Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christmas Collections

If we had our druthers, there would be two Christmas trees at our house each year. My husband’s would be elegantly appointed with beautiful, trendy decorations, probably all in the same color family. His might completely change from year to year. Mine, on the other hand, would display the same treasures I carefully store away at each year’s end. As I write this, they are still boxed up, but when you read it, they’ll be in a place of honor in the corner of our living room.

After thirty-five years of collecting, I have more ornaments than I can practically place on the tall but skinny imitation pine with plastic holly berries and fake twists of grapevine worked in. So, as I decorate, I’ll just pull some of the precious pieces out and pause for a moment as I place them back into their home for protection.

There are ornaments fashioned by my children when they were small. Created from ideas in craft books owned by a clever teacher, they may have started as a clothespin, or a jar lid. Paint, ribbon, glue and glitter transformed them into something wonderful, a tiny piece of a child’s heart. As they say in the credit card commercial: Priceless.

Then, there are the dated ornaments purchased over the years, one for each year of our married life. The designs reflect the times and the budget constraints of those years. Some celebrate a big event in our family- “Baby’s First Christmas”. Others were purchased at after Christmas sales. Each brings along a flood of been-there-done-that memories.

My mother has long upheld a tradition of making ornaments for our family’s trees. Hers show imagination and creativity, and always bring to mind the reasons for the season, love and family. I followed her lead for several years, so you’ll find some examples of my feeble attempts at craftiness. Teddy bears with ribbons and bells, scraps of leather with cut-outs from old Christmas cards, rings made from a special, inedible dough.

Not all of the ornaments are home-made or inexpensive. Otherwise, they’d all be relegated to the back of the tree by my “curb-appeal” conscious hubby. We do own some really nice ones, including part of a Norman Rockwell collection purchased by my step-mother sometime during the last century. There are also tributes to our favorite sports teams, and a few with Disney connections.

I must confess that my Christmas collecting isn’t confined to the tree. You’ll find memorable items displayed on almost every flat surface in the house. One, in an honored position on top of the dining room hutch, even belongs to my husband. Yes, he looks forward each year to seeing the Santa Claus doll (well, that’s what it is) his parents purchased for him on a Christmas shopping trip to Benton when he was small. It really is all about the happy memories this time of year.

One of my favorite Christmas stories brings home the fact that God is a collector, too. The difference is that, he desires to collect our souls for protection from the evils of this world, and to provide a permanent home with Him.

The story goes something like this: There was a man who was raised as a Christian, but had become cynical after years of existing in our rather self-absorbed world. While his wife and kids went to a Christmas Eve program at church, he stayed home, and watched out the window as a strong winter storm brewed. The wind howled, the cold blizzard raged, and he saw a large flock of birds battling the wind, looking for some form of refuge. He’d often enjoyed feeding and watching birds, and his heart was touched by their struggle. He glanced at the large barn that stood behind their house, and he was inspired. Bundling up, he hurried out to the building, threw open the door, and turned on the lights, hoping to lure the floundering creatures to safety. The flock continued to fly hither and yon, and none made their way into the warmth and protection of the barn. The man finally gave up and returned inside, leaving the door and lights as an open invitation.

When his family returned home, he told them of his efforts, and a strange realization touched him as he spoke these words: “If only I could have turned myself into a bird- then I could have guided them in ….”

This Christmas, as you collect happy memories, remember the perfect plan of your heavenly Father. He still wants to draw you closer. Let the baby in the manger be your guide.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Fulness" : It's All in the Moment

We throw around a lot of superlatives. It’s not just great, it’s wonderful. Not just pretty but beautiful. How often does whatever we are describing really fit those words?
We don’t have to look too far in Arkansas to find some really pretty scenery. Every evening we can look to the West and see a remarkable display of colors. If there are hills in the distance, the colors seem magnified as the sun makes its slow and careful descent. But, sometimes, something really special just knocks us back and takes our breath away.
One of these unexpected moments happened to me during the Great Ice Storm of early 2000. That year, we lived in Bryant under a lot of gorgeous, tall pine trees. The ice had fallen for several hours, knocking out power, and quite a few loose limbs. Everyone in the neighborhood was beyond thinking the scenery looked pretty, as we contemplated the cleanup efforts that would be necessary to get things back to normal. But, after a night of playing cards by kerosene lantern-light, and sleeping under piles of quilts, I stepped outside to see the morning sun reflecting off thousands of frozen branches above my head. It was like some sort of fairy-land. Light flickered in every direction, sparkling brilliantly. It was absolutely, drop-dead Beautiful.
Recently, I’ve seen pictures of two of my friends who were more than just happy to see a new baby. One had waited for the right husband, then waited again to be a mother. Now that her daughter is here, every photo of the two of them seems to glow. Another friend is a grandma for the first time. After experiencing the loss of a grandson before he really got a chance at life, she now has a tiny, precious grand-daughter. The pictures of these two ladies holding their infants betray the fact that they know the Grace of God is the chief reason for their happiness. The label for those photos: Grateful.
Babies provide us with such delight. They have no qualms about laughing when something is funny. Even at things that older people would label impolite or inappropriate. Their laughter is infectious, and the more we laugh, the more they laugh. Joyful, pure and simple.
After all, it’s really about the emotions that we feel in moments like these. A series of well-crafted commercials on television play directly to our emotions, as a weepy voice sings about the arms of angels, and poor mistreated animals stare up at us with sorrowful eyes. Literally, Pitiful. I don’t know if it is coincidence, but two of my children have adopted puppies from their local shelter since those commercials began airing.
I usually have a problem with watching a television reporter interview a family member immediately after a tragedy. I feel that this invades a very private, emotion-filled moment for that person. Recently, though after the tragic fiery crash that killed Indy Champion Dan Wheldon, his friend and fellow driver Dario Franchitti summed things up perfectly. He said something like: “We all know there’s a huge risk every time we get into our car at the beginning of a race. At a moment like this, when we’re asked if it’s all worth it, we have to say No. It’s not worth it at all. But we all know racing is part of us, and we’ll be back out here again.” It was hard to hear those words, but his point of view at that moment gave us a real impression of what all of the drivers were feeling. It was, in a word Insightful.
Another inspirational story on television came at the end of a newscast. This one depicted a group of American military veterans playing baseball. Nothing unusual about that, until you noticed that one of the teams was made up of men who had lost at least one limb in the service of their country. These warriors were navigating very well, thank-you, both with and without the aid of prostheses. For all who played against them or watched them, the experience was Powerful.
As we approach the holiday set aside for appreciating what we have, let’s look for these moments that are completely packed with something special. We may have to step back, take a deep breath, but they’re all around us. Enjoy these times, and be Thankful.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

One of the many songs that runs through my brain on a regular basis starts out this way: “Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!” It goes on to complain about the strange way the younger generation talks, the weird things that interest them. The plea of the song is summed up like this: “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?” Sound familiar? Do you hear folks expressing this thought quite often these days? Remember- this song was written in 1960 for the Broadway musical Bye, Bye Birdie.
Looking back, my own generation was certainly not perfect. In the late sixties and early seventies, our parents stressed over the music we listened to. Far worse than that was the drug culture that permeated everything. In fact, given all the dangerous things we did as teenagers, we were very fortunate to have lived long enough to be grandparents.
So, are kids really any worse than we were? No, just different. And who exactly are we referring to here? As my own offspring grow up, the top age limit is creeping into the mid-thirties now.
Social networking is their cup of tea, and they use it to full advantage. One of my friends on Facebook is not even human, it’s a Van. With some human assistance from a young visionary and many like-minded folks, the Van delivers necessities like shoes, socks and toiletries to the homeless population of Central Arkansas. Now, the Van even pulls a converted trailer which houses a portable shower. In my daily walk from my car to my high-rise office, the people I encounter are starting to look cleaner and happier.
This generation also loves to mobilize and act quickly. When one of them has a problem, they create prayer pages and fund-raising pages that get hundreds of hits each day. Community events like car washes, pancake fundraisers, mass races and “walks” kick into high gear. One local police officer, who we met before he became an Eagle Scout, recently went on television to have his head shaved in support of a fellow officer’s young child who has cancer.
The baby boomers were raised in front of the TV set. Our children substituted video games for television programs. We worried, thinking that the games were robbing our children of the ability to think for themselves. Quite to the contrary.
At the University of Washington, a competition called “Foldit” enticed avid gamers to help in finding a cure for HIV (AIDS). Participants worked to create a virtual model of an enzyme that the scientists had been unable to build. To quote one of the originators of the game “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods have failed.” When the gamers quickly solved the puzzle, this same official said “The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force.”
As these gamers become the workers and executives of top companies, we find that their skills are being incorporated into their jobs. Smart companies take advantage of their imagination and creativity to find new solutions for old problems. By making tough issues into competitions, these “kids” are making amazing strides.
Of course, not all of the members of this generation are so altruistic and caring. No more than our own generation is perfect. But, in the hands of Generation X and Generation Y, I think we can feel safe. All in all, they’re pretty good kids. Are we surprised? Not really. After all- look at who raised them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Only a Game? Not Around Here!

Only a Game? Not Around Here.
By the time you read this, Salt Bowl 2011 will be in the history books. I can visualize the dumbfounded look on some of your faces, but those who live anywhere near Saline County know that this is one of the biggest high school events in the state, nay the Nation! Because of the way that city limits and school district boundaries overlap, people who live in Benton and Bryant could live down the street from each other, go to church together, and still end up on opposite sides of the stadium once a year. What started as a conference rivalry over 30 years ago has evolved into “The” event of the football season. So big it outgrew both towns, and had to be moved to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. On that night, tumbleweeds run rampant in both cities, as the entire population heads east to gather at a huge tailgate party that rivals some of the Razorback games for enthusiasm.
Speaking of the Razorbacks, does every city have a countdown clock on the local TV station’s website measuring the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the first football game of the season? Although the University is located in Fayetteville, Hog Mania covers the whole state, and little red pig symbols adorn hats, t-shirts, golf club covers and babies’ pacifiers. For those who graduated elsewhere, the Hogs are one of their top two favorite teams. There are Razorback clubs across the country for ex-patriots who often place slogans like RAZBAX on their personalized license plates.
It’s just football, right? So what is all the fuss? When you get down to it, it’s a rather silly game. I remember hearing an old recording by Andy Griffith who described accidentally wandering into this big place where folks were lined up hollering at a bunch of boys who were trying to take a flattened out pumpkin from each other.
It’s really about community spirit, after all. Around here, football unites us. In other parts of the world, it might be soccer (also called football, but only a distant cousin to the American game), or running from bulls in the streets, or even rolling a huge cheese wheel down a hillside. It gives the residents something to get excited about, a cause to rally around, a reason to cheer.
Along with the football players themselves, other groups get a chance to show off their talents at the games. Cheerleaders, dance teams, and marching bands add pageantry and variety, and bring along their own very vocal cheering sections. These teams also compete at their own exhibitions, and the Ouachita Area has been fortunate to bring home many state and national trophies. You may see things at half time that you’ve never expected, like routines featuring Broadway show tunes, or movie themes. Dancers dressed as Cats, and strange noises that suggest Jurassic dinosaurs keep you wondering how next year’s students will top this year’s show. Once, we witnessed a whole marching band “disappear” under a giant tarp, causing a collective gasp in the stands. Not sure what old John P. Sousa would think of that, but it was great fun to watch!
Family traditions are born that span generations. If your Grandpa and your Dad were fans of a certain team, you most likely will be too, no matter where you went to school. Attending games together gives you common “war stories” to share for years afterwards. When you can’t be there in person, you can tune in on the TV or radio, and share the experience across the miles. Our family has often updated each other with text messages and emails when one member lives out of range of the broadcast.
I guess my favorite story of how football and the Salt Bowl affects us took place several years ago when a friend’s son joined us at the big game during a few hours of leave from military training at Camp Robinson. He received a phone call from someone who was on base. What we could hear of the conversation went something like this:
“Yeah, I’m with my Dad at a high school football game …. Well, it’s actually in Little Rock, at War Memorial Stadium …. No, my brother graduated a few years ago …. No, we don’t know anyone who’s playing on either team ….. Well, it’s just what you do on a Friday night around here…. Yeah, pretty cool… Okay, see you soon.”
Go Hornets, and Woo Pig Sooie!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taking the Show on the Road

“Ain’t she cute… See her sliding down the chute … Now I ask you very confidentially … ain’t she cute.”
Who recorded this song? Did it sell a million records? I couldn’t tell you. I only heard it when my Dad was behind the wheel of his 1960s era Buick.
The acoustics were better in my Mom’s Volkswagen Beetles, both the 1963, and the 1967 models and the 1973 VW Fastback. Here’s where we formed a family trio, Sister singing lead soprano, and Mom and I providing alto and tenor harmonies. Our selections varied widely, from hymns and choir anthems, to the Beatles and even Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn”.
My oldest son caught the bug quite early. He knew every word to Kenny Rogers’ Gambler at the age of three. The first few times he sang “I wish you could have turned my head, and left my heart alone …”, I was scrambling for a pencil, thinking I had a musical prodigy on my hands. I was just a little disappointed when I heard the Oak Ridge Boys perform the same song on the car radio, and realized that’s where he’d learned it.
My daughter says that one of her favorite memories of summer vacations involve me and her dad assisting Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn on their duets while driving. “Louisiana woman ..” “Mississippi man ..” “We get together every time we can.” The kids in the back seat happily provided the back-up.
The second son also took his old buddy Conway, along with other artists of all varieties, on trips back and forth to Fayetteville. Windows rolled down, stereo turned up, plenty of Mountain Dew for energy- the trip out of the mountains seemed a little shorter.
The next generation of vocalists is thriving, too. Oldest grandson Jordan could sing recognizable melodies before he could form complete sentences. One of his favorite serenades from the back seat started with the words “My Jesus, My Savior”. After that, the words he sang were not intelligible, even though the tune was intact. He was really disappointed, though, that I didn’t know the words either. After several lessons from him, and a few trips around the Christian radio dial, I finally got the hang of it, and we made a pretty good team.
Latest to join the family “circle” is grandson Austin. At five, his favorites are Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, though he also belts out “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams(senior).
A couple of years ago, a writer friend of mine accompanied me to a conference in Southeast Kansas. We attended the early service at two different churches before starting back home that Palm Sunday. Something about the Ozark mountains must have inspired us, as we sang every hymn our memories could muster from the top of “the hill” in Fayetteville to well past Morrilton on I-40. Though we knew many of the same songs, she taught me some new verses, and I expanded her repertoire with my old-time Church of Christ selections.
So, the logical end of this story would be that at least one family member or friend now lives in Nashville, and a recording career looms on the horizon. Sorry to disappoint you, but hey- none of us has ever been arrested for road rage, either! Enjoy the rest of your summer, and if you see me tooling down the freeway with my mouth wide open in song, just wave!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why the USA?

Fireworks explode overhead. Children make designs in the air with hot, sparkly rods of metal. Bands play songs that are impossible to listen to without tapping our toes to the rhythm. It’s all a part of the annual birthday party that is uniquely American. Looking around in the crowd, we see so many different types of people, each with their own story.
Each branch of our family tree has its own tales. Older family members have passed them along, some as simple narration of facts, others with much embellishment and bravado. All together, they make up the rich fabric that makes us who we are today.
My dad’s side of the family, the McLeods, originated in Scotland. My grandpa’s grandpa and grandma arrived in the US around 1880. Times had been hard in the Scottish Highlands. John McLeod came to America first, and after moving from the Pennsylvania coal mines to Eastern Kansas, he sent for his wife, Mary Whiteford McLeod. She and her four small boys set out across the Atlantic, and in the midst of the difficult journey, their fifth son was born. Once in Kansas, they left the dark world of the mines to become ranchers.
My Mother’s grandfather, Karl Maurer came to America just a few years earlier from Germany. Not speaking any English or having any family in his new home, he enlisted in the Army. His several tours of duty took him through Oklahoma, Kansas, and points west. Because the army was engaged with making the frontier safe for white settlers, much of his time was spent working with the Indians. After a twenty year military career and becoming an American citizen, he married the daughter of an Army musician. Though twenty years younger, she was also of good German stock. They settled near his last assignment, the Presidio in California.
My husband’s family stories all take place in the United States. It seems that on both sides, his ancestors have been in America much longer than mine.
The Carlisle legend centers around four brothers who were shipwrecked in North Carolina. Though I haven’t been able to verify the shipwreck, the location is correct, and for generations, there is a tradition of Carlisle boys traveling and settling together. As to where they came from, or why, indications seem to lead to the importance of their faith. During the Revolutionary war, they were not soldiers, but there is a Carlisle who was a shoemaker that traveled with the Army. Conscientious objector? After moving to Mississippi, they were reportedly Mennonites. In Arkansas, they are listed as founders of a church in Grant County. Doing what is needed for the local congregation is a tradition that continues today.
My husband’s Grandpa Weaver’s grandmother was a survivor of the tragic massacre at Mountain Meadows in Utah in 1857. After returning home to Arkansas, these children made it their life’s mission to share the truth of what had happened to their families. Though the official story involved an Indian attack, the children had seen past the war paint and recognized the murderers as the same Mormon settlers who had earlier promised to protect the wealthy wagon train. Their courage helped bring the story out, and the misguided zealots to justice.
What’s your story? I know you have more than one. Have you shared it with your children and grandchildren? If they don’t seem interested now, write it down. Someday, they will want to know, and they will be proud to understand more about where they came from.
Whether or not you know why your ancestors came here, these stories are so uniquely American. Nowhere else on earth do so many different threads converge into such a rich, warm quilt.
Happy Birthday America! We love to hear your stories!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Our Most Momentous Memories

“No, you’re lying.” I didn’t believe what my six-year old friend told me at school that day in 1963. We had been playmates before we were schoolmates. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.
“No, really. Somebody shot the president. He died.”
For Baby Boomers, the assassination of President Kennedy is one of those “Where were you when you heard the news?” moments. It begins a string of common memories, our parents being so very quiet and sad, staying home from school to watch a funeral on television. Tiny John-John saluting as the casket rolled by.
There have been times during my life that formed collections of memories. I can tell you many details about my wedding day, the days each of my children were born. I probably recall everything so well because my emotions were at a peak. I knew that this would be an important event, to be remembered for a lifetime.
There are some moments, though, that stand out even more. When retelling these, we actually go back in time, we relive the whole thing. We smell the same smells, hear the same sounds.
One such memory was related to me at my “day job”. The mere mention of a date on the calendar prompted my friend to tell about what happened to her twenty-five years earlier. She was in labor, about to deliver a daughter. Her husband was in the bathroom at the hospital, putting on a protective gown over his clothes. “Hurry up,” the doctor admonished, “You’re about to miss the whole thing.”
The daddy’s voice came into the delivery room, “I can’t figure out what to do with these ties.” The obvious next request was “Honey, can you come help me?” Luckily, he didn’t say it. She was, after all, a little busy.
Some moments are remembered because of the irony of the whole situation. Another friend told of a very sad occasion, when the family was assembled at church for a funeral. As she and her sister prepared to go in for the service, a dog somehow slipped in to the sanctuary. As quietly as they could, the two tried to move the intruder outside. When the sister employed her foot, the dog yelped loudly, prompting smothered laughter from both ladies. But-it gets better. Years later, the sister passed away, and you guessed it-a dog attended her funeral. Of course, my friend was again consumed with the giggles.
One very vivid vision is stuck in my head, and I’m not really sure why. I’m sitting on the wood floor next to my parents’ bed, which is covered with a white chenille bedspread trimmed with pink flowers. The sun streams in from the window as I move the tiny plastic furniture around in my new metal dollhouse. My Daddy’s arm hangs over the side of the bed, and he responds to my “Look Daddy” with a non-committal “Mmmpph”. I’m not upset about his lack of concern, just content to sit near him and play while he sleeps. From pictures I’ve seen, I think this may have occurred on my third birthday, but even without the pictures, I’m there, reliving what may be my earliest memory.
Walking down the hallway after a first-thing in the morning meeting at work, someone says a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York. I picture a small craft, maybe a daredevil who ventured too close while trying to “buzz” the skyscrapers. Someone has turned on a television in one of the cubicles, and we alternate between being transfixed and turning away as the unbelievable horror unfolds. We try in vain to continue our day to day routine, and gradually drift out, wanting only to find our family members and hold them close.
It’s almost time for the ten o’clock news on the Sunday after Easter. My daughter calls, telling us to tune into Fox, where they are reporting that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Soon, all of the networks are in the same holding pattern, waiting for the President to confirm what has already been leaked. Commentators try to turn speculation into verification, and we are finally relieved to hear the news from the commander-in-chief himself.
Our memories are part of us, whether shared with the world, or alive only in our own minds. Flashes of intense emotion can re-emerge without warning. They define who we are, give us something in common, make us human. Troubling recollections should be shared so that they don’t burden us. Happy ones should be treasured, and saved for a time when we may need to smile again.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Culture- The Way we Do Things

All right, Boys and Girls, the word for this month is “Culture”. Now, please don’t assume we will focus on a new word every month. You know this column doesn’t revolve around any sort of firm structure.

So, what does Webster’s say? Two of the definitions in my 2003 Edition of the New World Dictionary are: The skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period: civilization. and A growth of bacteria, etc. in a controlled substance.

At a recent gathering of Human Resource professionals, the speaker I heard was referring to the culture of an organization, and his simple definition was “The way we do things”. He said the culture of a workplace is the set of unwritten rules that really define how the business runs.

For example: a large national chain has developed its own culture based on the hot beverages it serves. Much more than just a coffee shop, patrons learn a new language depending on the ratio of espresso to steamed milk and how much foam should sit atop their chosen drink. Latte, Cappucino, or Macchiato? Which size? Forget small medium or large. It’s short, tall, grande, venti, and even trenta. Part of the attraction is being “in the know”, hip to the culture of the place.

When I was younger, I thought culture meant a symphony orchestra playing at the auditorium, recitations of Shakespeare in the band shell. Those things would certainly contribute to the culture of a community, but every town, every region already has a culture of its own. Most places in the South have a reputation for hospitality, a friendly attitude. We wave and smile at strangers, hold “get-togethers” in our homes.

The South is still trying to get rid of a culture of privilege based on the depth of a person’s complexion, or the particular side of town on which he happened to be born. Some things take generations to shake, no matter how wrong they are.

New groups of people can change a region’s “vibe” too. Our culture is becoming increasingly more Latin based, with Spanish words and Mexican foods becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.

So, we see how the skills, art, etc. of a given people can influence our culture. But what about the other definition? A growth of bacteria in a controlled substance. Some things that come along might be unwanted, like bacteria. What do we do with them?

One culture change that I can take with a grain of salt is the coming and going of fashion trends. I don’t worry too much about the kids who allow their trousers to sag, or the girls who show more skin than they should. All of that comes and goes, like the jeans I wore until they were ragged, and I sewed on patches, then dismantled them and turned them into a makeshift skirt.

A recent addition to the culture of Arkansas is the possibility of actually winning big in the lottery. “What would you do with a million dollars?” doesn’t seem like a completely ridiculous question anymore. We actually give it some thought, and our answers show what is important in our lives. But we recognize that in order to pay those big prizes, there must be many, many losers.

Another recent trend in our culture is that we have information literally at our fingertips everywhere we turn. We don’t have to wait for the morning newspaper, or even for the evening news to find out what is going on. We get updated on our computer screens, even on our telephones. We can follow posts made by people on the other side of the world as they literally live the news.

How do we keep from viewing these new things as bacteria- a threat growing in a Petri dish somewhere? It’s all about the stable environment.

Our parents have been called the “Greatest Generation”. They were raised in times of financial hardship and war. We, the “boomers” grew up with hope and optimism. We were taught that anything was possible. What can we contribute to our culture in this time of financial and geological upheaval? Maybe our message is one of respect, tolerance and focus. We can draw on the way we were raised, with patience and faith. We can help them step back and find something to smile about, some hope to get them through. We may not feel wise, but we have survived many changes in the culture, and we can show them that they will, too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Just Do It

Just Do It!
The title of my column, “Turn, Turn, Turn” always holds more meaning for me as a cold Arkansas winter gives way to spring. To everything there is a season, and in my opinion, spring is the best one. Hopeful jonquils begin to dot our yards, and the birds greet us each morning with selections from their cheery repertoire.
After dreaming and plotting while stoking the fireplace for weeks, it’s time to poke our heads out of the house and face the sunshine.
I suppose I’ve had a little bit of a problem getting projects completed for most of my life. I can’t count the number of times I heard my mama’s admonishment to “Get mad at it, and get it done.” This was usually during a chore like washing dishes, mopping the floor, or cleaning my room. It’s not that I didn’t want to do the job, I just tend to be a dawdler and a procrastinator. It doesn’t even have anything to do with how much I enjoy the task, it’s just a speed bump I have to overcome.
My youngest grandson apparently doesn’t have any hesitation or timidity built into his little fifteen month old body. Just last week, he took advantage of his mother’s diverted attention to create his first artistic masterpiece in front of the kitchen pantry. In the space of just a minute or two, he managed to open the cabinet door, select some colorful spices and icing tubes, and decorate himself and the room quite lavishly. When Mom turned his way, he was quite proud of his accomplishment. She reports that it was difficult to squelch her laughter long enough to put on the required stern disciplinary face.
As we get older, some of that impulsiveness leaves us, especially when our early efforts have un-intended or even painful results. So, we tend to ponder things a little longer, weighing options and studying all the angles.
At a relatively young age, I met the man that God had intended for me to spend the rest of my life with. Even though my own family history didn’t speak well for happy marriages, we were determined to change that pattern. We didn’t dwell on the negatives too long, and plunged in before either of us was twenty years old. Absolutely no regrets.
Our children have shown a willingness to “go for it” themselves. The oldest recognized that even after working for a college degree, his career path was not leading where he wanted. So, with his wife at his side, he changed locations, tested his management skills in a new field, and finally found his niche. Now, the two of them are making a difference in the lives of some kids who would otherwise have fallen between the cracks of society. And their own children have a great example to follow.
The second son also made a bold move by re-locating 20 hours away from home to pursue the career he’d wanted since he was a small boy. With no acquaintances outside of work, he looked for a church and a Razorback club, and soon met his own life partner. I’m sure he remembers how tough those first days were, but without the courage to step out of his comfort zone, his life would be vastly different.
Now, the youngest and her husband are taking the huge step of buying their first house. Though still young, they have paid their dues in apartments, and along the way learned to scrimp and save. With two incomes coming in, they decided the time to hesitate was past. The place they found seems perfect for their little family, with a fenced in yard for the young adventurer mentioned above, and his older and wiser brother.
Do all of our decisions turn out this well? Of course not. But I admire those who have the courage to try: to make that bold move after reasonable preparation. Lessons can be learned from the mis-steps, making the next venture a little easier.
As for me- I’m looking into expanding my writing into a future career. There have been years of learning, discussing, praying for direction. There will be no overnight success stories here, but when the time comes, I’ll be ready. And you’ll be among the first to hear!
Enjoy the sunshine, and let me hear from you by writing to Ouachita Life, or commenting on my blog at jennycarlisle.net.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Way to a Man’s Heart

One of the secrets to a good relationship is to know your role. At our house, my husband is the Executive Chef, and I’m the sous-chef. That means he makes the big, elaborate plans, executes them to perfection, and I help with prep work when called upon and clean up afterward. And, of course, I take the blame if things don’t turn out right. Hey- that’s just part of the job.

It’s almost time for a fairly new family tradition- Gourmet Valentine’s Dinner. Chef and I started doing this several years ago when we decided that standing in a long line with all of the other happy couples at a local restaurant was losing its romance. So, we take turns each year coming up with something extra special in our own kitchen. Hopefully, he doesn’t often recall the first Valentine’s meal I prepared, which included a heart-shaped cake that featured a crack patched with red-hot candies.

There’s a bit of irony here, because in the days when we had kids at home, I took a lot of ridicule for trying new things at the supper table. If I dared to stray off the familiar path, my dear spouse would build the kids up all day. “Don’t worry, we can always order pizza if it’s too awful.” By the time we sat down, I was doomed. So, I normally stuck with my limited repertoire of quick and easy, and lots of it.
Some of those meals have garnered compliments over the years, I guess. One newly married friend ate at our house and wouldn’t leave without my recipe. He paid his own sweet bride a back-handed compliment. “Honey, even you could fix this, I’m sure.”

Looking back, the failures stand out more than the successes. When one of our sons was in college, he told me he and his buddies had a conversation about whose Mom made the best banana pudding, and he bragged on mine. Clever way of getting me to fix some each time he came home, right? On one weekend trip, the result of my efforts was more like cold banana soup. I couldn’t let that become the topic of conversation on “The Hill” so I immediately went to the store, replaced the ingredients, and started over. After all, I had a reputation to uphold!

After the nest emptied, Hubby started enjoying cooking more, and we even went to New Orleans to become certified in Cajun and Creole cooking. No kidding- we have a framed certificate on the wall! He’s collected some really cool kitchen gadgets, and we spend many evenings tuned into to Food Network. Emeril taught him not to be afraid to add some “Bam”, and he also claims to have learned a lot from watching Rachel Ray. (She’s kind of cute, so I’m not sure it’s all about what she’s cooking).
So, since I’m in charge of the Valentine’s Day dinner this year, I’m mulling over possible entrees, trying to come up with some side dishes and then looking for a killer dessert, all for someone who is successfully controlling his carbs. Not an easy task. My fall-backs usually involve lots of pasta and sweets. This will take some research, and creativity!

I think that the old adage about the path to a person’s heart is true, though. There are many ways to “attract” someone. Holding on for the long haul is something totally different. There’s something about cooking for someone you care about that implies commitment. You put your best efforts out there, with the risk of failure and extreme embarrassment, because you sincerely care. Maybe that’s what is most impressive. Regardless of the ratio of succulent meals to total flops, it’s the fact that you consider that person worth the effort. In this particular case, the sous-chef is very glad to keep trying. This one particular Iron Chef will always be tops with me.

Good Beginnings and Great New Starts

So, a new year is under way, and a new decade. Or did the new decade start last year? Regardless, it’s a time to look over our shoulder for a moment before marching boldly forward. With the fresh calendar page, we have a chance to clean the slate, grab a new piece of chalk, and begin to create something really great (with our erasers handy when we change our minds).

I’ve been thinking back on the great places and situations that gave me my start. I grew up with a Mom who refused to buy into the idea of a “broken home” and instead did everything possible to give me and my sister a firm foundation to carry us along in life. Our little town encouraged us with an emphasis on churches, schools, parks, concerts, parades. All of the things that make for a rich and happy childhood. We took advantage of everything that was free or affordable with a little planning and saving, and can now spend hours regaling anyone who wants to sit still long enough with countless happy tales.

After moving to Arkansas, I happened into a great place to spend my senior year of high school. At a recent reunion, I realized that Bryant was a good place for a great start in our adult lives. Attending school in a time before corporal punishment ended, we learned that life wasn’t always fair or easy, but together, we could survive and thrive. Our boundaries were clear, and consequences certain. We seemed to have emerged with a “can-do” spirit that still exists. There’s not a lot of “Why-me?”s heard in this group. It’s more often “Why not?” We don’t have a whole lot of famous or wealthy alums, but we certainly have some of the friendliest and most hard-working.

It’s probably no secret that each week of my life has a good beginning. I spend an hour or so on the first day worshipping with like minded people. The strength and happiness this provides cannot be measured. I understand those who say that they haven’t found a group where they “fit in”, but my answer is to keep trying. The process of taking the focus off of yourself and expressing thanks to the Source of your daily blessings seems to me to be the best way to prepare for the trials of the week to come.

Along those lines, our little congregation in Paron is making a very big new start this year. A new minister hopes to energize and motivate us to continue the good work that has been happening in that community for almost a hundred years. His name is in fact, Christmas. Very appropriate since that celebration commemorates the very best new beginning in the history of mankind.

Even our favorite college football team is getting in the happy New Start mode. For the first time in a very long time, we are close enough to the top of the polls to be listed among contenders for a National Championship. Our team will be celebrating the New Year a few days late in New Orleans, which is currently the center of a rebounding economy on the Gulf. It feels good to feel so good, for Razorback fans, and for residents of the Big Easy.

So what will you do with your fresh start? Are you full of hopeful plans for 2011? If not, take a look back to see what you can draw on from your past. Do you have a firm starting place by virtue of a good upbringing? If not, look around for someone you know who does. Talk to them about the source of their strength. They’ll most likely be glad to share, and may even steer you toward someone who can help.
This past summer, a Florida rainstorm trapped my grandson and me on a Disney ride with an annoying, but catchy song. It still populates our heads now and then, reminding us that “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, just a dream away!” Hope 2011 brings lots of great beginnings for you and yours.

Over the River and Through the Woods

The Waltons had it made. To clarify, I’m talking here about the TV family, not the multi-millionaires from NW Arkansas. Yes, when it comes to family unity and stability, having a great big house on top of a hill was a wonderful thing. Three generations living under one roof year-round meant that for holidays there was no question about the venue for a celebration. All roads led to Walton’s Mountain. Even during times of great hardship or war, all the members of the family had one goal, to arrive at Grandma’s table in time for Grandpa’s blessing before carving into Olivia’s perfectly cooked turkey.

Of course, real life has never been that simple.

About the middle of November, you’ll hear me start to spout some very familiar phrases. “The date on the calendar doesn’t really matter. We love seeing you anytime.” And then there’s the ever popular “Even if we can’t all be together at the same time, We’ll love having each of you.” Sigh.

These statements are actually very true, of course. And to be fair, our children don’t neglect us. We talk to them quite often, and have seen all of them as recently as last summer. It’s just that as the smell of freshly baked sugar cookies starts to fill the air, I have to repeat these things over and over to convince myself.

I blame the media.

Just when I’ve adjusted to seeing my kids and grands on a trickle in and out basis between Thanksgiving and Spring Break, one of those hokey commercials pops up on the television. You know the scene. The well-groomed family is gathering around a perfectly dressed table next to a beautiful Christmas tree. Everyone glances with a smile at the picture of the one missing member who can’t join them because they are… fill in the blank … off to college, defending our freedoms in the military, or serving as a missionary in Bora Bora.

The youngest members of the group are peering out the window through the gently falling snow trying to catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh. Just as Mom carries the antique gravy boat to the table, the doorbell rings. Dad opens the door, and Surprise! Wayward Child appears on the porch with his back pack and duffel bags full of dirty laundry (oops- I mean Christmas presents). Laughter, hugs, cut to the product logo.

What are they trying to sell? Don’t bother me with details.

An Eighties movie called “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” emphasizes our obsession with being home for the holidays. The characters played by Steve Martin and John Candy suffer all sorts of indignities before bonding and ultimately making it just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

In our family, we’ve often tried to explain to our kids how difficult it is to make a journey to see each other. Our oldest grandson used to recite a little “How do we get there?” speech, which summarized the directions to his destination. He particularly liked the route to Uncle Jon’s, Uncle Chris and Aunt Kat’s houses- “Out on the highway, over the mountains, and through the tunnel” back in the Fayetteville days. Then, after he moved to Texas, the trip to see anyone was “Drive, drive, drive, Take a Nap, drive, drive, drive some more.”

Add to the logistics the fact that all of our little families have jobs and vacation schedules to juggle, and the realities of assembling in one spot on any given day become very difficult. I understand that perfectly, really I do.
Uh-oh. There’s another commercial, playing “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Somebody turn that doggoned TV off.

After all, Christmas is not about me, anyway. It’s a time to be reminded of the great love our Heavenly Father demonstrated when he sent His Son to live here with us. Because of that great gift, we all have a chance to be together at home someday.
So, Good-night Grandpa, Good night, Mary Ellen, Goodnight Ben, and Merry Christmas John-Boy, wherever you are!

Making a Difference- Easier Than You Think

I confess that I often get a bad case of the “don’t-want- tos” when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. Especially now that the weather is cooler, it is so tempting to stay home in my “pj”s. So what motivates me to don my “business casual” attire, apply makeup and drive into the city? The prospect of a paycheck is a large part of it. Even more important though, is the thought that I might actually make a difference. It is satisfying to think that what I do might make someone else’s day a little brighter in some way.
Outside of our working life, we are constantly asked to help others. When we watch the news and hear of so many folks who need so much help we can be easily overwhelmed. My watchword in this case comes from an expert at making a difference, JoAnn Cayce of Thornton. Her advice to me: “Honey, just do what you can.”
Think for a moment about what you are already doing. Is there a particular charity that “has your number” and calls you year after year because they can depend on you to give at least a little? Did you ever walk around the downtown area of a nearby city with 40,000 of your closest friends in support of brave cancer survivors? Do you give to your local church? See, you are already in the habit of being helpful.
I think making a difference becomes a mindset. It’s a natural reaction of a grateful heart. We are so blessed that we can’t help sharing with others. There are so many opportunities, especially with the holidays approaching. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with checking out a charity before you give. After all, you want to be sure that your gift will really reach someone who is really in need. Sometimes the grass-roots organizations are the best. In Saline County, the Churches Joint Council on Human Need operates a food pantry, and also helps promote a drive to collect warm coats each year. One of my favorite charities asks me to simply mail some letters to a few friends, asking for a donation. I like this much better than the traditional “door to door” approach, and although I don’t have huge results, it does generate a little bit for medical research.
Your time can be even more valuable than your money. So many organizations can use your talents, and provide you with a feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. Organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, Civitan, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are always looking for people with big hearts and willing hands. Volunteering can enrich so many lives, including your own.
On a smaller scale, we can watch for opportunities in our everyday life. Did someone need a hand holding a door, or carrying a package? Could you afford to pay for a cup of coffee for the guy behind you in line? Each courtesy we extend to others just warms our own hearts.
I remember a story that a former Miss Saline County shared with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop years ago. I’ve seen it in different forms on the Internet, and it has a wonderful message. It goes something like this:
A child was walking along the beach, and noticed hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand. The tide was going out, and she knew that if these little animals didn’t make it back into the water, they would die. She began picking them up, one by one, and tossing them as far out to sea as she could. A man walked by and pointed out that there were hundreds, and she couldn’t possibly save them all.
His question to the little girl: “What does it matter?”
Her reply: “It matters to this one” as she stooped to pick up another starfish, “It matters to this one,” throwing it toward the ocean with all of her strength. “It matters to this one.”
Your efforts do make a difference. Just watch for opportunities, and do what you can.
I’d love to hear about what you do, and how it makes you feel. Write to me in care of Ouachita Life, or leave a comment on my blog at http://www.jennycarlisle.net.