Saturday, December 17, 2011

Social Media Ponderings

I've been thinking a lot about social media lately.  I've been thinking about how it both adds to and detracts from my quality of life.  I'm writing this post, in short, to see what others think about these issues.

I am not a big social media user.  I have a twitter account which I mostly use to keep up with a few friends.  My few twitter broadcasts tend to be announcements of my postings of my three blogs.  I don't have web service on my phone, so Twitter is not really useful to me.  I originally subscribed to Facebook for work purposes;  I wanted to make it as easy as possible for WOW prospects and participants to get in touch with me.  When I stopped coordinating WOW, I did not take the time to reflect on whether or not to close the account; I just left it open by default.

On the plus side, I can say that Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with old school mates and even cousins I don't often see.  Likewise, it allows me a glimpse into the lives of many friends oversees and even in my hometown that I would otherwise have likely lost touch with.

The flipside is that I do need to pause and ask myself this, "How important are these relationships, really?  If they were truly important, mighten there be a better way to maintain them?" 

It's food for thought.  Is the time spent on social media truly improving my quality of life?  In some venues, I can say yes, definitely.  For example, many years ago I (somewhat stupidly) moved 2500 miles away from my family.  Facebook allows me to keep in touch particularly with my nieces and nephews -- and their kids -- and promotes a sense of closeness so that when we do meet, we're more familiar.  I love that.

On the downside, I think Facebook and Twitter promote a false -- and weird -- sort of grandiosity or fake fame.  Most people have that secret desire to be famous.  We all want to matter in some way, right?  And let's be honest, how many of us show our true selves on Facebook?  Don't we all show our best side?  How many people do you know in flesh and blood whose profile pic looks nothing like them?  I've noticed how often people compliment me on my parenting.  I'm no saint!  I just look like it on Facebook. I have a messy house, I yell way more than I "should' or really want to, I'm frequently frazzled and let's face it -- I'm a little lazy!  But that does not show up on Facebook because I'm so darn proud of my Fab Five, that tends to be what I talk about. 

Let's talk about blogs now.  My first blog was my weight loss blog.  I started it for a simple reason; I was going to keep a "word" journal of my weight loss learnings and then thought, "hey, I might as well do it as a blog."  It was that simple.  This blog was meant for my coaching clients -- a sort of gimme.  And my "Bright Love" blog was started because with 5 kids, keeping our large extended family abreast of the news was a logistical nightmare.  The blog simplified all that.

But then I started feeding the blogs to Facebook, mostly because someone couldn't figure out how to subscribe.  Then I started getting a lot of readers from Facebook.  Then my ego swelled and now here we are.  In November, Facebook threatened to stop all blog feeds, but didn't.  But the threat got my wheels turning.  Do I really "need" people to read my blogs.  No, of course not.  I'm writing them for me; I don't need people to read them.  So why am I still feeding them?

So I'm stopping the Bright Weight Loss and Bright Love feeds in January.  Not now because I'm too lazy to figure out how to stop the feeds when I'm so busy making a beautiful advent happen.  But if you are still reading at this point, and want to continue, you can "follow" or subscribe;  both links are at right on each blog.  Unless you can give me some good reason to continue, of course! 

I am going to spend more time next year taking real time for my most loved friends and family.  I will still keep my Facebook feed but I will use the tools  to "sift to the top" my nearest and dearest;  just seeking authenticity here.

What do you think about these ponderings?  Am I just taking myself to seriously?  Or do you see problems with yourself and this way of relating?  (We'll see if anyone actually reads this stuff!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Consciously Acting

One of my biggest challenges as a parent is to teach my kids about acting consciously.  It's hard because I don't always do it myself and it's also a challenging material to teach.  In schools, kids are taught to follow the rules, which isn't quite the same and acting consciously, although it is a subset of it, to be sure.

Here's an example.  The Captain, age 4, has attachment disorder.  He's simply often dis-regulated.  We have been trying to teach him that he doesn't have to come unglued when things don't go the way he expects or wants them to.  We want him to be able to identify that what is really happening is that he is afraid.  This is difficult for young children; it's hard to pinpoint that feeling when everything in you is screaming, "run!" or "fight!"

Ditto for the teens in the house.  In their case, it's more learning to choose what comes out of their mouths.  Learning to regulate your tone is a bit of a fine point for a teen because you can only do that if you are able to take the quick inventory and notice what is going on inside.  Also learning to recognize that when you say something blatantly untrue or reactive, it is okay to say "Hold on, I didn't really mean to call you that name."  It's challenging and takes maturity of the internal kind.

All of this is made even more challenging by social norms.  These days, people curse or "tell people off" in public settings.  We seem to be revisiting the self-expression era of the 60's and 70's. I am a child of those decades and I am all for self-expression;  that said, it's helpful if  a little self-consciousness goes along with it.

I notice how hard it is for me to self-regulate at times.  When we are getting ready to go somewhere -- always a challenge in a family of seven -- I get stressed out.  I am driven by fear.  Deep down, I'm just a little kid -- afraid of getting left behind.  It's not a logical thing; it occurs on a cellular level.  I notice I have a similar reaction when the house is very noisy, not an infrequent thing with 5 children.  A panic rises in me and if I don't pay attention to it, I am soon going to be yelling for quiet.

What I am striving for in myself and trying to teach the kids, as well, is to take a moment to check in.  I want to take that deep breath (or two, maybe three) and calm myself down a bit. I stop and ask myself, "Am I acting from love or fear?"   It makes a huge difference.

I am putting this on my self-improvement priority list as the holidays approach.  Not only am I  unplugging the Christmas machine, I  am consciously acting to dial down the stress around here too.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Unplugging the Christmas Machine

'Tis the season.  The season of shopping, decorating, holiday parties, baking, wrapping, and anticipating.  All too often in my life, it's the season of extreme busy-ness, "have-tos" and unmet expectations.  This year, I'm unplugging the Christmas machine.

The reality is that with 5 kids, a certain amount of "busy" comes with the territory.  And the equal reality is that much of what is on the family calendar and on the to-do list does not "have" to be done.  This is going to be an Advent season of conscious choices.

Yesterday, for instance, was our foster care agency's Christmas party.  We'd have enjoyed that so much.  But that fun would have been sandwiched between church, picking up a child from a slumber party, my week to cook for the youth at church and Pepper's RE class.  It was already a full day; that "one more thing" was the thing that threatened to be the apple that upset the whole cart.  I said, "No thank you."  I felt a little guilty.  Instead, we had a great day.  There was no pressure getting home from the Second Sunday of Advent.  I had plenty of time to both hang out with the little ones and  get ready for my team's cooking evening.  Everything simply went more smoothly because of that one less thing. 

"Advent" means the beginning, the commencement, and a new start.  Instead of seeing the Advent season as the weeks we speed through to get to Christmas, I'm looking at Advent as a new beginning.  We are preparing our hearts -- and maybe we will have time to prepare the house too.  We are slowing down and taking the scenic route through Advent to Christmas.  By the time we get there, we'll be ready -- I'll be ready. 

Part of BLORA lights display at Fort Hood (2010)
Yes, we will decorate and listen to the Christmas music;  we will bake and shop; we will wrap presents and celebrate with friends but we will not join in the holiday madness.  We'll have no batting coaching, no piano lessons and no "routine" doctor's appointments.  We'll choose carefully the holiday parties we attend and discern between true traditions and holiday habits.  We're unplugging the Christmas machine and plugging into family life.  Happy Advent!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

21 Days of Gratitude Challenge

I love Thanksgiving.  Although the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday are in dispute, what seems clear is that it was a feast shared amongst two communities --the Plymouth settlers and the Wampamoag Tribe -- to celebrate the bountiful harvest.  Some versions of the holiday were celebrated in various places in the colonies and states afterward.  In 1863, a war beleaguered  President Abraham Lincoln made it official. It was a brilliant idea to set aside a day specifically for being grateful not only for the table heaped with food, but especially for the community on whom we depend.

This time of year I make lists of people for whom I am grateful.  I began this tradition several years ago as a way to kick-start a fund-raising team.  Starting tomorrow on Thanksgiving and for 21 days I will honor each day people who have had a life-changing effect on me.  I have a simple way to call them to mind; here is how I am making my list this year:
  • 3 people I am concerned about
  • 3 people who help me in my daily life
  • 3 people who have servant's hearts
  • 3 figures from history
  • 3 "elders" from my "tribe"
  • 3 teachers or mentors
  • 3 community leaders 
Once I make the list, I put the names on my calendar along with an action for each one.  I will write thank-you notes, make phone calls and set lunch dates with some of these folks.  For others I will offer a meal or a dedicated prayer time on their behalf. I may write a poem, a memorial essay or a blog.  I will read a book or watch a video about my historical figures; at least one of these will be a children's book shared with my kids. As I go through this season, I will talk to my family about whom I am celebrating and why.  Maybe in this way, I can plant the seeds of gratitude in them, as well.

These 21 days are a part of my private advent prepartion; they serve to remind me of how truly fortunate I am and how much I depend on my community.  They take my focus off shopping and eating and help me put my mind on the true meaning of the holiday season -- both Thanksgiving and Christmas.  These remembrances inspire, evoke and humble me.
I challenge you to try it for yourself.  (And let me know if you do!)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hand on my Heart for Veterans

"Mella" and Ray Huntley, early 1960s
I am from a proud family of servicemen.  My dad and his 8 brothers all were members of the Armed Forces, 8 Navy men and one proud Marine. They fought in World War 2, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam.  I have been to more military funerals than civilian ones.  I was born patriotic.

I still put my hand on my heart when I say the Pledge of Allegiance or when the National Anthems plays, even at ball games.  I notice that quite often, there are very few people around me who have their hand on their heart or sing along to our National Anthem.  I do not judge them.

You see, I'm a student of history.  If nothing else, one thing has been imprinted on my mind through this course of study:  War is a part of history and likely will always continue to be a part.  War is the way in which nations break apart, form, and stay strong; war provides both revolution and resolution.   The United States is no exception.  Not all our fights have been proud ones but those who serve do not make such decisions.  I hate the necessity of war and I love the warriors.
Great Uncle "Pat" Huntley - WW 1

The men and women of our Armed Forces usually sign on when they are barely old enough to vote and too young to drink.  The veterans of our wars are rarely politicians or even people of influence.  They are the boys and girls who lived on my street and yours; they are the kids I played in the park with, the cousins I admired, and the Dad and Uncles I adored.

I am grateful for those who have the fortitude to fight for the democratic ideal; for those who risk life and limb to preserve my way of life and more importantly, my liberty.  I know that many of you have suffered terrible consequences for your service; you have lost lovers or limbs; sacrificed your long term health, or given your lives.  This is a steep price to pay and I want you to know, it was not wasted on me.

This morning I rose early and hung out my flag.  All day today as I go about my ordinary life and you go about yours, please know I am thinking of you, and I thank you.  I am grateful every day for your gift of service to me and my family.  I know that freedom isn't free and I thank you for paying my toll.  God bless you.

[PS - If you want to get to the heart of the Pledge of Allegiance, click my link in the second paragraph for a timeless essay from the old comedian, Red Skelton.]

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Monday, November 7, 2011

"Fix You"

The band, Coldplay, has a popular song called "Fix You."  The song has a haunting and memorable tune, but the lyrics are challenging.  I keep trying to like this song.  I've read the lyrics several times and aside from the fact that the "story" is illusive at best, it's the whole notion of fix you  that bothers me.

I don't think Coldplay was trying to make some grand statement with the song.  I suspect they were just trying to make an album!  Yet every time I hear my kids humming the tune, I shudder a bit.  I find off-putting the notion that when a person is hurting, another can put them back together.  It's a fallacy of youth.  It's an idealistic view of love that says loving someone means being able to make it "all better" for them.

It turns out that with 5 kids, someone almost always needs something in the way of attention or intervention.  Someone in particular, needs more for some period of time.  And as a mother, I'm wired to try to -- well -- fix it. Usually I can do something to help but what is becoming increasingly clear is that I cannot fix it -- whatever "it" is -- because, in fact, "it" is not broken.

Whatever it is I have to overcome today is my lesson to learn.  You can take Muhammad to the mountain but you can't climb it for him. Each and every one of my challenges is there for me to conquer or be conquered by and in the end, I will be a more whole person for engaging in the battle.

If I "fix" something for one of my kids, life will just turn up the volume, and eventually they will still have to climb that mountain for themselves.  Often I wish it weren't true but I know it's for the best.  I think a sign of maturity is realizing that challenges really are opportunities to grow and that an easy life is one in which we aren't learning very much. 

So let's have a deal.  You come to me any time you need an ear and I will listen.  [If I temporarily forgt and try to "fix you" you can remind me!]  Then after you have had your say, I will lovingly but firmly support you to climb that mountain for yourself.  If you need some climbing suppliers, let me know!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Free "Won't"

It turns out it is all in your head!

In our culture, we hear a lot about "free will." It has all kinds of connotations: social, religious, political, parental! We are told, often, "It's your choice," or the parental opposite, "Well you chose to do that. You have free will. If little Timmy jumped off the roof, would you?"

I don't know about you, but I have - at times - basically bought into the notion that I can do anything if I only want to enough. And yet, we all know that isn't the case. Because if it were so, we'd all be worshiping at the shrine of Noman Vincent Peal (The Power of Positive Thinking) or The Secret would no longer be one because we would have all attracted money, love and power and either destroyed each other by now or engaged in a world wide group hug.

Okay, I am being extreme. So seriously, what's the deal? Why is it that I, for instance, am capable of sticking to a diet and exercise plan for sixth months of every blessed year and not at all for the other six months? And why is it that though we want to love our irksome neighbor, for some reason we can't? Well, I have both good and bad news. It's because of our brains!

That's right! Researchers have discovered that in the frontal lobe -- where free will is thought to "reside" -- there is also a veto power. And this veto power can override a "conscious" decision. So you may make a conscious decision, for example, to stop smoking. And when the impulse to light up hits you, you can say no. That's where the veto power comes in. It overrides your conscious decision. It becomes active when you inhibit an impulse. It really explains why some people have more trouble than others in breaking bad habits.

Did I promise some good news? Oh yes. We can retrain the veto control by practicing the more desirable habit over and over. This is where support systems, plans and processes all come into play. Repeating that new, chosen behavior over and over retrains the brain. So get yourself a plan, a cracker-jack support partner and your odds of success will be greatly improved. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Heroes Proved

My sessions of vivid dreaming have returned with the cooler evenings;  I think the extremely hot summer nights cooked the dreams right out of me.  Last night I dreamed of a knock on the door and an unfamiliar person.  Since we have only a peephole and no window, I couldn't clearly see the person.  I could only tell it was a child, male and not one I quickly recognized.  Because I was busy with other things, I decided not to answer the door to the child whom I assumed was selling things.  Yet he kept knocking.  So insistent was he with his rapping at the door that I looked again and this time could make out a dad and younger sibling nearby.  I surrendered.

The boy at the door was dressed in dark green and wearing a kufi.  His father, apologetic, explained to me that the child was supporting the effort in Kandahar.  Using his own money, he had gone to Walgreens and purchased a number of watches.  He was reselling the watches for donations.  The tears immediately started rolling down my face as I dug through my purse and fished out a $20.  As he handed me the watch I could see that he had scotch taped it to a piece of paper with a lot of childish writing on it.  The dad asked, "Are you all right ma'am?"

Through my tears I replied, "Yes.  It's just the war.  So much tragedy."

Then I woke up, as bolt upright as if a bell had rung.  Perhaps it had.

Lately I cannot stop thinking about the men and women of our armed forces.  Maybe it is because for the first time, I have sons.  I grew up in the era of the Vietnam War draft.

I am grateful for those who, at great personal cost, serve our country. Regardless of the controversial nature of wars, those who fought and those who now fight are heroes.  I find myself singing over and over the hundred year old hymn by Katherine Lee Bates, "America the Beautiful." All the verses are compelling but the third verse keeps bringing me to tears:

O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov'd,
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Straight Talk about Marriage

Someone recently commented on my blog bio that states, "I have a successful marriage of 16 years."  Why not, they wondered, write something like "I've been happily married for 16 years."  Let me state for the record that it was intentional.

Anyone who has been married long enough to get sick, lose a job, have a child, or buy a house knows this:  Marriage is not a constant state of bliss.  Instead, it is a way of life, a choice, an opportunity to be the best person I can be in both blissful moments and extremely challenging ones.  Moreover, it shows me - from time to time -- at my best, most noble self and frankly, occasionally at my worst.  I believe it was Judith Viorst who brilliantly said, "The advantage of marriage is that, when you fall out of love with him or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you maybe you fall in again.Aint that the truth?

Sometimes the challenges come from the little things. I let the laundry pile up -- or worse left it strewn across the floor -- or he didn't pay the bills.  These everyday challenges are opportunities to step it up, to be the bigger person, or -- conversely -- to learn to speak our minds.  We all have our things we can overlook:  I can overlook unpaid bills but phone calls not returned activate my mind.  He can overlook any kind of mess in the house, but he needs my full attention for at least a few minutes every day. That's how he knows I care.

I think the real test is when the challenges are bigger.  I was really ill the first year of our marriage; it tested our relationship.  When my dear sister in law became suddenly ill and then passed away two weeks later, it challenged us in ways I had not thought possible.  We did not weather that storm so well;  I have always heard that death either unites or separates;  in fact I believe that loss untied us in some ways. 

As we unraveled as a couple, we bound ourselves to other things; we both threw ourselves into our work, we sought solace in other places.  In the end, it led to acts of infidelity.  This, I understand, is not entirely uncommon.  In the end, though, the thread that unravels can also be the tie that binds.  We remembered, miraculously, our love for each other; we reminded ourselves of the commitment we'd made to our family and friends when we married.  Perhaps most importantly, we each made a choice to keep our word, which at the end of the day, is the most valuable thing we have.

Marriage is not all work, but it's not all play either.  I am saying this as much to remind myself as for you, dear reader.  It is a commitment and an act of faith; it takes "faithing into." In my next post I will talk more about what that "faithing into" looks like for us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Sickly Case of the Shoulds

Have you ever noticed that sneaky little thought, "That's not how it -- or she or we -- "should be."  This person "should" be nicer.  Government officials "shouldn't be" corrupt.  Life "shouldn't be" hard or unfair or short.  This is such an insidious and destructive way of thinking because it is so alluring.

I was raised with a clear moral code.  Some things are wrong and we all need to do what's right.  I live by that code today.  Having that clear sense of right and wrong as a kid kept me away from drugs and other trouble;  it promoted in me a work ethic that has mostly served me . . .  and sometimes made it challenging for me to stop and enjoy where all that hard work has gotten me.

That same code also leads to a sometimes severe case of the "shoulds and should nots."  Obviously people shouldn't commit murder.  Of course tax fraud is wrong.  It's also clearly wrong for someone to cut me off in traffic, lie to me or pick on my kids.  Right? 

The problem is, it doesn't stop there.  People should serve the community.  They should love their kids.  They should go to church.  Ah, this is where it starts to get fuzzy.

Girls should dress a certain way.  Young people should be respectful.  You should know how I want to be treated and treat me that way.

It's an insidious and cunning soul stealer.  Somehow that "should" starts out disguised as a noble and clear-cut notion and morphs into me being -- well -- God.  Then it starts to eat away and rot out my joy.  Suddenly, I'm so caught up in judgment, I can't see the person anymore.  People become "they."  And everything suddenly becomes about "them versus us."  It's destructive.

What if I really don't have to judge?  What if I consider the possibilities?  What if I take that clear moral code and use it to be a truly transformational force in the world? 

I know it sounds a little "pie in the sky" but here is what I'm talking about.  I can -- as the roadsigns in Texas plead -- "drive friendly."  I can leave home in plenty of time to allow people to get in front of me if they want to.  Instead of judging the person next to me in the waiting room or the grocery store line, I can be the friendly face they've been needing all day.  If I am really serious about making a difference, I can work to make changes in my community or in other systems I see as unfair.  I can shift that energy into a engine of conversion.

Perhaps most importantly, I can notice when the "should" creeps into my head and take a minute to ponder what it is doing there.  What about the situation threatens or scares me and how much of what I'm thinking is actually true?

We're all prone to a sickly case of the "shoulds" now and then.  The good news is, we can stop that joy rotting disease with a few deep breaths and stave off the brain transplant!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Water Wheel

This weekend I "stirred" the contents of the house again.  Dear hubby hauled a crib to the attic and a bed down; I hauled a crib and other stuff to the fire victims.  I built the bed and rearranged the little kids' room.  Now I am sorting through a Mount Vesuvius of toys. I'm actually afraid if I don't tame this growing beast, it's gonna blow.  A week ago I did this whole routine with clothes;  it seems like all the little kids suddenly shot up and outgrew everything.

I don't mind this routine of shuffling, sorting and purging.  It's quite satisfying, really.  What hangs me up, however, is that every time, I think, "This time, I finally have it all in order."  Then a week later, I'm doing the same thing with some other set of someone's somethings.  I thought last weekend, "It never ends."

Bingo.  The reality of life in a household of seven is that a constant cycle of stuff coming and going is essential.  I'm now seeing it as a wheel, like a water wheel.  With every revolution, some water comes off and goes back into the pool and some new water is scooped up.  Maybe if I'm not always hoping I'm finished, I'll be able to fully commit to the process of evolution.

It's just like my spiritual work, isn't it?  Sometimes I get so wrapped up in getting the job done, I actually start to  think I'm "finished."  But seriously, can I ever be "finished" noticing what trips me up?  Can I be "done" refining my goals, deepening my faith or feeding my relationships?  Of course not, it's a ridiculous thought even if it does float around -- unnoticed -- from time to time in my subconscious.

I am bringing that image of the water wheel into my spiritual life.  My spiritual "work" is constantly changing and yet it bears some striking similarities to work I have done in the past.  With every revolution of the big wheel I am scooping up a fresh outlook, a new opportunity while letting go of that which is not essential.  It is truly a constant and ongoing process of purging and refining and-- in recognizing its ongoing-ness -- I am able to release the demand that every step be the perfect one. 

All spiritual work is "good" work.  It is all contributing to the process of me becoming more and more the woman I was created to be. Sometimes I can afford to take my eyes off the prize and focus them on enjoying the journey. 

Monday, July 25, 2011


For the past months, I've been looking forward to our upcoming family vacation.  We are having a reunion of sorts; we are meeting my niece and her family, my nephew and his wife, my sister (mom to those two)\my parents, and my brother's son and daughter  in Colorado.  It's "in the middle" -- about a thousand miles for each of us -- but still a journey of some considerable distance.

We have a family tradition of slow travel.  Dear hubby and I were both raised on the "road trip."  I flew on a plane perhaps twice in my childhood; our trips were taken by car.  I believe in the togetherness a car trip promotes.

In fact, our vacations tend to be slow ones.  I think it's good for kids to be bored on occasion and to learn to make their own fun.  On one long trip where we headed due west and only turned north when we hit central California, I admit I was dreading the long miles of desert.  The girls, then 7 and 5, taught me something on that trip;  they had many conversations about how the desert was changing as we traveled west.  By the time we spent a night camping in tiny Brenda, Arizona surrounded by the towering saguaro cactii, I was in love with the desert.

Like so many of our family trips, this one will also be a camping trip.  Many years ago we bought a pop-up trailer to ease the workload a bit, but it is definitely still camping!  From our first day out, our lunch stops will be at state parks with a picnic.  Our suppers will be around the picnic table in our campsite.  Both the big girls, camping veterans by now, are already anticipating grilled fajitas, s'mores, apple cobbler, and sloppy joes. 

I am looking forward to something else.  I'm looking forward to seeing our kids running around in the trees.  I can't wait to see what kind of games they invent given a media free gift of time outdoors.  I am curious about how "the littles" will enjoy this new freedom and anxious to see everyone playing with my great niece and nephew.  I will relish the opportunity to sit around and talk over the world's troubles with my family.  I look forward to waking with the sun and being happy to fall in bed once the stars are out.  I can't wait to look at those stars and to see the "littles" be amazed by how many stars you can see once you are in the real wilderness. 

Pepper on a cool morning in Big Bend, 2005.
When my kids are grown up, I want them to know the crackle of a campfire, the taste of a cold morning in a pine forest, the smell of coffee and canvas, and the warm cocoon of a flannel lined sleeping bag.   I want them to remember romping in the forest, the smell of dinner cooked on the grill, and the beauty of a protected wild place.  These are the sights, sounds, and smells of my childhood and the blueprint for our slow-cation.

My kids live in the modern world, as I did growing up.  They hang out on Facebook, play sports, watch TV and talk endlessly on the phone.  I do not think these things, in moderation, are inherently dangerous or evil.  Yet I do think that at times we all need to unplug.  We need to lose the laptop, the alarm clock, and the world of virtual friends.  We need to play like kids in open spaces and wash our face in a cool stream.  We need to learn about bugs and bears.  For me, the slow-cation is my opportunity to reclaim a part of American life and in so doing, reclaim myself.  Can't wait!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rewards, Bribes and Incentives, Oh, MY!

For some time now, I have been reading the book Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Inentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn.  In short, the author throws the book at behaviorism and suggests that the above named methods actually ruin kids in school and shatter productivity and creativity at work. 

It has taken me forever to read this book because it reads like the research compilation it -- in fact -- is.  Kohn is a fine writer; there is just a lot of information in this book.  Nonetheless I cannot seem to give up on it because even the title begs the question, "So what is the alternative?"

I agree in principal with Kohn's statements.  As a parent, a homeschooling educator, a former employee, a former boss, and a long time student, the assertions in the book ring true.   Most educational institutions can defend grades, yet I've known educators who put little stock in them.  The best learning of my life came in a university program that allowed me to choose subjects of interest to me and to passionately pursue them.  I was awarded grades at the end of these contracts, but I did not care about them; the experience of learning provided the true value.

On the other hand, as the mother of three young children who do not seem prone to reason, it seems impossible to leave out the bribes, rewards, praise and-- let's face it-- punishment.  I notice a lack of creativity  in me at times when it comes to the little kids and how to survive without these things.  While I understand Kohn's research and conclusions, it all seems a little "pie in the sky."  I think most teachers would agree. 

We survived our first two kids with very few timeouts, bribes and rewards, but that was due -- I now realize -- as much to their personalities as to my amazing facility as a parent.  This group of youngsters is cut from a different cloth.  I am not saying I've given up on finding another way.  To the contrary, I am simply admitting that I sure haven't found it yet.

I am still struggling through the end of this book but since it's focus is not young children, I think I am going to have to find the answers within myself.  In fact, I have an inkling about them already.  When the "bigs" were little, we had an unhurried life.  We spent long hours at home, we played a lot, we cleaned little and life was simple.  We cooked, we learned, we dabbled, we sang, we had leisurely hours with friends.

Life with 5 children including two teens, two toddlers with attachment issues and a suddenly clingy 2-year-old  is no longer simple.  We spend long hours away from home and cleaning . . . well, it's a major focus.  Some of this, though, is in my control. We can plan more time before events so we can hurry less.  We can build in extra fun and extra relaxation when we are at home.  I can be more cognizant of keeping the stress on my side. I can take the time to explain to my youngsters the issue at hand.   I can practice saying "no" a little more often.  I can take time every day for prayer and meditation, time to be quiet and remember my purpose and let that flow into our days.  I can't quite reach that pie in the sky but I sure have time for pie on the table.  I'll go for that this week!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Ponderings of a Patriot

Happy Independence Day!  It's a day for picnics, parades and patriotism. I am grateful to be an American and proud to be a patriot

I am grateful for the freedom I enjoy as a result of the spilled blood of countless heroes, most of whom will never be celebrated with medals or parades.  I am aware every day that my freedoms were not free, and I mean to make the most of them.  I am inspired by the fact that even though as a nation we have made some mistakes, we continue to strive for the freedom and equality of all our citizens.  We have a lot to be proud of . . . and a lot of work to do.  This work is not the job of politicians, it is the responsibility of every citizen.

The world is changing.  New powers are emerging.  How will we continue our proud traditions of freedom and democracy?  What is my role in this changing landscape? 

Today my role is to teach my children of our nation's history to ensure it is not repeated.  It is my job to fly my flag and remind my neighbors that it is indeed a land worth fighting for.  It is my responsibility to protect the rights and freedoms of all whose paths cross mine.  It is up to me to exercise my considerable rights so they are not lost; I will vote, I will serve on juries, I will celebrate my religious freedom.  I will honor and learn about the tapestry of cultures that makes up our country and respect our differences.  Perhaps most importantly, I will not take for granted that as a woman, I enjoy equal rights that many other women in the world only dream of: the right to be educated, to vote, to worship (or not) as I choose, to dress as I please, even to drive a car. 

On my favorite television show, Sunday Morning, British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered an essay on, of all things, American Independence Day.  A couple of phrases stood out to me:
". . .the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.
. . .It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing.
That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. " 

[Click on the words "Tony Blair" to see the essay for yourself.] 

I agree, Mr. Blair.  That "American ideal" has created my reality.  I will do my part to carry it forward.

Photo credit:  Graphics Fairy

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I call him Dad

Les and Myrick Huntley
My earliest memory is one of waking up in the back of the car.  It was a round, dry space, smelling of heater and motor oil.  The seats were dark and dry and crackly and I remember waking curled up with my sister, as a square yellow shaft of light from the car port entered the window just above my head and penetrated the furry blackness.  I recall lying very still and pretending to be asleep so I would not have to walk through the cold outside.  I remember the firm safety of my dad’s shoulder and the way the smell of his pipe was always curled around his neck invitingly like a scarf.  I can still feel the cool slumbering house as we passed through and I am conscious that my mother was nearby but I have no memory of my brother; perhaps he was a babe in arms, likewise sleepy and mute.  I am guessing I was around 3 years old at this time, if that.

I was born the second child -- second daughter -- of Dawn Neil Huntley and Donna Mae (Leeper) Huntley, but I grew up the child of Les (L. E.) Huntley and Donna, Dawn and my mother having divorced while I was an infant.  So I guess most folks would say Les is my step-dad, but to me, he's "Dad."

When my (bio) parents divorced, Dad wisely realized my mother would one day remarry and our ties to the Huntley's would gradually fade away.  He wanted to keep us in the family and so he married my mother.  I think as well, he felt responsible for us as Dawn was one of his younger brothers.  Taking on the lifelong responsibility to care for us seemed to him the right thing to do.  You see, this is how Dad was raised;  from a young age, one of his baby brothers (my Uncle Myke) was placed in his care and he took that responsibility seriously. 

So he married my mom and got  my sister (who was then and is now nearly perfect) and I in the bargain.  What a deal!  I was not an easy baby or an easy toddler; nor was I an easy child, an easy adolescent nor an easy young adult.  Nonetheless he took us on to raise and he did a great job.  My parents may have had their disagreements, but rarely did they have them in front of us and where it came to child rearing, they presented a united front.  My brothers came along in their time; the first when I was 2 and the second when I was 11.  Though the boys are his own offspring and my sister and I were "steps," this difference was invisible to us.  We were one family and were all raised the same.

You do not read stories like this today;  men do not often (if every) marry for honor or responsibility. My parents have been married 51 years now and are still going strong;  you do not often read stories like that, either!  The four of us kids have pretty much put them through the mill, but they are still here for us.    Thanks, Dad, I love you.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

All is not Lost

Most of my friends these days are parents of teens.  Suffice it to say, I hear a lot of complaining, fretting and worrying. One of the things I hear -- which cracks me up -- is essentially "Kids these days . . . "  Many worry that we are losing our literacy, that today's youngsters do not know how to write, that they speak slang and little else.  Inwardly, I chuckle when I hear this because I clearly remember the parents in my youth saying the same thing.

For months I have had a snippet of a Facebook conversation pasted on my desktop.  The thread was about philosophy and the author of this piece is one Julieus Young.  I do not know this young man personally.  I only present his thoughtful and poetic bit of spontaneous writing as evidence that all is not lost. (I added the paragraph breaks for readability)

"In that it is only the people who call themselves philosophers who don't have use for philosophy. It is often completely lost on them. 

That's why I've always disliked the word "philosophy." Maybe it's just me being too Romantic, but I'd say that the greatest wealth of philosophy is that which never escapes the fleeting thoughts of everyday life. That which is solidified in books and self-help pamphlets is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, because philosophy is nothing without humanity. That's why it's confusing: because we're confusing. 

War is nothing without passion. Nations are nothing without friendship. Revolution is nothing without love. And it seems that whenever people forget that, then the dictators take over. But the people will still wonder and wander, and nothing can stop that. I'm not talking about some arcane alchemy of human advancement... but the very opposite. All these oft-conflated things like peace, justice, liberty, and fraternity are really just dirt, water, and blood. And that's why they run so strong, for they are the greatest riches we'll ever have, no matter where we end up. 

To deny that a human deed is done in the name of humanity (or ultimately the divine if you believe in it) is to make oblivion of it. If we forget the dirt beneath our feet, where will we stand? Oh great, now I'm being philosophical."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More on the Nature of Fire

According to The Nature Conservancy, 
More than half of the terrestrial world, including almost all of North America, depends on the existence of fire to maintain healthy plants and animals and natural resources upon which people depend, such as clean water." 

Further, the National Park System says,   
Fires are a natural part of the Northern Rockies ecosystem [italics mine]. Fire promotes habitat diversity by removing the forest overstory, allowing different plant communities to become established, and preventing trees from becoming established in grassland. Fire makes minerals more available to plants by releasing these nutrients from wood and forest litter and by hastening the weathering of soil minerals.

This is simply amazing!  In general, we fear fire and do everything in our power to prevent it, which is reasonable.  Of course we are speaking here of actual fire, not the metaphorical kind I spoke of in "The Nature of Fire."  Yet there are certainly parallels, aren't there?

5 years ago yesterday, my best friend and sister-in-law, Sharon Parish, died.  She had a "cardiac accident" two weeks prior that had left her brain-dead and unresponsive.  This was the biggest "fire" of my life.  In the days I sat at her bedside, the cleansing fire raged through and removed all the trash and underbrush.  In the weeks and months following her death, that fire cleared off the over-story and mis-planted seedlings.  In the years since, the forest minerals have created a healthy ecosystem for what is new that is emerging in me. 

At times after her death, I fought "the fire" with all my might.  At times, I fed it.  In the end, the nature of fire prevailed and all that was not essential fell away and what remained was the true essence of who I am; I have re-prioritized my life to place my loved ones first.  I have recognized the value of pursuing my calling, something Sharon did very well. 

I have been reminded -- in the most graphic way -- that I am actually not in charge on this earth and I do not know how many more minutes or hours or days I have to make a difference in another's life or to tell my friends and family how much they matter to me.   I have a big and messy home but I always have time to read a story to my little ones. I have time for softball games and track meets.  I have time to foster parent.  I make time to exercise and sleep so I can have what I need to do it all again tomorrow.  I have time to call my parents and send thank you notes to my grade school teachers.   And if it turns out I have 50 years, I will be able to look back with satisfaction and know they were years well-lived.  This is the nature of fire.

"There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as though it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"I'm Feeling Really Good, Really Am"

A couple of days ago when a deadly EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, I watched the devastating stories and my heart went out to those folks.  I suddenly remembered an NPR story from late April when tornadoes took hundreds of lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The day after the Tuscaloosa twister, I happened to hear this report by Michelle Norris with a firefighter, Reginald Eppes. 

The message speaks for itself.  Have a listen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Nature of Fire

The nature of fire is such that everything foreign to it destroys it and everything akin to it gives it further strength. The light of the spirit reacts in the same manner.
The Art of Prayer

It is an extraordinary thing to ask oneself:  Is this something - an activity, an action, an input - giving light to my spirit, or is it something that dampens it?  Is this friend, this music, this book, this relationship, this job, this act, this though process giving or taking life?  And if it is life taking, what the heck am I doing here?  This is a question I do not ask myself frequently enough.  Too often, I mindlessly engage in activities that quench my spirit, dampen my faith and suck the life out of me.

I am not talking about debauchery here.  No.  I am speaking about the simple life-sucking, insidiousness that wends its way surreptitiously into my world.  For example, in the evening when "the Littles" are finally abed, I put my feet up and watch T.V. without really wondering how the program is benefitting me.  Is it "feeding" me?  Likewise when I choose to eat something that I know does not support my long-term health.  Oh and let's not foget the odd acquaintence who is given to salaciousness; why do I return his calls?  

I am not suggesting that life is all about work and that watching TV or chatting with friends does not have a place in my life.  I think moments of relaxation and levity are absolutely essential.  I am simply observing that so often these are not mindful choices and --let's face it -- there are only 24 hours in each day.  Mindfulness is the key to making sure there is room and time in my life for true friends, for optimum health, for important work and for authentic joy. 

That which is "foreign" to the spirit destroys is and that which is "akin" to it "gives it light."  Something to ponder.

(Here is a link to a subsequent post on the nature of fire.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Building Character

Sun sprinkled spring beauties
Several weeks ago when we were beginning work on our side-yard landscaping project, Pepper came out to lend a hand.  At nearly 15, she is strong and fit.  She helped me move the sod that Paul was cutting and transfer it to another spot.  It was hard, sweaty work so we kept our chatting to a minimum.

Finally she said, "I love hard work."
"Me too!," I replied.
"Why do you think we like it so much?"
I pondered that a moment.  "It builds character."

She laughed.  "Isn't that just something adults say to make kids work?"

Actually, no.  I believe it.  I think we were designed to work hard.  Hard work shows us that we are capable.  It reinforces the fact that we are "wonderfully made."  It reminds us we are strong and resilient.  It makes us sleep soundly at the end of the day.

Working hard reminds us that we are actually a privileged "few."  For most people on our small planet, everyday life is hard work.  It is humbling to know that people who may have far less to eat and a less luxurious bed are somehow able to work longer and harder with a lot less complaint.

I think working hard alongside others is bonding in a primal and deeply satisfying way.  We are communal creatures and we are meant to struggle together, not alone.  Somehow, looking back at a job well done is so much more fulfilling when we can say, "We did it," rather than, "I did it."  

Culturally, we tend to blame the obesity epidemic on fast and processed foods.  I believe our "fast" lifestyle with the lack of hard work is a huge contributor to this epidemic.  My great grandparents traveled on horseback, used a wringer washer, washed all their dishes by hand, cut and hauled wood to cook on the wood stove, cut the yard with a reel mower, grew much of their own food, cared for their animals, and even walked outside every time they needed the outhouse.  My life of microwaves, dishwashers, indoor plumbing, automobiles and grocery stores is so lacking in work.

That day, working alongside both the girls and Paul, I felt bonded to my community.  I loved having the little ones playing nearby and the feel of the sun on my neck.  I loved having time to contemplate my life but no room for the internet, the telephone or the TV.  I enjoyed  seeing that I am stronger than I was a few years ago, not weaker.  I relished having to soak the dirt off my feet a few hours later.  I loved the smell of the damp earth and the weight of the dirt on my shovel.   I enjoyed feeling the work my muscles were doing.

But the best part of the day was standing together at the end and saying, "Ah, we did this."  So yes, dear child, I truly believe that hard work builds character.  And it builds mine as well as yours!

Photo credit: Teresa Harper

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


A week or so ago I wrote about a "Crappy Anniversary."  Even in writing it, I knew there was a "gotcha" in there somewhere.  I stand behind the sentiment; I do believe that there is as much to be learned -- or perhaps far more to be gained -- from the challenging, downright difficult times as from the joyous ones.  Nonetheless  the fact that a year later I still veiewed the event as "crappy" was the clue that some clarity is lacking.

The night after I wrote the post, I dreamed about it.  I dreamed that I called my former pastor and bastion of clear sanity, Father Sam, and was talking to him about the post.  In true Father Sam form, he said he smelled a rat.  He asked me when I was going to get off my sanctimonious potookus and take full and complete responsibility for my own joy.  Though dreaming, I could feel the heat of embarrassment surge into my face and belly.  Ironically, I became even more self righteous and tried to counter with an argument that this was something that had been done to me.  Surely he could muster some sympathy me.  I said, "If I was standing in the middle of the street and got run over, would it still be all my responsibility (meaning all my "fault")?"

My imaginary counselor looked at me with a mischevious look , almost a wink, and said, "Well, you were the one standing in the middle of the road." 

Crud.  I woke up.  I mean I sat bolt upright and saw the light dawn.  The whole "ouch" behind "Crappy Anniversary" is that I still believed I had been "wronged."  That is the crux of it right there.  As long as I am walking around believing I have been wronged, I am still holding onto a piece of resentment and that resentment is keeping me from fully healing.  In other words, it's hurting me, not the people who supposedly wronged me. 

The tricky part is this.  We truly believe we are "wronged" by others.  Yet when I look truly objectively at various times I have been "wronged,"  I can see that is not what happened.  Most often when I'm hurt by another's actions, they weren't intended for hurt.  Most often they were simply trying to meet a need in their own life and they did not think ahead to the impact this would have on me or on others.  I am at affect of their actions, but I was not targeted by them.  Does that mean the other person is not accountable for his actions?  Of course not.  But I'm not God.  I don't get to judge; it's not in my purview. 

We live in a culture that supports the idea that we are frequently wronged.  If you doubt me, consider how many times a day we see ads for class action lawsuits.  I live in a state that still executes people for their crimes.  Quite often after the executions, members of the families of the prisoner's victims are interviewed.  At least half the time, they say the execution did not right the wrong.   That's because the "righting" is up to us.  The righting of the wrong is a matter of us shifting our perspective and being willing to truly and fully forgive -- and then to "repeat as needed."  I do not believe forgiveness is something we do once.  I think because of our sublime human ability to remember, it quite often takes repeating.  Yet that forgiveness is the key to my living a life of true joy.

I've been righted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crappy Anniversary

Several years ago, I sent a note to someone on the anniversary of a big loss.  She wrote back saying, in short, she did not commemorate "bad" things.  On the face of it, it seems like a good policy.  But is it?

There is a lot to be said for commemorating the bad times.  I had one myself recently.  I have the mind of an elephant. I can remember word-for-word conversations that took place years ago.  I have a great mind for numbers, in general, and dates, in particular.  I am not going to forget the date of anything wonderful that happened.  Likewise, I am not going to forget very bad days, either. Sometimes I wish I could forget, but it is not my nature.  Forgive?  Yes, absolutely.  Forget?  Forget it!

My theory is that if you can't forget it, celebrate it.  So "Crappy Anniversary."  I am not talking about dredging up the past, jumping into muck and then wallowing in it; quite the opposite, actually.  I am suggesting that there is as much to be gained from the "crappy" anniversary as there is from the happy one.

I am able to look at the time has passed since then and see how I have grown from that experience.  I can see that I have become better at speaking my mind, standing up for myself and also admitting when I'm wrong.  I notice that I have never felt more bonded to my "big girls," Dear Hubby and my family of origin.  I see that my struggles encouraged me to reach out and forge stronger bonds with some friends who had been more on the periphery of my life.  It helped me reorder my priorities and make real choices about what matters most to me and how much I am willing to surrender in order to have those things.

We all know from personal experience that gold is forged in the fire.  There is no other way.  If we can look back and see not the flames but the refining, then we can truly learn from our suffering and enjoy what was created.  Therefore, I do not wish you pleasant forgetfulness.  Instead, Crappy Anniversary to you!

Monday, April 18, 2011


I was recently invited to a paid blogging position at   I am blogging about Sibling Adoption, Foster-Adopt, and Foster Care.   I am truly thrilled to be writing three times a week about something near and dear to my heart.  If you are interested in knowing more about foster care or adoption, this site is a great resource.  If you are interested in looking at some of my posts, just go to and search for "Dreena T".  One of my recent posts, "The Combo Basket"  is linked in the title and here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Balancing Act

The other day I watched my almost two-year old son try to balance on the edge of the curb.  He took several steps in a row, slipped off, got back on again, slipped off immediately, and then finally had several yards of successful balancing.  As impressive a toddler feat as this is, what struck me most was his demeanor.

When he lost his balance, he just got back on and started moving forward again.  He did not berate himself for getting out of balance.   With a toddler's blissful absence of  mind-talk --equanimity if you will -- he did not judge himself at all.  Conversely, he instinctively realized he could not make progress unless he regained his balance first.  He experimented a bit by standing taller and shifting his weight around until he regained equilibrium

Equilibrium.  It's such a great word -- it refers not only to the physical act of balancing, but also the mental act, equanimity.  Sure, adult lives are complex.  But the principals of balancing are still simple; in the absence of mind-talk, it's just not that complicated.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tending the Garden

My back lawn is a mess.  There, I said it.  I could blame it on the dogs, or the sprinklers which stop working at least annually or the five kids or the fact that until this year, I have worked a lot during the gardening seasons.  The truth is simpler.  I stopped tending the garden.

It happens.  Life goes on, our priorities change, we lose sight of things that once mattered.  That's the pretty way to say it.   I saw things declining and dying and I did not act. I didn't act. Instead, I rationalized.  I blamed. I denied.  I ignored.  And that, my friends, is the crux of the matter.

It started innocently enough.  I am no expert on landscaping and when a drought -- albeit due to a mechanical failure -- killed a sizable group of plants, I wasn't sure when to replace them for optimal results so I never did.   I didn't trim back a shrub because I might not do it right.  I didn't pull up a couple of volunteer trees when they were seedlings because they are really hard to pull out and I didn't ask for help either.  Pretty soon, I became blind to the periphery of the back yard space.  Then I just stopped hanging out out there.  I take the kids out, sure, but then I'm busy.  I focused on my work which coincidentally heated up in the spring and fall -- prime gardening season in Texas.

Today it's jungle or wasteland, depending on where you look.  There are a few spots of beauty mixed in, but it's too early in the season to see them yet.  By Easter, we will have some flowers on the fairy roses and the purple sage.  The dwarf lilac tree will bloom and maybe some lillies.  I can "see" it now.  So like me to look on the bright side.

The salient point to ponder then, is this:  Am I or am I not a leader in my own life?  Where else in my life do I  ignore, blame, deny and rationalize?  What else is not being tended?  And how long will I sit on my hands, letting nature take its course?   Food for thought.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Growing a New Mindset

I've been doing some reading lately on Cognitive Behavior Theory and how that interplays with new research being done through brain imaging.*  It's a little complicated for a lay person to untangle, but what it seems to come down to is this:  It's easier to change our behavior than to change our mind.  People, it appears, really do have a "mindset."  This mindset applies to almost every area of our lives.  We are probably all aware that we have a mindset about right and wrong, good and bad, but we also have a mindset about subtle things too, like which things are delicious and which colors are pretty.

Look at forgiveness, for example.  Do you remember when you were a child and a sibling or close friend hurt your feelings in some (to you) terrible way and your parents told you to forgive that person?  Can you remember how completely crazy and foreign that idea sounded?  To children, the "black and white" of "right and wrong" is as true and absolute as the notion that the sun will both rise and set each day.  It's only with age and experience that the black and white of right and wrong begins to gray and blur at the edges.  Forgiveness is a fascinating platform for investigating our mind-behavior interaction.

Also fascinating is how our cognition effects us when we want to change our behavior in some way.  For example, last year, I lost 45 pounds or so.  Then I plateaued for 10 months and am only now managing to lose again.  Research has repeatedly shown that most weight loss plateaus are caused by "lessened effort" as opposed to metabolic causes.  Therefore, I had to examine the root cause of my reduced efforts.  What I noticed was how easy it is for me to say, "I am too busy to . . ." or "Taking care of this (person or appointment) is more important than ( my food plan or my exercise)" or "Eating a special diet is too (blah, blah, blah). . ." and thus justify my choices. 

This was truly confounding to me.  I am a helpful person.  I'm generous with my time and talents.  I am quick to say "yes" when asked to aid another.  I'm industrious and hard working.  So why am I unwilling to aid myself? 

This is where cognitive behavior theory comes into play.  Ultimately, it is easier to think the way I've always thought than to change my mind.  Relapse is a huge issue for anyone trying to change their behavior.  That's because -- in theory -- it's easier to change your behavior than change your mind.  I've known people who stopped smoking for years, then relapsed in an evening at a bar and starting buying cigarettes again the next day.  Even with all we now know about smoking and our health, in the end, it's easy to justify. At some point, they made it okay for themselves and now "smoking is okay" is the default position.   It's our mindset.  This is why someone suffering from morbid obesity and diabetes can buy and eat that chocolate bar.  This is why the addict relapses.  Understanding the power of the mindset gives me a lot of empathy for people that I might be tempted to judge.

There is good news, however;  If we can change our behavior long enough, we can actually change our minds.  Recent research using brain imagery has documented these changes and it is good news, indeed.*  If you can successfully change your behavior long enough to form a new habit, your mind will start to accept the new norm.  You can actually change your mind and reset the position of that "switch."   The new mindset, however, is quite elastic;  for a long period of time it wants to re-form into the old mold, so vigilance and perseverance become important characteristics for success.

In my every day life it all boils down to this.  For years, I've subscribed to the notion that if I can repeat an action (or avoid repeating it) for 21 times, I can form a new habit.  It appears then, that by forming that new habit I truly can "act my way into right thinking."  The "but" is that it may take longer than I think it should and it may take some effort to keep the new way of thinking in the new shape.   I can live with that!

*Footnote: I don't have many references to share with you for either the brain imaging or the Cognitive Behavior Theory because I was not thinking about blogging as I was reading and absorbing it!  However, this is an ongoing topic of interest, so as I come across references for these things later on, I will come back and add in some links here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Being Sick and Noticing Stuff

There is something in my "mother DNA" that does not allow me (a) to "feel" sick and (b) to admit that I'm sick.  That's why, 10 days into my current virus, I am still having a hard time accepting it.  I have symptoms, of course.  Loads of them.  And last Friday after running around  with 5 kids all day, meeting their needs,   doing the laundry and cooking--all with a splitting headache, blisters in my throat and a fever-- I declared that on Saturday I was actually going to BE sick. 

You know - be sick.  Stay in bed.  Drink a lot.  Sleep a lot.  Watch TV.  Do puzzles.  REST.  This was my second sick day in 15 years.  IT was glorious.  And it was a lot harder than I expected.

Dear hubby did great.  There was very little yelling or tantrum-ing on either side.  He asked for advice when he needed it but mostly just figured things out. 

Nonetheless, my lying a-bed was riddled with guilt.  And don't you dare write and say how "I shouldn't " feel guilty.  Too late.  I already did.  Never mind that I was only taking my own advice; I always send Paul and the kids to bed when they're sick.  "Rest is the best medicine, " I tell them, "Your body has to rest to heal."

This was the perfect challenge for me.  I've known for months that I have a tendency to put myself 7th on the priority list - hence the many months plateau on my weight loss.  No surprise-- I learned something truly valuable.  I actually DID get better.  Markedly better.  Mind you, I wasn't turning cartwheels on Sunday or spring cleaning, but I did feel well enough to tidy the house, do a bit of laundry and cook dinner and I have been getting "more well" every day since.  Yet I am still struggling with my mind trying to tell me I'm not sick, even as my lymph nodes swell, I can't breathe, and I cough like a TB patient.

I am not proud of the fact that it is SO hard for me to prioritize caring for myself.  At what point in my life did I become less important than everyone in my environment?  (It's a rhetorical question - it happened the moment they placed "Pepper" in my arms).   I am not doing my older girls any service by neglecting myself.  I don't want them to be that kind of mommy.  I want them to be the kind of mom who calls me up and says, "Come over, please, mom and get these kids.  I need to read a book!"

I'm going to turn this around.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Straight Talk

A little over 16 years ago on Christmas Day, I met Paul's Grandma Clair Simmel for the first time.  The house was a bustle of activity with Clair, her 6 kids, 9 grandkids (our generation) and (then) 6 greatgrandchildren.  With all those people in the house, you can imagine no one paid much attention to me.  After dinner, Paul's sister, Sharon, talked me into joining into a domino game and I found myself seated next to Clair.

Now, Clair is pretty serious about her "spinners."  So there was not much conversation on my end of the table.  Yet at one point, she leaned over and looked at me seriously and said, "Got any Grandmas?"

"Only one," I said, "In the nursing home.  She's pretty ill.  And no Grandpas."

Paul and Clair, Christmas 2009
"Well," she said, "You got me too."

That was the end of the conversation but suddenly, I was part of the family.  I next saw Clair just a couple of weeks later at our wedding celebration.  My sister-in-law had asked everyone to write some advice for us on slips of paper.   I can still see the slip of paper with Clair's advice on it -- straightforward and with an economy of words, "Never go to bed mad."

Thus began my love, love relationship with Clair Simmel.  Because she lives a 4-1/2 hour drive away, we have never gotten there as much as we'd like.  Yet every year, we manage to get there several times.  Often Sharon and I went together with our daughters and stayed a week or several days.  We would do a little housekeeping or garden-related things for her, when she'd let us, but mostly we sat and played Yahtzee or Spinner and just passed the time with her.

Maggie Rose, Chanelle, Grandma, Gabriel, Bennie, Paul
It's amazingly pleasant to hang out with someone who feels no need to chit-chat.  She has, as I said, an admirable economy of words.  Yet she has a real knack for saying just what I need to hear, sometimes compassionate and sometimes not -- just the truth as she sees it.  One time the girls were stomping up and down her wooden hallway, delighting, I suppose, in the terrible noise they were making.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You know, Henry [her husband] laid every one of those parquet tiles by hand."   You can bet my children never stomped down that hallway again!

Once when just the girls and I were up there, she was doing a lot of work in the garden.  I offered to have the girls do some weeding while she and I picked beans.  She said, "I don't allow kids in the garden. They're a nuisance."  You know, those girls had a great time romping in the yard while Clair and I made short work of picking those beans.

When our daughters (both African American) were toddlers, someone thoughtlessly made a racist remark about someone in Clair's small town.  She looked at me but spoke to them.  "We're all the same on the inside."  She has her prejudices; but no one is going to say anything against her Great Grandchildren!

Grandma with her two surviving siblings, Bertha Holley and Vera Duesman
She is an amazingly resilient woman and yet has the tenderest heart.  She gave birth to 7 children  -- 6 of them at home -- and all but one still survive.  But her heart has never stopped longing for little Patsy who died as a little girl.  She has spoken of her to me nearly every time I've seen her.  When Sharon died  at a youthful age in 2006, my first thoughts were for Grandma;  she treasures every one of her descendants, she can't stop loving any one.

My own grandma, Agnes Leeper, died about 13 years ago and I got the news while visiting with Clair.  She patted me on the back and never said a word. Later, she beckoned me over and gave me a hug.

"Well, honey," she said, "I'm the only old Grandma you got now.  So you don't call me Clair any more.  I'm just plain old Grandma, now."

That is probably the longest sentence she ever said to me -- and as it turns out, the most important.  She has been my Grandma ever since.  She stopped signing her cards with "Clair Simmel and Grandma."  They all just say "Grandma"  now.

Last week, Clair Simmel turned 100.  We celebrated with her two surviving sisters -- Grandma was one of 8.  All 6 of her kids were there and most of her 8 surviving grandchildren.  Her granddaughter Kendra couldn't make it from California having just recently given birth to Grandma's 20th great-grandchild! I have never seen a family with stronger ties.

I am so grateful that she has lived such a long and fruitful life because her living has made all the difference in my living.  Grandma has shown me how having a passion -- in her case gardening -- can keep you young.  She has taught me that when something needs to be said, you just say it and that dressing it up just muddies the message.  She showed me that on a holiday or birthday, every single one of needs to be there, because every one of us counts.  Most importantly, she taught me that that you never have too little money, too small a house or too many people in it.  Amen.

Grandma and several of her "grands:"  Paul Tischler, Kenny Simmel, Clayton Whitley, Tommy Simmel and Marsha Harris

Friday, January 21, 2011


I once majored in Ancient Greek.  I do not remember much these days, but I often think about one particular word, δίψυχος.*  It appears often in ancient literature and it means, literally, "of two souls" or "of two selves."  I think of it as "of two minds."

I am so often "of two minds."  Likely this developed partly as the result of being a middle child -- I could look both ways and see a reflection of myself.  I often sat in between my two closest siblings and I developed excellent peripheral vision;  you need to look from both sides of your head when you sit in the middle and it certainly has stood me in good stead as mama to five!

For years, I could see the benefit of this.  I am a good mediator; I can see both sides of the argument.  I forgive easily because I can so empathize with the other person.  I am generally empathetic, which is why babies love me and school principals - not so much!  It makes me easy to hang out with; I am equally fond of martinis and coffee.  Whatever you are in the mood for will probably bring a smile to me, as well.  Prefer beer?  That's fine with me.  Iced tea?  I can go there! Sweet or un-sweet?  No matter -  I love them both.

So you see the trouble.   For δίψυχος also means wavering and fickle; in fact it points to a kind of faithlessness.  When, for example, I am in a leadership role, sometimes people just want to be led.  They lose faith when I present too many options;  and the internal pressure to commit sometimes catapults me into bossiness.  It's a kind of dissimulation.  And it can be frustrating as heck.

I am easily distracted, I am indecisive,others doubt me and  I often doubt myself.  On the other hand, I have a knack for soothing, for helping people see the other side, for loving challenging people because I can just see the hurt child beneath.

I wonder how much of my dissimulation comes about because I put myself in situations that are actually too much of a stretch for me?  I know it sounds like I am wimping out but truly, I wonder, isn't there some innate value in realizing how I am made and embracing it?

To reach my full "potential" shall I see this as personality flaw and work to overcome it?  Or is it in fact possible that there is room in our world for the middle child with eyes on both sides of her head?  Perhaps our society needs a little δίψυχος now and then.

But I can't say for sure, because of course, I am of two minds about it! (Wink.)

*Transliteration: dipsuchos

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Grandma Huntley

Today my Grandma, Ada Poland Huntley, would have been 105.   She was the wife to Guy Huntley and mother to 9 boys and 1 girl, 4 of them already passed on.  All of them are living or have lived interesting and productive lives.  She loved each and every one of her kids and was widely known as a good cook who could create something delicious from virtually nothing.

I lived over 1000 miles away from her for most of my life, so I did not get to know her well when I was young.  However, when I was 9 or 10 years old, she came to stay with us and left me with one memory so vivid I can still taste it.  She taught me how to bake bread.

I remember she got a little cross with me because I wanted to go play while it was rising.  She set me straight right away.  Instead at her behest, I sat with her at the kitchen table and she taught me how to play solitare.  There is something very wise in teaching a kid to entertain herself.

When that bread came out of the oven, it smelled heavenly.  And although I had been spoiled by my mom all my life with homemade bread, none ever tasted so good as those first loaves I baked by my own hand.  That was some 40 years ago and to this day, I never bake bread without thinking of her.  She did so much more than teach me the art of dough making, kneading and baking.  She invited me to cook, which has been my creative outlet of choice ever since.

Grandma was like so many of the mentors of my life:  She taught me something which was in this case a process, bread making.  But more importantly, she recognized that glimmer -- that spark of true passion -- and she blew on and tended and fanned that spark until it burst into flame.  That is what the best teachers, coaches and mentors do and if you are not blessed to have such a mentor or coach like that in your life right this minute, drop everything until you find one!

 I still, on occasion, bake bread.  Five children and calorie cutbacks have curtailed that a bit.  But every day -- every single day -- I love creating nourishing and delicious food for myself and my family.  It is my favorite part of every day.  Thank you, Grandma.

Note:  This is a duplicate post with my family blog, Bright Love - Living Large in a Big Family