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!

What’s in YOUR Wallet?

We’ve all seen or heard it. You know, that Capital One commercial promoting it’s credit card with the tagline “What’s in YOUR wallet?” That line came to mind this afternoon as I was having lunch with a friend. She noted that she needed to clean out her purse, because it was beginning to weigh as much as a large sack of potatoes! I commented that I had recently gone through my own purse to clear out some old receipts and lighten the load. It was amazing that the contents (and excesses) of each bag were very nearly identical. She said, “Now, there’s a topic for your blog!”

As I contemplated this conversation, it occurred to me that the contents of one’s purse (or wallet and pockets for the gentlemen in the crowd) can say a lot about one’s stage in life. Our age, and what we consider important, dictates what we decide to carry around with us and the containers we choose. The era we live in and the social norms also influence our language regarding these items. For example, my mother and grandmother referred to their purses as “pocketbooks,” my grandfather would have carried a large watch on a “fob” in a small vest pocket and I have heard many others call a purse a “handbag.”

As far as I can remember, I did not have an “official” purse until I was seven years old. I may have played with some bag containing plastic coins and other sundry items, but I have no true memory of that experience. Yet, I clearly recall that my first purse was white plastic-coated cardboard and contained a rosary, prayer book, a handkerchief, and white gloves! It was the purse I carried on the day of my First Holy Communion.

At that time in my life, the only other carrier I used was my “satchel” or “book bag.” Before the beginning of each new school year my parents would purchase a small suitcase like bag with a main compartment, and a front pocket. The main compartment had a flap cover that was secured with two buckles and had a plastic handle attached to the top center for ease of transport. The front pocket generally snapped shut but sometimes had a buckle. Walking to (and from) school each day, I would carry that bag, filled with books, pencils, pens, paper, ruler or whatever supplies were necessary for that school year. These bags were used in the same way as today’s “backpacks.”

In eighth grade, I remember having a purse that matched my Easter dress. That year was the first time I was allowed to wear “high heels.” They were beige pumps with a tiny one-inch heel. It took me several days of practice to be able to walk in them without wobbling. My dress was a beige sheath with a scoop neck and it had a coordinated avocado green and beige brocade full length coat. I also had a beige “pillbox” hat. In those days we dressed quite formally for church and ladies always covered their heads. Gloves, however, were becoming passé. I was so excited and eager to walk into church on Easter Sunday in this “grown up” outfit. My purse included a rosary, “change purse,” pale pink lipstick, “Kleenex,” and a sanitary belt and napkin (just in case). By this time, the missal I carried to church each week (Latin with English translation) had to be carried separately because it was too large to fit into a little handbag. It snowed that year and my mother made me wear my winter coat, hat, mittens, and snow boots to church. So much for my lovely ensemble, but at least I was able to carry my fashionable purse!

At age twenty I gave birth to my first son and began carrying a much larger purse along with the obligatory “diaper bag” This purse would now include a driver’s license, wallet, checkbook with pen, breath mints, family photos, tissues (we were avoiding the use of brand names when referring to common items), tampons, notebook, and a couple of Avon catalogs. Yes, I was a “ding-dong Avon calling” representative in those days. I was in to spontaneous prayer, so my rosary was relegated to a drawer in my bedroom. The diaper bag included diapers (of course) but also, changing pad, diaper rash cream, wash cloth, plastic bag, extra outfits, extra pacifier, bottle of formula, bottle of water, a couple of baby toys or books, “burp cloths,” and an extra blouse for me (just in case he missed the burp cloth)!

Before I turned thirty, I had three children. The difference in the contents of the diaper bag was that it no longer contained formula because I was “nursing” (it wasn’t openly called breast-feeding). I also included a “receiving blanket” for discreet feeding times. However, my purse had added a few “Hot Wheel” cars, crayons, and toys to occupy my nine-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. During these years I also found it quite helpful to carry a small vial containing Tylenol.

By age forty, I no longer needed the diaper bag and was back to carrying a large purse/book bag, because I had returned to college and would have to spend any spare moment reading or studying for exams. My wallet now contained a credit card or two, medical and auto insurance cards and several store discount cards. I organized my necessary school items by including a small faux-leather kit with elastic holders for scissors, eraser, ruler, stapler, tape, paper clips, and extra pens and pencils. Thanks to a hysterectomy, I no longer needed to carry the feminine sanitary products!

Five years later my husband had triple bypass surgery and my mother’s health was declining. I began carrying a list of my husband’s and my mother’s medications, and my mother’s “advance directives for health care”. Once again, I began carrying (and praying) the rosary. New to my purse was a cell phone roughly the size and weight of half a brick. I was also working at two parishes, so I would often carry some notes, books, files and/or other work related documents. Instead of a small wallet, I had a clutch with an entire section dedicated to plastic credit, insurance, store discount, and gift cards. It included a space for my checkbook and register as well as a partition for cash. Because I was often going straight from one job to the other, I would also carry lunch or a couple of granola bars.

Shortly after this, (surprise! surprise!) I began having back spasms! My doctor instructed me to “ditch the purse,” which often weighed over 10 pounds and threw off my entire spinal alignment. So, for a very short time, I carried nothing but the wallet/checkbook/change combination “clutch”, but I kept other “tote bags” in my car with all the other items that had occupied my earlier back-breaker. The only problem was that, when I arrived at work, I had to make several trips to carry in what I began calling my “dog and pony show.”

In the next few years I lost my wallet (a couple of times) and realized carrying a purse with a handle or “shoulder bag” did have it’s advantages. My youngest son and his girlfriend gave me a new designer purse for Christmas, so I decided to try “carrying” but I would keep the contents simple and light. I began by including my wallet clutch, but I removed all the excess store discount and credit cards and tried to keep my loose change to a minimum. I got a smaller pill case. I began carrying batteries for my husband’s hearing aids, keys to a friend’s home (in case of emergency), my rosary, hand sanitizer, extra reading glasses, an I-phone, a sample-sized tube of hand cream, breath mints, and a tube of lip balm! It is amazing how we begin to dry out as we get older!

I don’t know what the coming years may bring. All I can say is that when my mom passed away, her purse contained, a small plastic folder of family pictures, tissues, a small change purse, some loose pills, a rosary, a recipe card, and a tube of red lipstick.

What’s in your purse (wallet…pockets today)? What do the contents say about your life?

Call Me Old-Fashioned

It is official. I am old-fashioned. The climate of this world in recent days, weeks, months, and even years has been leading down a path of modernization I do not like. No, I’m not referring to technological advances, tastes in entertainment, or political concerns such as healthcare availability, marital or reproductive issues, constitutional arguments, and world domination.
What concerns me, is the loss of civility.

Civility is defined as “politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” In today’s world, I believe this extends to written communication as well. Other words for civility would be courteousness, politeness, graciousness, respect, and consideration.

It seems that everywhere I look, outside of my own social circle (and sadly, sometimes within it), I witness rashness, dishonesty, rudeness, inflexibility, self-centeredness, and disrespect. Sometimes it makes me angry, but most often it just makes me sad. So in an effort to lift my own mood, I am reaching out to you today to ask you to be the engine of change. Let’s all try to become a bit more “old-fashioned.”

Here’s my suggestion. Each day, for the next week, choose one of the following adages (passed on by parents and grandparents), then actuate it in all your personal and interpersonal encounters. Then a week from now, focus on another axiom. In week three choose another. I guarantee in six weeks you will be improving your everyday life as well as the lives of many people around you. I believe that these small changes in my own behavior can spread and become the change the world so desperately needs. If your own parents or grandparents have not soothed you with these little tidbits, please accept my advice as tenderly as it is given.

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. This applies to your own interior messages as well as your social media, texting, and school/work/play interactions. If you become gentle with yourself, you might just be more compassionate with others. Stop using derogatory words like dumb, stupid, ignorant, ugly, etc. in regard to yourself or others. Above all, please keep crude language for the times you really need it, like when you stub your toe in the middle of the night. You have every right to your own thoughts, opinions, and feelings, but remember that it is always good to examine those interior workings before you make them public. That leads us to the next adage.

• Think BEFORE you speak (or write), and definitely before you post!! Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have made it much too easy to make a fool of yourself. Please THINK before you say or write something that you might regret tomorrow. I read a meme which proposed that word as an acronym for the five questions we should ask ourselves before we say or write anything…Is it TRUE? Is it HELPFUL? Is it INSPIRATIONAL? Is it NECESSARY? Is it KIND? The amount of social bullying which takes place through the internet is completely unacceptable. I really believe that if more people would consider these questions before articulating their thoughts and feelings (or typing them) there might be less obnoxious tweets, less embarrassing disclosures, less suicides, and more positivity overall. This directly relates to a key doctrine voiced by dozens of religions and philosophies around the globe.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In recent years, I have heard people say, “Do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.” That statement reflects a creeping cynicism and growing negativity. I recently read a great meme from Mandy Hale which said, “The less you respond to rude, critical, and argumentative people…the more peaceful your life will become.” If you are more peaceful, you will be stronger and more able to ignore opinions which conflict with your own. Before you say (or type) anything, take a moment to think about how, if circumstances were reversed, you might want someone to respond to you. No one enjoys being ridiculed, berated, cursed or criticized. You may tell yourself that you are voicing the truth, trying to be helpful, or that you are trying to inspire and your commentary is “necessary,” but the BIG question is, “Are you being KIND?” This leads me to another old-fashioned maxim.

Honesty is the best policy. In this regard we should never out-and-out lie, spread falsehoods, or “spin” information that has the potential to harm or hurt others, advance our own agenda, or protect our own skin. (We used to call that telling a “white lie.”) Indeed, honesty is desirable, but must always be tempered by love and selfless intention. I have been the recipient of both, genuinely humble and brutal honesty, and I can tell you that “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Brutal honesty, may make the speaker feel better (or self-righteous), but generally the untempered comments wound the recipient. The brutal nature of the comment provides little opportunity for healing and growth. If gentle and truly loving honesty becomes our motivator, the way we think and act, will gradually change, which leads to the next axiom.

Actions speak louder than words. I can speak the truth with love and understanding every minute of every day, but unless I allow that love to permeate my life and spur me to action, they are just empty mutterings. Frank Outlaw, the former president of a store chain, summed this up very well when he said, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Your life has purpose! No matter where you come from or where you have been, you can decide how you will live this moment in order to create a fulfilling life. This leads to my mother’s favorite advice.

• Leave it better than you found it. It need not be a dramatic change. Placing discards in a trash bin, wiping up soap or water spills around the sink in a restroom, saying “Please” and “Thank you” when communicating with family members, shopkeepers, postal workers, bank employees, doctors, nurses, (literally anyone who provides a service to you) will improve one little corner of the world. Gestures as small as opening a door for someone, returning things you have used back to their proper place, recycling, being kind and sharing a smile, always makes things better.

I hope the weeks ahead, find you thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, with positivity, gentleness and, above all, kindness. May each moment provide and opportunity for you to be a bit more old-fashioned along with me!

The Boomer Dilemma

Several days ago I had a conversation online regarding an article in The Boston Globe entitled “The Baby Boomers are Downsizing and the Kids Won’t Take the Family Heirlooms.” I read some comments that made me sad and made some comments that I now regret. Still, I have to admit, as a “Boomer” struggling with the reality of downsizing, it hurts like hell and is not for the timid!

The comments that I now regret played right into the “us vs. them” dichotomy that I have been trying to purge from my consciousness. A conversation might begin in separate camps, but no one benefits when that discussion gets mired, or ends in adversarial positions. In this stage of my life, I want to surround myself with acceptance, love, and peace. Pointing fingers against those in younger generations and labeling innocent actions with words like “selfish,” “uncaring,” and “self-centered,” stifles rather than promotes open exchange of ideas and deeper understanding. I am hoping that this blog entry will advance the conversation and help the younger generation understand what I am calling “the boomer dilemma.” 

Many (dare I say “most”) boomers were raised with a sincere devotion to our elders. When I was a child, we were not allowed to call any adult by his/her first name. If we ever “sassed” an adult, we would be severely reprimanded. If our grandparents were deceased, our families made several visits each year to say prayers at and tidy their grave sites. For some families this was done at least once per month. Growing up in the Catholic faith tradition also meant that the practices of cremation and scattering of ashes, were strictly forbidden.

I’d like my children to understand that my parents and relatives lived through the Great Depression. They worked extremely hard to be able to own a home and furnishings. They only threw something in the garbage after it was impossible to salvage. I remember my dad having new heels put on his shoes and having them “re-soled” rather than buy a new pair. They taught us to wrap our school books in saved grocery bags, there were no “fast food” packages to be thrown out after a meal, to earn money for penny candy we returned used glass bottles for the deposit, and we were always surrounded by 30-year-old refrigerators, ranges, dishes, flatware, and furniture covered in plastic. Most of the time we came to adulthood sleeping on the same bed our parents bought for us when we outgrew our cribs. We went away to college, if we could afford it, with our childhood dressers. We grew up in neighborhoods where we were born, and no more than ten miles from most of our aunts, uncles, and cousins. Relocating to the suburbs was considered a “big move.” Unless we joined the military, we seldom left the state where we were born.

As our relatives passed away, they bequeathed to us the items they worked hard to obtain and lovingly cared for year after year throughout their lives. When speaking of these treasures, they would often say, “This is your grandmother’s turkey platter or tea set,” “This is the cedar chest I got when I was 16 as part of my trousseau,” “Your grandpa gave this to me, and now I am giving it to you,” or “Great Uncle Fred wanted you to have this rosary.” We feel a sincere obligation to treasure these items and the memories of their original owners. Somehow, caring for and handling these inanimate objects, connects us to their spirit and memory in a very tangible way.

One blogger called our children the “Ikea and Target Generation” and said they have no desire for “heirlooms” like fine china or large pieces of furniture now referred to as “brown pieces.” They are mobile and have little or no job loyalty or security to keep them in a particular place for their entire lives. Everything they buy has built in obsolescence. Our children have learned that if any major appliance is still working after ten years, they are very fortunate. Many young people are sincerely seeking a simpler existence with less “stuff.” 

On an intellectual level I understand all these observations. The tension develops at the psychological and emotional level. Boomers have entered our final stage of life. Each muscle ache, new pair of bifocals, doctor’s visit, and prescription refill makes that painfully obvious. The deepest desire of our hearts is to be appreciated and remembered. In most cases, we want to stay in the familiar home we worked so hard to obtain and we want to stay around our lifelong friends. Unfortunately, finances, health, and abilities often require us to leave all that has become dear to us. It is an extremely stressful time. When a child says, “I have no use for Grandma’s vase, Uncle Charlie’s bandsaw, or the breakfront Dad gave you for your first anniversary” we hear, “Your values and memories are unimportant to me.”

We need to adjust our interpretation of our children’s responses. We need to remember that this is also a stressful time for them. They do not want to admit their parents are growing weaker and more dependent. It concerns them, when they hear about our friends dying and realize that our support systems are diminishing. They really want to honor our values and memory, but in different ways. It disturbs them when they hear we need to sell the home where they grew up. They are reluctant, as we are, to face our mortality. Most of all, they don’t want to have to make choices about the heirlooms and tchotchkes in the midst of the grieving process after our passing, particularly mundane items like formal dinnerware, cut glass, bulky furniture, and unidentified photographs. 

The dilemma is that we have those very same concerns while simultaneously experiencing physical, emotional, and psychological changes. We realize that there is less life ahead of us than is behind. We must continually “let go,” but struggle to do so. The thought of giving or disposing of cherished heirlooms to strangers or the trash heap, makes us feel that we are dishonoring the givers and somehow losing connection to the world we have known.

There are two things that might make this dilemma easier to bear. First of all, as boomers, we need to stop taking things personally when our children say, “Maybe you should give that to a charity.” or “You need to get rid of a lot of this stuff.” They are just making an observation that we, in our heart of hearts, already know is true. They are not trying to slap us in the face, though that is the interpretation we sometimes make. It would also be helpful if young people could be more gentle with their language and remember the importance of the “I-message.” For example a good response during a downsizing conversation would be, “I love you and cherish all my ancestors and all you (and they) have given me. I would truly appreciate (mention one sentimental belonging) as a cherished memento of our lives together. No matter how our lives change, I will always remember (fill in the blank with some cherished intangible memory). Would you like my help in sorting through these other items so we can pass them on to those who can really use and enjoy them as much as you have?” 

On both sides of the conversation, gentleness should temper honesty, understanding needs to take priority over practicality, and sincere love must undergird all the words we choose. I pray that we can ALL turn a dilemma into a delight when facing the challenges of downsizing.

Lenten Joy?

Are you eager to experience the beginning of Lent? Are you starting to anticipate the opportunities for deeper prayer, reconciliation, and charitable action? Can you feel the joy bubbling up inside of you? I am, but it has been a long journey to reach this sense of love and enthusiasm for the season. When I was a child, Lent was a somber and very negative experience full of sorrow, sacrifice and rules, rules, RULES! The feeling of joy was relegated to the bygone Christmas season. We never gave a single thought to the concept of Lenten joy! Even the elation of “Paczki Day” (a.k.a. “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”) was marred by focusing on the seriousness of the season ahead.

Maybe I should explain that in our Polish neighborhood, in Catholic school, the religious sisters would fry “paczki,” just for this celebration. These were raised donuts coated in granulated sugar and filled with prune “powidła” or sometimes jelly. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), in true Mardi Gras fashion, students would be treated to this sweet delight with a carton of whole milk and sometimes chocolate milk! Lest we become gluttonous as we devoured these special treats, the sisters would remind us that this was the “last luxury” we should have until Easter Sunday. For the next 40 days we were to be following Jesus and mirroring his passion and death on the cross in every thought, word, and action. We would be required to “give something up” and some teachers would have students write a note detailing his/her planned sacrifice to emphasize and ingrain the importance of the practice.

Of course, the classroom clown would volunteer, “S’ter, I will give up doing homework for Lent!” Other students would wrack their brains trying to figure out the LEAST painful sacrifice saying,”I’m going to give up Jujubes,” thus leaving the doorway open for consuming every other penny candy of the time. Of course, those of us who had aspirations for the religious life, would take the season very seriously and plan elaborate mortifications like giving up chocolate, soda pop, or “sweets,” which meant cold turkey sugar withdrawal!

As we got older (seventh and eighth grades), along with the reining-in of our gastronomic desires, we were also told to replace “frivolous” hobbies with spiritual reading and participation in various Lenten devotions. It was often during this season that our parish would sponsor a Lenten Mission, which called for a commitment to attend three to five extra one-hour evening sessions of prayer and silence. In high school, we began attending retreats (several days of extended silence, prayer, and religious devotion).

There was only one thing wrong with all these “mortifications,” the only reason we were given was that we needed to counteract our physical weaknesses (our “concupiscence”). Though grueling at the time, I am grateful because this early training and discipline created sturdy foundations for the future trials of life and the resultant spiritual growth. So there is definitely Lenten joy in those memories.

After the Second Vatican Council our Lenten practices became less focused on private introspection and devotion and leaned more heavily toward outreach to our brothers and sisters in need. If we gave up any food, we were instructed to use the saved money to help those who were hungry. When we spent time in silence, it was often preceded by a guided meditation highlighting Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. Retreats and parish missions included small and large group discussion and much less silence.

Mandatory fasting and abstaining from meat were removed from all Fridays, though they still applied to Lenten observances. Some people chose not to hear, but we were often reminded that those little sacrifices were even more beneficial when done out of love rather than legal obligation. The reasoning behind our Lenten sacrifice became clearer, our physical hunger was intended to point us toward our deeper spiritual hunger. Knowing why we were making sacrifices imbued the action with greater joy.

As years went by, the fervor and excitement which attended the “fresh air” of Vatican II, began to dwindle and sometimes led to spiritual laziness. Since we were no longer bound by a law and the weight of the phrase “under the penalty of mortal sin,” many viewed this penitential season too lightly (if they thought of it at all). More and more people passed up the many opportunities to further their spiritual growth. Retreat houses were closed for lack of participation. But as the Scriptures tell us, “there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven.”

Today the seats in church may hold fewer people and the world may seem more divided, but Lent still offers everyone a time to step back and examine how we spend our days. It is no longer a time for concentrating on suffering and punishment. Though we recall, in special ways, the terrible suffering that Jesus willingly endured, we also know (as Paul Harvey used to say) “the rest of the story.” As Christians we believe, Jesus is still alive and present in our midst. If that doesn’t make joy bubble in your heart, I don’t know what will.

True, Lent is a time to be honest with ourselves about our own faults and failings, which should cause us to be contrite. However, it is also a time to open our hearts to forgive others as we ourselves are forgiven by God, and forgiveness is always a cause for joy!

Lent is a time of homecoming, renewal, and rebirth which is marked by an increase in prayer, fasting and helping others (almsgiving)! So this Lent I plan to take a break from Social Media (for me that means Facebook and LinkedIn). I don’t know how that is going to go, but it will surely tell me a lot about my inner life. As a Catholic, I will also be observing meatless Fridays. I will tell you that I won’t be giving up chocolate! I learned a long time ago, that only makes me cranky and less like Christ. I will be dusting off some spiritual paperbacks I’ve long been meaning to read or re-read. The time I spend away from my keyboard will be channeled toward prayer and gathering with my parish family. I’m really looking forward to the joy of Lenten introspection, reconciliation, and outward action, aren’t you?

Digging into the Past with Downton

I recently watched the “final episode of the final season” of Downton Abbey. Aside from the fact that I will miss the drama of the Crawley clan, their staff, and estate, I wondered how many Americans, living today, have any real experience of all the formality and protocol that governed the people of Downton in the early 1900s. Most of the people who lived in that era have gone to their great reward, but there are still those of us who have encountered similar social conventions in our own lifetimes.

All the “M’Lord” and “M’Lady” hierarchical language felt strangely familiar to me. When I was a child, and was speaking to (or about) an older person, I always had to use the terms “Mister” or “Missus,” and was never allowed to use a first name. There were adult cousins and friends I was instructed to call “Uncle” and “Aunt,” in conjunction with their first names. In many cases this left me very confused about my blood relationships. At age 13 or 14 I asked my mom, “What aunts and uncles are TRULY brothers and sisters to you and Dad?” At the same time, I asked her, “Why am I allowed to refer to “Wujek Lapczynski” and “Wujek Wojtkowski” by their first names?” She laughed and informed me that the two men were my father’s uncles, “Wujek” was just the Polish word for “Uncle!” Their actual names were Leo and Frank, but according to Polish custom, even my dad was not allowed to use their first names!

Though it is difficult for me to understand why aristocratic women of the time were expected to change outfits five times per day, I can understand the notion of changing clothing to fit the activity. When I was a girl I had “school,” “play” and “Sunday” clothes. I also understand quite well the dress code that was required of Anna, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and others. I had only two school “uniforms” and five or six uniform blouses. When I came home from school, I changed out of the uniform into clothes suitable for play. On the weekend, everyone dressed for church in our “Sunday best,” which often included matching hat, gloves, and purse.

Speaking of hats, any Downton fan knows about the wonderful hats that are worn by the ladies on the show. Since I have a real appreciation for hats, I had to fight the greedy desire to obtain any (and all) of them. When I could overcome that guilty passion, my attention would turn to all the hats worn by the men of the abbey. They reminded me of Dad, he always wore a fedora, even when he was working on some household project. On Sundays at church, I remember him hanging his hat in the little clip, assigned for that purpose, on the back of every pew bench. While I was growing up, he was a salesman and always wore cuffed pants and “Florsheim” dress shoes. His “suit pants,” when they became a bit threadbare, were downgraded to “work pants.” When the shoemaker could no longer replace the soles or heels of his shoes, they would be put aside to use when painting or “bleeding” the radiators.

It’s interesting to me that the chores of the estate often triggered fond memories. Whenever I saw Bates or Molesley shining shoes, in their aprons and sleeve protectors, it brought me back to my days in eighth grade. Good students were rewarded with the “honor” of being asked to help the sisters clean the church or the convent on Saturday mornings. We felt particularly privileged when we were invited into the convent. The sisters’ vow of poverty allowed them three changes of clothing (called habits). Their best habit was for Sundays, the slightly older habit was for classroom use, and the oldest was worn while doing household chores.  The sisters always wore their “cleaning habits” on Saturdays.  Like servants of an earlier time, they also used aprons and sleeve covers to extend the life of even that oldest habit.

As the saying goes, there is a time and a season for all things, and it is time to say “Farewell to Downton!” I will miss my Sunday evenings with the Family Crawley. I must also admit that sometimes, though not often, like Mr. Carson, I find value in structure and the orderly rules of hierarchy. However, most days I agree with Mrs. Hughes. (Or should I have said Mrs. Carson?) I much prefer the warmth, relaxation, and friendliness of current social interactions. Like Lady Isobel Turnbull-Crawley-Grey, Baroness Merton, I am looking to the future, because there are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie! Wouldn’t it be amazing if, in that movie, we could hear the Dowager Countess tell George, Sybie, Marigold, (and Lady Mary’s baby-to-be), “Great-Grandma’s door is always open and you are always welcome!”

Comfort Foods

You’ve just come home from work. It has been one of “those” days. You think, “Am I coming down with a cold?” You can not believe what your “friend” said in an email. Your bank account is down to $1.36 and your car is on empty. The doctor left a message that you need more tests. We have all “been there.” Some days can really try your patience. How do you deal with the stress?

Some folks go straight to that package of cookies. Others head for the freezer and dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. Still others find the strength to prepare a pot of chicken soup with celery, carrot, parsnips, and wide homemade noodles. Most of us have a favorite food that we crave when times are tough and our psyches need healing.

I asked my relatives, friends, and neighbors about their favorite “comfort foods.” Their responses brought many fond memories for them and for me, along with some great conversations! My best friend reminisced about her mom making farina (AKA cream of wheat) with “toast smothered in REAL butter.” She added, “the contrast of the rich flavor of the butter on the crisp toast with the simple flavor of the smooth farina…” and then she sighed. Another friend connected her favorite food to memories of “Sunday dinner at a restaurant on 63rd and Stony Island near the L-tracks.” Her comments took me back to Chicago and the days my mom would fry “baloney” and onions in butter, and serve it as a sandwich on “Wonder bread”. Today I know it is supremely unhealthy, but the mere thought of its flavor and texture make me happy.

In preparation for this post, I was extremely surprised to discover that my mom, grandma, and generations before her would never have used the phrase “comfort food.” (That term was first coined in 1966.) They were just creating something that someone else could enjoy. It was all about nurturance and love. One of my friends said, “I remember Dad making popcorn. It is still one of my favorites.” Another recalled “chicken and dumplings at a restaurant where the server always knew exactly what I wanted.” One friend’s “Aunt Gertrude” created memories with her goulash. My cousin said her mom would imbed hard boiled eggs inside meatloaf! There went my theory that comfort food always had to be high in sugar or starch!

Scientists have been able to determine that comfort food is usually high in fatty-acids, carbohydrates, tryptophan, or theobromine, (that’s the magic ingredient in chocolate). All of those food components have an effect on serotonin, which stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains. They are certain that there is a “gut-brain connection,” though they are not exactly sure how it works. It made me laugh to think that macaroni and cheese with fried hot dogs (my husband’s favorite), creamed chipped beef on toast, or halva might, one day, replace Valium or Zanax!

It’s not quite that simple! Comfort foods also involve strong psychological components. Medical imaging has proven that, similar to the reaction of Pavlov’s dogs, the mere mention of a favorite food causes physical reactions. Positive changes occur in the brain when good memories are triggered. Several relatives and friends mentioned Polish traditions and customary foods: Easter lamb cake and home made pierogi (think Polish ravioli). For some, the favored pierogi filling was savory sauerkraut or cheese, while others mentioned sweet cherry or cheese, and plum varieties. Another Polish comfort food was nalesniki (crepes). Italian friends enjoyed lasagna, and dipping crusty bread in sauce or gravy (“fare la scarpetta.”) When I’m feeling under the weather, I still make kluski and milk because that dish helps me feel the touch of Mom’s caring hand, though she has long since left this world.

The only common traits I found in all comfort food was that they taste good and are not necessarily on the top of your doctor’s list of foods you should be eating. However, we must also remember that “all things in moderation” is eternal wisdom. Yes, caring for your health is a virtue! Still, when the clouds have rolled in and the world seems to be against you, I don’t think you’ll be reaching for the broccoli or carrot sticks.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that one of my Facebook friends said her favorite comfort food was “veggies.” I guess comfort is found wherever good memories come back to life!