Sunday, January 7, 2018

Experiencing Thin Spaces

“Thin Spaces” was a new term to me.  In a homily given by a local pastor, he explained the Irish concept of “thin spaces” as being that moment in time where the veil that separates heaven and earth or the material world from the spiritual world seems rather thin.  In so many words, I guess, it’s that moment where you say, “oh. Wow.  That was very godly.”  And I will admit that while I have some experience in the spiritual journey, those moments where it seems there are Divine fingerprints on the window seems few and far between. 

“And just whose fault is that?” one could ask.  I don’t know.  While I am more than reluctant to point my finger to the ceiling …. Because it honestly seems to me He works overtime trying to get humanity’s attention and respect … I don’t like the other choice I’m left with:  my fault.  But I guess it is.  Through lack of adequate personal reflection, many of us lose the learning and grace-filled opportunities of which we are unknowingly in the midst.  We get lost in the daily grind of work and home and society.  Insert here a mental snapshot of a busy city street where all sorts of people are walking in different directions and taxi’s are beeping and children in strollers are pointing and business people are trying not to bump into other humans while the yammer along in self-important poses on the cell phone.  This is the life we know.  It’s easy to get stuck here.  Until you’re not.

Something bad happened to me a couple of years ago.  I was betrayed.  And with that betrayal, a big piece of my world became very disinteresting to me.  I had to try to turn in to look at the interior damage and try to nurture and heal, if possible.  There were days when I didn’t think it was possible.  I lost a lot of motivation, and only those closest to me may have seen a piece of the trainwreck that was sitting inside my heart. 

That’s why it was incredulous to me when a person in my closest circle asked me directly in front of everyone-that-mattered if I “had any New Year’s resolutions.”  I am pretty sure the response that was hoped for was something along the lines of losing weight.  Since, even in awkward situations, I prefer to not lie, I responded:  “You know, I’m a very superstitious person at heart and I find that when I share my resolutions it kind of takes the steam out of them and I get nothing accomplished.”  End of discussion.

My resolutions, actually, were not itemized.  They were really a symphony of attitudes that I am trying to get to “play” in a harmonious presentation.  Lose weight?  I’m not Kate on “This is Us.”  I don’t have that kind of self-loathing and complicated psychological scarring.  I’m not even as BIG as Kate is.  But what I am turning the entire ship of my life towards is far more important than what is on the scale.  I have found, by the way, that if I turn my digital scale just two inches to the side diagonally, it renders a score that is three pounds less.  Yeah, I like that.  But indulge me for a minute, and think of an ocean liner leaving the East Coast for, say, Merry Old England.  Do you know that if you adjust the compass just two degrees off on this end of the journey, you won’t get to see the Queen?  And for this very reason, I begin my journey of re-aligning my entire life with no undue caution. 

I am trying to Listen.  I want to be present to the moment.  I want to not miss the thing it is I need to be attending to in the middle of what I THINK I’m supposed to be doing.  Chew on that for a while.
I began by trying to put some godly order into my environment at home.  And as a sincere stab at that, I tackled the proverbial “junk drawer” in my kitchen.  That led to cleaning the Island off, and discovering that I
do have a kitchen table which is quite functional if I put stuff somewhere else instead of in piles on it.  I threw stuff out.  I created a Burn Box and I will be slogging out to the backyard in the spring and lighting that fire with a grateful heart.  In the course of attending to the 101 business cards I seem to have accumulated, I pulled out one that belonged to a realtor I had met in the church circles about 15 years ago.  I noted it and then filed it. 

Imagine my surprise when a couple of days later the very same woman called my work phone looking to speak with someone.  I asked her, “Are you the realtor?”  She said, “Yes.  I am.”  I re-introduced myself and we began talking about her ministry of looking out for people who seem to fall between life’s proverbial cracks.  She dropped first names only.  One of them flagged my attention.  I asked her, if that wasn’t by any chance so-and-so who was a former student of mine.  She said yes.  THEN, unbelievably it was clear why this phone call was happening. 

Last year at this time another friend was talking to me and mentioned her niece who lives a few towns over.  I asked this woman, “then you probably know that whole pod of kids who hung out together.”  She said yes, and that one particular young woman is, how can I say this politely (I can’t):  dead.  When I first heard it was like getting the wind knocked out of me.  Then it became clear why another random person had called my home phone and left me a message with no details.  I never returned that call.  And so I never knew there was a wake I needed to be at.  I always wondered what this young woman died from.  Here, a year later, the realtor lady was able to tell me what no one else did:  that she passed away from some sort of a seizure relative to her other health issues.  I just needed to know that she didn’t hurt herself.  Somehow that mattered to me.  Now I had closure.  A thin space had come and gone.

The next day I was reviewing my adoring fans and friends on facebook.  I saw an advertisement of an African American woman standing at the water’s edge with her arms wide open as if she was embracing heaven.  She had a wide brimmed white beach hat on.  She was wearing a beach dress.  She had one of those reminder wristbands on her left wrist.  I started to cry.  Hard.   This exact picture is what is in my head when I think of my friend Denise who passed away in the summer of 2016.  She was my beach friend and I looked forward to vacationing with her and our women friends every summer for decades.  Now she was gone and I have this big, giant, cumbersome hole in my heart where one of my best friends used to be.  To think that the Almighty could use an advertisement on social media to put my mind at ease was, again, a very nice thin space to find myself in.  The very next day, it popped up on facebook that it was her birthday.  January 4.  I’m terrible at remembering birthdays and significant dates, but I remember my people. 

The third “Thin Space” was two weeks ago at the checkout line in a grocery store.  I was shopping for a senior lady and feeling a bit at the end of my rope until I found myself in line behind a friend who used to work with me.  We had a delightful conversation which included me naming the fact that she had been done an injustice by the people who drove her out of a job she loved.  She remarked (her Thin Space) that it so happens that working as a companion to a disabled person had become her new full time job and that she loved it.  I was glad for her.

I turned and looked at the man behind me for no particular reason at all and then realized I know him and practically shouted, “Steve!  How are you?!”  He said great – and he looked healthy and well – but his face also registered that he couldn’t remember me.  I added, “You bought your dog from me five years ago!”  He beamed and said, “do you have any puppies now?  Because we want another one!”  I advised him that, in fact, we are expecting a litter mid-February.  I produced my business card and felt so happy that his cancer was gone, and his dog was so loved by their family.   

This situation at the grocery store was not like neighbors bumping into each other at a local grocery store.  It is at least 15 miles from my house, and although I go there weekly, the time frame varies.  It is almost as if the stars had to line up for these encounters to even happen at all.  

I am grateful for the Thin Spaces.  I am grateful when I am made aware that the Divine Eye is on me, and that I am His apple.  I am grateful that this year is starting out one million times better and more interesting than last year was in its entirety.  So I ask you, have you been open to the Thin Spaces?  Maybe that is a good resolution for all of us?!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ask Me your questions

Ask Me Your Questions

In the heat of our argument, the red face in front of me shouted:  “You never ask me anything!”  I looked at him, sincerely surprised, and responded:  “Because I don’t have any questions!”  It was one of my finer moments where dry humor sent someone else over the edge besides me.  Yet over the years I have had opportunity to address the underlying issue:  do I have the personal intellectual humility to admit that I do not, in fact, know everything about every topic?  Am I able to put myself even momentarily at the feet of someone else and ask a question that will help one or both of us?

In the course of what I do throughout the week, oftentimes I fill out nursing home forms with patients and/or their families.  One of the things that always leaves me a bit misty-eyed is the couples that announce to me how many years they have been married … to each other.  It is typical that I teasingly ask them, “No kidding?  Just to each other?  All those years?” … and then I give them my leading-the-witness, inquisitive face and press in with almost a clandestine whisper:  “So.  What’s your secret?”  Not only do I presume there IS a secret –because so few people are successful at long term marriage – but I also presume they are willing to share it with me.  They do not disappoint me.  Ever.

One woman smiled pleasantly and stated:  “I always let him have the last word.”  I raised my eyebrows.  The husband chipped in:  “And it is always, ‘Yes, Dear.’”  We all have a good laugh.

I have had the privilege to actually hear the emotion of adoration in the voice of more than one husband as he references his wife.  That always bolsters my confidence in the male portion of humanity.  I find myself sitting in a room which, while for the most part is just an ordinary hospital room, transforms into a sanctuary of sorts by the way that elder couples are present to each other in their critical health moments.  I listen.  I gauge my interview process carefully, as sensitively as I can.  In the cases where I am on the phone with a spouse long distance, how beautiful to hear him say, “I can hardly wait to see her again.  We’ve been married for 59 years.”  God bless them.  They have taken the time to crack the code of unselfishness, patience, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor.

I do not have one particular person that I am needing to be patient with – other than my three dogs – so generally it falls on me to try to be patient with whomever crosses the grid at the time.  That is a variable task, to be sure. 

While there is a lot of talk about “mindfulness” lately (what am I putting into my body/mind/spirit that kind of might not really be good for it?) I propose we raise the bar to talk more about “thoughtfulness.”  Thoughtfulness is really other-directed-mindfulness.  The other day, I bought a lottery ticket for myself … and then I added an extra … I gave it some thought as to whom I would share it with.  I guess I picked the right person because she laughed at it, and then even though it was a “loser,” kept it on her desk for a couple of days just to look at it.  Sometimes in the winter I worry that thoughtfulness will backfire – like, if I scrape snow off a windshield of someone’s vehicle in the work parking lot, what if I set off the car alarm?  But then I go ahead and do it because by that time, if it is bitter, bitter cold, I have already used up my cache of PG-rated Swear Words and can turn the act into a sort of penance for my sins.  With my luck, the good deed of scraping a windshield probably only “counts” towards the swear words I just used on my own windshield.  Don’t mark me down as a hero, I’ve only done this once or twice.  It’s the concept I love, not the deed itself.  LOL.

It seems to me that “sense of humor” covers a lot of beneficial ground.  I have warned people that tell me I am funny not to compliment me because it will just encourage me.  I get funnier for the people that find me funny… either that or they have lowered their standards consistently.  An elderly relative of mine spoke a truism to my grandmother long before I showed up on the planet:  “Josephine, if you can’t laugh at something silly, what can you laugh at?”  Let us laugh, then.  Let us search out, find, and enjoy the incongruities of human life for they are many and varied.  Laughing helps get our endorphins up and I suspect it affects our physical and psychological well-being in more ways than we know.  I can’t remember the last time someone made me roar with laughter.

Take a look at television.  Or not.  After 30 years of not having even basic cable, I’ve got it now and
at this point a few months into the journey I am wondering what medication to take to get rid of TV-itis.  I advised a recent ratings company that the level of heartless violence, gratuitous animal-like sexual behavior and overall bad behavior on prime time was a BIG shock to me.  Stories with an otherwise appealing plot throw in a moment of gore and you think to yourself, “AUGH!  I don’t want that in my brain just before I go to bed.”  Most of us are aware of the television network that could be dubbed “The Man-haters Channel.”  I found that after watching a couple of shows which were initially intriguing, I started to feel less safe in my own house.  Why is that, because up until now, thoughts of someone breaking into my home were not even on my mental grid?  But these sinister possibilities were threaded through my brain in the deceptive form of “entertainment” and I find that, you know what, I was better off without this stuff.  My point: television hasn’t even made me roar lately, and it’s the very thing that claims to “entertain us.”  It’s not doing its job!

Dear Reader, you may think I analyze stuff too much.  You will not be the first to suggest this.  But actually it is my vehicle for asking Life questions.  I ask myself questions.  I ask God questions.  I ask other people questions.  Hidden within this asking process, comes the possibility of actually grasping the finer points of Life’s Mysteries.  I think it is only at the point when I stand face-to-face with my Maker and He advises me, “Ask Me your questions,” that I will actually have run out of questions.  I will be standing in the middle of the Answer.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Almost-Lost Art

A friend online recently called me “quite the raconteur.”  At first I had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t an insult.  Then I realized it is the compliment that I have striven for all my life.  I think it is important for people to develop their human potential to become useful & interesting people.  I was thinking this way before writer/speaker Matthew Kelly was saying that “God wants us to be the very best version of ourselves.”  So I guess I feel validated in my intentions.

A raconteur is a person who is skilled at the art of telling interesting stories.  Perhaps it was hard-wired into my personality, but I know for sure that I grew up at the feet of absolute Masters in story-telling.  I also recognized that in order to find life more interesting sometimes all you have to do is change your perspective.  As one of the country singers twanged out, “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug!”  The windshield and the bug can experience the same conditions or event and come away with a completely different take on it.  It is up to the story teller to help you find the glorious hidden within the folds of the ordinary.

It was my own perception growing up that Sunday afternoons could be dreadfully boring at our house.  My father truly wanted to just rest.  And frankly, We the People, did not!  When he built our house it was someone’s idea to put a large bay window in the living room that gave you a bird’s eye view of the street and driveway.  I almost felt badly for him when one of the family Storytellers would pull in the driveway – He knew his nap had just been definitively cancelled.  Usually, he would call out something that could have been 50% profanity; and 50% a prayer of desperation and my mother would say, “What?!”  The reply:  “My uncle just pulled in the driveway.”  The coffee pot would immediately be queued-up for the visit from my great uncle, the world traveler.

His stories had color, zeal, mischief, excitement.  They had almost as much intrigue in them as Robert Duvall’s character in “Second Hand Lions.”  And that is a big compliment.  I imagine his deceased first wife Emily must have been initially intrigued with him and his tales… and then perhaps she got to the point where she said things like, “All right, just cut to the chase.”  Years of marriage sometimes wears the veneer of politeness off – so then, you just to with your tales to visit relatives.

Frankly, when Uncle Vince met his second wife and “he got religion” I was a bit worried.  I liked the new great aunt most certainly.  But I was afraid that some of his story telling ability would be hampered by a set of standards that seemed to be unnecessarily tagged onto the title of “religious.”  I was, in fact, delightfully put at ease when he broadened his story repertoire beyond tales of the far past, to tales that included recent trips to shrines and religious sites.  You can get a lot of fun stories just being around people anywhere – but take it over The Pond to a foreign country and it can only get better. 

In reality, you could put “religion” into a man, but sometimes you can’t kick-out the pre-existing tweaked sense of humor.  I remember the strange color of pale and rolling of the eyes that my mother displayed every time he told his Ashtabula joke.  Even though Ashtabula is a small town in Pennsylvania, I believe, he saw the opportunity for creating a folk tale of a traveler who stayed at a farmer’s house.  The only place where he could sleep was with the farmer’s daughter.  The farmer’s daughter’s name was Beulah.  The traveler was allowed to sleep with her as long as he turned his ash-to-Beulah.  As kids we roared at that joke.  Now as an adult, I recognize the mischievous spirit in which it was delivered so I don’t think it counts as a profanity which is a sin.  It’s just, well, as my friend Joan would say, “naughty.”

If I had children of my own, the setting for some of the stories I would tell them would be the Polkabration Festival held at Ocean Beach in Connecticut back in the day.  My parents, my brother and I, would pack into the family station wagon and “It” would begin even as we backed out of the driveway.  I called “shotgun” because I needed a bit of air coming from the car vent.  My mother had a natural antipathy to anything that resembled a “draft” so she sat in the back with my brother…. Which was just fine with me …. Maybe if SHE drew the line in the middle of the back seat he would respect it.  He never did with my line.  I’m just sayin. 

Mom:  “Did everyone go to the bathroom before we got in the car?” (as we backed out of the driveway).

<insert my father’s exasperated sigh here.>  (as we pulled back in the driveway again).

Resuming our backward travel out of the driveway, we begin again.  We turn into the small grocerette around the corner from our neighborhood.  I can tell you that if Mom goes in, you are coming out with nothing in your pocket.  If DAD goes in and you tag along, you can put the squeeze on him for a piece of penny candy.

Dad:  “I’m just going to run in to get the paper.”

Resuming our travel after the grocerette, he turns on the radio.  Ah, country music.

Mom:  “Do we have to have the radio on?  Could we have a little communication?”

Dad:  “What the he!!! Is there to communicate about?”  (the interchange has the flavor of some of the scenes in the iconic movie:  “The Christmas Story,” sans the Red Rider bb gun.)

He turns it down low so only he and I can hear it.  I suspect this is why I turned out musically inclined, and my brother who sat in the back seat did not.  Students in some of the classes I have taught know that I maintain Country Music is foundational in learning to “hear” harmonies in music.  There’s a lot of depth and emotion in it.  And the old ballads are yet another art form of how to tell a story PLUS do music simultaneously – could it be any better than that?!

We are now eight minutes away from our own driveway, at most. 

Dad:  (to mom) “Did you pack my bathing suit?”

Mom:  “No.  We are all wearing ours.  You were supposed to bring your own bathing suit.”

Dad:  “I can’t wear my bathing suit under pants because they …” (well, too much information.)

We turn around and go back home to retrieve dad’s bathing suit.  AGAIN, we resume our travel onward to the home of our family friends, the G’s , which is about 20 minutes ride over the mountain.  Apparently they left without us, so we jump back into gear and proceed to take the routes “32 and 2” to the beach. 

Half way there, the morning sun begins to make the car seem stuffy to me.  I like breathing, so I attempt to roll my window down (manually, the old way) and …

Mom:  “Close the window.  I’m getting a draft back here.  I will have stiff neck.”

I thought only the Pharoah’s in Egypt were prone to getting stiff-necked, as it said in the Bible.  But I digress.  I negotiate – I know, big surprise there – and can have it open approximately an inch and a half.  The seatbelt restricts me from pushing myself up toward the window to suck in the fresh air. Then the Styrofoam cooler in the super-back of the station wagon begins to squeak when we go over bumps.  It makes my stomach feel funny. 

Me:  “Why can’t you throw that cooler out and buy a plastic one that doesn’t squeak?  When I hear that noise it makes me feel sick to my stomach.”  No.  I’m not kidding.  And to this day, they still have that cooler in the basement somewhere.  I think it became a fishing bait cooler.  I think someday as an unsupervisable adult I will take it in their back yard and light it on fire to see if it returns to hell from whence it came.

We get near the sign that says “Egg Farms” and I decide closing the window is a good idea now.  By the way, they did not make all cars with air conditioning back in those days.  So if you wanted a trip in coolness, you left at the crack of dawn and drove everywhere you could before 10 am when the summer sun would attempt to work the dark side of its powers on car inhabitants.

Me:  “Are we stopping for donuts?”  I really should have a tee shirt that says this.  I also should have investment stock in the biggest franchise for donuts which had its origin in a small village in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Sometimes we stopped for donuts, sometimes we didn’t.  If it was looking like a no-stop trip, then Someone would have to take it upon themselves to request a potty stop…. “Oh look, there’s a place we could stop to use the restroom (that happens to sell donuts.)  Dad, you could stop there.”  I am not beyond helping the family by being the requestor.  That’s just who I am…. Nice like that.

So we got to the beach and proceeded to park and unpack the vehicle to get closer to locating a spot on the sand for our blanket and towels.  It seemed like a very long walk, even in my memory now 40+ years later.  I, always the opportunist, made one last appeal to yet another reason why we should get a new plastic cooler:  they came with wheels. My father grumbled a bit and we moved onward.  I think it took them ten years to break down and buy the orange cooler.  Sigh.  I was such a pioneer in my thinking, even then.

I must say the polka music was absolutely BLASTING from the pavilion.  You could almost become Polish by osmosis of sound. Our friends were already there, “What thehell took you people so long?”  the husband asked.  My father just shook his head.  I think my father was always a hidden health-nut.  They’d sit down on the beach and his friend, my adopted uncle, would ask:  “So Steve – as if the word “so” was part of his name – You want some juice?”  My mother didn’t have any juice, and for some reason the kids weren’t allowed to have any juice either.  It wasn’t until later when I became aware of the home-spun ways of avoiding liquor regulations on public beaches that I realized why just three adults had juice on our beach blankets.  It also explains why our Auntie Tillie all of a sudden took to dancing on the boardwalk around lunchtime… by herself.  And I guess because she wasn’t our parent, we were not obliged by unwritten kid rules to be embarrassed by her skipping to the polka music…. Or the “la-da-da-da” type of singing she was doing.

During one of these iconic trips to the beach, my father and I were 
walking kind of half way between our beach blanket and the foamy tendrils of the surf.  I turned and saw this guy coming toward him quickly – in bathing suit – with a child’s bucket of surf water.  Picture my face as I saw this guy grab the back of my father’s bathing trunks and DUMP the water down his backside!  My dad spun around, “What the??!!!” and the other man, laughing, reached out and shook his hand.  Turned out it was a distant cousin.  There were actually two cousins – Henyk and Leszyk – in my brain they were kind of like those two cartoon crows Heckle & Jeckle (probably the English translation of their names?) and this guy on the beach was one of them.  I think I’ve seen them only a couple of times in my life but they were kind of legendary somehow.  One of those families had a daughter my age who wasn’t particularly interested in being friendly.  No matter, I really just wanted to play with their Chihuahua pup that they brought to my grandparents’ home when they visited.  She didn’t share the dog either.  So my exposure to the distant cousins remains, well, distant in more ways than one.

You would think that with the eventfulness of the entire day that the trip home would have a sense of unwinding about it.  I believe the word “unraveling” suits it better, though.  We stopped at this diner in Connecticut – and I could not find it to this day if I tried – and my father always took his sunglasses off and rested them on the windowsill.  There was more than one time where we pulled into the driveway at home only to remember the sunglasses he left at the restaurant.  They probably have a box in their back storage room from all the Dad’s over the years that left sunglasses there. 
My favorite episode was the one where he ordered spaghetti.  Perhaps he was still suffering the effects of the hot sun and dehydration from drinking only juice on the beach, or the trauma of having cold ocean water being spilled down his shorts?  But he was famished when that spaghetti hit the table and began to shake on the cheese and swirl the pasta to his fork.  A funny look crossed his face.  The waitress passed by just to check that we had our order, and that all was well.  He remarked, “This spaghetti is different – the sauce is kind of sweet, yet gritty…” and then we realized what happened … as we all looked at the wide shaker on the table …. Which did NOT have parmesan cheese in it.  We all got a good laugh out of that.

Families need story-tellers as much as they need the stories themselves.  It is the story-teller who can put the spin on an event and make everyone laugh at the oddities of life.  Stories unite us.  So the next time I ask you, “What’s your story?” I might want more information!


Friday, September 1, 2017

D - GAS Syndrome

Who Suffers from D-G.A.S. Syndrome?  (We all do)

“Well, apparently, we’re both suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity,” was one of the best lines by Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in the musical epic, The Sound of Music.  It was an admission of lack of emotional or intellectual engagement that is completely applicable to what happened the other night at the Big Box grocery store where I shop. 

Sometimes life just happens in front of me and I am stunned.  In this case, I deliberately put myself in the check-out line behind the Amish family.  I was observing them and asking the question in my head of whether the Amish I read about in the lovely fictitious novels (which have become my steady diet) are the same ones I see around town.  I wonder if the Amish are as thoughtful and religious as the books portray them to be.  I also wonder if they use deodorant, designer shampoo, and other pleasantries that we all get used to in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.  I wonder if they wear wedding rings.  I wonder if the mother made the little boy’s shirt herself, or if someone else in their community did… and where they get that shade of mint green fabric.  I wonder if the wife is from a different location of Amish communities than the husband … and why his features looked more Germanic than hers did.  She almost had olive skin. Clearly, there are lots of questions crashing around in my head.

I was surprised to see so much “Englischer” food on their part of the conveyor belt:  cereals, snacks, and the like.  For once in my life, MY selection of food looked almost healthy!  I know I didn’t expect fruits and vegetables amongst their groceries because they most likely grown their own.  But the amount of almost junk food was startling.  I thought about my own garden that was almost a 100% flop this year.  If I had to grow my own food, I’d starve for sure and for certain.  I didn’t get the corn in early enough and I think it will be mature, oh, in October shortly before the first frost.  My strawberry plants got moved up to the deck and STILL something with small teeth chomped the berries right off the plants!  I think they left exactly TWO berries for me.  “A fine howdy-do,” from the chipmunks I’m sure.  The bean plants produced exactly three beans and I found them when they were shriveled nearly beyond recognition.  At the time, I pondered declaring the year a “seed-making year” and putting them in a baggie somewhere for next spring.  Instead, I lost my motivation and tossed them on the compost heap.  Yet again my chive crop was crazy and has conquered the entire raised bed.  Ask me how many times I’ve cooked with chives in the past six years.  I actually bought cottage cheese at one point, so to have something to fold the chives into.  Did you know cottage cheese turns pink when it starts going south?  I’ve got a renegade population of mint plants – and a friend at work that keeps telling me how I can “make tea” with them.  I roll my eyes – like I’ve got any time to fool around with making teas.  I’m too busy tearing up the mint plants that are threading root runners everywhere and being a general nuisance. 

Amidst my reverie, the dear Amish woman wrote a check to the store.  And the cashier who was so neutral in her interchange with her customers that I wanted to lean over, grab her wrist, and check her pulse, took the paper check without ceremony, and attempted to feed it into the cash register.  In my brain I thought:  Of course she would pay cash or check, if she had a debit or credit card the Amish lady would be participating in an electronic process which is verboden. (forbidden).  The cashier stood back from the machine and the belt and assumed the position pictured in the dictionary next to the phrase “Irritated Cashier,” as she announced, “we might have to check ID because it’s not taking It.”  I watched the Amish woman not flinch.  I watched the husband strain his eyes a bit wider at the mountain of groceries and products in the cart.  “Was the cool whip melting,” I thought, “and does cool whip ever truly spoil because it is so artificial? Or does it all just morph into that crispy yellow form?”

The tiny lad in his Amish green shirt and adorable smoke grey pants and suspenders did not make a peep.  He seemed totally at home with his little dark, brimmed hat resting on his golden hair.  His bangs rested just a smidge beyond his eyebrows giving his face a demeanor of shyness.  He seemed to hover around his father and the edge of the grocery cart like the hummingbird does near my front porch feeder – lightly and quietly.  Will he always remain this secure amidst the two pillars in his life – Maam and Dat – and expand their curious community among us?  They did not have to warn, throttle, chide, plead, threaten or glare at him the way 85% of parents do at this point in the checkout process.  Did I accidentally cross paths with the Two Most Successful or Perfect Parents on the planet?

Suddenly, even though they seemed to be awaiting a manager, the cashier turned back to the machine and pressed a button or two and muttered something about not supposed to do this herself.  The machine chug-chug-chugged the check through its teeth.  She looked in her dis-interested way at the woman and said, “Need you to sign.”  The woman signed the surface of the check screen with the inkless pen.  Did that count as participating with electronics?  The accepted, tendered, and cancelled check was handed back to the customer.  It struck me as an ironic gesture.  Ie.  1) Customer gives check.  2) Customer faced with check not being accepted.  3) Customer must sign screen.  4)  Check accepted.  5)  Customer gets check back, which is magically worth money no longer.  Off they went with their groceries.  I hope they don’t find this cashier was representative of the Englisch culture.

When they were beyond ear shot, I asked the cashier a question although I already suspected the answer:  Do the cashiers at this store get trained on how to work with the Amish and their special requirements?  “No.”  <insert her blank stare here.>  I continued:  “You know for you to ask for ID is going to be pointless because they don’t have their pictures taken.”  She said, “nah, I don’t know about that.” 

I replied:  “I do.  That’s WHY I’m telling you.”  She said, “well, then how’d she get checks?”  Here’s my surprise answer:  “They walk into the bank.”  She said, “Well, I hardly ever write checks anyways.” (I checked back the response in my sarcastic gut:  I’m sorry, did this conversation just turn to be about you, because that wasn’t where I was fixing to steer it… you typical 20-something.).    I wanted to offer her some more information – but clearly her D-GAS Syndrome was kicking in. 

You wonder what D-GAS Syndrome is.  (Mom, stop reading here.)  It stands for Don’t Give A Shit.  This has over and again characterized “some” members of the 20-30 year old population as of late, and it is getting to be a bit old.  In fact it is downright maddening to me.  They are very poor at customer service (see my previous stories about finding a hair stylist), because for the time when they are required to be about the business of work IT AINT ALL ABOUT THEM.  And that takes them completely out of their comfort zone.  It does not make a cheerful or helpful worker.  It does not make them pleasant human beings to interface with.  It is a drain on the soul of the planet and all its inhabitants.  (well, perhaps I dragged their influence too far.)  But I will tell you, when I find helpful cashiers and attentive waiters I just feel like HUGGING them because they MAKE a difference.  I particularly love the two tech guys that have helped me with my cell phone problems lately.

That cashier probably doesn’t realize that with all those groceries, the couple isn’t going to jump in their own buggy and drive away:  they most likely hired an Englischer driver to bring them to the store in a vehicle because the buggies tend to stay off the streets toward the evening (BECAUSE our drivers are so self-absorbed, we tend to hit them, speed around them, or cause accidents.)  Also, when they go to their own home, they won’t be flipping on a light switch – they will be lighting a gas lamp.  If the air is chilly, they will be lighting a kerosene heater or wood stove.  There are a lot of things we take for granted that make it easy to shop for groceries any time of day or night, whenever we want.  

For the Amish, living independently of the electrical grid and certain luxuries of modern American society, makes daily life take more time and effort.  That may seem like a waste of time to the D-GAS generation as they click away on their cell phones and tablets and ipads, etc.  For all the communication tools that the D-GAS kids have, they are getting a lot less true, heartfelt, and community-building communicating accomplished.  They are often self-absorbed and lonely at the same time.  I wish we could declare a social media time-out day, or even week, to try to save them.  

We don’t have to become Amish to realize the Amish have something figured out that we more regularly struggle with:  building stable, loving human community.  Maybe if we pay more attention in the grocery store to the person in front of us, we learn more than we expected we would.  I-GAS.  Do you?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why Can't the English - Part II.

Why Can’t the English…. ??? – Part II.

We are suffering, as a culture, from little errors in communication all the time.  Some of them don’t matter; some do.  But cumulatively, the little errors are leading us to the deterioration of the language system as a whole.  It works like this:  Every interface is an opportunity for one party to Encode a message, attempting a delivery; and the second party to Decode the message, attempting some sense-making of the words.  Sometimes all it takes is the removal of ONE WORD from the sentence and it changes the meaning.  The new meaning can cause trouble.  The MEDIA in the United States KNOWS this and is capitalizing on this to cause deep turmoil in our culture. 

When we read articles or listen to news pieces, we can miss a critical word, or it can be removed on purpose at the delivery of the message, and there are important ramifications.  For instance, when we are talking about drugs – one word may change the value of the message:  legal.  A legal drug can be a prescribed pharmaceutical substance that can heal someone.  Granted, in the wrong hands it can become illegally used by someone to whom it has not been prescribed… or perhaps worse it could fall in the hands of a child or mentally compromised person and have tragic results.  But the word still matters “legal.”  “Legal” is an important distinction from “illegal,” in a sane world.

Words paint a picture.  The media has been playing a colossal word game, at least since 1973, which is about as far back as I am able to remember.  When the country became divided on the issue of abortion, the media began crafting words to sway public opinion.  “Choice.”  Every American soul rallies to the sense of entitlement to be “master of my own ship, captain of my destiny.”  The word “choice” deeply resonates within us.  But we forget that choices can be morally good, or morally evil.  When my choice eclipses someone else’s choice because they cannot speak for themselves, that is a significant problem and a grave injustice.  When we strip the word “choice” of an adjective that defines the morality of a choice itself, we do no one any favors…. Not the woman who undergoes a mechanical rape, not the child who is removed from the safety of the womb, not the culture amidst a war of words.  Instead of us as an entire culture, striving to support women in making better preliminary choices (ie. chastity outside of marriage), we deify the choice-making machine itself, and the social problem continues.

Here’s another example of the value of one word.  A couple of years ago, I sat in a very important meeting of parish leaders in a community.  I said to them:  “I refuse to teach an irrelevant Catholicism.”  The woman next to me shouted:  “Catholicism is not irrelevant!”  I replied:  “That’s NOT what I said.”  She only heard part of the sentence, where the descriptive article “an” was removed.  She came away with an entirely different message than I delivered to her because her pre-existing bias blocked her ears.  I see the same thing happening in the media today.  I see it primarily on Facebook where people react, react, react.  So much of Facebook users’ weighing-in on political news-pieces is a reaction.  We lack the intellectual thoughtfulness to craft a better response when we let the knee-jerk typing take over.  I know.  I’ve done it myself a couple of times.  Then you ask yourself, “at the end of the day, did I share something that really mattered, or did I just vent?” 
I look at how the conversation-based interview shows go on television and I can only tolerate a few minutes.  You can begin with the presumption that, like most everyone else, I am tuning into shows that are of particular interest to ME for some reason… and yet I can hardly tolerate listening to the interface.  How I HATE interruptions!  And yet, most of these talk shows are bantering without allowing one person to fully complete a thought before there is a response. This is just very, very bad communication technique that leads inadvertently (I think) to the wholesale breakdown of communication.  It is how teenagers sometimes deal with parents – the “but’s and the and’s” and the attempting to talk over the adult’s A-to-Z monologue about whatever.  It really terminates any sort of true communication.  I am seeing this more and more in the routine of daily interactions.  It is going to bring us to a very bad place.

You may or may not have heard of St. Thomas Aquinas but I think his method of explaining would be a useful guide to all of us.  I believe he borrowed his technique from St. Albert the Great who was very big into the sciences.  And some may recall how back in our own educational days we learned the scientific method.  You would have a hypothesis, proofs, and conclusion.  Aquinas actually took that and applied it to his theological study.  He began with re-stating the question of his intellectual opponent in a way that led you to conclude he had listened carefully enough to understand it, and therefore he would be able to competently address it.  He then undertook to present logical proofs or statements to either support a position or prove its non-sequitur (“It does not follow” ie.: it’s nonsense).  Think of the possibilities if we took this technique into our classrooms, our business dealings, our marriages, our friendships.  How much conflict could be alleviated!  Yes – it DOES take longer to get to where you are going with this method, but it provides a clarity that we cannot live without.

Back in the 1970’s, the Psychological world was teaching us a method of this in conflict resolution.  Condensed, it goes like this:  Person A says something.  Person B responds:  “What I hear you saying is < and repeats what A said>.”  Then Person A can say, “Yes, that is what I meant” or “No.  Let me re-state that more clearly.”  Nowadays, we just call the person a name or slap on a derisive label and move on.  The lack of respect for both people and the process breaks the whole system of communication itself down.  This has an impact on the wholeness/integrity of culture itself.

Can we afford a society of babbling imbeciles?  Ooh. I’m sorry did I say that too clearly?  Can we afford to keep the divisive rhetoric going, at the expense of PEACE within our culture?  Should we continue to let the Media hold the baton and call the moves for how we relate as a people who live in the Nation with the very greatest opportunities to be excellent in so many ways? 

In the classic movie “My Fair Lady,” Rex Harrison sang a song that encapsulates the importance of the use of good English diction but I would propose that it also relates well to my point on content and culture.
                “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? 
                Norwegians learn Norwegian.  The Greeks learn their Greek.
                Use proper English, and you’re regarded as a freak …
                Oh why can’t the English?!  Why can’t the English?  Why can’t the English
                Set a good example ….”

Yes.  Why can’t the English …. And the Americans as well …


Why Can't the English - Part I.

Why Can’t the English…. ??? – Part I.
Every year communication gets worse.  There is a plethora of words, and yet communication is more scant.  People, if listening at all, are mostly half-listening.  They are simultaneously listening to music in their ear buds, a television blaring in the background, or looking at their cell phone’s screen scrolling absent-mindedly with one finger.  I fully anticipate in the future that we will no longer be able to utilize the index finger for police fingerprints because the unique ridges will be worn off by scrolling on the cell phone and ipad screens.

Even when they really are listening, they aren’t hearing or comprehending.  For that problem, I can make no polite diagnosis.  Here’s the case in point:

My friend and I were haunting the Mall last week to get some hair-related procedures done in the absence of our good friend and hairdresser who is vacationing in China.  This is probably one of the biggest Malls in America; I’m just saying.  We went to no less than FIVE different shops before we found someone who could see us.  This was a “girls’ afternoon out” so, obviously, we wanted to be worked on simultaneously so we could visit and not die of boredom getting our hair done.  The first place we went was booked solid.  The second place we went had only one girl working.  She told us that she was booked for the rest of the afternoon & evening, but the next day had time for walk-in’s.  Really?  And if we walk in seconds after someone else walks in first, then you won’t have time for US as walk-in’s.  (Mensa Conclusion: This is the risk you take when you don’t make appointments in advance:  she loses business that she can’t fit in; meanwhile, I am walking around with roots advertising that I am no longer 28 years old!) 

The third place we went to was a “beauty products” store with a sandwich board in front that listed the prices of their salon services.  I walked up to the girl at the counter who appeared to be dressed for a funeral.  I apologize.  I get distracted with our current fads and styles – back in my day, only farm animals had piercings in their noses.  Blame it on my lack of multi-cultural upbringing, or whatever, but it aint my bag.  I was, nonetheless very polite in my request:  “Hi.  I need a color; and my friend needs a permanent.”  She looks at me with “????” going across her face.  I repeat myself.  She starts to walk away from the cash register, pointing to the products, and is talking to me but not looking at me (and that is ALWAYS bad customer service manners.) “We have boxed color over …” and I feel my midlife angst surge, I make the Time-Out gesture with my hands, and call out:  “Stop.  Right there.  You don’t understand me.  I am asking about your SALON SERVICES.”  Then my friend says over my shoulder, “I need a perm.”  Somehow the word “permanent” did not seem to be the logical rootword of the shorthand “perm,” which is why she wasn’t getting it?  The clerk said very nonchalantly, “oh, yeah, we don’t have anyone working back there now.”  End of vignette.  I walk out raising my eyebrows and shaking my head.  No apology.  No attempt to re-schedule us so they would have future business.  No nothing.  Argh.  The fourth shop was a repeat experience of example #2.

The fifth place was like how many xx’s does it take to screw in a light bulb.  It took three people looking at the appointment book to see if/when they could fit us in.  Then they decided, rather apologetically, “Well, we could take you in 15 minutes.”  They were apologizing for minutes?  Hey, no problem – I feel like I spent hours walking around the mall already.  Then the fun begins.  I step outside to wait in the lobby that has massage chairs.  What the heck, why not?  I will tell you why not:  the inflatable compression on both sides of the calves of my legs scared me more than the automatic blood pressure cuff in the drugstore does.  It KEPT INFLATING.  I yanked my legs out before they were exploded.  The electronic pummeling on my back was so intense, I think I lost weight on the front of my body.  Not to mention it rattled my whole body so bad, it must have been obscene for onlookers to behold.  One minute into this torture, my stylist looks out and calls me inside.  I turn to my friend:  “Take the chair.  It’s got a minute left on it.”  The stylist says, “Oh, we would have waited for you.”  No problem –trust me – I think I am done with those chairs for quite a while.   Two stylists ended up working on my friend and I simultaneously, the pop music bopping in the background.  A Latino man in his late 30’s comes in pushing his mother’s wheelchair.   She transfers to the stylist’s work chair, and he transfers to a nearby chair to wait and scroll the cell phone.  And then it happens:  “Despacito” comes on the radio.  I comment out loud, “Ah, Despacito, it’s been #1 on the pop charts for eleven weeks, easily the new Macarena.  But the lyrics in both are kind of racy.”  And then the Mother and Son began singing:  “Poquito, poquito …. Despacito.”  You think I make this stuff up.  I don’t.  I just smiled to myself and let my Magician keep making the aging-look disappear from my hair.  She did a nice job.  I tipped her fairly.  It ended well…. But it was too much of a communication Odyssey getting there.

Hey, I just want people to LISTEN to each other.  We will get much more accomplished if we pause to absorb the entire picture as someone speaks:  the verbal and the nonverbal both matter in the presentation of data.  This isn’t merely a customer service issue.  This is a whole world issue.  Read on… to the next blog entry… 

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Whole New World

A Whole New World

For a brief moment, I felt an energy go through me like a child who stands at the gates to Disney World for the first time.  I felt joy.  My heart swirled.  I smiled without effort for the first time in a long time.  My mind felt fresh like the way you feel when someone opens a window to let in fresh ocean breezes to a stuffy cottage.  If I had to replicate the scene in a movie, I would have me looking up and around and spinning in a circle.  Wow.  Over 250 cookie jars perfectly aligned on shelves – no dust – arranged in groupings:  polar bears with soda bottles, cottages comprising a village, kittens, designer bears, cartoon characters … the list goes on.  Not only that, the room was knotty pine – and that in itself is glorious to me.

The lady showed me this room of treasures and smiled cheerily, knowing she had found a friend in me.  I understand what it is that makes someone a collector.  For the record:  Collectors are different than hoarders.  Collectors have a purpose – be it having a complete set of something vintage, or gathering to re-sell at a later date, or some such thing – and collectors put order to their treasure trove.  They care for it, keep it orderly and in tip-top shape.  And then eventually they realize when it is time to shift gears and move forward.  It is unfortunate that in our television culture we are so quick to presume that just because a person has more than one of something that he or she is a hoarder.  It just ain’t true.

My friend is a crafter and she has painted and done ceramics, and I’m sure a whole host of other occupations that I am unaware of.  She came to have this collection over time, and then when it was the season for change in her life, she knew that the cookie jars and all the craft supplies would move forward – I assured her that I would buy a few of them as Christmas gifts for children in my life that would enjoy them and take good care of her prizes.  The sentiment seemed to please her.

So I went into the Estate Sale and picked out nine good designs, and one vintage.  (Vintage means it is kind of homely and worth more money than you’d think it would be.)  I thought I was done, because the sellers were in a hurry to close shop at 3pm and they gave me the bum’s rush out the door.  I got home and washed up the jars, setting them to dry on the kitchen table prior to storing them for gift wrapping later.  I made a list of who was going to get which jar, and realized I could do better.  I reached out to the selling company and made an appointment for a second visit.  It was different than the first.

They weren’t watching over my shoulder like the first time because they knew I was a buyer and not a scoper or a thief.  They let me browse.  I had time to think, to inspect, to imagine:  I picked out seven more.  That’s the thing about my personal browsing/buying habits – a smart salesperson will just hand me a box and leave me to my own devices.  The minute someone starts hovering in my zone I get edgy and can’t think straight.  I need my mental space.  I credit this quirk to an artsy, and inexplicable streak of independence in me.  I don’t like working in groups when I do art or planning d├ęcor for my home.  I don’t even want a radio on.  My brain gears shift more smoothly when I am surrounded in a blanket of monastic silence… well, with the exception of the slight “huffs” that dogs sleeping at my feet make. 

So now I have these fun cookie jars and will be packing them into boxes for Christmas presents.  I will be sorry to see them go – like when you meet new friends at a conference on a weekend and you know that most likely you will never see them again:  they are in my life for a brief moment, and then onward they go.  I look forward to seeing the expressions on the faces of the people who will give them their new homes.  In the meantime I have been bitten by a bug that has changed my chemistry:  I believe I am going to get more into estate sales and re-homing items.  I really like it.  I like knowing that someone’s treasures will brighten the day of yet another person.

We may not lay up our treasures on earth where thieves and rust destroys, as the Scripture says, but we can certainly borrow them for a time.  In another passage it says:  “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.”  Well, maybe Heaven has a 24/7/365 yard sale going on – won’t that be fun?!

 The Miss Muffett jar & Sleeping bear jar are both for sale.
Contact me if you are interested.  They are vintage jars.