Thursday, December 21, 2017

Simply Christmas

Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the Olpe High School Christmas program.  It was a pleasant program.  The students were not polished musicians, it was not a glitzy production, but it did hearken me back to a simpler time.  If they had worn white choir boy robes instead of their somewhat matching black and white clothing, one might have thought they were part of a Norman Rockwell magazine illustration. 

It started me thinking about how somewhere along the way we have lost the simplicity of Christmases past and the simplicity of the Christmas story.  Christmas was celebrated in simpler ways in years past.  When I was growing up, you didn’t need to have money to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Someone would traipse into the nearby woods to retrieve a tree.  Usually a cedar was all that could be found, they were sticky with sap and had their own fragrance, but they were green.  The decorations were simple as well.  Strings of cranberries and popcorn along with stars cut out of paper and the few ornaments from past years that had not been broken were sufficient.  Gifts were simple as well.  Fruit, some needed article of clothing like gloves and perhaps one toy or game was enough to satisfy.  Surrounded by family and friends, sharing homemade cookies and fudge, someone would read the Christmas story and our celebration would be complete.

With the buying frenzy that currently constitutes the holiday…gifting and giving, celebrating and overindulging, we have left the simple story of Christmas behind.  Christmas was not all tinsel and lights.  It was not a Broadway production or Hollywood movie.  It is a simple story, told in a simple way, of an ordinary but monumental, life changing event.

The first Christmas took place in a little backwater town away from the prosperity of the city lights.  A little town much like Olpe.  The long-awaited Messiah did not come as a conquering king as most of the Jews expected; he came as a baby, the child of an ordinary, unwed teenage girl a long way from home who had been given the opportunity of eternity.  His birth did not take place in one of the country’s best hospitals with a prestigious doctor in attendance. It was in a stable and the only place to lay the new baby was in the feed trough where the cattle ate.  The first people who heard the good news were not the wealthy or influential folks of that day but a bunch of ordinary guys herding sheep, who were very frightened when they saw the angels announcing the birth.  Very few welcomed him and when the wise men, probably astrologers, sought him out after observing a new star, their search caused the king to order the slaughter of infants to prevent the baby Jesus from claiming the kingdom.  This was not an auspicious beginning for a holiday that millions celebrate today in the most lavish way.

A recent Pew poll found that only 46% of Americans view Christmas as a religious holiday.  The rest see it as a cultural celebration.  That’s okay with me.  Through the ages Christians have been a persecuted minority, but it has not changed the story.  Perhaps that is because the message was not presented to or meant for the affluent but for those who are poor and downtrodden.  Society is too sophisticated for such a simple story.

Christmas is almost here, and I haven’t purchased a single present.  Our house is decorated with only a fraction of the ornaments and decorations we have accumulated throughout the years.  My only acknowledgement of the season has been listening to Christmas music.  Not the familiar Holly Jolly Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer White Christmas songs that we are accustomed to, but real Christmas Carols.  Songs that are a few centuries old such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  “Come”, the song says, “and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”, and I must admit that the reason for my somewhat subdued attitude to Christmas this year has to do with a feeling of dread that I experience when I consider all the events going on around us.  There is no peace leading up to this season.  There is no joy.

O come, o come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free. Thine own from Satan's tyranny. From depths of Hell Thy people save. And give them victory o'er the grave.”  My sentiments exactly when I look at the world around me.  We need to be freed from the tyranny around us.  Then I hear the words of the chorus, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee’ and that is enough to lift my spirits.  Emmanuel, God with us, the promise is here, for those who mourn, for those in exile, for me!  

Thursday, December 07, 2017

You can't have it all

It should be obvious to us, since it is to the rest of the world, that we Americans cannot control our appetites.  This has been borne out recently by all the sexual harassment and abuse claims that have been leveled at so called “pillars” of the media, of the arts and even of our governing bodies.  From the scandalous tales that are coming out now about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Levine, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and John Conyers, one would think that we no longer have the ability to curb our desires.  Apparently, many of those in powerful positions have succumbed to the idea that they can have whatever they want with no consequences.

Lest we be too quick to cast stones we should consider how our our thoughts and actions the past couple of weeks have been dominated by Black Friday bargains and Cyber Monday sales.  We might have to reassess our ability to curtail our own desires.  Overindulgence is not providing the happiness we seek but is killing us instead. 
 
Our appetites are fueled by an advertising industry that constantly bombards us with suggestions that a 32-oz. coke or a double cheeseburger topped with onion rings and a side of fries is a great bargain.  The fast food chains seem to be trying to outdo each other in creating the most calorie laden offering for their non-satiable customers. The portions at many restaurants are big enough to feed two, possibly three people.  Drinks are becoming more exotic, laced with high calorie ingredients and increased alcohol levels.  Despite these adjustments, our food is not getting better, just bigger.

No one is immune from the sales pitch.  Several years ago, my husband and I were in Memphis for business.  One evening, we went to a restaurant known for “cook your own size” steaks.  My husband, a steak lover, saw a 32 oz. Porterhouse on the menu.  Despite my protests that it was humanly impossible to consume that much steak, he ordered it along with a one-pound baked potato.  When it came, he was determined to prove it was not a mistake.  He could eat it all.  I watched in horror and with some amusement as he proceeded to wolf the entire steak down. At the end he was no longer enjoying what might have been a good dinner, but he was not going to give me a chance to say, “I told you so”.  He proved his point, but it was a hollow victory. By the time we got back to our hotel, he was miserable.  He groaned all night long, but nothing could be done to soothe the pain of overindulgence.

There is no happiness and certainly no contentment in having it all.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Having too much only makes us self-indulgent.  It reassures us that we can have whatever we want.  Do you want to bankrupt yourself by always buying the latest electronic device?  Go ahead, you deserve it.  You want to have a relationship with a sixteen-year-old girl?  That’s OK, you are special.  Live for the moment.  It doesn’t matter if another’s life is ruined as long as we get what we want.
 
We have lost the ability to find happiness in the simple pleasures:  being satisfied with a job well done even if no one notices, bringing a smile to the face of a child or an elderly person, being happy for someone else’s success, or forgoing something that you want for the sake of another.  These are the things that give us true happiness, the things that bring back warm feelings whenever we remember them.

Something tells me that none of the men accused in the past few weeks have fond memories of the times they used and hurt someone so badly.  Self-indulgence is a lonely pastime.  It may feed our natural desires, but it leaves us unsatisfied and spiritually depleted.
 
This season we are entering should not be about having it all or giving it all to our children.  When I was young, I was envious of others when they described what they received for Christmas.  In our family the gifts we received were very simple and very few.  I could not see then that they were given with love and were therefore very valuable.  Now, if someone were to tell me I could get whatever I want, I would pass.  I don’t need anything.  I don’t want anything.

There are still those around who cannot say they don’t need anything.  This Christmas, instead of over indulging yourself or your family and friends, look around for those who cannot do so and give to them instead.  In doing so, you will be giving yourself a gift better than anything money can buy.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Being Thankful

It's Thanksgiving week and I have been contemplating how most Americans appear to have lost the ability to be thankful. Currently, thankfulness and gratitude play a very small part in our celebration of what the founders of this country were very aware of, that as a nation, we are truly blessed. We live in a country that has an abundance of natural resources we have yet to deplete. More importantly, we were gifted by our forefathers with a constitution that ensures us life and liberty; a promise that still appeals to those who are impoverished and persecuted throughout the world. 

The very thing we fail to remember is what still draws people to this nation’s shores. They do not come for our black Friday sales or holiday celebrations where we stuff ourselves with unhealthy food while we watch a bunch of ungrateful college athletes try to prove how noble they are by not standing for the national anthem.

Yes, our country has its problems, but they are problems that are out in the open not hidden as in a lot of countries where voices are silenced and the poor and persecuted have no recourse.

We are privileged, yet we act as if we're disadvantaged.  We have been blessed beyond measure. Our lives should be full, yet we think they are empty.  We are a country full of people who feel they are innocent, poorly treated, maligned, and disrespected, yet we have more opportunities to achieve our dreams than any other place on the globe.

What is the solution to all the negative self-centeredness?  It is certainly not something that the politicians can correct.  They are no different than the rest of us.  Most of them are living in the same denial that we are.  They are misunderstood.  It is not their fault.  The world, or in their view, the press, is against them.  The press may be negative, social media may be negative, but the way we feel about the world does not have to be.  We can be the change agent that changes how we view the world and in turn that attitude can change the world.  It begins with us.

It begins with the realization of how full our lives are as Americans.  It begins with being thankful, not just in words, but in deeds.  When was the last time you thanked someone for holding the door open for you at Walmart?  When was the last time you sent a hand written thank you note?  When was the last time you gave back out of gratitude for how much you have been given?  When was the last time you sought our someone less fortunate than yourself to share of the bounty you have been given?  When was the last time you looked around and realized just how blessed you are? 

Our Thanksgiving celebrations have grown smaller through the years.  Many of the older family members, who lived through direr times have passed on, but the memories remain.  I still picture my grandmothers small house; all four rooms.  I can feel the chill in the two bedrooms that were always kept closed to keep the heat from the two wood or coal burning stoves in the parlor and kitchen.  There was no dining room, no dining table, yet the best Thanksgivings of my life were spent in that house, crowded with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The food was straight from the barn yard or cellar and better than any I’ve had since.  There was no tv, but there was laughter, joking and a lot of love. 

So many of us have abandoned our families.  Not intentionally, but jobs and opportunities have caused us to leave them behind.  We’ve left the comfort that comes from being surrounded by those we love for material wealth and prosperity, when true prosperity comes from being surrounded by those we love and who love us in return.

Two weeks ago, we were blessed to be in Boston with my husband’s family.  One night we celebrated my husband’s birthday with all of the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.  It was in a sense an early Thanksgiving.  We ate good food while we laughed and shared stories.  We tried to make up for all the years spent apart.  The night was too short, but the memories remain, and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by those we love if for only a brief moment in time. 

Very few of us are totally without family, and even fewer are without someone to care for.   This holiday season if you can’t be surrounded by family, paraphrasing an old song, if you can’t be with the ones you love, love the ones you’re with.  Love them and be thankful!  


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Winter's a' comin'

It may be a bleak, chilly fall day, but Autumn still and always is my favorite season of the year.  Something about the falling leaves and the crispness of the air reminds me that the months of the year are coming full circle.  The gold of the sunflowers is replaced by cornstalks and almost every porch has a pumpkin decorating the steps, whether carved or not.  There’s sweet apple cider and the warm smell of smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace to put me in the mood for a good book and sharing my lap with a warm cat.   Sometimes, I think that fall is so beautiful because it is preparing us for what lies ahead…cold, wet, snowy days when we will be cooped up inside for months.
 
Winter is a dying time.  Dying and trying.  Some years, late in February, I don’t think I can stand any more unending cold mixed with the bone chilling wind.  It’s much better here in Kansas than it was in New Jersey.  In New Jersey, the snow and cold might start as soon as the middle of November and if it was a good winter, the snow could be gone by mid-March.  If it was not a good winter, but one with what would be record breaking eighteen-inch snows for Kansas, the snow and ice might be around until the middle of May.  I remember one particularly harsh winter when from April on, all I kept saying was that I just wanted to see a bit of brown ground instead of the interminable white which was the color of that year.

Kansas winters are a much more pleasant shade; the golden tan of dried grass mixed with the soft gray outcroppings of flint and the maroon leaves remaining on the oak trees.  Perhaps that is why the autumns in Kansas are so pleasant.  There is no headlong rush towards winter, just a peaceful, beautiful meandering.  Peaceful in the knowledge that whatever lies ahead cannot be too bad and it will only be a matter of a few days between the first snowflake and the first crocuses appearing.
 
Of course, anyone who has spent a few winters in Kansas knows that our winters may be short, but they are downright harsh and potentially dangerous.  The temperature can hover around zero for days and has been known to be so low that it cracks convertible tops.  In place of heavy snow, we have even heavier ice that can take the electricity out for days.  Once, during a particularly heavy ice storm, which sounded like a military attack, my mother called to tell me that one of my uncles had died.  All I heard was, “Nancy, your uncle Roosevelt….” The phone went dead and the electricity went out simultaneously.  I was left to wonder until I got to work, where there was both electricity and a working telephone (this was in the days before cell phones), what the rest of her message was.

Now, none of that matters; the trials of winter are far from our minds as we enjoy the fading days of autumn.  There’s the garden to pull up, the lawn chairs to bring in, mulch to be put around some of the plants and leaves to rake.  That’s another difference between Kansas and New Jersey.  Here, with the exception of the leaves from the oak trees that will be around until spring. cleaning up all the leaves can be accomplished in one day.  It’s a pleasant task, as opposed what we experienced in New Jersey where we bagged over one hundred bags of leaves the first year we lived in our house.   Actually, we bagged that many leaves every year we lived there; there was a never-ending supply.  Raking leaves kept us physically fit but exhausted.

There are positives to an abundance of trees as in New England.  Who doesn’t love driving down a winding road with falling leaves spinning around you?  At least there are enough trees here in Emporia that one can experience the crunch of walking through fallen leaves while walking the dogs and there are always a few leaves to attach to our sheltie’s fur to be brought into the house.  That’s enough leaves for me.  Our elongated, if somewhat bereft autumn provides enough pleasure for me to survive another Kansas winter.

The last few mornings have been foggy and as we walk past leaves littered with dew and the remnants of Halloween candy wrappers, drops of condensation fall from the trees and add a chill to our walk, reminding me that winter will soon be approaching.  But we still have Thanksgiving to look forward to and December 21st is over a month away.  We will enjoy our Kansas autumn until the last leaf falls.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Wealthy Poor

Often, on a nice morning, I like to sit on the front porch enjoying a cup of coffee and observing the neighborhood.  Most mornings, no matter what season it is, I will be privy to the conversations of the people across the street who occupy one of the two ramshackle houses on our block that always seem to be rented despite their poor condition and constant need of being repaired.

It may be that this type of housing is all they can afford. While the conversation frequently is about getting a job and how much places like McDonalds pay (with an occasional comment thrown in about a friend’s most recent incarceration) there is never any movement towards finding a job.  Other than their limited communication skills, they don’t appear to be handicapped, but sitting on the porch is apparently better than looking for work or actually working.  Not that the absence of a job affects their lifestyle. Their yard is peppered with logos for the Chiefs and K-State and an ever-growing supply of plastic toys.  Their house is always decorated for Halloween or Christmas and they have the biggest 4th of July fireworks display on the block.

Bear in mind as you read this, that I have no disdain for the poor or for being poor, only the poor choices and actions on the part of many of those today with limited means.  I, like many of my fellow Americans in those years after the war, grew up poor by today’s standards, but we were an ambitious, hardworking, and proud poor.  No one in my neighborhood was affluent.  Our standard of living certainly would be considered poor by today’s standards.  We did not own a lot of toys, but we had big yards, old clothes to dress up in, and a big wooded area at the end of the street that provided hours of possibilities for exploration. There was no money for movies.  In fact, my parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t afford a television until I was out of high school.  A big treat for us was popcorn or an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen on a Sunday evening.
 
Our cars were always second hand and if only five years old, were considered to be a really new car.  Function was more important than impressing the neighbors and all the men in the neighborhood possessed the skills to keep anything mechanical functioning long past the manufacture’s intent.  In addition to the hours my father spent at the Ford plant, he could be found under the car or tinkering with the washing machine or furnace to eke out a few years more service before they were completely unrepairable.  I can’t recall ever seeing a plumber or electrician making repairs at our house.  My father either did the work himself or sought assistance from one of the neighbors.  The neighbors were all in the same situation and we shared our meager resources.

We shared everything.  My mother was the neighborhood baker and there were always cookies for the neighborhood children and pies or cakes for the neighbor women to enjoy over a cup of coffee. My mother was also the neighborhood gardener and kept the neighborhood supplied with fresh vegetables and the fruits of her labor like pickles and fresh strawberry jam. Betty, the only mother in the neighborhood to work outside the home, would keep her eye out for bargains in everyone’s size and occasionally would bring home a sweater, skirt, or pair of pants that she thought might fit one of us.  One of the neighbor’s aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own, would take several of us swimming once or twice during the summer.  Our lives were full of the necessities, food, shelter, and family.  Whatever material possessions we were missing were compensated for by the love and security that we enjoyed.

The poor today do not enjoy such advantages.  They have been sold the concept that they are not capable of taking care of themselves.  Their initiative and sense of self-worth has been destroyed and they are truly impoverished.  They are faced with a future of meaningless days filled with television and junk food, neither of which nourish the mind or body.  They may have more of the material goods that we were missing when I grew up, but they have none of the things that embolden the spirit and give a feeling of well-being.

We have authorized our government to impoverish the spirits of millions while pretending to take care of them in their hour of need.  Instead of giving them a hand up, we give them perpetual handouts and subject them to a life of dependence.  We have robbed them of the joy that comes from being productive members of society. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Touching Other Lives

I, along with most of the nation, find myself suffering from what might be called whiplash, shellshock, or PTSD after the events of the past week.  As if the natural disasters brought by the hurricanes this season and now the fires in California are not enough, we are being bombarded with news that is incomprehensible and almost impossible to bear.  It doesn’t take a crazed gunman in Las Vegas to tell us that as a nation we are flailing, drowning in a morass that is mostly of our own creation.

Our cities are becoming increasingly dangerous places to live, with the murder rate in many climbing to historic heights.  Even the suburbs, those once safe bastions of the white upper middle class, are no longer immune and neither are the smaller cities like Emporia.

Drugs fuel a lot of the crime as it becomes increasingly obvious that we have lost that war.  They are taking a tremendous toll on society.  Last year over 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US.  To put that in perspective, the War in Viet Nam in the 60’s and 70’s killed around 58,220 Americans over the course of twenty years.  We don’t have to worry about being attacked by other nations, we are killing ourselves and not only are we killing ourselves, we are destroying the prospect of a healthy life for many of those around us.   According to the Center for Disease Control, currently 6 out of every 1000 infants is born with NAS, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, the name attached to babies exposed to drugs while in the womb.  What chance do these innocent children have to grow up as productive adults?

Our society is teetering on the brink and yet we are powerless.  We hurl insults and blame.  It is the NRA’s fault.  It’s the liberals who are responsible.  It’s the Republicans fault.  It’s the drug manufacturers.  It’s everyone but us.

I remember being told as a child not to point fingers because while my index finger was pointing out, the remaining three fingers were pointing back at myself.  We as Americans, on all sides, need to wake up and realize that we are all part of the problem.  All of us!  It’s in our attitudes, it’s in our hearts.  We no longer care about anyone but ourselves and perhaps our immediate family.  We are no longer gracious to each other.  We don’t even know what graciousness is. Instead we are greedy, self-absorbed, and celebrity obsessed, driven by making sure that we are protecting our most important possession, ourselves.

During tragedies, like the hurricanes or the recent event in Las Vegas, we come together for a few seconds or a few days, but then we shuffle the responsibility back onto the government and expect that everything will be ok.  It won’t.  The government can’t fix these problems any more than they can fix the weather.
    
Do I have the solution?  I wish I did, but I can’t see any hope on the horizon without some unforeseen miracle.  I think there are several things that might help.  I think we need to have a serious discussion about gun control.  To have the volume and range of lethal weapons available to the average American, regardless of how law-abiding they are, is ridiculous.  Hunters do not need semi-automatics.   That is not guaranteed by the Constitution in my opinion.

Along with culling out the guns, we need to guarantee that crazies are not allowed to roam free because people intent on harm can make the most mundane objects such as cars, steak knives or fertilizer into a lethal weapon.  We have emptied our mental institutions to save taxpayer money, but we’re paying for it with our lives.

There are no ways to prevent the natural disasters that have been plaguing our country, but we can delve into why we have become so violent. Before we advance the ultimate solution, we should ask ourselves what is the cause of all the anger and angst that is driving the issues we are facing.  The former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, puts forth the postulation that loneliness is a public health crisis.  In a recent Fortune article, statistics from several recent surveys put the rate of loneliness between 40 and 43 percent.  We are a nation adrift in isolation.

Perhaps the solution is as simple as breaking down the barriers we have erected between ourselves and our community.  Perhaps, we need to start holding each other’s hands, not just when there is a national tragedy, but all the time.  We need hugs and handshakes, helping hands, handouts and hands up.  We need to touch each other.  We need to forge connections that create a lasting bond and hold back the forces of evil that would divide us.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Memories

We have been watching the PBS Series on Vietnam for the past two weeks.  It is painful to watch and even more painful to remember. 

I walk the streets of Emporia in a time warp, remembering what was and trying not to think about what might have been.  All of a sudden, I am in the Student Union playing bridge while being surrounded by talk about the war and especially the draft.  All of the boys knew their draft code by heart and there were endless discussions as to the possibilities upon graduation:  enlist, possibly go into OCS, stay in school and pursue a Masters, flee to Canada, or try to wait it out.  By the spring of 1966, most had resolved themselves to the fact that waiting the war out was not an option as it did not appear that any progress was being made.

In the end, few of them would ignore their civic duty.  This was KSTC after all, a little-known teacher’s college in Emporia, Kansas, not an ivy league school on the East Coast, and the students were not the wealthy scions of the political elites, merely good natured midwestern boys who didn’t have the connections or money to escape to Canada even if they wanted to.  Of course, very few were really looking for an escape.  They were the kind of boys who looked up to their fathers, the heroes from World War II, and heroism, not stardom ran through their veins.

I would not have tried to stop any of them, even the one I loved the most.  All though rumblings against the war were beginning to thunder in the press and on come college campuses, we were still under the impression that the government had our best interests at heart.  We were stopping the spread of communism.  That was a worthy cause, wasn’t it?  The government wouldn’t be lying to us about the scope and the casualties. Would they?  We didn’t know at the time that our actions in Vietnam were coming between a population that didn’t want to be separated.  We did not know that our leaders had committed to a war between political forces that did not mirror the desires of the average citizen.  We believed at the time that the country needed these brave young men and they were willing to take the fall for their country if they had to. 

Unfortunately, many of them did make the ultimate sacrifice.  I remember 1968 so vividly.  The nation was in chaos and it seemed that every week there was a notice that someone I knew was coming home in a body bag.  It was a cold rainy Valentine’s day when the one I loved was laid to rest in the National Cemetery at Ft. Leavenworth.  It was the beginning of a year of turmoil when so many lives were taken unnecessarily; young men in their prime were lost along with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, heroes for speaking out against our nation’s particular injustice of segregation.  In addition to those lost on the battlefield, there were those who made it home, seemingly unscathed, but who have yet to deal with all of the scars, the frayed nerves, the PTSD.  It seems these boys paid a tremendous price for our nation, but it wasn’t appreciated then and would be even less appreciated now.

Heroism is no longer doing something for your country.  It is refusing to stand at attention for the national anthem. What a bunch of heroes the football players have become.  It would be   standing for the national anthem and now the entire NFL is following in hot pursuit.  These so-called heroes are making millions of dollars each year, their salaries paid primarily by the loyal fans, many of whom fought in real wars and suffered real wounds to give these idiots the freedom to express themselves. 
It would be laughable if it were not so tragic.  These celebrities, for that’s what they are, not heroes, would not last a day in the rice paddies of a foreign country.  They don’t have what it takes.  Sure, they can tackle each other so hard that they give each other permanent brain damage.  They can spike the ball and do a victory dance in the end zone, but they are not heroes.  They are spoiled rich guys, many with a criminal bent, not deserving of our worship and adulation.  Save that for the real heroes who are doing their country’s bidding in some foreign country, even if the cause is less than just.  They are the guys who will fight for our freedom if it becomes necessary, the ones who will protect us at all costs.