Our annual Christmas letter

Dear Family and Friends,

This holiday season finds us so sick of the pandemic we want to stick our fingers in our ears and scream until the frustration dissipates. And how are you??

We’re slowly beginning to grasp the reality that things aren’t getting “back to normal” anytime soon – if ever – so we might as well adjust to “the new normal.” Or – as we like to joke – “the new abnormal.” (Nobody’s ever been normal around our house.)

Among other pandemic activities, we’ve been growing ponytails. My hair hasn’t been this long since high school, and Pete’s wasn’t this long even during his hippie stage. Now that our hair has grown out, we’ve both decided we kind of like it that way. We can just stick it in a ponytail on bad hair days instead of having to fuss with it. Check out our “before” and “after” photos below.

Before

After

Despite our COVID fatigue, this Christmas is a time for immense gratitude! We survived a major scare in October that culminated in a two-week hospital stay for Pete. His heart raced along at 130-150 beats a minute for several days; he had pneumonia; and to top it off, a CT scan showed a quarter-size mass on one lung, which the doctors seemed convinced was cancer. He was admitted to the hospital for a cardiac ablation, a PET scan, a biopsy and treatment for his pneumonia. For two agonizing weeks, we both pleaded with God. Our prayers were answered. The mass on his lung turned out not to be malignant – GLORY HALLELUJAH!!!!!!!! – and the ablation procedure went without a hitch. His pneumonia is slowly healing.

Prior to the hospital stay, we were beginning to feel like characters in the movie Groundhog Day. Since Feb. 29, 2020, we seemed to be living the same day again and again … and again. Once the hospital adventure ended, however, we decided, “Groundhog Day is over!” Time to turn the calendar to a new day.

So we’re now doing something quite new and different: We’re in training to become part of the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community. Associates assist, among other things, with the Dominicans’ social justice activities. We’ve both admired the Dominican Sisters for a number of years. During our 20-plus years of working for human service agencies and teaching at Benedictine University, we saw up close the many valuable contributions they’ve made to our community – from serving as board members or in other volunteer capacities, to mentoring and helping nonprofit organizations with badly needed funding, to working with the Christian community in Iraq and Kurdistan.

We continue to be involved in our own congregation, of course, but in some rather new ways. Since COVID broke out, we’re been “attending” church online and doing book group and Bible study sessions via Zoom. Our church’s choir, which we sang in for years, is not active at this time due to safety concerns, but we’re finding other ways to contribute our time and talents. After the beginning of the year, we’ll be leading an adult faith formation class on the Ten Commandments. We’ll do this on Zoom, which means we’ll need to get up to speed on that technology. Wish us luck.

On the home front, we started growing milkweed in one of our flower beds a couple years ago and this year we got our first monarch caterpillars. Six of them!! We were so excited. We loved watching them busily munching away on the milkweed as they grew … and grew. Those little guys are voracious eaters. Then they wandered off one by one to begin their pupa stage.

But later we spotted a small flock of monarch butterflies sipping nectar from the other flowers in our yard and we like to think these were our former caterpillars. To increase the possibility that we’ll get to host lots more caterpillars next year, we’ve added several more milkweed plants to our flower beds. In fact, we’re doing our best to turn as much of the backyard as possible into a giant butterfly garden. We like to think of this project as “God’s work, our hands.”

Oley and Champaign continue to be their feisty, sweet, ornery selves. So, we can’t finish up our Christmas letter without including at least a couple of cute kitty photos.

Here’s hoping everyone has a safe Christmas and an even better New Year.

Blessings,

Recipe: Ostkaka

This Swedish dessert is a favorite at our house during the Christmas season, and has been passed down in my family for several generations.

The name ostkaka can be roughly translated as “cheesecake” – “ost” meaning “cheese” and “kaka” meaning “cake.” But the dessert is a bit different from American cheesecake, not quite as sweet and with a slightly different texture.

To make it, older generations of my family used curdled milk, produced by adding rennet to a mixture of warm milk and flour. They then added heavy cream, sugar and eggs to make a batter. My parents’ generation simplified the recipe, using cottage cheese in place of curdled milk, and it tastes the same (at least to me). Needless to say, the latter version is much easier to make.

Over the years, my mother and I developed a few additional recipe adjustments to accommodate diabetes and other dietary restrictions. I use fat-free cottage cheese, substitute egg beaters for the eggs, substitute half and half or even whole lactose-free milk for the heavy cream, and replace sugar with an equivalent amount of sugar substitute. Rice flour can be used to make the recipe gluten free. The result is still delicious.

Our family likes to serve the ostkaka with lingonberries, but if these prove hard to find, strawberry jam or sliced strawberries can also be used.

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs or 1/2 cup egg beaters
  • 3 cups fat-free cottage cheese
  • 2 cups half & half or whole milk
  • 1/3 cup regular or rice flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • Sweetener equivalent to 1/2 cup sugar
  • Lingonberries, strawberry jam or sliced strawberries

Directions

Blend together the eggs, sweetener, cream or milk, flour and extract until smooth.

Stir in the cottage cheese until well-blended and pour the mixture into a cake pan.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for an hour, or until it rises a bit and is slightly brown on top.

Allow the dessert to cool at least four hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Top each individual serving with about a tablespoon of lingonberries, strawberry jam or sliced strawberries.

Nutrition information

My version, made with egg beaters, whole milk and sugar substitute, topped with a tablespoon of lingonberries.

Serving size: 3/4 cup | Calories: 120 | Carbohydrates: 14 g | Protein: 10 g | Fat: 2 g | Saturated Fat: 1 g | Cholesterol: 13 mg | Sodium: 300 mg | Potassium: 240 mg | Fiber: 1 g | Sugar: 9 g | Vitamin A: 9% | Vitamin C: 0% | Calcium: 17% | Iron: 1%

A great giving opportunity: Micro food pantries

One of the niftier ideas to gain traction in recent years has been the micro pantry movement. We now have about 20 of these miniature food pantries scattered around our community – including one we just installed this year at our church.

Micro food pantries operate on a simple premise: “Take what you need. Leave what you can.” There are no sign-ups and no strings attached. If we are in need, micro pantries are there for us. And if we’re extra-blessed, we can help someone else.

The micro pantry movement provides another source of help for those who may be too embarrassed to seek assistance from a traditional food pantry, those who feel intimidated by the bureaucratic paperwork involved in receiving assistance from a government program, or those who don’t quite qualify for public assistance but are still strapped for cash between paychecks.

These little pantries – which have begun to pop up in communities all over the country – have also provided a wonderful low-contact, high-impact way for neighbors to help neighbors during the pandemic when more traditional, face-to-face volunteer activities have posed too much of a health risk.

Our church built our own micro pantry this year. About the size of a large kitchen cabinet, it turned out to be fairly easy to construct. Click HERE for a link to the design and instructions we used.

We placed it in a well-lit area next to the sidewalk leading up to one of our front entrances. People can safely access it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no questions asked. Congregation members are encouraged to bring items and help keep it filled.

Once our little pantry was built, here are some examples of nonperishable items that have made great micro pantry offerings.

  • Fixings for sandwiches: Bread, peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna, canned chicken, mustard, mayo, pickle relish.
  • Canned goods: Soups and stews, chili, fruits and vegetables, potatoes or yams, corn, baked beans, jars of baby food.
  • Canned or nonperishable meats: Tuna, chicken, Spam, sardines, Hormel Compleats.
  • Boxed meal kits: Macaroni and cheese, mixes such as Hamburger Helper, pasta noodles and pasta sauces.
  • Other shelf-stable foods: Rice, dried beans, Ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, powdered milk, evaporated milk, powdered eggs.
  • Breakfast items: Dry cereal, prepackaged instant oatmeal, fruit juice, fruit cups, shelf-stable breakfast pastries.
  • Healthy snack foods: Crackers, granola or cereal bars, trail mix, peanuts, almonds or any nuts, P3 protein packs, jerky.

We also like to put items in our micro pantry that people can’t buy using SNAP benefits.

  • Grooming supplies: Toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner, body soap, disposable razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, tampons or pads, baby wipes.
  • Cleaning supplies: Dish soap, laundry soap, bleach, sponges, paper towels.
  • Disposable face masks. I’ve ordered them online in boxes of 50 and put them in plastic sandwich bags in batches of 5 or 10 per bag.
  • Pet food: I sometimes even like to leave a little something for Fido or Fluffy – small cans or packages of dog or cat food.

When contributing items for the pantry, I like to leave a combination of small serving/individual-size items for single individuals, and larger economy-size items for families.

I’ve also repurposed those little packets containing napkins and plastic silverware that come in to-go restaurant orders. That way, homeless people who avail themselves of food in the pantry have something to eat it with. The sample-size soap and shampoo picked up from hotel rooms are perfect as well.

Our church’s little pantry has been getting well-used and it has been a fairly easy project for our community service committee to maintain.

Perhaps just as importantly, it has provided a great way for my husband and I and other congregation members to keep contributing to our community despite quarantining and other restrictions imposed by this endless pandemic.

This adds up to a win-win situation for everyone, giver and receiver alike.

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: Immersing ourselves

One of the best things about the Holy Land tour my husband and I took several years ago was the chance to totally immerse ourselves in once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

These unforgettable experiences included attending a church service conducted in three languages simultaneously, taking communion on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, placing our own written prayers along with millions of others in the cracks of the Western Wall, feasting on delicious food, taking a dip in the Dead Sea and even meeting a camel face-to-face.

Above is the kibbutz where we stayed for the first part of our trip. Everywhere we went, we encountered the most amazing food. We visited restaurants with whole tables full of vegetable dishes, like the spread below. Good thing, too, because there were equally large tables full of irresistible pastries.

At one of our stops we got to meet a friendly camel. We were offered a chance to ride a camel, if we wished, but I settled for petting this one. Below, several members of our tour group took the opportunity to wade in the Dead Sea.

The Ancient Galilee Boat, above, also known as the Jesus Boat, is a first-century fishing boat discovered on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Members of our tour group shared communion in the middle of the Sea of Galilee while in a replica of the Jesus Boat, below.

For the communion service on the boat, we obtained the bread and grape juice, pictured below, from a little shop in Cana.

Several times during our trip, I found myself remarking, “This is what Pentecost must have felt like.” At each holy site we visited, we could hear tour groups, like the one above, from all over the world singing hymns or sharing devotions in every language imaginable.

On Sunday our own tour group attended a service at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, pictured below. A German tour group was also present, along with the local church members. Everyone prayed and sang the familiar hymns in their own languages, so during the service, we could hear English, German and Arabic being sung and spoken simultaneously.

During the church service, we thumbed through a hymnbook in which we found Silent Night in Arabic. Note that the music and text are read from right to left on the page.

The “Pentecost feeling” continued at the Church of the Pater Noster, part of a Carmelite monastery in Jerusalem, where the walls are used to display the Lord’s Prayer in more than a hundred different languages and dialects. Below is the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Our tour group visited several programs operated by the Lutheran World Federation, including Augusta Victoria Hospital, above, in East Jerusalem. The hospital provides speciality care for Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Quilts like those below, made by members of our congregation, are often sent to this hospital, and we were told the patients truly appreciate the quilts.

A special highlight of our trip was a visit to the Western Wall, below, a Jewish holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem. It has long been a practice to insert slips of paper containing written prayers to God into the cracks and crevices of the Western Wall. It is estimated that more than a million prayer notes are placed there each year. Of course, Pete and I added our own.

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: The Bible comes alive

Jerusalem … Bethlehem … Nazareth … the Sea of Galilee … the Road to Damascus.

From the time I was a child and began reading all the Bible stories, I had always visualized in my mind what these places looked like.

When my husband Pete and I checked off one of our bucket-list items several years ago and toured the Holy Land, many of these places turned out to be somewhat different from what I envisioned.

For example, the Sea of Galilee turned out to be … a very large lake.

I had always pictured Bethlehem and Nazareth as quaint little villages. While they actually were humble agricultural villages in the time of Jesus, they are now bustling densely-packed small cities of about 30,000 and 75,000 people respectively.

Modern Jerusalem did turn out to be much like I’d imagined, mostly because I’d seen so many pictures of it in the news media over the years.

Even though some of these places have changed considerably since Bible times, being there was an amazing experience. I had a sense of the Bible stories coming alive while I walked where Jesus and other people of the Bible lived and walked.

Here are some of the places we had the privilege of visiting, along with their Biblical significance.

Jerusalem

The Bible mentions Jerusalem more than any other place (about 800 times). It was the city to which Jesus was brought as a child to be presented at the Temple and to attend festivals, where he preached and healed, and where he died and was resurrected. Pictured here is a panoramic view of the Old City.

Jericho

The oldest still-inhabited city in the Middle East, Jericho is perhaps best known as the site of the Battle of Jericho described in the book of Joshua. Pictured here is the entrance to the modern city.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is where David came from, and where he was crowned king of Israel. And, of course, it was later the birthplace of Jesus. While many of the streets of the modern city had bumper-to-bumper traffic, parts of the city actually did look like I envisioned it looking in Bible times, including the street scene here.

Nazareth

The Gospel of Luke tells us Nazareth was Mary’s home village as well as the site where she learned from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus. Joseph and Mary resettled there with young Jesus after returning from the flight to Egypt from Bethlehem. Pictured here is a panoramic view of the modern city.

Jordan River

The Jordan River features prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures as the border of the Promised Land. The Gospels tell us John’s baptism of Jesus took place there, as did many more baptisms conducted by Jesus and his disciples.

Capernaum

According to the Gospels, Jesus made Capernaum his home during the years of his ministry. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen living in the village. Matthew the tax collector also dwelt there. Pictured here are ruins of the Ancient Synagogue in Capernaum, one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the world.

Caesarea

Caesarea, once the Roman capital of Palestine, was the place where Pontius Pilate governed during the time of Jesus and where Paul was imprisoned before being sent to Rome for trial. It was also the residence of Philip the evangelist and Cornelius the centurion. Pictured here are ruins of the city’s amphitheater.

Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee was the scene of many, many stories told in the Gospels about the life of Jesus. Among other events, it is where he preached his Sermon on the Mount, walked on water, calmed a storm and showed the disciples miraculous catches of fish.

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is first mentioned in Genesis when the dove returned to Noah’s ark carrying an olive branch in its beak. It also appears in the Gospels as the place where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem and where he ascended to heaven. The photo of the olive tree below was taken on the Mount of Olives.

Road to Damascus

According to the Book of Acts, the Road to Damascus is where the Apostle Paul had his conversion experience that led him to stop persecuting the early Christians and become a follower of Jesus. Here’s the modern road, as seen from the back of our tour bus.

Golan Heights

Land now known as the Golan Heights was referred to in the Bible as Bashan. The word “Golan” appears to be derived from the Biblical city of “Golan in Bashan.” The land of Bashan is mentioned in several places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The photo below was taken on a bluff from which we could see into Syria.

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: Where Jesus walked

Several years ago, my husband Pete and I took the trip of a lifetime – a tour of the Holy Land. The tour, hosted by St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island, Illinois, invited us to see the stories of the Bible unfold while we walked “as a pilgrim along the paths of Christ and the early Church.”

Titled “Peace Not Walls,” the trip went beyond simply touring the famous archeological and historical sites. We got to see the international church in action by visiting programs sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, met personally for conversations with people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and attended a church service conducted in three languages simultaneously.

Needless to say, visiting the holy sites themselves was an amazing experience. In many places, churches or shrines have been built in the exact locations where – based on best estimates by historians, archeologists and others – events mentioned in the Bible are believed to have taken place. Some of the churches themselves are hundreds of years old and still conduct services.

Shepherd’s Field (above) is believed to be the place where an angel appeared to shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site is considered one of the best places from which to view Bethlehem as it would have been seen by the shepherds. Below are the ruins of a fourth-century Byzantine church at Shepherd’s Field.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (above), built in 565 A.D. over the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, is the oldest continuously functioning Christian church in the world. Today, custody of the church is shared by the Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches. Below, a 14-point star in the middle of the grotto located under the Church of the Nativity’s main altar is said to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born.

Tourists flock to the place along the shore of the Jordan River (above) where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. We saw a number of people getting baptized at the time of our visit. In the photo below, one can see in the distance a monastery built where Jesus is believed to have been tempted in the wilderness. (The monastery is nestled about halfway up the hill toward the right in the photo.)

In the photo below are the ruins of what is believed to be the house Peter shared with his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew. It was in this house that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralyzed man and others.

The Church of the Multiplication (above) was built on what is believed to be the site where the miracle of the loaves and the fishes took place. The Church of the Beatitudes (below) is located on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the traditional “mount” where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

The Garden of Gethsemane (below) is where Jesus experienced the agony in the garden and was arrested the night before his crucifixion.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (above) is built on what are believed to be the locations where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. It is considered by many to be the most important holy site in Christianity, and is visited by more than a million pilgrims each year. Inside the church (below) one can see the Stone of Anointing, where the body of Jesus was laid down in preparation for his burial after he was taken down from the cross.

The photo below was taken in the garden outside the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried, and where the women were told, “He has risen!”

My priorities as I rejoin the world

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? I use my morning meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluate my progress for the past year, and create an intention for the coming year. 

This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various types of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. And this past year has definitely been a year for clearing out clutter of all kinds. 

The overall priorities I’ve identified in previous years are still important to me, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude. But the past year has brought some unexpected lessons, along with changes in how I approach my priorities. 

While the pandemic created an enormous amount of disruption, the prolonged quarantine forced me to slow down, which in turn gave me an opportunity to evaluate how I spend my time. If nothing else, the pandemic reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments.

At first, I struggled to establish new routines and ward off mild depression, but with a bit of creativity, I began finding ways to turn the enforced downtime into a surprising level of genuine productivity. With so many activities cancelled, my schedule opened up and needless “busyness” disappeared. 

Frankly, I’d like to keep it that way, which raises the question: What changed during the pandemic, and which changes would I like to hang onto?

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: Our church building remained closed for a good part of the year, which meant no in-person Sunday services. However, my husband and I did “attend” our church’s online service nearly every week, and we participated in a weekly Bible study group, a book group and committee meetings via Zoom. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevented us from leaving the house, I had time for meditation sessions nearly every morning and added some evening sessions as well. I also spent more time outdoors – mostly in my backyard and walking around my neighborhood – where nature’s majesty constantly reassured me of God’s presence.

Intention for the coming year: As Pete and I rejoin the outside world, I want to make sure my indoor and outdoor meditation sessions remain part of my daily routine. Sadly, one of my losses in 2020 was the death of my spiritual advisor last fall. I had engaged her three years earlier to help me sort through my bushel basket full of questions about everything from what my life purpose should be in retirement to my occasional doubts about the existence of God. She was completely nonjudgmental, and encouraged me to be honest about the questions I had. In her honor, I plan to keep asking those questions as I move forward in my spiritual journey.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: With our twice-weekly Stay Fit exercise program cancelled and my healthy eating plan off the rails because of emotional binging on too much comfort food, I started the year well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15. However, I reminded myself that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I mostly managed to get back on track. Pete and I added yoga and regular walks to our routine and, with our favorite restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery, I spent a lot more time cooking.

Intention for the coming year: Before the pandemic, Pete and I ate out at restaurants way too often – usually several times a week. Worse, we consumed many of those meals at all-you-can-eat buffets. I’d like to keep our new eat-at-home habit in place, since it’s much healthier. 

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: All face-to-face gatherings with family and friends have been off the table since March 2020, and we are just now beginning to plan in-person visits. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime. Learning new technology – new to me, I should say – really helped me stay in touch with everyone.

Intention for the coming year: With family and close friends scattered all over the U.S. and in three different countries, staying connected was a challenge even before the pandemic. So I plan to continue scheduling regular online “get-togethers” with family and friends even after our quarantine ordeal is a thing of the past. Now that I’ve learned how to use the technology, why limit visits with far-away loved ones to once every five years?

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve come tantalizingly close to achieving my goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place. While quarantined, I cleaned out drawers, cupboards and closets, and tackled the basement and garage. We even got our trees trimmed and some new landscaping completed. 

Intention for the coming year: Now that our humble abode is looking pretty spiffy, the trick will be keeping it that way. I would like to commit to one hour each weekday for maintenance cleaning. I will also be adding several native plants to our flower beds this fall and next spring. I already have the fall flowers ordered.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: My writing is another priority that has actually seemed easier to achieve under quarantine. I kept up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly every week. I also completed several book excerpts. The pandemic, with its ever-present threat of mortality, reminded me that I don’t have forever to write that book – an item I’ve had on my bucket list since age 10.

Intention for the coming year: I’m now well on my way to actually writing the book and I intend to keep going. I’d like to commit at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet – unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: In our online book group and Bible study sessions, members of my congregation extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. I personally found creative ways to contribute to that effort from home, including joining our church’s community service committee via Zoom.

Intention for the coming year: I intend to keep participating in the community service committee, which coordinates a variety of outreach activities ranging from highway clean-up and collecting new books for a local elementary school library to preparing meals for a homeless shelter and keeping our church’s new micro pantry stocked.

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: In addition to the massive housecleaning project, I actually got our tax return done on time. I got some new landscaping done. I got the attic fixed. This last one was a huge undertaking – some raccoons got into our attic and wreaked extensive damage. Luckily, our homeowner’s insurance covered most of the repairs and we got new energy-efficient insulation out of the deal.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit to completing a pair of backlog tasks I’ve been putting off for years. The first one: Getting together with Thrivent to help us find some socially responsible investment opportunities. The second one: Getting solar panels installed on our roof.

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: Despite all the disruption and stress caused by the pandemic, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, my husband and I had the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. I’m so grateful I’ve had Pete and our kitties hunkering down with me. We also have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduced our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. Most of all, I’m grateful for the vaccine!!! My fear level dropped by several orders of magnitude once I got that second jab in my arm. Thanks be to God for inspiring the scientists who developed this life-saving vaccine so quickly.

Intention for the coming year: Pete and I are finally taking walks. We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, as we re-enter the outside world, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

A poem

Note: I’m taking a short break from writing in July to focus on another project, so for this month, I will re-post some of my personal favorites from earlier days when I only had a dozen or so people following my blog. This was first posted in November 2017.

3 A.M. Questions

did i remember to turn off the oven after supper

what should i wear to church tomorrow … how do we know there is only one true religion … will we go to hell if we make the wrong choice … how can i find out in time … is there a god … what if there isn’t … would that mean life is absurd … i have lived half my life already or is it two-thirds … what do i have to show for it … will i ever be satisfied with who i am … will i have regrets when my life is over … who will come to my funeral … will anyone remember me after i’m gone … why am i here … is my life absurd

how long would the oven need to be on before it catches fire and burns down the house

is the pain in my neck and shoulders from stress or am i having a heart attack … what is that noise … when did i start feeling so anxious all the time … why am i so afraid of what people think of me … what can they do to me anyway

if the house does catch on fire is the smoke alarm working

when are we going to get some rain … has climate change already begun … what can we do about it … have we already passed the point of no return … do we really need electricity and cars … do the amish have the right idea after all … is there a way to eat meat without enabling cruelty to animals … speaking of critters, will the cats be okay by themselves while we’re out of town

when was the last time i changed the battery in the smoke alarm

will social security still be around when I’m 90 or will the government allow wall street to gamble it all away … will the 1 percent grab our pensions as well … what will it feel like to be homeless when i’m 90 … does anyone else lie awake in the middle of the night asking questions like these or am i just weird … is it generalized anxiety disorder … bag lady syndrome … should i see a shrink

maybe i should just get up and check the oven

3 P.M. Question

Why can’t I be this tired at 3 o’clock in the morning??!!

Our annual Christmas letter

Dear Family and Friends,

We certainly don’t need to tell any of you what kind of a year this has been! It’s been a year like none other in our household – even that year when the Cubs finally won the World Series. Our little “QuaranTeam” (two humans and two cats) has been holed up in our home since March – which seems like last week and 10 years ago, both at the same time.

The good news: We’ve been learning lots of new things – like how to get our groceries delivered and how to use technological marvels like FaceTime and Zoom. We’re learning new recipes, because we’re eating at home all the time now, something that hasn’t happened before in our adult lives. We’ve started doing yoga at home too, since our exercise class for seniors went on hiatus when the pandemic hit. Who knew yoga could be so much work? We’re even relearning how to style long hair. Debi’s hair hasn’t been this long in 20 years, and Pete’s hasn’t been this long since his hippie days in the 1960s. 

In October Pete did a presentation for a virtual history conference (over Zoom, like everything else this year) for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The title was “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860,” and he’s thinking of expanding it. In the meantime, it keeps him busy with something more constructive than posting political memes on social media. The photo here captures Pete doing his Zoom presentation from the comfort and safety of our home.

We have decided to use the enforced downtime constructively to write the books we’ve been threatening to write nearly forever. Debi’s book, with the working title We Need to Talk, will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and share her personal search for an appropriate Christian response. She has gotten several excerpts written so far, which she’s publishing on her blog Seriously Seeking Answers. Pete’s been blogging, too, and there may be a book in the offing. Not that we’re competitive, but in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep, Pete has sometimes been detected outlining a book about Swedish immigrants (an expansion of the paper he presented for the virtual history conference) and quietly humming “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” 

Despite the lockdown, we’ve continued to “attend” church every Sunday. Although our building has been closed for all but a few weeks since Lent, a dedicated team of volunteers quickly learned the technology necessary to make our virtual services happen. We’ve been able to participate in weekly Bible study and book group meetings via Zoom as well. Our community service committee has developed several creative ways for us to help people in need in the larger community. And we learned how to use another new technology – iMovie. Here, we made a video of ourselves sharing the peace, to be uploaded and used in an online church service.

Debi has also been busy cleaning the basement, garage, closets and cupboards, and Pete has been chipping away at the archaeological midden in his office. Who knows, we might actually come out of this quarantine having achieved one of Debi’s life-long bucket-list items – a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place, even in the garage and the basement.

Oley and Champaign have provided their usual endlessly adorable companionship during this shelter-in-place adventure. They continue to be their sweet, lovable, ornery, mischievous selves, thus making our isolation much more bearable.

So we all wish you a “Meowy” Christmas, and what we HOPE will be a much better New Year!

Blessings,

An early Advent

Perhaps they’ve been seeking an antidote to the harrowing nature of 2020 so far, but an unusual number of my friends have started the Christmas season early this year and have been posting photos of their trees and other decorations on Facebook.

Most years I make a practice of declaring to anyone who cares to listen, “I don’t even think about Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving. One holiday at a time, folks.” 

And I studiously have NOT shopped on Black Friday for years, both because I hate crowds and because I don’t want to enable department stores that make their employees leave their families in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner so adult customers can get a head start on fighting over the latest must-have toy. (I certainly don’t intend to do so this year either.)

But I must admit I’ve been having more than my usual share of “Bah! Humbug!” moments with the pandemic surging again. In fact, I’ve been so depressed I had seriously considered not even bothering to put up a tree or decorations this year. After all, being in lockdown means we won’t be entertaining any family or friends at our house. 

So I decided it wouldn’t hurt to follow my friends’ example and start observing Advent early this year myself.

We have a small artificial tree that fits on a table, the better to keep curious pets away from the ornaments. 

I love to go all-out in the sun room. The blaze of lights brings so much cheer on cold, dark mornings.

As if it could read my mind, our Christmas cactus actually started blooming early this year. (It usually doesn’t start blooming until December.)

And the peace lily, which usually doesn’t bloom this time of year at all, has decided to add its contribution.

A ceramic Nativity Scene my mother made for me has a place of honor in our china cabinet. Yes, that’s a cat next to the manger. We all know how cats have to be in the middle of things whenever something important is going on, and what could possibly be more important than the birth of our Savior?

At our house, we have an annual tradition of listening to Handel’s Messiah all the way through while putting up the tree and decorations. My favorite part is the Hallelujah chorus, which I could listen to over and over again like a teenager.

There, I’m starting to perk up already.