Contributor Archive

A Spoonful of Sugar

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Mary Jo, our Accounting Manager and mother of two adolescent boys, is sidetracked right now with a bad knee injury. The fact that she’s under doctor’s orders to lay really low, knee in a brace, isn’t helping her feel as organized or in control as she’d like to be. She was already behind with some housework when the accident happened. Additionally, her very elderly and relatively incapacitated grandmother is 2 months into a 4-month stay and guests are in town this weekend-enough to make nearly any mother’s head spin.

We’ve probably all been in this spot to some degree or another. Whether it’s because of doctor’s orders to lay low, because we’ve got such a bad bug that we can’t even think of getting out of bed, or because we’ve been called out of town to be with an ailing loved one, there are times when we just can’t do all that we expect of ourselves or that our families have come to depend on. We can go crazy with stress about it or do our best to surrender to the situation (which, I grant you, is no easy task). And there is a lot to be said for knowing that somewhere in the situation there may be an unforeseen gift.

In Mary Jo’s case, she’s using her incapacitation as an opportunity to show her boys how much she does as their mother and as the person who manages the household. (A priceless lesson, I’d say.) The first night, her younger son cooked his first dinner for the family: hot dogs, sliced oranges, potato chips, pineapple, and carrots. He also had to set the table and make tea for his great grandmother. And he had to time everything so that they ate at some semblance of the dinner hour! The next night, her other son concocted a dinner around sloppy joes. Acknowledging and wisely surrendering to her limitations, she called in a day care provider to help with her grandmother. Her husband has kicked it up a notch, too, despite a busy time at work, and her brother is driving the boys to school for the duration.

She told me that she watched “Mary Poppins” one night and was intent on looking for all the spoonfuls of sugar that she can find in this whole kerfuffle. When I last heard from her, she said that there really are quite a few spoonfuls. “The crutches should motivate me to do more pushups. My upper arms needed this workout,” was her last report. I had to chuckle-and marvel-at her willingness to find what makes this whole knee thing more than just an inconvenience. While she’s finding the silver linings, perhaps the most valuable gift in all of this is the fact that her kids get to step up to the plate and help with daily chores that they assumed (as most kids do) just miraculously happen. A gift for the boys in that they are learning how much their mom does and they now get to contribute to her, and a gift for Mary Jo in that her family now appreciates her on a whole new level. Silver linings, indeed!

Celebrating a Girl’s Rite of Passage

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Frankly, I’m not big on a lot of the pomp that often surrounds birthdays. I like to keep our celebrations intimate and un-hyped. But Elizabeth’s thirteenth is coming up and this passage is one I want to acknowledge with a true ritual — one that helps her with a new self-identity in the adult world. And I want to do this with a sense of the sacred and an element of the mysterious. So I’ve written to the women she respects and loves the most (they’re scattered all over the country) to ask them to send her some piece of advice that they wish THEY would have gotten from an older woman friend when THEY were thirteen. I also asked them to send something small and special — a beautiful rock?, a poem?, an extraordinary bookmark? — something that she can tuck away and pull out when the going gets rough to remind her of the women who have weathered their lives’ storms and hopefully give her a boost of support to see her through her own life’s challenges. Finally, I asked all of them to tell Elizabeth what she means to them — her essence, I guess. As their gifts arrive, I will collect them into a handmade basket or wooden box and give them to her at a special moment when she and I are together.

For other ideas about coming-of-age and rites of passage, consider purchasing the Chinaberry book, The Joy of Family Traditions by Jennifer Trainer Thompson

Keeping an Open Heart in the Presence of Pain

Friday, July 10th, 2009

I can remember my father sitting at a restaurant table, years ago, quizzing my husband and me about current events and voting issues. We were young and absorbed in our new life together, and keeping up with the news was the last thing on our minds. More accurately, we’d made a somewhat conscious decision to not keep up with the news because it all seemed to be bad and what’s the use and how could our votes really count, anyway? Much to my poor father’s horror, we actually articulated this opinion to him, sending this very politically knowledgeable man into a tailspin of incredulity and, I would guess, disgust.

Since then, in fits and starts, I have become more politically aware and attentive to the news. I know enough of what’s going on to be conscious of the fact that there’s a lot more going on than what we’re being told. I don’ t think anyone would argue that unless a sensational spin can be applied to the latest current event, it’s generally not considered to be newsworthy. It ’s that ratings thing, you know. For some weird reason, the bad news, not the good, tends to get our attention and so we’re dished up even more and more of it. A twenty-minute dose of current events is sometimes enough to make you want to crawl into a hole and wait out whatever it is we, as humans, are collectively going through right now. Or would it be saner to just opt to remain ignorant of these happenings over which we have no direct influence?

I don’t know for sure, but I do know that lately I don’t have to turn on the news to hear of sadness. It seems as if there are tragedies hitting closer to home and to loved ones than ever before. And I know that I’m not alone in my opinion. Friend after friend expresses the same sentiment. There is just a lot of grief not only “out there,” but “here” as well. It’s strange. And I often find myself struggling to stay balanced enough to keep on keeping on. If I allow myself to linger under whatever dark cloud is floating above me, I somehow find myself merged with that dark cloud, which then, I believe, in some way gets bigger because I am now part of it.

In the midst of what seems like a steady barrage of stories that could break my heart or make me angry, I have found that being active is so much more helpful than being passive. The bottom line is that I must make a conscious decision every day - sometimes every few minutes - to soften my heart and refuse to partake in judgment and hate. I’ve always known - but have to remind myself more often now, it seems - that I have a choice. I can just dwell on what is horrible. Or, I can be aware that there indeed are unspeakable tragedies going on even at the other end of the block (not to mention on the other side of the world) and keep my heart open and light and always ready to find joy, no matter how small that joy may seem.

I don’t know why I’ve changed. Maybe it’s because my children are older now and I have seen some of the ways life has challenged them, and I’ve seen how strong they are when they stand up to face these challenges. Or maybe it’s because life has changed me through trials of my own, honing me, polishing me, and gentling me in the process. It’s hard to tell. But what I do know now is that when all else falls away, one thing remains: the fundamental human need we all have to be connected to each other. And through consciously seeking this connection, I am learning to make space in my heart to hold the pain I meet in life and to embrace every ounce of joy that comes my way. My goal is now to enlarge my cup, so I can hold all that the world has to offer and greet each experience with compassion. The larger my heart gets, the more I can experience. It puts me at risk (for the world does hold tremendous pain), but without that risk my ability to seek and choose joy is severely limited. And without joy in my heart, how can I face the day?

A Billion Simple Acts of Peace

Peacejam: A Billion Simple Acts of Peace

Peacejam is an inspiring book/DVD about young people who teamed up with Nobel Laureates to create projects of real change and healing for the world.

Bucking the Trend in Company Culture

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

A recent shopping trip to one of those big box stores got me thinking about customer service or the lack thereof in our culture these days. The “big” stores are places where the customer experience really isn’t high on anyone’s priority list - the store’s or the customer’s. It’s all about price. So, it’s really not too surprising that it is impossible to find an employee who might answer a question or offer some assistance while you’re shopping. Basically, you’re on your own and you just go there for some of the things you might need in large quantities and get out as quickly as you can.

The check-out experience is usually pretty ho-hum, of course. It really has to be a challenging job to stand at the register, scanning thousands of things a day, dealing with folks who really don’t want to even be there and are zombied out because the experience has been so overwhelming. However, my  check-out experience on this particular trip was truly rewarding: the checker actually looked me in the eye, asked me how I was, called me by name (it was on my membership card), and wished me a happy  weekend.

Wanting to let her employer know about my positive experience and hoping he/she would pass along my appreciation to the checker, I went to the company’s website to email my comments. But let me tell you, it was quite a challenge to find the right link and I’m not altogether sure that my compliments will even make it to her - which is what got me thinking about our society’s business culture these days.

It sometimes seems that customer service just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s as if the way we treat our customers, the way we treat employees, the way we expect to be treated as customers, and the way we expect to be treated as employees has changed dramatically…and not for the better. More and more, it’s all about price. Customers are becoming acclimated to being treated like…like…nothing, while at the same time, the “culture” of a company often doesn’t include the importance of friendliness, helpfulness, and graciousness.

So, should her employer not pass along my comments, my thanks go out to Irma N. (her name’s on my receipt). Thank you for making a humdrum shopping trip end on such a pleasant note and for sending me out the door in a better mood than when I entered.  And thank you to every single person behind every single counter who deals with all of us every day.

Healthy and Whole Foods on a Budget

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009


When my children were young, my husband and I were on the verge of being “poor.” One of the ways we kept costs down was to avoid buying packaged and processed food. Now recognized as not the most nutrient-filled items to eat, packaged and processed food didn’t give a grocery-shopper much bang for her buck back then (or today). So I attempted to cook using as many whole foods as I could get my hands on.

Trust me, I didn’t spend my days in the kitchen! I’d make a pot of legumes to use over the course of several meals, or freeze; a larger-than-needed serving of rice so that I could add some to soups or serve for breakfast with fruit, yogurt, and maple syrup; as many fresh vegetables available at a given time of year to use every which way. It really wasn’t very complicated. My family ate well and without spending too much money on food.

I bring this up because I think adults tend to believe that kids need their food jazzed up in some way and several generations removed from its natural state in order to eat it. Maybe kids believe that, too. (Madison Avenue has surely had its way finagling us into thinking we absolutely need what they are selling.) But truly, children are born with unadulterated taste buds and the real flavors of real food suit them perfectly. An apple slice is a fine treat to most. Almond butter on a whole grain cracker is a pleasure to eat. Sparkling water with a touch of unsweetened apple juice is an infinitely better choice than a soda, and unless your child has already consumed sickeningly-sweet soft drinks and thinks that is the way liquids are supposed to taste, will suit her just fine. Truly, unless and until we get our children addicted to food that has “flavoring” on the label, or is packed with sugar, they are generally delighted with many foods that are real and unadulterated.

To this day, my own kids, now adults, appreciate a piece of fruit from the farmers’ market and a sandwich made with real whole wheat bread more than they do something out of box that you have to unwrap. And they know their way around the kitchen and how to use basic ingredients to create meals.

There are many things I wish I could go back in time and do differently as a parent, but feeding my children real food from the start is one thing I know I did right.

Making Connections

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Because I travel a lot, I often observe some pretty amazing things in airports and airplanes. Many of these “amazing” observations don’t exactly make my heart sing, so it was particularly refreshing to have an experience recently that did. I believe it helps to share such stories, especially considering the not-so-great news that bombards us from every direction.

Not long ago, a coworker and I were trying to make a tight connection at the end of a particularly grueling trip. As our plane pulled up to the jet way, my colleague bemoaned, “our next flight has already boarded.” We were seated in the back of the airplane, so it looked pretty hopeless that we’d make our connecting flight. But a girl who was part of a group of teenagers traveling home from an FFA convention overheard the comment and took it upon herself to organize her large party to stay seated and let us get off before them. This gesture allowed us to skip ahead 30 people, enabling us to make our flight by the skin of our teeth.

Now, as most of us know, the teenage years can be difficult ones. So many times the kids get a bad rap. More often than not, what you read about them is less than complimentary, especially compared to the endearing infant and toddler years when we can’t get enough of our kids’ cuteness, can’t stop taking pictures, and want to capture every moment. But things change through the years: we, they, the world. Expectations become more complex, and how our teenagers choose to be in the world affects a wider and wider circle of others with whom we share this planet.

I recently ran across a quote from Dr. Benjamin Spock that got my attention: “In automobile terms, the child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering.” Without parents who showed by example how to be gracious, how to be patient, and how to be considerate of others, these teenagers on our flight would have never even thought of allowing us to deplane before them. But kudos to them and those who raised them! In this generation of “It’s all about me,” I believe it’s more important than ever for parents to live in a way that demonstrates that it isn’t “all about me.” It’s about all of us, together, connected and aware that we are all in this together.

Thinning Out the Garden and Our Lives

Thursday, March 19th, 2009


Spring finds me out in my garden every chance I get. Nothing is as nourishing to me as working the warm soil, seeing new growth on trees, and stumbling across new shoots of plants that looked all but dead in the torrid days of August. Few other things are as much of a delight as receiving my order of seeds from my favorite seed catalog, sketching the vegetable garden layout, and then preparing the soil. My son, Evan (a.k.a. Mr. Dirt), loves to help me. He’s the self-appointed organizer of the earthworms, and as we move along digging in the soil, he picks up every one, says something admiring to it, then places it exactly where he thinks life will be good to it. The cats drop by to visit us, mourning doves touch down a safe distance away to check us out, and if I hear our phone ringing, too bad. When I’m in the garden, I’m immersed in another world.

When it comes time to plant the seeds, the dirt is so fine and smooth that all we need do is run our fingers through it, making a shallow line. Evan’s the expert at distributing the seeds, and does so one by one, no matter how tiny they are. (Last year, he admonished me for shaking the seeds directly from their package into the soil, explaining that each seed needs to be touched by the person planting it. “That makes sense,” I think to myself.) So the seeds go in, the rows are reasonably straight, I note in my gardening journal exactly what went where, and finally we lightly mist the soil, wishing the seeds a healthy life. Few times during a year do I feel as alive, as accomplished, as good as I do when I’ve planted my garden with care. Then, about two weeks later, the sprouts appear, and soon it’s time to thin the seedlings according to package directions.

Now, as anyone who gardens knows, “thinning” means plucking out sometimes three quarters of the baby plants so that the ones left will have enough room to grow. It’s my least favorite part of gardening. In fact, most of the time I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t simply discard what turns out to be most of the seedlings-healthy seedlings-that have sprouted, at my beckoning, in the soil I’ve so carefully prepared. Nope. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. “Somehow, they’ll all manage to survive,” I tell myself. But, of course, what always happens is that as the plants grow, they eventually crowd each other out. Not having the space or nutrients they need, all of them become less pest- and disease-resistant. Gnarly and mottled, they die an early death, and even though I know from experience that this will happen, I still can’t bring myself to thin the rows of seedlings.

Yesterday afternoon, as I scrutinized the dense new strips of one-inch tall sprouts, I was struck by the similarity between those crowded rows and a pitfall of modern family life. In an effort to expose our children to the right things, we expose them to too much, in hopes that a few of their encounters will “take.” But what really happens is that life gets too crowded and nothing really flourishes. It just seems to be made up of a bunch of experiences, all of which turn out to be shallow, because there is no time in between them. There is no time to daydream; no time to be with one experience (or toy or whatever) before the next experience is plopped in front of them; no time to dig deeply enough into anything and realize that it could grow to be a passion if it were well-tended. It is so easy to lose focus of the fact that just as seedlings simply need good soil, the right environment, and room to grow, children have equally simple needs: love, respect, and space to be themselves. Life can get so cluttered, and then it’s hard to thin it out- just like my rows of seedlings.

Early this morning, before it was light, I heard the unmistakable sounds of one of our neighborhood skunks rooting through the garden. I sneaked out our bedroom door and sat for a long time on the steps in the warm night air, straining to see him (her?) in the darkness. I didn’t want to scare him away, for I knew he was up to something very important, indeed. In dawn’s first light, he finally left, and I made my way over to the garden, knowing what I would find. Sure enough, he’d been feasting on grubs and things, and in doing so, had uprooted most of my seedlings. Granted, the job wasn’t quite as orderly as I’d have done it (had I ever done it), but my rows were now thinned, and each plant would have enough space, soil, sun, and fresh air in which to thrive. I chuckled, and wondered if some giant skunk would ever lumber into my life and thin it out!

The Art of Storytelling

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Nova (Ali's daughter) asleep with Gus-Gus after storytime

Nova (Ali's daughter) asleep with Gus-Gus after storytime

Don’t forget the magic in a came-from-your-own-heart, straight-out-of- your-imagination, in-your-own-words story. The “Mommy (or Daddy), tell me a story” kind of story. It’s a completely different experience from reading a book to your child and I heartily recommend it!

Some of our family’s closest times together revolved around that kind of thing. There was a stately old beat-up chair in toddler Elizabeth’s room that she named “The Story Chair,” for it was where she sat every single night while I told her the animal-filled, gentleness-infused original tale of Whoopie the Whale. (The story was really lame, but she absolutely insisted on it at both naptime and bedtime.) And then there was Evan, whose taste in stories I never quite got a handle on until I learned to routinely ask him to tell me three things he wanted his story to be about that night. (His answer was generally along the lines of “a boy, a policeman and a robot” or “a snake, a bomb and a boy.”) Within about ten minutes, I’d told him his made-to-order story, he’d drifted off and I was left in the quiet of the night to caress his back, run my hand through his hair and be full of wonder at the lessons he was teaching me, my heart welling over with love for this tired little boy.

Receiving an “A” in Kindness

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I know a man, Jim, who’s a 4th grade teacher. At the end of the school year last June, he casually mentioned to a group of friends some things that have stayed in my mind and heart over these last months. He was talking about the requisite achievement tests, assessments, reports to the district, reports to the parents and the paperwork that are all part of the end-of-the-year procedures expected of teachers. He had just completed all of these reports and wanted us to know something.

Now, I’ve heard Jim talk about his class on a number of occasions. His eyes veritably twinkle as he tells how, in September, the kids are sort of - kids. And then by June, they are taller, more confident, more not so kid-like. His love for his calling, as well as for his charges, simply shines through. Every time I hear him mention his class, I’m struck with how I hope that every single one of his students’ parents understands how fortunate they are to have him in their lives.

On this particular day, he felt compelled to share with someone something that no commentary, no assessment, no form that he has to complete ever, ever asks for. Because he thought it was something important enough for someone to know, he wanted to report to us, friends sitting around, that the end of this school year, as so many others, found his students kinder, gentler and softer to each other than they had been at the beginning of the school year, and that, from his vantage point, it appeared that their souls seemed to be in pretty good shape. (more…)