2020 Vision

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As we begin a new decade, I’ve been thinking about the periods of growth and stagnation in my own development. I’ve noticed that as I plunge headlong into my sixties, I’ve become a little set in my ways. My interests, values, likes and dislikes have been established, and I’ve seen no need to depart from them. That might not be the best way to age gracefully.

I have decided that my goal for 2020 is openness. The way to fight stagnation is to open oneself to new experiences and to other people. For example, when my husband and I were younger, I was game to see all kinds of movies with him, to attend rock concerts, and to share in his MSU Spartan fandom. Over the years, though, I lost my patience with action movies, loud music venues, and trips to East Lansing, Michigan. As a result, my husband and I are often two ships passing in the night, retreating to our separate TVs and interests. In order to grow together and not apart, we need to embrace each other’s passions to some degree. Maybe a date night at the new Star Wars movie is a place to start.

I am an inveterate homebody. I love nothing more than to stay home with a good book and my family. But getting out and being with other people is healthy. Last night, a dear friend of mine from college hosted my husband and myself at her home for dinner. It was so great to reconnect with her and her husband and to be social. My sister is another person who helps get me off the couch and out into the world. Because of her, I see more live theater than I ever would if left to my own devices. In 2020, I plan to be the seeker and initiator of more experiences with others in my life.

Openness also means the willingness to listen to others whose beliefs differ from my own. Especially in this charged political climate, it has seemed impossible to cross the partisan divide. As a presidential election looms, I plan to seek other outlooks on the candidates and the issues facing America today. Such openness will either confirm my current beliefs, alter them, or expand them to include more nuance, more areas of gray. I hope Americans on both sides of the aisle at least attempt to hear each other instead of constantly listening to the echo chamber of their own political stances.

I’m looking forward to a new decade. My children are (mostly) grown, and my time is more than ever my own. I plan to make good use of it as we head into the new Roaring Twenties.

 

Christmas Wish Granted

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Twelve years ago, Grant Achatz was a rising star in the culinary world. Inside an unprepossessing building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, Achatz was laboring day and night to make his restaurant Alinea the Michelin-starred destination it is today. Dining at Alinea is more like an experience of performance art with food and drink.

But a diagnosis of stage 4 tongue cancer shook the foundations of Achatz’s world. Doctors told him they would have to remove his tongue, and he was only too aware of the irony involved in a chef without the means to taste food. Yet his renown also made the news known to a group of specialists at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who urged Achatz to come in for a consultation. Achatz agreed to a then-experimental treatment that involved chemotherapy and radiation, one that would allow him to keep his tongue, his livelihood, and his life. Today Achatz, who has created two other restaurants, The Aviary and Next, is cancer free and free to follow his passion.

In 2017, my own piano teacher was also diagnosed with late stage tongue cancer and told she would have to have her tongue removed. A former opera singer who taught voice as well as piano, her diagnosis had a similarly chilling effect on her future. But Achatz’s fame and his cancer story led her to the University of Chicago, where by now the protocol for treating cancers of the head and neck has become standard procedure. Although the process was grueling, my teacher also came out the other side healthy and cancer free. This December, she hosted her first recital for piano and voice since her diagnosis two years ago.

Vision and artistry are the guiding principles of these two very different individuals. And it was the vision of the cancer team, led by Dr. Everett Vokes, that helped them create a treatment for cancer that would improve outcomes and quality of life. At Christmas, I’m grateful for the gift of life given to my friend and others who are, as a result, still free to use their singular talents in our world.

Remembering the “Old Man” at Christmas

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My father was a Christmas Eve baby. Although celebrating his birthday each year might have been an inconvenience for my grandmother, his own kids loved having something extra special to revel in during an already magical season.

Dad’s birthday kickoff would be a traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings. Then we’d present the gifts we’d racked our brains to come up with, fathers being notoriously hard to shop for. The typical ties and pairs of socks we wrapped up each December 24 sometimes gave way to more unusual items. One year I gave Dad a small oil can, something the Tin Man might have used. Another year all 11 children pitched in and bought my father a smoking jacket. It was deep red velvet and lined with black satin – positively Hefner-esque.

When my older sisters reached their teens, we developed a new tradition to mark my dad’s birthday. Each Christmas one of the networks would air the classic Bing Crosby movie White Christmas. This was one of our favorites. We particularly loved the song “Sisters” performed by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, and we would often do our own sisterly rendition in the kitchen while washing the dinner dishes. During these TV viewings of White Christmas, my dad would join us and gently mock the schmaltz. We knew, though, that he secretly liked the movie and enjoyed sharing it with his kids.

In the film, two old war buddies decide to help their commanding officer, who has retired to Vermont and runs a ski resort in risk of closing down due to the lack of snow. The two friends track down their fellow soldiers and invite them to the inn for a musical show on Christmas Eve. When the former CO walks into the theater, the men all stand and sing “We’ll Follow the Old Man.” It’s a teary and heart-warming scene.

The older kids in my family decided it would be fun to sing this song at our “old man’s” birthday celebration. We bought a paper birthday crown that we made Dad put on after dinner. Then we gathered around him and sang a rousing chorus of the song, whose lyrics include, “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go” and “Because we love him.”

Singing “We’ll Follow the Old Man” became a Christmas Eve tradition. My dad would chuckle softly, and his eyes would twinkle as his children, and later grandchildren, surrounded him and sang. The year my father died, we sang it in his honor on Christmas Eve.

“And we’ll tell the troops we answered duty’s call – to the greatest son of a soldier of them all.”

 

Time to Tell Trump: “You’re Fired!”

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The House vote to impeach President Donald Trump was as inevitable as the likelihood that the Senate will fail to remove him from office. In fact, many critics reasoned that it was a waste of time, and possibly damaging for Democrats, to go through  with impeachment when it would not lead to Trump’s ouster. Yet impeaching Donald Trump was simply the right thing to do.

Before the 2016 presidential election, suspicions swirled around Trump and his cronies, whose meetings with Russian officials appeared inappropriate if not conspiratorial. And indeed, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found evidence that Russia had interfered with the U.S. election – and not to help Hillary Clinton. Since taking office, President Trump has done nothing to distance himself from the dictatorial Vladimir Putin and many things to indicate a predilection toward helping Putin advance his territorial ambitions.

Now we have clear evidence that the president used his office to extort political dirt on a Democratic rival from the government of Ukraine, even going so far as to withhold military assistance from a country that is struggling to resist Russian hegemony. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi points out, Trump’s actions are not only unacceptable in a democracy, his clear preference for helping Russia is a threat to national security. Just yesterday The Daily Beast reported that “the Trump administration is quietly fighting a new package of sanctions on Russia.” (“Trump Administration Battles New Sanctions on Russia,” Betsy Swan, The Daily Beast, Dec. 18, 2019)

While it’s unlikely we will see an early exit from Donald Trump, it’s important to take a stand against his unconscionable and dangerous behavior. The House of Representatives did just that in voting to impeach. And I hope this stain on his presidency convinces voters in 2020 to tell the reality TV president, “You’re fired.”

The “They”s Have It

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I’m something of a stickler when it comes to English grammar and usage. Whenever I see a misplaced apostrophe or the incorrect “their/they’re/there” in a sentence, I cringe a little.

So it surprised me a bit that I didn’t have a more negative reaction to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year: the singular “they.” Of course, in ordinary speech, for some time now people have been using the word “they” to refer to either one or more people without regard to noun-pronoun agreement. But using it in writing was always taboo.

This led to difficulties such as having to use the awkward “he/she” or “he or she” when the subject was of unspecified gender. And many people just used “he” without regard to the sexist nature of assuming that human equals male. So it’s a bit of a relief to me that style manuals will most likely be updated to allow for the singular “they.”

There’s another reason that “they” was chosen as the Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster. “They” is often the preferred pronoun for gender nonconforming individuals. So the dictionary makers are right in choosing it as a significant movement in the English language.

There will be those who object to this modern use of the word “they,” whether because they are grammar purists or because they object to the normalization of LGBTQ matters. But as Benjamin Dreyer points out in The Washington Post, “Language is here to serve those of us, all of us, who use it, and when one’s perhaps unconsidered thoughts as to what is correct run smack into the honor we owe another person, one can only hope that it’s honor that wins out.” (“Language is here to serve all of us. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year shows that,” Benjamin Dreyer, Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2019)

So if a person wants to use the singular “they” in their writing, they should definitely do it.

Layaway

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When I was a college student, my bank balance usually hovered in the five dollar range. During my freshman year, I realized that my winter coat was insufficient for the harsh reality of life on the Illinois prairie. So I headed to our small campus town in Champaign, Illinois, and found the coat of my dreams. It was a light, cream-colored parka with a furry hood. But as the price tag was significantly higher than my bank balance, there was only one option for me: buying it on layaway.

With just a few dollars down, I could have the jacket stashed away for me until I was able to pay for it in full. Week after week, I saved up money from my part-time job at the university library and tried working a few extra hours so that I could put more funds towards an eventual reunion with that warm and lovely coat.

I was reminded of this experience from my past by a news story I read the other day. Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack went into a Florida Walmart and paid off the $80,000 in layaway debt shoppers had accrued so that families could go home with their merchandise. (“NFL star Khalil Mack pays off all $80,000 worth of layaways at hometown Walmart,” Christopher Brito, CBS News, Dec. 11, 2019) I have seen similar stories at the holidays of other athletes and celebrities playing Secret Santa for layaway customers, and it always warms my heart.

In this day and age, the ubiquity of credit cards has made the concept of layaway almost old-fashioned. Instead, we simply charge everything and hope to pay it off eventually, often accruing serious amounts of interest in the process. But for many low-income people, a credit card is not even an option. So using layaway is a method to have purchases saved and put away until their buyers can come up with the money to pay for them.

It bears remembering that in this season of bounty, so many are struggling to afford the necessities of life, never mind the extras. Here in Chicago, we may not have much to brag about when it comes to professional football prowess. But we can admire the magnanimous heart of Khalil Mack and others striving to make the world just a little bit better.

SAD

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IMG_0524The sun came out this morning after several dull and gloomy days that were making me depressed. I sometimes think I’m afflicted with S.A.D. – Seasonal Affective Disorder. The lack of light in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months can cause some people to become listless and depressed. These people benefit from special lamps that give them the light they need to restore levels of serotonin in their bloodstream.

Or maybe I’m just afflicted with sad, logical feelings stemming from disappointments and negative events that have happened recently. The weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays are often a time of sadness for people who have faced a loss, whether recent or long ago. And the relentless pressure to be merry can make those sad feelings even worse.

Our culture does not sit well with grief. We expect people to spring back from loss and disappointment like jack-in-the-boxes, maybe because we’re uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t know how to help. I’ve tried talking myself out of my doldrums, reminding myself of all the blessings in my life and that fact that there is much greater suffering out there than anything I’m experiencing. But trying to cajole myself out of sadness hasn’t really worked. And maybe it’s okay, and even important, to honor our own griefs, whether large or small.

As theologian Peter Enns puts it, “The church needs a healthy theology of lament. Not an agreed-upon short moment of sorrow so things can get back to normal. But a season to complain, be perplexed, shattered. To be angry. Without excuse, without being made to feel broken or weak. Without trying to fix pain and make it behave.” (“The Church Needs a Healthy Theology of Lament,” Peter Enns, peteenns.com) But in this happy season of Advent? “Especially then,” says Enns.

The paradox of Christmas is that we fill our homes with light and food and conviviality in the service of celebrating the difficult and dangerous journey our savior made to come into our world. He wasn’t born to a “one-percenter” and made to lie on an ermine blanket. He was literally born in a barn and laid to rest in a manger used for farm animals. Christmas is the act of God humbling himself to share our weak humanity.

So I will abide with my own feelings of sadness for a while. I’m reminded of a beautiful song called “Broken Hallelujah” by The Afters:

I can barely stand right now
Everything is crashing down
And I wonder where you are
I try to find the words to pray
I don’t always know what to say
But you’re the one who can hear my heart
Even though I don’t know what your plan is
I know you make beauty from these ashes
I’ve seen joy and I’ve seen pain
And on my knees I call your name
Here’s my broken hallelujah
With nothing left to hold onto
I raise these empty hands to you
Here’s my broken
Here’s my broken hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Here’s my broken hallelujah

For all of those who are worried, afflicted with sorrow, or grieving a loss; for those in terrible physical or emotional pain; for all of broken humanity, I offer a prayer and a hope for better days to come. But for now, it’s okay to be sad.