Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Graduation Speeches

I always enjoy the snippets of graduation speeches that we get to watch this time of year on national and local news programs. I like to hear what the speakers say to the graduates, what advice they give. I enjoy them now even though I realize that after more than twenty-five years since I graduated from college and even more years since high school graduation, I have no recollection of any of the speeches or bits of wisdom I received when I received a diploma. For the life of me, I don’t even know who the speakers were. But this spring as I reach the milestone of turning fifty, I have a clearer idea of what I wish I had been told as I was setting out to begin my life as a young adult. I wish I had been told that life rarely works out like I expect it and that it’s okay to make plans but I should be prepared to let them go and make new ones. Someone should have told me to lighten up and not take things so seriously. At the age of eighteen or even twenty-two I really didn’t have to figure out what I intended to do with the rest of my life since now I know that idea has gone through many revisions. It would have been nice to know I could relax and enjoy my youth a little more than I did. I wish I would have been counseled to find out what makes me happy and not rely solely upon others to bring me joy. I wish I would have been told to let myself be surprised and delighted by the world. I think I knew this at an early age, but it would have been nice to be reminded to tell the people I love that I love them since no one ever really knows when a last time for that is happening. It would have made things a lot easier if I had learned early in my friendships and marriage that it is better to be in right relationship than it is to be right. And finally, I wish I had known how important it is to be kind because I have certainly come to understand that above all things, kindness does matter. I write all these words of wisdom now thinking that if I had heard them in graduation speeches I might have been more attentive to the important things of life in the last thirty years and saved myself a lot of grief. But I know better. Most of the significant lessons in life don’t come from a speech on graduation day. The most important lessons of life are those we learn by living, by trying and failing and trying again, by listening to our hearts, and by figuring things out for ourselves. Speeches are inspirational, even educational, but the truth is, only when we live life do we really ever learn the lessons.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Life as a Do-Over

Every year around this time I enjoy watching one of my favorite movies. Ground Hog Day came out in 1993 and it stars Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. In the film, Bill Murray plays an egocentric TV weatherman from Pittsburgh, Phil Conners, who is assigned, as he has been in years past, to cover the annual Ground Hog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He hates the yearly assignment of reporting on the village ground hog and whether or not the animal sees its shadow and all he wants is to complete the assignment and return home. Once there, the story taped and completed, an unexpected snow storm descends on the area and he finds himself stuck in this small town. Even worse is the fact that he keeps waking up and repeating the same despised day over and over again. Conner wastes the repeat day with numerous acts of selfishness, outrageous adventures, and even several suicide attempts until he finally begins to use the twenty-four hours as an opportunity to examine his life.
It’s kind of like having a “do-over” day. When I was a kid, that’s what we called taking another time at bat, getting an extra kick in kick ball, and having a second swing at the golf tee, a do-over. I have often wished for such an opportunity after an argument with a friend or a failed attempt in the pulpit, uninspired leadership at a committee meeting or a loss of encouraging words while sitting next to a patient in a hospital bed. There have been times when I have made such a mess of things in relationships or in ministry that I wished I could just have the chance to try again, wipe the slate clean and start over. And yet, when I watch this movie I have to wonder if I would be like the character Murray plays and just keep making the same mistake again and again.

I heard once that we repeat our life lessons until we finally learn them. The people with whom we interact, our teachers of the lessons, and the circumstances may change but if we’re paying attention, it’s actually the same situation replaying over and over, allowing us the opportunity finally to get it right, that life is itself, a do-over.

By the end of the movie Bill Murray’s character finally gets it. He re-examines his values and his life, making the decision to do things differently. After living his do-over day in complete hedonism and selfishness, it’s as if he finally wakes up, enlightened to the life he really wants and committed to engage in the day set before him. And of course, in the realm of movie magic, when that finally happens, the egocentric weatherman doesn’t have to repeat Ground Hog Day ever again. I keep hoping the same thing for myself when I get a do-over. And just like Phil Conners, I hope that maybe this time I’ll get it right.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Thanksgiving, 2011

Once again we come into the month of November and prepare ourselves for the day set aside for Thanksgiving, a day of gratitude. It is my most favorite holiday because of a decision I made some time ago that gratitude was to become an important spiritual discipline and I love being mindful of that decision by having a national holiday built around that very theme. I also confess to a fairly serious addiction to pumpkin pie and late afternoon football, so the whole day just fares well for me in general.

As I work on my spiritual discipline of gratitude I am reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein. The great scientist once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I like the sentiment and in gratitude, I seek to live my life in the latter mode, as though everything is a miracle. It isn’t easy. Often there are things that do not seem at all like miracles. Instead, they seem mundane and ordinary, disappointing, and not very interesting. But if I choose to live life with grateful intention, if I choose to live a life practicing the art of gratitude, then following Einstein’s equation and seeing all of life as a miracle is a good foundation with which to start.

I once officiated at a funeral for a man who lived to be ninety-nine. In all of his years, he chose to see life as beautiful and new and miraculous. I remember hearing from his wife how he would see a flower or a sunset and would say, “Would you look at that?” and “Isn’t that something?” It was as if he was seeing a flower or a sunset for the very first time. His wife laughed when she told this story to me, laughed and then wept. “He was like a child in that way,” she said. “He taught me how to see the world.”

Gratitude isn’t just being thankful for the good things in our lives. It isn’t just being thoughtful, having manners, and writing notes of thanks for the things others do for us. It isn’t even a litany of gifts that we list in a prayer for which we say thanks. I think gratitude is more than counting our blessings and naming them one by one. I think gratitude is a mindset, a way of encountering the world, a complete way of life. You can either see a day as a miracle, the flowers and sunsets as new and breathtaking, or you can take the stance that a day is nothing very special at all. I’m working on living life like the ninety-nine year old man who kept his child-like way of seeing the world. Who knows, maybe with a little help from Einstein I’ll get to that mindset eventually. And trust me, if that happens, there’s my first miracle, right there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Reinventing Yourself While Jobhunting

There’s not much fun to be had while searching for a job. It’s mostly demoralizing and easily fits in that category of “what I hate about being a grown-up.” However, as I have begun my own search for viable employment, I have discovered there is at least one thing that is actually interesting about the process. A person searching for a job has the luxury of considering the notion of reinventing herself.

Granted, this luxury only means something if the seeker doesn’t have to find a job right away. When you’re desperate to find work, have unpaid bills and notices of a dwindling bank account stacked on your kitchen table, there’s no luxury in job hunting at all. Or if you hate your present job and feel strongly compelled to get out of it and need to find work somewhere else right away, there’s no luxury or enjoyment in that search either. I write only of that employment-seeking process where you need to find work but there’s no real hurry and no real panic that you’re going to die if you have to stay at the present place of employment one more day. I’ve been in both spots; there’s nothing meaningful or interesting or luxurious about either of those occasions. However, when there is no desperation involved, thinking about reinventing yourself, finding jobs outside your work experience or educational venue, can actually be energizing and fun.

A friend of mine had been a pastor all of his professional life. He had progressed from church to church and never looked back, never thought of doing anything other than what he had been trained and experienced in doing. And then, things changed for him. A lot. He broke ties with the church and with his role in ministry. And when that happens, what’s a person to do but reinvent himself?

A few weeks back we talked about this experience. We compared notes on the various occupations we had considered for ourselves. As I have found myself in similar circumstances I thought I might enjoy going back to school for a career in the health care field or maybe work in the hospitality industry. My friend, however, had bigger plans. He considered becoming a helicopter pilot. From pulpit to cockpit, he is a dreamer, with no inhibitions about what he might try, who he might become.
When he almost hurt himself using a power-equipped gardening tool, unable to work the levers and gears, his wife, upon finding out about his new dream of piloting, quickly reminded him that flying a helicopter had certain requirements, the most notable being able to operate machinery. She quickly helped him learn that professional dream was not a very productive one. He moved on.

The thing about reinvention of oneself is that it is not restricted. When you’re in the dreaming stage, you get to think about all the things that interest you. You get to remember your childhood fantasies of being a cowboy or movie star. You get to reminisce about the things that you used to think were most important, things that you were going to do, ideas you had about who you would become; and you get to pull all those thoughts and dreams and ideas out again and think about them. “Maybe I can still be an acrobat in the circus or discover a cure for cancer or drive a dump truck. Maybe I can open my own candy store or build a time machine or teach in a foreign country. Maybe I can fly a helicopter.”

All that dreaming and remembering and considering might not lead to a new job; it might not lead to anything that can be measured or quantified. But just like my friend who thought he’d make a fine pilot and recaptured the dreams he had as a little boy, it made him happy. It gave him a few days of delight. And let’s face it, when you’re seeking employment, when you need to jump ship or make a move, there’s nothing wrong with a few days of delight. That’s a real luxury in the world of trying to find a job.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Loads We Carry

My grandmother used to have a favorite saying she liked to share whenever I had my arms full and dropped something I was carrying. “Never take a lazy man’s load.” It was her way of telling me that it’s better to take a couple of trips to tote things from place to place than it is to try and get it all in one load. Trying to do all that, she would explain, usually after everything I was holding fell out and around me, is a sure recipe for disaster.

I hear her voice inside my head every time I am trying to carry too many things, thinking I can manage too many objects, and I hear a “my, my, my…” to follow when I fail to obey. One would think that after forty years of being taught that lesson, I would have learned it. And yet, it still always seems like one trip is better than two.

This bit of wisdom, I have learned, can be interpreted figuratively as well as literally. Multi-tasking is certainly the way to go in this day and time. We have learned to do lots of things at once. I suppose, in fact, that multi-tasking is a sure means of professional survival in today’s world but it still seems to me that more often than not when I’m trying to do too many things at one time, trying to think about too many projects at once, trying to take care of too many errands in one trip, I find myself facing the same kind of disastrous experience as I face when I try to hold too many things in my arms. I know better than to say yes to too many events in one day but still, there is always the temptation.

Last week there was a message in my voice mail. “I guess something happened,” the familiar voice said, and I knew immediately who it was and what I had done. “Well, just try and call me when you can,” she finished and hung up the call.

The message was from my best friend, with whom I talk every Sunday evening. I had missed the call because in addition to planning a book signing at a local book store, a visit with another writer, and cooking dinner for an out of town guest, I had kept my standing date for the weekly phone call, the one I forgot, the one, like the extra bag of groceries that I’m sure I can handle, I dropped.

The next day when I retrieved my messages I hurried to my computer to write my apology in an e-mail. Of course, before getting to that I needed to reply to a request from my publicist, turn in a new draft of a manuscript to my editor, and check on a date for an upcoming interview. I finished those tasks, turned off the computer, and went inside to get ready for my lunch date. That was when once again I remembered my friend. “My, my, my…” echoed in my brain and I realized what I had done.

On the surface, attempting to do too many things at once doesn’t seem like the actions of a lazy person, but rather appears to be the work of an industrious being, a hardworking soul. And yet, to continue fooling yourself into thinking you’re able to keep too many balls in the air, more items on your list than you can remember, too many events for your mind to hold will certainly leave you with the same thoughts and emotions as the idiot standing over the spilled groceries. “Never take a lazy man’s load,” I hear my grandmother say; and I sigh as I head over to the phone and call my friend.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Life is Good!

In Judaism there is a practice of taking a small roll of parchment and placing it inside a container and affixing it to doorposts. They parchment and container are called mezuzot and the practice comes an instruction found in the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible which reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart…You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

According to author Lauren Winner in her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, “these are the boxes you see on the doors outside Jewish houses. You’ll find them inside, too, on the doorposts to any room in which people live.”

There are many reasons for hanging mezuzot, not the least of course being because it is a commandment. However, these doorpost offerings also serve as markers of heritage and history, a reminder of who one is, from where one comes, and what is deeply valued, clung to, depended upon. You walk in and you walk out and you remember exactly what your life is supposed to be about.

On Valentine’s Day this year I bought my husband a small wooden sign that reads, “Life is good.” It happens to be something he says a lot and I like the sentiment. It’s short, simple, and gets right to the heart of what we both ultimately desire to hold true. It was a great find and deeply appreciated by him.
Without my knowledge of his plans, he chose to hang the sign on the inside of an eave facing the front door, visible when you walk out. When we depart our hallowed halls of home, our sanctuary and safety net, and move out into the world that may or may not abide by the sign’s saying, it is the last message we read and this small sign brings me a measure of confidence.

It has become important to me, this little talisman of hope. It may not be as dire as a piece of paper with ancient holy words rolled into a sacred holder and nailed to a doorpost, a commandment to obey and a tradition long honored; but it steadies me in a way before heading out into the world. It is my mantra, grounding me, centering me as I leave what I have created and ordered and enter into that which is ordered and created by others.

Life is good. Simple. Truthful. The value I wish to uphold as I come and go, as I leave and return. Believing this, honoring this, trusting this, it is how I want to begin and end every day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Finding Pie Town

Finding Pie Town

About fifteen years ago when we were dreaming of moving to New Mexico from North Carolina, my husband and I were traveling through the southwestern part of the United States. Along one of our travels, from Albuquerque to Phoenix, we stopped in a little settlement known as Pie Town. I remember thinking what a quaint and funny name of a town. As we drove through Pie Town, we noticed a small restaurant and decided to stop and, with a name like Pie Town, have some pie. Imagine our surprise when we are told there is no pie. “No pie in Pie Town?” I thought and that notion stayed with me.

People have often asked how I get an idea for a story, what interests me, how do I start. And the answer is something like the situation of finding no pie in Pie Town. I began to think about how often names of places or ascribed roles for people lend others to make assumptions. We assume a small town will be welcoming and easy for newcomers to integrate. We assume a church will be a safe place, a loving and warm place. We assume mothers will be present for their children and children won’t die. Once you think about it, life is rarely what we expect. People behave in ways we never could have guessed and life is certainly full of surprises.

Having served as a pastor of several churches, I am often intrigued by what church members think about themselves. Most people in church will proudly announce about themselves that they are a “loving” place, a “welcoming and hospitable” place. And yet, in my experience, this is not always the case. Yes, churches can be quite welcoming and hospitable to the longtime members, the families that are connected to the area, the children who grew up in the church. But for newcomers, churches can often feel alienating and cold. As communities, as churches, as towns, as people, we are often not what we appear and we are not always as good as we think we are. It was this notion of irony that interested me when I began this story.

Now, many years after my first visit to Pie Town, I have discovered that there is a place that serves pie. The Pie-O-Neer CafĂ© has been open for more than ten years and has become quite successful. The owner, Kathy Knapp has found a great place for herself in Pie Town and I’m happy to include a recipe from the Pie-O-Neer with a few other regional recipes at the end of the book. I hope you will enjoy! And if you’re in the neighborhood of Pie Town, New Mexico, please stop by and have a slice. Tell them I sent you!