Monday, December 24, 2012

Family Visits in the Techno Age


We've gathered for our annual Christmas get-together, and technology is the new guest. We’ve debated whether we should have “no-technology” moments during our family visit as we became aware that at times all 7 people staying at our house have our noses stuck in 7 different pieces of technology – laptops, iPads, or smartphones. The twins send music back and forth to each other while sitting on opposite couches. Bill reads something to everyone from his smartphone, and everyone enjoys a running commentary with family members far and near on Facebook.

But one use of technology silenced my call for no-techno moments. While sitting around the fire with the fam, we asked my mother-in-law to tell us about how they celebrated Christmas in her home during her growing up years in St. Peters, Nova Scotia. She told us about going out to the back field to chop down a Christmas tree with her father and how she received nothing more than apples and oranges in her stocking.  Their gifts included simple items, like socks and underwear. Her family never owned a car. She walked to school and to the store, while her dad walked to the post office where he worked, making just $2,000 a year. And she never felt poor.

To highlight the moment, one son pulled up decades-old photos of her family he had uploaded onto his computer from old slides. Another son went on to Google maps and found her childhood home.   With the street view, he was able to show my mother-in-law her old house, complete with changes made by the new owners who turned it into apartments. Another son pulled up a picture of one of her family members taken in the 50’s that he used as a CD cover for his band because he liked the vintage look. While I write this post, they are looking up the MacKillop tartan, celebrating their Scottish heritage. In a minute I’ll post this on Facebook and my sons will notice. They might “like” it or not, but either way, we’ll have a continuing conversation. A different kind of conversation, but we are talking nevertheless. And the times they are a changin’.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Peaceful Hush

In my growing up years, we children often fell asleep to the sounds of parental battles downstairs, someone screeching tires out of the driveway in a fit of rage, glasses crashing against walls and voices shouting to be heard.

But at Christmas time, the most amazing thing would happen. For some reason, my parents called a truce, allowing a peaceful hush to descend on our home. I’m not sure why the holy hush when we weren’t terribly religious, but nevertheless some sort of reverence inspired by the season calmed spirits. We had happy family moments, sitting around the fireplace in pajamas by the dim light of our Christmas tree decorated with strings of popcorn and cranberries, laughing and conversing, eating pinwheel cookies, drinking eggnog. We would discuss the little fat man who miraculously managed to bring toys to every child in the world in one night, unaware that his behavior rang of omnipresence, showing that even folks unable to grasp the real meaning of Christmas bumped up against its truth.

If only we could’ve really loved each other year round the way we loved each other during Christmas.  I think my parents would’ve chosen to live everyday in that calm but didn’t know how to bottle the peace and use it another day. Unfortunately the truce broke soon after the holiday, and our family eventually shattered.
While raising my sons, a holy hush descended on our home too, but unlike my family of origin, we understood the meaning of the celebration that caused people all over the world, the broken and battered world, to hope and believe in reconciliation with God. We celebrated with many of the same traditions as my parents, but with a sense of significance. 
In this Christmas season, I think of how all the world glimmers and burns bright with lights for a God so many don’t even believe in, many chuckling at the ridiculousness of the faith story, even considering it offensive. To some, it’s a fairytale that weak folks believe, this idea that a powerful creator entered into his creation in the form of a helpless baby, born to an unwed teenage mother in a building shared with farm animals. He could’ve lived in a palace and commanded armies to protect him and demand obedience. Instead he lived simply and humbly, cared for the marginalized, and submitted to a horrendous death.
The nineteenth century author George MacDonald talks about basing his life on this seemingly far-fetched storyline in his book Thomas Wingfold:  "Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not...Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their deaths make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord."
May a holy hush descend on us all this Christmas as we celebrate this story. God knows we need it.   


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Love in the Latter Years

 My husband and I leave pre-dawn for a 3-hour journey to visit one of our sons. Road trips and travel invite thoughts to wander and memories to stir, forming narrative and reflection that instruct. We fill up with coffee before merging onto a nearly deserted highway, music serenading us from the CD player, the top down on the convertible as Indiana farmland zooms past, the backseat empty of car seats or wrestling boys. Those days are behind us now. Thirty years into this marital journey, we’re back where we started, just the two of us; but the two of us are very different people now. Life and love and have transformed us both.   

We ride mostly in silence, indicative of the comfort we feel with each other after all these years. Eva Cassidy serenades with a jazzy version of “I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before.” Bill gives my hand a squeeze. I notice the lines engraved on his face and think of the Psalmist's words, “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places.” The smile and laugh lines etched deeply around his eyes tell of his life’s pleasant places. Despite ups and downs in our relationship and life’s challenges, he has traveled this road with levity, and it shows.
 One of my favorite Bill stories took place when our sons were young and we struggled to support them on his single salary while I stayed home. He drove a car with an exhaust system that blew inside our vehicle rather than outside, arriving home in the evening smelling like carbon monoxide. A long-awaited raise and promotion at work allowed us to purchase a newer car with exhaust blowing in the right direction. One of his coworkers ribbed him about his new and spiffy Ford Taurus station wagon saying, “Now that you’re making the big bucks, Bill, you had to go buy a new car?” First of all, the bucks weren’t all that big. Second of all, I would’ve sassed the man over his sarcastic comment. But my husband handled him with customary humor by saying, “You know Steve, making the big bucks hasn’t changed me a bit. Why, I was just saying to my house boy, Hop Sing, this morning….”
Bill has handled me with the same good-natured personality. During rough spots in our marriage, he always brought winsomeness to our struggles. During years when we both failed to constructively express and communicate our disappointments and frustrations to each other (he became withdrawn and I became mouthy), he learned over time to model to me the art of telling the truth in love. Coming from a broken, unhealthy famiIy, I needed someone to try a different tactic to build a marriage with me; my husband succeeded.
Bill never compounded my past hurts by revisiting and mimicking them. Despite meltdowns on my part, my husband refused to stop loving me. He never attempted to control me with verbal tirades. He never put me in my place, gave up, listed my faults though many, lashed out, said an unkind word, or left. His very calming presence formed the perfect recipe for healing a troubled past. His behavior spoke to the steady and loving gift he has been in my life.

Today he never pats himself on the back for his altruistic behavior. I’ve calmed and healed, and he’s learned to express himself - some might say a little too much. He doesn’t take credit for his contribution to our marriage although that contribution is massive. He pretends (almost) that he never noticed I was a challenge. And that is love. 
Serenaded, comforted and healed, we continue on down the road, a shared loved-one ahead waiting for us.  Bill’s smile lines appear as he squints against the morning light that showers over us in the early hours of dawn.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why am I Talking?

I heard an Anne Lamott interview recently where the well-known author shared her thoughts about the role of being a mother-in-law. My ears perked up as I’ve now been a mother-in-law for two years and hope to always have a respectful, loving relationship with my daughter-in-law and any future daughter-in-laws.

In her characteristic humor, Lamott says that when she is speaking with her children and their spouses, she recites the acronym WAIT to herself, which stands for Why Am I Talking? At one point in the relationship she realized they didn’t want her advice, critiques, or thoughts on how to do certain things.
I need to zip my lip at times, too, not just with my daughter-in-law but with grown sons as well. I need to WAIT until I’m asked before I offer a mouthful. All those times I find myself commenting on job applications, travels, financial choices, etc. I now hear myself asking Why am I Talking? My job at this point is to be a cheerleader on the sidelines, a listening ear, an encourager, and an advisor when asked.

In my writing life, there are times I need to learn to zip my lip, too. Writing often informs life and life informs writing, and WAIT applies here as well. I have a commentary problem when I write. Surely there’s a 12-step program for those of us who divulge too much.  I place my characters in a situation, give them some actions and behavior, cause other characters to react or not react to their behavior, and then I make the mistake too often of commenting on everyone’s behaviors. Readers can see for themselves what just happened and its affects. They might draw a different conclusion then my intended one, but all the better. So Why Am I Talking? I need to be on a "commentary diet" instead.

I find author Elizabeth Strout to be a master at the understated. Here’s a mother-in-law example from her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge. How would you describe this character from this brief interaction with her soon-to-be daughter-in-law?
“Do you mind if I call you mom?” asked the girl, stepping back but holding Olive by her elbows. “I’m so dying to call you Mom.”

 “Call me anything you want,” Olive replied. “I guess I’ll call you Ann.”

 A lack of commentary, in other words silence, often speaks loudly in literature and loudly in life as well. Have you ever been falsely accused? Lied about? Met a person who describes themselves one way and lives another? A lack of commentary comes in handy in these situations, as well as when you’ve lost your opportunity to defend yourself, argue your point, convince someone of your goodness or respectability. In other words, if we can’t use words to explain who we are, who are we? Sometimes it’s frightening to be known only by what we do or don’t do.
I’ll withhold any further commentary.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


When I think of people living well into their older years, my friend Kathi comes to mind immediately. At a season when most people are clearing out their desks and giving away their teaching supplies, she continues to be a teacher and a student of life. For years, she raised her kids as a single mom and adopted three kids along the way. Today, only her middle-aged Down’s Syndrome son lives with her, and together they’ve made a major life move.
Kathi recently took the courageous step of selling her house in a comfortable Richmond suburb and moving into the inner city onto a street surrounded by abandoned houses in a neighborhood residents would know from newscasts because of its constant crime and violence.

Did I mention alone as a single mom?

In fact, her next door neighbor came over to introduce himself on her move-in day saying, “The drug dealers are on that corner down there, and the prostitutes hang out on the other end. I know them all, so they’ll leave you alone. But listen to me when I tell you that you should NEVER, EVER, EVER open your door at night to anyone. Do you hear me?”

Out of concern, I asked her if she would be safe moving there, she replied, “Well, who’s really safe anywhere?”

 I think her answer meant “no” or “it doesn’t really matter.”

She works with an organization called CHAT (Church Hill Activities and Tutoring) whose staff members also live in the neighborhood. Not only do they live among marginalized people, but they’ve chosen to put their kids in failing public schools to share in that experience with their neighbors.  A scripture on Kathi’s newsletter sent out to family and friends aptly describes their actions:  “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

I realize her choice is more radical than most of us will make in our lifetime, me included. And I realize some people will feel this post is guilt producing. But the point in sharing Kathi's life is to say that we all have fears to step into and challenges to face in our own lives that may not resemble Kathi’s choice in the least, some on a much smaller scale but important for our sphere of influence.

 Kathi’s choice made me consider what fears keep me from taking risks and following my own calling and passions. Just stepping into those fears can be transformative – for us and for others. The interesting part of fear is how it sort of moves out of our way and evaporates when we push into it.

I salute this woman, this aging lifestyle, this desire to live fully and adventurously – and a little bit dangerously - right to the end. Speaking of the end, the back of Kathi’s house abuts a senior citizen home. She jokingly says she won’t have far to move when she “gets old.”

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Life in the Latter Years

I’m late to the blogging world, as I’ve been late to many things in life, but part of my reason for the delay can be blamed on my inability to name my blog. I thought of Late Bloomer, but apparently the world is full of late bloomers and many already named their blogs as such. They may have been late, but they beat me.  Same with my second choice for a title that highlighted an empty nester’s quest for purpose –  Life: Part Two. Already taken. Then I considered A Try Again Life since I’m returning to school in my later-than-middle-age years. But I nixed that idea because of the connotation that the earlier parts of my life somehow failed, requiring a second chance.

One day my blog name appeared when a friend shared a new word with me – opsimath. I love this word because it describes my stage of life so much better than simply being late to the game and trying again. You see, the word means “a person who begins, or continues, to study or learn late in life.” I may not know how to pronounce it or use it smoothly in a sentence, but I like the concept! And I’m always interested in learning – formally and informally, via books, other people, life experiences, on the job, etc.

For the formal part,  I’m making up for my early school years when I didn’t study much, being the dreamy student in middle and high school who stared out classrooms window, creating scenarios in my head that never had to do with algebra or American history. Unfortunately my chronic disinterest and inability to pay attention had long-term consequences as I missed so much of the information other curious people collected at an earlier age. I’m attempting to make up for lost time by returning yet again to school at the Rainier Writer's Workshop to pursue something from my bucket list in these latter years: a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.  

I debated long and hard about returning one more time to school – especially at my age. After all, my grandfather was retired by the time he reached his mid-fifties, spending his days on the golf course and on his deck overlooking a Cape Cod bay where cocktails started in late afternoon. I have no desire to wind down in the same manner, so I surveyed friends for their opinion about my return to school. Surely someone would provide a good reason to talk me out of my pursuit by citing the impracticality, the expense, my age, and the uselessness of a writing degree. But to a person, everyone’s response was, “Why wouldn’t you do something you love? Go for it!”

Another encouragement came after a recent celebration of my company’s 50th anniversary. A coworker pointed out the founder’s wife was nearly 50 years old when her husband started our publishing house, meaning that much happened in her later years. Is it too much to hope that something interesting might take place in the latter half of our lives too, after the kids are grown, moving on to challenging pursuits of their own? Is there any reason to slow down and wait as life rolls to a close?
A few years back as I talked to my sons about my approaching stage of empty nest, I mentioned feeling that my most important job was finished and jokingly said I could just move on to the great beyond. One of my sons responded: “You’re not an insect, Mom. You don’t mate and die.” So I’d like to pursue adventure, and see what life holds when you’ve passed the half century mark. I choose to be an opsimath – someone who not only learns late in life, but also lives life fully right up until the end. I plan to blog about the experience with the hopes something curiously fun might happen along the way. And I’m on the lookout for others doing the same. So cue the music and let the new journey begin.