B.F.F.

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It’s my best friend’s birthday today. (No, my best friend was not Adolph Hitler although my kids do think we were contemporaries.)

I met my best friend at the beginning of eighth grade. I was a small, insecure teenage girl who was new to town and the intimidating junior high in which I found myself. She was tall and blond with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. Finding ourselves in every single class that eighth grade year, we became fast friends.

Over the years we shared secret crushes, had numerous sleepovers, and spent many of our high school weekends inexplicably dressed in 50s costumes. I was from a family of 13 while she had only her mom, dad, and one brother. We spent many hours in her quiet house, where she annihilated me at the game Stratego.

We stayed friends through college, rooming together freshman year. Our only real arguments were over what music to play on her record player. She favored Aerosmith and Peter Frampton while I enjoyed Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. And even though we pledged different sororities, we still managed to keep in touch.

We have had one major falling out over these past several decades. When we were in our mid-twenties, she became involved in a romantic relationship, and I felt left out of her life. Out of spite, I failed to inform her when my path took me on a move out of state. I’m still ashamed of being so unkind. But true to form, my best friend forgave me, and we reconnected. She even went so far as to visit me during my short sojourn in Florida in the mid-80s.

My best friend has stood up at my wedding, and we have traded photos and stories of our children and our married lives. Time and distance haven’t really changed much about how we relate to each other and how easy it is to be in each other’s presence. At our 40-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was almost as if we were still roaming the halls together and gossiping about boys.

So happy birthday to my best friend! You know who you are. I predict that we truly will remain Best Friends Forever.

 

 

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.

The Cruelest Month

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It has been a long, cold, depressing winter with no real end in sight. As I write this, a blizzard is burying Minnesota in snow while here in Chicagoland, we have been subjected to yet another gray, rainy and miserable day.

All this winter has caused a certain lethargy in me. My energy level is low, and the ideas that usually teem in my brain have slowed to a trickle. I realized today that the bad weather has kept me inside too much. Not being able to take my walks outside has seriously hampered my ability to think and dream.

It is known that physical activity enhances mental performance. So a brisk walk in nature has always been my prescription for writer’s block. Lately, I just feel physically and mentally lazy. It’s hard to get motivated when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind and rain pelt the windows. So I’ve been spending my free time doing crossword puzzles and watching TV, eating carbs and getting sleepy. I feel like a bear in its den surfacing briefly, only to find that it’s not time to come out of hibernation yet.

The daffodils in my front yard have just started to send green stems shooting up from the soil. They look too petrified to open and bloom. There are no leaves – or even buds – on the trees outside my window. I long for inspiration, but all I feel is a dreary heaviness of mind and body.

By now we Midwesterners should be able to expect some light and warmth, some signs of growth in our environment. Instead, April so far has been one very unfunny Fool’s joke.

 

In Praise of Moderation

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America is a nation of extremes. Either we are subsisting on grass and twigs with the Paleo diet, or we are Supersizing our fast food hamburgers and fries. We can’t just use our phones to stay in touch with each other. We have to have them in our hands constantly to check email or go on social media. And watching a television show or two won’t do. We have to binge watch an entire series in one sitting.

Nowhere is our penchant for extremes more obvious – and potentially more dangerous – than in our politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been skewing far to the left and right respectively in the past several years. The Tea Party movement on the right has pushed candidates with views that go way beyond traditional conservative beliefs about limited government. Tax cuts at all costs seems to be the new Republican mantra, regardless of how severely they will impact the national debt. And the election of Donald Trump shows a disturbing trend on the right to vilify immigrants and minorities, roll back environmental protections, and normalize the white nationalist movement.

On the Democratic side, we see the popularity of socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders and such idealistic but impractical agendas as providing free college for all Americans. And while I personally favor a single-payer health care system such as the ones found in most Western European nations, the hue and cry over the baby steps of Obamacare shows that the country is not ready for quite that massive of an overhaul. I believe that Sanders supporters’ refusal to get behind Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was in part responsible for the election of Trump.

The political polarization is being fed and magnified by social media algorithms and the various websites that have sprung up pushing extreme agendas and often fake news. There is no more talking or meeting of minds. We are simply shouting at each other, and our political leaders are, for the most part, perpetuating the great divide we have between the left and the right.

There needs to be a new movement: not the Tea Party nor the Coffee Party. Let’s call it the Milk Party. Milk is a little bland and unexciting, but it’s also wholesome and nutritious. It builds strong bones and teeth. Likewise, we need our leaders to come together and work with each other. Compromise is not a bad word. As Sheriff Hopper explains to Eleven in Stranger Things, it means “halfway happy.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be halfway happy than completely miserable.

After the recent tax bill passed, legislators admitted that they had not even read it. And already the U.S. Treasury Department is being deluged with complaints about ambiguous language and unintended consequences of the new law. We are paying our government leaders well. I think we deserve better than the dysfunction in Washington, which, contrary to the intentions of the Tea Party, has grown worse.

In short, we need the moderates to stop hiding or being co-opted by the extreme right and left. We need the leaders in the sensible shoes and serviceable haircuts to step forward and lay claim to being the voices of reason in the insanity that has grown up around politics in America.

As in most areas of life – including our diet, exercise, religious practices, child-rearing, and the like – moderation in politics may be the key to saving our democracy.

Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.

Guns and (Peanut) Butter

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My son has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. Ingesting even a tiny amount of peanut protein can send him into anaphylaxis, shutting down his airways and potentially killing him. He and I have lived with this scary phenomenon for virtually his entire life. And even though he is now in his 20s, it still hurts every time I have dinner out with him and he has to inform the server about his allergy.

Early on I learned to read every label of every food item I purchased to make sure there were no peanut products or potential cross contamination that could harm my son. I provided him with safe treats to bring to school so that when there were birthday cupcakes for a classmate, he wouldn’t feel left out.

When my son was first diagnosed, I still kept peanut butter in the house for my older daughter, reasoning that since she did not have the allergy, she should not be deprived. But I learned through some incidents of accidental ingestion on my son’s part, along with scary rides to the ER, that having any peanut products in the house was unsafe for my son. So my kids grew up without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and have been no worse for the wear.

Of course, if I had my ‘druthers, this scary potential killer legume would be banned from supermarkets, restaurants, and anywhere else food was sold or served. But I realize that is neither practical nor fair. The vast majority of people do not share my son’s allergy and should not be told they can never have peanuts under any circumstances.

Still, I appreciated our schools’ efforts to keep peanut-allergic children safe. In the lunch room, for instance, there was a peanut free table at which my son would sit to eat. When he went away to camp, I worked with the food service personnel to make sure he could eat safely in the mess hall. As awareness has spread about the life-threatening nature of peanut allergies, most airlines have discontinued serving them on flights. Ironically, my airline of choice, Southwest, still serves peanuts but will refrain from doing so if they know a peanut allergic person is on the flight.

I see the parallels in my son’s situation to the issue of guns in America. Although recent calls to repeal the Second Amendment have gun rights advocates on the defensive, I respect the right of law-abiding citizens to own a gun. Still, a household with children is no place for a gun, just as peanuts posed a threat in my family to my son’s safety. And while we can’t completely ban firearms in America, we can take common sense measures to keep people safe, in much the same way that society has taken steps to protect food allergic individuals.

So while the NRA and other gun rights extremists rant about how everyone is coming for their guns, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we take some logical steps to keep people safe from being shot.

Come to think of it, guns are not like peanuts. After all, peanuts are generally a safe and healthy food that can sustain life. In fact, some products made to help malnourished children in developing nations are made up primarily of peanuts. But guns are made for one purpose: to kill or injure a living thing.

So I don’t think passing common sense gun legislation is all that nuts; do you?

A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.