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Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Not For the Timid or the Proud

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

I will probably never learn to water ski.  My husband will probably never learn to snow ski.  There are some things you just learn to do as a child.  It’s not that I couldn’t learn to water ski or my husband couldn’t learn to snow ski.  But at this point we have settled into a life that includes neither and the chances are that absent some concerted intention we will never have cause or opportunity to change that.  We’re both okay with it.

But what if that thing – the thing we’d never learned to do as children – were something more, shall we say, essential? What if we’d never learned to swim?  What if we’d never learn to ride a bike?  Well, if we lived in Washington, D.C. I might have an easy answer for you.  The answer?  We would take a class.

As it is, I learned to ride a bike (a pink one with brown flowers and a banana seat) when I was six years old on our dead end street with my dad running behind me until my balance was sufficient for him to let go.  I have vague memories of it, but I’ve seen the pictures so many times that whatever holes were left by my memory have been filled in by photojournalism.  But for people who didn’t have a pink bike, brown flowers, banana seat, and eternally patient father, there is a class that teaches adults how to ride a bike.  I find the very premise of such a class inspiring.

Old dog/new trick clichés notwithstanding, there is something about learning to ride a bike as an adult that is surprising.  For most people is is something learned as a child, or not at all.  And yet there are apparently many adults (enough to sustain a class) who never learned as children, and are willing to subject themselves to the process of learning it now.  They start on balance bikes (no training wheels, no pedals, and propelled only by “kicking like a frog” with both feet) just the way little kids do today.  I have to imagine it’s not the most distinguished feeling.  And yet they want to learn and are willing to do so, regardless of however foolish they may feel in the process.

In thinking about this I find myself impressed and inspired.  I also find myself reminded of the fact that learning something new is typically not a graceful or glamourous process.  Whether it’s riding a bike, driving a car, playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, cooking, or painting – in order to learn we must first admit that we don’t know what we’re doing.  We must make our shortcomings and inadequacies transparent to another person; a teacher.  And we must let that teacher point out everything we are doing wrong without defense, all in the name of learning.  Learning is not for the timid or the proud.

There are many things I don’t know how to do that I wish I could: speak French, crochet, grow another two to three inches.  And there are skills that I once learned but have since become rusty from disuse: playing the piano, playing golf, speaking Spanish.  But if I want to quash any of my inadequacies I will have to cop to them first.  My age is not really the thing that precludes me from this.  It’s the busy existence of a working mom with three little boys whose life doesn’t feel the least bit empty for the lack of these skills.  And perhaps that is exactly why the old dog/new tricks maxim so often rings true.  It’s not that we can’t learn as adults.  It’s just that we’ve built a life without something and so we don’t know what we’re missing.  This isn’t to say we must all learn everything as adults that we never learned as children.  It is only to say that we can.  If we want to, we can.  If we need to, we can.  Our ability to learn is as strong today as it was 20 or 30 years ago.  We have only to come to a place where our eagerness is as well.

Learning to Wait

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

“Learn to wait.”

They are words my grandfather is famous for, though I most often heard them from my mother.  “You remember what Granddaddy always says, ‘Learn to wait,’” she would remind us.  In these instances waiting was almost certainly some brand of drudgery.  It was what we had to do on long car trips, in long amusement park ride lines, or in the lead-ups to birthdays or Christmas or the last day of school.  Waiting felt like paying dues – something we had to endure before we could make our way to whatever prize lay in the distance.

I thought about all of this as I listened to the sermon in church this past Sunday.  As many priests do this time of year she reminded us that Advent is a time of waiting.  She commented that for many of us the most commonplace forms of waiting – for tables at restaurants, for meetings to start, for a coffee date to arrive, etc., have recently been supplanted by the most commonplace form of mindless occupation – the smartphone.  I am not here to curse the evils of the iPhone, the digital camera, or the internet.  I believe that by and large they are all significant boons to modern life and that we are better off with them than we were without them.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that simple, undistracted waiting is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to many of us; so much so that I would guess most of us view it with the same intolerance that a five-year-old views the 30-ish days that clutter the path from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m here to turn that thinking on its head.  I say that waiting is a blessing.  I say that waiting is a gift.*

Esperar is the Spanish word for “to wait.”  It is also the Spanish word for “to hope.”  I’m sure I’m not the first person to wax philosphical about this coincidence.  That, however, makes it no less relevant here.  When we hope for something it is because we are facing an unknown.  We must then wait to discover whether or not our hope will come to be.  Does this mean then, that a life without waiting is a life without hope?  I don’t think so.  But I think that for the most part hope is implicit in waiting.  Waiting means expectation.  It means we are looking ahead to something.  It means we have something worth our excitement and anticipation.

This is true in my own life beyond the Christmas season.  We are in the middle of a very long wait in our adoption process.  Referral wait times for Korean placements are currently running ten months.  Every time someone asks me how the adoption process is going I shrug my shoulders and sigh.  “We’re still waiting.”  And yes, the waiting is hard.  But we have a child to wait for.  We are so lucky to be waiting; so lucky to know that at the end of these many months we will have another wonderful little boy in our family.

For adults, December is an easy time of year to view waiting with relief, since many of us have a hard enough time as it is getting everything done before footed pajamas scamper out of bed on Christmas morning.  But muttering to yourself, “Thank goodness I still have a week left before Christmas,” is not the same thing as embracing the wait.

Embracing the wait means that we reflect on what is coming.  We prepare ourselves for it.  Whether we are waiting for the Christ child or a Korean child, when we do it right we are better off for it.

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*I understand that there are exceptions to this.  Waiting for a loved one to come home from a military deployment.  Waiting for the results of a medical test.  This is not the kind of waiting I’m talking about.

Unexpected and Anonymous

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Thanks for hanging in there with me this week.  My earlier posts didn’t draw scores of comments, but they were controversial and I didn’t expect them to.  Nevertheless, in posting them I felt that I was in some way true to myself, and that felt good.  So, true to my word, I’m here today with something much happier than what Tuesday’s and Thursday’s posts had to offer.

She sat at the end of the exit ramp.  Her tousled hair stuck out from under a ball cap.  Her knees poked out from the holes in her jeans.  She wore a rucksack backwards across her chest.  And she held a sign which I now wish I’d bothered to read.

The driver of the car in front of me rolled down his window, and I waited for the woman to make her way back to me.  I reached into my wallet, pulled out two fives, and folded them together.  As she approached my car I reached my arm out the window and held the bills out to her.  And then I got confused.

She shoved a wadded up dollar bill into my hand.  I don’t remember what I said, but I conveyed that I didn’t understand what was going on.  She said, “It’s a pay it forward thing.  I haven’t seen a five today, so I can’t give you a five.  I can only give you a one.  So just do something nice for someone.”

I protested.  ”I can’t take this from you.”  She protested, “I work two jobs.  I don’t need it.”  I protested, “But if you work two jobs then you need this.”  She was insistent.  She wouldn’t take my money and she forced hers onto me.  The light turned green and I drove off up a dollar.  I was completely befuddled.

Why on earth would she do this?  Why would she stand on an exit ramp shoving dollar bills into strangers’ hands?  What kindness was done to her?  Or was any kindness done to her?  Perhaps she is in graduate school, doing some sociological study on how people react when someone defies their expectations.  Perhaps she felt the need to right some wrong she’d done.  Or perhaps she was just trying to send good will out into the universe, trying to make it a better place for the rest of us.

I will never know.

What I do know, though, is that what she did has gotten me thinking.  Why don’t more people do things like this?  Not just sit at exit ramps handing out money, but do something kind and asking only that other people also do something kind.  Better yet, why don’t I do more things like this?  Embarrassingly, I was at a loss for how to pay her kindness forward.  For starters, I put her dollar bill in the tip jar at a Starbucks later that morning.  But I need to do something more meaningful.  And I’m at a loss for what that should be.

So I put it to you.  I am here to read your recommendations and suggestions.  I’d like to do something that will be at least unexpected, and ideally anonymous.  I want it to be a pleasant surprise.  And I hope it can be a pleasant surprise for someone who really needs one (although that kind of qualifying might be tough).  I have an opportunity and an obligation here.  I want to fulfill both as best I can.

There is good in the world.  And it was good to be reminded so.

Small Accomplishments

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

I’m certainly not alone in finding satisfaction in certain accomplishments.  It feels good to sit back and acknowledge the fruits of your labor.  It’s nice to know that something got done.  A job well done – even if you’re the only one who knows about it – is a welcome addition to any day.  Things like painting a room, finishing a long book, or spring cleaning the whole house are enormously satisfying.  Sadly, though, I’m not crossing many big projects off of my list these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of semi-ambitious projects queued up.  I still have plans to start an herb garden this spring.  And I want to refinish the coffe and side tables in our basement.  And I will get through A Tale of Two Cities at some point this year if it kills me.  But for the moment (this moment when sleep and energy are far too dear) I’m finding my satisfaction in smaller accomplishments. 

Sunday was a perfect example.  For a variety of reasons we skipped church on Sunday.*  The boys and I spent the morning puttering around the house, not breaking our necks, but slowly tackling little projects.  Sheets and towels were changed.  Both boys’ dressers were culled of clothes that no longer fit.  My closets were switched out, summer for winter clothes.  A Goodwill donation pile was started.  Two loaves of bread were baked.  A couple dozen sugar cookies were frosted.  Both dogs were bathed and walked.  And both boys took solid afternoon naps. 

At the end of the day I looked back at it and thought, “This was a good day.”  And it was.

As I’ve thought about it since then I have recognized that in their own way, small accomplishments like these can be even more satisfying than big ones.  Perhaps I only feel that way because I’ve lowered the bar lately.  But perhaps there is some truth in it.  On Sunday morning I didn’t set out to have an excessively productive day.  And it was only in the absence of any larger goal that I had the time and inclination to knock out several smaller projects.  I was almost surprised at all that I had accomplished, and tickled by the fact that I wasn’t spurred on by any stress or ambition.  The day turned out to be - as my mother would say -  a pleasant surprise. 

I’m still looking forward to starting my herb garden, getting back into reading, and painting our basement tables.  But in the meantime I’m quite enjoying opening my closet to see all of my spring skirts and blouses.  These small accomplishments can be quite big in their own way. 

*The Calvinist in me must justify myself: GAP is in the throes of a monster month at work and had to spend the entire weekend at the office.  I’m certainly game for doing church with the boys on my own, but given the current sleep deficit I’m facing I just couldn’t muster the wherewithal.  Also, my parents were in town for a weekend visit and they were hitting the road just about half an hour before the service started.  There.  I’ve explained myself.  (You can take the girl out of the Presbyterian church, but you can’t take the Presbyterian church out of the girl…)

Flights of Fancy

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

I’ve been daydreaming lately.

My current daydream is about my dream house; specifically, building my dream house.  I’ve sketched floorplans and considered traffic flow.  I’ve envisioned the roofline, brick, and trim.  I’ve thought about color palettes and storage space.  I’ve been thinking it through in bits and pieces for the past month or so and I’ve pretty well got the whole thing mapped out in my head.  It’s not an enormous house, but it fits our needs precisely.  The figuring-out process has been fun.

As I was telling a friend about this the other day she was, I think, a bit surprised at how detailed all of this imagining has gotten.  She said to me, choosing her words quite carefully so as not to sound pejorative, “You’re sort of prone to flights of fancy, aren’t you?”  I thought about it and told her that I supposed she was right.  I’ve spent time dreaming out the details of more than one small business idea.  I’ve outlined ideas for books.  I’ve run mental simulations of what I would do if I ever won the lottery (which, as I understand it, would require actually playing the lottery – so I assume my chances here are pretty slim…).  I’ve envisioned a time when horses will be a part of my life again.  And now I’m mapping out – in surprising detail – my hopefully-someday-future house.

“Yes,” I said to my friend, “it’s a fantasy.  Hopefully not an unrealistic fantasy.  But it’s not anything we’re doing right now.  Nevertheless, it’s still fun to have a mental project.”

That’s how I think of it: as a mental project.  And I think that mental projects are good for a couple of reasons.  For starters, they are fun.  I’ve read one after another statistic that says making future plans is an effective way to boost your mood, improve your outlook, and increase your overall happiness.  Granted, most times I’ve read this statistic the implied nature of the future plans were more along the lines of making a date to see a movie with a girlfriend, but I contend that the benefits hold true for longer ranging and more abstract planning.  Further, big plans like these help us to identify our goals.  By exploring these flights of fancy we get to try on future versions of ourselves and our lives.  We get to think about what we would like to become.  And we are better positioned to recognize and take advantage of the right opportunities when they present themselves.  When such opportunities come along we know what we want to do with them.

Sure there are pitfalls to all of this daydreaming.  We have to be careful that we’re not so busy imagining some future incarnation of our lives that we forget to get out and live the lives we have today.  But as long as our fantasies don’t supplant our realities, I think our time spent dreaming is usually a good thing.

And with that, I need to decide if I prefer louvered or paneled shutters.

PS – Sorry this post is a day late.  SSP has decided that two overnight feedings are more fun than one.  So I’m a little tired lately.  I’m afraid this is going to be a two-post week.  I’ll be back on Monday, hopefully with a nap or two under my belt!

Role Model Redux

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I wrote this post two years ago, right after my family all got together to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday.  It was early in the life of this blog, and back then I was still a little unsure about posting publicly and had only shared the blog with a few people.  I wanted limit my exposure at the beginning until I got my legs under me.  My grandfather is a tough critic and I wasn’t quite ready for his feedback.  Unfortunately that meant that he didn’t see this post when it was originally published.

Now my grandfather is a regular reader of this blog.  And, for the record, he has been nothing but supportive.  Today marks his 92nd birthday and I thought it an apt time to republish this post so that he might have an opportunity to read it.  Granddaddy, I hope you have a wonderful birthday.  I love you.

There are many people in the world whom we identify as role models.  Many of them are athletes.  Some are government leaders.  Others are astronauts and soldiers.  Others still are people who have overcome incredible hardship.  And all of these people certainly deserve our admiration.  But there is a different breed of role model that this collection excludes.

For all of the attention we pay to people whose stories are worthy of glossy magazine pages, the honest truth of the matter is that they probably influence our lives very little.  We may be inspired as we read about them, or watch their stories play out in front of us in the form of a collection of slow-motion clips, narrated by Bob Costas and accompanied by touching background music.  We may tear up in these moments and stand in awe of these impressive people.  But when we close the magazine or turn off the television, very few of us carry these people around with us afterward.

Most often the people we carry with us are those whose faces we can see when we close our eyes; whose voices we can hear when we find a quiet moment.  They are people who have taught us things big and small.  They have watched us succeed and fail.  They have shown us what maturity and integrity look like at every turn.  They are the people whose lives have left an indelible impression on our own.

Because I have led a blessed and lucky life so far, I have a number of people in my life who fit this description.  But only one of them celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend.

Steady.  If I had to pick one word that describes my grandfather more than any other, it would be steady.  In today’s world where we flit about, jumping frenetically from one thing to the next, steadiness is a trait that has become increasingly rare.  Today we value speed, multi-tasking, and efficiency.  We do not always appreciate the value that is brought by doing something well or with consistency.  But such quality and consistency are hallmarks of my grandfather’s life.

For forty-odd years Granddaddy was a physician; an internist.  He was an army doctor during World War II.  And when the war ended he started his own private practice which he ran until he retired in his sixties.  Throughout his practice he saw patients in his office, made his own hospital rounds, and made house calls.  He was home in time for supper.  He has gone to church nearly every Sunday of his life.  He played tennis with my father every weekend of his teen years – rain, shine, snow, or sleet.  He took a two-week vacation with his family every summer.  He made double mortgage payments every month until his house was paid off.

When I was a little girl I did not always appreciate these qualities.  To a child some of this steadiness can seem a little stuffy, even rigid.  He has playful moments, to be sure.  And he is always full of affection for my sister and me.  But the same steadiness he exhibits each day he also expects of those around him.  As kids we knew exactly what the rules were, and what consequences might be handed down if we broke them.  Those consequences were never more than a stern expression accompanied by a few castigating words, but they always did the job.

In my life today I notice the ways in which we embrace and endorse many aspects of our lives that don’t quite measure up.  We have starter careers and starter marriages.  We eat fast food and watch reality television.  We carry credit card debt and spend more than we save.  In light of all this I am especially thankful for Granddaddy and the example he has set for me.  Because of him I have come to value reliability and consistency, and I can see what a life looks like that has been built on decisions that were made, one after another, with stalwart integrity.

Granddaddy has always been a little bit formal.  But this past weekend at his birthday party I watched him soften a bit.  I worked collectively with my family to create a memory book from years’ worth of photos and stories for his birthday gift.  He unwrapped the book to find a front-cover photograph of himself and my grandmother taken in their front yard in 1960.  She wore a pale blue dress with a belt cinched around her impossibly tiny waist.  He stood in shirt sleeves and a tie with his arm draped over her shoulders.  They were so obviously happy.  As he flipped through the pages he smiled and sighed.  Stories spilled from his mouth as the photos cast fresh light on memories that had grown dusty with age.

It gave me real joy to watch him in that moment.  And it inspired me to more fully incorporate into my life the values that he embodies.  Granddaddy can sit happily today knowing that he has lived his life well.  I hope that I too reach my 90th birthday someday, and that I too will be able to look back over my life with a similar sense of satisfaction.

A Point of Honor

Friday, February 10th, 2012

About nine months ago my mother and sister started yammering on about some British series that I absolutely had to watch called “Downton Abbey.”  I blew them off.  While I can certainly appreciate a good British production my tastes are typically more mainstream than theirs.  These two can devour episode after episode of the most obscure film or series.  I assumed this was more of the same.  Then the Emmys rolled around and “Downton Abbey” cleaned up.  Over the holidays when we all gathered here for Christmas their well-intentioned suggestions started afresh.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago I gave in.  And…

They were right.  It’s wonderful.  The scenery and costumes are stunning.  The characters are fresh.  The dialog is clever.  The plot is intriguing.  In short, I am hooked.

Imagining a life of evening gowns and ladies’ maids is mind candy enough.  But when I stop daydreaming there are other aspects of this show that pique my interest even further.  The biggest “for instance” in this category is the sense of honor and pride exemplified by many of the characters, most notably the staff.

These are people who are, by all practical means, condemned to a life of service.  There was no way out of the class you were born into in England at that time.  Cooking and cleaning.  Being always present but still invisible.  Tending to the needs – however superficial – of other people all the time.  Zipping dresses they’ll never get to wear and fluffing beds they’ll never get to sleep in.  This is largely thankless work, but these characters take a surprising amount of pride in doing it well and bringing honor to the family they serve in the process.

Watching “Downton Abbey” I can’t help but wonder how many people today put so much of themselves into their work.  I’m not just talking about long hours in corporate cubicles.  Many people put that much of their time into their work.  But how many people derive such a sense of honor from their work?  How many of us avoid foolish behavior because of the shadow it might cast on our employer?  How many of us would tender our resignations because an embarrassing incident from our past came to light and might be seen as shameful to our boss?  I can’t get over the extent to which these characters’ identities are inextricable from their work in the household.

Of course they are fictional characters.  They are largely painted in shades of black and white in the way that many imagined characters are.  So this phenomenon I write of here is likely exaggerated for the screen.  Nevertheless, in shows and films that take place in present day we see characters compartmentalize their personal and professional lives.  (Granted most of us don’t live in our bosses’ homes.  That presents an additional dynamic.)  We see characters try to explain away their mistakes and bad behavior.  We see them fight for their personal gain.  We rarely see such devotion to any person or cause outside the character’s own self.

I suppose what I’m angling at here is that in looking at our culture today I see a lack of service.*  Yes, when earthquakes and tsunamis hit we line up to donate blood and money.  But on a regular basis I don’t typically find that service – to the greater good in any of its forms – is a driving force in the lives of many people around me.  To clarify, I don’t think that being a footman or a ladies’ maid in an aristocratic British house really did that much for the greater good either.  But these characters (most of them, anyway – there are a few weasels in the bunch…) exhibit a true spirit of service, and pride in doing so.  And that is a quality I don’t see much of.  And it’s a quality that I think, if more prevalent, could be an incredible agent for change and improvement in today’s world.

*And I’m not the only one.  Earlier this week I read this article that looks at the career choices of Prince William’s classmates at Eton, sadly noting that most of them have chosen careers that afford them great opportunities to make vast sums of money, but little opportunity to do much real good.

What a Gift It Is

Friday, January 27th, 2012

In mid-December I got a text message from my work friend Layla* asking for prayers for her brother’s family, as his pregnant wife had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at 32 weeks and was having to be induced.  The next day another text told me that the baby had severe health problems (entirely unrelated to the pre-eclampsia).  Layla and the rest of the family convened in her hometown where her brother and his family still live.  Shortly thereafter the baby was airlifted to a larger city with a larger hospital for more advanced treatment.  It was also there that they learned the baby’s diagnosis: Trisomy 13.

Apparently only 10% of babies with Trisomy 13 survive pregnancy and make it to birth.  Of those that make it to birth, only 10% live a single day.   The doctors told Layla’s brother Jack and his wife Meaghan early on that their little boy wouldn’t be able to overcome his conditions, and so they treasured every day they had with him, knowing that the end would come soon.  This little boy fought for his life for nine days.  He was truly amazing.

It is worth noting that December is an emotionally grueling month for my friend’s family.  Her birthday falls in December.  One of her niece’s birthdays falls in December.  And her youngest sister Catherine’s birthday is in December.  Two years ago Catherine was home for Christmas and out of the clear blue died of an undiagnosed heart condition.  She was in her mid-twenties.  They buried her on Christmas Eve.  And then again this past December tragedy struck again.  Indeed, December is filled with heartache for this family.

Jack and Meaghan have two beautiful little girls, May and Emily, who are about four and two years old, respectively.  When their brother was born they were told that he had arrived, but that he was very sick.  After he passed May asked her grandmother what had happened to him.

“Well, you know how your Aunt Catherine went to heaven and now she flies around with all the angels?”

“Yes.”

“Well, your brother went to heaven to become an angel too.”

And then May said the thing that makes this whole, miserable, heartbreaking story worth reading.  She hollered to her little sister, “Hey, Emily!  Did you hear that?  There are baby angels flying around all the time and our brother gets to be one of them!  Isn’t that wonderful?!”

What a gift it is to see the world the way a child sees it.  What a gift it is to see joy where we only saw pain.  Whether you believe in heaven and angels or not, there is something inspiring about the way these children experience loss – with a silver lining that not only softens the blow, but supersedes it altogether.  What an incredible gift it is.

*All names have been changed.

A Christmas Story

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

The story below came to me in a Christmas letter from a dear family friend.  This story is a true one from her childhood.  She wrote it down for her own children about 15 years ago.  She tries to share it with new people each year and this year included it in her holiday mailing.

It was early December in 1942 in a little copper mining town in Southern Arizona when my dad sat my little brother and me down tot ell us there would be very little money for Christmas gifts that year.

Our mom and dad had come to Arizona from Arkansas because friends from their hometown sent word that jobs were plentiful in the underground copper mines.  That wasn’t the case in depression era Arkansas.  So my mom and dad boarded a train that brought them to this mountain community, and my dad did indeed find work in the copper mines the very first day.  But what he really wanted was to work in the accounting offices of Phelps Dodge Mining Company and applied for every opening.  Each time he was passed over by someone with a college degree.  He finally convinced Phelps Dodge to give him a chance. He offers dot work for 30 days for free and at the end of that time if they didn’t like his work, he’d go back in the mines.

Daddy began his trial run in the accounting offices on December 1st – and there would be no paycheck that month.  He was understandably concerned about how he could provide for his young family that Christmas.

My brother and I assured him he didn’t have to worry about us.  We’d written to Santa and we knew Santa would come through.  My brother had asked for an Army Jeep – one you could sit in and drive – with a big silver star on the side.  This was World War II every day we went outside and played War.  And I wanted a doll with long blonde hair and a black net dress trimmed in pink ribbon – exactly like the one my mother wore to her meetings of the Order of the Eastern Star.

Easter Star was my Mother’s big night out.  Once a month, Mama would don this beautiful gown and my brother and Dad and I would diet on our front porch on the side of the Bisbee mountain and watch my mother until we lost her from view.

I can see her still as she was then – a beautiful young woman, sweeping down the side of the mountain in that glorious dress.  She had made her dress.  Mama was a wonderful seamstress and since Christmas was coming she was at her Singer sewing machine constantly, crafting gifts for family and friends.  My brother and I “helped.”  He worked the pedal and I would turn the wheel that drove the needle as Mama guided the fabric.

My dad was busy getting ready for Christmas as well.  He and a friend were meeting in the friend’s garage most evenings working on some book shelves that would be a surprise for our mother.  My brother and I were sworn to secrecy.

Finally the preparations ended and it was Christmas.  And when my brother and I walked into the living room that Christmas morning, it was just as we had known it would be.  There beneath a sparkling tree was a little wooden Army Jeep with a big silver star on the side that my brother could sit in and drive.  And right next to it was the most beautiful doll in the world.  She had long blonde hair and a black net dress trimmed in pink ribbon, exactly like my mother’s dress.

It was a magical morning, and at one point my brother magnanimously offered to let me take my doll for a ride in his Jeep.  So I gathered my doll and we settled into the little Jeep.  I put my hands on the steering wheel – and froze.  I knew that steering wheel.  It was unmistakably the wheel form my mother’s Singer sewing machine.  I sat there stunned.  It wasn’t too great a leap to put this together with my dad’s carpentry project and realize our dad and his friend had built more than a bookshelf – they had built the little Jeep.

But that didn’t explain my doll – and I so wanted Santa to have had a hand in that.  I thought I knew how to find out, so I marched into my parents’ bedroom and opened the closet door.  To my great relief, there, hanging where it had always hung, was my mother’s black net dress.  But something was different.  The pink ribbon was gone and it had become a short dress.  It was then that I knew how my doll’s dress had come to be.

I also knew what it had cost my mother.  In that place and at that time – and perhaps still – you couldn’t attend a meeting of the Eastern Star in a short dress.  This had been her only long one.

I try to share this story with someone every Christmas, for two reasons:

  1. It’s my way of honoring two wonderful parents who tried so valiantly to preserve the magic of a Christmas morning for their small children.
  2. It is a personal reminder to me of the profound truth I learned – that the most previous gifts are born of sacrifice.  These gifts need no wrapping paper.  They come wrapped – in love.

I was very moved by this story, that I thought I would share it here as well.  I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate it.  With that, I will be on a blogging vacation for the rest of the year.  I’ll be back sometime after January 1st with my thoughts and plans for the New Year.

Before and After

Monday, December 5th, 2011

I have a friend who has the kind of hair that every girl envies.  It is fine, but thick.  It is the perfect shade of blonde.  It is well-behaved and straight.  It falls with conviction down to the middle of her back.  It swings when she walks and bounces when she runs.  If she weren’t one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, I might hate her for it.

I do not have that kind of hair.  My hair is not especially thick; perhaps a bit thinner than average.  It is naturally a bit wavy, depending on the humidity, but I can’t really rely on it ever to do the same thing twice.  My hair and I get along the best when I keep it trimmed just above my shoulders, and I pull it back into a low, parted ponytail quite often.

My friend – the nice one, with the killer hair – isn’t just nice.  She’s better than that.  She is good, and kind, and generous.  Every few years she goes into a salon, sweeps her hair back into an elastic, and instructs the stylist to cut 10 or 12 inches of perfect hair off of her head.  She places it in a plastic baggy and donates it.  Every time she does it I’m inspired.

Because my hair isn’t particularly suited to the half-way-down-your-back look, I’ve never let it get long enough to donate.  (I am a big fan of charity, but also a big fan of personal grooming.)  But with this most recent pregnancy, I had a game plan in place.

When I was pregnant with IEP I discovered that something about pregnancy hormones causes my hair to roughly double in thickness over the course of nine months.  Instead of shedding dozens and dozens of hairs every time I shampoo I lose only four or five individual hairs.  By the end of a pregnancy I have hair that is legitimately enviable.  The flip side to this coin, though, is that a few weeks after delivery karmic justice rears its ugly head and all of the hair that didn’t shed out during the pregnancy exits stage left over the course of about 10 days.  It breaks my heart.

So this time around I decided to trade my heartbreak in for something a little happier.

More than a year ago, before SSP was even in the works, I started growing my shoulder-length locks out.  By the time SSP was born I had enough hair to follow my super nice and super generous friend’s incredible example.  (That photo up top was taken when SSP was two weeks old.)

And last week I walked into my salon looking like this:

Cold feet struck me when I sat down in the chair at the salon.  My stylist gave me a much needed pep talk (“Gale, you have hair and some kid out there doesn’t.”), and then when I gave her the final go-ahead she started snipping.  About an hour later, she stopped.

I walked out looking like this:

Most of my charitable acts are financial donations to good causes, casseroles made for the church food pantry, and time spent volunteering at the local children’s hospital.  But something about this felt different – both bigger and smaller.  I gave, quite literally, a piece of myself.  It wasn’t a ton of hair and will certainly have to be combined with other donations to make a single wig, but, like the widow’s mite, I gave all of what I had, and it was a fundamentally different experience.   It feels quite different to give all that you can, rather than to make a token offering that only represents further generosity that wasn’t extended.

I am amazed by the people like my friend who give this incredible gift over and over.  I wish I had the kind of hair that I could grow out and donate repeatedly, but am thankful that I had the opportunity to do it this once.  It feels good to lay all that you have out on the table.  I should do it more often.