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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Family Masterpiece

When we were setting up the nursery for our daughter, my husband and I repurposed a small chest of drawers to be a changing table and dresser. My mother organized it for us the week after our daughter was born and it worked wonderfully for the first year. Unfortunately, once she learned to pull herself up and open drawers our daughter quickly discovered that it was delightful to take every bit of clothing out of the drawers and scatter it over the floor of her room. This was much less delightful for me, and after a few repetitions of this I wised up and we started putting all her clothes in the closet. We put blankets in the chest since those were easier to put away again. As a bonus, they were apparently less fun to take out in the first place and our daughter turned to other sources of entertainment. The chest of drawers got broken in one of the following moves and so it has been closets for us ever since.

Our daughter is four now and recently we decided it was time for a dresser once again. She has been able to open her closet door and pull down her own clothing in the morning for at least the past six months and we haven't had any repetitions of the clothing covered floor phenomenon. Frankly, we have become a little tired of hanging up all her shirts and pants and putting things in drawers seems like it would just be easier. So my husband ventured to IKEA and bought the drawer sets that promised to work in the large white cabinet that stores her sheets and blankets. 

The starting point.
Plain white furniture isn't terribly cheerful for a four year old and my husband bought some colorful drawer fronts from a different product line to liven things up a bit. Unfortunately, the colorful drawer fronts didn't actually work with the cabinet and drawers. I guess there is a reason you are supposed to buy everything from the same grouping. My husband was mourning this fact and the upcoming trip to return the colorful drawers to get boring white ones when I commented "Well, we could paint them any color we want." 

We looked at each other with realization dawning in both of our eyes. "Why yes. Yes we could. We could paint them not just in colors but in pictures." And so a weekend project was born. We schlepped back to IKEA to exchange the colorful fronts for white ones. Then we hit the craft store for acrylic paint and paintbrushes. We covered the kitchen table with a plastic cloth and got to work.
Work In Progress
We each painted one drawer. My husband gamely took on the fourth since my daughter fell asleep and I was worn out with my artistic endeavors.
Work In Progress
After they were dry we took them outside and sprayed them with a glossy sealant, reasoning that we were likely to need to wipe them down from time to time. Also, we felt just a little protective after all our hard work, and from experience we know that acrylic paint will peel.

This afternoon we assembled the drawers, removed a cabinet door, and installed the runners. My husband lifted each drawer into place and my daughter and I filled them with her clothes.



As our daughter would say "It's our masterpiece!"

Our Masterpiece!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mother Daughter Night

My daughter and I went out together this evening for a special mother-daughter night. Disney On Ice's show Frozen is in town and I purchased tickets months ago with a group of colleagues who have daughters around the same age.

I treasure these times with my daughter because it's usually not me who gets to take her to special events. At least, not on my own. My husband, as the stay at home parent, takes her to museums and sporting events and parks all the time. When I'm not at work we usually go out as a family. We set this evening up as a mother-daughter event though, which means I got to do something special with my little girl. We went out to dinner together, an actual sit down restaurant (although not a fancy one) and then to a 7:30 pm show. I kept the event a secret until we arrived and had the fun of hearing her exclaim in delight "It's a Frozen show!" when we walked into the venue.

The problem with a 7:30 pm show is that bedtime at our house is at 8:00 pm. At four years old my daughter's outgrown naps, except for the occasional dozing off while in the car. We sat down for the show and sure initially she was fascinated, all wide eyed intensity watching the performance. Sure enough though, by 8:00 pm  she was curled up in my lap. By about 8:30 she was covering her ears and hiding her eyes from the more dramatic special effects and by intermission she was very clearly no longer having fun. The noise and the heat were overwhelming, and then she remembered a scary scene coming up and then she asked to go home. So we left at the end of intermission. My goal was for us to have fun together, after all. Better to leave early, while it's still a good evening for both of us.

To be honest, I wasn't all that disappointed to leave. I'm not big on crowds and noise myself. As my dad says, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  And I am not in such a hurry for her to grow up. I like having a child I can take out to dinner, but I also like having a child who wants to cuddle up when she is tired. I know that all too soon she will not be so snuggly; she will have more stamina and will also be too grown-up to lean on mom that way. I want to enjoy it while I can.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Skyline Drive



I had all kinds of plans for today. I was going to spend the afternoon after church catching up on homework, writing one blog post and roughing out some other ideas, tidying up the house and yard and generally getting things done. It was a difficult past 2 weeks being on call and I'm feeling rather behind on my life. Yesterday was my day to play, with a lovely picnic with good friends in a beautiful winery and then some time with my husband and daughter out shopping for Halloween costumes together while we waited for my cell phone screen to be repaired. Today was going to be my day to catch up and get ahead.

But. 

It really was a beautiful day. Sunny, cool, just the right amount of breeziness. Who knows how many more beautiful days we will have this year anyway? Winter is coming soon. The leaves are beginning to turn and fall color doesn't last forever either. It just didn't seem right to waste a day like this indoors. It would have been ungrateful, I think.



So, instead of a well written, thoughtful blog post I have pictures and memories. My husband, daughter and I drove out to Skyline drive for the afternoon. There is a nice visitor's center near Front Royal, about 90 minutes from D.C., that has a number of short hikes and some outstanding views. My husband and I picked the shortest trail with some help from a ranger and we all set off with our water bottles and cameras. Our daughter examined leaves, recognized trail markers, picked up acorns and rocks (that she left behind: take only pictures, leave only footprints!), and banged sticks together to make music. She managed the entire hike, including some long uphill sections, under her own steam, which is a first for all of us. We enjoyed the day and each other. I'm still feeling behind on life, but at least I'm cheerful about it.




Saturday, October 4, 2014

Already Home

We celebrated Break Fast with my husband's cousins this evening in their beautiful home in Maryland. It was a low key and lovely gathering over bagels, fish, and sweets to celebrate the end of Yom Kippur as a family. The kids were big enough to play more or less on their own this year, under the direction of the oldest girl cousin and her friend. The adults chatted and ate too much, wandering from room to room as little groups coalesced, conversed and dispersed over and over again.

Yom Kippur is an intense, serious, Holy Day. It' a time to reflect on how you are treating others, how you are honoring G-D, and how you are using the gifts you have been given. It's a time to pray, to abstain from food and to focus on G-D; a time to confess your wrongs and to receive his forgiveness. It's a fraught and holy time, so it is particularly sweet at its end to come together with family and food and fun, in the softer beauty of regular life.

When it comes down to it, this is the reason my husband and I moved our little family back to the East Coast. We lived in Texas when our daughter was born and we liked it a great deal. We had wonderful friends and Texas itself has many advantages; less traffic, friendlier people, lower cost of living. But despite all this we came back to the East Coast, where it is noisy and stressed and congested. We came back in order to come home.

We came home so that our little family could be part of our bigger family. We came home to celebrate Break Fast each year with our family, and see the cousins playing and not miss the children growing up. We came home so that my daughter can see her grandparents once or twice a month instead of once or twice a year. We came home to raise our child amidst the solid network of family and friends centered here, so that she would always feel that love and support. We came home so that our lives would be patterned with bright ribbons of community and tradition, each season flowing with a rhythm of observation and celebration.

Every once in a while my husband and I talk about moving. Some job or another in an interesting location crosses our email and we say "what if?" And then we attend a birthday party, or spend Sunday afternoon with our parents, or attend Break Fast, and we remember that we are already home.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How Was Your Weekend?

The question of the day on Monday is "How was your weekend?" I can count on being asked at least two or three times on Monday morning by various people. The socially acceptable answers are, of course "Fine." and "Great!" with "Too short!" as a possible variation. It's an elevator question, not an essay question. Even if the weekend was difficult or something really cool happened, it's not the time or place or people with whom to get into it.

The truthful answer about the quality of my weekend depends on my perspective. For example, take this weekend.

I could tell you that this was a frustrating weekend. Our daughter was mildly ill and majorly cranky, so we've had about fifteen time-outs and about seven major temper tantrums. A normal weekend would be between zero and three time-outs and between zero and two temper tantrums, so she's way off kilter. Nothing we did seemed to be right and our normal routines and transitions were sources of angst and fury. Also, I couldn't find the items I wanted for our fall yard work, despite checking two stores and getting lost along the way. We spent two hours raking leaves and pulling weeds, two chores that in my mind should fall at different times of the year but somehow manage to coincide at our house. Half the weeds we pulled in the backyard were colonized from our neighbors wild meadow that they are growing instead of a yard. Which means we pulled vines off our fence and our house but we know it will all be back, since we couldn't get to the source. I had to take a proctored exam at the local community college for an online course I am taking and forgot to bring a pen. I ended up using a very old red pen that I dug up out of my glove box which had my fingers stained red by the end of the test. I goofed up the knitting project I am working on and had to rip out twenty rows of stitching so I could go back and correct my mistake. Frustrating, right?

Squirrel, mixed media. Rose Anne Karesh. 2014.
I could also tell you that this was a wonderful weekend. We spent several hours with a dear friend from out of town whom we don't see nearly often enough. When we got lost we ran across a bagel store that actually had my favorite bagels, pumpernickel, in stock. In our hunts through stores for what we couldn't find, we serendipitously found a hummingbird feeder that I've been wanting for a while and leaf scoops that I'd never heard of before. Leaf scoops are two large handheld plastic paddles with rake teeth along the bottom edges. They make me think of bear paws, and they are excellent for scooping up fallen leaves. Raking went much, much faster than it has in the past. We listened to music and worked as a family as we weeded the backyard. I found a great website where I could order some of the things I couldn't find and now I can look forward to even more flowers next year. We took two long family walks, exploring the neighborhood across the street and finding a shortcut path through to another road that will really help me if I ever make good on my plan to start biking to work. The shortcut not only cuts distance it allows me to stay off a larger road without a bike path that has been a safety barrier. During our walks our daughter found acorns. I'm not sure why, but she is enthralled by acorns this year and collected several pocketfuls to use in various art projects. We worked on one this evening, a mixed media collaboration portrait of a squirrel. She made a new friend at the playground in our neighborhood, a little girl who is about her age and lives across the street. I think my test went pretty well, which is a good feeling for someone who hasn't been in school for a while. I had time to knit and catch up on some TV shows on Saturday night, and even with my mistake the dinosaur project for my daughter is coming along pretty quickly.

So, really, it's all in my perspective and where I focus the lens of my memory. How was my weekend? Most of the time, it's really up to me.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Indecision

I finished the sweater I have been working on for the past four months. This is the one I wrote about back in June (Work In Progress). I finished it today, it looks the way I planned it to look, it actually fits me, and it's done in time to wear it when the weather turns cold. I knit it starting at the neck and it's knit in the round, seamlessly, all the way down, which makes me feel clever. Quite a success, all in all.

Now my dilemma is which project do I work on next. My daughter has a request in for a sweater herself, and she even helped choose the pattern one evening while looking over my shoulder as I was perusing a favorite knitting website (knitty.com). Unfortunately, the yarn used in the pattern is a large part of what she likes about the sweater, and it's not washable. Washable is a critical characteristic when the recipient of a hand knit item is a child, because things will inevitably get dirty. Especially with my child, who loves to paint on her arms, dig in the dirt, and climb everything she can get a foothold on. So her sweater may be on hold until I find a good substitute yarn that will look just as good but also stand up to her activity.

I wanted to make my daughter a doll for Christmas, and I even bought an entire book of doll patterns along with clothing. It has a basic doll pattern with variations for hair, facial features and wardrobe to create about ten different gorgeously outfitted characters. Which I absolutely love. I pored over the book when it arrived, and then I showed it to my daughter and she yawned. She wants a knitted dinosaur instead. I have a book of dinosaur patterns as well, but I really liked those dolls. Maybe I should make a dinosaur for her and a doll for me? I have a sneaky feeling that if I actually made a doll she would like it very much, so a doll for me would probably become a doll for her in the end.

I have other projects on my list as well. A few years ago I made knitted Christmas tree ornaments, and those were a lot of fun to create. I have some ideas for new variations this year that I'd like to play with. I have yarn and patterns for more sweaters for me, since I love wearing my own hand knit items to work. Even when no one notices, it just makes me happy. Socks are fun to knit and don't take as long as sweaters, so that would be another way to wear my knitting to work. And I've been working on and off on a lacy shawl that doesn't look like much so far, but I'm optimistic that when it's completely done it will be beautiful. I just have to put in the time to get it finished.

Too many ideas, not enough time to knit. It's a silly problem, I know. In the scheme of things in the world, really not a problem at all. Still, I wish there was someone out there who'd be willing to pay me to just stay home and knit all day.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories: Mean Bunny and The Rules of Good Behavior

I love to tell stories, which you probably could have figured out from the fact that I blog. I started telling stories to my daughter when she was about 18 months old. We alternate between real life stories of events in my daughter's life, retold fairy tales, and completely made up stories. The made up stories are just goofy little things featuring "pretend friends" interacting with my daughter in various adventures.

Some of those characters have taken on their own life in her imagination. Freddy Frog and Ronnie and Rachel Robot (twins, you know, Ronnie is short for Veronica) have become faithful companions for all sorts of imaginary jaunts, usually in a rocket ship. Their characteristics, ages, and characters have evolved somewhat over time. Freddy has shifted from a pond frog to a tree frog and he is much less hyper and annoying than he used to be. He has an ever changing number of siblings and multiple birthdays each year. Ronnie and Rachel Robot don't have as much personality, but they do live in a treehouse, are afraid of rain, and eat birthday cake for dinner. So they are fun to have around and nicely fill out the group.

Some characters I tried to introduce haven't made it into the canon. Francesca and her pet dragon, for example, made a brief appearance when my daughter was about two and then disappeared once again, although I rather liked them. Cinderella was a character for a while and my daughter would want to take an imaginary trip to Cinderella's house to help her with chores before going to the ball together. Then Cinderella would reciprocate by visiting our home and helping us out with our chores. Lately we haven't seen much of Cinderella, though. Other fairy tale characters have taken her place and stories about them tend to follow the book or movie plot more closely.

The way my husband and I use the stories has changed over time as well. At first our stories were purely for fun, something to entertain our daughter in the car or while snuggling before bed time. It didn't take long until we evolved them into gentle teaching tools. For example, the character of Mean Bunny appears to be here to stay for a while. Mean Bunny is usually a very poorly behaved character, which I suppose the name makes obvious. He hurts the other characters and gets into trouble and my daughter's character usually has to correct and teach him. The lesson she teaches him over and over are the "Rules of Good Behavior" which we came up with as a family. I think they are pretty handy in keeping small bunnies out of trouble.

The Rules of Good Behavior
No hurting other people. Keep your hands, feet, teeth and ears to yourself.
Speak kindly and respectfully to others.
Don't grab or take toys from other kids, bunnies, robots or frogs.
Share, take turns, and wait for your turn patiently.
When you are frustrated or mad walk away. Play with another toy, another kid or bunny, or ask an adult for help.

Of course, Mean Bunny never can remember the rules and gets into all kinds of trouble on the playground or over at our house for a play date. He gets consequences and feels terribly sad and then my daughter's character takes him aside and reminds him of the rules. Once Mean Bunny follows the rules he has much more fun and everything ends happily. On a few occasions recently my daughter has declared that Mean Bunny isn't mean anymore and that he's become Nice Bunny. Most of the time, though, she still wants to hear stories about Mean Bunny. I suppose it's nice to feel wise and mature and capable, no matter how old you are.
Mean Bunny by Rose Anne Karesh, 2014.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Pirate Fairy and Grace


...and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Caleb Dorfman Photography, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
 I attended a church once that did an annual "G-D in the Movies" sermon series, usually in the autumn. The pastors and sometimes a member of the congregation would each choose a movie and use the themes and moments in the movie to illustrate a point about our relationship to G-D. I'm sorry to say I don't remember many of the specifics, but it always surprised me how many movies brought up these themes. The movies ranged from popular blockbusters to indie films to little known documentaries and each of them had something important to say. Which, now that I've written that and thought about it some more, isn't really so surprising after all.

I was thinking about this because I realize that I do the same thing with my daughter. Recently we were watching "The Pirate Fairy" which is part of the Disney line of Tinkerbell movies. There are five of them, I think, and they feature Tinkerbell and her friends solving various problems through cleverness and teamwork and caring. In one of the pivotal moments in "The Pirate Fairy" Tinkerbell and her friends give up a treasure they had worked very hard to retrieve from the pirates in order to save the pirate fairy, a renegade fairy who helped the pirates steal from and imprison the fairies. The pirate fairy asks Tinkerbell why they saved her, and Tinkerbell replies with a smile "We're showing you quarter." Earlier in the film the pirate fairy had refused to show quarter to Tinkerbell and her friends, but Tinkerbell pays back harm with kindness. The pirate fairy becomes an ally and of course the fairies defeat the pirates and recover their treasure.

Nor surprisingly, that particular scene generated a host of questions from my four year old.

"What's quarter?" she wanted me to explain. I told her that quarter meant mercy, or even grace.

"What's grace?" she wanted to know. Grace is when someone gives you something you don't deserve or earn, I told her. It's like G-D giving us his love and forgiving us, and it's like Mommy not making you take all of a time-out sometimes. It's something you receive as a gift.

I don't know how well my four year old understands all this. Hopefully repetition and ongoing illustration will help her take these ideas in. They're tough concepts even for grownups. This weekend during the pastor's sermon in church the pastor talked about how grace is hard for us to accept. He was speaking about G-D's grace being sufficient for us in all of the hardship and troubles we might face, and emphasized that grace is something unearned and undeserved by definition. Most of us don't do well with this idea, with accepting something we don't feel we deserve. It feels uncomfortable and insecure and dependent, which is anathema to Western 21st century adults. I believe grace is true though, and I find I can grasp and accept it best using metaphors.

Movies provide great metaphors; Tinkerbell saved the pirate fairy even though she didn't deserve it, because of who Tinkerbell is and because of Tinkerbell's character. My favorite metaphor though, the one I understand best, is that of parents and children. Fundamentally, I love and take care of my child not because of who she is but because of who I am and the relationship I have with her. I loved her when she was a tiny infant, when all she could do was cry and make a mess, just because she was my baby. I love her now when she is still making messes and also gets into trouble and frustrates me, because she is my child. Which is not to say that she isn't lovable or that she doesn't have wonderful qualities; she is and does. But that's not the basis for my love. It's not the reason I provide care for her. My love and care aren't contingent on her behavior or her characteristics, they exist because of who I am. She can't earn my love and care and she can't lose it. The word mother defines how I relate to my child, and my character tells me that a mother cares for and loves her child.

In the same way, G-D is our parent. His love and care are given to us based on his character and his relationship to us. We can't earn G-D's love and we can't lose it. His love is given to us as a gift. That's grace.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Shatter Me - Inspiration from Lindsay Stirling

I've become a fan of the song "Shatter Me" by Lindsay Stirling, featuring Lzzy Hale. I heard it on the radio and was grabbed by the electric energy of the violin contrasted with the delicate, tinkling music box background. As I listened I began to pick up the lyrics more clearly and was intrigued enough to want to watch the music video. I found it on YouTube while my daughter was sitting on my lap for an extended slow post-nap waking up snuggle. I enjoy cuddling my daughter but after about 15 minutes when she wasn't showing any signs of being ready to face the world again I decided it would be okay to look up the video and watch it with her.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend looking it up (here's a link). It's a striking and lovely piece of storytelling in which Lindsay Stirling plays a music box ballerina painfully setting herself free from her pretty prison and experiencing the grandeur of a wider, lovelier, riskier world. Her freedom creates freedom for the other character in the store, the mechanic maintaining her clockwork machinery, played by Lzzy Hale.

Of course, watching music videos with a four year old requires some discussion and explanation. Her question at the end was "Why did she break that glass?" Which left me trying to explain the concept of a metaphor to a four year old, that it was a pretend story that helps us understand something else. We talked about becoming free from fear so that we can be the people G-D created us to be. It's more than a little above her developmental level but she was able to connect it with our previous conversations about the movie Frozen and how Queen Elsa needed to be freed from fear in order to use her powers for good. So, hopefully some of those ideas are getting through and taking hold.

It struck me, as we talked, how often I talk to my daughter about fear and love and courage, about being the person G-D wants you to be. I write about these ideas pretty often as well. I think all these conversations come about because this is my own growth point right now. I am slowly coming to realize how many of my own choices are fear driven and how many times I'm not true to the person G-D created me to be. It is a process, and I'm not sure how it's working out will unfold or even what the next steps should be. My theme seems to be moving towards uncertainty, vulnerability and discomfort so that I am open to peace, love and joy. So far all I can really say is that growth isn't easy, and can at times feel shattering, but I am hanging on to faith in the idea that challenge and change are vital in many sense of the word.

We just celebrated my daughter's fourth birthday this weekend, and as she does her own growing I realize that she is watching how I live my life. I hear more and more echoes of myself in her voice. Little phrases and jokes that I'm not even aware I say regularly she reflects back to me with uncanny accuracy. I'm relieved that one of her phrases recently is "Oh, I sure can!" Apparently that's one of my favorites. It's not so bad, but it tugs on a string in my heart, telling me that this little girl is watching me. She will live her life the way I live mine. I can talk all I want about love and courage. If I want her to be courageous and loving, I have to live it. Her freedom will in many ways be linked to mine. Which means I can't live my life in a safe music box globe either.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bug Spray, Summer Camp, Self-Denial

My brain is scattered tonight, a thought here, an image there, an idea somewhere else. Coming back from vacation is like this. It's hard to readjust, even after just a week, to alarm clocks and routines and focusing on work. It's hard to move to someone else's tempo instead of my own.

The only thing I didn't like about my vacation was the mosquitos. I came back with about twelve bites on each leg and for some reason I am really, really reactive to mosquitos this year. All of the bites turned bright red and have been very itchy for days. I've been having to use topical diphenhydramine and then take oral allergy medicine on top of it. Mosquitos seem to like me better than anyone else in my family, too. My husband and daughter don't have mosquito bites at all. It's not a great way to be popular, honestly.

I don't usually use bug spray. I worry that maybe it's not so good for me, that it's poisonous. But I don't want any more mosquito bites for a while, and it's kind of hot to wear long pants. So this week when we go out for evening walks as a family I've been spraying on the bug spray. Bug spray smells like summer camp, I have realized. I mentioned this to my husband and he responded instantly "yes!" so it's not just me. Such an odd thing, for two of us to be thrown back across a quarter century of time to humid Virginia nights in the woods with a bunch of other self-conscious awkward adolescents.

Our daughter is already asking if she can go to sleep away camp. I am not sure how this came up, although I suppose my husband and I were telling stories at some point and she overheard us. She's only four, so I tell her yes, but not until you're older. I wonder what she'll think of it when she goes. I remember being lonely and missing my mom, but my daughter is pretty calm about being separated from us. Of course, she's only ever spent the night with grandparents. Summer camp is a whole different ball game. I have to remember though, that she's herself and not me.

One way we're alike is that we don't like self-denial. We were getting ready to walk tonight and everyone was ready to go; shoes on, bug spray applied, bathroom stops taken care of. Our daughter was tired and asked to ride in her stroller. Mostly she's outgrown this but she did have a very active day and my husband and I wanted to really walk, so the stroller suited everyone's agenda. We retrieved it from the garage and opened up and then the requests began.

"I want a blanket."

In the past we have tucked blankets around her in late fall and early spring. It's too hot for blankets today, plus I don't want to go back in the house. It's already close to bedtime and I really want to get a walk in.

"No, it's too hot for blankets."

She climbs in the stroller and then announces "I want goldfish."

In the past we have given her a small snack in the stroller. We justified it to ourselves saying that she often doesn't eat much, she tends to be a little underweight, and it gets a few more calories into her. It also keeps her happy and quiet for at least a while so that we can enjoy our walk, which is probably the more honest reason for the treat. Tonight though, she ate a good dinner. And I still don't want to go back in the house and lose time from my walk.

I tell her "No, it's time to practice self-denial."

She immediately lets out a wail and announces "I don't like self-denial!"

Me too, sweetie. Me too. But we still went for a walk.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Answer I Have (#icebucketchallenge)

I was invited by my friend to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The deal is, once nominated, you either pour a bucket of ice water over your head within 24 hours or you make a donation to the ALS Association (http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge.html) to help fund their research to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gherig's disease or ALS). If you didn't already know, ALS is a progressive and currently incurable neurologic disease that leaves its victims immobile and helpless before it kills them.

Early in the evening, while trying to catch up on my journal, I wrote this:

Terrible world events lately, A young man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police - he was unarmed and running away and still the police officer shot him to death. That makes 4 unarmed black men this month killed by police officers which is so sickening. Then the police turned on the protestors who were supporting Mr. Brown's family. Tear gas and rubber bullets and tanks in the streets; it's insane. Isn't this America? Lots of talk about racism which is so real still. I hope something good comes out of it, like maybe people recognizing that racism is actually still a problem right along with misogyny and homophobia and abuse. ISIS (Islamic State Iraq and Syria) is murdering people in Iraq, executing Christians and the Yazidi people - the news had stories about crucifixions and beheadings. The U.S. is bombing Iraq again. Israel and Hamas are bombing each other. Robin Williams, the actor who played the Genie in Aladdin and many other amazing roles including the teacher in Dead Poet Society which climaxed in a teen suicide, killed himself. The Ukraine is completely unstable with war going on between rebels probably backed by Russia and the Ukrainian government. A plane was shot down over the Ukraine that was carrying scientists and researchers to a conference on AIDS - I think that the target was random, an act of terrorism, but so much more bitter to have people killed whose life work was curing others. There is an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There are still thousands of immigrant children coming over the southern border of the US without parents because of danger and unrest in Central America. I don't even know what else. All the same old problems of poverty and hunger and climate change and violence and cruelty and disease. Lord, have mercy on us. Help us, please help us. 

Last week I had a conversation with a patient, which is a conversation that I've had with many people over the years. How do you stand the pain? When the world is so bad, when people suffer so much, how can you stand it? I don't really have a good answer to that question, just like I don't have good answers for all of the problems above. I wish I had a magic, perfect answer to that question. I wish I could take away all the pain, because, really, I think that is the subtext of that particular conversation. We all wish for the pain to be dealt with, for the world to be made perfect for all of us. And oh, how I long for that. But it is not what I can offer.

The answer I have is this. You can't make it not hurt. There is just no way to block out the pain, and when you try all that happens is you block out the good stuff like love and fun and joy and then you are lonely and stuck and you are in pain anyway. Trying to make things not hurt is a losing battle, a rigged game. So, I just let it hurt. I cry, I scream, I write, I yell at G-D and then I pray for help and mercy. I let the pain come and then I let it go. Not gone, more like waves that wash over me and recede. Pain is a fact of life, so another wave is always coming. Sometimes thick and fast in a storm and sometimes at long, slow intervals when all is peaceful, but every wave that comes will eventually go. And when the wave of pain has dropped back enough I get busy.

I work. I give. I write. I pray. I fight the battles that I can fight and I hope that each person I help and touch will be able to help a few more people who will then go on to help a few more people; a chain reaction of love and goodness. And then I rest. I'm on vacation this week with my family. We are spending a week together and it is wonderful. There is a part of me that spoke up as I wrote that sentence saying "you should feel bad, writing that, having fun when so much in the world is so broken and painful, when so many people are suffering. How dare you?" And then a wiser part of me spoke up and said "No. If you are sad and exhausted, how does that help lessen anyone else's suffering? Your misery won't alleviate the world's pain, but your joy might. Stay strong so you can stay on the front lines of your particular battles."

Which brings me back to my friend's invitation. I went ahead and donated to the ALS Association this evening, to help them fight the battle they have chosen. I'll keep on fighting on my part of the line too, giving and praying and working and writing as well as I can. And tomorrow I might see if I can scrounge up a bucket of ice water to dump on my head. I know the silliness of me soaking myself on purpose would delight my daughter and make my family laugh. A little joy in the name of a good cause seems like the right idea.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lopsided Bunny

I finished my daughter’s birthday present last night. She loves bunnies. Her two favorite stuffed animals are bunnies and she regularly pretends to be a bunny in a warren. Bunnies feature prominently in the various made up stories our family tells at bedtime. I wanted to give her a hand knit toy for her birthday, and so a bunny seemed like the natural choice. I found a pattern from my favorite toy designer and knitting hero Susan Anderson and got to work.

It’s definitely not perfect. I’ve seen Susan Anderson’s model bunny toy in person, when I’ve taken classes from her, and I’m not even close. To my knitter’s eye, the increases and decreases I used in shaping the toy are more visible than I would like. I didn’t have quite enough of the white yarn and so I had to modify the legs from the original pattern quite a bit, resulting in short stubby legs instead of the more elegant dangling legs in the design. The placement of the arms, legs and ears is a little more lopsided than I was hoping for and the head is quite wobbly. I embroidered the face about three different times before I finally got something I thought was okay, and I still feel like it’s missing something.

I could fix all of that. A friend once told me she took a knitting class and she didn’t like it, because they wouldn’t teach her how to fix mistakes. I thought that was strange because fixing mistakes in knitting is really easy. You just unravel all your work down to the point of the mistake and start over from there. Of course, it’s also pretty discouraging to undo all your hard work, especially if you didn’t notice the mistake until you had progressed quite a bit further in your knitting. My mother-in-law views it as bonus knitting; you knitted it twice and therefore obtained more knitting pleasure from the yarn. I like her attitude but I’m not planning to unravel and redo my daughter’s present.

First of all, I just don’t have time to undo and completely re-knit and re-sew all the components before her birthday. I’d rather have an imperfect toy to give her than no toy at all. Second of all, I would have to buy more yarn and since I bought this particular skein on a trip to Seattle last year I am not sure I could match it easily. Thirdly, I am trying really hard not to be a perfectionist. There are some knitting mistakes that I will rip back for because they make a big difference in the final project, but other mistakes are acceptable. The mistakes in this toy fall into the acceptable category. My daughter’s gift looks like a bunny, so she will love it. It’s sturdy enough to stand up to preschool handling and the little flaws give it character and personality. Fourth and finally, I am ready to move on to another project. It’s time to get started on holiday gifts and new patterns are calling me.

I love knitting. I love the feel and look of yarn; the color and the softness and the sensual, tactile delight of beautiful material. I love the process of making something new, of seeing it unfold stitch by stitch. I love feeling clever and creative and accomplished. Beyond my love of it though, I think knitting is good for me. It reminds me to lighten up, to accept imperfection, and to play.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Holy Ground

On 9:27 in the morning on a Saturday the Northern Virginia Warehouse of the Capital Area Food Bank became holy ground. In an echoing space with scuffed concrete floors, dented industrial metal shelving, and rippled metal sheet siding fifteen men and women with fifteen different shades of skin tone packed five hundred and eighty bags of food and loaded them into twenty-nine large boxes.

Old and young they worked together, quietly organizing themselves into a smoothly flowing assembly line. No one person seemed to be in charge but everyone knew what needed to be done and contributed according to their talents. The young woman with a gift for opening stubborn plastic bags started the process. Then two older women doubled the bags so the heavy food items would not break through and whispered quiet prayers for the recipients. A middle-aged man added a box of applesauce and a dose of humor, and then passed the bag to the men with the cereal bars. They added their contribution and then on down the line the bag went, gaining collard greens, baked beans, spaghetti, pasta sauce and raisins before being tied off at the end and placed gently into a box. Up and down the line people talked, joked, encouraged each other, asked for breaks and pauses and shared snippets of their lives. A teenage boy and an old man walked up and down the line, removing trash and breaking down emptied containers. In less than an hour the boxes were full and the group disbanded as simply and peacefully as it had come together, with handshakes and smiles all around.

The boxes waited in the warehouse to be picked up by agencies who would deliver the food to elderly people in need, people who don’t have quite enough money each month to keep from being hungry. Each bag is designed to feed a person for a weekend, enough food to get through until another check comes in. And perhaps those bags might also deliver a dose of kindness along with the knowledge that the recipient is not alone, that many people cared enough to give the food, pack the boxes and deliver the bags on a hot and humid August day.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Yes, Climate Change Is Bad

Summing up, what I’ve learned as I challenged myself to actually find evidence that would answer my questions about climate change (with inspiration from a trusted friend) is that yes, the climate is changing and yes, human activity is the cause of climate change. Which now leads to my final question; is this something I should be worried about? Is climate change definitely bad? I’ve actually spent time and effort and money already trying to combat climate change, so should I continue?

My information for this post comes from www.skepticalscience.com, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and from www.climate.nasa.gov and www.epa.gov. Most of what I cite below is from the EPA and from the IPCC, since they had the most detailed information. I liked the IPCC report (ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WG-2AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf) because it comments on levels of evidence and confidence in each bullet point of information.

Historically, the answer is yes, or at least yes, rapid climate change is definitely bad. Periods of time in the past characterized by rapid change (changes that were actually less rapid than what we are seeing today) were characterized by mass extinctions. And there are already observable changes, such as shrinking glaciers, oceans becoming more acid, and shifting animal ranges. I found references to several papers linking an increased frequency of extreme weather events (droughts, severe storms, and particularly heatwaves) to climate change.

Predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are that water resource availability will change (meaning, many people will have less access to clean water, which is already a problem in many places); that more agricultural crops will be harmed than helped, that water borne and insect borne diseases (like malaria) may become more widespread, that at some point we will be at high risk for sudden and irreversible extreme events, that people who are already marginalized and struggling will suffer disproportionately, and that violent conflict will harm everyone’s ability to adapt. All of their predictions are rated at medium confidence to very high confidence. According to the EPA, coastal cities will be more vulnerable to flooding, decreased air quality and heat waves will pose a hazard to human health, forest fires will be more frequent and intense and many other problems. There are pages and pages of information about the probable (and problematic) consequences of climate change on these websites. It doesn’t sound like a world I want for my daughter.

Since the answer to this last question is mostly predictions, it is the hardest to back up with evidence and the easiest to argue against. The people who make the predictions sound pretty sure, and their lines of reasoning make sense to me. I think what they are saying is probably, and so I’ll tell you, climate change sounds pretty bad to me. Most of the arguments I’ve read for not believing in or responding to climate change are economic; that it would be too expensive to change and that all the alarm is unnecessary anyway. I’m not sure the too expensive part is really true; I think it might be expensive to change but cheaper than coping with the consequences of not changing. As far as I can tell this article (by economist William Nordhaus of Yale) is saying that it would be economically better to take strong action to curb climate change now. Some people have even suggested that action on climate change may be economically beneficial, producing new knowledge and new technologies and new jobs. But even if that’s not true, even if it is more expensive to act now, I think we have a moral responsibility to act.


As a person of faith I believe that G-D created the earth, and loves it, and considers it good. I don’t think it’s okay for us to make a mess of it. I believe that G-D create all people, and loves them, and wants good for them. It’s not okay to continue on a pathway that is likely to harm large numbers of people, not even if changing our path is hard and expensive. So, to sum up, based on the data I can find, climate change is occurring, human activity is responsible for climate change, and climate change is bad. So, what are we going to do about it?

Yes, Human Activity Is Causing Climate Change

The evidence seems clear that the climate is changing, which makes the next question “what is the cause?” If you accept climate change as a reality, it doesn’t automatically follow that human activity is the cause. There should be evidence. Basically, that was the question my friend was asking yesterday morning, the question that I couldn’t answer for myself and went looking. The information below comes from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch) website, particularly their 2013 report, from www.climate.nasa.gov, and from the website www.skepticalscience.com. The Skeptical Science website in particular was very clear and helpful although the IPCC report is more detailed.

Answering the question about what is causing climate change means talking about how the earth hangs on to heat. The earth is much, much warmer than the moon, even though we are approximately the same distance from the sun. Why is this the case? The difference is in our atmosphere. Besides being handy for us breathing animals, the atmosphere acts as a blanket. It traps heat from the sun and holds it close to the earth’s surface. Not all of the components of the atmosphere do this; the major gases that do are ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and, of course carbon dioxide. These are the gases that are commonly called greenhouse gases, because they function similarly to the glass roof of a greenhouse in holding heat.

The major greenhouse gas that people contribute to the atmosphere is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is produced chemically when carbon based fuels are consumed for energy. So, for example, when a human body breaks down glucose (sugar is carbon based energy, hence the name CARBOhydrate) on a cellular level to convert it to a usable form of energy oxygen is used up and carbon dioxide is produced, which is removed primarily through the lungs. When coal, oil and natural gas (also carbon based energy forms) are burned for energy carbon dioxide is also emitted.  

There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years; currently (2014 data) about 397 parts per million, which is about 33% higher than the highest historical concentration of 300 parts per million. How do we know how much carbon dioxide there was in the atmosphere at various points over the last 800,000 years? The measurements are obtained from air bubbles trapped in polar ice cores. The uptick in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time correlates pretty well with the production of carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuels over time.
Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators

Image Source: skepticalscience.com. Their Caption: Atmospheric CO2 levels (Green is Law Dome ice core, Blue is Mauna Loa, Hawaii) and Cumulative CO2 emissions (CDIAC). While atmospheric CO2 levels are usually expressed in parts per million, here they are displayed as the amount of CO2 residing in theatmosphere in gigatonnes. CO2 emissions includes fossil fuel emissions, cement production and emissions from gas flaring.
Correlation does not imply causation, of course, but in this case it is concerning, and there is not another explanation for the increase. The oceans are the biggest reservoir of carbon dioxide on the planet but the amount of carbon dioxide in the oceans (as measured by acidity; because carbon dioxide dissolved in water produces acid) is increasing, so the carbon dioxide isn’t coming from the oceans. Humans produce about 100 times the amount of carbon dioxide than volcanoes, so that’s not a good explanation either. Oxygen in the atmosphere is decreasing at about the same rate that carbon dioxide is increasing, which makes sense if the carbon dioxide is coming from burning fossil fuels (remember, converting a carbon based fuel to usable energy uses up oxygen. That’s why you need to breathe.) Finally, when you look at the particular isotopes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the signature of carbon dioxide (ratio if different types of carbon atoms) in the atmosphere are consistent with fossil fuel sources.

So, it looks like humans are generating a lot of carbon dioxide. How does that link to human activity causing climate change? There are a couple of indicators that it is. First, carbon dioxide absorbs extra heat at a particular frequency of infrared radiation. When infrared radiation away from the earth is measured, it is depleted in this particular frequency and more so the past 30 years. What this means is that over a recent period of time carbon dioxide, specifically, is holding more heat close to the earth’s surface. Second, the pattern of warming that we are seeing right now is that the lower part of the atmosphere is warming and the upper part is cooling; that is consistent with carbon dioxide trapping heat near the earth’s surface and preventing it from reaching the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s not consistent with an increase in solar radiation which would warm the entire atmosphere. Third, natural cycles of climate change don’t explain our recent warming.
Source: skepticalscience.com. Their caption: Annual global temperature change (thin light red) with 11 year moving average of temperature (thick dark red). Temperature from NASA GISS. Annual Total Solar Irradiance(thin light blue) with 11 year moving average of TSI (thick dark blue). TSI from 1880 to 1978 from Krivova et al 2007 (data)TSI from 1979 to 2009 from PMOD (see the PMOD index page for data updates).
Satellite measurements of the sun’s energy output from 1978 until now show a drop of energy output over the last 30 years, which would typically lead to a decrease in overall global temperature. The rate of warming is too fast to be explained by the earth coming out of the last ice age, and in fact, we should actually be slowly heading into a new ice age based on Milkanovitch cycles, which predict climate change as a function of variation in the earth’s orbit and tilt. Finally, if a natural cycle is causing the overall warming trend we are seeing, there also needs to be an explanation for why the increase in carbon dioxide that we can measure isn’t causing the warming. Centuries of chemistry and physics tell us that it should, so any alternative explanation has to account for this as well as explaining what is causing the warming. 


So, again based on the data I can find, it seems to me that human activity is responsible for the changes in the climate that we are seeing today. Which now leads me to my third question. Is climate change something to worry about?

Yes, The Climate is Changing

I was chatting with some friends yesterday while our families were enjoying a Saturday morning at one of our local parks. The topic of climate change came up and one of my friends commented that she is concerned about the changes and she doesn't like the pollution humans are generating but she doesn't know if human activity is the primary cause of climate change. This is one of my friends who I deeply trust and respect, someone I really look up to, so her comment made me think. I would have said - yes, I believe human activity is the primary cause of climate change. But why do I think that? Well, I realized that I didn't have a good reason. The truth is I think it because other people have told me so. I don't know what the science is behind that statement. And while I am a person of faith, I don't think it's a good idea to approach scientific claims as a matter of faith. I should take a look at the data before I decide what I believe.

So I went looking for data on climate change. I started with a few key questions. The first question is "Is climate change a reality?" The second question is "If climate change is a reality, is human activity the primary cause?" The third question is "If climate change is a reality, and if human activity is a primary cause, is it something to be concerned about?"

The answer to the first question appears to be a pretty clear yes, based on information I found on the websites from climate.nasa.gov (from NASA), http://www.climate.gov (from NOAA - the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration) and from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf). If you want to look for yourself the NASA site is easier to read and has the best graphics, particularly on their key indicators page. The NOAA site offered some of the best articles and the IPCC report is the most detailed and their site also gives detailed information about the process they used to draw their conclusions. If you don't trust NASA, NOAA and the IPCC to report data accurately then this blog post won't mean much to you. We would need to have a different conversation altogether I suspect.

To sum up what I read, the climate is not only changing, it is changing rapidly. The last three decades have been the warmest on record over the past 1400 years.
Public Domain image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators/
One of the counter-arguments that I read in several places is that global warming can't be true because the global temperature hasn't increased over the past ten years or so. This is true and the graph I posted shows it; over the past decade the global surface temperature has been stable. However, when I went looking for an explanation, there is a pretty simple one that is still consistent with climate change. This pause in the warming trend is attributed to both a decrease in solar output in the 2000's and due to the short term climate cycles of La NiƱa and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation over the past decade that have mixed surface ocean water into deeper ocean water. That sinks the heat deep in the ocean but the heat is still present, it's just not on the surface where it's being measured. Measurements of deep ocean temperature during this period show warming.

Public Domain image. Source: http://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/why-did-earth%E2%80%99s-surface-temperature-stop-rising-past-decade

During the same decade the polar ice has continued to melt. Arctic ice has decreased from over 6 million square kilometers in 2000 to under 4 million square kilometers in 2012. The Antarctic continent has lost 100 cubic kilometers of ice per year since 2002. This is just my thought, so it may be wrong or a bad analogy, but it seems to me that losing ice may be a better measure of warming than surface temperature. After all, if I set out a glass of ice water outside on a hot day the temperature of the water and the air immediately above it will remain steady until the ice melts. It's only after the ice melts that my drink becomes tepid.

Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators/

Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.goc/key_indicators/

So, looking at the data, my conclusion is that yes, the climate is changing. The earth is becoming warmer overall and it is happening rapidly. Which leads to my next question. Is human activity the primary cause of climate change today?