Paradise Lost

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The other day I passed by a Salvation Army bell ringer who was singing Christmas songs while collecting donations. I felt a sense of envy that she could be out in public belting out tunes so unselfconsciously. While I find myself singing as I work around the house or drive around in my car, I stop the warbling as soon as I’m in the presence of any other humans.

It’s not that I’m such a bad singer. It’s just that my awareness of others’ possible judgment stops me short. Even in the comfort of my own home, if others are around, I’m not completely myself. If I make a corny joke and my husband gives me a fake mocking laugh, I feel stupid. If I’m the only one who laughs hysterically or cries pitifully at something on TV, I feel sheepish. Why do I find it so hard just to be myself?

Children have an innocence and unbridled joy in life that they lose as they grow up. I remember one of my children delightedly running back and forth naked in front of a mirrored closet door, just ecstatic at the sense of freedom and agency. At some point, though, an innate need for privacy kicked in. As God said to Adam and Eve, “Who told you were naked?”

In Paradise Lost, John Milton describes human beings’ fall from grace and innocence. Our pride and fear cause us to question our God-given goodness and simplicity. We use social hierarchy, mockery, and sarcasm to lord it over others and make ourselves feel more powerful.

And that kind of social coercion starts early. I remember my daughter being mocked in kindergarten for what she ate and wore. Playground taunts are only too familiar to kids as they make the transition from innocence to experience.

I think this is why adults love to spend time with babies and very young children. Before these little things become too worldly, they give us a glimpse of our own innocence and a time when we couldn’t help but be ourselves. Maybe if I hang around with little ones more often, I can rediscover my own authentic sense of self, uncensored by my awareness of others’ judgments.

As I go about my day, I might just release my inner Mariah Carey and start singing for all to hear:  “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

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Giving Tuesday an Antidote to Greed

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When I hear stories of Black Friday shoppers practically trampling each other to death, I get a little sick to my stomach. I understand the impulse to snag great deals on big ticket items. When you’re on a tight budget, it can be hard to make your loved ones’ Christmas dreams come true. But come on, folks. We haven’t even digested our Thanksgiving turkey before we’re clawing our way to shopping nirvana.

Then there’s Cyber Monday for those of us who just can’t face an actual shopping mall at holiday time. Instead of pushing and shoving, we develop carpal tunnel syndrome from our day spent online digging for the best cyber deals. The number of marketing emails in my inbox on Cyber Monday just adds to the internet overload.

And all of this, of course, is the antithesis of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. But I see a glimmer of hope in the new phenomenon called Giving Tuesday. A movement sparked by social media, Giving Tuesday encourages us to think of others instead of ourselves and our own circle of friends and family.

When I look at all the Facebook posts that are popping up today, it gives me pause and reminds me that there are people so much less fortunate than myself. Whether it’s a need for food, shelter, education, or a medical miracle, people in our world could use our help. Enter Giving Tuesday.

Today I’ve chosen to support a cause close to home for Giving Tuesday: the Bayan Hassaballa Foundation. Bayan was the young daughter of a local family who lost a battle against Ataxia-Telangiectasia and Lymphoma in 2009. Her family created a foundation to “paint the world pink” for Bayan by raising funds to provide blankets to children in hospitals and to fund research for a cure for Bayan’s devastating disease.

There are so many ways, large and small, to participate in Giving Tuesday. Most grocery stores collect small change to help fund the local food pantry. There are winter coat drives and adopt-a-family programs to help the needy at Christmastime. Toys for Tots places bins all over town in which to donate a new toy or game. Barnes & Noble offers the opportunity to purchase a book for a needy child. The list is endless.

If nothing else, we can give the gift of ourselves on Giving Tuesday. Volunteer at your child’s school or the local food pantry. Visit an elderly neighbor or relative. Shovel your neighbor’s snow. The impulse to give is part of our nature every bit as much as the one to grab and get more for ourselves. It is the response of our better angels to the coldness and need in the world.

I hope Giving Tuesday slows us down and gives us the perspective we need to realize that the more we give, the more we receive. Or, to borrow from the Beatles, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Thankful for a Break from Politics

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Thanksgiving dawned in Michigan in the usual way: cloudy, barren skies and chilly temps. Michigan is the home of my husband’s family and the destination of my family’s Thanksgiving travels every year. Besides looking forward to the delicious turkey and fixings my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law were up early to prepare, we were anticipating the happy chaos that is always a part of our visits to the Motor City.

True to form, the buffet table groaned with an assortment of dishes and later, far too many desserts even for us and for my husband’s six siblings and their families to consume. And while there were a few minor dramas, for the most part Thanksgiving held a convivial air.

What I appreciated most about the many conversations in which I took part was the complete absence of political dialogue. At least to my hearing, there was no talk about Trump, immigration, foreign policy, or the recent November elections. Instead, Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions football dominated the scene in the family room where the cousins congregated in front of the giant TV and good-naturedly trash-talked each other’s teams.

Other than a comment made about a movement to eliminate the Thanksgiving holiday because of white settlers’ mistreatment of Native Americans, there was nothing to ruffle any feathers, and no one “talked turkey” about their political beliefs. This fact, coupled with my avoidance of Facebook all day, made for a blissfully nonpolitical and mostly unstressful holiday.

Instead, we took turns holding our nephew’s adorable baby and playing “store” with her older sister. We helped ourselves to another slice of apple pie and enjoyed the camaraderie of family members. We drew names for the annual Christmas grab bag we hold each year. By the time we were ready to bundle up and head home, we were all ensconced in the happy glow of full bellies and family togetherness.

This morning the sun is out. The brief reprieve from November gloom is a welcome sight, and it is prolonging my feeling of happiness and peace. Now the Christmas holiday season is upon us. All the shopping, baking, decorating and bustle begin. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend a day in thankfulness for the bounty in my life: family, friends, and food.

Maybe I’ll keep up my fast from politics for the entire holiday season.

Snow Shower

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IMG_3163This past Saturday I hosted a baby shower for my godson and his wife, who are expecting their first child in February. About 30 well wishers were to descend on my home, all of them bearing gifts for the lucky couple and some of them bearing food and decorations for the party.

The forecast the day before had called for snow in the wee hours of the morning. Although I was annoyed at the early season snow, which didn’t have the good grace to wait until after Thanksgiving, I figured an inch or two falling overnight would be an easy obstacle to take care of before the festivities began.

The snow front, however, meandered a bit more slowly than meteorologists had predicted. When I awoke around 8 am Saturday morning, snow was gently falling. There wasn’t much on the ground yet, but I was worried. My main worry was for travelers coming from significant distances to make it to the shower. I had hoped they would have smooth sailing on their way. I also wondered how I would manage 30 people tramping into the house in their snowy boots. I put down some floor mats and hoped for the best.

My nephew’s aunt and cousins from their other side were the first to arrive. They seemed unfazed as they bustled around the kitchen setting up pots of delicious food. Then my nephew (brother of the dad-to-be) showed up with his girlfriend, who set about adorning the house with “baby chic” decorations. Before long, guests began to arrive and the house took on that delightful chaos only a happy occasion can bring.

Throughout the party, numerous guests commented on how lovely the snow looked from my kitchen and family room windows. I had to admit it was a pretty backdrop, much more lovely than the bare trees and brittle grass that had been in evidence the day before.

The shower was a big success. Everyone was well fed, and the “Baby Bellinis” flowed. Guests got to write words of advice for the happy parents-to-be and to print messages on paper diapers. My favorites were: “This too shall pass” and “Fill it up!” We all enjoyed coffee and buttercream cake while oohing and aahing over the adorable onesies and other tiny baby clothes. And not one person was prevented from coming by the unseasonal weather.

The vicissitudes of life will sometimes throw us for a loop. They can also shower us with unexpected blessings. That’s a great lesson for that baby on the way – and for all of us.

Thankful Tree

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve been reminiscing about a little tradition I tried with my children when they were younger. I’d find a leafless branch in my backyard, stick it in a small terra cotta pot filled with pebbles, and voila! We’d have a thankful tree.

I didn’t make up the idea of the thankful tree. I’d read about it and thought it would be a nice way to make the holiday a little more meaningful and encourage gratitude in my children. Before Thanksgiving, I fashioned colorful paper leaves out of construction paper, punched a small hole in each one, and tied a ribbon through the hole. Then on Thanksgiving, I encouraged family members to write something they were thankful for that year on a leaf and hang it on the tree.

The thankful tree made a cute centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Its starkness fit into the season when fall was giving way to winter. Its leaves gave it color and made it a conversation piece as family guests read about the things their loved ones were thankful for.

Thanksgiving can be an overwhelming holiday. There’s so much food and the endless preparation that goes with it. Family members who haven’t seen each other in a while are suddenly in close quarters. Forward-thinking types are plotting their Black Friday shopping for the next day.

The thankful tree gives people a chance to pause and take stock of their blessings and to realize how many things there are to be truly grateful for. I’d encourage families to give it a try and hopefully establish a tradition of gratitude and togetherness for their many Thanksgiving holidays in the future.

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

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Sheep-in-Wolfs-ClothingBack in 1971, the musical duo Loggins and Messina came out with “Danny’s Song,” an innocent ballad about love and the future. I remember listening to the lyrics, “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey, everything will bring a chain of love.” My response? “Oh, sure. What are you going to do? Live on love?” Yes, I had become a 13-year-old cynic.

Maybe cynicism is a phase that teenagers go through in order to seem cooler than they are. But mine carried through into adulthood, and it still hovers in the background of my personality. And I think I finally know why.

A cynic is a disillusioned idealist. My 13-year-old self had so many romantic notions. I devoured romance novels and fantasized about being swept off my feet by a Mr. Rochester type. I carried a photo of Michael Jackson around in my wallet and dreamt of one day being Mrs. Michael Jackson. Yet already at that tender age, I realized that life is hard and one needs money to live. If love really meant never having to say you’re sorry, we’d all be in trouble.

Cynicism is a kind of mental and emotional armor. If I mock something, I can mask the fact that I really care about it. A case in point is the way my sisters and I would provide running commentary while watching beauty pageants. We were ruthlessly critical of the women parading around in swimsuits and spouting platitudes about world peace. For me, the sarcasm masked the fact that I would have loved nothing more than to be so prized for my beauty that I was part of a national or worldwide contest to proclaim the most beautiful.

Being cynical is also common in the arena of politics. The disillusioning effects of dirty campaigns, corrupt officials, and the need to be rich in order to have a chance at winning elections all serve to make many people turn away from politics altogether – or to look at every politician as a con artist. This might explain, at least in part, the very low turnout for most U.S. elections. For instance, Illinois’ governor’s race this year was a case of holding one’s nose and choosing between a billionaire who had done very little to improve the state in his previous term and another billionaire whose previous dealings smacked of corruption. It’s no wonder cynicism flourishes in modern society while idealism languishes.

I’m not knocking realists. It’s important to see things as they are and not always to be viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. If we don’t acknowledge our failings and those of our leaders, we won’t make any positive changes. But I miss the youthful enthusiasm I used to have for causes. I miss dreaming big. Perhaps as I get older, I will return to my childlike state and become a hopeless romantic once again.

 

Judging Elections

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I worked as an election judge for the first time Tuesday, and the experience opened my eyes to many issues with our current system.

First of all, election judges get minimal training and are both overworked and underpaid. We judges showed up at the polling place by 5 am and were not able to leave until after 8 pm. There was scarcely any opportunity to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat.

As the polls opened, our epollbooks, which are used to look up voters’ information, were not working. We were scrambling to post voter applications and get voters into the booths to vote before they headed to work for the day. Not having actually ever performed the task, I was uncertain exactly what to do and sometimes which form to use. This despite the fact that I had attended training and had studiously read the entire election judges manual for a couple of days before the election.

There is no boss at a polling place in Illinois. All judges have equal weight in seeing to it that voting takes place in the proper manner. But this can create confusion. One of our judges insisted upon asking people for IDs even after I told her it was not allowed in Illinois. It took a couple of poll watchers and someone from the election commission who came to our precinct to set the judge straight.

Inevitably there were issues with voters. Some had moved but not changed their address. Others were at the wrong polling place. Some voters had become inactive after not voting for a few years. Even with the opportunity to hand out provisional ballots, it took me the better part of the day to learn how to follow the proper protocols for all of these special situations and make sure everyone had the opportunity to vote.

Our election system needs an overhaul. It should be much easier and less complex to vote. In Washington State, for instance, all voting is done by mail or drop off. There is no scrambling to get to a polling place or need to stand in a long line to vote. There is no need to recruit citizens to sacrifice a long and exhausting day at the polls. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in the state was over 50%.

Don’t get me wrong. My day as an election judge was not all bad. I enjoyed meeting my fellow judges, who hailed from all different walks of life and were eager to do their part to participate in democracy. I loved seeing the great turnout at the polling place to which I was assigned. It heartened me to see so many citizens, many of them young people, determined to cast their vote.

I would love to see Illinois and other states work to make voting more streamlined and ultimately less costly than the wieldy system we currently have. Short of that, election judges need to be paid better and required to receive more training and supervision before being allowed to work at a polling place. They should also not be required to work an entire 15- hour shift on Election Day.

Voting is one of our most cherished rights and responsibilities as Americans. Let’s make it easier to participate and encourage citizens to vote in every election. It will make our democracy more vibrant and representative of all the people.