Evening in Advent

Invitations had been sent for a little soiree after the Christmas concert, to be held at my house. Musicians always like to relax together after a performance. “What a great audience! Did you see the little boy in the elf costume? Santa was especially talkative this year.”

Wassail punch would be warm and festive on a cold December night, along with assorted sandwiches, my usual Polynesian crab dip, and the gorgeous chocolate cake I had been eyeing for months at the local bakery. It would serve at least twenty people, so this was the right occasion. I had never dared to purchase it before, but trusted it to taste delicious.

The house was ready: tree glistening by the fireplace, five stockings hanging from the mantel, and candles in place. Menu items were prepared and arranged on Christmas platters and bowls, with tiny labels on the dining room table to mark where each would be placed.

Then the snow began, just a dusting at first. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed watching birds at the feeder by the kitchen. Performance clothes were laid out and a hot bath waiting, when the email message arrived. “Concert CANCELLED due to inclement weather.”

Of course, this was a good decision for the sake of safety, as two children’s choirs were performing with the orchestra and many people would be driving on treacherous roads. As for the soiree, my house was ready, food in place, and Wassail punch fully prepared, just waiting to be warmed. A final to-do list lay on the kitchen counter—just three simple items. The beautiful chocolate cake sat on a silver platter anticipating hungry guests.

The evening turned out to be quiet and reflective, actually quite enjoyable. I was tired after all that work, and the snow continued to fall in its peaceful loveliness. I decided that getting ready for the post-concert gathering had been a meaningful process. And then it came to mind.

Preparing for a party is like Advent—anticipation of something very special, a time to prepare our hearts to receive the gift of the Christ Child. God’s own son would enter our lives, be a guest at our table, enjoy our company and the humble offerings we have for Him, and turn our lives around. He would impact the world as none other has done.

Fortunately, there was no cancellation of His birth so many years ago. Regardless of weather conditions and over-booking at the inns in Bethlehem, the Baby Jesus arrived safely. And the musicians performed. “Suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men.’ ” (Luke 2:14)  Now that was a celebration, and it has been going on for more than two thousand years.

On that recent snowy night, one dear friend braved the weather and came by. We made a dinner out of the holiday party foods and cut two slivers from the scrumptious-looking chocolate cake. It was a perfect Advent evening!

Precious Seeds

The sunflower is looking better. This is no ordinary plant. It grew from the seeds my mother gave me one bright summer day a few weeks before she died. She moved precariously that day, but with the stability of a walker we navigated safely through the large automatic door of her nursing village. We both squinted in the bright sunlight. And then began a tour of her outdoor world: raised bed gardens that residents could reach, bird houses and feeders gathered near large windows, neatly mulched beds by the porch filled with colorful zinnias and all kinds of hosta. Bright white-painted rocking chairs moved in the breeze. A pretty wooden bench beckoned to us, so we sat and rested a bit. I loved those times with my mother.
Then we moved along further and found the sunflowers. It was already late summer and several of the plate-like bursts of color had faded and presented seeds. She ceremoniously reached out to pluck off a few and gave them to me. “Here. You take these. You can plant them in your garden.” She was reaching right into my heart but only later did I fully understand. You see, my mother and I shared a love of gardens, beautiful flowers and herbs, and the practice of cultivating something lovely.
I have never forgotten that day. With time, sadness came as she became ill and eventually left us. But I kept those seeds in a little baggie, a few brown pods that she had gently pressed into my hand from hers, for the day when I would plant them. The time came; the seeds found their way into my little “Secret Garden” and one robust leafy sunflower plant emerged weeks later. Before long it produced tiny buds that grew and grew.
Then one morning as I visited the garden the buds were missing! A deer from the woods nearby had likely smelled the scent of those luscious young morsels and had himself a delicious dinner during the night. My first order of the day was a stop at the garden shop. Before long, a fine spray to safely deter deer and other critters became part of the daily garden routine.
Thankfully, the precious plant has produced more buds. This lovely reminder of my dear mother speaks to me of her courage and resilience, her beauty and strength. The sunflower will live on, along with the memories, and I will guard it with greatest affection. She too lives on in her Heavenly home, where she is surely enveloped in the brilliance of a magnificent field of sunflowers.

Learning Curve

Being a digital immigrant, I admit that time, courage, and patience are needed when it comes to trying new technologies. This refers not to using a drone to photograph the family reunion or writing a new computer language. No, by new “technologies” I refer simply to adding color, changing the format, or (when I get really brave) posting pictures or drawings that enhance my writing. So I am experimenting with options. Since the last post ended up mysteriously with no paragraphs  and other unexpected changes, I am committed to working on this, and it will only happen if I play around.
So here we go. Thanks for your patience.

On Music, Life, Faith…

 

It’s springtime and there is music in the air! Lately I’ve been thinking about all that goes into a music performance, specifically that of an orchestra. Of course, there are the musicians who have practiced long hours over many years, purchased expensive instruments, and given up soccer games and chat time and all sorts of life events to attend rehearsals. Indeed, an orchestra requires a conductor, who has studied under the tutelage of other esteemed conductors and passed numerous benchmarks of excellence prior to reaching the podium. This journey has been competitive and demanding.  These are the obvious ingredients of an orchestra—the things we notice when sitting in the audience.

However, music performance requires many behind-the-scene tasks, often unknown to the typical concert-goer. Before each rehearsal and performance, someone must clear the stage of debris and set up chairs. The grand piano and array of percussion instruments must be carefully pushed into place, as well as music stands and microphones. Proper lighting is important so the performers can see their leader and their music.

The list goes on. Backdrops that help direct sound, risers, loud speakers, projectors and screens for special effects, unique devices in the case of live looping……. After the performance all of this must be undone as a courtesy to the next performing group.

Music teachers who attend to the endless details of performance day in our schools deserve a special “shout out” of gratitude. In addition to the above, they teach teamwork and responsibility, explore new compositions, design interesting programs, order and file music, …… AND patiently endure the squawks and squeaks of young learners.

Another lesser-known preparation for performance that occurs behind the scenes is the marking of music. For example, the section leader for the string players normally provides markings in advance of the first rehearsal. This requires skill and time. I just spent forty-five minutes with my coffee and computer, copying tiny symbols from screen to paper, each with an important purpose. Does the bow move upward or downward on this pick-up note? Do we slur four or eight notes together? A typical page of 1st violin music contains as many as twenty-five markings. Is this passage suddenly louder as indicated by the publisher or does the conductor wish to keep the volume at mezzo forte. There is an important pause at the end of bar three. I better pay attention to that. This fast section is best played in the fourth position. Better circle the D #.

Recently, while marking my violin score, I began to think about life. How well prepared am I for the next phase? Have I marked the fast sections and slow in my score, the boisterous and the sublime? Is the fingering written above the notes so that a smooth transition can occur between passages? Are dramatic pauses built into the plan?

Yikes! I am not the least bit prepared if readiness means having every detail in place. In fact, the opposite is true. Spontaneity is a part of my days, and in it I find joy and excitement. Of course, having a plan is important and success is usually related to good organization. However, plans change, other people show up, the music stops and starts again in the middle of the dance. One thing is certain: trust in a loving God makes it possible for me to adapt to the changing rhythms, even sometimes to just take a day at a time. The master plan is not in my hands, to be sure.

So then, how is living life like performing in an orchestra? I can’t imagine an ensemble in which everyone chooses on the spot what dynamic to play, how to finger a passage, or whether or not to extend a note for dramatic effect. This would be chaos. Maybe the analogy is: it’s important in life to set up the stage and anticipate critical landmarks. Beyond that, we simply must trust the conductor.

Common Threads

Young or old, male or female, immigrant or Native American, educated or not, those of various religions and preferences, we are all human and share a great deal in common.  Sadly, it has been difficult recently to find the common factors.  The divide shows up among once jovial neighbors, friends who share a monthly bridge game, family members at the dinner table, co-workers in the staff office.  The parting of ways manifests itself dramatically on social media where unbridled frustration and fear appear at every click.  Uneasiness is apparent in polite conversation, as people try to be kind and avoid tricky topics.

My blog is about the journey—particularly about taking on new risks and adventures in the final quarter of the game. So why am I writing about the above?  Because it’s inescapable — and it’s part of the game.  What’s going on in our country affects the lives of our children and grandchildren and we need to pay attention.  I don’t pretend to have a solution to the divide we’re experiencing, but do suggest eight first steps:

  1. Listen to many voices, i.e. access varied sources of information

Intentionally read papers and watch news broadcasts that are known to be of the opposite political leaning from your own.

  1. Avoid hasty conclusions about people

Adopt a “no conclusion, no judgment” posture.  Period.

  1. Go out of your way to meet new people, especially those who have a different appearance, nationality, religion, or lifestyle

If you are Christian, visit a mosque. If you are Muslim, attend a Christian service.

  1. Smile more

This actually feels good and is perhaps the easiest way to say “Welcome to my world.”

  1. Take the time to hear people’s stories

Preconceived ideas about people (aka prejudices), especially about certain groups of people, usually vanish when we actually get to know a person.

  1. Give second chances

We are human!

  1. Choose gentle language

How differently we might view the  national health care discussion, for example,  if the plan were called a ”pilot program,”  which any new initiative is, to be reviewed and improved, rather than a “failure,” to be repealed.  Words are powerful and can be neutral or inflammatory.

  1. Be empathetic: imagine walking in the other’s shoes, figure out what makes that person tick

This may require all of the above. Experience a softening of the heart, let go of rigid beliefs, and become a more compassionate person.

Perhaps the above steps will help make a difference. It’s worth a try!

~ Post Script ~

For social media posters who share cute pictures and uplifting quotes, thanks for brightening my day.

For friends who approach me directly with honest respectful dialog about difficult issues, kudos to you for giving this a chance.

For leaders who take a stand for what is right in the face of repercussions, I congratulate your bravery.

For those who pray, please pray fervently that we will overcome the divide and again find the common threads we share as Americans.

It has been a week…..

…..and I am thankful. Thankful that Election 2016 is behind us. For months we were bombarded with negative rhetoric and ugly visual ads. Facebook throbbed with new posts, one more outrageous than the last. Terms such as crook and misogyny became part of everyday vocabulary in reference to our soon-to-be chosen president. The focus was on criticism rather then optimism, negative findings of the past rather than creative ideas for the future, exclusion rather than inclusion. I don’t know about you, but I was sad about the whole process.

Finally November 8th arrived, and I had the privilege of working at the polls with a fine group of people. We arranged tables to accommodate voters efficiently, hung customary notices, reviewed our assignments, and began the day with a long line at the door. Smiles and cheerful greetings welcomed our neighbors as they arrived. One dear elderly lady carried out her civic duty with the help of a patient daughter, others had moved to another part of the community and needed directions to their new polling location, a kind restaurant owner delivered lunch and then hours later dinner. Quite a few voters brought children and teens,  and we welcomed them eagerly as young witnesses to the democratic process. First time voters received a round of applause and cheers, much to their surprise. Some of us worked from 6 AM until closing at 8 PM .

After a full day at the polls, I returned home to view the colorful map and hear the earliest results coming in from the East Coast. Like many, I was very surprised. Late evening stretched into night at which time the map was complete and it was clear that the ever-intensifying nightmare of the campaign season had culminated in a victory for one candidate. Unprecedented protests followed along with fascinating commentary and many questions. Will campaign promises be fulfilled? Did the public receive false impressions from postings on social media? How did mainstream leaders miss the cries of a mass of the population that evidently feels “left out”? What impact will the new president in the White House (or on 5th Avenue) have on European nations teetering on the brink of electing far right leaders?

Only time will tell, I suppose. I hope and pray that thoughtful consideration and wisdom will play a role. Now one week later, there is another question. Should I prepare my mother’s cranberry-orange gelatin salad or fresh whole berry sauce? This is a question I can handle. And it gives me much joy!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

X Country Memories

I love teachers and especially those who coach sports! Recently I observed and wrote about swim coaches during an especially humid and hot Pennsylvania summer. What follows takes us to a cooler place and time, to the vast open spaces and dusty winding paths carved into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Imagine a sunny day in Ft. Collins with low humidity and a beautiful sky that stretches on forever, except where the mountains rise up abruptly in the West and draw a jagged line against the sea of blue. The altitude is 4,984 feet. High school cross country runners in brightly colored uniforms arrive and walk 1/4 mile or more to the stadium, where at least twelve other groups are staking out their territory and setting up “camp.” Team members help coaches carry coolers packed with fruit and snacks, large water jugs, and assorted equipment included a large tent awning.

The first to arrive plop their backpacks onto the grass and work together to raise up the poles of the canopy. Others talk with the coaches about the course and schedule. Some nap, play cards with friends or quietly stretch. I sit by one of the coolers and smile as the students help themselves. It’s a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

Before long, groups of uniforms make their way onto the dry crackling earth of the stadium and gather behind a yellow line. The coaches accompany them to give last minute reminders and encouragement. Teams form circles and sing chants and then line up as they await the ringing shot that sends the entire mass of color and energy bursting down the course like a herd of great creatures.

I cheer for the red and gold team and then slowly meander back to my seat in the shade as the runners disappear into the distance. For the coaches there is no rest, however. They run ahead to the 1-mile marker in order to time their students. Then on to the 2-mile marker for more record-keeping and finally they race to the finish line at the 3.1 mile marker ( 5 k) to welcome their hard-working runners. This seems pretty strenuous to me for adults who get up before dawn to prepare for the day and begin teaching by 7:30 AM.

Now this is the key! Anyone who has ever set foot in a high school classroom knows that total attention and energy are required to effectively implement a lesson and manage a class. Teachers need to respond to the surprises that occur and, most important, they are committed to offering each student special individual care. Most teachers have five classes daily and that translates to as many as one hundred fifty students. As well, they teach various levels and content throughout the day and must prepare materials, write and grade tests, answer emails, attend meetings, administer make-up work, etc. This sounds like a full-time job! Teachers who coach sports move directly from the classroom to the responsibility of supervising students at practice and in competition. I never fully appreciated the extra rigor and energy required to be a teacher-coach—until now.

Back to the throngs of students who are pacing themselves, breathing, and concentrating on strategies while moving along the course…….it’s soon time for me to leave my comfy chair and find the finish line. Some students look like they’re in pain. All are perspiring. Some lurch forward with new energy as they approach the end. Others barely make it across. I cheer for each runner equally as he or she makes it to the finish.

 

………..This all occurred on a Friday after school. I was proud to be there and to secretly applaud my son, one of the coaches. As dusk fell, we returned to his house, engaged in lively chatter about the personal records made that day and the positive team spirit I had witnessed over and over. I learned that the coaches check in with each runner after a competition to ask if goals were met and what new learning has occurred. If a runner has a bad day, encouragement and understanding from the coach are essential. I discovered that it’s not about winning, but rather about character, learning, and growth. Eventually, we discussed dinner and came up with a nice menu of quinoa, spinach salad, and leftover grilled beef. It tasted great, but I shouldn’t have been hungry. After all——-I hadn’t run anywhere.

I love teachers…

and especially teachers who are also swim coaches. Picture yourself at a junior championship meet on a steamy Saturday morning, 88 degrees in the shade at 9 AM. Parents and grandparents set up their camping chairs under trees, but the coaches are out there in the sun for hours. They don’t even get to jump into the pool to get cool!

“Don’t forget to put on sun screen, Lauren.” “Ten and under boys breaststroke line up here.”  With clip board in hand the coach calls out names from the roster for the next relay and guides the children to line up in order. Then he reminds them to hold hands, the little ones at least, and follow along, forming a snake of tiny bodies in identical suits and caps weaving its way through the crowd at water’s edge. The destination is the end of the pool where the young contestants will climb onto the block in their assigned lane.

These things go like clockwork, it appears. No time is lost. The participants in the previous race stay in the water until the next group has entered. Time-keepers are in place. An announcer has already named the swimmers and their lanes, which is helpful for us proud grandparents because each child looks about the same. The best part is the finish. If one or two children lag behind, the entire group cheers for them. Each is congratulated for his or her time, not for beating out the others. The swimmers reach across lane lines and shake hands.

I like this spirit of excellence without harsh competition. The teacher-coach encourages each child to reach maximum performance, appreciates the effort and courage it takes, and……….no wonder my grandchildren come back to such a rigorous summer activity year after year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blueberries are in ….

and my kitchen is a mess. The sink is full of stained utensils. A large soup pot sits idly nearby waiting to soak in warm soapy water. You see, I just cooked up a batch of fresh blueberry jam. Various mason jars fill one side of the counter along with an assortment of extra rings and flat lids. I’m sitting here at the computer to rest my legs and prepare for the clean-up. At this point I could be thinking about how easy it would have been to select several lovely jars of jam from the shelf at the grocery store or my favorite country market. But wait…

I would have missed the treat of going to the farm stand to buy freshly picked berries, the feel of those lovely little fruits as I washed and drained them, the hands-on work of chopping them with my large chef knife and discovering below the deep blue skin a soft yellow-green center. And I would have never had the fun of measuring all those cups of sugar. This is where the healthy aspect of jam becomes questionable–nearly twice the amount of sugar as fruit– and the directions make it clear that the exact amount of sugar is required for success. I’ll just spread the jam very lightly on my toast and muffins, I think, while stirring the conglomerate of fruit and sugar together with a pat of butter. The butter is to reduce foam. Now who ever knew that foam could develop from berries and sugar?

With the stirring and timing complete and after skimming off any surprise foam that may have snuck into the jam, I carefully ladle the hot bubbly mixture into jars using a funnel to prevent spills. I keep a small portion aside. Somehow spots of deep reddish- purple end up on the stove and counter and on my kitchen towels but all is well if I manage to keep the jars upright as they become filled with the beautiful steaming hot liquid. The potential for burns is real and caution is important. With sealing lids and rings screwed on, the whole project is slowly lifted into a large pot of boiling water one jar at a time for the final treatment–the boiling water bath.

The most fun is the final step as the jars are gently removed and begin to cool. The difference in temperature causes a suction and the lids pop as they are pulled tightly onto the jar. I count the pops to be sure all jars are sealed. Finally I can relax, leave the jam alone to cool, and taste that little sample I had kept aside. It’s sweet, still warm, and fresh as a garden full of summer blossoms–this is why I love to make blueberry jam!