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.

My priorities in a time of pandemic

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? This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. 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. 

To say this past year did not go as planned would be a huge understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every familiar activity and routine in my life. Dulcimer group – cancelled until further notice. Choir practice – cancelled until further notice. Stay Fit classes – cancelled until further notice. Visits with family and friends – cancelled until further notice. Groceries – delivered to our home. Church, Bible study, book group and even some doctor appointments – all online.

However, I’ve decided the priorities I identified last year are still good ones, 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.

Since it looks like the pandemic will be with us for a while, my challenge is this: How do I continue to work on my priorities in the face of the restrictions and disruption? When the lockdown began in March, I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, struggling to establish new routines and warding off mild depression. But with a bit of creativity, I’ve begun finding ways to turn this quarantine experience into productive time. 

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: I continued to meet with my spiritual director, but due to the pandemic and underlying health conditions for both of us, we’ve begun meeting by phone rather than face to face. Fortunately, we’ve developed enough of a relationship over the past three years that the phone meetings work just fine.

Intention for the coming year: In addition to sessions with my spiritual director, I need to make sure I keep morning meditation part of my daily routine. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevents Pete and I from leaving the house, there’s really no excuse not to do this every morning, except for Sunday when we “attend” our church’s online service. We also participate in a weekly Bible study group via Zoom.

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: Ugh. Our Stay Fit exercise program has been cancelled since March, and my healthy eating plan went off the rails about the same time. The lack of exercise – except for an occasional walk – coupled with way too much comfort food has me well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are still the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! Doctor appointments have definitely gotten more complicated, and I no longer have access to the spa for the massages that were so helpful in relieving arthritis pain. But if anything, this makes routine self-care more important. I need to focus on eating healthy food, getting the right exercise, and getting enough sleep.

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 visits with family and friends have been off the table since just before Easter. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime.

Intention for the coming year: Learning some new technology has been really helpful. I plan to schedule regular “get-together” FaceTime sessions with family and friends while we’re under quarantine. And, of course, we can continue to stay in touch via Facebook. 

Priority: Our home

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

Progress/changes this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place eludes me at the best of times. But now we can no longer use the services of our marvelous cleaning ladies because we can’t safely let them in the house. Yes, I know this is a First World problem, but it does create some extra work I wasn’t expecting.

Intention for the coming year: Now that so many of our regular activities are on hiatus, I have no excuse not to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. And get some more pictures up on the walls.

Priority: My writing

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

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly once a week. I’ve also finally begun writing my book. Believe it or not, this is one priority that actually seems to have gotten easier to achieve under quarantine.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote 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 – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. We’re not going anywhere for possibly the next year, so I want to come out of this enforced hibernation period with a BOOK! No excuses. This needs to happen. 

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: For the first half of the past year, my volunteer work involved a lot of church activities, along with participation in a musical group that entertained residents at a local retirement center. That all ended when the lockdown began in March.

Intention for the coming year: My congregation has extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. Pete and I have decided to adjust some of our charitable contributions upward since we’re less able to contribute volunteer hours and we can afford it. And I plan to volunteer for a couple of my favorite candidates in this year’s election by writing postcards and letters, something I can do safely from home. 

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: Quarantining threw a monkey wrench into my best-laid plans. For example, doing my taxes got more complicated, so we’ve had to ask for an extension for the first time in years.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. This is a perfect time to get some of those backlog tasks done that I’ve been putting off for years, like going through our financial records and cancelling subscriptions we no longer use.

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: I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, Pete and I have the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. We have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduce our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. And I’m so grateful I have Pete and the kitties hunkering down with me.

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. The quarantine has forced me to slow down and evaluate how I spend my time. Pete and I are finally taking walks! We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, even as the pandemic rages on, 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!”

Virtual blessings

My husband Pete and I have been part of our congregation’s choir for several years, and I’ve REALLY missed it since our church stopped having in-person Sunday services.

But, if there’s a silver lining behind the quarantine we’ve been living under for the past three months, it’s that I’ve discovered some absolutely superb “virtual choirs.”

Virtual choirs are a global phenomenon in which singers or other musicians record and upload their videos from their own homes or various other separate locations. Each one of the videos is then synchronized and all are combined into one single “performance.”

Since the COVID-19 “lockdowns” began in March, Christians around the world have come together in virtual choirs to sing blessings over their communities and nations. These choirs have showed us that, while many of our church buildings may be closed, church itself is alive and well.

I’m sharing some of my favorites here.

What better hymn can one possibly ask for in a season of stress, trouble and uncertainty than A Mighty Fortress Is My God? This virtual choir piece features the performances of 176 singers and musicians from 34 countries.

The Nashville Studio Singer Community formed a virtual cell phone choir to perform It is Well With My Soul. I’ve had a special sentimental attachment to this hymn since it was sung at my mother’s funeral.

The New York City Virtual Choir and Orchestra performed another one of my personal favorites, How Can I Keep from Singing?

Choristers from 50 countries affected by COVID-19 formed a virtual choir to sing Amazing Grace in a multitude of languages. The result is … truly amazing. I could watch this one 20 times and not get tired of it.

So far, choirs from at least a couple dozen countries have sung The Blessing. Christians all over the world have gathered in virtual choirs to sing blessings on their respective communities and nations in their own languages. This has been a truly ecumenical effort — churches represented range from Catholic and Mainline Protestant to Evangelical, Pentecostal and Coptic Orthodox. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these renditions from the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Ghana.

And this hauntingly beautiful hymn from a Middle Eastern virtual choir goes to show that a hymn need not be familiar, or even in one’s own language, to inspire. Listen to Healer all the way through — helpful English subtitles are provided — and prepare to be blown away!

Alas, Pete and I haven’t figured out the technology yet for joining any virtual choirs. However, we did manage to make this little video for our own congregation’s online service on Pentecost Sunday.

Blessings,

He is risen indeed!

Fortunately, “social distancing” need not mean “spiritual distancing.”

For several years now, our church has been talking wistfully about how nice it would be to put our services online. Well, it’s finally happened, thanks to the quarantine imposed on all of us by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So Pete and I have been faithfully “attending” church every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning in the comfort of my home office. As an added purrk (sorry, couldn’t resist it), our two cats have even been joining us for church.

Congregation members have been invited to “participate” in the service by videotaping ourselves and sending in clips, so I’ve finally followed through on a vow of my own and am learning how to use iMovie.

It’s kind of fun. Here are a couple of video clips Pete and I have created for use in our Sunday services. We made the first one for the Palm Sunday service, and the second one for Easter Sunday.

I must say I’m impressed by the ingenuity of my brothers and sisters in Christ who put together the Easter Sunday virtual service. Some talented folks in our congregation have mastered the technology for online services in amazingly short order. Others have found creative ways to help us all feel included – from the video clips of people announcing “He is risen indeed!” to the photos of congregation members taped to the pews to show that we’re all in the sanctuary in spirit even as we watch from home.

Below, you can watch this beautiful virtual service if you wish. At 33:11 minutes into the service, you can see where the “He is risen!” video clips created by congregation members were incorporated, including ours.

One of our cats seemed to want to get into the act as well. So I made another video clip for readers of this blog featuring Oley Cat:

Happy Easter, everyone!

Some comic relief

While I’m definitely taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously — my husband and I are both considered high risk — I must admit I find it hard to resist a judicious bit of gallows humor in times like these.

Fortunately, my fellow travelers have been generating a wealth of memes to keep me chuckling and groaning while I spend way too much of my newly acquired free time on social media sites.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorites so far, plus a final piece of good advice:

My fellow writers will surely relate to this one:

If we can’t find toilet paper, at least we have plenty of toilet paper memes.

What a guy …

If our pets could speak our language, I’m sure they would have words of wisdom to offer us.

The kind of people I hang out with send me stuff like this all the time:

I know the next one isn’t humor, but I love it and had to include it anyway. If only …

And finally … turns out the recommended amount of time needed to wash one’s hands thoroughly is roughly equivalent to the amount of time needed to recite the Lord’s Prayer.