Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Gift of Receiving

What will it be for your darling this year? A diamond necklace? A winter’s retreat to the Caribbean? A dual-bagged vacuum cleaner?

Visitors to The Dog House already know it had better not be the third choice. Someone is doing his—or probably her—best to make sure everyone knows that.

Our society is over-full of platitudes about giving: that this is the season for giving. That it is more blessed to give than to receive. Even the grinch IRS gets into the act, scheduling the end of December as the last chance to give—and be credited for it—in the tax year.

Frankly, I’m not sure those ideals work in our post-giving world. We really aren’t a giving society, anymore. After all, this is the Me generation grown up. Supercharged. On steroids. Remember: now, It’s All About Me.

And “Me” has never been about giving.

It’s all about receiving. Because, after all, I deserve it.

So we move into a culture where the gift-receiver has flexed her muscles, and won’t put up with those lowly gifts beneath her.

Those platitudes about giving worked a whole lot better in a different age. There was a time—of course, I don’t remember it personally—when a Christmas gift really meant something. I suspect it was a time when things were much more scarce than they are today, even though, in our economy, we think we have it bad.

I’m thinking of the classic Laura and Mary stories, the Little House on the Prairie series, where Pa headed into town one Dakota December day, because he had some business at the store. Weather was bad, probably the coldest winter in years, but the calendar reminded him he had to go.

“Go” meant walking there in those times, and somewhere along the way back home, a blizzard struck. Pa hid out in a cave (his only recourse in the face of possibly being frozen to death), and waited for the storm to end. The few groceries he had bought became his food for survival through those days.

Meanwhile, at home, Ma and the girls were certain the blizzard meant the end of Pa. No one could survive outside in a storm like that. Having the loss of a family member is certainly a greater loss than any financial poverty, and though Christmas was upon them, that possibility put their poor surroundings in perspective.

It was with these things in mind that, at the end of the storm with the homecoming of Pa, a surreal sense of miracle mixed with gift-that-no-money-could-buy put a hushed aura around that Christmas celebration. If I remember correctly, the Christmas gifts the children received were something like a penny, a stick of peppermint candy, an orange. Real treats for them, trivial tokens for us. But even for them, gifts brought into perspective by gratefulness for life regained.

In a time when, rather than merely spending money, people spent effort expressing—and meaning it—care for each other, giving took on a larger sense than it does today. Today, we don’t know how to receive, and that lack of knowing casts the giver in an entirely different light. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the meaning of the gift is ascribed by the receiver as much as it is by the giver. For every gift receiver who chooses to trash the gift given, we cheapen the meaning of giving entirely.

If we were all to truly experience deprivation, we would have much greater appreciation for gifts. Gifts used to signify items given that were not deserved, but bestowed out of the largesse (whether by finances or character) of the giver. No one now considers himself or herself to be undeserving. We demand our rights! But when we are full of our rights—full of ourselves—we can no longer receive gifts. We can only receive our due.

I certainly don’t want to wish hardship or deprivation on anyone. But I do wish a spirit of gratefulness on us all. Sometimes, though we don’t see it through our human capacity, God knows what we really need, and the blessing in disguise is the gratefulness we find when we pass through those difficult times we once felt merited our fist-shaking in the face of God.

He gave.

We must learn to receive.

Sometimes, the lesson is hard to grasp.

Friday, December 12, 2008

When It’s Too Late to Wait

Though ever the consummate procrastinator, I may this time have waited past the point of no return. I have had my many rounds of promising this or that when I get “A Round Tuit,” but my motto was never to be a spendthrift—even if what I was spending was the proverbial Tuit.

A month ago, I got my Tuit: biopsy showed cancer. Better hurry up and live while it still counted. I thought of all those must-do projects that lay in stacks in some by-passed corner. I thought of all the promises I had made myself, dreams that I wanted to fulfill, all but for the time still vibrant in my best of intentions. This announcement provided the Tuit, the time warning to get busy.

Did I? Of course not. Hard to break the habit now.

Even worse, had lots of difficulty facing up to facts, though I heartily deny that I’m in denial. Like rubbing a cat’s nose in its own unfortunate mess, I could barely shove my eyes-wide-open face into the new facts of my life. So, of course, the safest approach was to…procrastinate.

But now, on my way to see the second specialist, on my way to actually set the date for my point of no return, there really isn’t much time to play. If there’s ever anything worth doing, now is the time to do it.

I’ve heard people remind others that we all have a death sentence on our heads. Usually, I hear that at funerals, and when we all get out in the daylight and chrysanthemum-free air, it’s so much easier to forget that fact. But it’s true; it’s just that we never think of it in those terms.

Though dismal, the reality of that idea can turn out to be a blessing. What focus! What super-charging of the ol’ Daytimer! It’s an idea that can provide power. Motivation.

Or just burn-out. The spark that fries.

From my point of view on the fence right now, I tend to wobble in the direction of down. It’s not that uplifting, I know, but I think of all the things that I really would love to do that will probably never get done.

The price of procrastination, after all, was not really just a Round Tuit. You can’t pay the price until you spend the money.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Modern-Day Nellie Bly

When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was a Scholastic Books paperback about the conquests of Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman of Pittsburgh, better known in The Big Apple as Nellie Bly.

Starting her journalist career by invitation in the 1880s following a fiery retort to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she centered her early investigative work on the plight of the working woman in the city’s factories. Unusual for a woman of those times, she served a six-month stint as foreign correspondent in Mexico. But she is best known, at least as far as my childhood memories of this particular book reach, as the stealth reporter whose undercover work in New York City asylums resulted not only in spectacular narrative for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World but in actual change: launching a Grand Jury investigation into the scandal and, ultimately, a decision to fund an increase of nearly one million dollars to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections budget for the specific cause of improved care of the insane.

There is a new Nellie Bly on the loose. She is facing a giant of today's political ideology: the one ushered in by those whose process she is following. The giant is Planned Parenthood, the icon of the “rights” of abortion. And like the Nellie Bly of over one hundred years ago, she is learning to play the part of the victim to see life through that victim’s eye. The hundred little slipping details that most of us are too busy to know, to notice, to admit, Lila Rose is shoving in our faces in a way that can’t be ignored: it is not right to cover up child abuse or disregard for state laws, all in the overarching need to uphold “rights.”

Social activists can bring about change. If change means moving from what is currently acceptable to what is not yet “politically correct,” then those our culture currently lauds as social activists are no longer truly activists, but place markers and cheerleaders for what already is the dominant ideology. A real counter-culture activist must, by definition, be infiltrating that which is established with those ideas and practices that are not currently acceptable.

Current social activists label themselves as such, according to their organization’s content, assuming that the work of activism will always yield the same, favored ideology. Yet activism refers to action taken, inferring process, not content. And the process is thus ideologically neutral.

Though the dominant culture (those who claim “Social Activist” status) does not admit this, there is an example of the new activist in their midst—in opposition to their ideology, to be sure, else not able to claim activist status by process in their unilateral, post-partisan world. While activism was awarded accolades when performed by their own operatives, now that the opposite ideology takes hold of the process, why does the content disqualify them from recognition? They, too, are activists.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Twitter: Stream of Consciousness Comes of (Electronic) Age

In case this three-part diatribe seems to cast Twitter in a malevolent role, that is not really my intention. I just can’t get my head around its usefulness as an application. Useful for college buds, perhaps, but what about everyone else?

It all comes down to what one defines as useful. Here’s a neutral assessment: “Twitter is a publishing platform with a 140 character limit and no comments. You’re in control of what you post, so why is it any more invasive or transparent [than any blog]?" (from a reader’s comment to another blog). Evidently, the blogger had in mind the usefulness of being invisible, and the commenting reader had in mind some opposite utility.

What if I’m not on that axis? My polar opposites at this point are usefulness in advancing my agenda, or at least not detracting from my ability to produce. I am not one of those geniuses who can walk and chew gum simultaneously. I cannot concurrently think and listen to music. I can’t even get torqued by a blip in an argument and instantaneously hurl the perfect retort in my opponent’s face. I have to take time to think about things. A lot of time. Uninterrupted time. In my mind, input and outgo must travel a one-lane treacherous mountain pass on the time-sharing honor system.

My foggy-headed persona’s user interface can’t grapple with the constant flow of Tweets throughout the bulk of a productive day. I need quietude. Reflection.

I know: how antiquated. Yep, that’s me. But I’m not alone. (Hey, quietude doesn’t necessarily mean solitude.) One social media writer noted, “Twitter is a constant pulse product, meaning it can really sap your attention span.” Someone else admitted: “Another drawback is distraction. Twitter is a notorious time waster, it is addictive, and it is always on. To this I would drawn an analogy of the modern inbox - it is never off.”

Can you become “addicted” to something that is designed to make life better for you? Do the constant tweets of inane activity converging on one’s cell phone (or computer screen) truly spell out a message that makes anything better? Do we need yet another utility to sift through the aggregated data to extract anything useful? Or is this just the celebritizing of the common man, a chance for every unknown to build a PR platform to support that yet-to-happen 15 minutes of fame?

Some may care to know the daily food choices of the rich and famous, or their choice of shoe color this evening, or who they are @-ing. To me, it all just seems like so much stream-of-consciousness of people known by mostly no one, in a desperate attempt at electronic self-assurance that surely someone really cares.

And yet, something keeps calling me to check this phenomenon out. There has got to be some powerful use for the novelty. Could it be so addictive that, having not even tried it yet, I am already hooked?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Twitter: Interpersonal Pointillism

I trawled around the internet to see what I could find about Twitter. What makes it click? I have a hard time relating to the need to know which fellow student skipped class on account of a massive hangover. I need to find a connection between my take on reality and the technology’s ability to deliver.

The annoyance of the incessant drivel is the major put-off. Other people don’t see it that way, though. Well, at first, they did. Then, the patter seemed to take on a comforting presence, roughly akin to two people doing two different things but in the same room, “for company”—if we were together, I could then hear you sigh when you got to that sad part in the book I told you was a must-read…and you could hear me smack my fist in my palm when I got to that reader’s comment that I just read on your blog.

Somehow, “Same Planet, Different Worlds” is not as cozy a thought to me as it is to Tweeple.

So, knowing what one’s friends are doing throughout the day—keep in mind, many Tweeple have upwards of 180 “friends” they are “following”—gives a person a sense of closeness and awareness about all those associates that would not have been otherwise achieved. I guess that makes Twitter the interpersonal networking equivalent of portraiture by pointillism.

OK, admittedly, that could be used for good, according to some comments I found, like: “I’ve seen plenty of posts of someone doing a walk for hunger or a collection for diabetes. Twitter allows people to use their friend lists to propagate that information faster, and try to draw more direct help down to a problem.” Despite the Tweeple risk, it is beneficial to get involved for good and to encourage others to get with it, too. Who else would you influence, if not your friends?

Friends-in-tow social activism isn’t the only use, and in this way, Twitter mirrors social-networking icons of lower-tech past generations. Think breakroom gossip. “Twitter might just be the electronic, distributed water cooler of lore.” I guess it all comes down to information: what kind, how to use it, who to share it with.

I’m not sure I really want to reconstruct a portrait of each of my friends and family members, one point--one tweet--at a time. Sounds too tedious. I already know them pretty well, anyhow. Or maybe that’s just what I think.

Monday, December 8, 2008

People, Sheeple, Tweeple

There have been many generations whose members proclaim their fierce individuality while all the time belying their group indebtedness. My own first foray into social consciousness was awash with propaganda insisting I was part of the Age of the Ubiquitous Teenager. While everyone was convinced of the necessity of individualism during my high school years, a quick glance at the uniform of the generation assured me it was otherwise. If we were so individualistic, why the strict adherence to the same jeans-and-T-shirt routine?

That became my first inkling that there is a difference between the terms “persons” and “people.”

Somewhere down the line in my education in sociology, I heard someone mention the term, “sheeple.” That, catchy as it might be, was an organizer’s slur of those who follow blindly, “ignorant” as sheep. Of course, the individualist part of my personhood bristles at the suggestion that I might be no more than mere animal. But perhaps it is true that humans tend, in one degree or another, to be highly sensitized to what others around them are doing and saying. Needing the dependence.

However, social as we may be, I can’t think of a good excuse why people lend themselves to being so malleable, so persuadable, so un-individual as to fluidly transpose into whatever shape some outside force dictates. But they do. Think of advertising. Think of celebrity worship. Think of listening to the dominant media during the last election season. Think of Twitter.

Think of Twitter?

Basically, Twitter is “a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” For the average joe, that melts down into the following type of “tweets”:

Tweet 1: to the kitchen to make me a sammich.

Tweet 2: Turkey again…ugh.

Tweet 3: Can’t do it. Anyone hungry?

That’s right. I needed to know that Joe was making a sandwich right now. I needed to know that he’s sick and tired of turkey. (Isn’t everyone right about now?) And I couldn’t have come up with the idea on my own to go out to eat without his prompt. I would have been clueless otherwise. The direct route, calling (or texting or whatever) and saying, “Hey, wanna meet at Quizno’s for a bite to eat?” would be too…aggressive?

And does everyone need to know about Joe’s sandwich? With the obvious drone, I don’t see much ingenuity broadcast over this medium yet. Maybe it’s the circles I run in. Maybe it’s the early adapters’ conundrum: neat trick, but what do you do with this toy? (Ever gotten one of those pricey phone calls from 35,000 feet: “Hey, honey, bet you can’t guess where I am?!”)

There are people smart enough to maximize the power of this tool. Supposedly, it was the new wave for this year’s election: Twitter is to O as Blogs were to not-W. Non-profs use it for organizing, fundraising, tag-teaming. Tech workplaces thrive on it, supposedly. And the dedicated are vigilant against commercial encroachment.

How can that be? Would a simple celeb tweet influence all “friends” to rush out and buy that same product? Some people think so. The chatter is incessant. Think of the multiplied sales possible with endless iterations of social links. Think of the capacity for brainlessness that unquestioning compliance presents.

Every generation seems to have a uniform hiding behind their façade of independence. Our times are no different. Forget sheeple. Introducing: Tweeple.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Post-Thanksgiving Muse

“Just about everyone who calls himself a conservative…is more grateful for what works in our world than angry about what doesn’t.”

—Yuval Levin,

“Back to Basics, Ahead to Particulars,”

in National Review, 1 December, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When It’s Time to Go Home

Last night, our county’s Hospice program lit up the “Tree of Life” to start its annual fund raising season. Though we always enjoy seeing the lights when we drive by the tree at night, we don’t usually attend the ceremony.

This year was different. One of Claire’s best friends and also her former debate partner were chosen, along with their family, to light up the tree in honor of their mother, Susannah Kelley. Moms can die young, and Susannah, mother of four, did so this summer at age 48.

It seems she was not alone. This summer brought a series of losses to those we know. Barely a year or two ago, one of my husband’s mentors at work was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was one of those men who was an exhorter—someone who supported novices with promise and pointed them toward reachable goals, and then followed through when times required diligence in the hard work of details and persistence. Though beaming encouragement to others until the very last days, he too was one we bid goodbye only a few months ago.

And there are more to come. Another work friend—someone who partnered with Chris through thick and thin of difficult assignments, someone we knew had an inoperable tumor that just seemed to hang fire in his brain—suddenly got the verdict: go home and rest. The tumor had resumed growing. He has anywhere from a month to a year remaining. And that’s it.

How do you handle news like that? It certainly was hard for his coworkers to hear about it. But what about being that person? How do you handle the news when it is about you?

Fortunately, for each of those we lost this year, faith played a strong part in their lives and in their passing. I have no clue how people could handle it otherwise. But even with faith, the passage is not effortless. With cancer, for instance, there is the drawn-out agony of pain and waiting, perhaps a sense of being deserted or of wondering, “Why?” There is also that languishing yet dogged hope of being rescued: that this will be the one time that the Lord chooses to perform that miracle healing.

It seems so hard, being on the healthy side of an encounter with someone in this position. What can be said? Do we speak of healing to be an encouragement? To avoid dragging the poor soul’s spirits down? Or does that cancer-ridden friend ache for the pretenses to be dropped and just allow freedom to say, “This is it,” without fear of being branded as faithless? What does a person who is slowly dying need to say?

I remember being party to the other side of the equation when my first husband was dying of complications from heart surgery. He was young; no one believed he was seriously in risk of dying until the moment was nearly upon him. Not a word was exchanged about that possibility. Once he slipped into a coma, though, I became his proxy, his mouthpiece. People were so kind, so nice…but it was such a comfort to be free to jump the track from scripted orthodoxy to plaintive stream of consciousness. The jibberish of feelings may seem useless, but without saying something, how are the others to know how to break the silence, cross beyond the fear of stigma or taboo, and speak the words of life to the desperate dying?

I have never known the nearness of death (although I have thought I did at times), but somehow I wonder what would be the best ministry to those in whose place I’ve never been, when that place is near death. I’ll never be able to know without asking—and how do you ask someone in that place, when that person may not be able to face up to that reality themselves, right now?

Susannah was one who was in that place, and I never took the time to ask, to learn from her what she saw as the biggest need. I did observe one thing: she seemed to have died with a smile on her face. If that was what God had required of her life, that was what she was willing to do in her service to Him. Many do handle this turning point with philosophical reflections of returning to one’s maker, or of going to a better place—but rarely does one express the willingness to go through the process that brings us to that other place. It takes a servant’s spirit, a yieldedness, to submit to the risks of that ordeal. When Susannah realized it was time for her to “go home,” she took hold of the grace given to see us through whatever turmoil we face, and discipled herself to her spiritual mentors.

When I was a child, summertime twilight calls from my mother, “Time to come home,” were both times of protest and times of realizing good possibilities. Playtime couldn’t possibly last as well after dark—besides, there would be another day—and once home, a comforting bath and story time awaited me. Realizing the fleeting playtime I was leaving behind was insignificant in the face of the cozy comforts yet to come, it wasn’t all that hard to go home when the time came.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Price of Nice

“‘The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is a fundamental principle of God and the key—the minor key—to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes, who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it, and to whom the world of tragedy means itself unpleasantness.’

“Perhaps this is just the key we have lost. Suffering, even in its mildest forms—inconvenience, delay, disappointment, discomfort, or anything that is not in harmony with our whims and preferences—we will not tolerate. We even reject and deny it….

“Have we missed a fundamental principle of God? Is not suffering, loss, even death itself the minor key to existence? Do we not lose our very lives by trying so hard to save them?

“The words which have illuminated for me the deepest understanding of suffering are Jesus’ own, ‘In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.’ This, He told His disciples, was the key. There is a necessary link between suffering and glory.

—Elisabeth Elliot, in A Path Through Suffering, commenting on a quote from Isak Dinesen

Monday, November 24, 2008

Who speaks for We?

“We the People,” begins the United States Constitution, establish the document that organized political concepts powerful enough to fuel the world’s longest-standing republic.

But just who are “We”?

The general consensus of 1776 was radically different than, say, the 1900s—a given, nowadays—but the viewpoint held by the citizen of just two or even one decade ago was strikingly different than what is currently being touted as constitutional. Answering the call of “We” was a totally different electorate in 1800 than 1900 than 2000—and than 2008. And “We the People” see our constitutional burden vastly different in our times than theirs.

However, it is not just the substance of what is considered standard American operating procedure that is of concern. The number of people willing to share in that viewpoint is key. Does any one philosophy of government in this country have, indeed, a mandate?

There is no end of mouthpieces willing to claim the “mandate” signified by this “landslide” election. While the electoral-college system apparently does yield a landslide in that one aspect, I was surprised to see the slim margin of victory, percentage-wise, in the popular vote. Comparing “yes” votes for Mr. Obama versus “no” votes in the aggregate, the 52% garnered by the Democrats presents a spread of four percent. Listening to reports of other such election issues with the same point spread—the California Proposition 8 issue, for example—I hear no such victorious spin.

Whether an election’s results are awarded a “mandate” handling depends mostly on who is speaking for “We.” It is the wattage of the Air Time that creates that illusion of difference.

I suspect that, taking the closer look, “We” may be dismantled and studied for the pluralistic potpourri that it really is. We are not a bi-polar society anymore. Those self-appointed spokespersons for the legendary and oft-patriotic-sounding “We” know that. A body politic that has espoused the mantra of multiplicities (“diversity”) cannot use that splinterhood of existence to its advantage when numbers count. Suddenly, the “We” coalesces when votes are needed.

Beware the sales pitch. The salesman needs your money more than you need the salesman’s product.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who Pays for Nice?

Driving time seems to be a time for my mind to wander. When my mind does wander, its unleashed proclivity is to latch onto random thoughts and build. I’m not sure that when I drive, I do my best thinking, but at least I do some thinking. Good: The machine is still in running order.

On the road the other day, I stopped at a light, awaiting my chance to make a left turn. It so happened that this was a day shortly after the election (OK, at least two weeks after the election), well after the time when all campaign litter was required to be cleared from the landscape. Looking around, I noticed a car with a prominent round window decal for the victorious presidential candidate. Sore loser, I looked away—and what should catch my eye on the other side of the road but a bumper sticker hawking the same gentleman’s surname?!

“What is going on here?” I griped to myself; am I sentenced to have my nose rubbed into the election results for the next four—or eight—years?

I searched for some different bumper-décor. Thankfully, I found something oblong-shaped in my flight from the round emblem. Not thankfully: just as the light changed, I realized it was another left-turn insigne. Hardly able to commit the pithy jingle to memory, suffice it to say it basically implied that the “billions” spent on the war in Iraq would better be committed to instituting nationalized health care coverage here at home. Aside from the fact that “If This” does not necessarily force “Not That,” that bumper sticker stole my afternoon’s thought process.

Who pays for our food? Who pays for our cars? Who pays for our home loans, for that matter? Or, more to the point, who should be responsible for providing those things? Lately, it seems we have been hit, in this country, with a tsunami of opinion that those things are solely within the purview of government to provide.

But how does government provide, when government is supposed to grow out of “We The People”? We seem to have become a people that sees reason in compelling Peter to pay Paul to pay Peter.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Trouble with “Nice”

There is a word in the English language which often evokes in me a response not generally expected among members of the general population: Nice.

“Have a nice day,” people say, as if warning each other of dire consequences if the advice is not heeded.

Nice girls, our parents always lectured us young daughters, were the preferred role models.

The Nice Life, lauded as if it were the true intention of the philosopher’s “Good Life,” has become the icon of the Western middle class (and all those who would enter therein), courtesy of pervasive television programming and other all-encompassing communications media.

Sometimes Nice has just gotten too nice to be. It has morphed into life in a vacuum, where nothing happens—well, at least nothing that isn’t Nice—where everyone lives happily ever after, with no worries. For those with the last word, that translates into no hospital bills, no pension shortfalls, no lack of money for food, clothing, housing, or any other conceivable human need. Even no need to work to supply those needs. And while we are adding to this Nice dream list, why not insert no illness and no death? After all, it is within the human potential to attain anything for which we dream, isn’t it?

What happens to people when they have too Nice a life? Is it possible that such an ideal could exist?

“That would be Nice,” I keep waiting to hear someone quip.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Out of the only sea without shores…

Young people’s reaction to the recent US presidential election has for some reason caught my attention. Not every under-30 (or even under-20) has had the same reaction, though the dominant media implies otherwise. Some young people, especially those who worked endless hours for select other campaigns, were well beyond disheartened. Their comments bordered on fatalistic. Though they wished it otherwise of course, for some, the end of the world couldn’t come sooner.

Reading such comments as those on loops my daughter frequents online, I’ve wanted to break into the dialog with a Mom Moment and nurse these plebes back to hope.

I want to tell them: The war is not over—why, it’s barely begun. Rather than tuck tail and run, whining about the life they now would never get to have, they need to see they have a life, and this is it! Let it be added that it will not be a boring life.

Boring: isn’t that the number-one complaint of the young life? Challenge and difficulty definitely alleviate boredom, though that is seldom the requested substitute for ennui. The uneventful day has never been one to write home about (well, not until our current culture, the Now Generation Pluperfect, the one “All About Me”). News has always been about battles, conquests, victories—not how nice one’s humdrum existence might be.

Accomplishments have never been achieved lying on the proverbial bed of roses. Struggle means exertion, the chance to fail—but it also means the entrée to fuller, richer life: real life. Crisis takes from what little we do possess and shapes it into something worth having. Crisis molds the tools to succeed.

Crisis calls us to get with it and develop our basic aptitudes—not as in schooling, where the main thing was to resist learning—but with alacrity: hurry up, or else! Without crisis calling them out, latent qualities remain invisible. Rather than respond now with despondence, turbulent skirmishes of our 50-50 culture clash should call out those gifts. So my Mom Moment for the young says: be encouraged, don’t give up, engage in the battle. Do conquests.

Hearing this come out of my own mouth, I’m embarrassed to think of how I see my own gaps right now. Sometimes I feel like I’m adrift in my own personal Sargasso Sea, all awash with binding, slimy seaweed. I see no defining shores. I feel no call to action. I feel like Life Wasting Away. I can’t believe advice out of my own mouth for others could be just the prescription for my own life!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sea Change

Emptying from one Gap into another. Still no defining points of reference. Only a cipher.

And yet we worked so hard…

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Remembering Another Nine Eleven

Last weekend, I was zipping to a south county city for a meeting with a few homeschool moms. Merging onto the Crosstown, I came upon a bumper sticker printed annoyingly in lettering too small to safely read at freeway speed. It sported a slogan a procrastinator like me could warm up to: "To Finish Is To Win." If I finish anything, it is a miracle! I wanted to know more about the creator of such a motto.

I made a mental note to Google the phrase.

Unbelievably, the owner of the motto was not The Consummate Procrastinator, but the sponsor of an unusual sporting event held annually in the Sierra Nevadas. Procrastination was not the goal, but endurance.

Endurance. Put me in mind of a quote heard many times: "Not to the swift, nor to the brave, but the race goes to the one who endures to the end."

Sounds kind of Biblical, doesn't it? A quick online search indicates that is what several others thought, too. But this isn't specifically a verse in the Bible. The source for this oft-quoted but mis-credited reminder is actually a combination of two Bible verses—one acknowledging the inescapability of circumstances, the other demanding perseverance regardless of circumstances.

What is in the Bible is another Nine Eleven to keep in mind, as we pass the seventh anniversary of what no American should forget—and as we face the November event that will be our next footprint in the race to redefine ourselves as a nation for a new century:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance: didn't that happen to the thousands in and about the twin towers in downtown Manhattan? I'll never forget my brother-in-law's story of his eerie commute to his mid-town office that day, precisely when the attack occurred. He so often met clients from a company housed next door to the towers…often walking over to have coffee in one of those exact buildings. He could have been down there that day, that morning. He wasn't. Others were—some who probably weren't used to being in that part of town at that time, but for some reason, happened to be there. They could have been elsewhere that day, but weren't.

The story now isn't about who was there then and who wasn't. The story is about what we who remain are doing now with the repercussions of an event that will only reverberate through history in a life-changing way if we remember to let it unfold.

To put the verse, Ecclesiastes 9:11, into context, it is preceded by a warning:

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."

For those of us who still are here, there is a lot to put our hands to—a lot to do with all our might. Success is all in the endurance of the message. America's Nine Eleven embedded that message deep within our national psyche.

In the aftermath of the first Nine Eleven, President George W. Bush expressed American determination to persevere in the face of our greatest tragedy:

"Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world—and no one will keep that light from shining."

While the significance of September 11, 2001, will never be erased, the impact of that day has dimmed in the American mind. Within days of the horrific attack, media and political pundits debated the "wisdom" of showing the disturbing images—what of the children? Within months, "sensitivity" training advocating an all-encompassing inclusiveness switched focus from specific perpetrators of a political act to a generic public relations program promoting acceptance of yet another religion. Within seven years, the same America that once was brought to her knees in one fifteen minute claim to infamy is now considering whether to wink at the Freudian slip of a front-runner for the highest office in the land.

Endurance is a test of who will last until the end. The Tevis Cup—the 100 mile equestrian endurance challenge—rarely sees more than fifty percent of entrants complete the course each year. The ultimate tests of humanity, in each age, will also count many losses. Not everyone will make it to the end. Many will fall—not through their own lack of bravery, skill or speed, but because of circumstances. "Circumstances" becomes the player our strategy failed to take into account.

But to succeed, those not captured by circumstances need to endure: to remember, and let that remembrance continue to make a difference. Asserting that "no one will keep that light from shining" is a hollow promise unless we take action to keep perpetuating the characteristics and values that gave that light its shine for over two centuries. He who endures to the end will be saved.

To finish is to win.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Of Blogs and Black Holes

Blog busted!

With ever the highest of intentions, this blogger wanted to be eyes for those who couldn't come along for the ride. On the fringes of my outer-spacey blogging experience, though, I haven't yet learned to predict the outcome of passing my Event Horizon—the Niagara Falls of Black Holes. Clue: once passing this point, there is no turning back. What's left behind may seem like silence. What's ahead—well, whole new worlds are screaming for consideration.

Present freshness wilts in passage.

And that's how I didn't post the rest of the homeschool conference our family attended on turf very different from our own. Now that my blogging fingers have been burnt, I've learned a few practical lessons.

First, always ensure before the weekend that the wi-fi connection we're planning on using is indeed available to all on campus.

Second, never underestimate the effect of hotel beds, salty take-out food, and long-term sitting-room-only compartments on one's ability to blog cogently. Travel-weary blogging: indeed insipid.

Third, don't plan on sequestering oneself with a laptop during events for which one traveled miles for the express purpose of networking. Or, note to self: those who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time should not attempt talking and blogging simultaneously!

It would be fair to say I've learned not to make extravagant promises, but I still feel the compulsion to promise to post what notes I had taken. I guess I'm the consummate sucker for keeping obligations. But, having passed the Event Horizon, there really is no turning back. Ahead loom so many new worlds.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Wish

Happy birthday to the primo member of my adoring fan club. It’s an honor to be on your daily reading list!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Conference, Day One

It was time to enjoy the journey this afternoon, so I did. What seemed to me to be beautiful greenery turned out to be western Kentucky in the midst of a drought. Silly Californian.

In perfect timing, atypical for me, we arrived at our destination: a hotel just north of the Murray State University campus. We had plenty of time to settle in before heading to the student center, where a small Christian homeschooling conference was convening. This was a different venue for our family, which has generally attended such events only in our home state. Fortunately, through internet connections, we had met several other attendees before the event commenced, so it was fun matching known names with unfamiliar faces.

The Shema Conference took its name from the Deuteronomy 6:4 verse which, in Hebrew, starts with the word, “Shema” (often also written sh’ma), meaning “hear.” The interesting thing about this Hebrew word is that it not only signifies “hear,” but “obey.” The expected response for an Israeli, hearing such a command or warning, was for him to respond appropriately.

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” is the rallying call not only for an ancient nation, but for the modern Psalms One family whose delight is in His word to us. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Appropriate words for homeschoolers.

The conference opened with a time of worship, led by David Huston, a pastor from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, accompanied at the keyboard by Tom Ryerson, as participants joined in singing uplifting choruses.

Conference organizer Steve Ryerson of Murray welcomed us to the campus, and introduced the fellow principles of the Apostolic Home School Network: in addition to Steve’s wife, Carol, these included Steve and Sue Ann Stevens, and David and Barbara Huston. Since a main thrust of the gathering was for participants to get to know each other, his brief comments were appropriately followed by a time of dinner and fellowship, after which followed his keynote address, “The New Family.”

This conference is a time to share ideas and learn from each other, encourage each other. The keynote reminded us that none of us can really grow unless we are willing to change, to stretch: “Spiritual chiropractics.” If we are not ready to make the adjustments, we may find ourselves upset when God moves in our life.

In the course of the presentation, a powerpoint display took us through many statistics of the current “look” of families in our culture. Statistics show we as a nation are changing our outlook on what a family should look like, but the most telling statistic demonstrates that not only is there change, but the change is more readily accepted not only by the younger and newer members of our society, but by more and more of those in older segments of our culture’s strata, who remember adhering to different values only a few decades ago.

Staying on course, to some people, may mean living in a rut. If we are following the will of God, we are not in a rut. We have commands from scripture to be reaching out to others.

An interesting question was posed: Why do young people today not understand what marriage is all about? The speaker maintained that marriage needs to be demonstrated through day to day life experiences to our own young people—to get clear messages to our young people about the value we place on marriage and family. The average young person doesn’t understand without experiencing a consistent, ongoing demonstration.

When you don’t know what to do, God will be faithful to bring the answer. Biblical marriage is definitely possible. The husband, as head of the home, is not oppressive, but needs to emulate the relationship between Christ and the church. God does so much more than give us a list of things to do. God is there for us, to bless, admonish, guide, and teach relationship. Correspondingly, the wife has her part in a blessed relationship. For both parties, this takes work.

Referring to teaching by Robert Lewis, “Core Callings” for parents include:
  • Deep Companionship: Genesis 2:24
  • Raising and launching Healthy Children: Genesis 1:28

  • Advancing God’s Kingdom: Genesis 1:28

God’s new family commits to hearing the voice of God. Seek first the Kingdom, honor God’s Word over our opinion, receive correction when needed, be joyful over the things of God.

If we’re not ready for God to “rearrange” us, God may let us hang around and pray the same prayer over and over again for a while, before He comes back to try us again to see if we are ready for a change. Sometimes we need a little time on our own to fall flat on our faces, so we’ll be ready to change.

Traveling Through My Gap

We’re one day into advancing through our goal of discovering (and discussing) the shape, content, and perspective of our gaps. In plain English, right now that means we are in Tennessee, traveling to a small homeschooling conference of like-minded “True Believers.” I’ve been looking forward to this event, not because of what the speakers have in store for their audience, but for what the attendees have in store for each other. I want to network. I need some fellowship.

For anyone logging on to this site for the first time, specifically to join us on this journey, Welcome. Hopefully, the brief notes of the proceedings will help you feel a little closer to “Being There.”

Travel is not my strong suit, nor does our daughter appreciate being away from home. We value our sleep too much. Chris, however, doesn’t act as if he minds; he gave credence last night to the sales pitch, “Pillowtop.” I, on the other hand, spent a wide-awake night, regretting succumbing to copywriting tactics while shopping for the place to stay tonight, and wondering about the gall of businesses which steal proprietary terminology. Calls to mind Madison Avenue’s self-portrait—the classic, award-winning ad campaign, “Where’s the Beef?” (With apologies to bil—I know it’s not really that way.)

The ordeal of travel, this time, honestly wasn’t that bad. In reality, it actually was smoother than most trips. Keep in mind, in my former life as a starving student, flying United signaled the agent to slap a sign on my back the minute I walked away from the check-in counter: “Must lose one bag.” I never made it home on vacation breaks without losing one bag, albeit for only 24 hours. (One time, my dog, Ego, made it to Albuquerque while I ended up in Columbus. Go figure. The cabbie who delivered him to our doorstep at midnight probably didn’t expect his passenger that night to be a tipping customer.) (OK…credit where credit is due: that wasn’t United; it was American that time.)

It got to be a such a family joke that I would show up one bag down, that I found myself on the receiving end of all sorts of euphemisms for players in the airline industry. The predictable “Southworst” was topped by my personal favorite, Don’t Expect your Luggage To Arrive.” Thankfully, my life’s script has never included that story.

I must have outgrown that stage long ago. This time, everything arrived when the passengers did. Everything else went smoothly, too. This trip, the flying honors went to Southwest, whose flight crew for each segment of our itinerary was super, albeit with two sets of cockpit pros who somehow couldn’t rope in their beasts until the second bounce off the runways upon arrival.

Even the TSA agents were cordial. (Aside to Marty: Aloha!) Go figure. It seemed nothing was destined to go wrong on this journey. No, wait. Had to change the light bulb in LA. Down 45 minutes. How many flight technicians does it take to change a light bulb?

Enjoyed a wonderful evening reunion with friends Kevin and Laura, who moved far from our home turf to follow their music (well, that’s Laura, who insists Kevin can’t carry a tune in a bucket; I wasn’t sure I agreed with that, but what do I know? Besides, I’m too prone to encourage.)

Once settling down for the night’s stayover, perhaps I owed the privilege of a riveted night to the anticipation of a good conference. My mind was certainly omnidirectional at warp speed. Perhaps I was vibrating in sync with the high tension wires outside our window. Perhaps I am now glowing in the dark. Or not. My mind, at least, is still bouncing along its runway. It was certainly not ready to be roped in at second bounce, either. Too much anticipation of a good thing makes it hard to keep one tied down.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Futility of Being Pointless

Our culture gives lip service to the cliché, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” but drives its definition of success via “points.” There are Good Points and there are Bad Points. There is the Point of Departure—as long as it gracefully digresses from the linear parameters of “From Point A to Point B.” There is even the forbidden Point of No Return.

I have a lot of trouble dealing with Points. On the one hand, I am very goal-oriented, so I’m the one everyone has to shake and remind to enjoy the journey; I’m too concerned that we get to Point B by the appointed time. On the other hand, too many points stacked up nicely in a row define a line, and four of those, tied together just right form a box, and I never like to be put in a box, so why doom myself to self-containment by having the ingredients lying handily nearby? (Look, if I’m in a box—maybe even if I know I’m in a box—don’t be the first to tell me; I really resent it.) (On the other hand, do tell me; I need to know, so I can plan my escape.)

So, OK, that convinces me: Points are Good. And how does that convince me? Points define gaps. If there were no Points, there would be no Gaps to define. And, evidently, I need to be in a Gap right now, not a box. I need to find a way to immerse myself in my fear, my moment of being lost in The Gap. I can’t discover The Gap if I can’t find the points that outline it. I can’t define which gap I’m in until I know it’s the one between Point A and Point B.

There’s something more than definition, though. Point A and Point B actually lend flavor to their own gap. In other words, the gap between Point A and Point B is incredibly different than the gap between Point X and Point Y might be. The Points lend their influence to their in-between places.

One of my favorite artists, Georges-Pierre Seurat, gained his ranking in my personal world through a technique he worked to perfect: pointillism. Think of it: the challenge to create an image through the use of nothing other than specks of color. While we, in our techno-savvy age, think nothing of computer-graphics-generated pixels or the wonders of electron-microscopy, for a late 19th century thinker, this was a creative challenge.

I used to think Seurat did this owing to his artistic genius. Just recently I discovered that he drew upon scientific theory in formulating the basis for his approach. The idea was that, rather than buy pre-blended paints, or even blend primary-colored pigments to create the desired image, the artist could achieve the same effect by juxtaposing various spurts of vibrant color on the canvas. There was one thing needed, though, to complete the equation: a gap between the object (the painting) and the beholder (me, standing about ten feet away from the display at the Art Institute of Chicago).

Demonstrating the effect by including a thumbnail sketch here would be impossible, because it would be only a photograph seen up close, defeating the purpose of the missing element, The Gap. But I’ll show it anyway. Here, you see a less-than-subtle demonstration of the technique in La Parade. Every speck of color is readily visible—though you can still allow that, though the discreet daubs of paint are obvious, the intended image is also clearly represented.

My favorite piece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, displays a more subtle application of the technique. I look at that and stand amazed that someone could achieve an entire snapshot of life in 1880s France using only dots of paint.

And that’s the point about Points: you can’t really have a point without a gap. And you can’t really know your Gap without its orienting points. Life is really about what’s happening in the spaces between the points. More than that, it’s what’s happening in the eye of the beholder that influences what’s happening in the spaces between the points. In other words, The Gap is really what I do with the Points I’ve been given in life. If I understand how that works—the relationships, the conferring of natures upon adjacent spaces, the blending of efforts and influences—then I can achieve something of worth in my Gap.

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