Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 is gone . . . Really?

2010 is almost gone and 2011 hovers in the wings.  HAL is certainly dead by now, and we are talking on visual phones just like the Jetsons.  All the water I saved for Y2K is long gone, including the bottles that leaked and contaminated the upstairs bathroom with what is most assuredly black mould. 

I'm starting this new season with an upper respiratory creeping crud, and since my Christmas letter is not done yet, I envision an early Easter tome.  So this is life in the 21st century:  something like life in every other century, just with more gadgets. 

May this year find us productive, faith-filled, intentional about realtionship, and set on applying our energies to what matters.

Happy New Year!

 Here's me groovin' with my little granddaughter.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ugliest Little Tree

            The dusting of snow on the windowsills shifted back and forth with soft winter breathings.  There was no storm in the air as a pale gauzy sun descended behind the horizon, only a chill skimming fields laid out ivory with winter’s wrinkles.  Shortbread was baked and stored.  Christmas cake plump with dried fruits was wrapped tightly in foil and packed away in the unheated summer-kitchen, taking advantage of nature’s refrigeration.  Festive cards from friends and family framed the doorway to the parlor and hung on string drooped across walls.  The only thing left was to decorate a tree.  After supper, Daddy bundled up and set off with his ax into the bush to find the perfect pine.  
            Boxes of ornaments and tangled strings of big knobby lights stretched across the floor as wide-eyed youngsters waited impatiently.  At the sound of stomping boots outside, we flew to the inside kitchen door in anticipation of Daddy’s grand entrance to present his acquisition—the perfect Christmas tree.  The door opened with a winter whoosh filled with prickles and green.  There stood the ugliest little tree we had ever seen.  It limped forward directed by unseen hands.  Daddy planted it solidly in the middle of the linoleum for inspection unaware of the sinking feeling this undernourished specimen was having on our Christmas spirits. 
Our farm, almost completely surrounded by healthy forest, teemed with pine and spruce.  Even along the country roads, trees lined the fences free for Christmas cutting. This five-foot waif with its sparse branches and spare twisted needles looked more like the dry cast-offs that fill the dump a week after celebration, rather than the ones that usually adorn homes with fragrant crushed scent.
With not just a little whining and exaggerated sighing, the tree was placed in a bucket of sand and stood in a corner of the parlor cleared for the occasion.  Colored lights were strung first—wires showing, with ghastly flickers fingering all the vacant places.  Red bulbs, green bulbs, golden orbs, and odd little handmade do-dads found secure moorings, with anxious hands vying for the next ornament to come out of the box.  Holiday hymns played softly on the hi-fi as errant snow flurries peeked in at the windows.  Long strands of tinsel were meticulously laid bough by bough till, in a frenzy, impatience and enthusiasm started pitching the silver streamers every which way.  Tinsel landed on the floor and in the hair.  Some even lighted on the tree and some on me. Giggles had long replaced sighs.  Laughter had long displaced whining; and somewhere in the transformation of our attitudes, the tree received a miraculous transformation, as well.
 As the treetop star found its final perch, we stood back to ooh and ah at our handiwork.  It was surprisingly beautiful.  Our glittering tree, however, seemed more ornament than tree.  In the decorating, it had become something greater than itself.
I don’t imagine I thought deep philosophical thoughts at the time.  I was just relieved that we’d rescued the ugly little thing and let Daddy off the hook.  But as I think back now, I am reminded of the rich ornaments of grace that adorn my ugly little self.  Just as a small sparse pine tree became greater than itself with the help of our Christmas decorations, so my small sparse life in the hands of the Savior has come to reflect the adornments of a bright spiritual transformation.  God has made me more than I could ever possibly be by myself.  The beauty has come in the change.
Out of all the thickly boughed evergreens to choose from, I’m not sure why Daddy would pick the ugliest one in the forest.  Intentional?  I like to think that as he walked through the lonely snow-sculpted landscape, he chose the tree in most need of adornment.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Manger Without a Baby

          I equipped the big walk-in closet in the living room of our tiny duplex with a green second-hand crib and stocked the built-in drawers with soft little layette items.  Long, wispy, white curtains tied back with yellow ribbon made an inviting entrance to a close room.  Everyday, my tummy grew larger.  Every day, I fingered and rearranged clothes, blankets, and toys.  I felt happy and excited, despite the christening I gave many toilets and gutters.  Even with the little white pills, I threw up several times a day for nine months.
The baby squirmed and punched, kicked, and danced.  I massaged hands and feet that fluidly traveled across my abdomen, pressing tight under ribs, giving me indigestion.  The mountain of head and back rose, fell, and shifted.  I had always wanted to be a mother, and now I was.
 November’s sun began dipping to the south.  The air held a slight chill, even for California. I counted the days—expectation high.  With my friend’s stethoscope, I listened to the music—the strong, steady rhythm of life. But two weeks overdue, the rhythm stopped.
Kelly and I met in mid-August 1973.   We worked with an over-zealous ministry that concentrated so much on Christ’s soon return that we made many decisions abruptly and unwisely.  One of those was to marry quickly with little preparation or counsel.  I guess we feared the Lord might come back before we had a chance to have sex. The night Kelly introduced me to his parents for the first time, we calmly announced our engagement.  For all they knew, I could have been an ax murderer.  Actually, for all I knew, Kelly could have been an ax murderer.  After we left, his folks “discussed” our decision long into the night and woke with hangovers in the morning.  But they bravely came along side, and we did marry.  In this time of “Maranatha madness,” we were encouraged by our pastor not to have children, but to totally commit to the “work of the Lord.”   We married in October, and by February, I was violently throwing up—a sure sign I was to be a mother.  We figured my pregnancy just had be a miraculous work of God.  Of course, as our friend Jo put it, “Those who use faith as birth control are called parents!”  And so we were to be.
By the time I was six months pregnant, we moved from the ministry’s communal quarters to a small duplex down the street.  For the first time, Kelly and I lived alone.  It was a precious and necessary time to actually get to know one another after several months of marriage. 
Then the baby died.  November was a blur of death, tears, comfort, cremation, and far flung ashes.  Thanksgiving came and went.  It was hard to feel thankful when my arms ached to hold my little one.  As cheery Christmas songs began to filter through radio speakers and shopping mall sound systems, my ache grew to intense pain. One part of my heart leaned in to the Savior, understanding that He too felt pain and loss.  I wanted to trust that I was safe in His love and care.  Another part of my heart felt cold and brittle, betrayed by life and Lord.  A battle raged.  Tears seemed never-ending, dreams dashed.  Questions went unanswered.  Joyful Mary knelt by her beautiful baby Jesus in nativity scenes all over town, but my manger was empty. 
Years have added layers of depth and understanding to my loss, but even today there is a raw place—a place of longing for our baby girl Noelle.  With a new Christmas season right around the corner, I have been reflecting once again on the incarnation.  What does Christ’s birth really mean to me?  My thoughts, as they often do at this time of year, are interwoven with thoughts of the death of our first child. Noelle was named for Christmas—a reminder of the miraculous event when God came to earth as a baby.  It has crossed my mind, “What would our lives be like if Mary’s manger had been empty.  What if Jesus had never come?”  My sense of loss is great, but the devastating loss of Christ as God’s gift to the world would be unfathomable.  No high priest to intercede for me, no forgiveness, no fellowship, no whispers of comfort in the night, no eternal promise of heaven. 
After the funeral home cremated Noelle’s remains, Kelly and I drove to a secluded wooded area near his grandfather’s cabin to spread the ashes.  The tiny white box fit in the breast pocket of Kelly’s plaid shirt.  He held my hand tightly as he led the way uphill, brushing by scratchy shrubs and tree branches.  Weak in body and spirit, I struggled to fix my steps on the narrow rugged path.  Tears fell and feet fell.  When finally we reached the top, we prayed.  We held one another and the remains of a life so little known, then threw her ashes to the wind to become a part of the trees and bushes in that special place.
Christ carries my death next to his heart.  He came to set me free from the spiritual consequences of my sin.  I am free, but the way is often rugged; and through my tears, I don’t always see too clearly.  I have no idea what’s up ahead. But He is in the lead.  He holds my hand, and all I need do is stick to the path and match Him step for step. 
I met that tearful Christmas many years ago with empty arms, but because of the babe in Mary’s manger, because her manger was not empty, I continue to have hope.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Summing Up

Okay, I’m already going through withdrawals.  No text to read, no novels to annotate, no research paper to slave over.  No fun blog to create that no one in the world will ever see now that it will be off the class to-do list.  (By the way, if a person tells a joke in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, is it still funny?) 
Whatever shall I do with my time?  And to top it off, when I went on MyAVC  to register, there are none of the English classes that I want or need on-line for the spring semester.  There was so much blank space on the English page that came up, I was ready to try math!  (No, not that desperate yet.)  Besides that, with a very grim look at our finances and with pay cuts at work, we decided we couldn’t really afford to continue my schooling right now.  But I’m kind of wondering how much more therapy will cost after these hits to my heart and psyche. 
That said:  I have really enjoyed the class.  It’s been a lot of reading and writing, but I love to be challenged; so making the time has been worth it, and the occasional whines were only attempts at having my husband appreciate all my efforts. 
Maybe with no classes next term I will sit down and read all the books I bought as a result of this class.  I got a book of Nabokov short stories (not ready for Lolita yet), The Great Gatsby, which I used for my paper, Nafisi’s memoir called Things I’ve Been Silent About, Daisy Miller and Washington Square by James, and a book of short stories that includes, among many others, stories by James and Fitzgerald.  And, yes, I made these Amazon and B&N expenditures before the hard money talk!  Now all I need is a like-minded reading group, a veil, bombs raining in the streets, and coffee over ice cream, and I’ll be set.
It has been really fun dialoguing with classmates.  Though we would probably not recognize each other if we passed by in Barnes and Noble or at the Liquid Bean or Butlers, even without being face-to-face, we have in many respects been more transparent.  In a classroom, sometimes the age and cultural differences can create barriers.  In the on-line setting, rather than create inhibitions, I think it actually lowers them; and besides that, you don’t need to mess with the AVC parking lot.  (Is the construction done yet?)  I have enjoyed reading your blogs and responses to the discussion questions.  And it has been fun to see the progress made especially by the people in my group.
I wish you all success and happiness.  Keep up the good work!  And just a tip:  Take all your writings from class, spiral bind them, and some day when you are famous, they will be a rich legacy for your children.  Mustn’t let them go to waste!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

 Mindful of the Wind

It was a grown-up breeze,
Chasing clouds to kingdom come,
A torrent of shwooshing leaves and dirt,
Bending the unresolved,
Persuading trunks and posts
Of a resisted opinion—Be free of binding roots!
It was a grown-up gust,
Inverting umbrellas,
Giving a different view of the world,
Invisible, strong,
Like the punch of a fresh thought.

Lilly Green

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing Done? Rest in Peace!

What I learned from writing the RP: Now RP, is that Retinitis Pigmentosa? No, Ross Perot? How about rest in peace? Maybe Reformed Presbyterian? No, rite proper? Ah, yeah, research paper. After this class, I have become acronym challenged. C’est si terrible, n’est-ce pas?

Okay, once upon a time . . . and that’s not really as much of a stretch as it sounds because my writing approach is very emotional and very narrative. That works great for stories, personal essays, and the like, but it is a struggle at times to be so academically minded that I sacrifice the narrative for the organizational structure required for a research paper.

Once my thesis statement is reined in from the many ideas pinging in my brain and once I have the roadmap outlined, the challenge is to have every paragraph have its own proper topic sentence. Sometimes I just fly through and come back later to write it, but other times I like the sound of the words as they are and it seems like a betrayal to add a transition and a topic sentence. So dramatic! But with every paper I write, I become more intentional about doing the fundamental things that make for solid academic writing. And I need that push. If I didn’t have a pressing assignment, chances are I would not wake up one morning with a burning urge to write a synthesis essay. I would assume I just needed coffee!

One thing that has been interesting and underscores the creeping realization in me (Read: sneaking up on me in army boots.) is to trust myself. I must own my own work. There are many different opinions and many different conventions; and though I don’t want to relax in ignorance and bad habits, and I want to remain always teachable, I must do the work for me alone. If I do it just for the prof or the grade; if I Frankfurt my way through (alternative for BS!), I will not have gained as much from the learning experience and I will be less satisfied with myself. If I totally rely on peers or the Smarthinking people and make changes just for them, I will not have progressed as far as when I internalize the rules and take responsibility for every aspect of my writing and editing.

Speaking of Smarthinking: Though they offer some very good advice, they don’t always get it right. On my synthesis essay, I had already passed my thesis by Jennifer. The ST guy hated it and suggested I announce it like this: “In this paper, I will examine . . .” That’s exactly the kind of thing I have been avoiding. In my research paper, the lady did not like my use of semicolons. Semicolons link two related independent clauses, but there is an exception when there is already punctuation in one or both of the clauses. For clarity’s sake, this allows for a semicolon before the coordinating conjunction. So do I change because they say so? No, my point is we must own our work and do what is necessary to write and re-write and be the best we can be (sounds like the Marine Corps) for ourselves. So may we all continue to grow in confidence and skill!

(By the way, speaking of Marine Corps: Has anyone else noticed the misspelling of Corps on the green road sign on the 14 just south of Lancaster. Bless those Cal Trans guys! :-D)

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Wizard of Us

Peek behind the curtain.
Am I the wizard you expected?
Control never looked so tentative,
a bit of mystery,
but not bigger than life—
small, but able,
plain, but willing.

Draw back the curtain.
Are you the one with the ruby-red slippers,
who can click home whenever,
while I twist dials, draw strings,
do things that need doing—
disappointed, but determined,
misjudged, but committed.

Move past the curtain.
Am I the cog you expected?
The system is bigger than me,
but I’m here,
doing what I must—
insecure, but passionate,
diminutive, but necessary.

Pull aside the curtain.
Am I the wizard you expected?
In this odd land of
wonder and obligation,
promise and jeopardy,
ordinary miracles can come, perhaps,
from everyday people.

~~Lilly Green

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sleeping Lolita in Tehran

After reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, I wanted to get hold of some of the books that I had never read . . . or previously slept through.  I thought about doing a report on education in Iran, but since I had a used copy of The Great Gatsby coming from Amazon (I think it was like a sign!), and since I wanted an excuse to sit down and read it, I chose that prompt for my paper. 
I am more global in my thinking, so I took detailed notes on every page, which is not the best way to “enjoy” a book, but it certainly has utility value.  Even so, the language was a pleasure, even with all my interruptions to fill my notebook with illegible scrawl and red arrows and stars. 
The difficulty has been pinning myself down to a thesis.  The prompt allowed for various avenues of exploration; and when I would settle on something and go back and read the prompt, it’s like the idea would explode and I’d go off in another direction!  Since this was not supposed to be a twenty-five page tree killer, I knew I had to decide and just go for it; but with all the reading I’d been doing, I still could not come up with a thesis.  A few days ago, as I was in that state of dreaming but almost awake, I started hearing a thesis statement in my head.  I finally couldn’t stand it, and I forced myself to get out of bed in the Arctic air of our no-heat house (insert “frugal husband” here), and I wrote down the sentence and the notes that were coming to me.  Hey, maybe I’m a prophet!  Maybe it was a vision!  Maybe I was channeling Jennifer or Nafisi.  No, probably a lot of reading sifting down into the paper-writing section of my taxed brain. 
I wrote the introduction and sketched out some other ideas; then, I got rather stuck again.  It wasn’t what you call writer’s block.  It was more like writer’s web—too many sticky strands.  (In the meantime, I was going through RLiT again, taking more notes.)  I really love the Reading Lolita in Tehran book, and I really love the Gatsby book, and there are so many ideas to explore.  I really wanted to explore the use of color in both, but I would have had to shoe-horn that one into the prompt.  So yesterday morning once again, I was in that dream state, the room still dark, the dog snoring.  I started getting text in my head again for some of the main points.  (And it was not in textspeak, but proper English!)  The paper is writing itself . . . kind of.  This time I jumped out of bed before the words vanished like mist and started writing.  I tell you, if I start getting lotto numbers, you guys are going to be so jealous!  
So as of now, the paper is probably two-thirds done, but I’m still trying to rein in all the thoughts pinging in my head and connect all the dots with proper transitions.  Rabbit trails r us.  I still have a few days to work on it, but if I get stuck again, I tell you what:  I’m going to go take a nap!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

President Obama’s Recipe for Organic Chocolate Chip Cookies

Now that I have your attention:  I think for the most part my on-line communication style is consistent with my face-to-face speech, my letter-writing, and my phone conversations (except while talking on the phone, I may be paying Scrabble at the same time, which might make me lose my train of thought).  At this point in my life, I have developed a fairly consistent view of myself and my expression; and thus, I do not feel the need to juggle vernacular in my head to accommodate various venues.  I’m me, and I talk like me, and I write like me. 
Of course, there are differing levels of formality.  On Facebook, I might use !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! to underscore emotion, or a J or a :-D or a :-P.  But I would not use those things in formal writing, unless of course I was writing a dissertation on the effective use on Facebook of multiple punctuation marks and emoticons to communicate and underscore emotion.  J  Oops, sorry!
When taking an on-line class, like this one, I will sometimes use visuals in discussions, but not at first.  It depends on how the professor has tailored the class whether there is liberty there or not.  I had a history professor once with whom I would never have risked anything but spitting back to him what he gave us in the way he gave it because he had no sense of humor.  I did what I needed to get the grade.  That wasn’t hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was adaptation and survival of the fittest!  Also, very boring.
Chat is a big frustration.  It goes so fast, and I need to punctuate, check my grammar, and spell correctly.  No u r’s or LOL’s.  So I’m too slow.  Once I went on a chat forum for a homemaking diva turned criminal person—naming no names—and by the time I had contributed my thoughtful response, say on tofu-turkey (and self-edited), the frenzied participants were on to the next banal discussion item, say how to eat organically in the local jail cell.  The entries sailed up the page as if my computer had taken to scrolling on its own.  I surrendered my membership!  Too much pressure!
I feel like I’m not as stressed about it as I used to be.  I guess the more I chat with family on Skype or FB, or the more I IM my friends, the more I get used to it.  I find a quiet liberty to let that sentence sail off into cyberspace without a capital, the required semicolon, or proper end punctuation.  I can let that “becasue” go and breathe a sigh, knowing that that recurring typo will rear its ugly head again at some other time, but it does not diminish me as a person . . . . and besides, I can always send a correction. 
What I hope my style says about me is that I am intelligent, witty, thoughtful, and not as insecure as I feel at times.  I am a somewhat shy person, but the verbal me with ideas to share is always hammering at the door to get out, and the creative me is willing to take the risk.  And the me that does come out, hopefully, is dressed in the same clothes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Random Thought:

Isn't it interesting that these blogs have the portential to reach the whole wide world; yet even in existing, even with all our effort, our reasoning, our creativity, and often painful transparency, our words could really reach absolutely no one except those burdened with have-to's.  I think there is a profound life metaphor there, and I'll let you know when I figure it all out!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Taking the Clothes Off

When I walk through Costco, a bit oblivious, scanning the aisles for my favorite products, it is hard not to notice when a woman of Muslim faith, dressed in traditional garb, walks down my aisle.  In trying to look nonchalant and not appear to be staring, assessing the costuming, I don’t let our eyes meet as I would any other stranger who happens to like Kirkland brands.  There’s that struggle again—trying not to be prejudicial, but in trying to be neutral, I end up being aloof.  In trying not to condemn, I alienate.  It’s not like I think she is a terrorist, but she is different and in some ways other, unknowable.
What struck me most in Reading Lolita in Tehran is symbolized by Nafisi’s description of the girls’ casting off their robes to reveal the vibrance, not only of their colorful clothing but of personality.  It is so easy to keep real people who have needs and feelings and dreams  just like me at a distance because they fall into a category that is labeled “Misunderstood:  Do Not Open Till Safe.”  Coverings, be they literal clothes or attitudes, piercings or ink, group associations or age categories, prevent us from seeing someone who is worth knowing. 
Because I disagree with the political state and its leadership and see them as a threat to not only Israel, but to the peace and safety of the world, it is easy to see its people as part of a great political monolith.  Each ranting, gun toting televised male and each trilling chador-robed woman is just a cog in an enormous machine that works and functions in a unified and sinister cause.  The book took the clothes off my perceptions and humanized the people. 
I think we all knew, because of the many reported escape attempts, that many people wanted to escape East Berlin and communist domination.  But it never crossed my mind that people in Iran were not all flaming ideologues.  It never actively crossed my mind that there were oppressed Iranians who in their iron chrysalis longed to be free—not free of their faith, but free of the constraints that would make them those cogs of the state and not liberated and unique individuals with valuable thoughts and aspirations.  Even when I heard about youth demonstrations, it was easy to classify their movements as different from other freedom yearnings.  An us / them.  In following Nafisi’s biographical journey with her girls, watching them change and grow strong, and in peering into Nafisi’s own thoughts and struggles, I have seen and identified with the part in us all that wants to appreciate beauty, learn, grow, explore live, and love.  I want to see beyond those things that would inhibit relationship and caring.
There are many things that cover us and prevent us from communing with one another.  Because those coverings conjure up images and expectations that make a person other, we are prevented in getting to know likeminded souls who, like us, have treasures to share. 

A Little Something for Humor Week

Daddy Always Loved Me Best
     Daddy always loved me best.  He thought I was the best-looking, the brightest, and the most talented of all seven kids.

     Okay, well maybe I wanted him to love me best.  Actually, I think he loved Gwen the best.  She was soft-spoken and calm.  She went about her mischief in quiet, smiley ways.  She was also one of those irritating people who has always known what she wanted to be.  When she was young, she wanted to be a nurse, even though she couldn’t stand the sight of blood; and today, she is a nurse.  I still don't know what I want to be.
    Or maybe Gayle; maybe he loved her the best.  She was first with long, beautiful, auburn braids.  The rest of us got the bowl cut.  She was strong, intelligent, and a terrific little homemaker.  I was always a little less than terrific, but even though I didn’t do my chores as thoroughly, they were done with a flourish and a song.  It was the right-brain approach.
     Then again, he probably liked Kathy best.  She was a self-sacrificing missionary type who went to the wilds of Africa with her husband, oldest daughter, and red-haired baby twin girls.  She was bold and courageous and fully in charge.  I only went to California.
     Leah could have won his heart.  Actually, I know for a fact she did.  She was born early and the tiniest wee bit of nothing you ever saw.  I’ve seen a picture of her dangling from daddy’s big farmer hands—all spindly legs and arms.  She became a nurse, a musician, a singer, and a pastor’s wife.  She’s still tall and disgustingly lean.  I’m not really jealous; afterall, when you have more fat, the wrinkles don’t show as much, and it’s important to lay in an extra layer of fat for those brutal California winters.
     Caroline was the baby—special, with a cute little overbite.  He loved her best.  She’s six feet tall and graceful—an artist and a musician.  She married a gentleman farmer of all things.  To top it off, she works extremely hard, which is a work ethic my dad admires.  Personally, I think she’s a bit compulsive.  I’ve never felt the need to work quite that hard; I’m saving myself for retirement.
      Actually, I’m almost certain he loved my brother Stewart the best—a thorn among roses.  He’s tall, handsome, musical, and intelligent.  He’s one of those brilliant engineers who can put things in space but can’t match his socks.  He married well though, and she keeps him organized.   He didn’t take over the farm, so that’s a mark against him.  But he’s the only one of us who had his own room, so Daddy must have loved him best.  It may have been a walk-in closet, but it was a special space for someone who had a special place.  I’ve always resented him for that.
     Now that I think of it, I don’t think Daddy was in the least bit partial.  He always said he was proud of us and loved us all the same.  I guess I just wanted him to love me more.  Probably a suppressed desire to be a spoiled only-child.
     He loved us all the best.  He often said he wouldn’t take a million dollars for any one of us; but, of course, he wouldn’t take a plug nickel for another one either.

     Now he’s enjoying his role as a grandfather of twenty grandchildren.  His grandchildren are the best looking, the most talented, and the brightest; but do you know what?  He loves my kids the best.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New pics

I've added some new pics from our anniversary trip to Sequoia, Yosemite, and Tahoe.  Beautiful scenery, gorgeous stormy weather, and I only took about 1300 photos! :-)

Monday, November 1, 2010

What’s Bouncing Around in My Head

When I sit down to write and I’m inspired by something, the words flow.  No problem.  I have words bouncing around the inside of my cranium, asleep and awake, some with musical notes dangling, others wearing commas.  One of the most difficult things for me, though, is reining in those words to make them do exactly what I want them to do. 
Backspace and erase are difficult.  When the words are on the page, particularly in big chunks, it is hard to be ruthless and to delete them because they really aren’t doing the job.  It’s like if you delete something that you think is basically good but not applicable, you are destroying the baby, so to speak.  So each class I take helps me to focus on writing more clearly and succinctly, disciplining the “baby” to do the work it should.  So is that child labor?  Off topic!
One of the hardest aspects of essay writing is developing a cogent thesis that is truly arguable and presenting it in one, not two or three, but one sentence.  Can’t we revise the rules and have a three-sentence thesis!  And what’s this thing about its always being at the end of the first paragraph.  See, when you’re famous, you can break all the rules.  So like the poet Cummings, you can mess with upper and lower case and spacing, and you get a bye because you’re famous.  I’m sure he drove his teachers nuts, though.  So I’m going to work on being famous so I can break as many rules as I feel!
Now in music, you can put things in any order you like, and you can write in poor grammar as long as it’s funky.  “Don wanna go there no more, yeah, baby.”  ♪♪♫  But in writing, the rules make your meaning discernible; whereas, in music, if it’s got a groove and you look profound, the audience can assume it probably is—profound, that is. 
Back to the thesis:  Pruning down my ideas and the direction my research is heading into one precise statement is like catching mercury.  When I was a kid, I was sick in bed and broke the thermometer after taking my temperature.  I kept trying to catch all these little balls of mercury rolling around on my sheets, and they would not be caught.  When you get them going in one direction, they slither away in another.  It was a near impossible job to collect and dispose of it—that is saying nothing about the toxic mercury exposure I was having.  But writing a thesis is like that.  It is reining in the almost unreinable.   Writing a thesis that is more like a schmooze session with friends is so much more comfortable.  It’s like thinking out loud.  But being put in a position of needing to do it, paper by paper, helps me refine the process more and more even when I don’t like it.
The grammar and MLA part, I can handle—it’s that obsessive compulsive part of me.  I punctuate my grocery list, and I read grammar books for fun.  But speaking of reining in:  I see the word number thingy says 535, so I’m reining in.  Done! J

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All the News That’s Fit to Print, Broadcast, Televise, Stream!

I remember vividly the day President Kennedy got shot.  In addition to farming, my dad was a sawyer.  I was riding with him in the big dump truck to deliver a load of wood slabs to a farmer down the road and across the river.  We heard the news on the radio, and a charge of electricity went through me.  Even though Canadian, we were very familiar with American politics and had a lot of love and respect for Kennedy.  It was a sad day.
I remember in January 1986 watching on cable television the Challenger liftoff with a civilian teacher on board.  The flight controllers narrated the ascent with monotone professionalism.  Flights to outer space had become almost routine—and then the explosion, followed by a classic understatement:  There has been obviously a major malfunction.  I watched the explosion as it was replayed over and over and over again, glued to my TV, weeping with much of the country.
In the early 90s, shortly after we had begun homeschooling, we decided to cancel cable so as to be more intentional about our television viewing.  I primarily got my news from the newspaper and NPR radio.  At times, the programming was so far left on NPR as to be clinging to the left edge with bloody fingernails; and when I got mad enough, I would forsake them for KNX 1070 news radio.  But when terrorists struck the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and attempted to strike the White House, once again I was glued to NPR for updated coverage and analysis.  By then we also had computer, so the images and live footage of bodies jumping hand in hand and ghostly faces, covered with ash, images of massive destruction and a smoke-filled New York skyline were imprinted on my brain as I sat hour after hour before the screen, searching for updates.  
Today, I scan the newspaper for stories or opinions I want to read.  I pick and choose what interests me, both national and local.  The only time I touch the sports section is if my kids are there or if they’ve buried the comics inside.  When in the car, I listen to KNX news radio or KRLA talk radio.  In order to not be unduly indoctrinated one way or the other, I also listen to KCRW / NPR radio in the car and on my kitchen radio.  I especially like debate format shows, like Left, Right, and Center that pit the left against the right. Though the moderator is more left than center, overall both sides can present their views and pick apart the weaknesses in the others’ position.  The show actually should be titled Left, Really Left, Right, and Way Out There! 
And again, the Internet has become a wealth of sources to mine, some good, some bad.  I typically pick well-known sources, like Fox, CBS, and Yahoo, and shy away from the personal websites where everyone has an opinion.  In doing a search to remind myself of the date of the Challenger disaster, I found a home video that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt an alien spaceship right beside the contrail and debris.  I think I missed that first time round. 
In all venues, there is bound to be some hype.  And as long as there are “people” reading and analyzing the news stories, there will be bias and misinformation.  The trick then is to not shut off your brain.  When I research a product I want to buy, I don’t believe everything I’m told.  Mmm:   Amway, Jafra, Mary Kay, Macys, Penneys, Avon, store brand.  Every product developer and seller is in the business of getting me to buy their product, and they will say and present in such a way that a sale is the bottom line.  It’s not bad—I just know that; so I use discernment in finding the right product for me at the price I want to pay.  Similarly, when shopping for news sources, I seek to discern whether what I am hearing and / or seeing is reliable and what bias, worldview, or ulterior motive might be mixed in with the bare facts.  Getting information and insight from various sources is a better way to ensure that I am not being propagandized. 
I prefer the news be boring, giving me the option as to whether I want to tune in or not.  But knowing that our world is complex—sometimes violent and sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrid and sometimes fabulous—those life-changing moments will come when I will want to know more.  As it stands now, I have a plethora of venues to choose from. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mahoney Baloney and Other Hate Crimes

I never saw an African American person in the flesh until I was a teenager.  I was a camp counselor and one of my charges was a little black girl.  I found myself torn between trying not to be prejudicial one way or the other.  But I didn’t know how to feel, how to be.  Up to that point, I had only seen African Americans on television or saw them in pictures in a more patronizing way as poor and distant objects of missionary efforts.
It wasn’t that our farming community was racially segregated.  It was just the way of things.  There were Dutch, German, and smatterings of a few other European nationalities, but mostly Irish and English.  I had things in my life that held absolutely no racial meaning for me, but now I wince to think of them, and my children tell all their friends (loving to make me squirm) that their mom called filbert nuts nigger toes and played a dodge ball kind of game, yelling, “Hit the nigger, get a cigar!”  I didn’t even know what “nigger” referred to.  It was only a child’s game, like hopscotch or French and English.  In my last year of high school, a husband and wife teacher team were hired at my school.  I never had either of them for a class, but I would see them in the halls.  I wanted to feel neutral and accepting, but I didn’t know how to feel.
When I went to college in the States, there were many more black students, and I started acclimating more to racially mixed environments; but when a black student asked me out, I was thrown into conflict again.  What did I really think and feel.  I struggled with being patronizing in an attempt to prove I wasn’t prejudiced.  Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say, “No, I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t like your personality, and you act like a jerk!”  With my history and exposure, I did not have a chip in my brain that made sense of the racial tension and prejudice in the world.
As Lakoff says, pertaining to the intensity some groups feel toward hate speech, they “just don’t get it.”  I didn’t get it for a long time because of ignorance and lack of exposure; the idea of hate speech was not even on my radar.  My closest idea of hate speech was probably when a classmate in elementary school stole my paper hat that named the local Conservative running for office.  His name was Mahoney.  My mate, running through the school yard with my hat, yelling, “Mahoney Baloney, Mahoney Baloney!” put me in tears.  I think the tendency today is similar to that experience.  It was a long time ago.  The country was young.  Let’s just all get over it and move on.  Why be so sensitive?
The legacy of slavery in the formation of this country and in her successful economy, the betrayal and decimation of the Amerindian population, the theft of much of the Southwest from Mexico in the name of Manifest Destiny is not something to get over as easily as a child’s name-calling and teasing.  Some call the founding of this nation Christian, but when exactly did all the founders think and act explicitly as Christ-followers?  Was this before or after slavery?  Though the descendents of the perpetrators cannot be held responsible for crimes and injustices they did not commit, we can all seek to have a better understanding of the violation of personhood these crimes have inflicted.   Public national apologies become more political rhetoric than anything, but if individuals seek to walk in humility, casting aside the arrogance that the past is now meaningless, and if we truly seek to speak of others in the same respectful way that we would like to be spoken of, we will have moved a long way toward racial reconciliation. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran in Palmdale

The American flag burned outside the gates of the embassy as irate Iranians screamed, “Death to America!”  Announcing to the world their hatred of all things Western, crowds broiled around the media cameras.  The Ayatollah was now in charge, the Shah deposed, and American hostages were held in the embassy, what was now a symbol of the Great Satan.  These are the images I remember from those days.  This was the Iran of news bits and the powerful movie Not Without My Daughter.  Until I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, my concept of the Iranian people was uniform, brushed with broad strokes.  Even though in one part of my brain I assumed it was probably not fair, because of the media exposure they appeared to be all legalistic radicals bent on the destruction of America. 
I was not looking forward to reading the book.  I would do so because it was assigned for a class, but I anticipated that it would be some kind of diversity propaganda to merely tolerate.  What was so interesting to me in reading Nafisi’s account was the fact that I immediately identified with a person I would have assumed I had nothing in common with.  I identified with her passion for literature and writing.  I identified with her struggles for significance—her feelings of irrelevance when she no longer could teach.  Opening Reading Lolita was like opening a window in a close room and finding a lush garden that you never knew was there, right outside, within reach. 
The tension, the growing violence, the hypocrisy which served as a context for the developing relationships of the girls in the literature class and Nafisi’s own intellectual and personal growth helped me to understand that what happened in Iran was not political uniformity and not equally welcomed by its citizenry.  It was a radical birthing process—a violent process initiated and controlled by a minority—which alienated many of its citizens and destroyed through death and oppression much of the intellectual vibrancy of its culture.  The description of life for those who had known freedom under the Shah, contrasted with those who had grown up under the Islamic Republic helped me to humanize the people of Iran and their struggle to be real persons and not just tools of the state.  Especially for the women, behind the veil I saw individuality struggling to be free, but rules, fear, and conflicting values held them in a kind of bondage.  For some, the veil I’m sure was a true testimony to their deeply held faith, but for so many others it was binding shackles, a symbol of unworthiness, oppression, and fear.  The history that I thought I knew has been displaced by a multifaceted view.  It is like looking through a clear lens and then looking through a kaleidoscope.  The view now is much more complex.
In addition to the clever way she intertwines the fictional works with her reality, another aspect of the book that served to draw me is the language itself.  Nafisi’s descriptive language is not something to labor through, but rather to enjoy and savor.  The following are some of the phrases and sentences that I underlined, in just the first few pages: 
“She [Manna] made poetry out of things most people cast aside” (4).
“Mashid is very sensitive.  She’s like porcelain.”
“This is Tehran for me:  its absences were more real than its presences” (5).
“The truth is I can’t describe her [Nassrin]:  she was her own definition.”
“I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color” (5-6).
“[T]he living room was symbolic of my nomadic and borrowed life.  Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places were thrown together” (7).
“This class was the color of my dreams.  It entailed an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile” (11).
I bought Reading Lolita in Tehran for a dollar plus shipping, used from—a rather ragged copy with someone else’s illegible annotations scrawled in the margins.  I obviously did not want to make a huge investment in a book that probably would not find a home on my library shelves.  After finishing the final pages, however, I am on the lookout for an affordable hard copy.  I loved this book and knew somewhere in the middle of Henry James that I would be reading it again. 
(Oh, and by the way, on the way home from exercising this morning, I stopped by Barnes and Noble to get my latté and picked up two books by James.  They were out of the Gatsby!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tis the Season--Just for Fun!

A History of Thanksgiving—Almost
I grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada, where we may not have been more thankful than our American neighbors, but we certainly were thankful first.  We were thankful in October.  Americans weren’t thankful till November.  Having lived in the States for so many years, however, I have adopted a multicultural approach to Thanksgiving.  I’m thankful in both October and November.  I even thank God for Americans.
Way back in 1578, Martin Frobisher made his way across the stormy green Atlantic.  He was looking to explore the New World as the British were wont to do, and he didn’t particularly get good directions as men are wont to do.  So when he landed on the cold stony shores of Newfoundland, he held a formal Thanksgiving service to thank God he hadn’t gotten more severely lost in the Arctic wastes.  Historically, that was the first Thanksgiving celebration in the New World.
Forty-three years later and further south, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with the Indian Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe.  In the Old World, times of prayer and thanksgiving were mostly accompanied by “fasting” not “feasting.”  In the New World, however, they decided that feasting was a lot more fun than deprivation.   The Pilgrims and their guests celebrated for three days, eating wild turkey, deer, cornbread, squash, cranberries, and even a bit of duck and swan.  Canadians were still celebrating with fish, moose, and duty-free hardtack.
In the 1750s, some American settlers immigrated to Nova Scotia. They came for the great game and fish, to help the British irritate the French, and to buy Joni Mitchell CDs.  They brought their unique Thanksgiving celebration rituals with them and showed the Canadians how to cook swan and tell Newfie jokes. 
During the Revolutionary War, many more Americans immigrated to all parts of Canada.  Some were escaping persecution because of their British loyalties.  But most settlers were just zealously spreading their Thanksgiving traditions with hungry Canadians who were still trying to dig themselves out of that snow that mysteriously appears as soon as you cross the Canadian border.
Most settlers from the old country were used to having a service to thank God for the harvest each autumn; but in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  Not to be outdone, Parliament passed a law in 1879, declaring a day of thanksgiving and a national holiday for Canada.  No more of this thankfulness from an overflowing heart.  Now through the wisdom of government intervention, it was a legal requirement.
Eventually in 1941, Congress set the holiday for the fourth Thursday of November.  In 1957, Canada proclaimed that her Thanksgiving would be on the second Monday in October.  That would allow enough time to lose the added pounds before indulging in another big feast at Christmas.  It also ensured that if they got snowed in before November, they would have had at least one decent meal.
Canadians and Americans, aside from a few minor skirmishes early on, have been pretty good neighbors.  Of course, it helps for good neighbors to have good fences.  That’s why the 49th parallel was invented. 
We’ve exchanged many cultural traditions over the years.  Americans gave us sitcoms; we taught them how to rub noses.  Americans taught us how to make their tourist industry flourish by wintering in Florida; we taught them how to rub noses.  Americans taught us how to buy goods made in the USA; we taught them how to rub noses. 
But of all the wonderful traditions our two nations have exchanged over the years, perhaps the most precious are the ones we continue to share every autumn as we gather together with family and friends and thank God that we’re not still Europeans.
Happy Canada Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mania and Mixed Metaphors

Margaret Wheatley, an authority on organizational development, writes that an “important element of conversation is a willingness to be disturbed, to allow our beliefs and ideas to be challenged by what others think [. . .] We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and be confused for a time." 
Okay, minor digression:  When I first started collecting friends on Facebook, it was like walking through the diary of my life.  I had friends from all these various times and places, and no group was connected with the other.  It was fun, but really a little weird.  One of these ghosts from the past is a man who was as a child considered a musical prodigy.  He was very talented, but one of the few active memories I have when our lives intersected was his criticism that the notes I was playing in one of my songs didn’t go together.  Since it was what I heard in my head and felt in my soul, I ignored his advice; and besides, if the dissonance bothers you, just call it jazz.  I got the recording contract!    He was the kind of person who saw things a certain way, and those who disagreed were just wrong.  There was no middle ground, no compromise, no acquiescence.
Fast forward to Facebook mania:  A YouTube wedding video was circulating for a time.  It showed the wedding party and the bride and groom bee-bopping down the aisle of the church, cleavage bouncing, all somersaulting and gyrating to the altar.  I thought it would have been acceptable at the reception or even kind of fun done as a parody, but as an actual entrance to what in my world is a sacred ceremony seemed inappropriate and only a way to get fifteen minutes of fame.  I commented to that effect—not blasting, but rather a “Does anybody but me think this might be a bit inappropriate for a sacred ceremony?” kind of comment.  My “friend” flamed with vitriol.  He very much disagreed and went on to pontificate about all the weddings he had played in and the shallowness and the boredom, etc.  We had a few exchanges, and I tried off-page to reach a point of agreeing to disagree.  “Can’t we all just get along?”  The magma descended reluctantly into the crater.
Next exchange of fire (to mix metaphors):  Later on, I made a comment on a mutual friend’s post concerning the intelligent design / evolution debate.  Since this person is now a professor of science and an adamant evolutionist, I once again was blessed with a volley of blasts across my bow!  He could not just discuss issues, but felt the need to make personal attacks about my intelligence, as well as my belief system, and my right to inhabit this evolving planet.  After a few exchanges that were heated on his side and wincing on mine, I decided this was not near as much fun as Scrabble; so with a sigh of relief, I clicked the powerful X and unfriended him.  He melted into the delete file of my life.
Back to Wheatley to connect the dots:  I do not think most people enter a conversation with a “willingness to be disturbed.”  Is it a great open-minded thing to do?  Yes.  But I think that even when an individual is willing to be taught, the ship moves a bit slowly, especially in areas of strongly held and deeply ingrained belief.  Most people don’t invite challenge that can be unsettling and so gravitate toward people that share, at least to some extent, their core beliefs.  Being challenged is uncomfortable.  Even those with a more pleasant personality can become prickly when ideas collide.  There are, of course, more appropriate ways to converse than those of my old molten friend, but I think we have so many factions in communities, politics, churches, and even families because the tendency is to congregate with those who share our belief system.  There is power in numbers, and rather than feel alienated and adrift, people attach themselves to individuals and groups that will indeed not challenge them. 
Postscript:  I have a strong desire to learn and grow:  I consider myself a lifelong learner.  I love a conversation where two people are sharing equally, and  I like to think that I am open and available to new ideas.  But I still see the same tendency in me to lean in toward those that will not challenge my thinking to the point of discomfort.  I like the old comfortable slippers and the worn pathways that my brainy thoughts walk in (more metaphors).  I want to stretch and grow, but I also want to live a life free of stress and the tension that comes with confrontation. 
Would I have done something different in the Facebook conversations with my friend?  I did not flame in return, and I did think about the real points he was making, the points poking through the fire and smoke.  But be it weakness or no, I want to learn and stretch on my own terms and not be hurled into new ideas by force. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When It’s All About Me

I don’t think I have a split personality; but if I did, would I know it?  Maybe it’s just the neighbor’s marijuana wafting in through the swamp cooler on a hot day, or maybe I really am two people living in one body.

There is the confident me and the fragile me, the gregarious me and the shy me, the funny me and the me that wants to curl up in a ball because of the pain.  There is the performer me and the wallflower me, the erudite me and the stupid me, the me I see and the me everyone else sees.
Some people think they know me.  I can carry on a conversation and appear knowledgeable on many subjects.  They see me as a good listener . . . well, except when I just “need” to interject. I make eye contact.  I am sympathetic and chagrined at the appropriate times.  They think I am confident, capable, and sure because I hold myself erect and use my hands expressively like an Italian.  Since I have a degree of authority in some of their lives, they feel I am someone to please and seem relieved when I don’t blame them for their lack of organization or tardiness.   They laugh with me and know that when I cross my arms over my chest, it’s not because I am mean or defiant, but that I am holding my middle-aged stomach in.  They know that . . .  because I told them.  So they think I am transparent.  I look like I know what I’m doing as I sit behind my desk or stand at the front of a classroom, and they think I surely deserve the pay check I get at the end of the month.   
Other people think they know me because I share my innermost feelings in my songs and monologues.  I sing with passion and tap my feet in rhythm (well, almost).  They see me sit casually in a coffee house with my guitar or in an ornate concert hall on the bench in front of an enormous grand piano that reminds me of a black stretch limo; and they think they should give me a tape of the songs they wrote while singing in the shower because they think I could help them become famous.  They see my album covers and my press releases and wonder how it must feel to have followed my dreams and succeeded.   
Other people see the me that has gone through tragedy, that has lost her first baby girl; that has watched the broken body of her beautiful youngest son being cut out of his car with the jaws of life and medi-vaced away; that has sat alternately singing and crying at the bedside of her sweet daddy as for days and days he withered away, denied food and drink because it would supposedly only cause more pain.  People see the me that lost her singing voice, and then her career and her identity in one fell swoop.  They think I am strong, resilient, full of faith, and able to scale tall buildings at a single bound.  They think trouble has made me stronger and that I know all these things are “working together for good.”
But there is another me that I see:  There is a shy me that enters a room and skirts the edges uncomfortably till she finds someone she knows.  There is the me that thinks the qualification police are just around every corner ready to strip me of my “credentials” and expose my lack of ability and worthiness to an unsuspecting public.  There is the me that panics when a person I’m supposed to know enters my office, and I can’t remember her name or the details of his circumstance.  There is the me that screams inside when she is in a place she “belongs” and yet feels so incredibly useless and out of place.  The faithless me rises uncontrolled at times, shaming me for using God-words when I am doubting that He is good and thinking with so many planets to manage and prayers to hear He has lost my address.  A me I recognize wakes with memories of betrayal and rejection while surrounded by love and acceptance.  There is the me that is pseudo-happy with so many blessings, and who yet bleeds discontent.
I see both sides of me and wonder which one is real.  But it really is a both/and kind of existence, regardless of how I am perceived.  I am good and I am bad.  I am weak and I am strong.  I am happy and I am sad.  I am kind and I am mean.  But my comfort comes in borrowing what another broken one has written:  “God writes straight lines with crooked pens.” ~St. Ignatius.
Pressing on,
The Two of Us