Sunday, December 11, 2011

Women, Let's Ditch the Duties, Enjoy the Season

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

But you can’t deck those halls until they are squeaky clean. As every red-blooded American woman knows, we cannot decorate for Christmas until the whole house is clean. And when I say clean, I mean pull-the-sofa-out-from-the-walls-wash-the-woodwork-dust-and-polish-the-furniture-shampoo-the carpets-unbug-the-light-fixtures-strip-the-floor-wax-and-rewax clean.

Then we can decorate.

The decorating must create the perfect atmosphere. If it does not transform our home into a haven of Christmas spirit, then we must shop for more and better decorations. Another miniature tree, perhaps? More fake holly? An LED-lit garland for the banister? Maybe an inflatable snowman for the front lawn? Will these impart the peace we seek?

Back in the day, the one thing I bought every year was a new mistletoe. In my homes growing up, the mistletoe hung from the arch between the living and dining rooms, the spot where two people are likely to come into coincidental proximity. It could not be a fake mistletoe, but a fresh one.

The decorating is like the gun that releases the racers. Then we women bake cookies, hundreds of cookies, beautiful perfect cookies. We make a gift list of all the people for whom we must shop. Then we wade through crowded department stores to find the perfect gifts for our family members, friends, co-workers, the mailman … And the cards, we women must buy the cards and the stamps and spend peaceful moments writing personal notes to each person on our list. Of course, there are many trips to the grocery store, to shop for baking ingredients, egg nog and cider, cheeses and crackers, other special foods and Christmas dinner, of course, oh, and the Christmas Eve meal, too. A stop at the liquor store for some rum.

‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

If we’re involved in the church program we have rehearsals for the concert or play and then the event itself. Cross that off the list. We attend the company party, the neighborhood party, the parade, the family get-together, the community concert, church services.

Going to get the tree is an event in itself. The tree farm has so many shapes and sizes to choose from. The anticipation of decorating it always conjures images of carols playing softly, the room lit by the tree lights, a bit of spiked egg nog and a great deal of affection and joy. In reality, the tree must be trimmed to fit the room, it’s got gaps so we turn and turn it to its good side and by that time tempers are a bit short and if you feel that way, why don’t you just decorate it yourself!

Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la!

What should we wear to these parties and concerts? We women must look perfect, elegant, festive! Something red, of course. And the children need Christmas clothes, too, dresses for the girls and red or green sweaters for the boys. Not to mention the special Christmas pajamas and socks.

And how about wrapping gifts? My stepmother was the Queen of Wrapping. She wrapped gifts perfectly, decorated with ribbons and bows, no two done the same. What an example to follow!

Sing the ancient yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

My question is, how many of these activities do we actually enjoy?

I like baking with my kids and grandkids, not only for the camaraderie, but because they take most of the cookies home.

I like decorating, but I don’t get frantic about it. If my home is not transformed into Christmas Wonderland, then it’s not transformed.

I like sending cards. It’s the only time I keep in touch with some people, aside from Facebook, which doesn’t count. A card is tangible, real.

While I hate shopping, I love making gifts, whether it’s sewing a robe for a little boy or framing family photos.

Honestly? I dislike children’s Christmas programs. While others are melting at the cherubs’ collective sweetness, I’m tapping my foot, wishing I was elsewhere. (Of course, if it’s my kids or grandkids, it gives me reason to stay.) But if there is a hell, it’s one long children’s Christmas program.

There is a better way to celebrate Christmas, women. It means leaving behind what we think is expected of us and doing what we truly enjoy. For most of us, that means spending time with loved ones.

That’s the list I’m following.

Friday, December 02, 2011

I'm Not Working on the Railroad

It is better to travel well than to arrive. ~ Buddha

We glided through the backsides of villages, the centers of old downtowns, along the edges of abandoned industrial zones. We slid in chasms between wooded embankments, over iron bridges spanning amber-tinted rivers, through dark brick tunnels.

What a vastly different way to spend the day. I read, napped, and gazed out the window. This is traveling by train.

When, in the week before Thanksgiving, the husband declined to give me a ride to Union Station to catch a bus to New York—I was meeting my musician daughter who had a gig in Manhattan—he suggested I take the train. The fare was comparable to what I’d spend on gas, tolls and parking. It was cheaper than flying. And much more comfortable.

As a kid I traveled regularly by train into New York City via the Long Island Railroad. Back then, the ride was clunky. The passenger trains offered bench seats and stopped at every rinky dink town on the South Shore.

And of course, in England and Ireland, I’ve used their extensive rail systems, for traveling from town to town or from one end of the country to the other. Plus, instead of being isolated in your automobile, you get to mingle with the locals.

The Crescent that I rode from Charlottesville to New York’s Penn Station offered wide, cushioned seats that reclined to a comfortable sleeping position (not just two inches like bus or airplane seats), had ample leg room and a folding table. The overhead storage had plenty of space for my suitcase and the husband’s guitar (he was loaning it to Rachel for her gig). The snack car—four cars away—served fresh hot coffee and tea, beer and wine, sandwiches such as wraps and paninis, and lots of snacks, all at reasonable prices.

The windows on the train cover the whole wall above the seats, as if to acknowledge that, hey, there is a world to see. If you prefer to sleep, you can pull the curtain. This train’s route was New Orleans to New York, so some passengers were on it for the long haul.

I, who had been stressed, hurried and anxious for weeks, felt at peace on that six-and-a-half-hour journey. I was not where I’d been nor where I was going. I had no decisions to make, no obligations to keep. Around me, a few passengers had quiet conversations. I gazed out the window, read and napped.

This passage—I did not note the source in my quote book—is about a woman traveling by ship, a journey of several weeks:

“It was an interlude when time ceased to matter. One might hear the ringing of ship’s bells or the call of the watch by night, but there was no past to be reckoned with because that lay far behind the white wake of the stern; no future, because the dripping prow still pointed toward an unbroken horizon. ‘I was never able to visualize Eternity until now,’ she wrote.”

As I write this, it comes to me that the timeless quality of this journey was like a Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Abraham J. Heschel writes that the Sabbath is holiness in time, a palace in time, a sanctuary in time, and that God commanded us to keep the Sabbath to know ourselves as eternal beings, to remember this core part of ourselves.

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?”

That doesn’t sound like bad religion, does it?

As I anticipated this train trip, I wonder if in my heart somewhere I consecrated it. I’m using “religious” language here, but I’m not talking about God; I’m talking about just being.

Heschel writes, “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

How can I swing this Sabbath thing on a weekly basis? I need it. A day in which I nap, read and gaze out the window.

Friday, November 04, 2011

This is My Brain Without Faith

For five weeks, I'd been dizzy.

With all the many possible causes of ongoing dizziness, I could not ascertain the problem. Sometimes figuring it out on your own just doesn’t work. I needed to talk to someone who knows more than I do about such things, so I went to my doctor.

The doctor asked me a series of questions. By the time he physically examined me he’d already determined the cause: Anxiety.

Numerous situations and circumstances have contributed to this anxiety. But the bottom line is that I have not been trusting God to take care of me.

How could this have happened?

Little by little. My faith has been so deep that I felt nothing could affect it. And in a way, nothing has. I mean, it’s still there. But it’s buried beneath the troubles of the world. It’s been assailed. It’s been worn down by doubt.

In a song, Over the Rhine asks:
Who will guard the door
When I am sleeping?

No matter how strong we are, how grounded and rooted in the faith, we still must guard our hearts, “for from it flow the wellsprings of life.”

So this diagnosis was sobering. It’s given me a glimpse into my inner life were not for faith in God. I would have all these years been ruled by anxiety.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
For to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

(Psalms 86:4)

Maybe others can get through life without faith, but I have, since my mid-20s, always leaned heavily on the promises of God. I am one of those pitiable people who needs a crutch.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
And saves the crushed in spirit.

(Psalms 34:18)

Until last year, I was sustained spiritually by a small group. How long did we meet? Six years? Maybe more. We met every week in a welcoming home, a collection of people from diverse backgrounds. We drank coffee, talked about the relevance of the Bible, shared our lives and prayed for each other. Week after week for years.

I always felt a supreme peace there. Without the group, I have been a bit lost.
Anxiety weighs down the heart,
But a kind word cheers it up.

(Proverbs 12:25)

This week I turned a corner. Over the past few days, when I awaken at night or in the early morning, I find myself praying or hearing inside me a psalm or a song. Much better than rehearsing all the terrible things that could happen to me or those I love.
Cast all your anxieties on him,
For he cares about you.

(1 Peter 5:7)

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

And it seems the songs are coming back. I find myself humming, whistling or singing the old hymns.
Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my father,
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
All I have needed thy hand has provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

No, faith really makes no logical sense. I cannot explain it. And I cannot make faith. All I can do is seek it, turn my heart toward it.

I sought the Lord and he heard me,
And delivered me from all my fears.

(Psalms 34:4)

It is a gift.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Where To Be Or Not To Be?

Tuesday as I descended the front steps of JMU’s Keezell Hall, I decided for the first time not to hurry down the Quad.

Today I will stroll. Then I notice the students. Some walk alone deep in thought or looking around at the scene and scenery. And the scenery is something to behold on this cool October day. The huge old oaks around the Quad are starting to turn color. The muted yellow and orange hues seem almost to hallow the space.

Some students walk in pairs chatting. Two young men in front of me, as we approach the tunnel, become fascinated with the antics of a grey squirrel. You know how erratic squirrels’ movements can be, as if they can’t make up their minds which way to go. The one boy was imitating the squirrel’s undecidedness, jerking his head and body this way and that; they both laughed aloud.

What was so unusual about this scene? It was like I’d walked into opposite world. On a Tuesday several weeks ago, it was this: Each of the hundreds of students on the Quad was either texting, talking on their phone or listening to music with headphones. Two students stood together around their bicycles, gazing down at their phones, texting. A couple laid on the grass, each of them texting someone else in another place.

Usually, most students walk with their phones in their hands, as if it were an appendage. Sometimes I wonder if evolution will cause this to happen: for humans to be born clutching a tiny cell phone. Or perhaps undergo some surgery that will attach their cell phones to their bodies so as not to lose them. This could become important when cell phones contain all of our vital information: our ID cards, passports, credit cards, driver’s license.

But this Tuesday, nobody is carrying their cell. Did I miss something? Was Tuesday declared a non-handheld day?

The husband comments at dinner that I am a later than usual arriving home. Just five or ten minutes. I tell him about the scene on the Quad. I tell him about deciding to stroll and how I am usually not where I am but already mentally in the place I am headed.

Actually, it started a few minutes before that, when I stayed after class to talk with my professor rather than rushing out the door. Such is my usual rate of propulsion, as if I’m training for the Women’s 4-Miler. Often, I wish to be where I am going: “I wish I was in my car” or “I wish I was home already” or, on some days, “I wish I was in bed, reading.”


This week, I began reading my Bible again in the mornings. I use a devotional guide, which goes by themes in the church year. There’s a Psalm for the week, a prayer, then a list of Bible readings, one for each day, and then about a dozen quotes from various writers and spiritual people through the ages.

The theme for this week’s readings is “Eating the Bread of Anxious Toil.” Ha! How did I happen to pick up this small leather volume after neglecting it for months?

It has not been easy, becoming the “breadwinner” in the family. In this recession, I fret (yes, fret!) about how long we will survive. My mind—usually at 1:34 a.m.—sometimes takes me away from the present, when all really is well, on a downward spiral of job loss, foreclosure, homelessness.

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
—Psalm 127:2

And then: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .”


As I write this, it is raining, raining on my tin roof, each drop a moment, raining moments, moments of thirst and satisfaction, both. My job allows me to work at home one or two days a week, depending on what’s going on, what needs to be done.

The desk in my home office faces two windows. Outside one window is a thick lilac bush and outside the other are two maple trees; beyond all is the woods, the wet woods, yellow leaves sotted to the ground.

Inside, my Tuscan yellow walls are golden, warm, hallowed. This moment is as perfect as it can be.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

'Occupy Wall Street' A Lightening Rod for Populist Discontent

Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street movement? No?

Since Sept. 17, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people have “occupied” Wall Street in New York (and other locations across the U.S.) to protest socioeconomic inequality and the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics, as well as a number of other social injustices. Mostly coordinated via social networking services like Twitter and Facebook without a central organizer, the flash-mob participants have since set up base in Zuccotti Park (Liberty Square) near Wall Street.

They call themselves the 99 percent. It is a peaceful protest.

“I can’t afford a lobbyist. I am the 99 percent.”

“People not profits.”

“How much do you owe?”

“We are not leaving, not while the richest 1% own 75% of USA’s wealth. Tax the rich.”

We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

It’s no surprise or secret that Wall Street’s influence over Washington led to the financial collapse of 2008. The real shock came after the collapse: Nothing was done. Nothing changed. Nothing.

“A president elected with the spirit of Louis Brandeis (“[We have to stop] Wall Street from taking enormous risks with ‘other people's money’”), who promised to “take up that fight” “to change the way Washington works,” (“for far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans”), and who was handed a crisis (read: opportunity) and a supermajority in Congress to make real change, did nothing about this root to our financial collapse,” writes Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law, Harvard Law School.

Lessig calls this “terrifying, given what it says about this democracy.”

Thoreau said “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to one who is striking at the root.”

These protesters are the one striking at the root, says Lessig. Corporatism is at the root of America’s financial woes. Corporatism is why so many are unemployed and underemployed. Corporatism is why so many have lost their homes. Corporatism is based on Wall Street.

On the website, people heading to Occupy Wall Street post photos and short statements about themselves. Here’s one young woman’s:

“I am lucky to have a steady job doing what I love. I live frugally and without debt. All of my friends are jobless or homeless or swimming in debt or all of the above… I wonder how long it will be before I join their ranks… and the government doesn’t care. We are the 99%. I want a government that puts people before corporate bottom lines.”

Here’s another: “I was laid off to be hired back as a contractor so the company wouldn’t have to pay health care insurance or payroll taxes. ‘It’s only temporary,’ they said … two years ago.”

Occupy Wall Street has no leaders. It is not partisan politics movement. It can’t be or it will alienate citizens who are in one accord. The Republicans and Democrats’ obsession with remaining in power, with campaigns funded by corporations, has caused this mess. Political groups, labor unions and celebrities are welcome to join their voices, but they must not co-opt the movement. In order to succeed, it must remain a populist movement.

Last week, participants of Occupy Wall Street wrote and voted to agree on a statement. Space prohibits me from quoting it all. Here’s a highlight:

“…a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and … no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.”

And thus it concludes:

“We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

“Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

“To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

“Join us and make your voices heard!”

We really are the 99 percent.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Love Our Enemies? Are You Kidding?

Does Sept. 11, 2001, make any more sense today than it did 10 years ago?

The Daily News-Record archives is a faithful record of the local aftermath of that tragic day in our nation’s history. I look back through the stories—the newspaper put out a special edition on the evening of Sept. 11—and the memories awaken like a sleeping dragon.

“Valley Airport Closes Operations.” For the remainder of that week, my daily walk was eerily quiet. I live near the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, and there’s not much noise from air traffic. But when there was no air traffic at all, it was dead quiet.

As I walked down the dirt road, by the pastures, along the Middle River, I felt far removed from the tragedy and devastation in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. It’s easy, when you live out in the country, to be lulled into complacency about what’s going on down those other roads.

Of course, the Valley has had its share of violence, not far from my home at the Battle of Piedmont. Sometimes, when I pass Civil War sites, I imagine our peaceful pastures as battlefields. I can almost see the soldiers, a soldier, a Yankee perhaps, a teenaged boy far from home, wounded, bleeding, dying alone as the fighting wages around him.

But this is just my imagination, based on scenes from movies like “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Both had gory battles, but neither could give a realistic impression of the true horror of those events. Neither could watching the jets bash into the towers on 9-11.

“For Media, It Was A Day Everything Else Stopped.” I don’t know why I wasn’t at work that day. I usually worked on Tuesday. It sure would have been exciting to be part of that special edition. As it was, I sat glued to the TV set, watching the reports, trying to make sense of what happened. Mostly, we saw the jets hit the towers, over and over and over.

The newspaper’s special edition came out at 4 p.m., the first since President John Kennedy was shot on Nov. 11, 1963.

“Couple’s Friends Were Supposed To Fly Into NYC.” As the local connection emerged, it seems everyone had a story, everyone knew someone who knew someone who was somehow connected. I have a friend who was booked for the American Airlines flight 77 out of Dulles International Airport, the one that crashed into the Pentagon. On Monday, however, his Tuesday meeting was postponed to Wednesday, so he changed his flight to the following day.

“The Valley Grieves.” That night, I went to the wrong prayer meeting. While other congregations lit candles and prayed for victims, the service I attended went beyond intercession to focus on songs and prayers of victory and overcoming the enemy. After a few minutes of this, I stopped participating. My grief had not yet turned to anger.

“Valley Muslims Deplore Violence.” Local Muslims were quick to disassociate themselves from the Islamists who engineered the 9-11 attacks. As religion reporter, I followed up this story with a series in Saturday’s religion section on Islam and local Muslims. I researched the origins and history of the Muslim faith, interviewed longtime members of the Islamic Center of the Shenandoah Valley, attended Friday prayer for several weeks, wrote about JMU student who had converted to Islam.

I hoped the stories would replace our ignorance of this Eastern faith with knowledge and our suspicions with understanding and a desire to know our Muslim neighbors.

In the weeks and months that followed, American flags appeared in new places, on barns and fences and factories. Signs everywhere admonished us to pray for the troops that had been deployed to Iraq in the wake of the attacks. These were natural responses. I wondered, what is the supernatural response?

Jesus said, “You have heard that they were told, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors …” (Matt. 5:43-44). Crazy. But you can pretty much bet every time that our natural response is not the one advocated by Jesus.

Jesus was speaking to individuals when he said this, not the Jewish leadership council or the Roman Senate. As an individual, when I examine my heart, I find that what he commands is impossible.

But, later on, in Matt. 19:26, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

And once again, I realize why it’s called faith.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Recession, Depression, Confession

A friend told me last week she’d stopped watching, listening to or reading the news.

“Too depressing,” she said.

From gas prices to the national debt to the stock market crash, there is little in the news to be happy about. As early as 2008, when the current recession began, mental health professionals were seeing a rise in patients with depression, from Wall Street executives to hourly wage earners.

New college graduates are not getting jobs. Older Americans are losing their careers in mid-life.

Many people cannot sleep. Heart problems have gotten worse. People cannot pay their medical bills. Clinics are seeing more suicide threats.

This economic downturn—both public and private—has tested my faith. I struggle with depression. It’s not just the economy, but my stage of life—menopause—and other life situations.

The husband and I have been through some tough times. While our children were young, we chose to have one income so that I could be a fulltime home-maker. There were no trips to DisneyWorld. Part of our wardrobe was secondhand clothing. But many of our friends were in the same boat. We had all we needed and were happy.

So when the current situation hit us with a reduced income, cutting back came naturally. And God has a history of taking care of us. I leaned on that heavily. We continue to pay the mortgage and the bills, fix stuff that breaks and eat delicious home-cooked meals.

But the husband and I have switched roles. I go out to work while he stays home, busy with many projects. When I worked less hours, I used to babysit my grandkids a couple days a week. Now I see them for a few hours every week or two.

Then last spring, I got an e-mail about one of my favorite musicians, sent by one of his close friends. The musician had lost a contract that had provided him with steady income for many years. He lost his house. He and his family moved into an apartment. They were robbed; the thieves took items of sentimental value. He had health problems and, without health insurance, no money to pay for medical care.

Near as I can tell, he’s been serving God faithfully for lo these many years. He’s a creative genius when it comes to songwriting and music projects. While all his music is not about God, he has always had God at the center of his life. So God should be providing all his needs, right? God should have provided the mortgage money, right?

This really unsettled me. I felt like, gee, if God did not intervene in his situation, why should I be allowed to keep my house? Eventually, reason led my emotions back to reality: I am not him.

And then there’s the guilt. With millions of people starving to death in Somalia, how can I feel deprived that I can’t eat out as often as I used to or that I can’t take a pricey vacation?

When I realized how depressed I was, I got even more depressed.

“To fight depression, it’s important to eliminate counterproductive habits like gambling, substance abuse or over- or under-eating and rely instead on therapeutic activities like exercise, meditation and hobbies,” said Dr. Rosalind S. Dorlen, psychologist, in a Nov. 5, 2008, CBC News article.

After reading this article, I realize that I do have some healthy responses to stress. I have no addictions that cost money. I walk or bicycle nearly every day. I am thankful for my family, job, my good health and that of my husband and children. I work in the garden. I am working on a college degree. I read good books, have good conversations with friends and enjoy a glass of wine three or four nights per week.

One thing I stopped doing when my faith was in question was having “quiet time,” which consists of reading my Bible or spiritual material, meditating and praying. That was a mistake. Whether I’m feeling it or not, I must feed my spirit. Doing so gives me the ability to see things as they really are.

I’ve made other mistakes, too, which, as my vision clears, I am beginning to see.

We’re all in this together, folks. As Gerald May says in “Will and Spirit,” “…even in our aloneness we are together, for we each have it.”

Perhaps it would help to acknowledge that to each other.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Five Years Later, Still Well, Still Grateful

They say that women who survive five years after a breast cancer diagnosis have a better chance of staying cancer-free.

Such statistics are encouraging, for it was five years ago this week that a doctor pronounced those words to me, the ones that no woman ever wants to hear: “You have breast cancer.”

At first you think you’re going to die. You walk around with that feeling of dread in your gut.

Two days after that doctor visit, we had the kids and grandkids over for the husband’s birthday cookout. I baked a cake, made potato salad, spread the tablecloth on the picnic table. I went through the motions of a family celebration, but it all felt unreal. I think it felt that way to all of us. I know it did to the husband, because he would catch my eye now and then, and I understood he was in the same unknowing state as I was.

My doctor had recommended I go the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville for care. I made an appointment with the top surgeon, but they wanted a biopsy first. As I went through that procedure with a local surgeon, I still felt fearful and surreal.

Where was my faith during those first few days? I’m not sure. My prayers were of the desperate sort. Please don’t let me die, I’m not ready to die. But by the time I had my first appointment at UVa, the Psalms—which my doctor suggested I read—were giving me some hope and comfort. I’d written several verses on old business cards and tucked them into my jeans pockets, to have with me all the time.

I’d observed other people go through life-threatening diseases and it seemed their doctors always began with the worst possible prognosis. You’re going to die. You’ll be disabled for life. You’ll always have this disease. How horrible.

At that first visit with Dr. Brenin, he said, “Yes, you do have breast cancer. But you’re going to be alright.”

You’re going to be alright. I believed him. Then other people began to tell me I was going to be alright. Everywhere, they reflected it back to me.

I went through surgery, three months of recovery, then chemotherapy and more recovery.

Early on, a friend had told me not to act on fear. My pastor had prayed that God would lead me on a path to healing. Another had said that each woman has to make her own decisions. And so these three pieces of advice undergirded my confidence and guided my decisions.

My family was so caring during that time, helping in any way they could. My oldest daughter, Heidi, took off work to accompany me to several doctor’s appointments. My youngest daughter, Rachel, called me from Northern Ireland nearly every day for months. My son’s gift of humor kept me laughing.

My work buddies were awesome. They visited, called, encouraged me. One day they surprised me with gifts of hats, to cover my head after chemo.

My church home group supplied me with steady prayers and many good meals, which they delivered to my out-of-the-way home almost every day for weeks.

And the cards. When I wrote about the cancer in this column, many readers responded by sending cards. There are no words to describe how much that meant to me. I felt so loved.

So five years later, how am I doing?

I was saddened by Andrea Lohr’s recent death from breast cancer. She got her first diagnosis a few months before me. But she was a much younger, and older women seem to survive better. I met and wrote about Andrea for Bloom magazine. She was so caring and kind. Her death seems unfair.

I continue to take the supplement that studies have shown to prevent recurrence of breast cancer, along with those that support my immune system. I walk, do yoga and exercise with light weights to stay strong. I eat a vegetable-based diet along with some animal proteins. To the best of my ability, I avoid foods grown with pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones.

That’s the physical stuff. However, I still struggle with some of the emotional issues which, I believe, had a much greater influence on my getting cancer.

Will all of this prevent a recurrence? So far, so good. But I have no guarantee.

For now, I am grateful for each day of life.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Some Young People are Losing Faith

Young people are losing their faith in God.

In a 2008 survey, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that 53 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds say they are “absolutely” certain of the existence of God, compared with 71 percent of those born before 1928.

The reasons are varied.

Some people no longer believe because God’s existence cannot be proven by science. There is no peer-reviewed research that substantiates that God is real. As a matter of fact, the evidence points to just the opposite.

Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, writes about “Losing Faith,” in a March 31, 2011, blog called Red Letter Christians. He gives two main reasons why young people stop believing in God.

“The most common honest reason cited for losing faith is that it becomes impossible to believe in God if God is defined as being simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving,” writes Campolo.

Young people ask valid questions about the holocaust of the Jews at Auschwitz, and, more recently, about the human devastation in Haiti and Japan.

Campolo writes, “A good mother of four lovely children who had already lost her husband in an automobile accident is dying of cancer and her 16-year-old son asks, ‘God, if you are there, why don’t you heal my mother?’ Another good question.

“A soldier in Iraq watches as a suicide bomber drives his dynamite-rigged truck into a crowd of people in a marketplace and sees innocent people blown to smithereens, and asks God, ‘Where are You?’ Another good question.”
And I’ve heard this one: God, if you’re real, you’ll bring back my wife (or husband).

The problem here is not so much with God but what these young people have been taught about God. It’s the erroneous “God is in control” theology.

“All of these questions arise from one basic fallacy and that is that God is simultaneously loving and infinitely powerful,” writes Campolo. “There are those who will call it heresy, but there is little question that the God who is incarnated in Jesus Christ is a God who is not all-powerful. Instead, he is a God who has given up power in order to express his love.”

As Campolo points out, Jesus Christ came to Earth, not as a conquering leader to fight for the oppressed, but as a defenseless baby. He refuses power, but instead expresses love. When he hung on the cross, his enemies taunted him, saying, “Show us your power and come down from the cross and then we will believe in you” (Matthew 27:39-42).

The truth is that God gave control of the Earth to humans. When terrible things happen, God’s heart is broken, too.

The second reason Campolo gives for young people losing their faith is a bit trickier. He says it arises from a lack of honesty with themselves. He gives this example:

“A young man came into my office several years ago and told me that he grew up as a Christian, but that he no longer believed in God. I immediately asked him, ‘How long have you been messing around sexually with your girlfriend?’

“He was indignant at my question, but I went on to explain that he grew up believing that using someone sexually without a commitment was contrary to God’s will. In order to resolve the tension between what he believed, on the one hand, and what he was doing sexually, on the other, he had to change one or the other.”

Among those who leave, there are many—like a divorced person who just can’t let go—who turn and rail against God and the Church. Some claim to be atheists or agnostics. To them it seems like well-reasoned arguments, but to those of us who watch and listen, it appears more like anger. I mean, if you don’t believe or don’t know, why spend your time arguing about it? Why not just ignore the whole God question and go on and live your life?

However, our minds and emotions are complex, and it is not easy to make the connections. Last week, I heard this quote: “What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

I am not saying these are the only reasons for all young people’s turning from belief in God. Indeed, the reasons are as varied as snowflakes. I offer them as food for thought and discussion.

Someone has said, “God must be very great to have created a world which carries so many arguments against his existence.”

If God is love—and not power—then it follows that the only way to perceive God is by love. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poem to Joel Salatin

What did you do with
Sweet spare moments
Before the Internet?
Joel, he avoids the Web like the plague.
He works hard on his farm and
between chores
sits on a bale of hay
surveying his green fields
watching the calves at play
pondering his next task or
sometimes, when his eyes follow the long fence line to the horizon,
he considers original ecological regeneration
the beauty of sustainability and
the glory of God.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eggs: The Delicious, Nutritious Perfect Protein

The chickens are making a racket out there this morning. Not only is the rooster crowing, but all the hens are cackling. What do chickens have to cackle about at 5:30 a.m?

Seventy chickens can make a lot of noise. They also lay a lot of eggs, and here on 2 Pond Farm, we’ve been eating them (and selling them).

With fresh asparagus to harvest every day, I’ve taken to making quiches. For the onion flavor, I clip tufts of onion grass in the yard, rinse it thoroughly, and snip bits in with the sliced asparagus. Paired with a salad of fresh greens, quiche makes a wonderful spring meal.

One night for dinner I used snow peas from the garden in a pea salad. You know the type, with hard-boiled eggs, onions, celery and mayonnaise? I served that over a bed of garden greens. And that was our meal. So good, and most of it from our property.

For breakfast a few Sundays ago I made Strawberry Brunch Soufflé. The strawberries were starting to accumulate and, yes, I could have frozen them, but I preferred to eat them. Something there is about eating in season. Anyway, I’d never made a soufflé before. Even with substituting some of the white flour with wheat flour, it rose splendidly. Spread some sliced, slightly sweetened strawberries over the top and serve with a dollop of yogurt.

But don’t eggs raise your cholesterol? That outdated scare continues to prevent many people from enjoying what many experts call the “perfect protein.”

According to the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, yolks contain most of the nutrients of eggs. The yolk contains 100 percent of the carotenoids, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, E, D, and K. The white does not contain 100 percent of any nutrient.

The yolk contains more than 90 percent of the calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, thiamin, B6, folate, and B12, and 89 percent of the pantothenic acid. The white does not contain more than 90% of any nutrient, but contains over 80 percent of the magnesium, sodium, and niacin.

The yolk contains between 50 percent and 80 percent of the copper, manganese, and selenium, while the white contains between 50 percent and 80 percent of the potassium, riboflavin, and protein.

So eggs — whole eggs — pack a powerful nutritional punch.

Eggs can also help with weight loss, writes Margaret Furtado, a dietitian with John Hopkins Medicine.

“Eggs also help you feel full, because your body produces a hormone called PYY when you eat high-protein foods,” writes Furtado in a recent YahooHealth article. “PYY tells your brain you’re no longer hungry, so if you’re trying to lose some pounds, opting for a high-protein snack like a boiled egg can really help you feel full (and it’s only 75 calories).”

Furtado says she prefers organic eggs high in omega 3 fatty acids (the healthy fats), from chickens raised without hormones or chemicals. Omega 3s are good for your heart.

We like to keep hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for quick high-protein snacking. On mornings when I have no time to cook breakfast, I often grab one or two hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fruit. The fruit is a nice counter-flavor to the egg, complements the nutrition, and cleans the egg from your teeth and gums.

The husband’s favorite egg dish to cook is egg foo young. It also contains lots of vegetables, including bean sprouts, onions, celery and peas. With a bit of rice (I eat brown, he eats white), it’s a meal in itself.

The husband found a video online where this “drunken chef” demonstrates how to make the dish. The husband says I shouldn’t watch the video because the drunken chef’s language and manner are pretty crude. But the chef must know his stuff, because the husband’s egg foo young comes out perfect every time.

The problem is, every time he makes it, he has to watch the video first. Does he truly forget how? Or does he just like watching the video?

I have several egg cookbooks, which contain many main-meal ideas, variations on deviled eggs and lots of desserts.

Lately, my source for recipes has been the “Simply in Season” cookbook. That’s where I got my quiche and soufflé recipes. It’s divided by the seasons. So just flip to the Spring chapter, and you’ll find recipes for greens, asparagus, strawberries, peas … all those first-of-the-season foods.

Well, the chickens have finally quieted down. Bon appétit!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chocolate: It's Good For You!

Yesterday, a friend pulled out a small colorful bag from his pantry and offered me the foil-wrapped contents. Of course I took one. It was chocolate. Dark chocolate.

We’d been filming all afternoon at his place, a project for work. It had gone really well. Still, it was hot because we turned off the noise of the air conditioner. Plus it was late afternoon, the time of day when I feel weary and irritable.

As the chocolate melted in my mouth, pleasure took over. The tension tangibly fled, replaced by a sense of happiness. He offered me another but there was no need. One was enough.

Dark chocolate is good for you.

Research continues to uncover chocolate’s many benefits. As an antioxidant, its polyphenols help to prevent heart disease by inhibiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol so it cannot stick to artery walls. The polyphenols also reduce the clumping of platelets, making chocolate a weapon against arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. It also helps prevent clotting, which leads to heart attacks or strokes. It acts as a blood thinner much the same way a baby aspirin does.

Chocolate reduces blood pressure in people with “mild hypertension,” research shows. High blood pressure can lead to stroke, kidney failure or dementia, among other things.

No wonder Dr. Agatson, the cardiologist who created the South Beach diet, encourages dieters to have a bit of dark chocolate a few times a week.

In the case of chocolate, more is not better. It contains fat in the form of cocoa butter and, of course, sugar. Eating too much will make you fat. It doesn’t take much chocolate to gain its health benefits. Just half an ounce per day, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Make that dark chocolate, by the way. Milk chocolate adds more fat and sugar and contains less polyphenols and other good properties. It can actually raise your blood cholesterol and contribute to acne.

Chocolate contains mood-enhancing substances, too. One is phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins and potentates the action of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure, writes John Robbins in a Huffington Post article. Phenethylamine is released in the brain when people become infatuated or fall in love.

Another is anandamide (from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means peaceful bliss), which is naturally produced in the brain, so it has to be good, right? Turns out it binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids—the psychoactive constituents in marijuana—and produces feelings of elation and exhilaration.

Chocolate also raises serotonin levels in the brain. People with depression have less serotonin. Medications to treat depression, like Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac, work by raising serotonin levels.

So that’s why that piece of chocolate made me feel better.

To make the pleasure of eating chocolate last longer, I learned from my daughter to let it melt in my mouth over a few minutes. She claims that, in an experiment once, she made a piece of chocolate last for 20 minutes.

As it melts in my mouth, I like to experience the dark chocolate in different areas, letting it coat the top of my tongue, then sliding it beneath my tongue, along my gums and all inside my cheeks. In this way, I experience many of chocolate’s variations in flavor. I wonder, too, if it gets absorbed quickly into the bloodstream this way, thus explaining its immediate effects on my mood.

I buy organic, fair trade chocolate. Eating organically grown chocolate assures me of its total health benefits. It has no toxic effects from chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Why fair trade?
•More than 15,000 child slaves work on cacao farms in west Africa.
•Cacao farming has stripped the world of hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest.
•Though the U.S. spends $13 billion a year on cocoa products, many cacao farmers are impoverished.

Buying fairly traded chocolate assures me that my momentary pleasure is not causing harm, even if it is on the other side of the world. As I let that chocolate melt in my mouth, I have no regrets, no twinge of conscience.

Mmmmm. And that makes it taste that much better.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Back in the 1960s, We Were Green, Baby

When I was a kid on Long Island, I sometimes spent Saturdays picking up soda and beer bottles along the side of the street.

Back then, there were no taxpayer-funded signs advertising who kept the street clean. Children looking for something to do and looking to make a few bucks were more than happy to pick up the refundable bottles.

That’s because, way long before “green” was hip, companies sold their soda, beer and milk in deposit bottles. I remember my parents taking the thick-glass gallon milk bottle to the drive-up Dairy Barn. Before that, the milkman from the local dairy picked them up for refill.

As a matter of fact, around the time I moved to Virginia, New York State made it mandatory for companies to offer a refund for all bottles and cans, whether glass, plastic or aluminum. The year after I moved here, Virginia made it illegal for companies to sell refundable bottles.

What is the reasoning behind that?

It has done nothing but multiply the litter. What a waste. And disposable plastic water bottles? Are you kidding?

So us kids were outdoors getting exercise and keeping our neighborhoods clean with the incentive of gathering a few dollars’ worth of bottles. Our parents did not hire personal trainers to get us to lose weight.

An e-mail from a friend entitled, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day,” reminded me of these things.

Things like washing cloth diapers and hanging them on the line. Rather than using an energy-consuming dryer, our mothers dried their laundry with the wind and the sun.

As a child, I did not have dressers and closets bursting with clothing. As a matter of fact, my mother and Great Grandma Bess made most of my dresses. Mom even made my mini-skirts. Each article of clothing handmade, just for me.

When we remodeled our bathroom last year, the husband removed the old medicine cabinet. In back of the bottom shelf was a thin opening for disposing of razor blades. Rather than throw away the whole razor, people used to slip the used blades into that slot.

Where did the old blades go? We found a slew of them inside the wall.

Another thing we refilled was our pens with ink. I must have more than 100 pens in my house right now. When a pen runs out of ink, I throw it away. When I was younger, I had to go to the stationery store to buy refill cartridges. I still do have a pen or two like that. Hmm. Should I chuck all the disposable pens?

When I was a kid, if we wanted to watch TV, the whole family had to agree on what to watch, because we only had one set. Of course, there were fewer options back then because you had just a few channels. Our small set used a lot less power than families do now, with a flat-screen TV in every room.

In school, when it was hot, the teacher opened the windows. We didn’t die. To cool off, people sat on their front porches in the evening, visiting with their neighbors. (Neighbors are the people who live around you.)

Intersections used to have one traffic light fixture with lights in all four directions. Now an intersection has a minimum of four fixtures and usually many more. We pay the power bill.

Now that I think about it, we were pretty “green” back then. Unpretentiously so.

As a matter of fact, do you know that some people install solar panels on their homes just to impress you? Yup, the panels are not attached to anything. They generate no power. They’re just for show. They are there to impress us with the owner’s environmental consciousness.

That’s why I have contempt for the current “green” movement. It’s a consumer thing, to get consumers to buy things that pretend to be or are better for the environment. Or, better yet, to buy things that are colored green. Still buying and consuming. So stupid.

As soon as I was old enough, my dad began paying me to mow the lawn. Back in the 1960s, that meant a manual push mower. It used no gasoline, just muscle power and endurance. No treadmill or gym membership, no money spent on a cute outfit to look cute while exercising. Now that was a workout.

They still sell manual mowers, for less than $100. So smart for someone with a small lawn.

I dare you.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

When the Sound of Worship Fades Away

As he opened the door, Bruno quickly stepped inside the room, set the empty box on the floor. He shut the door noiselessly before turning on the overhead light. He didn’t want anyone to know he was here at his church office on this Friday night.

Lord knows we’ve talked about this enough, he thought.

Bruno turned first to his bookcase. The shelves were full of slender volumes of sheet music, hymn books and CDs. He reached first for a tattered old book whose bright green cover was taped together. It was full of the old hymns he loved: “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”

When he was a boy, the pastor of his parents’ church had given him the book, seeing how the young lad loved to sing the old songs and seemed to have some talent on the piano. Bruno had played every song in that book at some point or other.

All Bruno wanted to do was sing praises to the Lord. And as the worship leader at his church, that’s what he thought he was supposed to do.

Bruno loved any music that praised the Lord. The old hymns, the psalms set to music, the worship choruses. He loved all styles of music. Classical, rock and roll, bluegrass, jazz …

He’d been so excited when he was asked to lead worship at this growing church. At first he had volunteered. Then, as more and more people began attending services, it became a paid, part-time position.

That’s when things began to sour. Oh, not for Bruno. He was happy planning and playing music. But not everyone was happy with what he was doing. Namely, the older longtime members of the church.

When Bruno came to the church, he, the pastor and the other leaders of the church agreed that “blended worship” offered just the right balance of old and new music for their diverse congregation. And that was fine … for a while. Then, as more and more young people began attending, the leaders decided to add another service, a Sunday night service especially for older teens and 20-somethings.

Since the younger folks preferred rock and roll, Bruno weighted the music at this service more in that genre, while still doing one old hymn every week. Some of the people who came had never gone to church before. Nothing delighted Bruno more than to see them let down their guard and give themselves to worshipping God.

Occasionally some of the older folks would slip in to a Sunday night service to check up on what was going on. They did not like what they saw and heard. Several began to complain to the pastor. One man called the service “slap-happy” and a woman called it “a circus.”

We can’t have that, can we? Bruno was pressured to “tone it down,” even at the Sunday morning service. No more “blended.” Even his contemporary arrangements of the old hymns was condemned.

Since his musical creativity was no longer being called upon, Bruno got bored with his job. The young people got bored, too. They became confused about God and church. Church was supposed to be a refuge from the squabbles of the world, they thought. Disillusioned, many of them left. So did the young families. Bruno could only hope and pray that they did not abandon their newfound faith in God.

He finished packing his books and CDs, the papers in his desk. He secured the plastic cover over his keyboard and set his guitar in its hard case.

There was a knock at the door. He opened it to the pastor’s wife, Joanie.

“Bruno,” she said, “I wish you wouldn’t leave. You need to stay and fight for what’s right.”

“But don’t you see, Joanie?” he said. “This fighting is all wrong. This is not being a light to the world. I feel life just draining out of me.”

“But where will you go?” Joanie asked. “Talent like yours should not go to waste.”

Bruno wasn’t ready to go home, where everything would feel so final, so he drove around for awhile, thinking, grieving. It was Friday night and young people were outside the bars, smoking, talking and drinking. They seemed happy. Bruno even spotted a few who had been to the church.

When he saw a sign for “Open Mic Night” at a small pub, Bruno felt a surge of joy. Pulling into the parking lot, he opened his trunk, grabbed his guitar and went inside.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Becoming A Mother Is Transformative

What happens to a young woman when she becomes a mother? What changes take place in her psyche and her emotions?

In the numerous mother-and-child paintings that grace my office, the women hold their babies close to them, their arms around them. These women, no matter their age, have the quality of being maternal.

Motherly, caring, kind, tender, gentle, affectionate, warm, loving, protective. These are the words my thesaurus lists as synonyms for the word “maternal.”

Also, among the Madonna paintings on the walls and shelves are two photographs, one of my daughter with her eldest son, one of my daughter-in-law with first daughter. I knew both of these women before they had children. Before they became pregnant, I would not use the maternal characteristics to describe them—or myself—but there’s no doubt about it now.

Becoming a mother is transformative.

When does it start? Watch any pregnant woman as she rubs her hands over her swollen belly. Observe how she takes care of herself. She takes vitamins, eats healthier foods, quits smoking, goes to the doctor for check-ups. All for the sake of her child. Yes, she is already a mother.

(Case in point. As I write this, I’ve just gotten a text message from my daughter in Belfast, Northern Ireland, telling me she’s e-mailed something for me to read. I have a deadline to meet. The wireless Internet is turned off so I won’t be distracted by checking e-mails or the like. If this message was from a friend or someone at work or from anyone else but one of my children, I would easily wait until I have finished my present task. But this is one of my children who needs something from me… Okay. I checked. It can wait.)

I cannot speak for my daughter or my daughter-in-law, but I know for myself that I would be quite a different person were it not for having borne children. My goals and everything about my life were all about me, what I wanted.

Recently a young friend confided in me about an abortion she had years ago. The baby was conceived in a one-night stand. She felt she had no choice but to abort it. Yet even as she went through the steps of seeking the abortion, talking with the clinic staff and filling out the paperwork, she felt deeply conflicted.

For several years afterward, when she saw a pregnant woman or heard the sound of a baby’s cry, she felt anguish. Why should she feel this way about fetal tissue? Because when she had the abortion—mere weeks into her pregnancy—she was already a mother.

My friend did eventually find help at a post-abortion ministry, in a small Bible study group with other women who’d had a similar experience. She found forgiveness from God, through Jesus Christ, and was able to forgive herself. She has a child now and has found much joy in being a mother.

Many of you know my own story, of how, when I discovered I was pregnant at age 18, the doctor asked me in the same breath whether I wanted to terminate the pregnancy. I’d had no plans of ever becoming a mother. I did not like or want children. I always knew that if I became pregnant, abortion was the only solution. Yet when the day came, I cried at the thought of aborting my baby, Heidi.

Heidi, my curly-haired blonde girl, brilliant and strong and funny. The mother of my two grandsons. She and I are working on making a quilt together. We go to concerts together. She has always been a joy.

On Mother’s Day, as moms, we get cards that contain the maternal words. We are thanked for being motherly, caring, kind, tender, gentle, affectionate, warm, loving, protective.

As if we have a choice.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No Escape from Death

On Good Friday, the Rev. David Smith woke up, put on his swimsuit, donned his regular clothing over it, stealthily left the house, and drove three hours to the beach. He knew his wife would assume he’d gone to his office for some early morning meditation on this high holy day. His secretary would assume he’d lingered at home this morning for the same reason. His cell phone was off.

Smith had grown up on the beach, another beach on another coast. He always missed it but rarely visited anymore. Today was different. Today he wanted to escape Good Friday’s rituals of suffering and death.

He found a coffee shop right on the beach. By now, the place contained just a few tables of retired men, out from under their wives’ feet. He bought a tall Kenyan blend, grabbed a thick newspaper, and settled down by the window.

There’s no place I’d rather be right now, he thought, rifling through the paper. He pulled out the Culture section, scanning the photos of art exhibits and authors. He set down the open paper and looked out the window. Dotted up and down the waterline, several men were surf casting. A group of young people, two in wetsuits, toted surfboards.

It was a rough day. The surf thundered as it tumbled to the shore. His eyes went out further, over the water, to the horizon. It seems to go on forever into the unknown, yet there is another side. He tried to conjure the image from his study wall of the world map, to picture what country lie directly across the latitude of the Atlantic.

Back to the newspaper, Smith read a review of Rob Bell’s controversial book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Several of his church members had asked him about this. Christians were lining up militantly on either side, charging at one another with words as bullets, grenades and bayonets, looking down on each other with disdain. His standard reply was, “I have not read the book.” He hadn’t.

He had addressed the issue indirectly last Sunday in his sermon from Galatians 5:13-15: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” The sinful nature, he explained, is pride, which often surfaces as a need to be right.

Just then there was a commotion at the shoreline. People—the fishermen and young people—ran back and forth, yelling, pointing. Smith hurried out to the front deck of the coffee shop, peering out to see what was wrong. There it was. A surfboard shot straight up into the air, suspended for a moment, then fell back onto the waves. Where was its owner?

Smith descended the several flights of stairs and headed a few hundred feet down the beach to the lifeguard stand. Yanking open the supply box, he picked up the binoculars and climbed up the stand. He instantly spotted the surfer’s head bobbing on the water beyond the breakers. The young man struggled to keep afloat, his arms flailing.

Smith jumped off the stand, pulled out the rope from the supply box and sped down the beach to the distraught group. He ripped off his shoes, shirt and jeans. He tied one end of the rope around his waist. He handed the roll to the strongest looking man in the crowd, then dove into the surf.

As a lifeguard in his youth, he’d been a strong swimmer. He’d tried to maintain that strength at the local pool by doing laps several times a week. It was not the same as ocean swimming but now he hoped it was enough. Where his strength ended, adrenalin took over. He made it out past the breakers and looked around. Nothing. He looked toward the group on the shore. They were still and silent.

Smith kept swimming back and forth, searching. After about 15 minutes, he was joined by several lifeguards in a rescue boat, who pulled alongside him, hauling him into the boat. He was tired. Back on shore, the four young people wept, hugged Smith and thanked him for his efforts to save their friend.

Driving home, Smith could not rid his thoughts of death.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Enlightened Sexism: Is Feminism's Work Done?

At age 15, I was part of a sit-in. One morning in 1969, I crowded with other girls into the lobby of my high school, sat down and refused to move until I had what we wanted: the right to wear pants to school.

And get this. The blue jeans I wore to school that day? They were boys’ jeans. Because back then no manufacturers made dungarees for girls.

In a speech Wednesday at JMU, Susan J. Douglas recalled that when she was 18, women could not get credit cards or take out mortgages. So things have changed a lot for women, she admits.

Douglas, author of “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done,” says our culture gives girls and women some very mixed messages about who they are. On the one hand, you have women playing powerful roles on TV shows, starring as news anchors, lawyers, doctors, police chiefs and judges. In the last presidential election, a woman ran for the top seat and another ran for vice-president.

The reality is that not many women really work in those roles. Women today fill the same jobs they did 100 years ago, as secretaries, nurses, maids, waitresses and schoolteachers. Does college make a difference? A year out of college, Douglas cites, women earn 80 percent of their male counterparts. Ten years out, they earn 69 percent of what men make.

“And if girls and women really have come so far,” says Douglas, “and full equality has truly been achieved, why is it that K-Mart sells outfits for four-year-old girls that look like something out of Fredericks of Hollywood?”

Douglas says much of the media is over-representing women as having made it in the high-profile professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort. At the same time, there’s a “resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries,” like The Man Show, Girls Gone Wild and TV specials featuring Victoria’s Secret bras and panties.

“But even this fare,” she writes in her book, “which insists that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacities of a vole, was presented as empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.”

By some strange twist in logic, in the 1960s, girlie magazines were sexist, but now pornography empowers women?

Douglas writes, “In Sex and the City, with its characters who were successful professionals by day and Kama Sutra masters by night, there was no such thing as the double standard: women had as much sexual freedom, and maybe even more kinky sex, than men. Cosmo isn’t for passive girls waiting for the right guy to find them; it’s the magazine for the ‘Fun, Fearless Female’ who is also proud to be, as one cover put it, a ‘Sex Genius.’ Have a look at O! The magazine is one giant, all-encompassing, throbbing zone of self-fulfillment for women where everything from pillows to celadon-colored notebooks (but only if purchased and used properly) are empowering and everything is possible.”

Oh, and in addition to being a “sex genius,” the other most powerful thing women can do is shop. “Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves,” writes Douglas. Does shopping make you feel powerful?

Douglas contends that the media offers women fantasies of power. But, ah, seeing the irony in all this also offers a fantasy of power. Watching a show like Jersey Shore and ridiculing the girls also feels empowering, says Douglas. It offers women a form of pleasure in that oh-so-feminine catty sort of way. So you think you’re not being seduced by it but … you are still watching it, aren’t you?

So all this is driven by two premises, says Douglas. One is “embedded feminism” that’s woven into our culture. We’ve made so much progress in 40 years and there’s no more to be done. We’re equal. That’s it.

The other is “enlightened sexism,” which keeps women in their place. Because in spite of all our professional, academic, athletic, artistic and you-name-it success, if our faces (well made-up), hair (straight, shiny) and body (thin, large-breasted) are not perfect, we are failures.

Isn’t that what most of us think?

Friday, April 01, 2011

An Encounter With Troy Aikman

So a couple weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, in the mail came a flyer about a business that rents huge-screen TVs on a weekly basis.

And when I say huge, I mean huge. You get 55 inches of LCD 1080p 120Hz HDTV—delivery and set-up included—for only … are you ready for this … $ per week. For an extra $7 you can rent a TV stand to put it on, available in a variety of styles. Oops! Sorry! Not a mere everyday typical run-of-the-mill variety, but a wide variety. Wide.

Other merchandise available to rent are washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, living room sets, computers and bedroom sets. And for an extra $13 per week, they’ll throw in the mattress.

On the front of the flyer are two hunks of manhood holding a small sign, one on either side. I recognize the one man. Who has not heard of Hulk Hogan, the “pro” wrestler? But I do not know who the other man is.

“Who is Troy Aikman?” I ask the husband.

The husband says he used to be a quarterback for some “football” team. I forget which or when and I don’t know what a quarterback is. I mean, I’ve heard about quarterbacks all my life, but I don’t know what they actually do.

But get this. Later, that night, we’re out somewhere and someone starts talking about … Troy Aikman! That’s the second time today! I look at the husband like … what? This has to be God, right?

Is this a sign that I should rent the 55-inch LCD 1080p 120Hz HDTV? Or am I supposed to rent one of the other products? Or am I supposed to write a column about Troy Aikman? How can I know what this means?

Why would Troy Aikman and Hulk Hogan be on this flyer, I wonder. Some people might see them as real manly men. Both were in sports that require speed, agility, strength, power, tenacity, muscle. All which add up to pure masculinity.

Also, in both “football” and “pro” wrestling the athletes get knocked around. Don’t their brains suffer some trauma? Does a helmet make it safe to ram your head against another head over and over for years?

In an attempt to discover the deeper meaning of this double encounter with Troy Aikman, I look him up on Wikipedia. First off, his photo looks like he spends a lot of time in the tanning booth. You know the look, so distinct from a real sunshine tan. I tend to group individuals who do this frequently into a little family. So no matter what their name is, I call such a person Miss Tanning Booth, Mrs. Tanning Booth or, in this case, Mr. Tanning Booth.

Aikman is a pure sports guy. The New York Mets baseball team offered him a contract right out of high school. He chose instead to pursue “football” at the University of Oklahoma, then transferred to UCLA where he played with the Bruins. From college he went to the Dallas Cowboys. Then he had this 11-year career in “football,” breaking records and leading the team to glory over and over.

After retiring, he became a sports commentator on FOX, winning an Emmy Award for his work. He started a weekly radio show. He’s the head of the Troy Aikman Foundation, a charity that benefits children. In 2006, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Later he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame. He bought a racecar and founded the Hall of Fame Racing in 2005. He is co-owner of the San Diego Padres.

Then there’s this: “As of fall 2010, Aikman is a co-spokesman for [a rental business] along with Hulk Hogan.”

Why? Why, Troy, why?

It’s like William Shatner in the Priceline ads. Every time I see one, I think, “Come on, Bill, you’re better than this.”

Why does a guy like Aikman, with such an illustrious career, obviously rolling in the dough, busy with family, public appearances, board of directors work, sportscasting, team ownership and on and on start appearing on flyers for TV rentals?

Aha! In his Wikipedia bio it says, “Aikman's final game was a home game against the Washington Redskins. Aikman was hit by linebacker LaVar Arrington and suffered the 10th concussion of his career.”

That answers that question. But the puzzle still remains as to why I encountered Aikman twice in one day. The answer can only be destiny. I was destined to write about him for April Fool’s Day.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's an Early Spring on the Farm

What an early spring we’re having.

Here at 2 Pond Farm, our maple syrup-making was shorter than usual because the maple trees started budding. It’s during that interim period between winter and spring, when the nights are still cold and the days get warm, that the sap flows. Some years, this weather has lasted for up to five weeks, but this year it lasted only two weeks.

Still, we did get a few gallons of syrup and now, spring is here.

Through the stand of still-bare trees, a patch of daffodils is blooming in the woods. The forsythia outside my kitchen window is aflame with yellow. Onion grass (delicious chopped into mashed potatoes) grows in tufts around the yard. The budding lilacs are waiting their turn.

The husband has plowed the fields. When it stops raining for a few days, he can finish tilling the large plots. However he did plant some peas. Lots of other early-planting seeds have yet to go in. Next week, we’ll put 200 strawberry plants in the ground, as well as some new berry vines.

Last weekend I planted some Tennessee orchid ferns, given to me by some friends. In the early spring they are supposed to pop from the ground as fiddleheads, a delicacy in some states similar to the way we enjoy morel mushrooms here.
Then there’s the chore of cleaning the yard: raking up leaves, pine needles and small sticks; clearing the dead growth in the flower beds; pulling out honeysuckle before it goes rampant.

The nights are warm enough now to keep the bedroom window open a crack. The breeze carries with it the all-night broadcast of Virginia peepers (thanks to the “front pond” the husband created years ago).

I found a few eloquent quotes about this annual event online in people’s blogs:

“And there is now a grand chorus of Virginia peepers in all the ponds and creeks around us!”

“As I drove in our nearly half-mile long driveway, the sound of the Virginia peepers overpowered my radio, even with my truck windows rolled-up. What a beautiful sound.”

I wanted to see a spring peeper but they are hard to spot, so I looked them up in our book, “Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia,” published by the UNC Press Chapel Hill in 1980. We bought this book when we lived in the hollow, where the spring peepers were loud enough to keep you awake at night. That is, until you got used to the sound. At first I thought they were insects.

The scientific name for these little guys is hyla crucifer, so named because of the prominent dark X marking on their backs. They can be tan, brown or gray. They also have large toepads to help them get a grip as they climb.

The beautiful sound is a mating call. It is the male peeper calling for a female, all night long. The females come to the male, mate, and then lay eggs on underwater sticks and plants. In 12 days, the baby peepers are born. The tadpoles eat algae and tiny organisms in the water.

In three to four months, the tadpoles undergo metamorphosis and become adults. Then they take up residence in the woods, where they come out at night to look for food: beetles, ants, flies and spiders. In the winter, they hibernate under logs or loose bark on trees. For their size, they are quite sturdy: They can survive having most of their body frozen.

Getting a bit off subject here, the list of the peepers’ prey I found on a website contains some fascinating names. Like daring jumping spider, rabid wolf spider, horned fungus beetle, six-spotted tiger beetle and Asian tiger mosquito.

So much for Virginia peepers.

On the farm, the next thing we’ll harvest (I think) is asparagus. The husband has always remembered that it comes up around the time of his father’s birthday in late April. In years past, we’ve had asparagus through July, enough for ourselves and to share with other family members. However, the husband has been expanding the patch, so it will be exciting to see what comes up this year. The roots take three years to get established, so it takes patience.

We also have wild asparagus growing along the fencerows on the property. These are especially delicious. One plant by the “back pond” grows very thick and tall stalks, but tender as butter. Go figure.

Ah, Spring! All around us and in our hearts!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Society Must Support Mothers, Too

A world in which a mother feels she must be rid of her unborn child in order to live well is not a fair world for women.

As usual, I did not know about International Women’s Day until it was halfway over. The reminder, again, came from my sister in Ireland.

Never mind that it’s been observed around the world since 1911. On March 19, more than one million women and men attended rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland to campaign for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained and hold public office.

But it was the fire a few days later that really got people’s attention. On March 25, 146 garment workers—mostly women—died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City because the exit doors were locked.

People paid more attention to working conditions and labor legislation after the Triangle Fire, and New York legislators quickly made changes to the labor laws. IWD subsequently focused on these issues in the United States.

IWD was first observed on March 8 in 1913, when, on the eve of World War I, Russian women campaigned for peace. In 1914, women across Europe followed suit, protesting the war together.

“When the men kill, it is up to us women to fight for the preservation of life,” said Clara Zetkin, a German socialist who first had the idea for an IWD.

In 1917, Russian women hit the streets once again, striking for “bread and peace” in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers. Political leaders opposed the strike, but four days later—March 8—the Czar was forced to resign and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

The United Nations in 1977 adopted a resolution setting March 8 as United Nations Day for Women’s Rights, to be observed in its member states. In this year’s statement, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon writes, “Only through women’s full and equal participation in all areas of public and private life can we hope to achieve the sustainable, peaceful and just society promised in the United Nations Charter.”

Today, in many countries—such as Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Mongolia, Russia and Vietnam—IWD is a legal holiday. In the U.S., we’ve designated March as Womens’ History Month, when events and observances are held.

Thanks to the courageous women before us, today we have the right to vote, to work in any profession we want, to run marathons, to be paid a fair wage. And the work continues. In Washington, D.C., IWD events included panel discussions of policies concerning immigrant women, lobbying for education and economic support, and a photo exhibit of international women.

We’ve come a long way. But in many ways, it’s still a man’s world. One issue in particular still needs much more attention. Because mothers are women, too.

“There must be a remedy even for such a crying evil as [abortion],” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Revolution. “But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?”

In another The Revolution article, Martha Gage wrote, “This subject lies deeper down in women’s wrongs than any other. … I hesitate not to assert that most of [the responsibility for] this crime lies at the door of the male sex.”

Women should have all the same civil rights as men, but women should not live as men. Women should live well as women.

As a society, we must offer support to mothers as mothers so they do not have to choose between the life of their unborn child and their own lives. It is distressful for a woman to be forced into making that decision.

“Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women,” says Serrin Foster, founder and president of Feminists for Life.

Unfortunately, many women ignore International Women’s Day because they equate a passion for women’s rights with the “pro-choice” agenda.

“The myth that to be a feminist is to be pro-choice has forced many women to resign from the name of feminism, to settle back bruised into the silence of the margins,” says the President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese.

I, for one, refuse to choose.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Find the North Star for Your Life

Going back to school. Again.

Longtime readers will remember when I attended Blue Ridge Community College. My classes there were a joy, even the ones I’d hated (namely biology) as a teenager in high school.

As an adult, I’ve always been able to get the jobs I wanted without a college degree.

We are all born with natural talents, proclivities for being able to do certain things well. One friend, as a child, took apart car engines and put them back together. He continued to work on cars as a teenager, displaying a gift for diagnosing problems. Thus, as an adult, he was able to move into a career as an auto mechanic.

Lots of people succeed without going to college.

Bill Gates, a college dropout, has been named the richest person in the world by Forbes magazine 27 times. Gates was 10 points away from a perfect score on the SAT, enrolled at Harvard College in 1973, then two years later took a leave of absence to form a partnership with classmate Paul Allen. The partnership became known as Microsoft.

Steven Spielberg, the movie director and producer, was denied acceptance to film school and dropped out of California State University in Long Beach. He co-founded DreamWorks, a major film studio that’s produced several of the highest grossing movie hits and Academy award-winning films.

Julie Andrews, the Oscar-winning actress and singer, dropped out of high school.

Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, dropped out of high school.

I’m not saying you should not go to college, just that you don’t have to go to college to succeed. It’s certainly not for everyone, as a recent study showed. The world has need of carpenters, hair stylists, plumbers, housekeepers, mechanics, waitresses and electricians.
The long list I found of successful people who did not attend college included mostly people in the fields of entertainment or business. Of course, many professions are impossible to enter without college study, like law, medicine and teaching.

I’d always been a writer, since the first time I put pencil to paper. I spent my young adult life raising my children, so when they were in high school, I applied for a job at the Daily News-Record. I got a job there based on the results of my writing test. But believe me, though I knew how to write, I still had much to learn about reporting news.

What with working at the paper, babysitting grandkids and otherwise living my life, it took five years to earn an associate’s degree at BRCC. When the e-mail came early this week that I’d been accepted at JMU, I was thrilled.

When you feel that good about something, you should follow it, says Martha Beck. In her book, “Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live,” she advises readers to follow what gives them joy, energy, health.

Me? I love reading, listening, studying, writing papers, lively discussion … of almost anything. But writing is my first love.

So what will I study? Should I get a degree in a field that will make me more money?

Listen, I’m in my mid-50s. It’s going to take a few years to get a bachelor’s degree, so I’ll be close to 60 when that happens. Life is getting shorter as each day passes.

My hope is that I can study what I love and that it will be enough.

“The North Star—Stella Polaris—is a fixed point that can always be used to figure out which way you’re headed,” writes Beck. “Explorers and mariners can depend on Polaris when there are no other landmarks in sight. The same relationship exists between you and your right life, the ultimate realization of your potential for happiness. I believe that a knowledge of that perfect life sits inside you just as the North Star sits in its unaltering spot. You may think you're utterly lost, but brush away the leaves, wait for the clouds to clear, and you’ll see your destiny shining as brightly as ever; the fixed point in the constantly changing constellations of your life.”

It’s worked so far, so I’ll just keep following.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Catching the Wind

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after the wind. ~ the Preacher, Ecclesiastes 2:17.

Last Saturday was terribly windy. As I looked out the window of my house at the waving branches and tumbling tumbleweed, I remembered—as I have so often—an afternoon I spent as a child out in the wind. Now, you’re going to think this is silly, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

I was 8 years old. We lived in a housing development in a lower middle-class neighborhood. These were the years my parents were down on their luck. My Dad lived away that year, participating in a study at a national laboratory for which, I suppose, we were given a stipend. We were on welfare, too. I remember going with my mother to get food, waiting on line for hours.

Anyway, every house in this depressed area was the same split level model with asbestos siding, concrete driveway and an obligatory lone maple sapling in the center of the front yard.

As a child, I often played outdoors alone. I had three younger siblings and all the neighbors had children our ages, but I guess I sought the outdoors—and solitude—more than most. The only open space there was the empty corner lot next to our house, where I spent many happy hours rapt in a world my sister called Lala Land.

So one windy day I was strolling around the lot when I spotted a large, clear plastic bag fluttering in the wind, the upper part of it wound around the end of a long stick. I picked up the stick and, behold, the bag filled with wind. The force of it pulled me and, rather than resist, I let myself go.

As the wind had its way with the bag, I ran, leaped, twirled, danced … flew! I laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in joy, pure joy.

I’d caught the wind and the wind caught me. I must have spent several hours at this. I even named the bag-stick toy, Tippy.

It was one of the happiest days of my life.

So last Saturday, nearly a half-century after that happy day, I bundled up, grabbed a plastic grocery bag from the pantry and went outdoors to find a stick. I wound the bag’s two handles around the tip and lifted it to catch the wind. Instant joy!

I was out there only a few minutes when Scarlett and Sydney—my three- and four-year-old granddaughters—arrived. I jumped up and down and showed them my … Tippy. Of course, they each wanted one, so in short order I rigged up two more. As the wind filled the bags, their faces lit up with happiness!

We ran out to the back hill and skipped and swirled and smiled around that acre for a time apart from time. We laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in the joy.

The wind. Growing up on an island, I spent a lot of time on boats: cabin cruisers, ferries, rowboats, speedboats, clamming boats, canoes. I love sitting or standing alone in the bow, out front, the wind and salt water in my face.

However, I’ve never been on a sailboat. I can only imagine what it must be like to hoist the sails and see them, feel them, fill with wind. The power.

The above-quoted Preacher equates the inability to catch the wind with vanity.

“Vanity: excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit.”
Our culture is based on vanity: the attainment of stuff, status and celebrity, to be seen by others as prosperous, pretty and pampered.

“[Egoism] is the most intangible and the most intolerable. … It is that condition in which the victim does a thousand varying things from one unvarying motive of a devouring vanity; and sulks or smiles, slanders or praises, conspires and intrigues or sits still and does nothing, all in one unsleeping vigilance over the social effect of one single person,” writes G.K. Chesteron.

It is a striving after the wind.

Wind is the first image the Bible gives us of God: Ruach Elohim (Wind God). “The earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).

RUACH ELOHIM, the breathing, blowing, surging phenomenon, is neither natural (wind) nor spiritual (spirit) but both in one; it is the creative breathing that brings both nature and the spirit into one being. … Here at the beginning of the Bible, RUACH ELOHIM stands as a great, unformulated, latent theological principle, expressed only by implication.—Martin Buber

So Preacher, Mr. All-Is-Vanity, what if … what if you actually catch the wind?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Getting Lost is the Fun of Travel

Time to renew the passport. Hard to believe it’s been 10 years since I first left the shores of America to travel over seas to foreign lands.

The passport application provides a box to note your travel plans. Where are you going?

Good question.

When I worked downtown I often saw tourists strolling the sidewalks. They proceeded slowly in a sort of meandering way, gazing up at street signs, scanning the storefronts, peering into windows. They seemed a bit lost.

The streets so familiar to me were to them quite strange. As Ray Bradbury says, “Half the fun of travel is the esthetic of lostness.”

Like motorcycling. My favorite way is just to turn onto any road that looks intriguing. Like that back road in West Virginia with the river on our right and sheer cliffs to our left. The smell of pine needles, the scent of water, the aroma of rhododendrons. The cool and warm spots in the air.

We stop at a rickety roadside store and sit on the porch drinking Pepsi and iced tea. This is Frost, we discover.

Frost. I pull out the map, unfold it and lay it on the gas tank. My finger follows the last road I know to where we turned off. Trace it through the mountain pass. Ah, there’s Frost. And there’s that sense of satisfaction of discovering where I am.

On my bicycle, as an adolescent on suburban Long Island, I often rode out of my neighborhood and away away. I loved getting lost, the adventure of it. One day I followed a creek through several housing developments—it was not easy to keep it in view, turning up and down streets to do so—to a small woods. I leaned my bicycle on a tree, walked along the grassy bank and sat down.

What a wonderful place. I had no idea where it was.

On my feet, the last time I was in Northern Ireland, I walked the towpath for several miles along the River Lagan. I’ve been to that area enough times to know my way around, yet experiencing it from the river transformed it into a new and strange to me place.

In a canoe on the Shenandoah River, I had this same experience just paddling from Elkton to Shenandoah. I lived in that area for 15 years, yet traveling on the river gave me a whole ‘nother view of fields and forest. I could not tell where I was or even when I was, a delightful feeling. River travel, of course, was the norm at one time, evidenced by the occasional old house that fronts the Shenandoah.

By train a familiar place feels strange, too. This summer, I took the Long Island Railroad from my hometown in Suffolk County into the city. When I was young this is how I always traveled to NYC, but I’d not done it for many years. Passenger railroads tend to run through the poorer sections of towns—having pre-dated much of the highway system—and so the tracks are a bit distant from the shopping malls, tall office buildings and better residential areas.

Lost has many definitions. I am referring to “unable to find the way,” yet it is not a permanent state. Apparently I was able in all these cases to find the way, else I’d not be here to write about it.

Lostness is a feeling. It can be panicky or it can be supremely peaceful, exhilarating.

Faith is like that. You set out, not sure of the path, yet knowing it will take you somewhere. In the meantime, the journey takes you through unfamiliar territory. You have the feeling of lostness: “For we walk by faith, not by sight …,” writes Paul in 1 Cor. 5:7.

My life feels like that right now. With the economic upheaval, it seems in a larger sense to be happening to many other people, too. Where are we going?

We’re in the same place, the USA, but we’ve gotten off the familiar highways. We’re seeing it all from a different view. It’s an adventure!

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door,” said Bilbo Baggins. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

Where am I going? I don’t know, but that road there with the trees leading into a cool forest? I think I’ll turn there and see where it takes me.

Friday, February 04, 2011

How to Help the Jobless? Do the Math

John (not his real name) worked in construction all his adult life, making plenty of money to support himself. But when the recession hit, like many others in his field, he was laid off. For months, he looked for work in construction. Nothing. So he took a job in the poultry industry.

“I’ve never done work like this,” he said. His paycheck is not enough to cover his living expenses.

Our church co-hosted the Harrisonburg and Rockingham Thermal Shelter (HARTS) the week our jobless benefits expired. Was that ever sobering. The stories of the people seeking shelter made me realize that homelessness can happen to any of us.

Some expressed shock that this was happening to them. Them.

We knew the unemployment checks would stop in the middle of January. The husband had been through Tiers I, II and III, and extended benefits. Still, it was jarring to get the Notice of Exhaustion: Your final benefit on your State Extended Benefits (EB) claim has been processed.

For 18 months, every Wednesday this money materialized in our checking account. The week after it expired, I looked online at our statement. The husband had filed anyway. After all, he was still unemployed. But there was no deposit. I checked again on Thursday. And Friday.

Dudes, I was in denial.

In the meantime, I’m doing math. Even though I’ve always excelled at English, history and philosophy, I can also actually do math. And let me tell you, this is no time for algebra, geometry or trigonometry. What we all need is simple addition and subtraction. If only our elected representatives and corporate billionaires would pay attention to simple adding and subtracting, like me.

(Note: If you read my column every week, you know in the fall I hired a cleaning woman. I did that in anticipation of a job that was to start within weeks. Because of the economy, the job itself ceased to exist and I subsequently let the cleaning woman go. Simple subtraction.)

The week our check stopped, I walked over to the bookstore during my lunch break to buy a book, “Five Acres and Independence,” for the husband. He spent most of his adult life working in manufacturing supervision. Now in his late 50s, he does not think he’ll work in that field again. After all, he’s been looking for nearly two years now.

Just last night he talked about how well the stock market is doing. The rich are getting richer and the manufacturing is all overseas.

However, the husband’s first love is the land. Since losing his job, he’s been happily planting and growing stuff, fixing and building things. Because of this, we have food in the freezer, in the cabinets, in the cold storage. In a day or two, we’ll order seeds for this spring’s planting. When he finishes building the greenhouse, that will assure fresh vegetables next winter.

He’s not a bit worried.

So when someone recommended this inexpensive, practical little book, I figured it was right up his alley.

While in the bookstore, I spotted the New Yorker calendar, on sale for half-price. This daily tear-off calendar is often pretty funny and I need to laugh, I thought, justifying the small expense. What sold me was the sample page on the back.

A man dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase opens the front door of his house and shouts to his wife, “Honey! We’re homeless!”

The 2011 daily planners were also half price. I picked up a tooled leather one, just my style. I turned it over. “Made in China.” I set it down and picked up one with a black-and-tan plaid cover for the same price. “Handcrafted in Maine.”

I thought about some of the towns I visited in Maine as a child. I envisioned a roomful of people in Maine cutting the fabric, inserting the pages, gluing these planners together.

I bought the planner with the belief that I was helping someone in Maine keep their job. It was an investment in an American company.

I may not have much to spend these days, but the money I do spend—as long as it’s in my power and even if it costs a few dollars more—will be an investment for America, for Virginia, for Harrisonburg.

Please multiply.