Thursday, August 27, 2015

Math Problems

I walked through the Swarm Inn, the fast food restaurant on campus, dejected and at a loss as to what to do next. It was spring semester of my senior year. I was taking Math Concepts for my math credit and things weren't going well. My friend, Charles, caught me on my walk through the building.

“What is the matter?” he asked concerned.

I crumpled and my answer came pouring out. “I just failed my math test. I don't know what I'm going to do. I just don't get the material and if I don't pass this class, I WON'T GRADUATE!”

“What are you talking about?” Charles was a math major, so flunking a basic math class was out of his realm of possibility.

“I am terrible at math, Charles. I don't understand any of it.”

At one point, I had asked a question in the middle of class. The professor said a few words and ended with, “I've already explained it, I don't know what else to say.” The math teacher/student humiliations were stacking up.

In fourth grade, I was in Mrs. McNaul's math class. We were learning long division. She told us that when we solved a problem without a remainder we were to put a smiley face next to the problem. I took the instruction one step further. When there WAS a remainder, I drew a frowny face. One morning, she asked us to swap papers with other students. Matt Somebody had my paper. Mrs. McNaul read the answers aloud. She paused and announced, “I have one student who draws frowny faces when there are remainders.” It was the worse thing ever that Matt Somebody had my paper. He was a stinker on a good day and now he had my paper and the proof that I was the frowny face culprit. “That's you! You're the one with the frowny faces!” Matt Somebody stage whispered. I wanted to melt into my chair.

“I tell you what. I'll help you study for your tests. Let me know when your next test is. I'll help you study for it the night before.”

I walked away feeling relieved that I had a plan. I was working my way through the test material and my answers kept coming up wrong. Charles looked at me and said, “Julie, your problem isn't math concepts. Your problem is you can't do third or fourth grade math.”

Cue flashbacks to the frowny face remainders. “Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

With Charles' help, I passed the class and avoided the humiliation of flunking out of college because of third and fourth grade math.

It's only appropriate that now in my fortieth year as I'm slaying my fears right and left that I should have a third grader with math homework. That I can barely understand. She loves math, which is great, but by the time we work on homework she's tired and the work looks daunting. Last night's work focused on rounding to the nearest ten and hundred. I helped her with a problem and then turned to continue writing the letter I was working on. “Stay with me!” she pleaded. “You keep me brave.” I laughed because I hadn't left my chair. I melted because my presence brings her comfort. I coached her through the next problems and insisted that she first work through them herself before asking for more help. She finished the double-sided worksheet, but it pains me to admit that I second guessed myself more than once as she asked for help. Sigh.

Giving her homework help is a case of performance art. I cannot let her see me sweat, to see how much anxiety these problems give me. I'm the mom. I need to ably guide her. I'm the word girl. Her dad's the number guy. Dear Lord, help me conquer this!

I used to have the same trepidation when I spent time in the kitchen. What brains I had got scrambled like eggs as I made my way through a recipe. Cooking felt like a math problem, but it doesn't anymore. When I come up against a third grade math concept that needs explanation and I don't understand it myself, I'm going to breathe and think of my success in the kitchen and charge on. I may even resort to googling “how to solve a third grade math problem” for back up. Or getting Sylvan Learning Center's number on speed dial. But on second thought, my daughter helped pave my way in the kitchen. I have no doubt she'll do the same with math.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Brokenness and Beauty

“We have a surprise activity for Saturday morning,” June told me over the phone a few days before our weekend together. “I want to keep it a surprise, but I do want to tell you a little about it so that you can be prepared. We want you to bring mementos from your journey. Things that are special to you and Cadence.” While I couldn't remember the name of the artist, I remembered that the Johnson's had done something artistic a few years back. I wondered now if this was what June was talking about. I didn't say anything. I love surprises. I spent the rest of my commute to work thinking of the items I would gather before we left town in two days.

We picked up Myles and Chelsea on our way to our Saturday adventure and drove to a little town outside the metro area. Brad pulled up to a beautiful house with a sign over the garage that read “The Torn Edge.” We met the artist at her door and were welcomed into her home studio. It was brimming with the raw materials of soon-to-be masterpieces. Wood and metal in the forms of window frames, screen doors, and ceiling fan blades were stacked floor to ceiling. It was an upcycler's dream space.

We settled into bar stools around a wooden work table. Michelle introduced herself and shared the difficult life stories that had culminated to bring her to this place. She described how she found healing by making art out of scraps. I love a good metaphor, and I was sitting in the middle of a powerful one right now. Through scraps of wood, torn paper, and metal, Michelle had created a new work life for herself, learned how to make beauty out of brokenness, and how to share that healing process with others. She was showing that the bad things of life; sickness, death, poor decisions, fear, and depression can be transformed into beauty. She was living proof that God can make something good come from any dark circumstance.

Brad and June looked at me and said, “We've brought you here to create your own art piece.” I was overwhelmed by the fact that they thought of creating this space for me, but also that they had spent time gathering items from their end of our friendship to contribute to the art piece. They pulled out photos, programs from church services we'd experienced together, presidential memorabilia, and scripture verses. These people are extraordinary. If you have the privilege of being loved by them, it is a singular experience. You can't help but become a better version of yourself in their presence and under their wise, loving influence.

Michelle's son invited my daughter to play inside the house. This too was a gift because it gave me time and space to feel my emotions and express them. I began to cry about an old hurt that while time does seem to ease, gets reopened from time to time. I sobbed and wept. June came around the table and held onto me. She mothered me and cooed to me and let the tears fall and the sobs shake my small frame. She and her family gifted me with their presence that day.

As I laid out my mementos on the table and began to arrange them to tell my own story I saw how the events of the past four years had brought me to this table. My job elimination, my dad's life-threatening illness, and three more years of our family's employment insecurity. They had been heart breaking, aggravating, and exhausting experiences. They had also prepared me for making decisions that needed to be made.

I felt the weight of the crossroads before me as I moved these mementos around. I am forty and now single. The new decade is significant, but made all the more so because I'm forging it on my own. Behind the activity of working my way through the 4040 list of activities, I had also taken a stand for myself, my soul, my daughter, and our future. The weight of a mismatched union lifted from my shoulders. I feel strong and good and lonely. But mostly strong and good.

This same weekend another friend reflected that when a sister became a widow she felt unmoored. “I played getting married and house and having babies as a little girl. I never played being a widow. I don't know how to do this.”

I know exactly how she feels. I played the same things constantly growing up, but playing divorced, single mother, solo homeowner never factored into my imaginary play. It's a strange thing to feel the relief of the end of something that needed to, while also feeling deep sadness and loneliness. There are many adjustments to be made in this new life. Sharing time with my daughter, having so much time to myself, adding grocery shopping and lawn mowing back into my weekly routine. Finding out what good companions solitude and silence and a daily writing habit are.

The tears dried and the work of creating my art piece began. As I watched Michelle guide our work, I began to feel a lightness and expansiveness in my chest. It was a sensation I've not felt before. I liked it. It was a physical manifestation of what I was feeling in my soul. Hope. I felt Hope. And Joy. And Peace. And Love. All Good Things.




Tuesday, August 25, 2015

19. Rockclimbing at IBEX in Kansas City - COMPLETE

Sometimes I amaze myself with my strategic thinking. I put rockclimbing on the 4040 list because a. I wanted another physical challenge and b. my friend's husband manages a gym and I never see these friends enough. Putting this activity on the list and stipulating that it had to take place in Kansas City meant I HAD to make time for a visit.

This weekend away exceeded my expectations. I needed a change of scenery and I wanted my daughter to have some one-on-one time with these people I call family. You'll read about this weekend from other vantage points, but for now this post is about the climbing.

We squeezed our feet into our rental climbing shoes and stepped into our harnesses and approached the walls. “Are you afraid of heights?” Myles asked. “Well, I don't love them which is why climbing was added to the list.”

He looked around the gym and took us to a less populated area. He tied the rope onto my harness. I reflected that I really wasn't nervous. The zipline experience factored into the conversation. I guess I was more scared about launching off that platform than I have digested because I've used it as a barometer reading for my level of nervousness since. Climbing registered not at all on the fear chart compared to the ziplining.

Myles told me I was free to climb and I did. We started on a pretty easy route and I made it to the top quickly.




I came down the wall, not at all gracefully and Cadence took her turn. It was a joy to watch this girl try something new and to do it with such fearlessness. She listened to Myles's instruction and coaching carefully and got the hang of coordinating her leg and arm movements very quickly.

There was much cheering and applauding when the eight-year-old made it to the top!


Myles introduced us to more challenging routes with each climb. I marveled at my daughter's tenacity and drive to make it to the top of each climb. I was so glad that we were doing this activity together. We got to cheer each other on and celebrate each other's successes. Her little forehead poured with sweat with every climb. I loved watching how hard she was working and how determined she was.

Cadence got the hang of sitting in the harness legs outstretched and coming down the wall. I never descended gracefully. On my second descent, I slammed my left shoulder into the wall. That wall doesn't budge. It was jarring and a good reminder that rockclimbing is a dangerous sport and must be approached with equal parts caution and adventure.



“You have done harder things than this.” This was the mantra I repeated to myself when I hit a challenging place on the wall on my second to last climb. I was tiring and I wasn't sure how to proceed up the wall. I paused, took a breath to clear my head, and then resumed the climb. It felt so good to make it to the top.



I didn't complete my last climb. That route was the one that reminded me about limits and when to push through and when to know it's time to stop. I kept looking up and saw three more holds to get to before I was at the top. I had no more leg or arm strength. I contemplated what it would take for me to continue and how I would feel if I didn't finish. When I knew that I would feel just fine—not in anyway a failure—I told Myles it was time to quit and he eased me down.

Myles told Cadence that it was the best first climb he'd seen someone her age do. My Brad-Dad said he was impressed with how well I did. Those compliments were such a great way to end the day.

Our muscles were shaky, the pads of our hands were pink and sore. We were thirsty and tired and happy. I enjoyed the experience more than I had anticipated and it was especially sweet sharing it with my daughter and our friends. Their cheers and recognition of our hard work added so much to the experience.


15 of 40 items to go. It sounds like a lot, but most of them are scheduled between now and January 3, 2016. I'm thrilled to have accomplished so much and had so much fun doing every single one of them. Thanks for reading...more to come.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Music Memory - Roy Orbison

This music generated memory proves the theory that children do not care what activity they do with parents they just want quality time together.

In the days before curb-side trash pick up, my dad loaded up the metal drums that held our week's worth of trash in the bed of his orange Datsun truck and headed off to the city dump. My sister and I sat in the bench seat next to him. With windows down and the wind whipping my long hair all around, we set off on an adventure. Our hometown was small, but the drive to the outskirts felt long.

Dad loved music and sang along to whatever tune blasted from the radio next. Dad was also really silly and loved to laugh. One particular Saturday morning, Roy Orbison's Anything You Want (You Got It) came on. We tapped our toes and bobbed our heads. Roy sang:

Every time I look into your loving eyes
I see a love that money can't buy
One look from you I drift away
I pray that you are here to stay.
Anything you want,You got it
Anything at all,You got it.

I know Roy was singing about romantic love, but I could hear a parent's love for his child and a child's adoration for her daddy in those words too.

When Roy got to the chorus, my dad belted out “You got it!” in his silliest falsetto. Two little girls giggled and waited for the next “You got it!” Dad did not disappoint. He cracked himself up as Roy sang. The next stanza began:

Every time I hold you I begin to understand,
Everything about you tells me I'm your man.
I live my life to be with you.
No one can do the things you do.
Anything you want, you got it.
Anything you need, you got it.
Anything at all, you got it.
Baby!
Anything you want
Anything you need
Anything at all

***

Dad contracted a sudden onset autoimmune disease. He was intubated and paralyzed from the neck down. Nurses had advised us that we needed to avoid discussing his scary health status with him. Words of comfort and encouragement were the best things to offer him as he was trapped in his own body.

I stood at Dad's bedside. It was evening, and I was exhausted from a day of worry and uncertainty. I looked out the windows. The street lights twinkled light on an otherwise pitch black night. The vast darkness mirrored my family's worry and the possibility that this man would not pull through.

I was at a loss for more encouraging words, so I began to softly sing to my dad. I sang hymns and was stunned that even under duress I was able to remember the lyrics in their entirety.

I finished one song and started another. Suddenly, Roy's chorus came to mind. Anything you want, you got it. Anything you need, You got it. Here was my sweet, silly dad laying sedated in a hospital gown. He was hooked up to so many machines that beeped their own rhythm as I sang.

I couldn't think of any better words for the occasion. I wanted to give him anything he wanted. I was desperate to meet his every medical need. It stirred my long-ago memories of the rides to the city dump and the sing-a-longs in the truck. I was comforted as I sang through my tears.

Had Dad succombed to that awful condition, memories of singing to him and his ever so slight nods of his head would have been such a comfort. But he did recover—fully. He has no memory of his weeks under sedation or that night when I sang to him. That desperate circumstance taught me the power of song and how it touches on a far deeper level than we can imagine.

Friday, August 21, 2015

33. Attend a School Board Meeting


As I put the 4040 list together, I was intentional about adding activities that would balance having fun with challenging myself physically and mentally. I also added items that would require that I take my role as citizen more seriously. This is a by-product of my other project--reading the presidential biographies in consecutive order. That's why writing letters to legislators and attending a school board meeting were included. Plus, with the exception of the cost of four stamps, which I always have on hand, these activities were free.

I needed someplace for Cadence to stay when I was at the meeting, so her Sunday School teacher agreed to keep her for me. They would do the lesson that Cadence missed on Sunday together and I would pick her up after the meeting.

I noted as I drove to the administration building that I was nervous. I don't like walking into rooms full of strangers alone. I also noted that this nervousness did not register as high as standing on the platform right before I flung myself onto the zipline. I could handle this.

I entered the room and observed the pre-meeting buzz and activity. I was pleased to see a few students. Their presence surprised me. I could hear conversations. There were differing opinions about topics I knew nothing about and all sides held their lines firm. The room continued to fill with patrons and their high school students. I was impressed with the attendance.

The meeting began promptly at 7 o'clock. The entire assembly stood to say the pledge of allegiance. The words didn't come readily to my mouth as they had decades ago when I was saying it daily in school.

Patron comments came first. This is an opportunity for the public to voice their opinions and concerns to the board. Each individual has three minutes. The timer sounded before each of them finished. The gist was “Teachers earn every penny they earn. Don't cut salaries or positions,” “There should have been better communication to the public when the tax increase went to the ballot,” “I am disappointed to realize the Board doesn't have contingency plans in place now that the measure was defeated.”

It didn't take long as my back and hips began aching from the uncomfortable, squeaky chair I was sitting in to realize that I didn't know enough about the school district and that I needed to attend more of these meetings.

It also didn't take long for me to remember how little I like bureaucracy, and how I would never find myself wanting to serve on a board like this.

We heard about preliminary MAP testing results and where our district ranked. We're still top ranked in our county and also still working to rank as high as two other districts in the region. The performance at the elementary level is solid. There is work to be done at the middle school level.

Then the drudgery began. We sat through a long explanation about how the plan was to cut transportation. We heard historical perspective on a public vote in 1979 and how that affects our actions and decisions today. This part of the presentation was long-winded, confusing, and stumped even the members of the board.

I kept looking at the time on my phone. We were an hour in, surely it would be wrapping up shortly.

I observed that one woman in particular was vocal. Her professional background seemed to grant her the greatest appreciation for all of the information that was being presented and she repeatedly put things in terms and contexts that the public could better digest, at least this member of the public. 8:30 rolled around. The conversation continued. I fidgeted as much as my third-grader might in her classroom. When was this going to wrap up?

Finally, I decided that 9:00 would be my cut-off. I missed my daughter. She had homework that needed to be done and I'd forgotten to send it with her. I didn't want to take advantage of my friend's gracious help to spend her evening with Cadence. Another woman took the floor and began to further digest the evening's topic. She talked about taking pictures of bulletin boards that displayed “growth mindset” principles in an eighth grade hallway in our district. She suggested that the Board adopted that same mentality. She said that she felt the Board was giving up too quickly after a defeated vote. That instead of finding places to cut, they should go back to the drawing board and find a ballot measure that the public could get behind. Finally some pragmatism and sense.

Where was this speech earlier in the evening? Why is it that the moms on the Board as with every facet of life always seem to “get it” before the dads? I questioned throughout the evening the qualifications and backgrounds of the people who run for the board. The two most vocal members seemed to have education in their professional backgrounds (and were women). The others didn't seem to have a clue.

I know some teachers and parents on Facebook want me to report back. I am respectfully submitting this blog post as my report. While I'm curious about how long the meeting lasted, I feel no discomfort about leaving the meeting before it adjourned. At forty, my sense of priorities and balance are more fine-tuned than ever. I gave up an evening with my daughter to become a more informed citizen and parent in our district. At forty, I'm also guided by boundaries in a way I've never been before. Two hours of my time after long commutes to and from work, a long day at the office, dinner for my daughter via drive through—two hours was enough for one evening. Particularly when very little was accomplished.

I am certain I will be a more frequent attendee of these meetings. After hearing the rambling three minutes speeches of my neighbors, I might even decide to write my own three-minute speech some evening. I'm certain I could get a lot more stated in the limited time than what I heard last night.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Response from a Missouri Representative

Four summers ago my job of nearly ten years was eliminated. It was a shock. I'd built a great network of colleagues and friends and had an opportunity to do really interesting things in that decade. It was also a stressful existence, and one I hadn't had the fortitude to change on my own. Within hours I began to feel that the job loss was a gift, an opportunity to move on to bigger and better things.

I spent my time that summer divided between job searching, spending extra day time with my precious four-year-old, and asking the deeper questions, “What am I here for? What is my purpose?” Somewhere along the way, the idea that my letter writing was a divine gift came to me. I had been writing letters since my stationery had Cabbage Patch Kids on it. I had always considered it a quirk of mine. Evidence that I had been born in the wrong century.

That summer something told me to stop disrespecting this gift. To be unapologetic about the letters I wrote. To consider it a form of ministry. And when I did, everything changed. Letter writing became a lifeline for me and for my recipients. It became a way of trusting my gut. People come to mind and instinctively I know when it's time to write them. Often times I have no idea what is happening in their lives. I just send a note saying they are on my mind and I wanted them to know. I share good things that are happening in my life. Other times I share things I'm struggling with—a form of letting them know they aren't alone if they are struggling.

Time and again since that summer I have heard from recipients who tell me, “That letter came just when I needed it most.” How in the world would I know that? That's the beautiful thing, I generally never do, and so that's what amplifies the fact that letter writing is my divine gift. And when I take it seriously and respect it, my letters can be used as a force for good in this wonky world.

I don't keep track, but I estimate I write somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 letters a year (not including my Christmas and Valentine mailings.) I love receiving letters in return, but I never expect it. Getting a letter in return isn't the reason I send them. I am filled with joy every time I send a letter—that is reward enough. Often I get an e-mail or Facebook message acknowledging that my letter arrived and I always appreciate knowing that the postal service did their job reliably.

Having said that, receiving a handwritten letter or postcard in the mail always makes my day! I love love love getting mail. I always have and always will. So you can imagine my shock and delight when I retrieved my mail late in the evening and found this little gem waiting for me.



Number 24 on the 4040 list was to write four letters to legislators. I wrote the letters on Independence Day and true to my form, opted to merely send a word of encouragement rather than a particular request or satisfy some agenda.

Of course at the time, I thought it would be pretty cool if I heard back from one of them. I thought I might even have a better chance since the letter was handwritten, but I did not set any expectations.

I am pleased to say that Representative Kathie Conway from District 104 HANDWROTE the following to me:

Dear Ms. Mahoney--

It was so nice to receive your note! Citizens that are involved are the Best!

Might I recommend a series of books that I'm reading for the 2nd time? America's Forgotten History by Mark Ledbetter. They are available as an e-book at Amazon. I think you'll find them an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Presidents, politics and American History.

Again—thanks so much for writing!

Sincerely,

Kathie Conway


Dear Readers! This letter is like Christmas Day for me! I took a photo of it and texted it to friends. “Look what came in the mail!” I was ecstatic and am still giddy this morning.

Before the summer I lost my job, I'd become overwhelmed by and unconvinced that one person or one letter could make a difference. Since then, those feelings have been shattered. I am so grateful that I came to take this gift seriously. I now know the power that a few lovingly written words has to inspire and encourage. And so I keep buying stamps and I keep sending out letters.

Your mailbox kinda lonely lately? Send an e-mail to juliemarg75@gmail.com and I'll get a note to you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Time Travel: Circle of Friends

Here's another reflection from items that were part of my Time Capsule that I created in college and opened in 2010. You can read my first post here.

I scanned the bookshelves in the airport bookstore looking for some new company. I had just spent three weeks studying French in an immersion program in Quebec. We were back on American soil, and minutes before I had parted ways with the other American students who had accompanied me on this adventure. So much had happened in three weeks' time. I was a different person now, and I was beginning the re-entry process of speaking my mother tongue again. I was sandwiched between two languages. The French that had been so foreign was now readily accessible, but now there was no one to speak it to or with. My friends—the only ones who could possibly understand this strange space in my head—had gone on to their own gates. I was alone in my bilingual exhausted no man's language land. I missed them, and the time we'd spent together.

My eyes studied the titles and landed on Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy. The title offered me the promise of new friendships and I took it to the counter. I read it on the plane, and the homesickness for my friends and my French speaking eased as Binchy's storytelling drew me in.

We arrived on campus after dark, tired from travel and scared about what was to come. We were given a quick orientation. “You may speak English tonight, but in the morning only French. For the next three weeks FRENCH ONLY. We will send you home if we hear you utter English.” It was daunting. I had saved the money my grandmother had given me to spend on college experiences, and I had no intention of getting sent home.

We were shuttled to our dorms. Poor Joey, the only guy among the four of us, went to his empty dorm. The three of us girls had the benefit of being assigned the same suite.

The four of us stood in the hallway the first morning scared and energized. Each of our French language abilities were different, so we were assigned separate classrooms. Due to differing school calendars, we were entering the program three weeks late. We were the “new kids” entering class mid-session. It was terrrifying, but there was no going back. We said our au revoirs and stepped through the doorways into these brave new worlds.

I had the least French instruction, so I did well to blurt out, “Bonjour! Je m'appelle Julie Steele. Je suis americaine.” I was welcomed and offered a seat.

The Quebec accent is so different from the Parisian accent that I was accustomed to in class in the States. It's like the southern drawl of English. The Canadian mouth forms French sounds differently than in France. It required every bit of concentration to make it through each class.

We decompressed each evening in our apartment dormitory unwinding from an exhaustive day of listening and speaking French. We broke the rules. We spoke ONLY ENGLISH when we were together out of earshot of our professors. Our French suffered in those hours, but our young twenty-something selves had big ideas to ponder. Too grande were the ideas for our wee petite French vocabularies. And so French it was by day, and English by night. Twenty years later, I can still conjure the warmth and caring and hilarity of those conversations and wouldn't trade that for anything.

We ate lunch with our American professor Mme. Jaeger every day and downloaded the morning's lessons. In broken French I told her, “I have so much to tell you and no words to express it all.” She smiled and told me to just start and she would help me. Ten minutes into the conversation I realized I was speaking to my teacher in fluid, fluent French. It was exhilerating.

I remember very little about the plot even though I've read Circle of Friends twice. What's important is that it's the mental postcard that conjures memories that will last a lifetime. It reminds me of the souvenirs of that trip: friendship, French language, courage, and determination.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

10. Reread Anne of Green Gables Series – Books 4-6 COMPLETE

Anne of Windy Poplars

This volume started off slow for me. It is full of long letters Anne writes to her now-beau Gilbert during their years of separation. He's in medical school and she's the principal and teacher at a school in another town. I love epistolary novels, but since we never read any of Gilbert's letters, the reading got a little long. And then my schedule opened up and I was able to read the rest of the novel almost in its entirety. It picked up after that.

I've given some thought to adding letters to the text of my novel. Rereading Anne of Windy Poplars gave me some things to consider as I move forward with the second draft of my book.

It's still not my favorite volume, but it is a cozy part of Anne's life. From a storytelling perspective, it covers the period when Anne and Gilbert are not physically together.

Anne's House of Dreams

For those who read the Anne series as girls, it goes without saying that Gilbert inspired our own searches for our match. He was kind and noble and crazy about Anne. As a reader, it was wonderful to get to this part of the story, but as a woman of 40 whose life hasn't gone quite the way she planned, it reinforced that I hadn't found my Gilbert after all. I cried my way through the beginning of the story, and then the ache eased as I fell in love with this volume all over again. In Anne's House of Dreams, she encounters an amazing cast of new characters. And their stories captivate.

Anne encounters her first real tragedy since her childhood as an orphan in the days before she arrives at Green Gables. We witness how this perennially optimistic character weathers her own grief and it's encouraging. Anne becomes a mother. It was lovely to see myself in the adult Anne as I had identified with the child Anne.

Another character who writes appears on the scene in this book. It was interesting to read those passages from my current vantage point and compare notes. It was also interesting to see the ways that L.M. Montgomery continued to weave characters from previous books into the current story. It was subtle, never forced, and always exciting to “learn what they were up to now.”

It was this volume that solidified my decision that Prince Edward Island (PEI), the setting of all six books, would be the next trip I save for. I'm always happiest when I can see the next trip on the horizon. PEI here I come!

Anne of Ingleside

Anne is the mother of six living children and they now inhabit the “big house” they've named Ingleside. We get to know Anne's children throughout this book. Anne takes a backseat in this novel, so we can become acquainted with Jem, Walter, Nan, Di, Shirley, and Rilla. The stories of Anne's children and their own imaginative lives were sweet, but they always seemed to go on just a little too long. I'd begin missing Anne and want the chapter or vignette to hurry up and end. It finally would, Anne would walk into the room, work her motherly magic over the child or household, and I would be happy again.

A minor character reflected to herself, "...she hoped she would look like Mrs. Blythe some day...with that ripened look...the look of a woman who has lived fully and graciously." I wholeheartedly agree. I want to age this way too.

Anne always seemed to have the right words to say when her children needed them most. "Darling, you're terribly mistaken about it all. God doesn't make bargains. He gives...gives without asking anything from us in return except love. When you as Father or me for something you want, we don't make bargains with you...and God is ever and ever so much kinder than we are. And He knows so much better than we do what is good to give."

Anne thought about how soon her children would be grown. "They were still hers...wholly hers, to mother and love and protect. They still came to her with every love and grief of their little hearts. For a few years longer they would be hers...and then? Anne shivered. Motherhood was very sweet...but very terrible." This mother can relate.

This volume showed an Anne we hadn't seen before—a tired mama who sometimes felt taken for granted. I could relate to this Anne as I had her earlier, younger versions, and admired L.M. Montgomery all the more for giving our beloved heroine this true-to-life dimension. I am certain none of this occurred to me in earlier readings, which is the reward for rereading a cherished childhood book as an adult.

"Well, that was life. Gladness and pain...hope and fear...and change. Always change! You could not help it. You had to let the old go and take the new to your heart...learn to love it and then let it go in turn. Spring, lovely as it was, must yield to summer and summer lose itself in autumn."

I'm excited to cross this item off my list. It feels good to have gone through the entire series in quick succession. There are two more Anne books that I am ashamed to admit I never read as a girl. I don't know how this happened, but it feels like a great 40th birthday gift to myself. Rainbow Valley is waiting for me in audiobook on the reserve shelf at the library. My commutes to work and home are going to be lovely! And then there's Rilla of Ingleside that will follow.

I found this great article commemorating the Anne series' 100th birthday seven years ago. I read it and agreed with the writer throughout the article. She articulates far better than me Anne's contribution to children's literature.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

1. Kayak at Creve Coeur Lake - COMPLETE

First things first. The bikini that has been written about a few times on this blog made an appearance publicly today. I survived and enjoyed feeling of the sun on so much skin. There really isn't anything like feeling self-confident in one's body. Thank you, 40th birthday and daily yoga and a new running routine, for ushering this new sense of self into my existence.

Okay, on to the commentary about checking off another item from the list. Well, as is becoming habit from working my way through this list, I've found another activity that will become a go-to thing I do when I want some peace, some sunshine and some light physical exertion. Tennis, running, and now kayaking. It turns out I like being physically active far more than I knew. I just hadn't found the right activities until now.

My girl scout mom friend, Kristina, and I met at Creve Coeur Lake. It is a great splash of nature ridiculously close to our homes. I, for one, do not access it enough. Today's time on the water will change that.

Since we didn't want to risk ruining our phones in the water, we took a few photos of our amazing environs, put the phones back in the car, and hit the line for rentals. Kristina graciously paid my rental fee as a birthday present. We were handed paddles and life jackets (which we were allowed to sit on) and each picked a single canoe. We hit the water with excited energy. We paddled out a ways talking the entire time, catching up from our summer absences from each other.


We both reflected what a great blend of exercise, meditation, and change of scenery the kayaking was and for such an affordable price ($10 per kayak per hour.) We paddled away from the shore for a while in one direction. Two canoes full of lovely-looking men passed us. We enjoyed the view, and changed direction for awhile. We tried to go further away from the shore, but the wind was now working against us, so we opted to just float and talk for awhile. We soaked in the sun, and enjoyed each others company. We talked about aspects of parenting our girls, how important self-confidence is to every pursuit—professional and personal, and luxuriated in the shining sun and gentle rocking of the water.

We enjoyed watching a brother-sister team not much older than our girls maneuver their way through the water in a double kayak. “You're doing great! Keep up the great work!” I cheered the duo on. We commented on how impressed we were with their skill and remarked that we believed our daughters could do as well.

A few years ago, I took a yoga class on the water using a stand up paddle board. It revolutionized this book worm's life. I loved being in nature and being on the water without the pressure of having to get in the water. Since then, I've heard my Nissan Pathfinder whispering to me, “Mama, I'd really like to carry a kayak on the roof. Will you please buy us one?”

I'm not ready to commit to the purchase, but at $10 an hour, I am definitely up for adding kayaking to my weekend menu of activity options.

There was such peace on the water. We had so much to look at and enjoy. There were at least a dozen sailboats on the water and others kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding. It felt so good to dunk my feet in the water, to paddle for awhile, and then rest, and breathe in the moment. It was really good to be untethered from my dang phone, which I let myself check far too often than is necessary. Unplugging is a good thing. I must do it more often on land and water.

It was just what I needed today, and I was so happy to share it with Kristina.



I took a walk around the lake when we finished our hour's rental. It was really good to feel the sticky sunscreen on my skin, to work up a sweat during my walk and just appreciate a healthy body in a sunny place. Another good day, to be sure.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

17. Wake Up Early and Watch the Sunrise - COMPLETE

The 4040 list is proving to serve as an instructional manual for how to live life more deeply and fully. I thought before I turned 40 that I'd been living a pretty good life. What I have since learned is that my cautious, playing-it-safe ways were not conducive to life abundant. I know that now and will correct accordingly moving forward.

My week ended on a note of gloom. Luckily not doom and gloom, but just a bruising for this sensitive heart of mine to bear. I am getting better at not succombing to negative inner monologue. I reinforced moments of weakness with my proven mantras of “It's okay...I'm okay...Everything is going to be okay.” This self-mothering cooing worked and I settled into my couch to watch a Sherlock episode. I dozed a bit, woke to watch the end of the episode and decided that crossing off the sunrise item on my list would be a good way to keep my “It's going to be okay” momentum going the next day.

My morning writing habit has skewed my internal clock to wake me even earlier than usual. I woke up at 5:15, read until my alarm broke the silence of the morning, and I headed to the spot I'd decided to watch the sun rise.

I took incremental photos and in between I rested my chin on my steering wheel. I was contemplative as I listened to Ed Sheeran, Plain White Ts, Journey, Pink, and U2 on the radio. Each song, while ones I wouldn't have chosen, seemed to speak to me in their own ways. I listened to the lyrics looking for new phrases and meanings that could make this moment alone more profound.

My thoughts ping-ponged from subject to subject as I watched the cars cruise down the highway. My vast open future has taken up a lot of real estate in my thoughts of late. What do you do with the years ahead when all of the culturally subscribed and sanctioned milestones—graduations, marriage, children—have all been crossed off the list? And what do you do when those things didn't go quite as planned?

I remembered my “It's okay” mantra and gently nudged myself back to living in the moment where the anxiety doesn't pick at me.

As the sky lightened and revealed a touch of pink, I thought how sitting still watching the sun rise was another form of meditation. How sitting watching what is in moments an invisible process is an act of slowing down.

5:51


5:58


6:01


6:09


I noted the bridge ahead and the events of the week before. Sitting still on the highway as protesters shut it down. Disturbing defined schedules and plans for thousands. I thought about the seriousness of the cause that brought them to that moment, and how it needs to be talked about and fixed, but how shutting down a highway didn't seem to be the means to the end.

The sky brightened and I thought about Kansas. The place of my birth. The place where, no matter the destinations I travel or the zip codes in which I live, will always have my heart. I thought about its wide open skies and the inherent beauty of its expansiveness.

I set the alarm on my phone for 6:15—the official time of today's sun rise. I turned off the alarm and took another photo. This morning's sun rise seemed unremarkable. I picked a hazy day. I thought about how it was beautiful in its un-spectacular-ness. How life can be beautiful when it's gloomy and not spectacular. Just a different kind of beauty.

6:15


I sat in the driver's seat for a few minutes knowing that I'd know when the time to drive home was. I turned my head to the left and saw a sliver of brilliant pink. The Sun! I'd been watching the sky just south of where the spectacle was! There was more to see. I watched as the sun appeared. A curtain of cloud burned away dropping to reveal a stage—the main act. It was remarkable watching it. I marveled at how easy it would have been to miss it if I'd driven away too soon and gotten distracted.

6:21


6:22


6:25


6:29



I watched the sun until it was a complete hot pink orb in the sky. I stayed until staring at the sun no longer felt comfortable or healthy.

I pulled out of the hotel parking lot and took the long way home. Watching the sun rise changed how I saw everything on my drive. Everything that was sun-kissed seemed brand new. I turned into my subdivision and saw the sunshine now golden yellow and too bright to look at directly. I noticed the bright spots on sidewalks and shadows created by trees in the neighborhood. I walked into my house and began tidying up in preparation to welcome fellow writers later in the morning. I saw the sun dappled places on my hardwood floor that shifted with the trees that blocked the light. I felt the heat of the sun on my skin standing at the kitchen sink.

I'd never acknowledged the way the sun brightens life because I take it for granted that it will do it every morning. This morning I was reminded of the source of all this light. I had watched the morning transform from dark to light. It was like walking down the rows of a crop in a field planted by a farmer, and being reminded that the food on my plate first started here. It felt like a miracle, and one that I chose to witness.

Watching the sun rise is an act of hope. The dark of night will always be interrupted by the light of day. Bruised hearts will heal and love better than before. Every sun rise will be different. Some more fantastic than others, but each one of them momentous.

The weather app on my phone marks 7:56 as the time the sun is scheduled to set tonight. I'm going to be there too. It just seems right.

Friday, August 14, 2015

10. Reread Anne of Green Gables Series – Books 1-3

Anne of Green Gables

I first met Anne Shirley, the heroine of the Anne of Green Gables series, in sixth grade reading class. Each Friday, the “gifted” students would leave the class to do their thing. One morning, our beloved Mrs. Young wheeled the TV/VCR cart in front of the class and said, “We're going to have fun too.” She turned on the PBS production of Anne of Green Gables starring Megan Fellows and I was hooked.

Later my grandmother gave my sister and I the books. They came in set of three and my sister got the first three. Of the two of us, I was the reader. I had to borrow hers to begin reading the series. I opened the books too wide and the corners got a little beat up. She was furious. I assured her that this was normal reading wear and tear, but she would have none of it. I had desecrated three books she was less likely read, but they were hers and she was mad. We took our case to our mom. Mom ruled that I needed to buy a new set to replace the damaged ones. It's still a sore subject all these years later, but that's how I came to own the entire series.

I have lost count how many times I have read or listened to the series. The stories never grow old. In this re-reading for my 4040 list, there is something really poignant about rereading it in (early) middle age while also reading it aloud with my own daughter.

Now that I've taken a stab at my own story telling, I see the book much differently. There's really not a lot of action for pages and pages, but the descriptions of everything from the Lake of Shining Waters to the little gable room above the porch makes the book come alive in my imagination. With so little plot actually happening at times, I am amazed that my third grader loves it so much, but I am so glad. We read it before bed and she enters dream land quickly as I read Anne's stories to her.

So why does this book mean so much to me? Why do I never tire of reading it? Anne was skinny and used big words and was like no other girl around her. Except for her red hair and temper, I could absolutely relate. I saw myself in her and began to think, “I can like who I am too.” She came into my life just as I was entering the pre-teen stage and needed positive reinforcement about who I was and who I wanted to become. Anne gave that to me and shored up my confidence at a time when confidence is hard to summon up for a young girl.

“And people laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven't you?” (page 16)

The Anne books gave me distinct ways of seeing and describing the world around me. They are phrases that are embedded in my vocabulary: “depths of despair,” “Kindred Spirits,” “gird up your loins,” “kerfuffle.”

A favorite passage on page 273: “We are rich,” said Anne staunchly. “Why, we have sixteen years to our credit, and we're happy as queens, and we've all got imaginations, more or less. Look at that sea, girls—all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn't enjoy it's loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds. You wouldn't change into any of those women if you could.”

Time and time again, I saw myself in Anne and felt such comfort. Anne took big bites out of life and enjoyed every bit. She was a simple pleasures girl. She had an amazing imagination. She made it cool to have one. At least to me.

Every time I read this series, I get such a cozy, safe feeling.

Now from the vantage point of an adult and having experienced more life since I was twelve, I can appreciate passages in the book in new ways. This passage from page 218 stood out to me given my goal-heavy year: “Oh it's delightful to have ambitions. I'm so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them—that's the best of it. Just as soon as you attain one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” This passage struck me in new ways in this reading. My 4040 list and novel writing has brought out the ambition in me this year in ways no other things have. She's right. Life IS so interesting as a result.

Anne of Avonlea

Anne's story continues. And I keep finding myself in the words of this book. “There is some good in every person if you can find it.” (page 29) This is how I have lived my life. Looking for the good, and Anne was right, I find it with great regularity.

I was reading this book while I was in Montana learning that Laura Munson agrees with Stephen King about the use of the adverbs. STOP USING THEM. Laura highlighted a lot of them in my writing sample. So many adverbs, Lucy Maud Montgomery! Anne repeated things “firmly.” Jane said “decidedly.” Ginger croaked “mockingly.” You get the idea. Adverbs are all over the place. It was a great study in what not to do now in my own writing.

But I will say the author's cadence reminded me of sitting with my grandma and so my homesickness for her has spiked, but I've also been comforted too.

I had forgotten the entire story line about Miss Lavender. Rereading her story and interactions with Anne was a treat. I had to laugh at this line on page 186: “She's an old maid...she's forty-five and quite gray, I've heard.” So at 12 I would have thought 45 sounded quite old too. Now, at 40 I'm just starting to hit my stride!

Anne's a “pretender” and so am I. For instance, I'll pretend the clouds are a mountain range. I love imagining I'm traveling down some road in the U.K. when I'm blocks from my own house. How many 40-year-olds will admit those eccentricities? Anne gives the courage to be imaginative past childhood and to own it. It makes life so interesting and easier to bear on the hard days.

Anne of the Island

In this volume, Anne faces the fact that we have to grow up. That friendships and circumstances change. And she does it with grace and aplomb and the knowledge that with “just one good cry” she can carry on. I've indulged in a few good cries lately, and I always feel better. Anne was wise beyond her years.

Lucy Maud Montgomery had such a gift with describing emotions: “Besides, I've been feeling a bit blue—just a pale, elusive azure. It isn't serious enough for anything darker.” Those lines on page 44 take my breath away. I want to write like that!

It was strange to read this story as a writer this time. I had forgotten that this is the volume where Anne tries her hand at submitting her work and is published. It was surreal to read about her writing life as I was living mine. Again, Anne and Julie are twins! She discusses with her friend what she's naming her characters and the trials she's putting them through. I could relate in a brand new way.

Here's another reference to forty: “You'll feel differently about a good many things when you get to be my age,” said Janet tolerantly. That's one of the things we learn as we grow older—how to forgive. It comes easier at forty than it did at twenty.” (page 204)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Tale of Two Women and a Set of Bungee Cords

The car moves down the highway at a steady speed. The driver notices that the sun's glare is doing a quick dance across the hood when it should be standing in one place. Next she hears a noise that catches her attention. She can't quite make out the problem, but knows it's related to the hood. The driver's ed simulation video she watched 25 years ago springs to mind and she prepares for the worst. She's not paying attention to the sun spot any more because she's watching the entire hood begin to raise. Before she has time to slow her speed, the hood shoots backward toward the windshield blocking her view.

In a calm reserved for the scariest moments in life, she slows the car abruptly, checks the side mirrors and pulls onto the shoulder.

The scenario above was our worst nightmare as Christa and I drove home from Indianapolis. I was talking to a friend on my phone. While I talked, Christa noticed the glare on her hood didn't stay in one spot as it normally did. Then she heard the noise. I missed these cues that trouble was lurking since I was on the phone.

My conversation was ending, and I noticed that Christa took the next exit. It seemed a remote place to stop for a bathroom break. She pulled over to the shoulder. “I think my hood is going to fly up. I heard a weird noise.” It took me a moment to register what she was talking about. She got out of the car and tugged on the hood. It didn't move. She came back around and pulled on the hood release inside the car. I got out of the car and joined her at the hood.

The whole hood latch mechanism had come loose. We could see where at least two screws were missing. I remembered seeing string in the trunk when we were loading and unloading equipment.

I looped the string in and out of the grill and fastened it down. I had a sense that there might be a story brewing from this experience, so I pulled my phone out of my pocket and documented this road side stop.


We got back in the car and laughed at what a weird thing to encounter on a roadtrip. Christa pulled back onto the highway. For awhile, our fix seemed to be working and then as she picked up more speed, we saw this:


“Dear God, Please let that rope hold the hood in place. Please keep us safe for the rest of our trip. Amen,” I prayed aloud. Christa slowed down, and the hood lowered.

At no time did we wonder, “What are we going to do?” An unspoken knowledge that we could handle whatever happened passed between us, though I did admit to having a case of nervous cackles at one point.

“I'm going to go to the Walmart in Vandalia. Surely we can find something there to tie this down better.” Christa said.

“Bungee cords. I think bungee cords are our best bet,” I suggested.

We studied our strategy in the parking lot before we went into the store. We were confident we had a workable plan.

With a 4-set of yellow and blue bungee cords, we set to work. We tested our strategy with the two longer cords and when we tugged on the hood, it still moved more than we were comfortable with. We modified our plan and felt much more comfortable with try number two.

This is what we came up with:


“That feels really empowering, doesn't it?” Christa reflected as we pulled out of Walmart in Vandalia.

“It really does,” I agreed.

Our bungee cords worked against higher speed and aerodynamics. Miles passed. We relaxed knowing that our temporary fix was secure.

We thought our adventure was over. Suddenly we saw an empty black garbage bag float across the highway. I don't remember saying it, but Christa reminded me later that I said, “Wouldn't it be funny if it...” I hadn't finished my sentence when we drove over the bag and it got caught underneath the car.

Christa began laughing hysterically. I was laughing too, but would only understand her hysteria later when she reminded that I'd called the bag getting stuck before it happened. For the third time in two hours, Christa pulled the car off the road. We could hear air whipping through the bag making a thumping noise against the car.

Our laughter was uncontrollable. I jumped out of the car, took another photo, and then yanked the bag loose from under the car.


If this is what road trips with Christa are going to be like every time, sign me up! I haven't laughed so hard in a long time, and together, I know we can conquer anything that comes our way.

PS: Our bungee cord solution got us back to St. Louis safe and sound.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

In Awe of my Friend's Artistry

Wedding ceremonies are complicated occasions. For many women, this one day is the culmination of years of dreams and imagining perfection. It's an expensive day for many couples and their families, and that stress adds to the complication. This weekend I carried the lens bag and other equipment as my friend Christa shot a wedding in Indianapolis. I got the microscopic view of just what a unique, pressure-filled role Christa fulfills. She is paid to capture every moment for the couple and for posterity. A narrative is born as the camera clicks away. As I learned this weekend, performing this function well is just another piece of her artistry.

My daughter and I were subjects for Christa's art when she documented our fashion session this winter for my 4040 list. From my own experience, I knew that the bride and groom were in good hands, but I was blown away when I witnessed Christa operate in wedding mode.

The Wedding Day is comprised of 12-15 hours of preparation, ceremony, and celebration. In between those highlight moments, there are a host of variables that in the wrong dose can make wedding chaos: missed timelines, family dynamics, guests' experience, overheated and antsy groomsmen and ushers, camera-shy grooms, too many drinks poured. Christa juggled all of those scenarios and more.

The linen-tuxedoed St. Bernard dog-baby of the couple got separation anxiety at the slightest hint that it was time to leave the wedding party. It took the groom and dog handler minutes to wrangle the dog back to the car. Wedding photos without a groom are generally discouraged, so we waited as precious minutes leading to the scheduled start time of the reception ticked away—time that needed to be devoted the couple's portraits.

Christa takes her responsibility as the documenter of All Things Important seriously. She also has a knack for putting nervous brides at ease. Before the ceremony, the mother of the bride arrived late. She was distracted and disheveled from the last-minute preparations. She was agitated and hesitant about being ready to stand in front of the camera at the scheduled time. Christa nimbly changed her plans, got the shots she wanted, and helped calm the mother and settle her into the task of getting her hair and make-up done.

“The great thing is, the wedding doesn't start until you are ready,” she reminded the bride. Later as we waited for the groom to return, Christa coached the bride that a few minutes late to the reception was not the end of the world. “You have nothing to apologize for on your wedding day,” Christa comforted the bride as she apologized for the delays and other details. As Christa said these words, and repeated similar ones throughout the day and evening, I watched the bride's shoulders relax and her beautiful smile return.

Christa's artistry was on display again and again. I watched Christa do all of these things AND take photos. I know this couple will love the photos and moments Christa captured long after the hangovers fade and the honeymoon is over.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Post-run Stream of Consciousness

Today is my first run in nearly a month. I have one month and two days to go before my next 5k race.

The fitness room at the Drury Inn called my name. I ate a bowl of oatmeal, drank some coffee, and headed to the treadmill.

I get thinky when I run. These are (some of) the things that crossed my mind (in no particular order):

* Imagine Dragons' Night Vision is a good addition to my running accompaniments.

* There's a Sara in my life I need to write to.

* I still can't believe I love to run. 8th grade Julie would never believe it if 40 year old Julie had whispered it to her from the mists of the future. Never. Especially when little Julie finished last every time.

* I have said that I trained for my first 5k alone. That is not exactly true. Today I realized that I have underestimated what a motivating force the voice in my earbud was to the process. That voice needs a name. From here on out, my virtual running partner will be: Radley.

* Gosh, I love naming things. I may have only had one daughter to name, but as a writer I have limitless opportunities to name people.

* It's time to start training for a 10k on my phone app. I am much better at running when I have a goal. Radley, are you ready?

* I always think of my brother-in-law, Rich, when I run. I love his encouragement. And the running quotes he sends my way. This week's was: “Running has thrown me into adventures that I would otherwise have missed.” - Benjamin Cheever, American writer. Rich added this personal note: “I hope you keep looking for adventures.” Don't worry, brother. I agree with Writer Ben. Running has given me adventure too. There's no end to my thirst for them now.

* It's time to put another race on our calendar, too, BIL.

* Running makes me feel strong and healthy in ways I've never felt before. That feeling is delicious.

* I ran 2.5 miles. I wanted to quit around the 12 – 14 minute mark, but I knew I didn't need to quit, I was just bored. I powered through the boredom and past Radley's announcement that my workout was complete. I had technical difficulties with my earbuds and phone. I didn't want to cheat my work out.

* I love sweating because I am generally not a sweaty person. The sweat adds to the sense of accomplishment.

* I'm excited about today: I am the photo assistant to my photographer friend who is shooting a wedding in Indianapolis, hence the hotel fitness room workout. It will be amazing to watch my friend express her creativity in her special way and I am honored to share this couple's special day with them. I also like the idea of adding skills to my resume: herding cats, aka: groomsmen. FUN!

* Post-run sun salutations are far more satisfying. I can touch the floor with more ease and less pain and my arms feel STRONG.

* Time to hit the shower and get my party clothes on!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Naming the things that ail us

I suffer from a condition I call Low-Grade Loneliness (LGL). I call it this because it lies just below the surface. It is not a full-blown fever of despair and loneliness like many people experience, but is enough to make me feel not quite right. It is a confusing condition for me because my life is a garden in full bloom with friends and loved ones who love me very, very well. And yet in the colorful, vibrant garden, the loneliness persists.

LGL is the reason I was drawn to reading books as a child and into adulthood and why some of those books' characters feel like friends I like to revisit again and again. I escaped into stories when I didn't have a name for this affliction.

Then social media came along. Facebook connected me with the people who live far away—Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Australia, France, and Colombia. For a long time, this online connection helped to ease the ache. It felt so good to see photos of my friends' children, to read what they were doing in their every day lives, and to share my own details. It has become a less-effective aid lately. Often, checking in online makes the temperature of this LGL raise.

When I am particularly susceptible to the LGL, I feel clingy and needy, which only serve to make me feel worse. I don't like the feeling of putting people out or being a drain on their energy. In these moments I am also sensitive to feelings of rejection.

While labels can be a bad thing, box people in, and be limiting, they can also serve as lightbulbs shining light on dark places. Calling this feeling I have Low Grade Loneliness makes it concrete and puts me in a position to seek out approaches for solving or at least easing the ache.

These strategies combined—some new, some long-used—are making a difference. I am:

*accepting that LGL is a part of who I am.

*no longer trying to mask it or make it go away.

*sitting quietly in these moments when LGL spikes. I self-soothe by reminding myself that I am okay, everything will be okay, and the moments of excruciating loneliness will pass.

*remembering to keep breathing.

*learning more effectively the times when I need to reach out to other people and the times when it's best to cope on my own.

*learning the healthy balance between the benefits of activity and rest and choosing which moments call for which one.

*praying.

*practicing acts of random kindness.

*writing.

*keeping perspective. Loneliness is worse for people who are not well connected. I have an incredible network.

*Breaking my routines. One recent Sunday I opted to skip church. I am there every Sunday unless I'm sick or out of town. Taking a Sabbath from my Sabbath helped me to rest and relax and rejuvenated me to return the following week. I was excited to see my people again.

*Journaling (I consider this different from writing listed above. Journaling isn't seen by anyone but me, and my writing I plan to publish on my blog or elsewhere.)

*watching Netflix.

*being intentional about having fun and finding things that will make me laugh.

*spending less time on Facebook.

*making appointments with my counselor.

Another side effect of LGL is feeling weak or broken. The strategies listed above work really well in helping me feel strong and healthy. While they don't make LGL completely disappear, I am much better able to cope with these tools in my tool box.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

8. Visit Four New Labyrinths – Complete

T and I chose the fourth labyrinth based on traffic patterns and distance from work. “I have a feeling it may not be particularly aesthetically pleasing,” I warned as I plugged the address into my phone.

We pulled into the parking lot and walked around the building in search of the labyrinth. My gut was right. The stones and weeds had grown together making the path hard to distinguish.


I reminded my friend about the shedding of life's worries that one does as she enters the path, the quiet reflection at the center, and then the walk out ready to take on the world again.

“This labyrinth walk may supply some metaphors not found at the other labyrinths,” I suggested before we started our walk.

I took the lead and we silently made our way as best we could through the winding path. It was comforting to pass T on occasion and I did not experience the claustraphobia of two days before. Partially because I was so focused on keeping my way on the path. We struggled to differentiate the path as we approached the center.


Once there, we smiled and looked at each other. “Wanna say a prayer for each other?” I suggested. T nodded and I asked what I could pray for. We clasped hands, bowed our heads, and I prayed. When I was finished, she began praying for me. There really isn't anything like the closeness of friends who pray together for each other. When our prayers were said, we hugged and began our journey out.

We got stuck. We couldn't unwind our way out. And so we began pulling weeds to make sense of where we were. We stood and studied the dirt, the dirt-colored stones, and the weeds.



We pulled weeds and then walked further only to get stuck again. We pulled more weeds and stood back to assess our progress. We gave it a fair chance and finally decided to call it over.

We stood outside the labyrinth and continued to talk. The best metaphor I could think of in the moment was that this grown-over path is a good reminder of how important boundaries are in life and relationships. They make interactions clear and safe. Without clear-cut boundaries, things get murky and confusing, and it's hard to know how to proceed.


Later as I was skyping with a friend about the evening's visit, she pointed out some other takeaways: I mentioned that it had been tricky getting to the center. “Julie, that's a great metaphor for the contemplative life. It IS hard getting to the center.” I love having friends that “get” this journey I'm on and who add to it.

I also explained how the weeding felt like a “pay it forward” kind of thing. “Julie, there's another great metaphor! You two were making the path easier for those who followed! I love it!” my friend reflected.

“I want to take you to the labyrinth I visited on Saturday,” I told T as we headed back to my car. “I want you to experience a really good one.” We've only visited grass covered ones when we've been together.

While this wasn't exactly the experience I had hoped for, it was fruitful and joyful nonetheless. I really do have a desire to spearhead a labyrinth project at my congregation, and this fourth labyrinth was a cautionary tale about choosing materials for a path. If we're going to go to the effort and expense to build one, we need to think about future maintenance. I am certain that this labyrinth wasn't overgrown at the beginning. I'm certain the path was clear and easier to navigate. Once the newness wore off, it became one more thing for busy people to maintain, and it fell off people's to-do lists.

I am so glad that I put these labyrinth visits on my list. It put this beautiful practice back on my radar. I have missed walking them. These visits have piqued my interest in going to the other ones throughout the region. I still want to take in the one in Chartres, France. Maybe I'll add that to another year's list. For now, #8 is complete.

Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Become a Confident Cook

With very few exceptions, giving a cookbook to a woman who isn't comfortable in the kitchen does not fix her problem. My aversion to cooking is legendary. Every few Christmases or birthdays for at least a decade a new cookbook would find its way into my lap. I'd smile and say thank you and say to myself, “What am I going to do with this one?”

The problem for women who don't like to cook is not a shortage of recipes from which to choose, which the cookbooks can remedy. The problem is a shortage of confidence and know-how. Most cookbooks do not supply these missing ingredients.

Making a joke about the loaf of store-bought bread or dinner rolls that the woman brings to a potluck instead of a casserole or salad is also not recommended for helping the woman feel more comfortable in the kitchen. The store-bought items are her attempt at contributing to the meal. She needs to hear that a covered dish is not the only valued way she can contribute to the community.

If you really want to help a woman build her confidence in the kitchen, invite her into yours and give her a job to do. Ask her to chop the onions and show her the technique you like to use. Ask her to stir something. Show her by your example why you feel joy when you're preparing a meal for the people you love. Demonstrate that mistakes are part of the drill and can always be corrected.

Watching Joanne Weir's PBS cooking show, Cooking Confidence, with my preschooler helped to begin changing my attitudes in the kitchen. Her kind, smiling face demonstrated how much she loved spending time in her kitchen and she was adept at teaching the episode's student the tricks of her trade. Cadence and I would lay on the couch in our living room and pick an episode from the menu on our DVR. For thirty minutes, my four-year-old and I would learn together. We would have real conversation about the ingredients she had chosen and how she was preparing them.

Cadence enjoyed it so much, we began playing “Cooking Show” when it was time to prepare a meal. We would look at the imaginary camera in our kitchen and tell our audience what we were doing. Some days we would tell them we were washing our dishes first, so that our kitchen was clean before we started our recipe. So much regular stuff could get accomplished under the spell of playing “Cooking Show.”

My daughter didn't know it, but it was her little hand taking mine that led me into our kitchen and helped build my confidence. I didn't want her to feel helpless in the kitchen like me, so I chose recipes I knew how to make and began teaching her how to make them. Raspberry muffins were our first success. When we didn't have nuts one particular Saturday morning, we substituted them with coconut and a new tradition was born.

“I'm a good cooker, aren't I, Mama?” Cadence began asking with regularity. I would smile and answer, “Absolutely.” In these moments, we were both learning cooking confidence. I have had so many cooking successes since then that it's no longer accurate to say that I don't like cooking or am not very good at it. It turns out that now I'm a good cooker too.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

8. Visit Four New Labyrinths - #3

I pulled into the church parking lot hoping that the labyrinth directory online wasn't outdated. I spotted the sign with “Labyrinth” and an arrow and turned my car in that direction. I saw this sign and felt a catch in my throat.


Before I found my way to yoga, labyrinths had caught my attention. They are both disciplines focused on stillness in the midst of chaos, connection to something greater, and living in the present moment.

Each labyrinth I have visited is accompanied by some contextual information. I love reading what each organization that hosts the labyrinth chooses to share with visitors. I especially like what I read on this one:

“Ancient Celtic Christianity emphasized the connectedness of all things. This was symbolized by a circle in the center of the cross. One of their defining beliefs was the presence of God in creation.

They often spoke of the thin places, a place where the veil between the physical realm and the spiritual realm become so thin that we encounter the presence of God in a deeper way. A thin place is a sacred location that draws you into the life of God. It is our hope that this garden will become a thin place for you.”



I slowly approached the labyrinth grateful for my sunglasses. The late afternoon sun was shining directly on the center of the labyrinth. I set my keys on the bench nearby and began my walk.

The whole point of the pattern of the labyrinth is that you can mindlessly follow it without having to pay attention to where you are going leaving mental space for quiet reflection and meditation.


Yoga and labyrinths are also good disciplines for me because stillness of mind and body do not come easily. Both disciplines allow movement while seeking inner quiet. I had taken no more than a few paces on the path when tears began to flow. I have learned that these tears are always a sign of the Holy Spirit's presence and I welcome them. I kept weaving my way through the path. I always seem to hit a moment of panic—it's like a flash of inner claustraphobia that strikes—when I've walked deeply into the path. It always happens on my walk inward and leaves as quickly as it comes.

When I entered the center, the tears appeared again. I took a few photos as I always do to document my arrival in the center. I sat down to pray and listen, my back to the sun. I felt the heat of the sun warm my black-tee-shirted torso. I let the warmth absorb. I watched the cars buzz past on the highway that was within view of the labyrinth.

I heard two sounds: highway traffic and birdsong--a strange combination and not especially meditative. I was reminded again of what yoga has taught me that could be applied as I sat on the warm concrete. We can be at peace even with noise and chaos surrounding us. Life doesn't come with a mute button. We have to train ourselves to find quiet and stillness and peace in the midst of the noise. And so I did.


I spent a lot of my walk into the middle thinking about my life right now and how I am adjusting to having more time to myself than I have had in a long time. Suddenly these words came to mind: “Don't be afraid of being alone right now.” Deep comfort and confidence washed over me because I knew these were not my words. Because I was open and listening, I heard God share what I needed to hear. I am so grateful for being willing to be quiet and listen. I am never disappointed. I took in these words, let them resonate inside me for a few minutes and then laid down in the center and soaked up the heat of the sun's rays and warm concrete. When laying down no longer felt comfortable, I sat back up, looked around and tuned into the hum of the highway and the birds chirping again.


I stood up and began the walk back out feeling lighter than when I'd entered. I exited the labyrinth and walked to the bench where I'd set down my keys. I sat down on the bench not ready to leave. I looked around the labyrinth dreaming about how to spearhead the construction of a labyrinth on our church property. I'd spent the morning mowing, trimming, and weeding my yard. My hands were tender from pulling the tough weeds. I saw a few weeds poking out of the cracks around the labyrinth. I stood up and walked over to the first weed. I yanked it out. I plucked all of the weeds that had sprouted outside the labyrinth--my admission fee for time spent there. Something practical to do with my hands as my heart and mind prepared to leave.

I have one more labyrinth to visit before I can cross this item off my list. I'm going to visit the fourth one with a friend who has walked labyrinths with me before. I love that I introduced my daughter to labyrinths as part of my check off, and am really looking forward to my time with my friend on #4. But I am also deeply grateful for the chance to have experienced one on my own—free to stay as long as I want and to experience what I did in solitude. I indeed consider this a "thin place" and will visit it again and again.

If you're in the St. Louis area and would like to visit this labyrinth, it is located on the property of the Dayspring Baptist Church at 1001 Municipal Drive in Town and Country, Missouri.