No Hurry

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It is a pleasure and a luxury not to be in a hurry.

So often in our frantic lives, we find ourselves hurtling from A to B on our To Do lists, scarcely stopping to take a breath. Our blood pressure rises as we wait in traffic or long lines, knowing that precious minutes are ticking by and the day will all too soon be in our rearview mirror.

Time to take a breath.

This past weekend I was on my own. I could sleep in and stay in pajamas as long as I wanted in the morning. I could while away the hours reading, doing crossword puzzles and binge-watching The Chi (That show deserves a blog post of its own!). I took long walks without the nagging sense that someone or something at home needed my attention soon. And even though I had made myself a fairly impressive To Do list, I was relaxed and in no hurry to complete it.

It’s nice to drop something off at the local dry cleaner and say, “No rush” when asked when I need the item back. It’s lovely to drive when a little bit of traffic or a road closure (We’ve been having many in my small town this summer.) needn’t faze me. It’s wonderful to give my attention to small chores and errands that have been nagging at the edge of my consciousness for weeks.

On Saturday morning, I went to an 8 am yoga class. The theme of the class that day was balance, and most of our poses were designed to help us achieve that balance of body and mind. On my way home from the class, in the spirit of calm it induced, I decided that all prisons should offer yoga classes to their inmates. I can’t help but believe that a regular yoga practice would help diminish anger and aggression in those incarcerated.

Tomorrow life will return to a busier pace for me. My family and household responsibilities will keep me on a more pressing schedule. But I hope to hold onto the peace and calm I am feeling right now when there is no hurry.

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The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

Gen X Comic Gets the Laughs

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My stomach still hurts. Last night I watched two stand-up comedy specials on Netflix featuring the up and comer John Mulaney. Full disclosure here: I know John’s parents. So it was with a certain knowing glee that I listened to his loving but biting anecdotes about being raised by his stern, devoutly Catholic parents.

John Mulaney has some serious comedy cred. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live for many years and had a short-lived TV series cleverly named Mulaney. And nowadays, he can fill the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall for his hilarious observations about modern life as well as his reminiscences from the distant Eighties.

I think the secret to Mulaney’s success, besides some clever voice impersonations and a certain controlled mania, is his ability to straddle the generations in appeal. Mulaney, 35, is still young, and he is clearly immersed in the present. For instance, he makes an off-hand joke about how in college, everything is just your own opinion, a knowing mockery of today’s coddled university student. And he even wades into politics in his Radio City Music Hall special “Kid Gorgeous” with a hilarious and extended comparison of Donald Trump in the White House to a horse in a hospital.

But for my money, his funniest and most endearing stories involve his childhood, which seem to echo my own years as a young Baby Boomer with Depression-era, hard-line parents. He describes sitting on a sofa with his mother and eating Triscuits in dead silence. And he horrifies the youngsters in the audience by describing how his cold-hearted dad could go through a McDonalds drive-thru and pick up only a coffee for himself. (The irony in his jabs at his father are that, physically, John is a Chip off the old block.)

The helpless and trapped nature of childhood are a theme in Mulaney’s comedy, including the description of a “stranger danger” assembly that served to scar a generation of young kids for life. Or the adult size XXL t-shirt he was forced to wear as a nightshirt.

Many of Mulaney’s references speak directly to the generation known as Gen X. He riffs on the plots of such movies as  The Fugitive and Back to the Future. He references his Aladdin wallet. And most memorably, he reminisces about meeting the future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

I’m sure the Yale-educated lawyers who raised John Mulaney are bemused by his choice of careers. But I would say that those of us seeking some comic relief in these troubled times are lucky to have Mulaney’s irreverent, witty, and hilarious take on life to make us laugh.

My stomach still hurts.

Land of the Free

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IMG_1229“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With these famous words, our Founding Fathers began a justification for the thirteen American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, setting the stage for revolution and the creation of the United States of America.

Of course, the equality espoused in the declaration of 1776 applied only to white men, and that reality has been the source of many hardships and injustices that have stained the greatness of our great country. The fight to live up to that ideal goes on even today.

But the moral ideal encompassed by the most well-known words in the Declaration of Independence has also inspired a fight for freedom and equality in many parts of the world. And it continues to give America its conscience hundreds of years after it was written.

The idea that human beings have certain rights helped framed the U.S. Constitution. It guided us out of two terrible world wars and helped established international standards to which all nations on Earth are meant to be held. And while even in our own democracy we struggle to assure the dignity of each person, the concept that we share “inalienable rights” gives us something to strive for in our laws and policies.

Freedom is a tricky thing. Fifty states with different laws and customs must somehow stay united as a nation. Our democratic institutions allow for a certain amount of unrest and strife that is not seen in more autocratic countries. Even the current state of caustic discourse that is roiling our democracy is the fruit of that freedom.

When my children were young, I learned a method to teach them about freedom and responsibility. It involves locking the thumbs and forefingers of each hand to form interlocking circles. One circle represented freedom, the other responsibility. With the circles locked together, it was clear that as the kids grew and gained freedom, they were also saddled with more responsibility.

That is our challenge as a nation as we celebrate our two hundred forty-second birthday. We need to remember our responsibility to the ideals that gave birth to our great republic. We need to hold them as applicable not only to ourselves, but to every American – indeed, to every human being on this planet.

Happy Independence Day!

Let’s Get Physical

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Lately I’ve been driving past a building construction site on a regular basis. As I pass by in the comfort of my car, I can’t help but feel a little lazy watching construction workers haul heavy loads, pound nails, and perform other manual tasks. Now that the weather is warm, I see more and more workers outside mowing lawns, trimming trees, fixing roads and the like. And I realize there is something missing from my day to day life: strenuous physical activity.

In the past, most human beings had to work very hard physically just to survive. Everything from feeding one’s family to maintaining shelter to staying clean required huge amounts of digging, pushing, pulling, kneading, scrubbing and so on. As technology advanced, labor-saving devices started to make life easier for ordinary people. This tech revolution shows no sign of stopping. Nowadays, you can have a Roomba vacuum your living room while you sit on the couch and eat chips.

Just as with many other positive developments in society, though, reducing the need for physical labor has made many of us overweight and out of shape. When I was growing up, jogging and other like forms of exercise were not very common. My mother stayed in shape by a daily regimen of cleaning, cooking, and maintaining a household of 13. My father had an office job but spent hours in his garden on weekends, fixed things, and washed and maintained our car. We kids were also expected to pitch in by sweeping, dusting, ironing, weeding, and mowing the lawn.

As a child and teen, I was not much into exercise. I didn’t play any sports, and I dreaded the thought of running or swimming. When I went off to college, I lost weight because of all the walking I had to do on the huge campus of University of Illinois. I had sporadic bursts of trying jogging in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until the aerobics boom in the 80s that I really started to work out in earnest. I started exercising to Jane Fonda workout videos and soon discovered a class I loved: Jazzercise. In those days, leotards, tights, and leg warmers were de rigeur attire for doing aerobic dancing. I still chuckle at the leopard print leotard I loved so much.

Over the years, I have slowed down a bit in the workout department. I prefer a brisk walk to a run, spin, or Zumba. I love yoga because of the whole body, mind, and spirit connection. And I try not to spend too much time sitting around.

There are so many things the average American can do to up their physical activity. Walking or biking instead of driving, parking at the far end of the lot at the mall, doing chores, baking, gardening. Nowadays we can wear a Fitbit that record steps to make sure we are getting enough “steps” day to day.

Being active is important to living a long and vital life. So as Olivia Newton-John sang in 1981, “Let’s get physical!”

 

Birdland

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There are birds nesting all over my front porch. They seem to like the ledges under the porch roof for building their homes of twigs and other plant matter. And while I complain that the nests themselves are unsightly, it’s so much fun to peek out the window and see baby robins lifting their little heads up looking for mama bird.

Today my world is a bevy of bird activity. I hear bird calls of all kinds, some sweet and lilting like a song from Snow White, others like miniature drills rat-a-tatting away. And there is a group of brown birds with soft red heads flitting back and forth from the rooftop to one of the nests on the porch. It looks as though the young ones are having flying lessons.

Birds seem like nervous creatures, always jerking their heads here and there, looking out for predators, no doubt, such as the giant hawk that soared over the house earlier today. Yet they themselves are predators, hopping across lawns searching for worms and grubs to feed themselves and their hungry young.

In the quiet of the morning, it’s peaceful to hear the birdsong and think of the busy avian life going on in our trees and on our front porch. I’ve always wondered what the nightingale sounds like, trilling away in the dark while other wildlife sleeps. On the famous Beatles’ song “Blackbird,” you can hear the melodic lilt of a real blackbird  singing.

In years to come when I have more time on my hands, I plan to take up bird watching. I’ll buy binoculars and maybe even one of those jaunty hats to wear out in the forest. Perhaps I’ll join a birding club so that I can learn more about the fascinating world of birds.

All in good time. First I need to have an empty nest of my own.

Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!