Christmas Confession

Confession time. I actually toyed with the idea of not putting up a Christmas tree this year.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story…

We’re not celebrating Christmas with the family until next month because of timing and other families’ celebrations. It just gets to be too hard on the kids and grandkids.

Odds are, we probably won’t see them until then (insert sad face here). Not complaining; just stating fact. And, since we have no parties planned here either, I thought maybe, just maybe, I should not ‘bother’. After all, it will be ‘just the two of us.’ I asked Nick his opinion last weekend and got “it’s up to you,” in response. (sigh). Decorating the tree has always (always) been a special part of our family tradition for the Advent season. I normally am chomping at the bit to put the tree up right after Thanksgiving. After all, it’s time. A happy time. An expectant time: Jesus’ birth is coming. Family will be all around – even if not on Christmas, soon afterwards. All is right with the world. But somehow, this year, the looming, extra-length emptiness has been lingering around my heart and making even the smallest Christmas efforts seem monumental.

I even thought about putting up a smaller, table top tree on our dining room table instead of the big tree. That’s tough for me to admit because it takes me back to the year when my folks quit putting up a full sized, real tree in THEIR house. I can distinctly remember walking into their living room that year and seeing a little tree – it had to be the cut-off top of a tree – perched on their entertainment center. Sharp disappointment hit me – it was the end of an era and I knew it. At that exact moment, somehow, it hit me – the recognition that they had passed a point and would not be returning. I knew that the end (of their lives) was much closer than the beginning (does that make sense?).

While in a store last weekend I stopped in front of their display of various sizes and designs of little pre-lit trees. It made me sad to look at them. I waited to see if anything ‘hit’ me. Nothing did. “Why not just wait and see if you feel like putting up our tree sometime between now and Christmas,” my personal ‘wise man’ said as he stood beside me, looking at my sad boo-boo face. “I don’t think all of these are going to go anywhere.”

So, every night this week, I sat in our living room, looking at the corner where the Christmas tree normally sits by now. The rocking chair there seemed to mock me. Normally, it’s fine. But now, not. Nothing seemed right. Maybe I should decorate the rocker instead, a part of my brain mocked. Oh, shut up, I told myself.

Then, this morning, it hit me full force. WHAM! Tears down my cheeks. The whole she-bang. Listened to Christmas music and cried through every song. Sadness and probably a bit of self pity, but I managed to turn it into joy when I realized the real reason for our Christmas season. How selfish I was being by not wanting to truly celebrate our Savior’s birth!

So, the tree went up tonight. Here it is, in all it’s glory, with our precious Nativity scene underneath it. IMG_2371 (2)


The Heart and Mind of a Child

I looked into the face of a young girl this morning who’s body shape and size reminded me sharply of myself at her age (12). Overweight and self conscious, she was respectful (though quiet) and an easy person to be around.

My heart hurt when I realized that I just put a real face to only one of thousands of kids who worry about real life, adult issues because the caretakers in their lives are less mature than they are.

Let me just say this:
Kids should not have to worry about where they will live after being evicted.

Kids should not have to worry about whether a parent will get another job after receiving (another) drunk driving ticket…or where they’ll go if that parent goes to jail.

Kids should not have to worry about getting adequate nutrition. They shouldn’t feel they need to eat junk food as ‘fillers’, or to overeat whenever possible, just in case they don’t know when or where their next meal is coming from.

They shouldn’t have to worry about loving each parent equally, what to say in front of whom so they don’t set off a parent’s rant or whether or not they will get to see one parent again because a parent owes child support or has angered the other parent.

I know I can’t save the world. I know there are countless details in parents’ lives that complicate situations.

But I would go hungry myself and work at any (ANY) job offered in order to take care of my children or grandchildren. And I darn well wouldn’t be spending money partying while my children worried where they would go to sleep that night…or in a few weeks. Giving them a stable, safe living environment should be a basic responsibility, not an option.

This girl, with her soft, dark eyes and quiet ways, is haunting me today. To say much more than that could compromise her anonymity. I don’t want to do that. Know this – she has people in her life who can/do care for her. I just hope she has enough good role models in her life to overshadow the poor ones.

I’ll be praying for her.

A Short Conversation With My Mother

I had a short conversation with my mother today. It was short, not necessarily because she’s been dead since 1994, but because I finally got fed up with her negative comments as they re-played in my head this afternoon.

Some people just make better parents than others. I realize that now. And, while I’ve made peace with my demons…every now and then, at the most inopportune time, they regurgitate themselves like bad bile, leaving a sour taste in my mouth and heaviness in my heart.

It happened today during my very first ride on my beautiful new road bike. I was struggling to learn coordination and balance while clipping my bike shoes into the bike’s pedals – all new for me. I knew I’d need to practice and had already prepared myself for the probability of falling — and I did! My left foot was firmly clipped but I was struggling to get my right foot into the cleat when I wobbled and lost my balance. Being left handed, my instinct was to put down my left foot — except it was still attached to the pedal — and down I went.

It was a moderately easy fall – some road rash, a broken blood vessel – not nearly as bad as it could have been, but a fall nontheless. I sat on the ground a moment, assessing myself and thinking, “OK, that’s what it feels like…all good…let’s get up and go again…”

But before I could push to my feet another voice popped into my head. It belonged to my mother. “I’ve told you over and over again…I should have named you Grace, because at least then you’d have had some. You are the clumsiest person ever born on this earth.”

Years ago, she’d tell that to a gawky child many times a week. She’d say that (and other mean things) to a girl who was very uncomfortable with her body. As a result, I constantly felt unworthy of love. Without remorse, she’d watch my eyes fill with stinging, hot tears. Often times, she’d make fun of my sensitivity. She’d mimic my crying as I slunk away to lick my wounds alone in my bedroom. Food became a good friend, never talking back, always accepting me. No wonder I was overweight.

Now, as a parent and grandparent, I cannot imagine treating my children or grandchildren that way.

The thing is, in public, she treated me so differently that even people who knew us well never saw that side of her. She saved the ridicule for our ‘alone’ time. I was an only child and my dad was an over-the-road truck driver, so there was no lack of that.

So, today, at 58, well into my fitness journey and training to become a triathlete, she came calling. I’m sure that some psychologist could give me a wealth of theories why it happened. The truth is, it took me by surprise. I certainly didn’t expect it. But, what’s cool is how I responded. Because, without even thinking, I told my mother something I never would have said to her while she was alive. “Mom, shut the hell up,” I said. And she did.

I got up, brushed off the gravel and sand from my legs and mounted my beautiful bike. Without giving her another thought, I clipped in my left foot, pushed off and cleated my right foot perfectly. The wind caressed my face. There were no tears, no gawkiness. I may have fallen, but it wasn’t due to clumsiness. I’m merely learning. I may fall again – in fact, I probably will. But I don’t expect to hear that comment again. It has lost its sting.

Goodbye for now, Aunt Ada

Aunt Ada older

Aunt Ada young

We said a final goodbye yesterday to my Aunt Ada. Though I cried (hard) as her casket moved past me, I think my tears were selfish ones for the great, gaping hole she leaves behind.

The service and gathering was truly a celebration of her essence – a life well lived and a family well loved.

She was my dad’s oldest sister and her life spanned 96 years. She lived through two world wars, the great Depression, Woodstock and the new millennium. Technology moved leaps and bounds during that time – from light bulbs to computers, telegraphs to party-line telephones to internet cell phones and much, much more.

She mourned the death of her parents and a step-dad, all her siblings, her husband and a grandson. She celebrated the marriages and partnerships and births of 17 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

Through it all, she remained a family matriarch – almost unflappable. Her love and her faith were constant.

She was 6′ tall and ramrod straight. She had a strong Norwegian frame that would never be a size 4 – (none of us will; it’s who we are). She stood tall and proud and never, ever slumped or slouched. She wore her long hair in traditional Norwegian braids, wrapped around her head, until she was over 80 and her arms grew too tired to weave and wrap them each morning. I remember staying at their house over one weekend when I was probably 5 or so. I came out of the bedroom as she crossed their living room towards the kitchen. She was wearing a white cotton nightgown with a ruffled hem and her feet were bare. Her beautiful brown hair hung down past her bottom and swayed left and right as she walked. I was mesmerized. I had never seen Aunt Ada with her hair down. She assembled a pot of coffee, and I’m sure we talked, but all I remember is her hair. As the coffee began to brew, she moved into the bathroom off the kitchen and shut the door. When she emerged, her hair was neatly braided and wrapped around her head and she was dressed for the day.

That was her daily ritual. It gives me comfort to think about that.

I remember seeing Aunt Ada after she cut her hair short. I couldn’t help it – I cried. She took my hands and laughed a little. “Aw, Deb, it’s all right,” she said, drawing out the ‘all’ into a long whispery syllable. “It was time.” I knew she was right, but it made me sad to know she was getting older. I think it made me realize her mortality and I had to face the fact that she wouldn’t live forever. She was the last of my dad’s living siblings and I clung to that. She was a link to him here in this life. I knew she was right but I didn’t want to know it.

To the end, Aunt Ada’s skin was beautiful and almost unlined. Oh, she had a few wrinkles here and there, but her face had a soft and smooth texture of a woman less than half her age. She ate almonds every day to keep cancer away and was the only one of her siblings who didn’t succumb to that dreadful disease. I eat almonds every day, too. We’ll see how that goes-

Aunt Ada and her sister, my Aunt Iona, became quilters and both developed a strong passion for it. Aunt Ada founded a quilter’s club at our family’s home church and began making quilts for our family. Sisters and brothers got them as anniversary presents, we got them when we married; our children got them as they came into the family. We have a big family and we kept her very, very busy! She loved it. Until her fingers and eyes tired, each quilt was hand stitched. All are wonderful keepsakes. I have the quilt she made for my parents as well as mine and I think of her each time I see/use them.

When Aunt Ada’s casket was wheeled into the church it was draped with a quilt that had her name sewn into each square and the altar rails were covered with her treasures, too. It was comforting to have her presence there in such beauty.

There are countless stories and memories that I could tell you to give you a more complete sense of who she was, but perhaps the greatest testament to her life is the way she and the family faced her death. She died with dignity and class, as she had lived. She told all her children she was more than ready to go to heaven and ‘just didn’t know why it was taking God so long to take her’ (I said she was classy, I didn’t say she wasn’t a bit impatient sometimes!). She wanted to be with her husband again; her brothers and sisters; her family. When God took her home, we knew she was where she wanted to be and we were happy for her. So, after the service, there was laughter; babies and toddlers were passed from loving arms to loving arms; there were long, strong hugs. There were also some tears, but they were bittersweet and short-lived.

There was plenty of food, gallons and gallons of good, strong Norwegian coffee and krumkake.

And as we moved from table to table talking to everyone, I knew Aunt Ada would have loved seeing everyone together. She was there in spirit, to be sure. But not for very long. There was a cribbage game waiting in heaven.

The pastor read this Norse funeral poem toward the end of her service:
Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother.
Lo, there do I see my sisters
and my brothers.
I see the line of my people
back to the beginning. They do call to me to take my place.

Aunt Ada is there now, taking her place. We’ll all take our places some day, too. Meanwhile, I’ll miss her.


A Gesture of Honesty

In early December, a Spanish athlete by the name of Iván Fernández Anaya did something worth talking about during a cross country race. Approaching the finish line in a distant second place, he saw London bronze medalist Abel Mutai pull up 10 meters short of the finish line. Rather than speeding past Mutai and grabbing an upset win, he used gestures to communicate what had happened to the Kenyan racer and followed him across the finish line for a 2nd place finish.

Anaya’s explanation afterwards was simple. “I didn’t deserve to win it. I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.”

His coach is 1995 World Marathon Champion Martin Fiz and he views it a bit differently. “The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win.” Fiz went on to say if he had been in that race, he would have taken advantage of the situation to capture the win.

Let me clarify that this was not a high profile race – nothing major was at stake. The difference between first and second place was simply that – one place. And Anaya said that if a European medal was at up for grabs he would have pushed past him and “exploited him for the win.” But on that day in that place, the bragger’s rights would simply have been to say he beat a Kenyan who made a mistake and Anaya just didn’t think it was right to do that. In the giant scheme of things, he made a choice that was right for him.

I think he was right. I think he’s the type of person that can and should be a role model for our youth. I think he needs to find a new coach.

Anyone who has ever made an effort to do anything can find a connection here. You don’t have to be an athlete or even a runner. This cuts to the heart of who you are. It’s a matter of right vs. wrong. It is (once again) a matter of perspective and attitude.

Let me break it down a little. Think back to when you were a child. You were in a store and wanted that candy/toy/whatever but you were told you couldn’t have it (or you didn’t have enough money in your pocket). You wanted it SO badly…and you took it without paying for it. Perhaps you got caught; or you may have gotten away with it. Regardless, you remember it to this day and you remember the feelings that came with it. It may have defined how you went through life after that and who you are today. If you were not caught and felt a sense of victory, you may have gone through school and life cheating on tests, taking shortcuts and riding on others’ coattails. Yet, today, you may feel you ‘deserve’ it because you worked hard to take those risks and, hey, if no one caught you, shame on them. After all, isn’t that what society, politics and sports today is all about? Or, you may have been ashamed, vowed never to feel that way again and live your life accordingly. Of course, there’s a gamut of variations in between.

This past summer we were at a rodeo when they announced an event for children in the crowd. All the kids were invited to participate. They had to take off their shoes, which were put in a pile in the center of the arena. The kids lined up inside the corral at one end. The goal was to race to the middle, find your shoes in the pile, put them on and race back to the fence. Fastest winners would get McDonalds gift certificates.

It had rained almost constantly over preceding days and the arena was pure muck – at least 6″ in most spots. Those kids struggled to get to the middle and back, sinking knee (or thigh) deep into it. Their facial expressions were priceless. The crowd loved it and parents were coaxing their progeny from the stands and fence line. We laughed as one girl went to lift her little leg out of the mud and it came up without her shoe – it was stuck in the muck! Mud spattered everywhere and kids had a great time.

But I noticed something sad as it all played out. One little boy had lined up without shoes. None of the officials really noticed – it was tough to get organized with over 40 kids. Then, when they raced to the center, the boy’s father walked up to the fence and slipped a pair of shoes inside the fence for him. They boy ran to the center and then back as fast as he could (although still behind some of the others because he was smaller than they were). He quickly put on those shoes and became one of the ‘winners.’

He jumped up and down with delight as he collected his certificate. His father cheered from the sideline. It was nothing major – no Tour de France, Olympic event or major exam. Yet, they felt they had to cheat. I felt so sorry for them.

I think about that boy and his role model father every now and then and wonder how their lives will play out. I have to say, my thoughts are not good ones.

I’m participating in a virtual marathon right now. We have approximately 2 weeks to log our mileage and earn a finisher’s medal. It’s on the honor system and the race director accepts what we tell him. I could easily add a few miles in here or there to reach that magic 26.2 mile marker easier and faster. I could, but I won’t. It’s not who I am. To me, it would only cheapen the prize and every time I’d look at that medal (and at myself in the mirror), I’d know I really didn’t earn it.

When I race, I’m part of a group, to be sure, but, no matter where I finish, I’m racing against myself – to achieve more, to be stronger, faster, better. I think Anaya has the same attitude.

Anaya’s coach called his actions “a very good gesture of honesty.” The way he said it, honesty isn’t important.

I think we all know better. But, if you think that’s true, tell that to Lance Armstrong this week.