Everybody Needs a Friend

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I recently found out that my best friend from childhood had passed away in her late teens or early 20s. Kathy and I were both shy little girls, and we gravitated toward each other because of that. When we were young, we were both obsessed with horses and pretended to have stables of them, each with a unique name. As we got older, we’d spend hours in her quiet room (unlike the bedlam in my family of 13) listening to 45 rpm records on her record player.

Although I got along fine with the other kids in my small Catholic school, it was Kathy I spent time with outside of school. Then in the summer before eighth grade, my family moved away. I quickly made a new best friend in the junior high I attended, one whose friendship I have maintained to this day. But I regret how easily I let my friendship with Kathy slip away.

Everybody needs a friend. A friend is a buffer against the harsh realities of life – the pressures of school, the meanness of children, the dysfunction in families. A friend can make us laugh, share our secrets, and have our backs in tough situations. Family is important, sure. But a friend is someone who chooses to be in your life.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether Donald Trump has any friends. He seems like a lonely figure in the White House. I can’t know for sure, but his relationship with his wife seems frosty and with his son, distant. He always seems to have so much to prove, tweeting away at all hours of the night, viciously attacking allies and enemies alike, needing to have the upper hand.

The Parkland shooter didn’t seem to have any friends. There is some indication that his odd behavior made him an outcast. So when he lost his mother, he must have felt overwhelmingly alone. Without a friend to be that buffer against life’s vicissitudes, he turned into an angry and vindictive young man.

Society needs to recognize the danger of looking the other way while kids are bullied, people suffer from depression, and others are raised by harsh, demanding tyrants who leave them feeling unloved. Not having a friend not only affects the lonely person, but can have devastating repercussions for those around him. It’s important to reach out to those on the margins, to those who spend their time building up paranoid fantasies in their minds – before they do something harmful to themselves or others.

I truly hope President Trump has a trusted friend, someone with whom he can laugh and let off steam, someone who can listen and try to understand.

Everybody needs a friend.

 

 

 

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Blessed Solitude

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There are few things I treasure quite as much as solitude. Being alone with my thoughts has always been an important part of my life.

When my children were young, the only sure place for some alone time was the bathroom. I would close and lock the door and gather myself for whatever the day held in store. Even then, my kids would find me, pound on the door and wail piteously, as if they might never see me again.

I mentioned in my last post that I had difficulty napping when I was young. Looking back, I see that maybe I had outgrown napping but my mother needed us to spend an hour in our rooms away from her so that she could enjoy some moments of solitude.

I have always been an introspective person, so solitude provides me with the time and space to think, imagine, puzzle out a problem. And I enjoy many of the activities that go along with solitude: reading, writing, working on a crossword puzzle. The absolute quiet in my house right now as I write this gives me a sense of peace. I’m content, not lonely.

Of course, as with everything else, with solitude there can be too much of a good thing. When my husband and kids leave me alone for a few hours, a day, or even overnight, that’s a rare treat. But when they are gone for days, I start to miss them. I rattle around the empty house and feel a little unmoored.

Solitude feeds my inner life, and that includes spirituality. Without some quiet time, it’s impossible to hear the “still, small voice” of God. It’s impossible to pray. As Psalm 46:10 puts it, “Let be and be still, and know that I am God.”

My solitude gives me a chance to fill up the wells of my mind, heart, and soul. Filled to the brim, I’m prepared to be engaged in every aspect of my busy and wonderful life.

 

Early Riser

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There are two types of people: those who get up at the crack of dawn and those who don’t. I have always been in the former category. Even as a teenager, that notorious somnolent period of life, my idea of sleeping in was rising around 8 am. And in college, I hated that all the bar-hopping and party action began well after 10 pm. I wanted to go out at 7:30 and be home and tucked in before midnight.

One of my problems is that I do not nap. As a little girl, I remember lying on my bed in the bright afternoons and trying to will myself to sleep. But I would toss and turn and get incredibly bored until my mom decided it was okay for my sister and me to get up. The only time I can recall longing for a nap was when I had small children whose sleep schedules kept me up half the night.

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“The early bird catches the worm” is a famous aphorism. I don’t know about the worm, but I do feel more productive when I wake up early and get a few things done. I like to write in the morning, and morning is when I am most likely to go for a walk, do chores around the house, pay bills, make phone calls.

There’s something lovely about being awake when most of the world around you is asleep. I love rising at dawn and watching the vague outlines of nature come into focus as the sun makes its way into the sky, trailing orange and pink hues. The stillness of morning is a quiet and prayerful time for me. Being a naturally ruminative person, I find the stillness and freshness of a new day inspiring.

As I write this, the sun is brightening the world around me. Some vestiges of snow sprinkle the lawn. They will be gone by late afternoon as temperatures improbably climb into the 50s on a January day. On mornings like this, I notice the sleeping buds on the magnolia tree outside my window, waiting for spring. A gentle breeze stirs the stalks of dry and brittle flowers.

Amid all the tensions and drama of my life and the world outside, it’s heartening to see the sun’s reliable trajectory in the sky. It’s a new day, and I’m happy to be awake and alive.

 

Re-Entry

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After a prolonged time in outer space, astronauts have major physiological adjustments to make upon re-entry to Earth. The effects of lessened gravity make simple actions such as speaking and walking difficult once the astronaut feels the effects of Earth’s gravitational pull. Astronauts returning from the International Space Station spend weeks being tested and monitored to be sure they recover their health and stamina.

While the post-holiday stress of re-entering regular life can’t quite compare, I couldn’t help being reminded of astronauts’ ordeal as I returned from the holidays and a wonderful vacation in Hawaii.

With a four-hour time change, I am still suffering a small degree of jet lag. I can’t go to bed at night but must arise at what feels like the crack of dawn to see my daughter off to school. And speaking of school, it is hard getting back in our day to day routines after two weeks of holiday feasting, family togetherness, and fun. When my kids are on vacation, I too feel a certain license and tend to let certain everyday tasks go by the wayside. Facing the piles of paperwork and general disarray in my house has been fatiguing.

Re-entry after the Christmas holidays is especially painful to me because there is nothing that depresses me more than taking down the decorations, especially the Christmas tree. Not only is it a tedious task that somehow falls to me alone every year, but it saddens me to let the merriment of the season go. The January to April winter slog is long and sometimes disheartening. I want my jolly back.

By next week, we will have settled back into a normal routine. My sleep patterns will stabilize, and I will be in a rhythm set by my daughter’s school and sports schedules. The holidays will be a distant but pleasant memory. To ease my adjustment, I have started a new program of yoga that I hope will calm me and help banish the blues of gloomy winter days.

Despite the pain of re-entry, my life is pretty wonderful. As soon as I get my sea legs back, I intend to enjoy it to the full.

The Aloha Spirit

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IMG_2959For my upcoming 60th birthday, I wanted above all else to go on a vacation with my family. As the kids have grown, it has become increasingly difficult to have them all in one place. So a logical time to gather my crew was over the Christmas holidays. The logical place? Paradise, a.k.a. the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kauai and my hometown of Chicago could not be more different. The most obvious difference, especially at this time of year, is the climate. When we landed at Lihue Airport, it was a balmy 70 degrees, as opposed to the single digit temperatures that had descended on Chicago and, indeed, much of the mainland. Winter in Chicago is cold and bleak whereas the seasons on Kauai are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Everywhere we looked was a profusion of color: velvety green mountains, bright green shrubs and trees, pink and red and orange and yellow flowers. Our hotel even hosted a couple of friendly parrots and a host of noisy chickens that wandered the grounds.

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But the differences don’t stop there. Chicago is a big and somewhat impersonal city. People are in a hurry, perpetually hurtling from one activity to another. In Kauai – and all of Hawaii, really – there is a relaxed and unhurried vibe. Not for nothing are Hawaiians known for the “hang loose” gesture that implies there’s plenty of time, no need to rush. Whether driving around the island in bumper to bumper traffic, being waited on at a restaurant, or interacting with salespeople at shops, tourists need to cultivate a more easygoing temperament to match the Hawaiian way.

The Hawaiian word aloha represents the spirit of the islands. Aloha means both “hello” and “goodbye,” but most importantly, it means “love.” From the moment we landed on Hawaiian soil, we were greeted with this aloha spirit. Hotel staff greeted us by placing leis around our necks. “Aloha” constantly came out of people’s lips as they would pass us by. Smiles and friendliness were the norm and not the exception.

Another word that is important to Hawaiian culture is ohana, which means “family.” My favorite part of our Hawaiian vacation was not the fresh fish, the mai tais, or the spectacular views. It was the feeling of being surrounded by my family. We had adventures together hiking, rafting along the exotic Na Pali coast, and snorkeling in the pristine blue waters. But my favorite times were those spent together, on beach chairs just lying companionably next to each other and comparing notes about the books we were reading or the music on our iPhones. Or the relaxed dinners where we reminisced about vacations past and shared our “bests” and “worsts” of the present one.

Too soon it was time to part ways and go back to work and school in various parts of the country and the world. But my memories of this milestone birthday will always be ones filled with aloha for my ohana – and for the Hawaiian spirit that I hope will linger into a New Year in a less heavenly clime.

You Better Watch Out

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The-Elf-on-the-Shelf-The-Forgotten-CRMParents have always been a little mean-spirited at Christmas time. When I was a child, I took to heart the admonishment that Santa was watching me. If I was naughty, no presents for me. Looking back, I think that was a terrible message to send about Santa Claus and the giving and receiving of gifts.

As a parent, I realize that it’s important to have many discipline techniques to deal with child misbehavior. And sometimes we’re so desperate to stop our kid’s annoying or destructive behavior that we jump at anything we think might work. But in the case of Christmas threats, I think we are headed down the wrong path.

Take the Elf on the Shelf. Mercifully, my family missed out on this custom due to the age of my children. But my understanding is that the elf is some sort of spy for Santa who lurks in the house and keeps moving around so as to catch the kids in any sort of shenanigans. This is not only a bit creepy, but it gives children the sense that their parents see them as basically naughty and in need of watching at all times.

Many internet memes have blithely skewered the image of the Elf on the Shelf by posing him in compromising positions with Barbies and such. But others are troubled by the surveillance and reporting aspects of the toy. Digital technology professor Laura Pinto worries that the Elf on the Shelf is normalizing a police state mentality for a generation of children. (Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2014)

Another new technique I have seen popularized on Facebook is this: A parent wraps a bunch of empty boxes with Christmas wrap. Then, when the child misbehaves, the parent tosses one of the gifts into the fire. Whoever came up with that idea most likely thinks of themselves as clever, but I think it’s downright cruel.

At the very least, the idea of tying children’s behavior to receiving gifts on Christmas is the antithesis of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. The birth of Jesus was a gift for all mankind to save us from our sin. Quite the opposite of being expected to “behave” in order to receive it, the gift of Christ was given precisely because we do not deserve it.

Christmas should be a time of selflessness and love. Let’s retire these mean-spirited traditions and confine Santa and the elves to jolly singing in the workshop at the North Pole.

 

Christmas Is For Lovers

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IMG_1485Our first Christmas together, my husband did not want to get a tree. He reasoned that we would be spending the holidays with our families and were at home so little it wasn’t worth the effort. To me, no Christmas was complete without a real tree shimmering with lights and tinsel. So I was feeling glum as I made my way home from my teaching job one cold and wintry December evening. When I walked in the door, I was surprised to find my beloved kneeling at the base of a lovely tall fir tree, screwing the posts of a tree stand into its trunk. Next to the tree were boxes of lights and shiny ornaments he’d bought. He had carried the tree on his back for three blocks and up the three flights of stairs to the condo where it now stood in all its majesty at the big picture window. I was thrilled and touched.

Something about the holidays moves us to be kind and generous to each other. And over the years, it has been a time when my husband has gone out of his way to show me how much he loves me.

One of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments was given to me by my sister. It is a Precious Moments ornament with the inscription, “Our First Christmas Together 1988,” and I have always given it pride of place on our tree. One Christmas, one of my kids was attempting to hang it on the tree when it slipped out of his little hands and broke in two. I was inconsolable. Of all the ornaments we had collected over the years, that one was irreplaceable. That Christmas morning, in the pile of presents from my husband, was a small box with the very Precious Moments ornament I thought was gone forever. My husband had searched for its replacement and special ordered it for me.

Through the years, somehow my husband has found ways to give me gifts with deep emotional meaning. One year he had restored and tinted a favorite old photo of my sisters when they were little. Another year, I unwrapped three fancifully decorated letters of the alphabet representing the initials of each of our three children. But there was a fourth box of identical shape. When I opened it, tears came to my eyes. It was the letter “O,” representing our hope for the fourth child we were in the process of adopting.

Christmas is an emotional time for many people, and I am an extremely sensitive and emotional person. The year my father died, I could hardly bear to celebrate Christmas. The holiday that had always been marked by my father’s birthday on Christmas Eve would feel so empty without him. That year, my husband gently coaxed me through the season, helping me decorate the house and reminding me that our kids needed to feel the joy of the season – but also allowing me space to grieve.

The true magic of Christmas is that it can bring us closer to the people we love. That has certainly been the case with my husband and me over the years. I cherish the memories of almost three decades of Christmases together and pray that we have many, many more.