Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tuesday Reflection: Annual Favorite Books of the Year List

In our family there is almost no better gift than a book. We quickly become almost anti-social when we get a new book, for we are that eager to open the cover and read. All of us got new books for Christmas, and now somehow the cold temperatures we are experiencing don't seem so daunting, for we can curl up with our books. 

However, before doing that, it is time look back on this year's reading. This year's reading included books read for our couples' book group--a group that has been in existence for decades. Bruce and I were part of the group before we moved away from St Paul twenty years ago, and we have been graciously welcomed back to the group now that we live here once again. Our meetings are a highlight of each month. Now anytime I am reading I wonder if the book will be a candidate for our book group. This is an added dimension for my reading, and several of my 2014 favorites are books discussed in book group. 

Here's this year's list of favorites--in no specific order. 

1. How the Light Gets In and The Long Way Home, mysteries by Louise Penny (Now we have to wait again for the next installment!)
2. The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout, the author of Olive Kitteredge, a favorite from an earlier year. (Book club selection
3. Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Nancy Horan (the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny. You may recall that Horan wrote Loving Frank.)
4. The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey. (Another book club selection, set in 1920 Alaska and based on a Russian fairy tale)
5. Mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear. (I am now waiting for a new one to be published. These mysteries are set in post WWI London and the main character, Maisie Dobbs, is a private investigator. I also really liked her stand alone novel set during WWI, The Care and Management of Lies.)
6. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Book club selection. While I thought this book attempted to hit too many themes, it still was engrossing.)
7. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. (Book club selection again. Not everyone in the group loved it, but I was fascinated by it.)
8. Vacationland, Sarah Stonich. (This was on my "favorites" list last year and we read it for book club this year.)
9. All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville West (Book club. Do you detect a theme here? We paired this with Being Esther by Miriam Karmel, which I liked, too. Each book focuses on an older woman and the choices made in old age.)
10. Lila, Marilynne Robinson (Now I want to go back and reread all of her books.)
11. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (Challenging and creative structure, but well worth it.)
12. I also reread some Barbara Pym books and thoroughly enjoyed the reprise. 

Note: I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but I am one of those that doesn't understand why it got such critical acclaim. Oh well!

The majority of my favorite nonfiction books are in the realm of spirituality. I am also reading (and using) books about writing
1. A Religion of One's Own, A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, Thomas Moore 
2. The Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart, An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook, Daphne Rose Kingma (My life did not fall apart in 2014, although there were challenges, but there is such wisdom here and strategies and reflections for whenever life hits us in a way we don't expect.)
3. The Paper Garden, Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72, Molly Peacock (My second reading of this gorgeous and inspirational book.)
4. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett (You know her for her novels. Now read this wonderful book of essays.)
5. Calm Surrender, Walking the Path of Forgiveness, Kent Nerburn
6. Handling the Truth, On the Writing of Memoir, Beth Kephart
7. The Rebirthing of God, Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings, John Philip Newell (I heard the author speak this year, and he was thought-provoking about the present and future state of organized religion.)
8. Fully Awake and Truly Alive, Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul, Jane Vennard
9. The Situation and the Story, The Art of Personal Narration, Vivian Gornick
10. Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth A. Johnson (Johnson is a renowned feminist theologian. Her writing is always challenging, and I am so glad I read this in the context of a class.)
11. The House on Teacher's Lane, A Memoir of Home, Healing, and Love's Hardest Questions, Rachel Simon (I have had this book on my shelf for a long time and so enjoyed her reflections on creating and being home.)
12. Small Victories, Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott (Classic Lamott. She is always a star.)
13. A Season of Mystery, 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing A Happier Second Half of Life, Paula Huston (Both this book and the book by Jane Vennard are excellent new looks at spiritual practices.)

Over the course of the year I have consulted many times two spirituality books on an ongoing basis: The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully,  Joan Chittister and The Endless Practice, Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, Mark Nepo. Both are perfect companions during my morning meditation time. 

I have a feeling that the novel I am reading now, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, will end up on my 2015 list. Excuse me while I take a reading break! Happy reading, everyone!

An Invitation
What were your favorite books this year? If you read any of the books on my list, I would love to know your opinion. What are you planning to read in 2015? I would love to know.   

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tuesday Reflections: Waiting for Christmas

Our grandson Peter has been at our house frequently lately, and each time he has arrived he has checked out the presents underneath the Christmas tree. He is six, and these days of waiting are interminably long for him. The other day he spotted a large package labelled for him, and I could feel the curiosity, the hope, the "please, let this be what I asked for" rise up in him. He didn't pick it up or shake it, but merely looked at it and then distracted himself by asking if he could watch "Star Wars." Frankly, I was impressed, and once again realized how the young people in our lives have much to teach us. 

Peter seemed to understand that "now" was not time time to open that present and no amount of cajoling would change that situation. He seemed to know that soon it would be time, and he would relish it all the more for the waiting. He was able to let it go and move onto something else that could give him pleasure and contentment in the moment. He seemed to know he could handle the wait. 

Think about all the times you have needed to wait for something--something that can only happen with time and can't be pushed or shoved or faked into being. Have you waited for
* Results of medical tests to arrive?
* A delayed flight to appear at the gate?
* A package to arrive?
* Water to boil?
* A long sleepless night to pass?
* The pain of grief and loss to diminish?
* The birth of a baby to be announced?
* A loved one to return?
* A job to be offered?
* A home to be sold?
* A cold or the flu to end?

When have you waited for change, a new direction or calling, an ease of your situation, a problem to be solved? An announcement to be made? When have you waited for a wish to be fulfilled and to be able to share the good news? 

Not one of us proceeds through this life without waiting, and I don't just mean waiting in a long line at Target. Each of us has known the kind of waiting which causes your heart to stop or your eyes to sting; the kind of waiting in which everything seems to be either in slow motion or swirling around you. 

Advent is that kind of waiting or at least offers us a chance to become more intimate with waiting and how waiting can help us grow and deepen awareness of how God moves in our lives. 

Over the two years of waiting for our house in Madison to sell I referred frequently to an excellent book about waiting, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting by Holly W. Whitcomb. http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/7240/Seven-Spiritual-Gifts-of-Waiting The gifts she examines are patience, loss of control, living in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and trust in God. Take your pick--they all apply when you are in a state of waiting. Notice that Whitcomb does not include giving up or being passive or throwing temper tantrums or not caring or blaming others for your misery. 

Instead, she writes about being available to others and developing resilience, relinquishing worry, and gathering strength from others.
          Waiting is an important guest to honor in the guest
           house of our humanity. If we consciously allow 
           waiting to be our teacher, we can accommodate
           waiting more peacefully. If we welcome waiting as
           a spiritual discipline, waiting will present its
           spiritual gifts. Waiting contains some of our richest
           spiritual opportunities if we are conscious enough and
           courageous enough to name them and live into them.
                                                         p. 13

Lately, our family has experienced waiting. Our granddaughter Maren was in the hospital for a few days. Starting with a very sore throat and then having severe breathing problems, she was admitted into Children's Hospital with bacterial tracheitis and was hit hard with what her Papa calls "Big Gun" antibiotics. She received excellent care, and she is recovering, but the whole experience required lots of waiting not only by all of us who love her, but also Maren herself has needed to wait. 

As she accepted calmly and even with interest what the plan was, she taught us how to wait with grace. At the same time she was able to ask for what she needed and be a participant in her own  treatment. She showed generosity of spirit when she expressed concern  for a child in the ER who was having a seizure, even though she herself was in pain.  She missed her school party and ski outings and other fun holiday events, but has done so without feeling sorry for herself. 

         In order to convert the inescapable lessons of waiting 
         into deliberate spiritual gifts, we, too, have to be 
         present; we need to pay attention. We need to actively
         participate in this dramatic conversion from waiting as
         something to be endured to waiting as a gift.
                                               p. 13

Waiting is more than a fact of life; it is an opportunity to practice being awake. When the waiting is finally over, how good it will be to know we have not missed living and being in our own lives. 

An Invitation
Are you in a time of waiting right now? If so, what can you do to be more present to both the waiting and to yourself as you wait? I would love to know.

PS: I won't be posting on Thursday, Christmas Day, but will return on Tuesday, December 30. Have a blessed holiday, however you celebrate or honor the sacred. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: What's Under Your Tree?

Packages are beginning to fill in the empty space under our Christmas tree. The lights add shimmer to the silver paper and ribbons, and even though I know what is in the majority of the packages, the look is magical and mysterious and quite irresistible.  I remember my childhood when tags were checked frequently to see just which presents were for me and lifting and shaking, I hoped my wishes would be fulfilled. 

What is under your tree?

I invite you to sit quietly in the glow of your Christmas tree or if that is not part of your tradition, light a candle or two or three and allow the flame to illuminate your heart. What wishes for yourself or others dear to you do you wish you could satisfy? As you gaze beyond the light and into the darkness, what hopes and dreams do you extend beyond your boundaries? What prayers are most often on your lips? Who is tucked beside you and needs your care? 

What expectations are wrapped oh so perfectly, but the box seems too heavy to lift? Can someone help lift it for you or does it need to be ignored? Some expectations, especially at this time of year, are like that. You know that, especially as we live in the wisdom years, but sometimes a reminder is a good thing. 

What hurts seem to be wrapped and rewrapped year after year? I suspect that old paper and ribbon is looking quite shabby by now --worn thin and a bit raggedy around the edges. Do you even know why you put it under the tree again this year? It's not too late to remove it, to move it on and let it go. 

What memories rest under the tree? Our memories are lights to what means the most to us. Lift a box of memory and listen to its heartbeat and allow that beating heart to keep us present to the memory-making of today. 

Is there a surprise under the tree? How did that get there? Who put it there? Are you open enough to receive it? What will it require of  you? Are you ready to stretch and grow. Someone thinks you are. 

What is still missing from under your tree or is there a candle that still needs to be lit? What whispers seem to be coming from under the tree? Is someone waiting to be remembered? Is there a wish that has been unspoken? Now is the time to fill that empty space. 

Christmas Wishes
How different my Christmas wishes are these days. Like you, I hope for good health for myself and my family. I wish all could enjoy the ease of life we enjoy. I pray for peace and understanding in the world. I lift up those who are hurting and feeling raw grief and loss and for whom the holidays bring, not wonder, but pain. 
I look at the beauty of the packages under the tree and hope that all the desires of unknown hearts may be fulfilled. Including yours

An Invitation
I invite you to let your Christmas traditions and symbols speak to you in new ways this year. I would love to hear what you learn. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuesday Reflection: Recovering

Dear Friends, I pray you are all well, but the reality is that we are always in some stage of healing and recovery. 

For my husband and myself the most obvious reason for recovery is the flu. While we have removed the pretend "quarantine" sign from our front door and are back into the world, our pace is slower and more measured and our days continue to include rest periods. This has been quite the siege. 

For most of last week we moved from couch to chair to bed, dragging boxes of Kleenex with us along with mugs of hot liquids. We napped and read and watched all the seasons of Downton Abbey again and ate lightly, and every night we wondered if the next day would mean feeling better. We told our daughter who brought soup to leave it at the front door and run! She disobeyed, of course, coming inside to check on us. We set aside concerns about Christmas tasks and instead, put up our feet, books on our laps, in the glow of our Christmas tree lights. 

Now that we are at the improved and improving stage comes a new test. When you are truly down, sick, rather than not so sick, it is easier to make decisions about what you can do and what you can't and how you feel and how you don't. Now, however, as you heal and recover, temptations abound, especially with Christmas Eve eight days away. There is the need to do one more thing, to stretch beyond what seems smart. 

This is the time when it is important to really listen to your body. This is the time to be gentle with yourself. Yes, you probably could do one more thing, but is it the wise thing to do, the healing thing to do? Of course, there is the possibility of being self-indulgent, but really, how often do you actually do that? More than likely, you set high standards for yourself of what you "should" do, and now is not the time to worry about your self-imposed expectations. Yes, it is good to stretch, to pay attention to the signs of improvement, to be aware of tugs of normalcy, but make sure the drill sergeant inside isn't barking orders. 

Now is the time to stop and listen, to pause, to reflect, to ask yourself, "How am I really doing?" and "What do I really need?" 

Dear Friends, each one of us is always in some stage of healing and recovery. Only you know where you are. Sit with your own healing and be gentle with yourself.

May all be well. 
May the God who listens to our hearts and enters into our pain bless us and all who are in need with the comfort and quiet of Her gentle presence, now and always. Amen
                              Marchiene Vroon Rienstra

An Invitation
Where are you in the healing and recovery process? Are you aware of when you need to be gentle with yourself and when you need to stretch beyond yourself? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Healing

I had my last appointment yesterday morning with my orthopedic surgeon, the doc who operated on my broken ankle at the end of March. I must admit I didn't expect this would be my last appointment--not because I have been experiencing increased pain or recurring problems with my ankle, for that has not been the case, but because I had thought my appointment in September would be my last. This time I set aside my expectations, only hoping more healing and improvement would be recognized.

Although some healing still needs to occur, I don't have to return unless problems develop. 

You know the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? Well, I felt like the Lords A-Leapin'. A sense of euphoria.  I immediately felt lighter and stronger, and even more flexible. I felt as if I had graduated to a new state of ease and surety. Not that I won't continue to be extra careful. I promise you I will, but I don't feel injured any more. I don't even feel quite as old any more. 

Did my bones suddenly knit together completely as I walked from my car into the medical building? Did the remaining occasional swelling melt into the atmosphere as I walked into the x-ray room? Did the slight stiffness dissipate as I took off my sock for the doc to examine my ankle? No, to all those questions, but I physically felt some mending in my mind when I was told I don't need another appointment. 

Suddenly, breaking my ankle felt like an event in the past, rather than part of my current story, and that feels important. Rather than coping with a broken ankle now, I recall breaking my ankle nine months ago and moving through all the stages of healing. 

That was then and this is now.

I feel a bit more whole. True, I still often need to go down steps each foot on each step, and true, I don't yet have the full stamina, the ability to stand or walk for as long as I did before the accident. Some days a limp is detected, and I am always grateful for my husband's arm as we maneuver across an icy parking lot, and I remain puzzled by inquiries about how the accident occurred that seemed to imply I could have prevented it. However, I am now living my life in an easier fashion, and I don't feel as defined by an injury as I felt in the past months. 

So what did I learn? Well, there were many opportunities to learn patience and acceptance, along with lessons about receiving help and kindness of others. I learned how to be clearer in what I needed. I learned how quickly one's situation can change, and I learned to adapt to this particular change, which I hope will benefit me when faced with future changes. 

I slowed my pace and became more aware of where each step took me. The ordinary became more extraordinary. The light and love in my life seemed brighter and more all-encompassing. I was more able to touch all the reasons to be grateful in my life. 

Obviously, I am thrilled to be at this stage of healing, to be this many months away from the event, but it was just one event in my life. One with temporary consequences. Life has continued as I have healed, and while I have not always been able to participate in the life around me as fully as I would have liked, my life has not been on back order.  

I learned to be present to each step. 

May that be so. 

An Invitation
What opportunities have entered your life --unbidden or welcomed--to learn how to be present to each step? Are there past events that need to be in the past? In what ways do you put your life on "back order" and how might you become more present to your whole life? Now. I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: The Habit of Christmas

Earlier this week I left my garret feeling a bit twisted and conflicted with thoughts of Christmas tasks struggling for dominance in my head. It was time to fix dinner, but, instead I was drawn by the soft lights in the living room. I have been reading a small book called Christmas on Jane Street http://www.harpercollins.com/9780061626425/christmas-on-jane-street by Billy Romp (Don't you love that name?) with Wanda Urbanska, a true story about a family in Vermont who go to New York City to sell Christmas trees every year for the month of December. It is one of those heart-warming stories reminding one of the importance of love and compassion and how keeping those values in view allows us to change and grow. 

I finished reading the book, sighing with pleasure at the end, and instead of weariness overtaking me, which is what sometimes happens if I relax right before fixing dinner, I felt lighter, calmer. Then, instead of listening to the news on the radio, my more normal routine while fixing dinner, I listened to Christmas music on one of my Pandora stations. Dinner was ordinary--scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, English muffins, and clementines--but each step felt more meditative. I was in the midst of a walking meditation. I breathed in and out, finding my own rhythm, releasing the unfinished list, opening my heart to Spirit's guidance. 

As I filled our plates--Christmas dishes which always remind me of my mother, for she started us on this collection--I thought about how the habits of Christmas can haunt us; how the way we have always done something can stay with us long after its usefulness. That can be true, also, with the pace we whip ourselves into during this holiday or other busy times of our lives. When we were raising our families and working full-time and being active in communities whether it was our faith communities, schools, or neighborhoods, adding in all the must-do's of Christmas was exhausting. The pace was frenetic. 

 There were years when it all seemed overwhelming, and days were not long enough to do all the Christmas-related tasks I wanted to do or felt compelled to do. Rush, rush, rush. Too much to do in too little time. 

That was then and this is now. 

Yes, there is still lots to do, but now I am in a different stage of life; one in which the taffy-pull of life isn't as intense, but unless I intentionally move in a walking meditation, I still find myself reverting to those former years when Advent was more a time of deadlines and expectations than sacred waiting and anticipation.  I sometimes get caught in the rush-hour habits of those earlier years. 

What I try to do now, want to do now is focus on those aspects of Christmas preparations I love the most.

* I love the decorating, surrounding myself with the context for the other tasks. Re-imagining the house for these days of magic and expectation. 

* I love picking out Christmas cards and writing our annual Christmas letter, as well as more personal notes. When I write our letter I think about the highlights of our year that would be shared over a glass of wine, if we were to meet in person. Is there news that is cause for rejoicing or news that is hard to share, but those who have known us over the years would want to know? I try to express a new learning or understanding, a piece of spiritual growth and deepening that I hope will resonate our ongoing connection. 

* I love the music of the season, the Advent hymns, the carols. Most of the time I write with silence as my background, but this year I can't get enough of the sounds. The music reminds me to listen with the ears of my heart. 

Of course, I love the family times and gathering of friends and family in our home. I even enjoy the shopping and finding gifts that will be enjoyed, although wrapping is not my favorite Christmas activity. And while I love to cook, baking cookies is not my thing. I will make our traditional cherry walnut bread, and I better get started doing that next week, but leave the plates of a dozen different varieties of cookies to someone else. That decision is one way I have chosen to decrease that crazy, swirling out of control feeling of earlier years. 

This year I am trying to be present to each day and not think about the new year yet. Thoughts about what I want to do come January--the organizing typical of the new year, my writing goals, my reading plans--hover near the surface, but I won't have this day ever again, and this is the day, this Advent day, that needs to be lived to the best of my ability with love and joy and openness. 

Thanks be to God. 

An Invitation
What Christmas expectations can you set aside? Do you know what you most love to do during this season? Is that what you are doing? I would love to know.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Christmas Decorating

Even though we have celebrated Christmas heartily and merrily the last two years, something has been missing--the look of Christmas in our homes. One year we were in the midst of trying to sell our house in Madison and yes, people do house hunt in December. We kept decorations to a minimum. Not even a tree. The next year we moved into our St Paul house over Thanksgiving weekend, but our Madison house was still on the market and our bins of decorations were packed away, way in the back of the storage unit we were renting. Plus, we were tired, for it had been a busy and stressful fall. Decorating was not at the top of list. 

That was then and this is now! We spent almost the entire weekend  redressing the house, discovering what this house is meant to be during the holiday season. First, we unloaded bin after bin after bin--I didn't count how many bins, for I don't want to embarrass myself. No one would believe we have downsized or have been trying to simplify our stuff if they had seen our stacks of bins with Christmas decorations. Yet, I know over the last few years we have  eliminated other bins of Christmas decorations, but I can't quite recall exactly what went to Goodwill and the hospice resale shop, especially when I see what we still have.

Opening each bin was like unwrapping a present. Oh, I forgot about that large chalkware Santa going through his list of who has been naughty and who has been nice. Oooh, look at this box of vintage ornaments. I knew right away I would fill a large glass container with those--all that color jumbled together. Every bin was a delight, not only filled with treasures and memories of how they have been used in the past, but they became a vision for creating and living our Christmas lives in this house. 

As we converted corners into vignettes of Christmas cheer and hung garland and lights and filled a cupboard with our collection of Santas carved by our talented friend Al, and stationed in the entry area our Charlie Brown tree, which has survived several moves, and somehow found room in the kitchen for Christmas dishes, our house seemed to relax into a new stage of its long life. I wondered if the house thought perhaps it had forgotten how to "do" and "be Christmas. No way. 

Transformation is possible at any time. 

Joan Chittister in her book The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully, quotes Meridel LeSeur, who lived to be 96, "I am luminous with age."(p. 39) Glowing, gleaming, glittering, glimmering, shimmering. Our house in its Christmas lights reminds me to enjoy this time of my life as a time of transformation--a transformation from the roles I have worn to the potential luminosity of my own inner being. Chittister says the "blessing of these years is the transformation of the self to be, at long last, the self I have been becoming all my life… (p. 43) and this is the "softening season when everything in us is meant to achieve its sweetest, richest, most unique self." (p. 49)

I know there will come a time when we won't want to do the full-scale extravagant decorating we have just completed, but for this year we are relishing the transformative presence of Christmas in our home and welcoming the chance to be luminous in our own lives. 

An Invitation
What transformations are you currently experiencing? What does this season, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, call you to transform in your lives? I would love to know.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: Happy Thanksgiving!

Vintage Thanksgiving Candles on my Kitchen Windowsill
What's cooking? Is your kitchen bustling with activity? Have you discovered yet what ingredient you forgot to buy in your many trips to the grocery store, for that seems to be inevitable no matter how detailed your lists? Let's hope you can borrow from your neighbor or you can fake it and no one will know it is missing. Are you one of those people who sets your table the night before and then needs to figure out where everyone will have breakfast this morning? Are there smells in the kitchen already luring other members of the family to wander into the kitchen and say, "What smells so good?" Are you chopping and stirring and blending and peeling and buttering?  (I don't care what anyone says, this holiday requires lots of butter.) 

Does your menu reflect old and new recipes, dishes that are required because they are someone's favorite and it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without x, y, or z or is your clan a bit more adventurous? I remember one year, decades ago, when my mother relented and said I could bring a salad. I brought a spiced fruit salad served on greens and I was never asked to bring the salad again, even though I thought it was delicious. What Mom meant by salad was what my brother calls "garbage salad," which is a jello salad of some sort, but not the kind with lime jello, carrots and celery--yuk!  In our family it was not good to mess with tradition. 

My daughter-in-love, Cricket, texted this past weekend asking for my recipe for sweet potatoes and pears. She said, "I know it's in your folder somewhere." Of course, it is. In my Thanksgiving folder are menus and lists dating to 2001 when we were still living at Sweetwater Farm. I wish I had noted who was sitting at our harvest table that year. I'm sure that information and other highlights of the day are in my journal, but please don't ask me to forage in the storage room for the bin of journals from that era. Was it the year Cricket's mom couldn't resist and turned over one of my vintage turkey dinner plates to see who made it? Was it the year my Dad and a dear friend's father sat in the living room and reminisced about Thanksgivings of their youth? Surely, our dear friends who were the first to reach out to us our first fall in Ohio were at the table. Yes, they were, for I see listed on the menu is Marcia's apple pie. Was this one of the years when along with the feast a main activity was the Animal Round-Up, which meant somehow moving the llamas and sheep and goats and donkey from the fenced meadow into the barn for the winter? Oh, how I wish I had videos of that annual action! 

Memories and stories. Thanks for indulging me. I could go on and on, but you have your own memories to share, and I encourage you to do that today, as well. While you are waiting for the potatoes to boil or while you are basting the turkey, let the smells and the sights and the sounds of Thanksgivings past swirl around your kitchen as well. I know this day is a lot of work for the hostess and host, and all too quickly, we push away from the table not able to eat one more thing, but I hope your day will include time to remember, to honor the past, and, of course, give thanks for what has been and what is, and what is yet to come. 

I know all memories are not joyful, and perhaps this year is one of those years when the past weighs heavy and the present is not easy and light either. Some years the biggest challenge is knowing when the turkey is ready, but this may not be one of those years. You may find yourself gritting your teeth if a family member says a critical word or you may discover yourself in tears, realizing this may be the last year you are all together. You may be exhausted and may not be looking forward to the weeks of holiday bustling --bustling that has already begun, in fact. You may be alone--by choice or because that is the way it is. There may be people missing from your table this year or you may not be at the table.

Still, dig deep, open your heart to a shining, glowing memory. One is enough, for in that one is a glimpse of hope and wholeness and connection. Rest in the one.

This year Bruce and I will join my sister's family for Thanksgiving dinner, and I am bringing the appetizers--my spiced nut mix, a pumpkin dip for apples and gingersnap cookies, and also pesto pinwheels made with puff pastry. I will miss not having leftovers for turkey sandwiches, but maybe soon I will fix a turkey breast and have a miniThanksgiving. What's most important is being with people I love and feeling love and gratitude for all I have in my life now, as well as all the memories of love in my life. 

An Invitation
What are your first memories of Thanksgiving? What memories are like leftovers that need to be tossed? Which memories most give you pleasure and need to be shared? What memories can lead you to deeper and wider gratitude? I would love to know. 

A Bonus
Casserole of Sweet Potatoes and Pears

6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
6 ripe pears, peeled cored and cut into 8 wedges each
1/3 cup pear brandy
1/2 cup orange juice
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup golden raisins
salt to taste

1. Place the sweet potato slices in a pot and add water to cover. Heat to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered just until barely tender, 12-15 minutes. Drain well.
2. Preheat the over to 375.
3. Arrange the sweet potatoes and pears in alternate layers in a medium-size casserole.
4. Combine the pear brandy, orange juice, brown sugar, butter and raisins in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the butter melted. Season with a little salt. Pour the sauce over the sweet potatoes and pears, stirring to distribute evenly.
5. Bake the casserole until lightly browned and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Serve hot. 
Makes 10-12 servings. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Thoughts about Time

Recently, two sets of house guests were not able to come stay with us as planned. At first, of course, I was disappointed. I had looked forward to spending time with my friends, and I was sorry circumstances had forced their cancellation. However, over the years I have learned to replace disappointment with the concept of "found" time. 

The Choices in "Found" Time
Those days of "found" time were instructive for me. Part of the time I continued with the pre-arranged plans. I had tickets for the Italian Fashion exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and decided to attend even though my friend wasn't with me. Yes, it would have been more fun if my friend had been with me, and I knew she would have loved it, but I decided to see it as if she were with me, to see it with two pairs of eyes. What would she have noticed? Which ensembles would she have most liked? While there, I thought about what she would like to know, and I paid attention for both of us. 

We had planned a dinner date with a mutual friend, someone I don't see very often on a one to one basis. While we both missed our friend as we lifted a glass of wine to her, we made the most of our time together, deepening our friendship. The time was rich. 

I had only vague plans for when my other friend had planned to visit, and I needed to think about how to view that open space. My husband was attending a conference one of the days my friend had planned to be here, making the time truly my own.  I always have a backlog of things I want to do or need to do, but I decided to use  the "found" days to ignore the list and instead, read and write. I sunk into our current book club selection instead of squeezing in time in which to read it, and therefore, I enjoyed it more. I floated between reading chairs and my desk where I immersed myself in my writing project. I did this and that and relaxed into each of the choices. A key word, choice. 

Views of Time
I could have been frustrated or paralyzed with disappointment. I could have felt sorry for myself, and I certainly remember times in my life when I have felt that way when plans have changed.  Sometimes when time opens up, we let it float away without respecting the unexpected gift. No matter the circumstances, we each have the same 24 hours each day, but how many days we will each have is the unknown, making the choice of how to spend our days even more important. 

I think about a friend who is not allowed to drive for three months because of a recent cardiac episode. Perhaps time is moving slowly for her, especially during these busy holiday weeks. Another friend may feel time is moving too quickly, for her husband who has been battling cancer for the past three years has now been told further treatment will not keep the cancer at bay for much longer. How will they use this time?

The Practice of Discernment 
One of the topics I am exploring in the book I am writing is the spiritual practice of discernment. Often we think about discernment when it comes to the big issues in our life--moving to a different part of the country, deciding when to retire, confronting decisions about a knee or hip replacement, or focusing on opportunities for service and for growth in our later years.  It seems to me, however, that discernment, the practice of discernment, can apply to all areas of our life.  Monika Ellis, OSB in an article in: Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction says discernment is a "way of life," "a way of walking with one's heart, ears and eyes wide open, all in readiness for receiving God, who appears and speaks to us." Sister Monika encourages us to remember the wisdom of our feelings and to listen attentively to our whole self. 

If we do that -- listen attentively to our whole self -- or, as I have discussed in previous posts, stay awake, discernment can apply to decisions and choices we might classify as small ones, too; ones that seem more incidental or immediate--which book to read or how much time to spend on the internet and whether to take a nap or do the next thing on the list. In addition, practicing discernment in our lives can affect our decision whether or not to reach out to someone who is lonely or struggling with life in some way or determining how to respond to someone who has hurt you or who irritates you. These decisions might not require as much examination as the decisions we think of as the major fork of the road decisions in our life, but the practice of discernment reminds us to slow down, to visit our own heart as a voice of authority and wisdom. 

To do that, Sister Monika says we need to give ourselves three gifts: space alone with oneself, time to center ourselves and connect with our depths, and quiet. With ongoing attention to these gifts, we become more aware of our ability to discern and follow our soul's desire. 

Discerning Your Use of Time
How do you use your time? Do you guard your time? Hoard your time? Relish your time? Fill your time? Do you share your time? Waste your time, and if so what does it mean exactly, to waste your time? Do you have time on your hands? 

How we choose to use our time is how we choose to live our life.

An Invitation
What is your relationship to time right now? Are you willing to cultivate the practice of discernment as a tool for following your heart's desire as you move through your day? I would love to know. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: Being Awake

In Tuesday's post I used the words, "stay awake," and "living a conscious life." I refer to being present and being awake often in this blog and in conversation with others. Those are common words in my vocabulary; words I aspire to live, as well as recite. 

But what do they mean? Today I want to share what others mean by "being awake, " in hopes that their words will enhance your understanding and recognition of being awake in your own life. 

Mark Nepo in The Endless Practice, Becoming Who You Were Born to Be:
          I use the word wakefulness as a term for enlightenment.
          I believe enlightenment isn't a place where we arrive at
          but a process we stay in. ..The first lesson of wakefulness
          is to keep opening our heart so we can meet what we're
          given… p.68

          We have moments of clarity and then we're confused.
          We're awake and then we're numb. We're buoyant and
           then we're sinking. Just as we inhale and exhale constantly,
           our wakefulness ebbs and flows.
                The practice of being human is the practice of coming
           awake, staying awake and returning to wakefulness
           when we go to sleep. We go to sleep because we are
           mortal--not because there is anything wrong with us. 
           This opening and closing is part of the human journey.
           Therefore, the practice of being a spirit--in a body, in the
           world--is a practice of returning to our center where 
           we can know the world fully. This return to center is a
           foundational form of saying yes to life. p. 67

Rami Shapiro in the foreword to Jane Vennard's book Fully Awake and Truly Alive Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul:
          You've probably grown so accustomed to sleep living
           (a far more common experience than sleepwalking)
           that you mistake your current state for wakefulness.
           Well, it isn't. You are asleep, and so is almost everyone
           you know. ..
                Of course, being asleep doesn't mean you aren't
           functioning. You get up and go about meeting the 
           obligations of your day. You may eat well, exercise
           regularly, and cultivate loving relationships. You
           may, if asked, confidently (if a bit humbly) admit to
           being happy and not a little successful. It isn't that 
           you're lying, it's that being asleep you have no idea
           what kind of happiness awaits you when you wake up…
                 In the Bible Moses tells us, "See I have set before
           you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose
           life if you would live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). To choose
           life is to wake up, and when you wake up, you wake up
           to the entirety of life: living and dying, blessing and
           cursing. You can't escape any of it, but you can learn to
           navigate all of it with equanimity and even joy.

Joyce Rupp in The Cosmic Dance, An Invitation to Experience Our Oneness:
          I am growing in awareness, however, and each day I
          re-commit myself to this gift as I turn my entire being
          toward the cosmic dance, longing to lean into it with
          all I am and all I do.
              This awareness is essential because my experience
          of the cosmic dance depends on whether my senses
          are alert and whether my heart is attuned to looking
          beyond what is visible. If I rely only on the rational,
          I will mss a good portion of the cosmic dance. If I fail
          to be still and to explore the far regions of mystery, the
          dance will remain aloof from my inner eye. Daily I
          must set out, again and again, to have an open mind
          and a compassionate heart. Daily I must perk up my 
          external senses and commune with my internal ones,
          as well. The cosmos holds out her cup of life to me,
          filled with invisible packets of energy. I need only
          respond with a desire and an intention to receive. It
          is then that I enter into the cosmic dance with aware-
          ness and gratitude and hear again the inner voice
          urging me toward oneness. p. 33

Suggestions for Reflection
I invite you to read these passages carefully and to note where your heart lifts, but also pay attention to the temptation to fall asleep. Allow yourself to awaken to the words offered here as guideposts for living a more conscious and wakeful life. If there is one passage that resonates with you more than the others, then live with that passage and use it as the source of meditation in your quiet time. Ask it to lead you to greater wakefulness. If you keep a journal, spend some time writing about what you mean by being awake and how you know when you are awake. 

Pema Chodron asks us to each day say aloud, "I wonder what's going to happen today." That feels like a call to be awake, a tool for awakening. Try it and see what happens.

I know I have shared these words from Mary Oliver before, but they are worth sharing again--and probably, again.
                         Pay attention.
                         Be astonished.
                         Tell about it. 

An Invitation
How do you know when you are awake? What do you do to become more aware, more present, more conscious? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Walking into a New Routine

We seem to have landed in January temperatures here in Minnesota, and it isn't even Thanksgiving yet. Snow is firmly on the ground and seems determined to stay with us till who knows when. Given my hesitation about walking in these conditions, even though I have plenty of Nanook of the North outerware, crampons strapped onto the bottom of one of my pair of boots and will soon have walking poles for extra security, strolling through the neighborhood doesn't have lots of appeal. 

Still, I know I need to exercise more. I have not been given clearance from my orthopedist yet to return to Curves, and hope that will happen soon, but in the meantime I use the exercycle faithfully everyday--the best exercise for my broken ankle I have been told--but since I sit at my desk and write and read much of the day, more exercise is definitely in order. I am not eager to join a gym (No lectures, please!), however, so what to do? 

Yesterday I went to the Mall of America and joined the other senior citizens walking the Mayo Mile. I walked two of the four loops of the mall and left before the stores began to open, feeling quite self-righteous, I might add. I intend to do the same thing today. 

Doing this, however, means I have to change my routine, and I like  my routine. Very much. My routine these last few months has been to get up at 6 and go straight to my garret desk and write and read while still in my pajamas. Eventually, when I feel like it or because there is someplace I need to go, I use the exercycle, shower, and dress for the day. In the meantime my husband has left the house and gone to his coffee shop "office" to work, and I enjoy the spaciousness of the quiet. Most days I walked in the neighborhood later in the day. That has been a good routine.

That routine was the result of asking myself, "What are you willing to do to make writing a priority in your life?" 
          But what do you want badly enough to keep front
          and center in your life? To make sacrifices of time 
          energy for?
                     This Year I Will…How to Finally Change A
                     Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream
                     Come True, M. J. Ryan, p. 19 

          One thing is clear to me…You can't do everything
          you'd like to do…You must hold on to some things
          and let go of others. Learning to make that choice is
          one of the big lessons in life.

I decided it was worth giving up an hour of sleep in the morning in order to work at my garret desk without distraction. That has worked well, and I am moving forward with my book project. However, my body has asked for equal time, and that makes sense to me. I recognize the need and have decided I am willing to make an adjustment in my routine. Making the effort to walk in a safe and dry place on a regular basis and still keep writing time as a priority means establishing a new writing regimen. I am willing to do that. I am willing to establish a new routine. I am willing to exercise my power over routine, instead of letting the routine be in charge. 

The Value and Power of Routines
I think routines make us feel secure. Routines help us feel as if we are in charge, productive, and moving towards something as we navigate our way through our self-imposed routines. In one way, having a routine is a way not to think about the next step, but routines are also a way to check in with ourselves and to know if this is a normal kind of day or one in which we are in store for something out of the ordinary. Routines are part of our decision-making about how we want to spend our time. We do this, instead of that. That, instead of this. Routines signal how we live our days, and that gives power to routine. 

How important it is to keep asking the question, "Is this where we want to place our power? Is this the way we want to live our days?" 

An Ongoing Lesson
The thing is I value spontaneity and flexibility, as much as I value routine and regularity and having a plan. And I am aware of how distractions creep in as the day progresses. What I continue to learn, however, is that when I stay awake, when I live consciously, the need for routine and the need to respond to change, along with the desire to be open and spontaneous are not in conflict. When I stay awake, my body, mind, and spirit live together without conflict for the wellbeing of the whole. How amazing is that!

I don't know yet if this new plan will actually become my daily routine and if it does, how long it will last. I know there will be days when bad weather will keep me home, instead of walking at the mall, and I hope there will be other days warm enough for an outdoor walk. I assume there will be other days when the writing beckons more than walking. This routine will modify into another routine at some point, but I hope that will happen because I am awake and living a conscious life, responsive to the movement of God in my heart. 

An Invitation
What routines feed and nurture how you live your days and what routines have power over you? Are there routines in your life that need to be examined or is there a routine in your life that needs to be established? I would love to know. 


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: Am I A Writer?

Storyboard for My Book
"I am no longer a writer, " I announced to my husband at the end of a frustrating day at my desk. "How exciting to think about all the extra time I will have because I am no longer a writer." 

He calmly sat back in his desk chair and said, "How about if we go out for dinner and have a glass of wine? Maybe two." 

That was exactly what I needed, and the next morning I was back at my desk and no longer felt stuck or at least as stuck as I had been the evening before. A way to move through the problem I was having with the assignment for the writing class I am taking, an assignment directly related to my proposed book project, magically appeared. I put my writer hat back on --until the next round of uncertainties appeared.  

I spend much of my days in writerly pursuits: writing or researching posts for this blog,  writing what Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird calls SFD or "shitty first drafts" for my book, and working on the online class assignments. I have ideas and notes for articles for various publications and have even submitted occasional manuscripts. If someone asked me right this minute, "What do you do?" I would probably say, "I'm a writer." However, underneath there are always lurking doubts.

Does having a bookshelf full of books on writing qualify me as a writer? Do the few articles I've had published along the way and the stacks of drafts I have for other projects count? What about the days I only write a grocery list? Am I still a writer then? 

"I am a writer," I stamp my feet and insist to myself. I write letters I am told are treasured by the receiver. I write in my journal and have bins of filled journals to reinforce my longevity as a journal keeper. I write two posts for this blog every week, although I have done little to promote it. 

Do I need to be read in order to be considered a writer? That's like asking if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, would there still be the sound of the crash. The tree fell, regardless. I write regardless, but I do write as if it will be read and as if it matters. I write feeling that as I reflect and clarify and straighten out a twisted ball of thoughts, it matters. 

I write because it is the best way I know to find out what I think and feel. Writing is a way to clarify, to clear the internal space, to move from muddle to understanding, to see where the outer story ends and the inner story begins, to take responsibility for how I live and move in the world. 

Writing is a God thing for me. 

Writing is a way for me to attend to the presence of God in my life, to follow the tracks of Spirit moving in my life, and to catch a glimmer of what God is asking of me right now. Write now. 

Writing isn't the only way I show up for my life nor is it the only way I connect to Spirit in my life, but over the years I have learned it is an essential spiritual practice for me, and and I trying to give it the attention it deserves. That's why I spend much of my time these days actually writing. If not now, when? 

An Invitation
What is essential in your life? How do you sense God's movement in your life? Is God nudging you to make central to your life what is essential for your spiritual growth and what are you willing to give up in order to make that happen? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Bittersweet

I love white tulips in the spring, daisies in summer, Christmas greens in December, and yellow roses any time. And in the fall bittersweet is my favorite. Early this fall I resorted to buying a bunch. At great expense, I might add. My mother always said one should not have to pay for rhubarb or bittersweet, but I knew I couldn't depend on spontaneously finding some just waiting for me and like applesauce and pumpkins, bittersweet is a fall must for me. 

When we lived in the country in Ohio we knew just where to find it, and my lust for it was also fed by a good friend in Pennsylvania whose backyard was at the foot of a mountain where it grew in profusion. She shipped me a large boxful--if it had been my birthday, I could not have received a better present. I swagged it on our white picket fence from the driveway to our backyard. I was bittersweet rich!

One day last week my bittersweet luck was restored. My husband and I spent the day roaming an area in southern Minnesota along the Root River. The day was grey and overcast, clearly forecasting the winter that arrived yesterday with the first snowstorm of the season. We drove about two and a half hours to Lanesboro, a small town which bustles with bikers in the summer and is the home to artists all year. After a delicious lunch at Pedal Pushers, we crossed over to the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River for our return home. Throughout the day we took in the sights--hawks and eagles, tundra swans, and cornfields dotted with fat round bales of cornstalks, giving a playground air to the vastness. Stripped trees, a mix of lead grey, sturdy as new pencils, and the tarnished silvery bling of the birch, reinforced the outline of the river bluffs. 

Bruce reminded me to keep my eyes open for bittersweet, but he was the one who spotted the intense orange in the unlittered branches. Were we prepared for the harvest? We certainly didn't have a ladder to capture the entwined vine nor did we think we had a scissors or pruning shears. What kind of adventurers were we?That didn't stop Bruce, however. We parked off road, and off he went to capture the flag. Success! My hero! 

Yes, I know it is an invasive vine and can be destructive to the host trees, but I love the intense orange of the berries and its twisty, turning, even scraggly appearance. It adds a pop of color to fall arrangements or bunched together makes a statement all on its own. It is well named-- bitter…sweet.

How much of our life can be labeled "bittersweet"? Growing older definitely has its bittersweet moments--being retired and having more time to reflect and make choices about how we most want to spend our time, but perhaps not having the energy or the ability to pursue what we desire or not being sure of what that might be. We finally have flexibility, but perhaps money or health issues get in the way or time may need to be devoted to aging parents. We are grateful for the gifts of our life, but my, it has gone so fast. How did we get here? There is the lightness that comes with downsizing, but the challenges of letting go. Regrets may shadow the choices we have made, even those that have served us well. As the years add up, the days go by even faster. Summer becomes fall becomes winter. Bittersweet. 

One could get quite melancholy, but then there is that orange, almost red, surprise. Just when you least expected it. Bittersweet.

An Invitation
What aspects of your life in the past felt bitter sweet? How about now? In what ways do those times nurture you? I would love to know.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thursday Reflection: Starting a New Garage

Yippee--work has begun on a new garage at our house. Our tiny one car garage may have looked sweet and would have been a perfect garden shed, but when it came to squeezing in my car and a lawnmower and other garden tools, all sweetness disappeared. Every time we parked the car in the garage was a new adventure, as if we had never done it before, and my Jeep has the scuff marks on all four corners of the car to prove it. 

We have been waiting for the project to begin, worrying that winter would arrive, and we would need to wait till next spring--not a happy prospect, but Monday morning machinery arrived and a dinosaur ate our garage, according to my husband who watched the destruction from the garret window. The next day the crew arrived to pour the new concrete slab, which is now curing. We were told that was the crucial pre-winter step, and we will have a new garage in a month or so. I repeat, yippee! 

Different Perspectives
What I see when I look out the window is the future; what it will be like to have a truly usable and functioning garage, but, I realize that may not be what others see as they look at the lonely slab. My husband sees, along with the serviceable new garage, a smaller backyard, but at the same time he is beginning to imagine how he wants to garden in that space. 

Our neighbors, however, may see potential difficulties maneuvering the alley because of trucks coming and going as the garage is constructed, and they may not be happy about the noise of construction. Or seeing from their windows the contents of the disappeared garage now invading our backyard, may wonder if they will have to look at that all winter long. Will this be one of those unfinished projects with good intentions, but interrupted by weather or lack of funds? Will the fence be repaired, and what will the garage look like when it is done finally? 

A middle schooler heading to school through the alley may wonder if we are configuring a basketball court and will watch for the erection of a basketball hoop. A younger child may see this concrete slab as a perfect place to ride his trike or test out the training wheels on his first bike.  Or is this the basis for an ice skating rink? I am sorry, but they will be disappointed. 

The workers see a job and income. The construction company sees all the steps that need to happen as promised, along with future referrals and business, if it is done well and on time. 

Everyone has their own perspective and see something a little bit different.

Learning to See
Recently, I attended training for the Art Adventures program for elementary schools offered by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and a key ingredient in this program is to help young people "see." To say what they see and feel free to say what they see. As the volunteer "Picture Person," it is my job to see with them and to see what they see and to help them see beyond and through and within and not to correct or judge. 

At another museum not long ago I heard a guide ask a group of middle school students about a detail in a painting. All sorts of possibilities were offered, and each time the guide responded, "No, that's not right." Well, maybe technically the answers offered were not right, just as our garage slab is not going to be a basketball court, but it could be! I wanted to hear more from the students about what they were seeing and why they had responded the way they did. I wished the guide could see what the students saw. If he had, they all could have sharpened their own abilities to see--to imagine, to apply what they know to a new situation, to trust their own perspectives, even as they come to understand someone else's perspectives, and to not worry so much about right and wrong answers. 

The View from the Garage
We were invited to attend a neighborhood party not long ago--a party held in a garage, as a matter of fact. People from both sides of the alley were invited, and we so enjoyed meeting neighbors we had only seen as their garage doors closed. A good chunk of the conversation, as it happened, focused on garages, for we are not the only ones with a garage challenge and others have built or are contemplating building a new garage. Lots of opinions were expressed and probing questions asked, and some people seemed to know the ways things should be done. I didn't say much, and Bruce explained our plans without spending any time justifying why this way as opposed to that. No one asked if we had considered not having a garage and instead would provide play space for the neighbor kids. This is Minnesota, after all, and we need a place to park when the snow piles up. 

We all see the need for a practical and functional garage, but we all have a different image in our mind of what that looks like. We see more than what is in front of us. We see from our own perspective. Deeper seeing happens when we can see from someone else's perspective and when we know in our minds and in our hearts that there is more to seeing than seeing. 

My prayer is that we can begin to see with more than our own eyes. 

An Invitation
Is there something in front of you that needs you to see it or her or him or them? What aren't you seeing clearly? What awaits your fresh way of seeing? How can seeing become a spiritual practice? I would love to know.