Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Joy of Giving

Being a parent has been one of the most profound influences on my personal understanding of G-D and how he might relate to us. One of the metaphors in the Bible that is used over and over is G-D as our parent and us as his children. I don't think that I really "got" that concept very well from the perspective of a child. However, becoming a parent myself gives me a whole new way of appreciating that metaphor and how G-D might want us to relate to him.

We took my daughter to Sesame Place this past weekend. We wanted to spend time with some very dear friends who also have little children, and we thought Sesame Place would be a great place to meet up. If you don’t know, Sesame Place is a theme park in the Sea World family of parks that features the characters on Sesame Street. It is aimed at little kids ages 2-7 or so, although I think the water park part could be fun for older kids. All of the rides are kid appropriate and it is a small park so it is not completely overwhelming. There are plenty of opportunities to meet the characters and get pictures taken.

 It was a great weekend, both at the park and with our friends, and while we were there I bought my daughter a toy. I had planned to buy her something, because I love buying her gifts and I wanted her to have something fun from the weekend. Her favorite Sesame Street character right now is Abby (who wears her pink and purple hair in pigtails and is a fairy godmother in training) and so I bought her a small Abby doll. My daughter was with me when we picked it out and she was so pleased and happy to get this toy.

My daughter adores her Abby doll. She has played with it constantly for the past 3 days, which is a really good attention span on a toy for a 2 and a half-year old child. She has pretended she has wings to fly with Abby. She has helped Abby fly “up up up” in the sky. She has given Abby some juice from her juice cup. She has been giving Abby shoulder rides they way we give her shoulder rides. She is so un-self-conscious at this age that her delight is clearly apparent. It’s absolutely enchanting to listen to.
It’s an amazing feeling, realizing I’ve given my daughter something that makes her so happy. It’s a physical feeling of lightness in my chest and a smile on my face and a bubbling sense of happiness in my own heart, listening to her narrate her play with her new dolly. I just feel really good that I was able to give her something that pleases her so much. Her reaction is exactly what I was hoping for when I bought the doll. I feel like I hit a homerun. 

And so then I was thinking about it and wondering if G-D doesn’t feel the same way about us? Does G-D grin and laugh with pleasure when he sees us enjoying the good gifts he has given? Does he feel joyful when he sees us happily using what he has provided? I don’t usually think of G-D that way. I tend to think more about using his gifts responsibly. My mental focus tends to be more on the questions of being a good steward. Am I being generous with my brothers and sisters, all of G-D’s beloved children? Am I using my talents wisely so that I am increasing what G-D has invested in me? Am I doing it right? I tend to think more in terms of economics, repaying and investing, rather than in terms of receiving and enjoying a gift.

And yet I know, as a parent, that what I want most is to see my daughter using and enjoying what I have given her. Even as a friend, what makes me happiest is when someone mentions that they use something I have given them all the time and they love it. I do think it is important to be responsible with what we are given. I do think that generosity pleases G-D and that wise stewardship is needed for all our different gifts. I think, however, that I could spend a little more time laughing and really enjoying what I have. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Good-bye CAM Walker!

I am back in shoes today! Today the orthopedic surgeon cleared me to walk without the CAM walker (a hard plastic walking cast I have been using for the past 6 weeks). She looked at my X-Rays and all the bones in my ankle are healing well. I expected that, because I have been completely pain free for the past 4 weeks, and I’ve been able to walk over a mile at a time in my walking cast. Physical therapy is going well and my range of motion and strength are improving. So I anticipated being released from the CAM walker but it feels great to have it really happen!

It has been 3 months to the day since I broke my ankle, close to 13 weeks since I have been able to wear shoes on both feet. It feels a little strange today, walking and having my ankle actually be able to move. I expect that I may be a little sore by the end of the day, since my ankle joint isn’t actually used to moving that much anymore. My physical therapist suggested wearing a lace-up brace for a few weeks for support and to control swelling, so I will be doing that. I can move up in physical therapy now and really focus on regaining my balance and strength. I've already done my first set of standing exercise. I expect my range of motion will also improve without the restriction of the CAM Walker. I still have a long way to go before I can run and jump but I am definitely on the right track.

My doctor was teasing me, saying that she’s never seen a doctor be so compliant as a patient. Which I know is true, since I have also had fellow physicians as patients, and it is often somewhat challenging. There is such as thing as knowing too much at times. I told her I had obtained a solid dose of common sense before going to medical school which still stands me in good stead. Really, I mostly was focused on healing completely and regaining good function. I had read too many stories on line of people not healing well from severe ankle fractures, and I didn’t want that to be me. I have to much to do in my life to deal with a painful, stiff ankle for years to come. I want to be able to play with my daughter, work, exercise and travel, and I want to be able to enjoy what I’m doing instead of thinking about a bum ankle.

The best advice I could give anyone with a trimalleolar fracture would be to follow your doctor's instructions. I understand the temptation to ignore them, but please don't. Respect the limitations faithfully, and once your start physical therapy do your exercises at least twice a day and more if possible. Trust that your orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist really do know what they are talking about and will steer you in the right direction. Focus on good nutrition; cut back on sweets and caffeine, avoid alcohol and tobacco and make sure you get plenty of protein. I also took calcium, vitamin D, multivitamin and omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Have your family and friends pray for you; I know that made a huge difference to me in my recovery. I would also encourage you to believe that you can get better. The internet is full of discouraging stories about severe ankle fractures, but I am writing to tell you that you absolutely can have a great outcome and a full recovery. I am most of the way there and I know I will get the rest of my functioning back with continued therapy. I'm standing here in shoes today to tell you that this injury will heal!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Toddlers Can Find the Playground Alone

Last night as I was lying in bed I suddenly couldn’t remember if we had fastened the chain lock on our front door. This has become a more urgent issue recently as our two and a half year old daughter has learned both how to turn the door handle and how to unlock the deadbolt on the door. Fortunately for us the chain lock is still well out of reach. Our daughter is also able to open her own room door and get out at night if she wakes up. I had a terrifying momentary vision of her waking up, opening the door to her room, wandering across the apartment to our front door, opening the front door and heading down the stairs to the playground at the back of our apartment. I got up and checked the door and to my relief discovered my husband had remembered to chain it shut before he went to bed.

The truly terrifying part is that I realized yesterday that my daughter would actually be perfectly capable of getting herself to the playground alone, and probably also back home again. Her grandmother was visiting yesterday evening and we took her out to play while my husband prepared dinner. My daughter led us out the front door and down the stairs to the playground. She led. We didn't have to show her. She was unhappy about coming back inside when playtime was over, so I coaxed her by asking her to help show her grandmother the long way back to our house, around the apartment building. So she did. She led again. She trotted ahead of us the entire half block, stopping occasionally so we could catch up, and pointing out the house of a neighborhood dog she particularly likes. She didn’t need any guidance or directions. She beat us home (within my sightline) and opened the front door of our apartment herself and then politely held it for us.

I have to admit, I was kind of stunned. Half pleased, half frightened. It always startles me when she shows how much she knows and understands about her world. I am so used to thinking of her as a baby but she really isn’t anymore. The odd thing is, I can remember myself fairly clearly at that age. I have distinct memories that I can date back to about 2 years and 8 months, when my younger sister was born. That’s about how old my daughter is now. I know I didn’t see myself as a baby at that time of my life.

I can remember going outside alone when I was three, and not just in our yard either but around the neighborhood to the playground down the street. I remember that I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by myself. I remember getting lost in the neighborhood once with another little girl, who was about a year older than I was. So I know, in some sense, that my daughter is old enough to be capable of navigating her way to and from the playground. We’ve certainly walked the route with her many, many times and she is a smart little girl. And yet her capability still unnerves me.

I’m not going to be letting her go to the playground without supervision the way I did at her age. The world just doesn’t feel safe enough for me to do that. I’m not even sure it’s legal, to be honest, but regardless it’s a rather horrifying idea that she could get out on her own and go play at this age. I’m still going to be checking to be sure our front door is secured before I fall asleep.

Yet I would like to nurture her skills and her independence. I want her to have the sense that she is capable of managing herself in this big world without mommy or daddy’s direct presence. I’m not sure what age is safe for her to play alone outside. Or perhaps it’s not a question of age but of accomplishments to master (knowing her name, address, phone number; being trustworthy about not crossing streets alone; and staying away from strangers seem like some basics) before she can take her own voyages to the playground. So while I’m locking the door I’ll be thinking about how and when to let her make some of her own adventures, without us.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World Book Night

The worst punishment I ever received as a child was being grounded from reading for three days. It only happened once, when I was in middle school, after I rode my sister’s skateboard (seated) down the length of the kitchen into a piece of furniture. Which, of course, broke when I crashed into it. No, I don’t know why I did it. Yes, it was very stupid. My mother decided to punish me by telling me I couldn’t read for three days, which was a terrible punishment indeed. It was during the summer and reading was how I spent all my time. I was not terribly interested in television and we didn’t live near any of my friends. I was utterly, totally and completely miserable. By the end I was reading cereal boxes (and then feeling terribly guilty) out of desperation.

I mention it because I read somewhere that today is “National Book Day.” I still love books and reading, so I really liked that idea. I looked it up online but I couldn’t find anything about a National Book Day in the United States (although we do have a National Book Festival in September). However, I found something even better than a National Book Day.

Today, April 23rd, is World Book Night! April 23rd is UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) International Day of the Book, chosen for the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s and Miguel de Cervantes’ death on April 23rd 1616 and for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd 1564, as well as the death of William Wordsworth on April 23rd 1850. I am not sure why you would celebrate books on the anniversary of the death of great literary figures or why April 23rd is apparently so dangerous. Still, I think it’s wonderful to celebrate books and writers! The first World Book Night celebration took place in 2011 in the U.K. and Ireland. This is different than World Book Day, which occurs in March in the U.K. and focuses on children. The stated goal of World Book Night is to spread the love of reading to adults in a person-to-person, celebratory way.

This is how the project works. Each year an independent panel of librarians and booksellers chooses a list of 20 books. The book choices focus on books for adults that are accessible, high quality, and fun. The authors and publishers waive their charges; all the books are special free editions. Then volunteers apply to be book givers. They have to state where and to whom they intend to give the books and then state why they want to give books away. Book givers are chosen based on their ability to reach people who are light readers or non-readers with these books. Each book giver gives away 20 copies of one particular book, one that they themselves have read and loved so that they can personally recommend it. In 2012, the first year the United States participated, over 80,000 volunteers gave away over 2.5 million books according to the World Book Night website. That’s amazing. This year the U.K., Ireland, the U.S. and Germany are participating.

I loved the statement on the World Book Night website about why what they do is important, so I am including the link here. http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/about-us/what-we-do/why-is-world-book-night-important. Check out their website, which also has the book list for this year. Their bottom line statement is that books are fun and can be life-changing. I agree! I am signing up for their newsletter and will apply to be a book giver next year. I can think of quite a few places I could go to give away books, and it sounds like fun!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Snuggle Time

Every evening my husband and I put our two and a half year old daughter to bed. We’ve developed a complicated ritual as a family, a ritual of potty and tooth brushing and pajamas, of story and prayer and song. The ritual changes and grows over time as my daughter does, adapting to her new capability and independence. But the end is always the same. At the end of the ritual my husband gently hugs and kisses our baby girl and helps her turn out the light. Then he hands her back to me, wrapped in a hand knit blanket, and she and I have our snuggle time in the rocking chair. We snuggle for the first two songs on her lullaby C.D. and then I tuck her in with hugs and kisses before leaving the room for the night.

This snuggle time is our free time together. Sometimes we sing together. More often we will talk. She will ask questions and I will do my best to answer them. We’ve already had some theological conversations about God being everywhere. Sometimes I will ask questions and she will tell me about the events in her day. At other times she will talk about something that has troubled her and I will do my best to offer soothing and guidance. Most of the time though, we tell stories. She will say to me “Tell a story, Mommy!” and I will make up some adventures with a little girl who happens to share my daughter’s name. This little girl is brave, smart, kind, strong and beautiful and she has many pretend friends who share exciting adventures with her. Along the way these friends, with the help of the little girl, also learn to control their tempers, apologize, share toys, calm down and go to bed on time. I think that in her mind she is the little girl, which is what I hoped would happen. What she doesn’t know is that in my mind she is all of the characters, learning to manage herself in this beautiful, frustrating, complicated world.

I treasure this quiet time with my daughter, however it unfolds. I am gone for most of the day each day, taking the role of the main breadwinner in the family while my husband stays home with our daughter. I worry sometimes that I am absent too much, too often, and for too long. My daughter tells me she misses me sometimes, and I worry that I am not there for her enough. Our snuggle time is my insurance policy, my guarantee that she and I will have time to nurture the love between us. I know as she grows up that we will struggle with each other. She has already shown us the stubborn strong will that characterizes both her parents. So I am banking on this quiet time together, each night another tiny deposit into the account of love and connection, to buffer us through the storms of growing up.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Arguments for Gun Control

A day after the United States Senate’s cowardly failure to pass a proposal expanding background checks on gun sales, a proposal that 90% of Americans support, two gunmen engaged in a shootout with police in Watertown, MA. The two men are suspects in Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, which left three people dead and over one hundred injured. Their gun battle with police began with the fatal shooting of a university police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involved a robbery and a carjacking, and left another policeman injured. One of the two gunmen was fatally wounded; the other is currently at large.  

The timing, in my mind, could not be more bitterly ironic. Could it be any clearer that we need stronger gun control? Someone recently quoted the aphorism “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” at me. I was not in a situation in which it would have been appropriate to respond to her statement at the time. What I would say, however, is that some types of guns make it terribly, devastatingly easy for people to kill large numbers of people very rapidly and without much thought. And there are people who, through either illness or their past behavior, have given evidence that they should not be trusted with the responsibility of owning and using a gun.

 I can understand the attraction of guns. I learned through the military how to safely clean and shoot a gun in target practice, and that was fun once I got over being frightened. I respect people who hunt, particularly those who hunt for food. I can appreciate the desire to have a handgun at home for protection; I don’t want one myself, but I can understand the fear that motivates this desire. However we aren’t talking about banning all guns. The gun control conversation is about background checks and banning assault weapons. And I am confused about why there is so much controversy about what seem like very simple, reasonable restrictions.  

Background checks seem very reasonable to me. I ask for background checks on the people who care for my child. Heck, I ask for background checks on the people who care for my pets. It seems to me that past criminal activity would be an obvious reason to prohibit someone from owning a gun. And there are certainly precedents on prohibiting certain kinds of behavior based on a history of illness (military service, airline pilots, driving, to name a few) for the sake of safety of others. While it might seem unfair, you could just as easily say it is unfair that I will never be an NBA player because I was born short and female or that I can’t be a fighter pilot because my vision is too poor. All of us are born with characteristics that limit us in certain situations. It’s not a question of fair or unfair, it’s a question of what a person is capable of managing without danger to themselves or others. 

 The argument that I, or the government as my designated representative, may not limit the rights of others doesn’t seem legitimate either. I was taught in middle school civics that my rights stop where someone else’s rights begin. And so my “rights” are limited on a daily basis. I limit the speed of my driving. I obey stop signs and traffic signs. I wait in line in stores and I work so that I have money to purchase things. Civilized society depends on all of us being willing to constrain or accept constraints on our behavior for the well-being of the whole. So I am perfectly willing to say that your “right” to unrestricted ownership of any type of gun can be restricted in favor of my right to send my child to school without fear of her being murdered by an assault weapon.  

I have heard a few arguments by people saying they need to have access to assault weapons because the government does. They feel they need to protect themselves against our government, by force if needed. To which statement, I’m sorry, but I just have to laugh. I’m sorry, but I’ve been in the military. The military is not afraid of you or your militia, armed with an assault rifle or not. Trust me; you are not a threat to them. The only ways to keep our government in check are the way that were designed into our constitution: election of representatives who will consider the common good above their own self-interest, preservation of three separate branches of government so power is distributed among multiple people, maintenance of a media free of government control and influence that conveys accurate information to the public, and participation of an informed, educated citizenry in elections and decision making. 

 Is gun control the only or complete answer to the violence in our society? No, I don’t think so. I think we need to re-learn how to speak with respect to those we disagree with. I think we need to remember to speak with kindness and civility to people who seem different, who may frighten us. We need to remember the commandment “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” found in Matthew Ch 6:27-28, which is a direct command for 73% of Americans who self-identify as Christians and pretty good advice for the remaining 27%. We need to develop an attitude of openness and curiosity towards things that seem different or challenging instead of relying on an instinctive fight/flight/freeze response. But in the meantime, while we are learning these things, while we are re-forming ourselves into a civilized society, let’s make it harder for the violent and uncivil among us to act out their rage and confusion on innocent people. Let’s enact some gun control, shall we?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Essays on Learning to Draw

I originally wrote these essay about a week apart and published them on another site, while I was stuck on the couch with my severely fractured ankle (trimalleolar fracture, which required surgery). I had decided to spend part of my recover time learning to draw, since it is a skill I covet in others. I did make some progress over the weeks but then as I healed, returned to work, and got up on my feet again I lost steam on the project. That does seem to be how my life goes; always more things to do than time to do them in. I decided these essays didn't fit well on the original publication site and so I decided to republish them here, along with the accompanying art work. Rereading them, I do feel inspired to get the textbook and sketchbook back out and start working again. It really is fun. I particularly like my koala sketch. If I do follow through I will publish it here to share it. Now, if I can just find some time without breaking any bones.

Feeding My Inner Artist (originally published 2/3/2013) 

I have always wanted to be able to draw. I remember being a child, in second grade or so, and having the art teacher come in once a week. And I loved these lessons, but around this time I became aware that I wasn’t good at drawing. I could follow instructions that the teacher gave me, but nothing came out the way I wanted it to look. My pictures didn’t look like those of my more talented classmates. They weren’t what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye. And I didn’t know how to fix it. Over the years, I heard all the same advice – draw what you see. Draw the space around the object. But somehow it never quite worked for me. My pictures were lopsided, askew, unrealistic and, in my mind, ugly. Eventually I gave up. I learned to excel in English and Math and Science and I stopped taking classes in art. But the craving has always been there, suppressed, but popping out in unexpected ways here and there.

In college, during the final semester of my senior year, I decided to take a class in drawing. I had completed all my graduation requirements, I had been accepted to medical school, and I decided to do something just for fun. The class was based on the book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards and the premise of the book is that drawing is a skill anyone can learn. The challenge is to turn off the left hemisphere of the brain, with its analysis and labels, and be guided by the right hemisphere, which is better at visual perception. There were a number of exercises designed to help you manage this shift and to my surprise I did actually improve. I wasn’t exactly good at drawing, but I was much better. But then I graduated, and started medical school, and I stopped practicing. And the skill I had learned gradually faded, until I was back to stick figures and lollipop trees.  

My inner artist keeps peeking out though. Once while on vacation visiting my sister she took me with her to her pottery class, and tried to teach me to throw a clay pot on a wheel. I didn’t manage it, of course, but it was wonderful fun. My mother-in-law and a friend from church together taught me to knit, and for a long time this has satisfied my creative longings. Working with soft, colorful yarn to build new objects stitch by stitch is intriguing. My strong left-brain capabilities are a huge bonus in this endeavor, since reading and following a pattern comes very easily. I started with simpler two-dimensional objects like scarves, shawls and blankets and over time I’ve shifted into more intricate creations like toys or multicolored Christmas ornaments. I love knitting, but I also recognize I am always following someone else’s patterns. I am creating in the sense of making the object, but I am not designing. It isn’t coming out of my imagination, and the artist inside me is still aching and unsatisfied.

I still long to be able to draw. This morning my daughter made a comment about “pumpkining a cat” (she was waving her pumpkin flashlight at our cat) and I had this image of a “pumpkin cat” – a pumpkin with feline ears, eyes, whiskers and a tail – that I would dearly love to bring to life. I live my life in a logical, analytical world. As a doctor I am focused on calm reason, on evidence, seriousness and science. I crave a space to be intuitive, artistic, whimsical, and emotional.

So I am going to do it. I am going to learn to draw. I purchased the book “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler, which has thirty step-by-step lessons in drawing realistic objects. I downloaded a powerful drawing and painting program onto my tablet so that I can work there and always have my tools with me. I’m going to post the work I am doing from time to time, so that I stay accountable to myself in doing this. It is amazing to draw something and have it look the way I intended it to look. So far it’s only simple spheres, but it’s exciting. It feels full of promise – and full of keeping a promise to myself.

Mastering The Tools (originally published 2/9/2013)

I’ve continued to work on my goal of learning to draw over the past week. The book I am working from suggests doing an exercise a day. I’ve modified that somewhat; I am drawing every day but I am spending more than one day per exercise. I am trying to really master this and repetition generally helps me build skills.

This book is different from the approach I learned previously, in my college drawing class. Instead of focusing on how we see things and then drawing what is seen, this book is teaching principles. So far we have covered the ideas of placement, shading, overlap, size and reference directions to make spheres and boxes that look three dimensional on the page. I’m only on lesson 5 or so and it’s a lot of fun. In some ways I think this book appeals to my left brained self, because it is teaching clear rules and giving simple exercises that can be followed step-by-step. I’ll be interested to see if by the end of the book I am able to translate those rules into drawing things I see around me or things that I imagine, which is my ultimate goal.

One place I find myself struggling is with my choice of tools. I decided to work in an electronic sketchpad on my Kindle Fire instead of with plain paper and pencil. I made that choice for several reasons. One is that I generally always have the Kindle with me, so using it as a sketchpad saves me from having to carry around another object. As someone who chronically struggles with an overfull purse, that is a blessing. I also want to be able to use my drawings easily on hubpages, which means that generating them digitally saves me a step of scanning them. I can just email the file as a JPEG from the application. I have been using two different applications so far, along with the Amazon version of a stylus for touchscreen. One is “Drawing Pad” by Darren Murtha and the other is “Sketchbook Pro” by Autodesk Inc. They are both good applications for the Kindle. “Drawing Pad” is a little easier to use. The design is simpler and more intuitive and I feel like it is easier to place lines where I want them. “Sketchbook Pro” is more sophisticated, with many more features and options and works better for shading objects. However it feels harder to use in terms of placing lines where I want them. There is also an annoying radial wheel feature that I can’t figure out how to turn off completely. Which is probably user error, but it gets in the way of what I am trying to work on since it is located bottom center of my work space. I think the biggest issue with both is that I need more practice. The stylus is rounded and I need to develop a better “feel” for it and for where my lines will end up when I am working.

There are electronic sketchpads that you can buy for your computer. The reviews indicate that they behave more like pen and paper sketchpads. However they are somewhat expensive (at least in contrast to the price of an app for a device I already own) and would still be an additional device to carry around. So for now, I think I will continue to work on mastering the tools I have in addition to mastering the skills I want. They say practice makes perfect, after all. This is something I enjoy practicing.

Ongoing Adventures in Learning to Draw: Koalas and Roses (originally published 2/16/2013)

I’ve continued this week on my journey towards learning to draw. This week’s lessons contained instructions for drawing koalas and roses. I found myself pretty intimidated before I got started, since the drawings were significantly more realistic looking than the cubes and spheres of the first lessons. It took me a day or two of reading the lessons before I actually had the courage to give it a try. However once I got started I was pleasantly surprised that I could manage to follow these lessons as well. I’m glad I didn’t give up. I enjoyed creating something that I think is pretty, since the desire to create beautiful things is part of my original impetus to learn to draw.
It’s interesting to me that I would be so anxious about something that is a self-appointed task. I do want to learn to draw well and it is a process that means something to me. But no one else is going to judge my work. I know that I am posting it publicly here, but I trust that anyone kind enough to read my words will not harshly criticize the efforts of a beginner. No money rides on my successful completion of these lessons. My job doesn’t depend on it, my family doesn’t require me to do it, and my friends will still love me even if I don’t manage to draw well. So it’s strange to me that I would have been so nervous. Ghosts of lingering frustrating efforts, perhaps. I’m glad I faced them and exorcised them.
I have realized over the past few weeks that part of drawing is slowing down. As I learn to carefully draw my lines and shade the pictures to create the illusion of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page, one of the most helpful things is to go slowly. The work comes out better when I take my time to get the angles right, to erase and try again when it looks wrong. Working on my kindle it’s not easy to blend or smudge the lines so I have to shade carefully, in gradual steps. Taking several extra minutes at the end to clean up lines and erase stray marks makes a big difference to the overall quality of the finished drawing. Perhaps part of the difficulty I have experienced in the past is being in too much of a hurry, wanting to arrive at the destination without taking the journey first.
This past week I’ve worked mostly with the Sketchbook Pro application from autodesk. I found the Drawing Pad application by Darren Murtha easier to use but it doesn’t have the same range of tools available. With the Sketchbook Pro application I have to work harder to get the lines placed where I mean for them to go, but perhaps that’s good practice for me anyway. I did learn this week how to zoom in on my picture while I’m working, which has been very helpful. I’m looking forward to continuing through the rest of the book, although I suspect it will take me much more than the 30 days advertised in the title. It looks like houses are coming up in the next lessons and I think that will be fun.

Monday, April 15, 2013


I realize that I am truly a self-centered person. I hesitated to write this or publish it today, but I decided that it perhaps needs to be said. The Boston Marathon was today and someone, no one knows who, planted bombs near the finish line in a spectator area. Two of them went off around 3pm and according to the news so far 3 people are dead over 90 more injured, many severely. I was reading the news stories that talked about amputations. No one has claimed responsibility; why this happened is a mystery.

I first learned about it when my boss mentioned it to me. Then I looked it up and saw it on the news. But I will confess: I was still thinking more about myself, what I needed to do that afternoon, what I needed to take care of before going home, about all the stuff happening in my life. I called my sister on the way home from work but I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that she lived in Boston. I was planning to tell her about some different things going on in my life. Fortunately her phone was busy. I called my Mom next and left a message. When she called me back she told me she had been talking to my sister and it dawned on me, all of a sudden, that I was being a thoughtless idiot. We talked about the horrific event. When I got home I texted my sister and emailed my friends in Boston, who are thankfully all okay. My sister called me and we talked about the explosions and the fact that two of her colleagues are still not accounted for. I said a prayer for her colleagues and their families and also for the victims and their loved ones. And I thought about the fact that in America bombs and mass shootings are becoming more common, just as they are in the rest of the world. It’s not so safe here as it used to be.

I do feel bad, truly. I feel confused, and helpless, and angry, and frightened, and sad. In my mind running is supposed to be a safe and happy thing. As a runner myself I would love to run Boston someday, although I will never be fast enough to qualify and would have to run for a charity. Running is about testing yourself, about a community of dedicated people who support each other. It is about good physical and mental health. It is about raising money for charities. It isn’t political. It isn’t about hurting anyone. Why would someone attack a race? Why would someone attack people who were there to cheer on other people achieving a dream? Don’t we need more people achieving dreams and more people cheering for them?

Despite feeling bad I’m still focused on all my own nonsense – work and wanting to lose weight and having projects to work on and hopes and plans for the future. I am still paying more attention to those things than to the tragedy in Boston. I don’t think I used to be this way, but maybe I always was and now I just realize it. I don't think it's wrong to have hopes and plans, or to have things in your life that you focus on. I'm just noticing how much those things, my own personal desires, wishes and concerns, crowd out everything and everyone else. I’m re-reading the book “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller. It’s subtitle is “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality” and it’s a book I read many years ago but was thinking about recently again. One of his themes in the book is that self-absorption is our “original sin.” It’s the sin that leads into all the others because on a fundamental level it says “I care about me, first and foremost. I care about my safety, comfort, pleasure and well-being. And I will do anything to secure these things. Don’t get in my way.”

I do think self-absorption is a sin. You can see how this attitude of self-absorption easily and rapidly becomes greed, hate, envy, apathy, lust, and pride in our actions. It’s a sin I think we all commit, one that we are born to commit. We have to be taught to care about others. We have the biology for altruism, but it doesn’t come naturally. Empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice and kindness have to be demonstrated, experienced and learned. Then they have to be practiced regularly. I’m not sure they ever come entirely naturally. I don’t know how to cure myself of self-absorption. Christianity says I can’t, that only G-D can heal my heart. I tend to believe this, since I’ve tried and failed many times at making myself be a less self-centered person.

So tonight I’m praying for myself, too, and for all of us. Because whoever planted those bombs, for whatever insane reason, was absorbed in themselves. What they wanted to see happen or a wrong they felt had been done to them, the reason doesn't matter. What matters is that in their self-absorption they killed 3 people and severely wounded 90 others. In their self-absorption they ignored the fact that their victims would be other people, people who would not deserve to be hurt, people who have families and dreams and rights. So I'm praying that my heart would be healed of this sin of self-absorption. That collectively, we would all be healed of our self-absorption. I'm praying that we can live in a safe and beautiful place once more where people can run with joy, in freedom from fear.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Church Building Campaign

My church is raising money to renovate the church building. The plans for the new building are posted on one of the walls of the church, and I have to admit it looks amazing. The new front of the church is beautiful in the pictures. The new sanctuary will be huge. There will be more classroom space and parking, which has been needed for a while. There is a lot of excitement about the project, which is good because it will take a lot to get it done. The price tag is huge, too. Many millions of dollars are needed to create this new space.

I’m not actually sure how I feel about the whole project. As part of the campaign to raise the money we are doing a church wide study on generosity. There is a book everyone is reading and the pastor is giving a sermon series. There are speakers regularly up in front of the church talking about how they are sacrificing so they can give extra money to the church. And there are plans for the team leading the campaign to visit with every family from the church in person to discuss the project and what that family can give to it, which just feels awkward and intrusive to me, no matter what anyone says about it. So campaign really feels like the right word; it feels like a military campaign. All the avenues of attack are mapped out in order to obtain as many resources as possible.

I have to admit, I feel a little uncomfortable with all of this. It’s hard to talk about, because several people from my Sunday School are involved with the project. I really like my Sunday School class, and I want to support them. One of them, a person who is one of the kindest, warmest, most genuine people I know, talked about an incident last Sunday related to the campaign. She was trying to pass out the books we are reading and a fellow church member told her “no thanks, I’ve already got the propaganda.” I know this hurt my friend’s feelings, because I know to her this isn’t propaganda. I tried to offer the thought that whoever made the comment might have been trying to say – hey, I feel pressured, please back off – in a way that was less direct and intense, that they didn't mean to be rude, and that we need to listen to and respect those kinds of communications even if we don’t agree. I’m not sure that helped very much. Another woman in the class commented that perhaps the people who are uncomfortable with the campaign are uncomfortable because they know they aren’t giving enough.

I don’t know if that’s so. I’m still thinking about it in relationship to myself, since I do feel uncomfortable with the project. I am giving to the building campaign, although not as much as I could give, or as much as the church wants me to give. I am giving up something that I want in order to give, because our charitable donations were already budgeted out for the year and I didn’t want to back off on any of those commitments. But I could give up more and give more to the project, undoubtedly. I just don’t want to. I could be self-deceiving in this, but I don’t think it’s about the money or a lack of generosity. I think I’m uncertain about the project itself and the enormous price tag attached. If the church were saying “let’s spend millions to expand our food pantry” or “let’s spend millions to establish a homeless shelter with associated mental health services” I think I could more readily get behind that, and I would be motivated to give more.

Building a huge, expensive, fancy looking building feels worldly. It feels like self-aggrandizement and seeking power. It feels like we are looking at the wrong things. I know not everyone feels that way. I know that the church leadership has prayed over this project and that they feel called to do this by G-D. I know they want to make more space in the sanctuary so more people can attend. I know they want a bigger space because some of the youth ministries are meeting across the street in another building, and because there are no more rooms for Sunday School classes. I don’t quite understand this, because I see rooms that appear empty and unused on Sunday mornings. But I can admit that I don’t have the perspective of the whole church and perhaps I’m wrong and those spaces are used and we’re just truly, honestly, genuinely out of room. I know part of the huge price tag is the location of the church, and the fact that the church is choosing to remain in a crowded, urban area where the people it serves actually are, instead of moving to a cheaper suburban area. I know the church does a great deal of service and that with more people attending and more space we can do more. And I hope that we will and that G-D will multiply and use our gifts to further his vision for the world.

Perhaps I just feel anxious about the whole growth perspective. My church before this was tiny; the entire church could probably fit in the sanctuary of the church I attend now (not just the people – the entire building). We were okay with that. We were okay with being a small, intimate church. We were friendly and welcoming and caring. We focused on service projects and fellowship. We didn’t worry too much about attracting new members. We loved them when they came but we never worried about it. And I loved my old church. I loved the people in it. I miss it, and them, terribly. It is still one of the hardest, saddest losses for me in moving a year and a half ago.

So perhaps I just am having trouble adjusting to this new church, with its own perspective and way of doing things. Perhaps I am having difficulty loving this new church for itself. I am trying, and I hope my friends, if they read this, will understand that and know that I do appreciate them and the welcome they have given us here. That I love them too and that I know I will grow into feeling at home in this church. That I am giving, and trying to participate in the church’s vision, and praying that this church will be G-D’s instrument. That I’m just slow when it comes to mastering transitions in my life. I hope they will understand that if I am uncomfortable it’s not that I don’t care, or don’t want to give. It’s that I care a great deal about having a church to belong to that shows me good ways to participate in G-D’s mission. I care tremendously about having a place where growing as a disciple is about love, service, generosity to each other and a broken world.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Freedom from Fear

I was watching TV the other day and a very odd commercial came on. A man was standing in a house, wrapped in duct tape and holding some pipes. He announced that he was a water heater and that his safety valve could get stuck. Then the commercial showed him rocketing out of the top of the roof to the sound of a loud explosion. A voiceover suggested that this could happen to you, and that your insurance may not cover the cost, which could lead to an explosion in your bank account as well. Then the name of the insurance company sponsoring the commercial flashed up on the screen and encouraged you to check on your own insurance coverage.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous for a few minutes. I had never considered the possibility my water heater could explode. Then I got a hold of myself. Can this happen? Yes, I looked it up and it appears that this could certainly happen. However it seems like something that can be averted with proper inspection and maintenance of your water heater. So it’s probably not something to panic about. And I don’t think the point of the commercial was to educate consumers about getting their water heaters inspected on a routine basis. Rather, the point of the commercial was to generate fear so that viewers would think about switching their insurance.

We live in a fear driven society in many ways. When I listen to the news I hear fear of illness, fear of poverty, fear of other countries, fear of environmental catastophe and other fears as major themes. Our commercials and TV shows often play to these fears or even try to increase them to coerce us into buying products that purport to keep us safe. Even our religions cater to fear in many ways. In Sunday School this week a classmate made a comment that Christians should get their act together and fall in line together, so that we can outcompete other religions. When I objected to this as contrary to the pathway of suffering service that was shown to us my classmate voice the concern that Christians could be wiped out, that in a generation we could be gone. This was clearly a very real and present fear to my classmate and I think probably to others in the room as well.

Fear is a dangerous emotion. It drives anger and violence and greed, as we view each other as competitors for our very survival. It leads us to see difference as dangerous instead of interesting. Fear wipes out clear thinking and throws us into a fight-flight-freeze mode in which we react instead of respond. It takes away our ability to be curious, open and creative. And fear causes us to suffer in little ways; in our lives and relationships we hesitate to make changes out of fear. We fear the unknown, fear change, and fear the future and so we try to play it safe. We build security even when the cost is our own happiness. I know, because I do it too. The world is a scary place, and I have seen a lot of bad things happen. I have many fears.

Last week I was trying to explain Easter to my daughter. This is hard, because we haven’t talked about the concept of death yet. It’s not a subject I’m eager to introduce. I know it will come up eventually and we’ll have to deal with it then, but I don’t want to give her things to be frightened about. So Easter is a tough one, since resurrection doesn’t make sense without understanding death. The best I could come up with on the fly is that Easter is a holiday where we celebrate G-D freeing us from fear.

The more I think about it though, the more I think that maybe that was truer and more important than I realized at the time. Easter is the Christian’s celebration of the defeat of death and sin. It is the assurance of both G-D’s love for us and G-D’s victory over evil. As such, Easter truly is a celebration of freedom from fear and an invitation. The invitation is to let go of fear and its grip on your life and to live the abundant life G-D has planned for you. It’s an invitation to live fully in trust and love and dependence on G-D to care for you and everything you love.

I’ll be honest. I can’t live that yet. I can see it, shining in my mind’s eye, and I know I’d like to get there. But I can’t touch it yet. I can’t reach that far or trust that much. I can only try, tiny step by tiny step, to confront my fear and ask for courage to love and trust more fully. I can practice mindfulness, and so become more open to and honest with myself about my fears. I can learn to confess and acknowledge when I am allowing fear to rule me, even when I don’t yet have the ability to make a different choice, knowing that with G-D’s grace someday I will be free of fear.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spontaneous Road Trip

 The conversation in the car pulling out of the church prking lot yesterday afternoon went something like this:

“Where do you want to drive when she falls asleep?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know, somewhere different?” I replied.

Over the past few months our toddler has developed a pattern of falling asleep in the car. If we are driving for more than about 15 minutes around midday she’s pretty much guaranteed to fall asleep in the car on us. We’ve learned that if we stop then she’ll wake up. There is absolutely no transferring her still asleep out of the car and into her bed. What’s worse, she won’t go back to sleep again until bedtime, which means she’ll be cranky and out of sorts for the rest of the day. On the other hand, if we keep driving she’ll sleep for an hour or so and wake up relatively well rested and cheerful. So we’ve gotten into the habit of planning to drive for an hour or so on our way home from church. It’s not our first choice of ways to spend the afternoon and we feel guilty about wasting the diesel but it’s a compromise that keeps us feeling relatively sane as parents. At least we can have some good conversations along the way. It gets tedious though, driving the same routes over and over. So yesterday we wanted to drive somewhere new.

“Let’s go west.” I said. West of us is mountains and forests and farmland and hopefully minimal traffic.

“Okay,” said my husband, easy-going soul that he is.

He suggested Skyline Drive, a scenic route through the mountains about 90 minutes away. I pointed out that since it is still early in what has been a cold spring the scenic route would probably be less than scenic. So we decided to head to Charlottesville instead. Charlottesville is where we lived when we first got married, but we hadn’t been back there to visit in over five years.

So off we headed, toddler in tow. As predicted she napped happily in the backseat for an hour. The road was beautiful, with rolling hills, cows and sheep, and banks of daffodils blooming along the median strip and roadsides. We made an extended lunch stop and arrived in Charlottesville around 5pm. My husband and I had a great time driving through town playing the “I remember that!” and “This used to be something else!” game. Our old apartment building is still there, although now under a different name. We parked downtown and walked around the downtown mall, which had been a favorite haunt. It was the same but different; some favorite stores were still there but others had been replaced, the old signs dimly visible behind the new ones. We listened to the street musicians and our toddler danced to the guitar and fiddle. We got frozen yogurt to share. And then we headed home. We told stories and my daughter sang songs to us in the car. It was a great day.

There’s something freeing and delightful about a spontaneous road trip, about saying, “let’s go” and just going. No work got done yesterday. No chores, no laundry, no preparations for the workweek ahead were accomplished. It was a completely non-industrious day of wandering where we pleased. We don’t do many unplanned things, especially since having a child. Babies and small children are wonderful in many ways, but they tend to require a lot of baggage and structure, which doesn’t lend itself well to adventure. It’s nice now, having an older toddler who can tag along for some fun every once in a while.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Favorite Catalogue

There is one catalogue that arrives each month that I genuinely look forward to seeing. I actually watch for it in the mail and have a little happy feeling when I see it’s arrived. It’s the catalogue from KnitPicks, an online retailer. They sell yarn, knitting needles, crochet hooks, patterns, books and notions. Notions are little items like yarn needles, stitch markers, scissors and row counters that make projects a little bit easier. I always read through the entire catalogue cover to cover, going through each page slowly in order to savor it. I look at the new colors in the yarns. I dream about buying the entire collection of one yarn line, which would about 120 different colors. It would cost about $400, and what on earth would I make with it and where would I put the yarn in the meantime? So it remains a daydream, but an enjoyable one.

I think what I like about the catalogue is the sense of possibility it gives me. Here are all these beautiful yarns and lovely projects, hundreds of things to make and enjoy, all photographed in one place. They have toys and hats and socks and sweaters and dishcloths and more; a whole life’s worth of crafts to contemplate. I won’t make most of them, of course. I love to knit but I’m not a particularly fast knitter. Baby blankets usually take me four to six weeks of steady knitting. Toys, depending on their complexity, take somewhat less, maybe three to four weeks. The two sweaters I’ve made for myself each took me about three months of knitting, although I took breaks and made other projects in between because frankly sweaters are kind of boring to me and don’t seem to turn out well. So I have to think carefully about the projects I take on and most of the projects in the catalogue just won’t ever make my list. But I love the potential, just like I love pens and notebooks. All the wonderful things that could be created are there in those raw materials. And once in a while I do find a wonderful project that I end up making. My daughter’s baby blanket, for example, was made from a pattern from KnitPicks.

I have a few conflicted feelings about buying yarn and supplies from an online retailer. I love the items they offer and their prices are really good. However, there is an ethos in knitting which says “support your local yarn store!” Which means that whenever possible, purchase from them so they stay in business. It’s something like avoiding big box stores and shopping at smaller, locally based retailers instead. Unfortunately for me, my closest local yarn store is about 30 minutes away through significantly bad traffic. Its hours aren’t very convenient for a working mother. And to be honest, I don’t really care for the yarn selection it offers. The owners focus heavily on specialty and locally produced yarns. I can appreciate the concept but it’s been hard to find yarn suitable for kid’s projects when I’ve tried to shop there, and these days most of my knitting is for children. I need sturdy, washable yarn in a range of colors that lends itself to toys, blankets, hats and sweaters for small people. So in the end, my conflicted feelings are only a very few. I am happy to have a great, reliable source for all my creativity supplies. And I get a wonderful catalogue each month as a bonus.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ten Days Without Purchases

About two weeks ago I reflected on my own desire to own things and committed to not buying things for a week. My husband and I actually managed to go about 10 days without buying anything except groceries. I think it was easier for him than it was for me, to be honest. Of the two of us, I am more interested in things: buying them, owning them, collecting them, caring for them. I found myself wanting quite a few things during that 10 day time period, although it also felt freeing in a way to just tell myself "no, you can't buy that." I made a list of the things I thought about buying so that I could reflect on it at the end of the experiment.

New Phone – wanting a new phone was what started this experiment for me. I wanted a new phone even though my current one works perfectly well and I honestly couldn’t see an advantage to upgrading. Even the salesperson couldn’t give me a solid reason to spend the $200. But somehow I still found myself wanting a new phone periodically during the week. Overall, I’m glad I didn’t purchase this but I think it's interesting how I can continue to want something that I know will not actually be rewarding for me.

New Tablecloth –I thought about buying a new tablecloth prior to a holiday meal we were hosting for a large group of family and friends. We already have a tablecloth that serves perfectly well and has for the past 13 years. I didn’t buy a new one before the dinner. However we discovered when setting the table that the old tablecloth now has a small hole in it. We were able to arrange things to cover it but now I will probably go ahead and buy a new one, at least before the next holiday.

DVD Cleaning Kit – This has been on my list for a while, ever since my toddler learned to open DVD cases with her sticky fingers. We’ve taught her not to do it (I hope, anyway, I haven’t caught her at it in a while…) but the damage was still done. I actually did end up buying this after the 10 days were done and using it to repair a few of our favorites.

Soap Dish – My husband actually wanted this one, for the hallway bathroom.  Sometimes our daughter wants to use bar soap when washing her hands, and the soap bar gets sticky and icky on the side of the sink. We ended up buying it.

New Towels – I think I really do want these, since our current towels are pretty faded and worn. I haven’t bought them yet because I haven’t found a complete set in the sizes I want in colors I like when I’ve gone looking. So I probably will end up buying these but maybe not anytime soon. The old towels are still serviceable even though they are ugly.

Recumbent Exercise Bike – I wanted this because my orthopedic surgeon said it might be a useful way to work on ankle range of motion. I held off because we live in an apartment and have limited room for large items. I’m glad I waited because a week later, after our experiment was done, my physical therapist suggested that a pedal exerciser would work just as well and be more compact and less expensive. I did end up buying one of those (for about 1/5 the price of a bike) and he was right. It works well and stores nicely in a closet.

DSM-5 – This is the new diagnostic manual for my profession (psychiatry), which will be released in May. I went ahead and pre-ordered it (from Amazon, since they beat the price my professional organization offered by 17 dollars and threw in free shipping) and it will ship when it’s available. This is a book I know I will need to have at work, particularly since my job involves a teaching component.

Wallet for my husband – I didn’t buy this yet. He doesn’t really want one, I’m just concerned that his is falling apart and he might lose something. However the situation doesn’t seem critical, so I may save this purchase for a gift-giving occasion in the future.

Box to hold newspapers to be recycled – I wanted something more attractive than a cardboard box. We don’t have recycling where we live so we have to take the paper to a collection point, which means they sit around the house for a while. When I mentioned wanting to buy this to my husband he actually managed to find something we already owned and repurposed it to holding the newspapers. So that was a good purchase to avoid.

What was the first thing I bought after the 10 days? I bought a couple books for my kindle, which probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me. I am not sure if this counts. It is spending money, absolutely. However it is not acquiring another thing, since the books are just data files added to a device I already own. Still, that's the first thing I purchased besides groceries.

What have I learned from my 10-day experiment? I don’t think I’ll be committing to a year of not buying anything. Despite the sense of freedom over the past week I think I would be pretty frustrated after more than that. There were quite a few things that came up on my list that were actually useful purchases. However I did notice quite a few things that when I thought about it, I didn’t really need or want, at least not right now. So I may institute a policy of delaying purchases for a few days or a week so I can think it out better, and decide if I really want to commit to owning that item or if I can work things out with what I already have. And perhaps I will take a break from buying on a regular basis, to remind myself that the things that make me happiest can't be bought at all.