the tide of darkness. It is at those times that I look to my neighborhood and neighborhoods around the globe. I look for all the unsung acts of kindness and courage that happen each day without much fanfare. I look at those teachers who go to work daily, diligently studying the needs of their students and searching for ways to make difficult concepts more understandable. I think about the nurses and doctors balancing the concerns of their personal lives with the joys, sorrows, and concerns of patients and their families. I rejoice in the members of my faith family who are always willing to lend a hand when someone needs food, clothing, comfort, shelter, and a ride to the store or doctor. I marvel at those who are caring for loved ones suffering the hardships of declining health or facing the challenges of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or approaching death. I admire the men and women who work one, two, and even three jobs trying to provide for their families. I appreciate all the moms and dads doing their best to raise healthy, happy and responsible children while balancing work and family life. I respect the men and women who lay their lives on the line everyday in the military, fire and police services and their families who continually pray for a safe return at the end of every day. I remember the many people facing serious illness, who endure uncomfortable tests and painful treatments with little complaint. I respect those who honestly pursue ways to overcome addictions, mental illness, and homelessness.

This new year I am struck by the fact that the vast majority of life is just ordinary people, doing ordinary things with extraordinary courage and humility. The thousands of good people I have met in my lifetime, face each day with no media attention. Whenever I have said, “I really admire your courage, perseverance, patience or generosity,” my comment is usually met with a humble and selfless reply which reminds me of the old song, “we did it all for the glory of love.”

Oh, sure we all have our days of complaint when life’s challenges and changes weigh heavy on our shoulders! Those are the times we truly appreciate the ear of a friend, loved one, counselor or confessor who understands our frustration, and points us toward renewed hope.

This new year I stand in awe of the resilience of the human spirit and sing the praises of all those ordinary people who continually find a way to step back, take a deep breath, and face each new day with fresh determination and perseverance, especially those who do it all with a smile and real interior joy! You are my heroes!

I wish each and every one of you blessings, strength, joy, and love in 2017!!

A Season of Less

Are you pulling out all the best china, crystal and linens in preparation for Thanksgiving? Or maybe you are loading the car, having the oil checked, and getting ready for that drive “over the river and through the woods”? Maybe you have the blues because this is the “first” holiday without certain friends or loved ones? Is it possible that you are a soldier or missionary on first deployment far from home and familiar traditions?

No matter what your situation might be, I want to wish you a “Happy Thanksgiving” and let you know that, no matter where or who you are, I will be thinking about you and offering many prayers that you, and those who surround you, will be able to find the peace and joy which this approaching season embodies.

At my age, and with my family’s history, I can easily relate to the mixed emotions stirred by this time of year. I have experienced the gamut of emotions, from innocent childhood anticipation and excitement lingering deep in the recesses of the psyche, to the exhaustion brought on by self-imposed expectations, and the deep sadness which may seem to lie in ambush because that “special person” is so deeply missed.

I am going to make a suggestion for the holiday season of 2016. Make this a “Season of Less.” Yes, I have said this before, less can actually be more. Some valid questions for the “Season of Less” would be, “Does this activity, thought, or process embody the spirit of the season? Does it expand my mind, heart, or soul? Does it kindle a joy that is deeper than the more obvious surface emotions? Does it extend that type of joy to someone else?”

My hope for all my friends, family, acquaintances, and world family is that, from now until the new year, we would make a concerted effort each day to simplify the season. Here are a few suggestions. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list. Let the notion that “less can be more” soak in and then act upon that desire to be an agent of simplicity.

  • Be less critical of those who don’t share your “Jingle Bell” enthusiasm or be less harsh on yourself whenever you are not in a “holiday mood.”
  • Be less judgmental of those who have differing beliefs about this season.
  • Refuse to take insult if someone scowls when you wish them a “Merry Christmas” and refuse be cranky when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays.”
  • Make an effort to simplify your holiday decorations. In other words, do you really need all those Griswoldesque lighted displays in your yard and on your roof? The original reason for this holiday season began in simple surroundings.
  • Visit a place you consider “holy” or “sacred” and offer gratitude for that place.
  • Spend a few moments in quiet gratitude for all your memories (the good and not-so-good).
  • Have a good cry over a bad memory and then let it go!
  • Seek someone’s forgiveness for an error you have made. If they won’t forgive, let that go!
  • Watch your favorite holiday movie with friends, this is NOT “wasting time.”
  • Send greetings to your friends in January. It will free up some holiday time and your greetings will really stand out from the rest.
  • Bake less cookies and use the time to call someone you have not spoken to in over a year.
  • Take a one day vacation from all news sources. You may find this so uplifting you will want to extend that vacation.
  • Spend one day free of your computer and/or cell phone. Notice if you have any “withdrawal” symptoms which may indicate you are flirting with a technological addiction.
  • Be on the watch for critical speech. Criticize less and praise more.
  • There’s no need for a gratitude LIST. Just think of ONE thing each day that brings you joy.
  • Spend less.
  • Have one less cookie.
  • Have one less drink.

May each day of this holiday season be filled to the brim with MORE hope, joy, kindness, love, patience, and peace, because you have committed to make it a “Season of Less.”

Never Give Up on Hope

My husband and I are on our way back home, after spending time with my brother-in-law, Jim, during his last days on this earth. His journey across the divide was shorter than any of us ever expected. We felt blessed to be able to say our “Farewells” and assure him of our love. My sister was by his side when he breathed his last.

After the initial shock, we helped my sister, her children, and grandchildren plan the memorial service and together we grieved the loss of a great husband, loving father and grandfather, brave fire fighter, loyal friend, gentle servant, and generally funny guy.

As I attempted to ease back into some semblance of normalcy, I logged into my Facebook newsfeed and was greeted by this quote from St. John Paul II, “I plead with you – never ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

I know that many of you may call this “coincidence.” Some of you may say that it is an “ironic happenstance.” Still others may say it is just “pure chance” and that, if I had been greeted by any other quote, my broken heart would have found a way to relate it to this recent loss.

Believe what you will, for me, these words have touched my brokenness with love and reassurance, like no other could.

When someone you have loved for over 54 years passes from this life, the loss has deep physical repercussions. For the last ten days, though I feel profoundly exhausted, my sleep has been fitful. There is a physical sensation in the center of my chest that I can only describe as a heavy emptiness. Symptoms of acid reflux have amped up and tears always seem to be just below the surface during any conversation. The mention of his name, and even the most happy memory puts a lump in my throat and pressure behind my eyes. I feel slightly off-balance and easily distracted. It is difficult to accept the fact that I will no longer see him or speak with him in a physical sense.

My usual daily routine has been everything but normal. I have been trying to nurture my sister as she learns to carry the pain of her widowhood, to be a gentle companion as she attempts to get through this dark forest of grief. In some ways it is the blind leading the blind, but I truly believe the old adage “a burden shared is a burden lightened.”

While it is true that we have lost our parents and many beloved relatives and friends, this loss is different. It is a loss that has stripped away great chunks of her confidence and energy. It is a loss that is felt every time she opens the door to an empty house. It will be experienced each time she gets into the car they bought to accommodate his increasing medical needs. It will fill her days and nights in ways that no one but she will truly understand. Still I hope that when those times come, she feels our love and realizes that though she is lonely, she is not alone.

For now, Jim’s laughter and off-beat sense of humor are conspicuously missing. We all tell ourselves that one day his spirit of joy will again well up in our hearts and shine through our own eyes, but right now we are numb, exhausted, and hurting. Right now, hope is all we have. We are contending with the temptations of doubt, discouragement, and fear. We are leaning on the foundation of our faith and the love of friends and family.

Into the midst of this darkness, today a light has shown. It was like standing in a pitch-black room being fearful of stumbling when a ray of light illuminates the familiar and comfortable surroundings. In my heart I feel Jim reaching through the veil. It is his voice saying, “Never ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

Okay, Jim, I hear you!!

The Good Old Days?

My Facebook page has recently been flooded with images such as, “Aren’t you glad you grew up before technology?” These posts generally talk about blissful play, returning home “when the street lights came on,” and “drinking water from a hose.” I have two concerns about these memes. First, they devalue today’s experiences and secondarily, they romanticize a time that was far from idyllic. Maybe it is a survival instinct that, as we get older, we focus on memories of joyful times and compartmentalize (or forget) the experiences that were less than perfect.

If you are younger than 60, it may be very hard to truly understand what it was like living in “the good old days.” Some folks often say it was a time of greater faith, more safety, greater innocence, and strong family values, but I think it is all about perspective. I believe humanity is brimming with potential and that the best times are still ahead. I am also very aware that many things are better today than when I was growing up.

I will soon turn sixty-four and my memories of the 1950s and 60s are not all roses, unicorns, and rainbows. I have lived through riots, assassinations, wars, “military conflicts,” kidnappings, murders, terrorism, and recessions. I have also experienced great innovation, altruism, spiritual awakening, courage, and perseverance.

For eons there has been nastiness in the world. In my youth, media outlets were prevented from publishing many of the darker stories. The underbelly of life was relegated to small-circulation tabloid papers. Today, the shadows are out in the open. Unfortunately, this disclosure can cause people to fall prey to cynicism and pessimism. I want to challenge those temptations with some reasons I am glad to be living in this time.

My maternal grandmother lost two infant sons. One was called a “blue baby” and died because he had a hole in his heart, the other died of rickets caused by malnutrition. My mother’s older sister was a premature baby, born weighing two pounds. She was wrapped in cotton and kept warm in a shoe box on a coal stove. She survived, but remained sickly and had “dropsy” (congestive heart failure) most of her life. She married a man “from the old country” and gave birth to 10 children in nine years. Only six of those children survived, and of those it was her eldest who was physically and mentally strong. Subsequent children had various disabilities including club foot, schizophrenia, and what was then called “mental retardation.” Though doctors often suggested that her “tubes be tied for health reasons,” her Catholic beliefs prohibited the procedure. She died at 48 years of age and most of her children died in their 40s. I am grateful for improvements in reproductive health.

The same aunt’s husband was an immigrant, and could never manage to secure anything but menial labor and my mother and father often had to help their family financially. I know there are dishonest people, but statistics show that the vast majority of welfare recipients truly are in need, just like my aunt’s family was. I appreciate the work of food pantries and welfare programs.

The ladies in my old neighborhood would speak in hushed tones about local suicides and murders due to, what would now be called, postpartum depression and spousal abuse. Yet none of these episodes were on the Nightly News with Walter Cronkite. Women suffering depression were often institutionalized. Battered women were instructed by the police, courts, and religious leaders to be “submissive,” and if their husband beat them “they must have had it coming.” I am thankful for all the efforts to assist women in dangerous relationships.

When I grew up there was a definite separation in my neighborhood between Catholics and “pagans.” Churches in the south were often fire bombed. When John Kennedy ran for president, editorials and political discussions showed concern that a “papist” would allow the Vatican to rule the United States. Religious finger-pointing and suspicion is nothing new! I am glad that people are discussing and fighting for equality among belief systems.

In my childhood, racial and ethnic epithets were common place and even acceptable. My dad, and many of his friends and business associates, regularly used at least a half-dozen derogatory references for people of color, or ethnic origins. We were often called “Polacks” and portrayed as being stupid. I grew up among real live Archie Bunkers! I am glad that “political correctness” makes people moderate their language.

My mother managed a “beauty salon” for Goldblatt’s. One of her co-workers was a homosexual man. He was a great worker and clients always praised him, but they also talked behind his back. He was never invited to any co-workers’ homes, including ours. He could never be honest about his inner thoughts and feelings. In the 1960s he committed suicide. I am grateful that we have open discussion about the dignity of all people.

When I was a girl, prostitution was hidden but common place, and men knew where to go to obtain those services. There was little concern they would be caught and/or prosecuted. Heck, some fathers took sons to a “pro” as a rite of passage into manhood. I am grateful that there are organizations to fight against sexual slavery.

My paternal uncle and grandfather both died of tuberculosis, aged 27 and 48 respectively. My paternal grandmother died of congestive heart failure at age 32 only six months after giving birth to her 7th child. My husband’s father and four of his maternal uncles died of heart disease before age 45 and my dad died at 58! I know people who were orphaned in the influenza pandemic of 1918. I went to school with a girl who wore leg braces because of polio, and my stepdad had a permanent limp because of that disease. I rejoice daily that my husband, and many others, are alive because of the advancements in medical treatment.

I have two cousins who died in “mental institutions” and another cousin whose family member died in an “insane asylum.” I am grateful for improvements and hopeful for future advancements in the treatment of depression and other psychological struggles.

We certainly have a long way to go in learning to truly be the land of the free. Still, I believe the vast majority of people are doing their best to live honest and loving lives in the pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, I agree with Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, tomorrow’s not at bad as it seems.”

Pre-Dawn Pondering

I’m sure we have all been there. It is two, three, or possibly four in the morning. Something has roused you from a sound sleep. You listen for a moment. You reassure yourself that there are no burglars, no dogs barking, no unusual house sounds. If you have pets, they are all peaceful and sound asleep. All is still. You close your eyes and relax, trying to regain the blissful sleep you enjoyed only a few moments before. Then it begins!

The position you are in becomes uncomfortable, so you turn this way and that. You try to find that certain spot in your mattress which cradles you perfectly. You turn your pillow. Then you flip it over. You may even make several attempts to fluff its stuffings. All your attempts are for naught. By this time, your brain has cleared it’s pre-dawn fog and your thoughts begin to run around as if it were daylight!

It is within these minutes, which sometimes turn into hours, that I find it a perfect time for quiet contemplation. Once I have accepted the fact that I am awake and that sleep is not soon to return, I can settle in and begin watching where my mind travels. I must admit, it was not quite as easy when I knew that the alarm clock would ring, at its appointed hour, and there would be a full day of work ahead with no opportunity for even a tiny cat nap. In those days, I would nearly drive myself insane trying to force myself back to sleep.

One of the blessings of my retirement is that I have learned to be gentler with myself. My only regret is that I didn’t realize, in my working days, that the brain frenzy of those sleepless nights, only kept rest and rejuvenation further away. Today, when I relax into the practice of passively observing my thoughts, sleep returns more quickly and sometimes answers to life’s puzzles are revealed.

Early this morning, about 4:30 a.m., I had one of those experiences. After making a casual examination of the house and our pets, I was assured that all was safe and sound. I returned to bed and found a cozy position and began to observe my thoughts as if they were paper boats sailing by on a clear blue lagoon.

The first thought was song lyrics, “at night when all the world’s asleep, the questions run so deep for such a simple man.”

The next “thought-boat” brought the message that the whole world is NOT asleep! Some people, particularly firefighters, police officers, nurses, many in our military, and all those dedicated workers on the “owl shift,” are wide awake and doing their jobs.

Then a quick little boat arrived to say, they are all awake with me! So I quickly said a prayer of gratitude for their services and the gift of their body clocks attuned to such late night tasks.

Several faces of friends and neighbors were on the sails of the next few boats, so I asked for blessings as each of them passed.

The next little craft was playing a recorded message from my childhood, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord, my soul to keep….God bless….” I allowed the message to play out in its entirety. As each loved one’s name was played, I expressed how grateful I was to have them in my life, whether they were still here on earth or gone to their eternal reward.

It was awhile before the next little craft came by, so I knew I must have begun to doze. Then the most important vessel of the night came into view. Its message so funny, I think I may have involuntarily smiled. The little paper dinghy had a decal on it which read, “It MUST be 5 o’clock somewhere!”

For a split second, in half-sleep, I felt I was connected, beyond time, to every person who was awake around the world. In that moment, all the hero-servants working the night shift were my brothers and sisters. In my own little community, my spirit was joined with young moms and dads walking the floor with cranky babies, homeless people trying to find a warmer place to sleep, folks who were tending farm animals or preparing for a day’s work, those who were ill or in pain, and the lost and broken wanderers striving to find peace and contentment in these wee hours of the morning.

Beyond my local area, I realized, in that very instant, it was mid-day in Rome and for many of the world’s people it was sometime between dawn and dusk. Billions of people were awake and going about the business of their lives facing challenges and joys of every sort. My wakefulness was joined to that of billions of others!

I don’t recall any other boat passing. I must have fallen asleep!