Wednesday, February 18, 2015

No Complaints Allowed

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian Season of Lent. The ashes on our foreheads symbolize both our own nature (created out of dust) and the grief we feel about our own failures and sins. During the 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent we prepare for the joy of Easter by engaging in self-reflection and honest sorrow for the things we do wrong. From this place of honesty and sorrow, we can make a new beginning. A pastor from a church I love wrote today "It's the chance to look at our lives with heightened honesty and see those stuck places where we might just be ready for change, for newfound freedom, and for growth." Yes. Repentance means turning around, turning back towards being the person G-D is calling you to be. It's not about guilt and shame, it's about growth and change.

Each year for Lent I choose something to give up. This is a traditional way to fast, by giving up something you enjoy. Not as a form of self-punishment or because G-D doesn't want us to enjoy things (because I believe he does want us to enjoy his good gifts) but because in turning away from something we like we open up to being more fully reliant on G-D. We signify that we are open to changing, open to putting G-D first in our hearts and asking him to fill our needs.

When I was a little girl my mother chose for me, and I gave up desert. As an adult I try to choose something that I enjoy but that I need to give up for a season in order to grow. I am looking for a sacrifice that will bring me that newfound freedom, that will go to work on a stuck place inside myself. Last year I gave up reading novels for Lent because in the months before Lent I found myself too often hiding in books instead of interacting with my family. I wanted to be more present for them and I wanted to relate to books and reading in a healthier way; as a pleasure but not as an escape from or substitute for life.

This year I am giving up complaining. I have come to realize that I complain quite often, that I do enjoy complaining, but my habit of complaining keeps me stuck. Complaining keeps my attention focused on what I don't like, don't have or don't want. It leaves me in the mindset of scarcity and deprivation. I don't want to live in that space. I don't want to feel constricted and shut down. I crave the spaciousness and freedom of living in gratitude for the abundance all around me.

So I'm giving up complaining for Lent. I expect it will be harder than giving up novels. With a novel, I'm either reading it or I'm not. I pick it up or I don't. It's very clear. Complaining is such a habit that I am not always sure I will even recognize it all the time. I have decided that if I make a statement followed by a polite request or a solution, that's not a complaint. For example, I came home from work this evening and said to my husband "My back hurts, please could you rub it for me this evening?" However, if I just stop at the negative statement, then that is a complaint. For every complaint this Lent that I catch myself in (or my husband, or anyone else, catches me in) I will put a quarter in a complaint jar. At the end of Lent I will donate that money to a charity.

During the Passover Seder (which will coincide with Good Friday this year, which I kind of like) there is a song we sing called "Dayenu." I don't know if my translation is quite right but the sense of the word I have learned is "it is enough." Whatever G-D has done for us, it is enough. If G-D had done only some things in the past, but not others, if he had only sent plagues, or only brought us out of Egypt, or only opened the Red Sea for us, or only given us the Torah, it would be enough. Any of those things would be enough, all of them together are riches overflowing. That's how I want to live my life, in Dayenu. That's where I hope my Lenten journey will take me.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Light In The Darkness

I went to church online tonight. I always go to church on Christmas Eve. I can't actually remember a time in my adult life when I didn't go to church, somewhere, somehow, for Christmas Eve services. If the church I was attending didn't have a service I would just drop in on another church. I even went to church on Christmas Eve in Iraq one year.

Tonight I'm away from home. I had intended to go to services with my mother anyway, at a church she found nearby, but it was a long day of travel after a poor night's sleep topped off with about thirty minutes of wandering around in the rainy dark dragging suitcases and a tired four year old trying to find the rental apartment we had arranged. My nerves and temper had frayed, I was snapping unfairly at my family, and I knew that going out to find another strange place in the cold wet dark would just not be wise. So I called my mother and let her know that we'd see her tomorrow but we needed to rest this evening.

I still wanted to go to church though, and it occurred to me that probably some church, somewhere, would have an online service. This is the twenty-first century, after all. So I looked, and sure enough there were quite a few. I ended up dropping in on Resurrection Church (http://www.rezonline.org), a United Methodist Church in Kansas City, as they were kind enough to stream their service. I was able to listen in on their service and watch their candlelighting, which is a very traditional (and much loved, at least by me) part of a Christmas Eve service. 

In a candlelight service the lights in the sanctuary are extinguished, to symbolize the darkness we all experience in life. Then a candle is brought in, which is called the Christ candle, the candle that represents G-D's living presence with us. The pastor lights his candle from the Christ candle, and then passes the light to a few others, who then move down the aisles of the sanctuary lighting the candles of the people at the ends of each row of seats who then spread the light to others. In the end, the sanctuary is lit once more with soft candlelight, and we are reminded that we are called to be the light ourselves. The gift we receive is given to be shared. 

Watching online, I could see in a different way the light spread across the room, person to person, flame by flame. I was reminded of something my pastor at home said at the beginning of this advent season. He said that it's important that Christians tell the story of Christmas, a story that isn't about buying things and travel and too many cookies at too many parties. Christmas is a story about light in the darkness, about G-D loving us too much to ever give up or turn his back on us. 

It's been a tough year, I think. A tough year for everyone, all over the world. It's still tough. It is easy to fall prey to despair. Christmas is a story about hope. It's a story about small flames, spread person to person, in little actions and little stories. Nothing dramatic, nothing splashy, hardly ever anything that makes a home page or a headline or twitter feed. It's a story about people who are called to be light in the world, quietly, patiently. Following the humble example of our Emmanuel, G-D with us, who healed and taught through inclusion, mercy, and suffering. We fail so often, but the light is still there.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Enjoy The Moment: Mother Daughter Date

Going out to dinner with my daughter wasn't in my plans this evening. We are hosting a small party at our house tomorrow, and our schedule called for cooking, cleaning and last minute errands. However, around 2pm my daughter announced that she'd like to have a mother daughter date night. She wanted us to go out to dinner at IHOP, just the two of us, without her daddy.

I confess, my first impulse was to say no. I had other things I needed to be doing because we have company coming. I didn't want pancakes for dinner. I was tired and didn't want to drive anywhere. I was irritated because she had been hanging over my shoulder (literally) while I was working on a project for her which made it slower and more difficult. You try using your arms with over 30 pounds of preschooler leaning on one of them.

Fortunately, my brain engaged fully and jerked me up short before I opened my mouth. I realized that there is no need to stress about friends coming over tomorrow. All of my friends are awesome people who will be coming over to enjoy time together, not to judge our decorations, food, or cleanliness. Not to mention that the party is primarily oriented towards children, who will be making a mess in the kitchen decorating Christmas cookies when they aren't making a mess in the rest of the house playing with toys. So it's really pretty silly to get too wrapped up in making the house look perfect. And I'm not all that tired and none of my projects are urgent. Nothing has to be completed this weekend, or even by Christmas. It's all for fun anyway.

More importantly, I realized that there will be a time in my daughter's life when she won't want to go out to dinner with me on a Saturday night. All too soon, I won't be her date of choice. There will be a time that I have to insist on family time and cope with sulks and pouts when I decree a family outing. There will be a time when she has no time to lean on me while I am working on projects because she will have too many projects of her own that need to be done. And after these times there will be a time when she won't be here at all. She will be away at college and then living her own life, and it will be right and good for her to do that. When my daughter was born my mother told me that good parents are always preparing their children to leave them, and I know already that this is true. But when those times come I will miss her terribly.

I'm not a big believer in trying to live a life without regrets. I think it's a trap, because there's no way to know how things are going to turn out. Regrets are always possible, no matter how carefully you think out your choices. Sadness and pain are inevitable in life, and no amount of good decisions will get you out of them. I am a believer in trying to make the best choices I can, based on the best I know at the time the choice comes up and then trying my best to trust G-D with the outcome. Still, there are some things that I know I would eventually regret.

So I'm glad I took my daughter to IHOP tonight, just the two of us. The pancakes weren't bad, and we had fun doing the crossword puzzle on the kids menu together, me spelling the answers and her writing the letters. I'm glad we had a chance to talk about the things she is thinking about with holidays, and wanting another sleepover with her friend, and how she wants to earn some money for the Christmas project the children are doing at church, and a hundred other things we talked about this evening. I'm glad that I slowed down enough to enjoy this moment in her life, this time when she and I can take such delight in each other's company.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Cranberry Relish and Interdependence - Gratitude 4

We had Thanksgiving dinner this afternoon with my mother's family. My aunt has been hosting Thanksgiving at her house for over two decades at this point. She makes most of the dinner but my mother brings rolls and sweet potato muffins, another aunt brings desserts, and another aunt brings pumpkin bread. We are a carbohydrate loving family, as you can see. My husband and I bring vegetables when we come since everything else is pretty much claimed.

One of the items on our table was orange cranberry relish, which was purchased from a local grocery store.  That is completely acceptable and even encouraged in my family; we are big fans of keeping things easy. The relish was good, but certainly not the star of the dinner table. It's just a dish I happen to like and as I ate it I thought about how amazing it is to eat orange cranberry relish. I began to imagine how much effort and how many people are involved in what looks like a really simple event: a woman eating orange cranberry relish at Thanksgiving dinner.

Oranges were grown in one part of the world. I don't know much about how you grow oranges, but I'm pretty sure a warm climate, trees, a farmer, and some hard work were involved. Cranberries are usually a cooler climate crop and I know they are hard work because the grow in bogs that have to be flooded to harvest them. There had to be a farmer to plant the bushes, build the irrigation system, flood the bog, harvest the berries, and then pack and ship them. Someone else took the oranges and cranberries and cooked them together in a relish. Yet another person in a factory somewhere made the plastic dish to hold the relish. Someone else stocked the grocery store shelves. My aunt drove to the store, where someone sold her the relish, and she brought it back home for us to eat.

So there's a huge chain of people involved in me eating orange cranberry relish on Thanksgiving day this year. I didn't even get into the people involved in transporting the cranberries and oranges to the right places, or the people who worked to make sure there was electricity and fuel available for farms, stores, trucks, machinery, and cars. Not to mention the people who built the buildings involved and the machines and the vehicles, the people who designed all of those things, and the people who figured some of these things out in the first place, like the person who learned that cranberries and oranges are tasty together, the person who started to grow oranges or cranberries in the first place, the person who came up with the idea for plastic dishes and figured out how to make plastic. There's the people who designed and built and sold the car my husband drove to get us to my aunt's house.

I could go on and on, trying to list all the people involved in one small side dish on the Thanksgiving table. I don't think I could work out the huge web of people and events that had to happen. What's even more astonishing is that you can do this with pretty much any object you see around you. Even your own body; think about how many people were involved in getting you to the point that you are reading these words on your computer screen or mobile device. I won't list them because the list would be as long or longer than the cranberry relish list, and you get the point. Try the exercise for yourself; it's kind of fun to see how many different angles you can come up with, and it gives you a whole new perspective,

I find this astonishing, and wonderful, and awe-inspiring, and humbling, and even overwhelming. We are all, at every moment, relying on each other. We live in this web of trust and interdependence all the time, without even thinking about it. We are connected, one to another, to people we will never meet and might not even like, but we need them all the same, and they need us too. That seems like a reason to give thanks!

See other posts in my Thanksgiving Week series:
Thanksgiving Week - Gratitude 1
Teachers - Gratitude 2
Baking With My Daughter - Gratitude 3

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Baking With My Daughter - Gratitude 3

For a long time I thought that I wasn't a particularly good cook. I muddled along in college and medical school, fixing rice and canned chili or grilled cheese and canned soup, but it wasn't something I really cared about or spent much time on. My husband, fortunately for me, is a fantastic cook. He is adventurous and creative and enjoys cooking so much that it has become a form of stress relief for him. So over the time we've been together I've essentially ceded the kitchen to him. We plan meals together most of the time but he does all the actual work.

Recently though, I've become interested in baking. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it has something to do with my daughter and being her mother. I have many, many memories of my mother baking. She still bakes at Christmas and we come home laden with cookies and treats that last us into January. I always loved hanging out with her in the kitchen, chatting and helping with the occasional stirring while she made cookies or cakes or brownies or some other wonderful treat. Somewhere deep inside, baking just feels like something a mother should be doing with her daughter.

So my daughter and I bake together. It is often one of our evening projects on the days my husband has a night out. We make scones, usually. I am crazy about scones and I found a really good recipe a few months back that lends itself to multiple variations. At least once a month I bring treats to work for our morning case conference meeting and so there is a ready and eager outlet for our baked goods. This evening we made sweet potato muffins so that I could bring a seasonal treat tomorrow. My daughter donned her apron and chef's cap and we went to town.

Sweet potato muffins are one of those favorite family recipes that my mother has been baking since I was a small girl myself. My mother makes them every Thanksgiving and they are generally devoured without leftovers. This evening I was so amazed watching my daughter help me measure the flour. She patiently scooped the flour into the measuring cup and then leveled it off, all on her own, before dumping it into the bowl. I asked her about that and she proudly told me "Daddy taught me that!" She cracked and beat eggs and mashed sweet potatoes and stirred and scooped batter into muffin tins. When we got to the actual baking she told me firmly "That's a mommy job" and stood well back from the oven. When the muffins were done and cooled we each tried one (quality control, you know - I can't bring bad muffins to work!) and decided we had done a good job.

Baking with my daughter is a lot more fun than baking by myself. I find that I am much more relaxed about the mess and much more engaged in the actual activity. As we bake we talk about ingredients, why muffins are quick breads, and who her friends are at school. I am thankful for the time we spend together, doing something we both enjoy. She told me this evening as we worked "I'm going to do this for my whole life!" and my thought was, me too.

See other posts in my Thanksgiving Week series here:
Thanksgiving Week - Gratitude 1
Teachers - Gratitude 2
Cranberry Relish and Interdependence - Gratitude 4

Monday, November 24, 2014

Teachers - Gratitude 2

I had the chance today to sign up for a teleconference with one of my favorite teachers, Rachel Naomi Remen. She is offering a free class in mid-December featuring stories on The Will to Live, and I am looking forward to hearing her read. Dr. Remen's books were introduced to me when I was a first year medical student by the volunteer who coordinated and led the complementary and alternative medicine group that I participated in. She gave each of us a copy of Kitchen Table Wisdom and I devoured it. I read it several times that busy first year becase it gave me courage and hope. It remains one of the most important, influential books that I have ever read in terms of how I approach patients and medicine. It reassured me that there is a place for me at medicine's table, that the spiritual and relational perspective that comes most naturally to me has its own voice, even now in the era of technology and randomized controlled trials and 10 minute visits. I have given the book in turn to many friends and students

In my life I have been so blessed by teachers. From grade school through high school through college through medical school through residency and even today, my life has been filled with people who have poured out their knowledge, wisdom and caring on me. I would not be the person I am today without my teachers. They taught me, and they taught me how to learn, and they taught me to love to learn, and that has made a tremendous difference to me and then in turn to others. One of my own deepest privileges is to take my own turn as a teacher, passing along the gifts that were given so freely to me as well as I am able. There is something sacred about taking part in this living, breathing lineage of human knowledge.

My daughter is just entering education at this point in her life, having officially started "real" preschool this year (as opposed to daycare preschool). I like her teacher very much; a veteran teacher of over twenty years with a fun but no nonsense approach. Her teacher is also from Texas which my husband and I appreciate a great deal, since our daughter was born in San Antonio and we still miss living there. I hope that my daughter will be so fortunate in her teachers all of her education, just as I have been.

I have friends who are full time teachers and I know how desperately hard they work and how deeply they care about their students. I know they don't get nearly the appreciation they deserve and that they often hear more complaints than compliments. So, today I am grateful for all teachers, everywhere. I am thankful to them for their dedication, concern, enthusiasm, knowledge, patience and persistence. None of us would be where we are, reading these words, without them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving Week - Gratitude 1

In church this morning one of the pastors called this week "a week of gratitude, a week of really remembering how to say thank you." I liked that idea. A whole week of saying "Thank You!" instead of a day of stressful travel, eating way too much, and not talking much at all about what we are thankful for because, honestly, it's too much and kind of embarrassing to get real that way. A week of saying Thank You instead of a week of build-up to the insanity of consumerism that marks this time of year.

The follow-up in church to the pastor's prayer was an "open mike" sermon in which people went to the front and spoke for a few minutes about something they were grateful for, which I have to admit felt good and honest and weird and a little too intimate all at the same time. I find myself worried about any visitors today and wanting to reassure you all that my church is actually pretty normal, that we don't usually do things like that. Which is true but says a lot more about me and where I need to grow than it does about my church.

I couldn't think of anything to say in church (and I did pray and ask if G-D had anything for me, and I hope if something had popped into my head I would have had the courage to get up and say it, but nothing came, so I was off the hook anyway) but then I thought I could write about gratitude this week. My first thought was I could write a short piece every day about something I am grateful for and post it. Then I remembered that I often bite off more than I can chew and decided not to promise anything. Better just to start with something and then see how the rest of the week turns out.

A few years ago a friend was leading a Sunday school class I was in and she gave us an index card and a challenge. "Write down what you are grateful for" she told us. I filled up the card pretty quickly and I still have it. It's good to look back on, particularly when I am grumpy. The items on my card are my "big gratitude" items, the things that have a huge influence on me that I often take for granted. Here they are:

My husband, who is patient, funny, smart, and much calmer and more level headed than I am. 

Our daughter, who is healthy, smart, loving, creative and curious. She has a bright, energetic and adventurous spirit which teaches me every day.

The rest of our family; parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins - both my husband and I grew up knowing ourselves loved, encouraged to learn, and blessed to always have enough. We are still surrounded by a net of love.

Good health, throughout my family.

A job that allows me to do good and serve others every day, and also pays our bills so that we have enough.

Freedom to worship, speak, write, travel, work, live, have friends as seems best to me without restriction by our government.

G-D's love and care, and his abiding presence with me in each day and circumstance. 

Those are my big items, the ones on my card, the ones I can think of off the top of my head when I focus my mind on gratitude.

See other posts in my Thanksgiving Week series here:
Teachers - Gratitude 2
Baking With My Daughter - Gratitude 3
Cranberry Relish and Interdependence - Gratitude 4