Lent: Borrowing a tradition

Even though I grew up Protestant, from early childhood on, I’ve usually participated in the annual tradition of giving up something for Lent.

My Aunt Marie – Sunday School teacher extraordinaire and a great Christian role model – believed that while Protestants didn’t require people to make a Lenten sacrifice, there was no reason why we couldn’t borrow this idea from the Catholics. “It’s good discipline,” she explained.

One year, as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table discussing what we would give up – cake, ice cream, chocolate – my father added his two cents to the conversation.

“I’ve never really believed in the idea of sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice,” he said. “Not when life gives us so many opportunities to make real sacrifices. If you’re going to give up something for Lent, I think you should make a sacrifice that actually means something.”

We all looked at him quizzically.

Dad grinned from ear to ear. “Instead of cake and ice cream, why don’t you kids give up fighting for Lent?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Mom chimed in. “No fighting for six whole weeks!”

I think my sisters and I may have actually accomplished this feat for a week or two.

In recent years, some of my Christian friends – including Catholics – have added a new tradition to their Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on” and acquire a new positive habit. This could include anything from healthy eating and exercise to daily prayer and meditation or a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’m thinking it would make sense to include both a sacrifice and an “add-on” this year.

In Dad’s honor, I’ve decided to make a sacrifice that would really mean something – letting go of a significant portion of the “stuff” that clutters every nook and cranny of our house. Toward that end, I’ve decided to accept the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge.

The 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge coincides with the 40 days of Lent, and involves decluttering one area of our home each day. The Challenge was started in 2011 by Ann Marie Heasley, author of the blog White House Black Shutters. It has become an annual event and the blog’s companion Facebook group now boasts 67,000 members. The 2018 Challenge starts February 14 and goes until March 31. (Click HERE to read more about The Challenge.)

For the “add-on” part, I’d like to acquire the habit of eating 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day as recommended by nutrition experts. I’m lucky if I get in one or two servings on most days – some might say my eating habits resemble those of a rebellious 10-year-old – so this will be a challenge! Fortunately, psychologists say it takes 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit, so Lent would give me a bonus of 10 extra days to make this new habit my own.

Meanwhile, I also plan to get back in the habit of morning meditation. My meditation ritual, which I’ve practiced for several years, involves starting my day in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap while I journal about everything from the meaning of life to my plans for the day. Some days my husband joins me and serenades me with folk tunes played on his dulcimer.

Alas, looking through my journal entries this morning, I realized I haven’t partaken of this lovely ritual for several weeks. I’ve allowed a combination of illness and other people’s drama to crowd out a habit that helps me feel centered – no wonder I’ve been a tad bit crabby lately. I definitely want my morning meditation ritual to be a keeper!



Keeping me focused

So how am I doing on my resolution to set boundaries with my computer? Alas, I should have known this would be a much harder challenge than I expected.

I’m thinking that maybe if I try this for a short period, while telling myself it’s not a permanent change, I can convince my inner two-year-old not to revolt. Lent is coming up in a couple of weeks …

Meanwhile, Oley Cat has a way of reminding me of my priorities.

Oley on computer1

A lesson in acceptance

Since January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, today’s blog entry is dedicated to some of my favorite furry friends.


Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared just for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. As a bonus, the trays double as a good place to recycle old bread, tortillas, naan, hamburger buns and pita chips. (Just make sure there is no onion or garlic on these.)

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.





Super Me

My spiritual director gave me this assignment: Imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. What does this ideal state look like?

Actually, I’ve been imagining my “idealized state” for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman who, for lack of a better name, I’ll call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life totally under control. The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions.

Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings at her spotlessly clean house. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is both healthy and painless because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned all the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.

As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve this level of perfection, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have a thing to worry about here: I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

Setting boundaries with my computer

For several years now, December 19 has been a special day for me. I call it my “Sobriety Birthday” and I consider it a great day for positive changes. On this date 25 years ago, I gave up alcohol. On the same date 16 years ago, I gave up cigarettes. Last year, I dropped “added sugar” from my diet, and 15 pounds along with it. So what about this year?

One of the changes my spiritual director and I have discussed: If I want to grab even a modicum of control over my time, I must confront my Internet addiction.

A huge challenge is that I can’t abstain completely from using my computer without losing its many benefits.

With family and friends scattered all over two continents, I would not be able to stay connected so well without Facebook. How are all my nieces and nephews and dozens of cousins doing? Who’s getting married? Which friend got a promotion at work or went on a fabulous vacation? Who just went to the E.R. and needs prayers?

Facebook has even allowed me to reconnect with friends I thought I’d lost track of forever. Many of these people were friends from my childhood and young adulthood. When repeated moves for marriages and jobs separated us, we promised to stay in touch, but this proved hard from a distance. Thanks to Facebook, the years and the miles have disappeared. In a couple of cases we’ve started visiting each other in person again.

I also use the Internet to research many of the articles I write. Most grant proposals I prepare for an organization whose board I sit on must be sent electronically. I pay bills, check my bank balances and renew licenses online. Ordering everything from clothes to books to groceries online saves hours of shopping time. Using email and Facebook to set up committee meetings or plan family gatherings saves days of telephone tag. Sometimes I even check the weather forecast to see how I need to dress for the day.

Suffice it to say that the Internet has had an enormously positive impact on my life, and I’m not ready to give it up and go “completely off the grid,” as some folks fantasize about doing. However, I realize the mindless surfing needs to go – complete with taking “click bait” and getting sucked into Facebook flame wars.

It’s one thing to keep up with family members and friends. But keeping up with the Kardashians? Do I really care why Taylor Swift broke up with her latest boyfriend? What do I gain by arguing about politics with friends of friends on Facebook except for some new resentments? And how many articles do I need to read about our elected officials calling each other names?

Okay, I did manage to avoid clicking on a couple of these: Giant Bird-Eating Tarantula … Snopes Fact Check: Did Michelle File for Divorce over President Obama’s Pregnant Mistress? … Revealed: The Lavish Life of an American Pastor … Did Tokyo Open the First Human Meat Restaurant? But not all of them, I must confess.

Political click bait has been a particularly potent trigger. To put it mildly, the results of the 2016 election threw me into a state of shock. For the first couple of months, I read one “news analysis” piece after another, trying to wrap my head around what happened. My husband and I also joined some of the new Facebook “resistance” groups springing up everywhere.

Meanwhile, I found myself getting into fights – even with people I ordinarily like – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues. One evening this past summer, I realized I had just spent the better part of a whole day debating total strangers on a church Facebook page over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about lutefisk, lefse and jello at Lutheran potlucks?” (No, I’m not making that up). I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

In the past, I’ve conquered compulsions/addictions, like alcohol and cigarettes, by practicing total abstinence. The thing is, I can live (a lot longer, in fact) without cigarettes or alcohol. But it’s pretty hard in this technological age to live without my computer.

So it looks like I’m going to need to learn a new skill: Moderation! Now moderation has never been one of my strong suits, but maybe it really is time for me to acquire this valuable habit.

At any rate, I’ve decided to set some boundaries with my computer. If I have a legitimate reason to be online, by all means go online – long enough to check messages and do necessary tasks. Then get back off. Stop the mindless surfing. Resist click bait. Put a definitive time limit on how long I spend on Facebook. That way maybe I can keep my computer in its place as a valuable tool, rather than letting it control me.

Let’s see how I do with this one.

Comparing spiritual journeys

I’ve been warned by numerous self-help books to avoid the comparison trap. Still, I can’t seem to resist the temptation, even when it comes to my spiritual life. So of course this Sara Zimmerman comic hit home:

Spiritual journey comic

Source: Unearthed Comics      

Readers can find more of Sara’s witty cartoons on her Web site Unearthed Comics. (Link HERE.) In the meantime, I’m glad I’m not the only one whose spiritual journey has squiggly lines.


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??!!


My Gratitude List

Happy Thanksgiving weekend! I figure this is as good a time as any to compile a gratitude list, and I have plenty to be grateful for this year:

My marriage. As usual, my husband tops my gratitude list. After 32 years together, I still consider him a gift from a loving God. He’s kind, generous, all-around decent and caring, my best friend, the wind beneath my wings, and the best thing that ever happened to me. I love that man to the moon and back!

My family. I have sisters who double as best friends. Good parents (it was an awe-inspiring experience to hear story after story about their generosity when I stood in the receiving line at Dad’s visitation a few years ago). And wonderful nieces, nephews and dozens of cousins I’m now in touch with thanks to Facebook.

Our kitties. I have two sweet babies who come running whenever I sit down so they can hop into my lap, who curl up next to me in bed, who love me unconditionally.

Our health. After a cancer scare for my husband, a cardiac scare for me, and a lengthy hospitalization/convalescence for my mother, we’re all still here alive and well (or at least recovering) for the holidays. Thanks be to God!!!!! And while our medical bills this year would pay for a small house, we’re fortunate to have insurance that covered most of it.

Our dream house, with its cozy fireplace, sunroom, eat-in kitchen, office space for each of us, yard filled with flower beds and lovely neighborhood.

Good friends, past and present – those irreplaceable people who know my quirks and flaws and love me anyway.

My writing ability. I’ve known since third grade that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose, and from young adulthood on, this gift from God has reassured me that I’ll never starve. Or get bored even after retiring.

Our retirement fund. It has been so nice to be able to retire and not have to worry (at least not too much) about how we’re going to survive. To travel to places like Ireland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Israel and Palestine. To afford household help.

Mother Nature in all her majesty. This year I’ve gotten to enjoy wildflowers along the roadsides in summer. Gentle soaking rain after a period of drought. Fall leaves that riot! Beautiful sunsets. Sixty-degree days in late November.

Our new church home. We belong to a congregation where the people actually try to live out the values they profess. Our brothers and sisters in Christ have even survived the merger of three congregations and are still speaking to each other. Amazing!

Supportive people. I’m not sure we’re expected to be grateful for affliction – after all, I’m not a masochist. But we certainly are grateful for the people God put in our lives to help us through the scary stuff – competent medical professionals, and the friends, family, church people and total strangers who prayed for us this year.

Little things. I’ve also decided to be grateful for “ordinary” days when broken appliances are all we need to fret about. For the sprinkler system in our yard that saved me so much time over a long dry summer. Not to mention low-calorie food that actually tastes good.

I’m grateful the things that caused fear and worry over the past year have been resolved, that my husband and I are doing well, and that tomorrow brings new adventures.

And so I resolve to wake up and remind myself each day: Today is the day our Creator has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Letting some balls drop

After writing down all those areas of my life that felt not-so-well ordered, I shared my “late-night laundry list” with my spiritual director and showed her the graphic I created to illustrate my current spiritual condition:

00a Overwhelmed SMALL

Looking the graphic over for a moment, she asked, “What stands out for you?”

I pointed out the “God ball” at the foot of the clutter pile.

I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. Instead she recommended a children’s book – The Clown of God, “an old story” told and illustrated by Tomie de Paola.

The tale stars a small boy whose special talent is juggling:

He would juggle sticks. Plates. Then he would balance the plates on the sticks and twirl them. He would juggle clubs, rings and burning torches. Finally he would toss a red ball and an orange ball. Then a yellow ball. A green, a blue and a violet ball until it looked as if he were juggling the rainbow. “And now for the Sun in the Heavens,” he would cry. Still juggling, he would pick up a shining golden ball and toss it higher and higher, faster and faster. And how the crowds would cheer.

The small boy grew up and became very famous for his juggling act, the story continues. He traveled far and wide and the crowds loved him, until … he DROPPED the golden Sun in the Heavens ball “and the rainbow of balls came crashing down and the crowd stood around him and laughed! But not from joy.” Feeling utterly defeated, he made the decision to give up juggling forever.

But the story doesn’t end there. As it turned out, his best performance was yet to come. (Click HERE to hear the story yourself.)

Instead of incorporating my own “God ball” back into the rotation of balls I was juggling, my spiritual director suggested I might want to just leave it where it is for now. “Just sit with it,” she said.

Back at the drawing board (Photoshop, that is), I pulled up my Clutter Mountain graphic and painted my “God ball” gold like the one in the children’s book. I then imagined myself crawling out from under the clutter pile and sitting next to the golden “God ball” with my eyes closed and my back to everything else – a cup of warm coffee in my hands and my two cats at my side.

Clutter Mountain with gold God ball FINAL_edited-1

Of course this meant the other balls I was juggling would drop – at least temporarily, I told my spiritual director when I showed her the edited graphic.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Those other balls will still be there when it’s time for you to get back to them. They’re not going anywhere.”

Irresistible veggie recipes wanted!

“Cardiac event” was most definitely not on my To-Do list.

Following an extended pull-my-hair-out busy patch that seems to happen for at least two weeks each month despite my retirement, I was looking forward to a short stretch of downtime. Instead, I began a beautiful October weekend with a ride in the back of an ambulance.

The good news: My radiating chest pain and rapid heart rate (200-plus beats per minute) turned out not to be a heart attack. The bad news: After an overnight stay in the hospital spent hooked up to a Holter monitor, I left with a diagnosis of A-fib and “diastolic dysfunction.”

The upshot: My eagerly-awaited downtime this past couple of weeks has been supplanted by a round of follow-up doctor visits. I’ll need to add three new heart medications to my ever-expanding drug salad, and a lot more salads to my increasingly restricted diet. And veggies.

Alas, since I prefer chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie bars to celery, it is even harder for me to adhere to a healthy eating plan than it was for me to quit smoking 15 years ago. Add to that, the challenge of finding recipes my husband and I can both stand. We each have veggies we like and veggies we loathe. Problem is, the ones I like are on his “loathe list” and vice versa.

But the cardiac event that hijacked my calendar has reminded me of my need to keep “self-care” on my list of priorities – after all, 1 Corinthians 6:19 says my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s past time to stop taking my health for granted.

So I’d love to have readers of this blog share their irresistible veggie recipes. Or yummy salad recipes. “Quick and easy to prepare” is a plus.

Count on my husband to add a bit of levity to a tense situation. While waiting for me to be released from the hospital, he and I were discussing the health issues we’ve both been experiencing this past year.

I said, “At our age, we probably need to get used to this. It’s going to be the new normal.”

To which my sweetie pie replied, “You mean the new abnormal? We were NEVER normal, my dear!”