Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paring it Down

PJ cleaning up
PJ just got home from a semester in Germany. He came back to a room spilling over with clothes, papers, books and assorted furniture from his last Millersville apartment. Ya-Jhu and I went in there while he was gone, hoping to make some sense of the chaos, but quickly retreated, totally defeated. But there is hope! PJ is a new man after his European sojourn, a pack rat no longer. He vows to whip his room into shape in a matter of days, relegating bags full of random saved things to the trash. He wants to pare his life down to the basics, and more power to him.

Julie recently traveled internationally for three months with one medium-sized backpack. She wore her tiny wardrobe, washed it in hostel sinks, and wore it again. She came home to a room full of fashion, enough sweaters and jeans to open a branch of LOFT, and she was turned off by the excess. Jules is sorting through, selecting many items to give to charity, vowing to pare her life down as she heads toward college and living on her own.

Julie and her backpack at the airport

Sheridan and Yaj have gone all organic and environmentally sensitive, toting their own bags to the grocery store, eschewing foil and plastic wrap for Tupperware. Steve and I are slow to fall in step, regularly forgetting to love the planet, but we're getting there. I look at our newly organized refrigerator, with lots of blessed open space, and realize that there is value to paring it down, combining three 1/3 full yogurts into one container, pitching the science experiment buried on the lower back shelf.

One of these fine days it will be my turn to confront the vast assortment of flotsam and jetsam in my home that would definitely qualify me for an episode of “Hoarders.” I will box up the old VHS tapes, I will jettison the canned goods long past their expiration date, I will pare my life down to its essence. Painful as the process will be, I know in the end it will feel good.

Have you ever been bitten by the throw-it-out bug? Have you looked at that pile of In Style magazines dating from 2009 and thought: “I guess that stuff is probably not ‘in style’ anymore?”

 And, going a little deeper…

What are you carrying that would feel so good to put down?  What excess is cluttering up your life?

It’s not New Year’s yet, but here’s a 2014 challenge: take a good, long look at your stuff, any toxic relationships, your overcrowded to-do lists, everything that is standing between you and a simpler, less stressful life. Pare it down, all of it: say goodbye to people who consistently hurt you, shred those crazy lists, box up your regrets and your disappointments and get rid of them.

Now. Look at all the beautiful open space in your heart. Room to breathe. Room to live abundantly.

I’ll do it. I’ll do it if you will.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow Day Prayer

Dear Lord,

Well, the weather certainly wreaked havoc with MY plans this week. I’ve been designing our annual Advent  prayer center at church for months. I take a lot of pride in the work that my amazingly creative friend Marda and I do in coming up with a different center each year.  As usual, I anticipated over 120 people coming through and experiencing 12 different, hands-on prayer activities over a period of four days. The stations were all set up, the music playing and the candles lit.

water prayer station

making Tibetan prayer flags

What do they say about pride going before a fall? In this case, a snowfall?

Sunday, Day #1 of the event, the fluffy flakes began to descend during the 10:30 worship service (we were due to open the center at 4 PM). The forecasted “dusting” quickly turned into “coating,” then the meteorologists started sinking rulers into the heaps of white stuff outside. Four inches. Six inches. Because it was the weekend, plows were very slow to appear on the roads. Scratch Day #1. Attempt to reschedule 30 people for the remaining days.

Monday, Day #2, was cold but blessedly clear, so everything happened as expected. Whew! But wait!

Tuesday, Day #3, the heavy snow began by 8 AM and as of this writing shows no signs of abating. Once again, a cancellation, another large group of folks to (hopefully) be moved to another time.

Tomorrow should be sunny but bitterly cold, which will also likely deter some people from venturing out. And I have to take everything down tomorrow night to make room for the senior citizen group’s Christmas lunch in Parish Hall on Thursday.

I’ve been fuming and fussing, very annoyed and disappointed that my big production is in tatters.  Thanks a lot, God! Here I was trying to do something nice for you, and this is the appreciation I get!

Now that that’s out of my system…

Maybe I need to let go of my grand plans, well-intentioned though they may be. These storms have inconvenienced many, many people on a far deeper level than me. Drivers in cars have skidded off roads, children in houses have lost their heat. Schools and businesses have closed. Emergency workers have been put at risk as they respond to countless calls for help. Maybe I need to pray for all of them, and not in clever ways but in a simple one.  Perhaps I can utter a prayer of thanks that my family and friends are safe and warm, and that for us this snow is just a beautiful nuisance.

And Lord, may I see this unanticipated week of altered plans as a kind of gift. A reminder of who is in control (note to self: NOT me).  A not-so-gentle nudge to send me to my knees. Life is filled with stuff that just happens, but there is grace and redemption in all of it if I only take the time to look.

This year, may the messed-up prayer center,  center me.  Amen.

our backyard this morning

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Angels Among Us

Newborn Julie and Mom
19 years ago tonight, I was at Pennsylvania Hospital awaiting the birth of Bouncing Baby Seyfried #5. Labor wasn't progressing, even after hours.of walking in center city in the bitter early December cold. Back in Oreland, my mom was amusing the other kids with a guessing game--boy or girl this time? While I badly wanted a sister for Rosie, with three boys already, I was prepared for another son. Which would have been fine had Steve and I been able to agree on a name. I thought Charlie was adorable; Steve wasn't so sure. His choice was Benedict, the name of one of his good friends in seminary. I was adamantly against this one (though I liked Ben himself), thinking only of probable nicknames for the poor little guy (Arnold! Eggs!) We had nearly arrived at a compromise monicker, Quinn, but were debating still when we decided to head home. Little Whatshisname was clearly not about to make an appearance today.

But as we cut through the hospital lobby en route to the parking lot, we bumped into the nurse who'd been there when I was examined in the morning. She took one look at me and said, "You really should go back upstairs and be examined again." She sounded so emphatic that we obeyed. And thank God we did, because that exam revealed the baby's heart rate was dangerously low. By the time I got settled in a room, full labor had kicked in and I was in agony. I don't want to think of what would've happened if we'd been on the Schuylkill Expressway at that moment.

After a tumultuous evening, shortly after 1 AM, Julie Claire arrived, safe and sound. Ever since, we've thought of that nurse as an angel, put into our path to make sure our precious child was OK.

I was thinking of Julie and angels again this week as she finally came home from her three month backpacking odyssey in Europe. I was so proud of her for attempting this feat, but worried all day, every day about her safety as she traveled through 11 countries alone. With only two minor negative incidents ( infected tonsils in Vienna and bedbugs in Nice) the whole trip, and many, many incidents of kind strangers who became friends, I concluded that Jules had an angel on her shoulder, making sure she was OK. Then I realized that these new friends WERE her angels, making her traveling world a safer and happier place.
Julie's banner

Do you believe in angels? Heavenly protectors who make sure we’re OK? It’s hard to square that, isn’t it, with the many, many people who suffer hardships, some beyond imagining? But I will say that we have the power to be angels for each other on this bumpy road called Life. Offering a helping hand, an encouraging word. A little love. We can do this.

Welcome home, my Julie. May you always be surrounded by angels, as you are an angel to me. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's the Thought that Counts?

Just got the most thoughtful early birthday present. My friend Mary Ellen wrote in for tickets to a taping of The Rachael Ray Show in NYC on December 5th for me and my daughters (Rose, Julie and Ya-Jhu), and the tickets came yesterday morning! Those of you who know me as a cook know how often I use Ray's recipes (several times every week), so I'm as excited as a tween girl going to see Taylor Swift!!

I am lucky enough to be surrounded by gifted gift-givers. I marvel at their uncanny ability to choose exactly what the recipient would love, without outright asking them, so there's the wonderful element of surprise. Included in my Gifting Hall of Fame are my husband and kids, who never fail to come up with presents that others were dreaming of. I'll never forget the year Rosie (who was REALLY young) saved up enough money from her baking business to buy PJ his heart's desire, a Gameboy Color (remember them)? There had been a typhoon near their factory in Asia, so shipments around Christmastime were extremely limited. Undaunted, Rose went on eBay and found the coveted toy, paying much more than she should have, but so delighted to give her brother this treat.  Yaj is also stellar in this department. For someone who hasn't known us that long, she ALWAYS picks the perfect things, accompanying them with the cutest notes. And, truly, no one tops Julie. She is so 
Christmas 2012, largely a Julie Seyfried production!
savvy and clued-in that, last year, I gave her my credit card and asked her to do the Christmas shopping for me. She did an incredible job, and everyone got what they actually wanted (and she came in under budget).

Which leads me to my confession. I am a dreadful shopper. I mean well, really I do. But mine is the unfortunate combination of unobservant and perpetually low on funds come birthdays and holidays. I can only guess at what my loved ones would like, and my guesses are invariably wrong. I stand in the mall, paralyzed, Nat King Cole crooning "Chestnuts roasting..."on the sound system. Finally, in desperation, I purchase either something they already have (and I didn't notice), or something that isn't their taste at all. Everyone is always so nice, and acts like they're pleased with my offerings. But I know better.

So here we are again, heading rapidly into “the most wonderful time of the year.” Others of my acquaintance have squirreled presents away since last January, and now have only to wrap and label and put under the tree. I have purchased zero, a state of affairs likely to continue until December 20th, when once more Nat King Cole will provide the soundtrack to my in-store panic attack.

Rose delighted with a gift (not from me!)

I hope my family and friends know how much I love them, how grateful I am for them. I hope they will forgive my misguided efforts to buy for them. I promise to include the gift receipts for quick and easy returns!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Out of this World

Rose and PJ--a starry night on the beach
I’ve got to tell you, I am completely nutty about outer space. From  Close Encounters... at the movies, to Mary Doria Russell’s incredible book The Sparrow, to stargazing on the beach at night, I am enthralled by the sheer majesty and scope of the universe.

In the heyday of NASA, I followed each manned space flight eagerly. I remember watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It was July, 1969, and we were staying in a TV-less cottage in Normandy Beach, NJ. Our next door neighbor, Dave MacDonald (age 95), had a television set and invited us over. He had served in the Spanish-American War, among other amazing life events, and I wondered how he would react to this most momentous occasion. As it turned out, he fell asleep just before “one small step for man,” and his guests were left to marvel as Old MacDonald snored in his recliner.

More recently, I was fascinated by the discovery of a planet much like ours, in another solar system.  Gleise 581 g, dubbed the Goldilocks Planet by scientists (“not too hot, not too cold, just right” for life), could indeed harbor, or have harbored, life similar to ours. Looking ahead hundreds, if not thousands of years, wouldn’t it be cool to pop by and visit this place and (possibly) this people?

In fact, in 2008 a digital time capsule was launched, containing snippets of our Earth culture, from messages from world leaders and average citizens, to the music of Beethoven, Bach and Chuck Berry. It passed Mars in 4 minutes. This boggles my mind—a communication that reaches another planet quicker than my kids respond to a call to wash the dishes!

One week our adult ed class at church wrestled with the question: where is God on maybe multiple sentient being-sustaining planets? What does this do to our comprehension of the Bible? Is the God of Israel the be-all and end-all, or the God of a people limited by their understanding? It was an interesting conversation to say the least.

I believe that when we are threatened by the possibility of extraterrestrial life, we put our human limits on a limitless God. Why is it impossible that God who we believe created everything that is, cares for life forms elsewhere? Could God send a Jesus to them, to enter into their pain and offer them life eternal? Why not? 

Father Francis Delano, Many Worlds, One God: "Any person possessing a religious faith that conveys an adequate idea of the greatness of God's creative ability, of humanity's humble position in the universe, and of the limitless love and care God has for all His intelligent creatures, should not be afraid to look at the evidence....that indicates that we humans are not the only ones in the universe having intellects and wills capable of knowing and loving God."

And from the movie Contact: “I guess I'd say if it is just seems like an awful waste of space.”


"Neptune" from Gustav Holst's "The Planets"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Big Pill

I did something to my arm about four weeks ago, and it’s killing me. It feels like pinched nerves; I can barely lift it without intense pain. It has interrupted my sleep, and makes it hard to type at work. If this keeps up, I tell you, I’ll have to go to the doctor within the year! Meanwhile I struggle wincingly through my routine, willing this whatever-it-is to go away on its own.

I don’t do the whole injury and illness thing well. It’s a good thing I rarely get sick. In the past 29 years I’ve had pneumonia once, had maybe two stomach bugs and one bout of the flu. I think, given my house full of children, that’s a remarkable track record. 99% of the time, I’ve been able to soothe fevered brows and clean up from upset tummies without catching anything myself. Even when the entire household comes down with the same disease, I remain the last mom standing, as it were.

baby sister Carolyn
As a little girl, I was usually fit as a fiddle. My sisters, on the other hand, got everything that came down the pike. C had the mumps as a baby, all on one side of her neck. She was just learning to stand up, and I recall seeing her hoist herself up in her playpen—and promptly fall over on her swollen side. And poor Mo! Perpetually plagued with one thing or another, all her life. Maureen was such a sweet, motherly child that, in school, she was always the one who helped the kid who’d just vomited. Of course, she would promptly catch whatever that kid had, and be twice as sick.

Through childhood I breezed, with nary a broken bone or serious fall. My secret? The bare minimum of exercise. One would be hard pressed to sprain anything while sprawled on the sofa watching Petticoat Junction.

Nowadays, on the rare occasions when I do get hurt or become ill, I am the most impatient of patients, a giant pain when in pain. I insist on maintaining my daily schedule at all costs, stubbornly shooing away all offers of help. No, I don’t want any damn ginger ale! Give me the car keys! I’m going to work! And do NOT suggest I take medicine! Apart from the two pills I must take daily for
the sum total of my medicine cabinet
my mental well-being, I refuse any and all cold remedies, temperature reducers and stomach settlers. I wish I could say it’s because I prefer a holistic regime of vitamins and health foods, but in fact my diet is only so-so, I am a big meal skipper and a caffeine fiend.
At some point, I know, my body will betray me, and I will succumb to the various viruses and ouchies that others have as a matter of course. For now, though, I will keep on cancelling doctor appointments and refusing to believe I am not immortal.

Note to my kids: do as I say, and NOT as I do!

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Tomorrow morning, for the umpty-umpth time, I will be the Halloween witch for the Christ’s Lutheran Nursery School classes. Every year, I need less costume, makeup and attitude adjustment to play this part. My annual shtick is to pretend to be a witch from somewhere else (Texas, Ireland), where the Halloween customs are comically different (the families give the trick or treaters pockets full of grits; everyone dresses like leprechauns and speaks Gaelic, etc.) The children take great delight in correcting me: “No, no, we don’t  DO that! We don’t give people our money when they open their doors to us! We don’t collect dirty laundry at every house!”  I enjoy these visits, but dread the holiday they presage.

You see, I never got into Halloween. I’m not a big candy eater, for one thing (except for Mounds bars. I buy big bags of these each October, ostensibly for the “kids,” but really I squirrel most of them away for me).  For another, my formative years were spent on the lower East Side of Manhattan, not the safest of places even in the 60s. “Trick or treat” involved our parents ferrying us up and down in the elevator for an hour or so, stopping at the apartments of elderly neighbors who gave us poorly-wrapped cookies and mushy apples, all of which went straight to the trash can as soon as we got home. So I have no fond memories of bonfires and pumpkin patches and neighborhood parties, far from it.

Thank you Aunt C!
When the kiddos were born, I braced myself for October 31st, knowing I would have to do my duty, traipse around town with my tiny ghosts and goblins, and purchase pounds of Snickers and Twix to parcel out to other friends’ tiny ghosts and goblins. And of course, my offspring all LOVED everything Halloween, anticipating the spooky fun for weeks. Our house decorations amounted to spider webs (the real ones, not store-bought!); our jack o’lantern was hastily carved immediately prior to our first night visitor. My creative sister C was responsible for some of our more successful flights of costume fancy: Sheridan’s lobster, Evan’s spaceman. Rose took the cake for most personally inventive: one year she was Olympian Kerri Strug on crutches (just Google Strug); once Rosie was the Declaration of Independence. Every year, I pretended to be charmed by the parade of doorbell-ringing scavengers “don’t take the whole basketful, kids! Kids! I mean it!” and thrilled by the bounty my children brought home (does anybody really eat malted milk balls?) And every year, I rejoiced when it was time to turn out the lights and go to bed.

Rosie and her candy jackpot

 Lest you think I’m a total killjoy, I adore Christmas and happily fuss at Thanksgiving. I’ve even done my Easter bit, with egg dyeing and such (one year we did Ukrainian pysanky—just Google it). But there is something about Fright Night that doesn’t sit well with me.  Let others revel in the dark side!  Boo to All Hallows Eve, I say!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eye of the Beholder

Note the date--still not cashed in!
In my desk drawer there is a lovely gift certificate to a spa, courtesy of my kids. It’ll expire if I don’t watch out. I could use it for a facial, a massage, a mani-pedi, and I haven’t. So what’s stopping me?

In my bathroom there is:  toothbrush, face scrub, cold cream. My entire beauty routine!! I should probably be using anti-aging thises and thats, to trick Mother Nature and give me back a few years, but I don’t. So what’s the problem?

In my closet: a “gently used” pair of running shoes. And I do mean gently. I’ve gotten so out of shape that I huff and puff even bending down to tie the laces. So why aren’t I hitting the road?

I’ve thought about it a lot recently. I’d love to claim I have no personal vanity, but that’d be a huge whopper. Oh, I care how I look, all right…I just don’t want to put any effort into it. And to be totally honest, I have my physical appearance and my history of bipolar disorder inextricably intertwined in my head. You see, when I was at my worst I became completely obsessed with clothes and makeup. I got all dolled up to empty the trash, and took an inordinate amount of time primping before a trip to the grocery store.  I even wrote a poem about it, way back when:

A small part of my old cosmetic collection

Looking at our household budget
Over the last year
It wouldn’t surprise me
If the item purchased most
Was lip gloss
For so many years
I was an actress
Makeup was part of my job
And every single time
I couldn’t wait
To scrub clean after the show
It felt like magic
Here is the girl again
The real girl
Under the layers of powder and paint                       
I wake up
And so disappointed
My real girl isn’t in there anymore
Instead, I’m this--this
Same, sad, nasty, twisted thing
every day
I write a note
On my face
In thick black mascara
Please save me
In pinkest blush
I’m dying here
In the brightest blue eye shadow
And everyday
I sign it
With a slick red lip gloss kiss
So far no one has answered
Maybe tomorrow
I’ll use green eye shadow instead

Luckily, shortly after that poem was written I got the psychiatric help I so desperately needed, and for the past several years I have been on a pretty even keel. But there has to be a happy medium, right? I can spruce up a bit without being Maybelline’s Most Valuable Customer.  And trying to look my best on the outside doesn’t mean I’m hiding something shattered inside.

So I think I’ll set my alarm a little earlier tomorrow morning, and try to go for a run.  I might even slap on a little foundation and yes, lip gloss too, before I leave for work. And it doesn’t matter who sees me. I’ll do this for myself. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The ABCs of Us

Affirmation for Orchestra, the composition that got Sheridan an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer when he was 18.  Proud moment. 

Budapest: Julie’s latest stop on her backpacking trip. 10 countries by the time she’s through! How can Oreland possibly compare?

Julie and friends in Salzburg, Austria

C”: our nickname for my sis Carolyn. Best sibling and best aunt ever.

Delmarva: My favorite creation of my favorite husband. Steve as Cinderella’s stepsister still makes me roar after 30 years.

Enough cereal: There never was when they were growing up. And I’d buy five boxes at a time! Now our household has shrunk appreciably. Why hasn’t my grocery bill?

Francium: At USNA, Evan studied the nuclear structure of the isotopes of this element. Where did his brain come from? To me, francium sounds like something yummy from France.
Evan physics award Naval Academy 2008

Giovanni McMenamin. Otis Spunkmyer:  When she was little, these were the names Rose chose for her future children. Why do I think there’s a chance those are still her names?

History: PJ plans to teach it. Steve reads mountains of it. I am doomed to repeat it.

Intrepid: My children. I am very trepid.

Joanie: Mom’s been gone 7 years. When I miss her, I turn on Dr. Phil at full volume. Brings her right back.

Kitchen: We have the world’s tiniest. Yet when everybody’s home that’s where we gather.

Lacrosse: PJ eats and sleeps it, plays it even in Germany. Refs kids’ games, hopes to coach. Oh, did I mention he enjoys lax?

PJ playing for the Marburg (Germany) Saints

Music directors: Sher and Ya-Jhu each play organ and direct the choir at a different Lutheran church. Sunday afternoon chats involve sermons and hymns to a humorous degree.

Nature: Everybody in the family but me LOVES nature. I love to hike from the car to my front door.

Only child: What I’m sure each kid once in a while wished to be. They now love being part of a big family. Yay!

Piano: an important part of our home. After dinner was always melodious; the kids would play so I wouldn’t make them do the dishes!

Quiet, too quiet. What our house is, after so many years as a five-ring circus.

Rabbits:  Julie’s Stoli and Stevie. We miss them, sorta. For our next pet, I vote pet rocks.

Sound: Rose’s world as an audio engineer. Her work life is full of words that baffle me. I finally learned what a Foley artist is (Rose is!)

Rose's album cover

Taxi service: Steve’s. Available 24/7. To Trenton train station. Out for milk on a rainy night. Thanks, honey!

Underway: What I’m glad Evan no longer is, now that his submarine days are behind him.

Vegetarian: Seyfried fail. Rosie tried being one. Julie did too. Sirloin steak keeps calling my name.

Wonder: I am filled with it. Wonder where my keys are. Wonder where my shoes are.

Xtremely: xcited that we’ll ALL be together for Christmas.

Yaj: My daughter-in-law, brightens our lives just by being her sweet, talented self!

The kids in Lewes

Zilch: What my family could do to make me happier than they already do.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

We Are All Tattooed

I gotta tell you honestly, it took me awhile to get used to Rosie’s tattoo. I’d ridden with her through unusual
Rose's famous tattoo
hair colors and piercings of body parts I’d
always believed God never meant to have pierced (eyebrow, tongue). But this was different. This was permanent. Here's what Rose wrote for the NPR Studio 360 website feature "Occupational Ink":

In school for sound design and audio engineering, I had a professor who stressed the importance of "checking phantom power" (48 volts). To protect delicate microphones, he said, we would need to be careful about making sure the extra power supply was turned off before plugging them in. "If there's one thing you should tattoo on your arm, it's 'check +48V'"
So I did.
Now, living in New York, as an active engineer, my tattoo is a funny inside joke- and a reminder of how hard I've worked to realize my career dream

These days, several years down the road, I don’t even notice her arm adornment; or if I do, I recognize it as a familiar feature of an appendage I’ve loved Rose’s whole life.
In Costa Rica this summer, the kids loved it when we painted their faces. Mariposa (butterfly).

Costa Rica face canvases

Corazon (heart).  Granted, we used washable paint, and it all disappeared at bathtime. But the children wanted us to paint statements on them in bright colors: this is who I am, this is what I care about. They ran around giggling, delighted with their temporary tattoos.

I very much enjoy reading, and hearing, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. This Denver-based minister leads her flock at the House for All Sinners and Saints. Hers is a really fascinating Lutheran voice. She’s a former stand-up comic, and a recovering alcoholic. She loves the liturgy. Her congregation is inclusive to the max. To her, God lives and loves and suffers with us. And Nadia has tattoos. Lots of them, all over. Religious, many of them. Her body is etched with the symbols of her faith.  I wonder (not really, I know the answer): would I be so bold as to be inked? (nah, too chicken of course).  And yet…

And yet. I AM tattooed. We are all tattooed. From the minute we are born, with our downy new baby skin. We have birthmarks, and then freckles. The little touches that help make us all physically unique. Later, our skin bears the scars of sun and of time. Each laugh line, every wrinkle, is a tattoo, an irreversible marking on our bodies. Some of us try to stave off our tattoos with sunscreen, or with Botox, but eventually the marks appear anyway.

So, what do our life tattoos say about us? That we are not blank canvases but full, rich ones. So let us celebrate the message we have for the world, spelled out on our flesh: we are here, living fully every amazing day that we’ve been given. At any age, we are God’s works of art. Beautiful and beloved. Just look at us!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Toughest Day of the Year...

…for me, is today, September 30th. For you see, my mom Joanie died 7 years ago yesterday, and my darling sister Maureen died 32 years ago tomorrow. Today, I live in suspension between grieving for what had happened, and grieving for what was still to come. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.

I spent Mo’s last day on earth, totally oblivious. I awoke to an early AM phone call from sister Carolyn. There had been a car accident in Atlanta. C was heading to the hospital and would call soon. I prayed. Let her be OK. Please God. And then came the answer to my prayer: C calling back: “Elise, can you come home today?” I remember flying to Atlanta that afternoon, praying again—this time that I would die too. That prayer wasn’t answered the way I wanted either.

Mo on her last day

Every year on September 30th, I would focus on my Mo. I’d play Billy Joel (her favorite) and cry. I’d re-read the box of letters I have from her, the last only days before her death. And so the September 30ths passed, decades full of them.

Then came September, 2006. Mom was diagnosed with an ovarian tumor. The doctor told us it was terminal, but that she’d likely live for weeks. Mo’s anniversary was approaching. Mom announced abruptly that she would be in Heaven with Mo by October 1st. No one believed her. And yet… at 2:15 PM on September 29th, Joanie reunited with Mo at last.

I want to write about the miracles: the sorrowful email from the boy driving the car Mo’s last night, who tracked us down through a website. Mo’s appearances to my grandma (Grandma hadn’t been told Mo had died). The many times in the past 7 years that I have felt Mom’s presence as if she were just in the next room.

But I find that miracles in this day and age are a pretty hard sell. All well and good for you, people seem to say. It’s tough to swallow, though. And I totally understand, because that doubter was once me, too.

Just as we create our story, day by day and action by action, so I believe God creates us, not once but constantly. Joanie and Mo created beautiful stories. It was crushing to come to the end of them. But is it the end? I firmly believe it is not. Somewhere, maybe just out of sight, my mother and my sister live on, waiting for C and me to join them. I’d love to scribble my story fast and make that day come sooner, but I can’t. So on I live, in the blessed story that has grown to include five amazing children. I am so comforted by them. I can wait.

I look at the clock. 4:50 PM. Come on, September 30th! Be done for another year! Let me put my mourning in mothballs because otherwise I couldn’t bear it. And Mom? Mo? Watch over us, until we meet again.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Stuff for Sale

Just got a call that I have been dreading. A neighbor’s son had contacted me weeks ago about a “project” he was working on. Could I give him a few minutes of my time? Certainly! I’m all for imparting some of my wisdom to the younger generation! I imagined a school assignment that required interviewing a person old enough to remember Herman’s Hermits (moi).

Nay! Turns out the lad has a different agenda. He’s out to sell me Cutco knives. I flinch, because I’ve been down that road many times before. My premiere foray into the world of razor sharp kitchen implements was a presentation by a young actor who was working for us, and still, surprisingly, falling short of making a decent living. So he shilled for Cutco. Next came the daughter of a woman I hadn’t seen, no joke, in 20 years. She, too, arrived on my doorstep with an assortment of cutlery. More recently, our dear young friend Hannah came a calling. She had a refreshing attitude: just let me cut some rope in your kitchen, blurt out my spiel, and we can all go back to our lives. Halfway through her Cutco speech, her cell phone rang. It was the offer of a better job! Hannah literally threw her knives in the bag and then and there called it a career.

For the record: my knives are old, and probably not as sharp as they could be (but then, neither am I). I am emotionally attached to each one of them—paring, chef’s, serrated—and have no intention of adding to my collection. But Cutco pays for every booking, even if nothing is sold, so why not listen to the kid?

My father was a furniture salesman, and not a very good one. He made a modest living selling Danish Modern sofas and tables to stores. We ended up furnishing our various homes with his samples, our living room adorned with chairs of black leather and chrome that you’d need a crowbar to get out of, and Rya rugs so thick that you wanted to mow them. I watched him come back from many a road trip, tired and defeated, and I vowed never to sell anything.

But here I am, selling myself at every turn. Buy my books! Book me as a speaker! I loathe this part of the business and wish I could hire someone to take my place. It gets really old. I wish I had a better product to offer. I lack the confidence to pound on doors, to cold-call, to do what I know it takes to successfully hawk wares. It’s a hard-knock life, being a salesman, and I applaud those brave enough to attempt it.

The Cutco Kid will be here any minute, showing me how his butcher knife saws through wood. I doubt I’ll buy, but I give him lots of credit for trying. I will sit, listening patiently, as I wish others had sat for my dad, long ago.

Tom Cunningham, salesman

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bumpy Landings

Over this past weekend, our family packed up, cleaned up, and left Lewes until next summer. After a two hour drive, we unpacked, cleaned up (how DO these houses manufacture dirt on their own while we’re away?) and settled back in Oreland for another year. It may have been a relatively short hop, but it was, as always, a bumpy landing.

Not that everything at the shore is peaches and cream. But there’s always the soul-soothing walk on
Four out of five--best we can do these days!
the beach to quiet racing brains and calm frazzled nerves.  The slower pace infects even the most ambitious among us, as the screened porch and afternoon naps beckon.  But as the last days tick inexorably by, we rev up to our usual frantic activity level, and we fret about what awaits us back in PA.

This September, the Seyfrieds are all about leave-takings: Rosie is off to Seattle for a visit this week; PJ just embarked on a semester in Marburg, Germany; Julie leaves Thursday for a 2 ½ month European backpacking trek which will take her from Italy to Finland, with several stops in between. Both Rose and Evan moved into new digs Sunday (Evan in DC celebrating the first time ever that he can afford to live without a roommate).

on the boardwalk, back in the day

We are NOT the masters of the smooth transition. When the kids were little, the first days in Delaware were tearful as they missed their rooms, their friends at home. Along about week two, they finally adjusted, and the next six weeks were happy indeed. Like clockwork, though, they fell apart when it was time to return to Oreland. Our heavy-laden trip back up Highway One (High chairs! Cribs! Playpens! Bikes! We would have benefited from a U-Haul just to transport the toys alone!)  was further burdened by the inconsolable weeping coming from the car seats in the back. Steve and I annually settled in for at least a week of nightmares and disorientation as we returned to a town without ocean breezes: “I miss mine beach! I miss mine boardwalk!” tiny PJ used to say, with deep emotion if not grammatical accuracy.

Today, Mom and Dad, too, experience bumpy landings. Steve returns to countless hours of booking shows, rehearsing, and preparing for his drama classes. My church schedule goes directly to insane, with so many things going on that I almost (but not quite) regret going away at all. It doesn’t help that it’s still really hot and we have no air conditioning (unlike the delightful AC in the Lewes condo); I easily sweat off the five pounds I’ve tried to lose all summer.

The only constant in life is change, right? Yes, but that’s not always good news for us creatures of habit. Nevertheless, our circumstances do change, often, and we must adjust.  And by and large, as Evan would say, “it’s all good.”

And so we come to the end of the runway, taxi for a bit, and prepare for takeoff again. Fasten your seat belts, everyone!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

All I Could Never Be

There are some things I don’t miss about mothering my children. I was always such a bundle of nerves that every “first” terrified me. First night of sleeping all the way through?  She’ll never wake up!(even though she was months older hitting that milestone than my friends’ kids). First solid food? He’ll choke! (even though it’s fairly difficult to asphyxiate on runny rice cereal).  First walking? She’ll take a terrible fall! (even though she was only toddling three steps into my arms). And don’t get me started on first bike ride without training wheels! Agony! Even as I pretended to smile and cheer, inside I was jello. And old habits die hard. Just today, Sheridan took a swim in the very choppy bay waters and I didn’t take my eyes off him the whole time (and he’s—ahem—29 now).

Neurotic and panicky as I was, my five managed to get through their childhoods remarkably free of my quirks, and are all pretty darned adventurous now.  For example, last year Evan, Rose and Julie were on the Big Island of Hawaii together. In short order, Rose and Evan jumped off a cliff into the ocean; all three hiked a volcano, navigating rocks with oozing lava on them (they poked the orange
stuff with sticks, which immediately caught fire); they drove to the top of Mauna Kea at 2 AM on pitch dark and winding mountain roads to look at the spectacular display of stars. It would have been my Vacation from Hell, but they had a blast. 

All around me these days, my friends are becoming grandparents. One by one, Becky and Perrin and Sue and Janine and Mary Ellen are turning into “Nana,” “Granny," etc.  Someday it will be my turn, and while I can’t wait for the babies, I fervently hope I do not maintain my fever pitch of fear and worry about these precious children-to-be. 

I think of my Nana a lot down here at the shore.  Nana and her sister, my Aunt Rose, rented a cottage at Normandy Beach, NJ from Memorial Day to Labor Day every summer. As a treat, my sister Mo and I got to spend two weeks with them in early July. Nana loved us to distraction, but child care was definitely on her terms. On the sand, she plied us with a picnic hamper full of food—sandwiches, chips, cookies—and told us we had to wait 30 minutes to swim after eating. At the 29 minute mark, out would come more food. Took us quite awhile to catch on—she was really afraid to watch us in the ocean at all.

While I adored her, I don’t want to BE her. She, like my own mom, like me, was just too nervous. So what kind of Grandma do I want to be? Above all, cool and calm and serene. I want to rock my little ones, and soothe them, and reassure them that the world is a truly wonderful place.

Soooo….personality transplant, anyone?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

No News Is...

“And that’s the way it is, Wednesday, May 9, 1973. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News. Good night.”

“But the BIG story on Action News is (fill in the blank: house fire, overnight shooting, or car accident).”

Time was, I was a news junkie. No one could scoop me on happenings, around the block or around the world. I was a particular expert on pop culture. I loved the “feel good “stories, royal weddings and such, but also knew the rehab status of everyone from Elvis to Michael Jackson. I could hold my own when discussing the Middle East or dastardly doings on City Council.  We got the daily newspaper, which I devoured front to back. From acrimonious political campaigns to local cat ladies, from the space shuttle to space-y actors—I was virtually unstumpable.

At some point recently, the internet and cable TV, and the 24/7 barrage of data, overwhelmed me and I quit checking the news, cold turkey. I couldn’t begin to keep up with all the disgraced sports stars and toppled governments. Plus, it was all too depressing! I yearn for a simpler time, when the manageably-sized morning paper was flung onto your porch, and the avuncular network anchor told you what you needed to know every night at 6 PM.  Now, it has to be a pretty darned big story to get my attention…only disasters or scandals on an epic scale register on my info-meter. It’s all too, too much to process, at least for me. I figure, if it impacts me directly I’ll hear about it. Otherwise, ignorance is bliss!

My sole exception? NPR in the car. For some reason, I can handle the flow of events when chronicled on “All Things Considered” or “Morning Edition.”  And I ONLY listen in the car (perhaps because my alternatives are the classical station that plays mainly obscure works by the 19th century Alsatian composer Gustav Snortfelter, or rock with tons of commercials.) Catch me after a long road trip and I’ll tell you what’s happening, locally and globally. On my ridiculously brief daily trek to work, I’m lucky if I can get Shadow Traffic and the daily weather forecast before I arrive at the office. 

 So I am one of the poorly informed these days, and I hate it. I’m at least 2 presidents behind in Egypt, and I may be the only person on the planet who doesn’t know the name of Kate and William’s baby (I was pushing for Spike—was I right?) I take a deep breath and flip on the set, and am immediately turned off by all the SHOUTING (note to Fox and MSNBC alike: volume does not equal effectiveness).

Is there a kinder, gentler way to ease back in to following the news? Perhaps a return to the weekly Gazette circa 1776, complete with ye olde spelling? Nope, Pandora’s box is opened and there’s no going back. But I wonder, do today’s kids know more of our collective story—or less?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Free Write

Playpen member Casey's terrific novel!
I belong to a writer’s group at home. These accomplished women have been meeting for many years (I am a fairly recent addition), supporting one another in their writing careers. “Playpen” includes a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a screen writer, several novelists and teachers, even a pair of writers who have published a book together. We meet monthly, and everyone brings news to share, as well as a helpful tip or two (website, new outlet for submissions, etc.) I find the group wonderfully affirming and inspiring.

In the summer at the beach, I often hit a pretty substantial writer’s block. Which makes no sense to me: here I am in a beautiful setting, with spare time I never have in Oreland, and I sit on the porch facing the dreaded blank page. This year, I decided to meet the problem head-on. I attended a “free write” hosted by the Rehoboth Beach Writer’s Guild. I had no idea what to expect, but hoped it would jump-start some creativity.

The event, attended by six people with their laptops, was a series of writing prompts given by the group’s leader. These prompts ranged from lines taken from poems, to New Yorker cartoons, to random words on slips of paper. Everyone had five minutes to write about each topic, then to read their work aloud. Wow, was that eye-opening! I discovered that, while I think of myself as a “fast” writer, I’m nowhere near speedy enough to come up with compelling material on the spot. My fellow attendees, all veterans of the free write, churned out paragraph after paragraph of really good stuff, some touching, some funny. I, on the other hand, wrote mostly drivel, and was embarrassed to share it at all (you could pass, and for one prompt I did—at that point I was tempted to pack up and go home, where at least I could be alone with my blank page.)

One of the writing prompts. My output was less than stellar.
 Will I go back next week? I’m not sure. It was a little discouraging, and I do a fine job of discouraging myself already. But it definitely took me out of my comfort zone, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve never taken a writing course of any kind, and have decided that my “voice” is what it is—I’ll never write a thriller (the only one I’d scare is me) or a romance (I’m such a prude that I’d blush if my characters even kissed). I write, basically, one kind of thing: spiritual essays about my life, with (hopefully) some humor. My kids often urge me to try another genre (“something edgy” says Rose, predictably), but I’m afraid to stretch very far.  I’m so poor at challenging myself in general, whether it be trying a new sport, or really putting myself out there as a writer and speaker. If it’s hard, I shy away. And I know I miss so much.

So OK. I’ll try the free write again. I can only get better, right?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mission Time

Rosebud Team (can you spot me?)
I wrote the following 10 years, and 10 mission trips, ago. This Sunday morning 35 of us will head to San Ramon, Costa Rica, and once again will have the profound experience of sharing God’s love with the “least of these.” May we be respectful of their culture, loving and giving, and, always, awed and humbled by the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in us.

Our camp took place over a thousand miles from Christ's Lutheran, in a community called Two Strike, on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Two Strike faces the same problems that plague the whole reservation: rampant alcoholism, unemployment, depression and despair. Daily, a large assortment of Lakota children of all ages waited outside the decrepit community center as our team of leaders drove up. Few parents were ever in sight. The ten year olds held tiny siblings on their backs; the five and six year olds arrived alone, having traveled  from one of a collection of tumble down houses that lined the community's single, winding road.

These children came to camp hungry. They came to camp exhausted. Many of them arrived dirty, wearing the same clothes day after day. Some also wore fresh bruises and cuts from beatings they had received the night before. Because their toys were normally sticks, and the mangy dogs they played with in the road, these children clutched their new markers and crayons with wonder. While there were planned activities throughout the day, they would have been content to sit and draw, or be carried around by the teenage counselors. These children needed massive amounts of love, and they soaked up the care and attention they received like flowers in the sun.

We couldn't call our Two Strike Camp a Bible school, indeed were asked not to mention Christ at all. Many of these families bore the scars of the Christian boarding schools, where their ancestors had been systematically abused, stripped of their language, their culture, and their dignity. The deeply beautiful and profound Lakota spirituality had, until recently, been practiced underground. Now they are beginning to reclaim this part of their heritage, and do not want another kind of religion forced on their children.

We didn't sing about God, but I have never felt His presence more strongly than in that small, dusty building. We never mentioned Jesus by name, but our teenagers fully lived their faith that week, bringing nourishing food, playing games, telling stories, and most importantly, hugging and holding the poor little ones who are so very close to His heart. None of us who were there will ever forget them: Baby Joe, Taytum, Sonny, Ashke-win, Outlaw, Skyla. They will haunt our dreams. Will they have a chance, even a chance for a decent future? I think they will, because Someone has brought them into our lives, Someone who loves them more than we do.

Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.

God bless Two Strike, San Ramon and everywhere.

San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, July 2011

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Living Large

The Forneys near the start of their journey, in Oregon

My dear friends Dennis and Becky Forney have embarked on a three+ month, cross country bicycle trek, literally pedaling from Oregon to Delaware. Dennis blogs about their journey, the landscape they traverse and the colorful characters they meet, daily.  I am green with envy (when I am not green with nausea, at the recounting of the steeeeep climbs and narrrroooow roads and wicked weather they have faced thus far.) Unless I am reincarnated as Lance Armstrong, I am very unlikely to follow in their tire tracks. Even the thought of driving a car along their route is daunting to me in the extreme.  But there is a part of me that wishes I could be the adventurous Forneys, could attempt what they are attempting, could live large.

I live small. Small as in: I have a five block commute to work. When I’m not working, I’m writing from home. My travels are few and far between, and when I am out, I always seem to miss interviewing the Most Unforgettable Characters. My chance encounters tend towards perfunctory nods and smiles in grocery checkout lines, on the train. Why am I reluctant to engage? Lord knows my ace reporter Julie comes home with volumes to recount from her interesting conversations with strangers. All I know is I perpetually miss the scoop, and don’t take the time to really notice my surroundings either.

My friend Pat died Tuesday, way too young, after a heroic battle with cancer. This past weekend, I finally started to sort the huge chaotic bin-full of papers under my bed. There I found notes from, and the obituary of, another good friend, Kem, who lost her battle years ago, at age 52. Tomorrow is promised to no one. I know that.  So what am I waiting for?

OK then, what should I attempt? Among the bold and daring things I’ve tried over the years: a jungle canopy tour in Costa Rica (does staring up at the sky, teeth gritted, count as experiencing the thrill of the zip line?); snorkeling in Jamaica (note to self: perhaps a huge breakfast might NOT be the preferred prelude to a bumpy boat trip into Montego Bay);  a small-plane hop to Nantucket in very dense fog (according to Steve, I entertained the other passengers with audibly prayed  “Hail Marys” the entire way from Boston). So bold and daring hasn’t panned out very well for me so far.

But I am inspired to step it up a little, starting right now. I may never be Becky and Dennis, my action heroes. Not even close. But I can still have adventures, even if they’re small ones. I can try some new things this summer. Talk with some new people.  And even when I’m in my daily routine, I can try to be much, much more aware of the beauty of the world, of life itself.

Meanwhile, my thoughts and prayers will go with the Forneys as they ride on, across America. Traveling mercies, guys.

From Sea to Shining Sea: Dennis' blog

Monday, June 3, 2013


Strange days around here.

Steve, the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, has been hampered by an unexpected injury. He fell off his bike on Friday morning, a freak accident after a long and successful early morning ride. Dislocated shoulder, with the possibility of injury to the rotator cuff; we'll know more after his MRI. The poor guy has been in a lot of discomfort, and the most uncomfortable part has been that he needs, and has to accept, help accomplishing various basic daily tasks. He must endure his wife tying his shoes and buttoning his shirts for him. He couldn't drive Sher and Yaj to their church gigs on Sunday, oh horrors! (Amazingly, I am quite capable of operating a motor vehicle, and took over chauffeur duty with no problems.)  Tomorrow's after-school drama club performance programs will be put together and folded by the family tonight and--you know what?--I think we can handle it. As he impatiently waits for healing, we try to reassure him that we can hold the fort until he is 100% again.

Steve pre-spill (and he was wearing his helmet riding)
 But even as I tsk-tsk about his stubborn independence and intense dislike of asking for aid, I realize it is a huge issue with me, too. I remember breaking my arm back in 1982, and having to ask Steve to wash my hair. Hated every minute of it. Late pregnancy was always a trial, because towards the end I couldn't easily carry laundry baskets upstairs alone, and needed to (gasp) request assistance.

In many ways we have not progressed far beyond the toddler "me do it MYSELF!" phase. Perfectionism is part of it (after all, nobody does it better than us, right?). So is a teensy bit of control freakiness. I think a major factor is our desire not to bother other people, who have busy lives of their own and don't need to be pitching in with ours.

As a result, we do most everything solo--even the things we don't exactly do well, even the things that we waste time, energy and money doing that others could knock out in a trice. I look at my chaotic closets and drawers, and church files at the office, and it crosses my mind that a born organizer could HELP me. Nah. Better to shove everything closed and pray no one comes in to look at my "system."

Growing older, I realize that someday I will be physically and mentally unable to do all that I can do today. I remember my Grandma Berrigan hanging onto her car keys well into her late 80s (even after she drove onto a neighbor's lawn, mistaking it for her driveway), and realize I'm a chip off a willful Irish block. Steve's German forbears were no slouches in the pigheadedness department, so we are quite the pair.

Inevitably, there will come a time when we won’t be going it alone anymore. Maybe we’d better practice letting go. Maybe we both need to stop thinking of “help” as a four-letter word.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Sher's graduation day from Curtis
Greetings to the Class of 2013! On behalf of the faculty here at the University of Big Expensive Buildings, I salute you. UBEB will miss your smiling faces and hefty tuition payments here on campus next year. Please come back for your Masters. Our motto: one degree is never enough! Let us finish clearing out those bank accounts once and for all. It’s our pleasure!

I was asked to deliver a few words of knowledge and advice to you graduates today. I can comply with at least some of that request, and deliver a few words to you. The knowledge and advice you’ll need to seek elsewhere. 

Just kidding! I do have a few nuggets to impart, bite-sized bits of wisdom for your futures.  Think of these as “commence-mints” that you can chew on and learn from. If nothing else, they will freshen your breath.

1)      All you really need to know, you did NOT learn in kindergarten. Kindergarteners learn to weep and beg Mom to stay, push and poke their neighbors on the Circle Time rug, and make chocolate milk come out of Mary Smith’s nose. None of these behaviors will serve you well in the corporate world. 

2)      Practice patience. It is indeed a virtue. Remember, you are going out into a society full of crashing bores, many of whom will be your bosses. Do your yoga breathing and cool your jets. Look at ennui as a natural part of being an adult, and you’ll be much happier.

3)      Clean your room once in a while. Dust that pizza box collection and take those empty beer cans off the windowsill. Since you will no doubt be back living at home for the foreseeable future, a modicum of orderliness will elevate the household mood considerably. 

4)      Reconsider that tattoo if it takes up more than 50% of your available skin surface. Unless you land a job in the arts, you may have to wear real people clothes to work. Nothing says “huh?” more than a medical student with “Live Fast, Die Young” peeking out from his lab coat. 

5)  You have inherited a real mess of a world from us—wars, hunger, climate change. Tidy it up! That should give you all something to do! You’re very welcome!

6) Remember to floss. Not sure why I said that because I always forget. But it seems like good advice, doesn’t it?

7) Think of your parents and teachers as the wind beneath your wings, when you step off the precipice of life and fly high! Oh, wait, humans don’t have wings. Never mind.

8)  Whenever you get discouraged, remember this: Bill Gates never graduated from college. Neither did Steve Jobs. You DID. Feel better now?

Well, that’s all I've got. Who were you expecting, Oprah? In a few minutes, you will cross this stage and receive your diplomas. It will be a magical moment, and the culmination of 17 years of education.  Try not to trip.

Congratulations to the graduates! 

Thursday, May 9, 2013


OK, so I won't have a tombstone. I'm good with that. My sister Mo has a grave, and we rarely get a chance to visit it. I plan to be donated to science, though I fully expect science to say: "Thanks, but no thanks. Your body is incredibly uninteresting. No need to investigate whatever you happened to die from." So then I will be incinerated and made mulch of, or scattered out to sea. My dad was cremated, and one of our family stories was the jaunt on a boat out into Delaware Bay with Tom's cremains. Little Evan insisted on accompanying us. It was a windy day. As we prayed and scattered, the breeze picked up and literally flung bits of Grandpa into Ev's face. Evan was unaware of it at the time, and we sure weren't going to tell him. He knows now, of course, about his ashy baptism, and we laugh about it.

My resident composers-counting on them for music!

PJ and Jules on Guatemala mission trip--counting on them for eulogy!

I have my funeral pretty much planned out. Sher and Yaj will (through their blinding grief of course) compose a gorgeous string quartet. Evan will play Copland's "The Resting Place on the Hill." Rose will sing whatever she wants, because her voice is so beautiful that it won't really matter. "Give Me Jesus" will factor in. PJ and Julie will deliver clever but heartfelt tributes.  Boy, I wish I could be there!

I’ve been thinking lately. What is my legacy? What will I leave my little corner of the world once I shuffle off this mortal coil?

A body of writing, for one thing. Good or bad, I have been relatively prolific over the years. My target audience for it all? Now that I think of it, it’s really been my kids. I’ve painted a picture of my life in words in hopes that they will come to understand their neurotic, insecure, but very well-meaning mom.

What else? My small part in "raising" an amazing group of young people from Christ's Lutheran Church--people of great compassion and enthusiasm for doing God's work in the world. I have been so lucky to be one of their mentors for the past 11 years, and I celebrate their dedication and accomplishments and big, big hearts.

Finally, I will leave the world my most precious treasure: my family. I am incredibly proud of each one of them, and have been so blessed to be their mother. They will live on (God willing) long past my last breath, to gift the universe with their talents. I wish with all my heart I could afford to leave them more of the things that money can buy. I pray they will be content with the things money can't, foremost of which is my forever love for them.

Believe me, I am in no big hurry for my swan song, and hope I have many years left on earth. But if I died tomorrow, I would be very glad to know that there is a small legacy after all.

Monday, April 22, 2013

...But for the Grace of God

Rose and Julie in a Boston race
My Rosie went to college in Boston, and often ran through its streets. She has scads of friends up there. My dear young friend Carrie is in school there now, and was actually at the Marathon. My first thought on Monday was, “Is everybody OK?” Miraculously, our friends seem to be fine, physically if not emotionally. But a gaping wound was opened with those two explosions, and it will take a lot of time for that city to really heal. Who will be held accountable for this tragedy? A 19 year old boy.  Even if he lives to be brought to justice, the lost cannot be returned. There are no do-overs when evil strikes. Nothing can be undone.

Last week at Sunday School gathering, I talked with the kids about forgiveness, Christ’s mandate for us to pardon one another “seventy times seven” times, no matter what. Yesterday, we had the opportunity to put our words into action. I gave the children pens and paper, and asked them to write two notes. One will go to Jeff Bauman, a double-amputee and the hero who helped identify the suspects for the police. Predictably, the children wrote letters of praise and encouragement to Jeff, and I know he will be cheered by reading them. The other? The other will be sent to the hospital where a young man named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fights for his life. He is responsible for three deaths and scores of serious injuries, all possibly in the name of some hideously twisted view of the Muslim religion. His brother, by many accounts his mentor and the mastermind behind this heinous crime, is dead.  So what do you write to a murderer?

Here’s what they wrote: Jesus still loves you. You did a horrible thing, but God forgives you. Change your ways. Get well. I’m praying for you. Who knows if he will ever see these notes, and, if so, what effect could they possibly have?

Maybe, just maybe, these notes and others like them (my Lutheran colleague Rich Melheim came up with the idea and I hope many other churches will follow) will create a chink in his armored heart.  Perhaps the seeds of reconciliation will be sown, and he will become, as Rich puts it, “the most loving person in prison.” But even if he doesn’t…

I hope the kids came to understand, even a little bit, that “there but for the grace of God go I”—go us. Any of us could have a child who turns to violence, a brother, a friend. Tsarnaev could BE us, given different circumstances—let’s not kid ourselves about that. We are a hair’s breadth away from the living nightmare we cause for each other, we dreadfully flawed human beings.

Tomorrow I will mail both sets of letters, with prayers for both young men—the injurer and the injured. And I will continue to believe that no one, no one, is beyond redemption.  With the grace of our endlessly loving God.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Here, Kitty Kitty


What was that incredibly loud middle-of-the-night sound coming from downstairs? I needed to know! And so, of course, sent Steve to find out. Here's what he found out: the frisky feline we are cat-sitting for got into the upstairs bathroom, found a small opening underneath the cabinets, somehow squeezed herself through, landed above the kitchen ceiling (the clear panel over the lights), broke said panel and went crashing, panel and all, to the ground. The panel shattered. Ruthie did not (although it probably counts against those nine lives of hers). Since then, every door has been shut tight, to try and prevent another Kamikaze Kat incident while she's on our watch. I'm pretty sure Ruthie will figure out another means of putting herself in harm's way before long, though.

It was sort of the same with Evan when he was small. He could flatten himself almost to pancake width and get into seemingly inextricable spaces, including getting his head stuck between the bannisters on the staircase (a moment of sheer horror when my folks were visiting. Thank God big strong Grandpa came to the rescue and pulled the spokes apart to release my little wiggleworm). It was also Ev who introduced our family to the neighborhood on moving day in 1989. Our doorbell rang, and I opened it to find a couple of folks who'd been walking down the street. I thought they'd come to welcome us. Instead, they’d come to inform us that our tiny three year old was standing, spreadeagled, in an upstairs window in his pajamas. Thanks for the heads up, neighbors!! Yes, a terrible mother has moved to town!!

Evan and his rescuer, my dad

What is it about cats and kids and curiosity? If they truly want to get in (or out), it seems there's not a latch or gate or barrier that can keep them from reaching their destination. They are hard-wired to explore their world with every means at their disposal, and to look at that world as a safe and wonderful place. It doesn't occur to them that they might be endangering themselves, not a bit.

Moving into the risk-happy teens, with car keys and increasing freedom, our children continue to seek new and exciting experiences, and we parents are left to threaten them with...what? Grounding. Grounding for missing that curfew, for taking that terrible's what we have to do to keep them from getting hurt. But even with all of our precautions and consequences, there will be kids, as there will be cats, whose curiosity trumps our best efforts.

So there we are, forever coaxing our loved ones away from peril. We have to do this; we should do this. But let’s always leave room for a little wonder and daring in their lives. The world is, after all, a marvelous place—and cowards (like me) miss most of the fun.

I watch Ruthie, perched in the window much like Evan was that long-ago evening, plotting her next adventure. I envy her…and wish her luck.

Monday, April 1, 2013

I'm Gonna Make You Love Me

On the phone with my sister Carolyn in Hawaii last night for our Easter chat.  C confessed to being very bothered by something. Someone she’d thought of as a friend had suddenly turned ice cold and “dropped” her.  I thought my sis was better off without this person, and told her so. But I completely understood her upset. It’s how I live my life.

You see, I am a compulsive people pleaser. I come by it naturally. My mom Joanie couldn’t bear to have anyone on earth dislike her. To that end, she was constantly bending over backwards to be warm and friendly and always agreeable.  Mom, 70 years later, remembered, and OFTEN talked about, her failure to keep a classmate’s friendship in elementary school. Apparently this child was a big stinker, but that didn’t matter—little Joanie took everything she said and did incredibly to heart. In later years, our across the street neighbor took delight in switching moods on Mom: one day a delightful buddy, the next, a nasty adversary. Mom always blamed herself, and redoubled her efforts to please this un-pleasable woman.

Joanie (left) with a true friend
So that was my role model growing up, and I was an excellent student. As a result, my “friends” included a parade of girls who would invite me over to play, and then send me home in tears. I kept coming back for more, though, because my ever-shaky self-esteem ruled the day. In high school, I utterly exhausted myself in my quest to be universally loved. It never once occurred to me that there might be people who wouldn’t like me if I stood on my head and spit nickels. No, no—surely there was something I could say or do to win over the whole world!

Me at age 11--what wasn't to like?
Well, I haven’t improved all that much. At 56 I still often yearn for complete acceptance by every soul I encounter. It’s not just a matter of being generally nice to folks—there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I obsess about people who, for whatever reason, don’t care for me—well, that is a huge waste of time. And besides, why do I think I’m so swell that the entire population has to find me irresistible?

I am working on it, and there are small signs of progress. Being left off a guest list here and there is not a calamity. In fact, it may be a good thing, a sign that I’m finally beginning to own my personality, to be the real me—even when “me” rubs somebody the wrong way.

Among my kids, I have a couple of people pleasers, and I hate that I’ve been a poor role model for them in this area. If I could give them one message today, this would be it: just be yourself.  God made us all unique for a reason. Rejoice in your uniqueness. Revel in the people who truly love you. For the rest, be nice, and if they still don’t like you, let it go.