Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. ~Anaïs Nin

I’ve been a terrible poo-poo’er of New Year’s Resolutions in the past. Every year, I have watched people on national television share their goal to lose 10 pounds, to find Mr. (or Miss) Right, to get out of debt or to learn to speak fluent Italian. I’ve seen friends fall apart as their will power crumbles after dieting for 3 weeks, when the realization that life eating only cabbage isn’t much fun. I’ve seen expensive pieces of home fitness equipment become relegated to awkward coat racks. I’ve noticed that those who decide to give up McDonald’s often have a secret stash of Twinkie’s and Cheeto’s in the back of their closets. New Year’s resolutions are hard. They are tough to maintain. Worse yet, most of the time we end up feeling worse about ourselves than we did on December 31st. Before midnight, we think everything and anything is possible. We believe we’ll have the strength and determination to create a new and better version of ourselves. We always have the idea that we can be thinner, more intellectual, more successful, wealthier and more interesting. In turn, we are confident that these miraculous changes will finally bring us the long sought after happiness we’ve always desired. It should come as no surprise that by Valentine’s Day, most of us have slipped back into the roles of “same old us”.

Therefore, this year I’d like to do something differently for my New Year’s resolutions: I’d like to set up as few changes as possible. In doing so, I hope that I will feel more confident in who I am, in what I stand for and in what direction my life will lead. I hope my readers will wish me luck in these endeavors. I have no doubt that, as simple as they are, I may well find them challenging.

I resolve to remain at my current weight, and not to lose a single ounce. I therefore resolve to look in the mirror and be thankful that I’m not fighting a debilitating, or life threatening, disease. I resolve to make peace with my reflection and refrain from criticizing the way I look, but rather to find the find the good in the woman looking at me. I promise to refrain from complaining about my thighs, my wrinkles and my outward self. I resolve to take good care of the body I’ve been given and to be thankful for every moment I am breathing, walking and spending time with those I love. My body may be far from perfect but it’s time we we made peace with one another.

I resolve to live within my means….and to refrain from drooling every time a new catalog comes in the mail. I promise to look at the beautiful clothes I own and the loved furniture, knowing that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the store. I resolve to take joy in what I’ve been blessed with instead the joy I’ll feel when I rely on something else to make me happy. I resolve to reuse, renew and just take stock in my current possessions…without giving a single thought to what the “Joneses” might be doing. I promise to take good care of the things I have, so that I won’t need new.

I resolve to spend more time being thankful and less time being envious.

I resolve to play with my dogs as much as possible.

I resolve to get rid of the words "would have", "could have" and "should have".

I resolve to let go of guilt and regret.

I resolve to look at my son’s graduation as a beginning, rather than an ending.

I resolve to see my friends more often, even if it means traveling on my own.

I resolve to smile when I’m grumpy and say a cheerful thank you when I’m annoyed with mediocre service.

I resolve to ignore my bad hair days.

I resolve to put things away when I take them out.

I resolve to let myself off the hook when I slip up.

I resolve not to judge other people.

I resolve to enjoy the films and books I like, without apology or embarrassment. If people think I’m foolish for watching movies in which the heroines all wear corsets, they simply don’t have to watch with me.

I resolve to be a kind, funny, literate middle aged woman, to live in today, instead of the past or the future.

I resolve to take these resolutions only as seriously as I feel like at any given moment.

I resolve to stop speaking when the only words coming out of my mouth are argumentative.

I resolve to put books down, or turn movies off, if I really don't like them. Sometimes, not finishing everything I begin is going to be okay.

I resolve to sleep in on days I'm able to, and to enjoy those peaceful few moments in cozy warmth.

I resolve to just give myself a year to be me….to work on living each day as it presents itself and to refrain from self-badgering.

Hopefully, I can accomplish this. But, if you hear me bemoaning the way I look in my jeans, feel free to call me on it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Friends

"Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only a true friend will leave footprints on your heart."

Not long ago, I was volunteering at our beautiful library in town, when two older women walked in. They were bundled up against the Maine December winds and had all the usual tourist paraphernalia: cameras, umbrellas, that extra layer of sweatshirt that has "Maine"embroidered on it, purchases from the knick-knack stores and maps of our historic, but small, downtown area. Yet, these women had a different kind of twinkle in their eye. When at the library, I'm accustomed to answering questions about our elegant park, the best places to eat and the area attractions. I can suggest museums, that are a short drive away, the best shopping and out of the way spots that are the exceptionally picturesque. What was unusual about these ladies was that they asked none of these queries. They smiled, they walked around the airy, light-filled space and when they did come up to me, they simply beamed and asked if I would take their picture. I was more than pleased to oblige. As I was positioning them just outside, with Camden harbor in the background, they told me that they had been best friends since they were six years old, and as they relayed in hushed, elegant Carolina drawls, this trip to coast of Maine had been a dream of theirs since high school. Their joy, the longevity of their friendship and their palpable appreciation of being in a special place at a special time, tore at my heartstrings. I felt deeply honored to have been a witness, and even a modest participant, in their experience.

I'm a "best friend" kind of a woman too. A boy I once knew remarked about me, decades ago, that I'm attracted to boys, but prefer the company of girls. He said this in the nasty tones of condescension, but in reality, he
wasn't far off the mark. Throughout most of my life, I've had a best friend. Unlike the two beautiful ladies from Charleston, however, I haven't had one best friend for more than four decades. It seems, in my life, that I've had different best friends during different seasons in my life. When specific events have taken a turn to shift onto a new path, I've been fortunate to have a friend who has shared the journey with me. When my biological father left our family, and my mom was bravely putting the two of our lives back together, I had a best friend who let me sleep over all I wanted, in her very happy "normal" family. At Kathy's house, I felt secure and part of a peacefully safe tribe. When I was going through feelings of unease at being the only "only child" I knew, my friend Maria welcomed me into her busy, chaotic, fast paced house....getting a taste of sibling life. When I was passionately curious about spirituality and religion, fate opened up the door for me to have not one, but twin best friends who came from a deeply kind Episcopalian home. From them, I learned the faith that would become my own, and would forever change my life. As a new student in a boarding school 3000 miles away from my home, God gave me a from the same place and from a similar background. We were able to forge through unknown territory together on adventures. She held my head in her lap when I cried over a boy, long since forgotten. She inspired me to take life as it was presented to me, rather than worrying over the way that it had not transpired.

As an adult, I found this experience of friendship appearing didn't change. As a new bride living in Germany, I met others...each one a newlywed too, and each one eager to form a support system. We could pour out our hearts, express our misgivings, our fears and just wonder if what new marriage in foreign country was 'supposed' to be like this. Some of these friends were more hesitant about venturing out on their own but taught me how to cook beyond my ability to heat up frozen food. Others were pioneers, not even using a map to find some out of the way corner of Europe to investigate. I found I learned skills from each of them. Later, I found a best friend in
my childbirth class, another in preschool story hour, one at the children's soccer game and still another purely by chance. Each one of these women was part of my life for a milestone season. From them, I learned independence, how to budget properly, how to mix a mean Martini, how to tell if the hockey puck is off-sides, how to ask the doctor the right questions when I had cancer and how to tell a joke without forgetting the punchline. I've learned how to read a map, how to dress more stylishly and how to find a good hairdresser. I've discovered that some lessons come in the form of 'what not to do' not to treat my husband, how not to parent, how not to overreact and how not to leave a marriage. I've learned that some lessons are learned by the experience of others. I've learned that loyalty isn't always forever. I've had my heart broken, and my life the same friend at different times.

I don't have a best friend right now. I don't even have a close friend nearby. Most everyone I know has moved, and while I have terrific people to know near and far, I miss that sense of intimacy. I miss being able to look at a woman, with a twinkle in her eye and say "Do you remember that time at that place?", and have her laugh uproariously over an event that's revealed only in shorthand conversation. I miss going shopping together and going to the theater. I miss lying in someone else's bed at midnight, drinking coffee and watching movies. I miss passing books and forth and then phoning every few hours and asking, "What chapter on you on?". I miss having my friend know my favorite foods and laughing about the ones I won't eat. I miss her redoing my hair because "Seriously...what was I thinking?". I miss having someone know my story without my having to rehash 44 years. I miss having a friend remind me of an event that I'd long forgotten...and feeling blessed that someone else could help be my memory keeper. I miss crying on her shoulder, and having her cry on mine. I miss sharing sweaters, borrowing earrings and ordering in Chinese food. I miss having a best friend.

Yet, I continually count my blessings. I have a husband who does love me very much, and despite his need to watch either the Red Sox or the Bruins at all times, is a good and decent man. I have teenagers who are smart and funny and interesting people. I have an accomplished, successful mother of whom I'm extremely proud, and cousins who make me laugh, in spite of myself. I have two dogs and one bunny, who think I've Queen of the World. I have friends with whom I'm still in touch after many yeas, and others who have slipped out of my life. I have wonderful memories, and painful ones. I have hope.

I am still on the lookout for a best friend. I hope she's on the lookout for me too. I am just waiting for us to recognize each other.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Time Between

But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day. ~Benjamin Disraeli

As a writer, one of the of skills I find the most fascinating is an author's ability to account for the non-linear aspects of time. Talented writers can express this through flash-backs, through moving in multiple directions of a character's imagination or simply by writing with the fluidity of ocean currents, moving from one time to another. Not long ago, I read that "time is linear, but human behavior is circular". Moving between times in a character's life, or moving between characters living at different points in history, is an intriguing method in story telling. As time becomes less fixed and more movable, the characters can relate to one another, and the story can be told, by unwrapping each layer of scarf covering the singular core of the protagonist. As time becomes less of a fixed point in the literary horizon, the author is free to explore what actions happened before she came on the scene, as well as to look ahead as to the ramifications of an action years later. These perspectives can tell a story more deeply, while not boring the reader with dull facts about 'what happened before'.

Two books that used this concept with artistry and finesse are "Labor Day" by Joyce Maynard and "Dreaming in French" by Megan McAndrew. Both of these brilliant, insightful novels revolve around a young adolescent, struggling to come to terms with their own lives 'in between' childhood and adulthood, while still dealing with life changing events that forever bind their existence into a time 'before' and 'after'. The central story in the novels themselves can be looked as the "time in between"...the days during which everything changed. Yet, both of these extraordinary stories use time in a non-linear fashion; to help the authors to give background information that isn't dull, but is exceptionally relevant. Both novels explore the deep seated feelings of not belonging, of wanting one's parents to be 'normal' and of being uncertain of one's place in an increasingly adult world. Both of these stories tell, in the eyes of dramatically different main characters, the impact of feeling out of place, of not being a child any longer, but also not being ready for adulthood. These novels accomplish the feat of combining innocence with unyielding knowledge, of being equally balanced between a character's intelligence and inexperience. Both are gifts of instinctual capture the minds, thoughts, deliberations and allowances of the 13 year old mind during exceptional circumstances. I couldn't put either book down once I began reading.

The time in between childhood and adulthood seems to go on forever, when a person is young. I remember being 13 and feeling desperate to be 16. Then, at 16, I was desperate to be 18. I can materialize my adolescent self and feel her frustration, her joys, her insecurities, her gifts and her fears. I can conjure her up with a photograph, and want to look into her eyes, admonishing her to cherish every moment of youth, encouraging her not to cry over boys who will be forgotten or slights that will vanish. I want to whisper to her the secret of "you may want to move on right may not like the way you look or the way your life is, but there will come a time that you would do anything for five minutes back in these shoes....". I want to give young Ellen a hug, make her a cup of tea, and without giving away too much of the adventure that lies ahead, assuring her that all will not only be will be far better than well. I wish I could allow young Ellen to relax, to breathe and to imprint every single moment of youth on herself so that I could better recall it with clarity now. I would like her to see that her life will not be over when she sees the first gray hair, that her hopes and dreams will far surpass anything she could imagined for herself and that time itself will become her friend and companion. Time becomes one's medicine to help get over loss, one's ally in making choices and one's vault in which to bank one's precious memories.

I would also like to encourage my younger self not to discount the memories of older people. As a child and a young teen, I remember listening to the stories of my grandmother and great-aunts as they recalled their childhoods growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It seemed to always be cold. It appeared as if everyone was always fighting, and that there was never enough money. Beyond that, I simply didn't listen. I would hear the same grievances rolled out every year, and the same grudges being held from infractions that occurred when they were my own age. I simply didn't listen with the rapt attention to the stories of our family because I thought these retellings, these hashings over and these tribulations were "boring" and "done". What I failed to realize was that my grandmother's recollections of her own adolescence were windows into the universal spirit of all coming of age stories. I wish I'd understood that within these squabbles lay buried family histories I'd never come to explain or perceive. In Grandma's own 'time between' would lie the answers to my own. I was even given the gift of non-linear time to explore and to enrich, but I wasn't ready to use the gift when it was presented to me.

"The time between" is an alluring concept to deduce. It can be a literary device. It can be a way of explaining moments that seem to stand out between two fixed points. It can also be a way to comprehend those times in a person's life in which she feels suspended between two sides of bridge. Underneath the bridge appears a bottomless chasm. On one side is the familiar, the known and the learned. But that side has begun to crumble and we have no choice but to cross the rickety, shaky bridge ahead. What is on the far side is shrouded in mist and we can't see ahead. Yet, we press, carefully, tentatively pressing on with each step, and hoping the sun will break through the fog that lies ahead.

If you happen to peer into the clouds and see what awaits, find a hush within yourself....and ask questions. You never know what the answers will be. I'm sure they will surprise you.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them. ~ Lucy Maud Montgomery

I happen to be ridiculous when it comes to the anticipation that comes with the Christmas season. I morph, mystically and on schedule, into an impatient Elf. I am the first person to want to put up my tree. In general, the day after Thanksgiving is the perfect time for me.I am filled with a holiday "nesting" spirit. As I'm cleaning up the turkey and creating bags of leftovers, I also want to begin singing Christmas carols, dusting off the Christmas light up village (complete with skating pond) and start decorating my house within every square inch. Out go the regular pillows and in come the Christmas ones. I want to watch tear jerker holiday movies on the Lifetime Channel. I wear embarrassing Santa aprons when I cook and Santa hats when I run errands. And, I usually have my cards ready to mail out on December 1st. In my heart, there is no break between the two holidays: it's as if Thanksgiving is just Opening Day for a marathon of red & green excitement. I wish everyone in every store, "Happy Holidays". I anticipate Christmas morning with a child's heart. The only difference is, I'm far more excited to see the expressions on my family's faces when they open the gifts I've picked out for them. It's all I can do not to give them presents early. I'm terrible about this: my daughter has had to say "No, Mom...we wait for Christmas or it's not special!". Like a four year old, I simply can't wait, and all of my nervous energy comes to a frenetic peak on Christmas Eve. I want to sing all night and wake up with the Christmas morning sun.

The problem is not my passion for Christmas, it's the crash that inevitably comes after. As soon as the gifts are unwrapped, the living is tidied up, and we've eaten our Brunch, I feel a unbearable sense of let down. I want my exuberance back again. What happened to "Peace on Earth; Goodwill towards Men"? It seems to vanish altogether. I want to piece the wrapping paper back together, and travel through time back to that moment just before we began sorting the gifts. I begin to rethink every purchase I made and realize that most of them were completely wrong. I want back the festivity that comes before the festival, the magic that comes before the rabbit is pulled from the hat and the expectation of a Broadway show the moment before the curtain is pulled up. I want the dimmed theater, the lifted glass just before a toast and the cake while the candles are still burning. I dream of the first page of a book you can't wait to read. To me, that infinitesimal foretaste is where the real joy lies.

So, what is there to do, when one appreciates the enthusiastic idealism more than real thing? When the clothes don't fit, when the video is one the receiver has, when the tree starts to look ragged, when the French toast burns and the pile of rubbish seems far bigger than the stack of gifts was, it can be terribly gloomy. I've found myself cleaning up, and then simply wanting to take the tree down Christmas evening...wanting to 'get it over with'. If I can't find the adrenaline rush of good cheer, I want it to be all over completely, with every trace of Christmas eradicated before New Year's. If my heart doesn't burst with the readiness, I want to move on. My inner Grinch seems to steal Christmas after Christmas has come.

The wonderful thing about life is that we're given more years to get it right, and to try again. This year I have identified my self-destructive behavior and am circumventing my own bad actions. I'm not taking the tree down before New Year's. That simply won't happen. My daughter is my sponsor in the 'extend the Christmas experience' quest. She's even more passionate about Christmas than I am...and she doesn't let the day itself ruin her holiday cheer. "When the student is ready, the master will appear"....and in my case, the master happens to be my 15 year old. We're going to enjoy our time by the tree, reading, having cocoa and tea, the entire time she's home from school. We're going to organize our gifts so that she doesn't pull out our stockings in 2010, to discover that they're all half full with last year's items. We're going to make a plan for putting away the Christmas decorations more slowly and more deliberately, so that we stretch out the process, rather than treat it like a move across country. Hopefully, this will have the added benefit of finding everything as we need it next November. If we take the after Christmas idea more slowly, it might just like inching into a swimming will be bracing, but it will keep away the shock factor. We are going to use our Christmas plates until New Year's, and not allow the negativity into our home. We're going to appreciate our gifts one at a time, instead of being gluttonous with them all at once. This will also keep the excitement fresh.

Patience has never been the strongest area in my life. I was notorious for peeking in my mother's closet weeks leading up to my birthday. I wanted to know the gender of my babies, from the moment I found out I was expecting. I couldn't wait for our puppies to come home from the day they were born. I wanted what I wanted without having to wait. I've learned, in my wiser middle years, that the sweetest moments lie in being fully present in the current moment. The pleasure that can be derived from slowing down, being mindful in each new experience, even the anticipation leading up to it, can far outweigh rushed, transitory glimpses of thrill. Therefore, it's my goal this year to be peaceful, rather than voracious, in my holiday spirit. In doing so, perhaps the joyful fires will remain kindled longer...and not burn themselves out at 5 minutes past 9 on Christmas morning.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote so eloquently, "All things come round to him who will but wait." I hope that my waiting will bring about a new understanding of the Christmas well as an extension of my appreciation for it.

And, I promise not to peek this year. Well, maybe just a little.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Big Families

The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together. ~Erma Bombeck

I'm an only child. There were times when I did relish this fact. I had my mom and dad all to myself. I didn't have to share them with anybody else. We were the three Musketeers. Life was our adventure. We were a merry little troop of three. And yet, there were a lot of times when three felt too small to me. I was the only Only that I knew. All of my friends had siblings.What began by feeling cozy ended up feeling short changed. As I got older, I began to notice that no one else's mothers drove snazzy little coupes. They all drove station wagons. I saw that other fathers had their hands full with lots of kids. I became obsessed with big families...not just ones with another sibling or two. The families I came to envy were the truly large ones; the ones that other people stopped and stared at. I read, and reread, the "All of a Kind" family books dozens of times. My two favorite old movies were "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "Cheaper by the Dozen". I daydreamed of having scads of brothers and sisters I could share secrets with, argue with, play with and go to bed talking with. My imagination ran overtime as I invented these sibling characters in my head, praying every day that I would wake up as one of six children. Although, this never happened, I did come to have a barn full of horses, enough dogs to pull a dog sled and one exceptionally intelligent Maine Coon cat to round out our family. But, overall, we were a content triangle.

As a new bride, I was excited to begin our family. I looked forward to being a Mommy. I wanted to snuggle babies close and rock them to sleep. I couldn't wait to read books to my little ones. I was overjoyed to think of making Christmas magical for my 'as yet to be' children. I was ecstatic to become cookie baking, carpool driving, Little League cheering on, messy art projects mother. Still, the grass really does look greener on the other side of the fence. My husband and I were not the first in our group of friends to have children, nor were we the last. I saw the long hours of sleepless nights and understood the expenses that amounted with each baby. I also saw mothers "of many" struggling to meet the needs of each child. I knew it could be done, and done well. But, I also knew that we weren't cut out for that type of demand. Jeff and I made the decision to have two children, three at the most. We were absolutely delighted with our son and daughter, and while we were grief stricken over the loss of our third baby, we came to see this as something that was not meant to be. We understood that, for the two of us, pouring our love, attention, affection, effort and resources to the two terrific babies we had made the most sense. Our family was complete. It was the four of us. A square. Symmetrical. My military husband liked to say that we had 'man to man' coverage. We were thankful and content...and we still are.

Yet, the larger family trend has been in the news a great deal lately. The success of shows like "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" (despite the unfortunately public dissolution of marriage), "The Duggar Family", "Table for Twelve" and "Kids by the Dozen" opened up the eyes of a great number of smaller families to the larger families in their midst. News programs, and parenting magazine articles, with titles such as "Is 4 the new 2?","Megafamilies" and "Are Large Families Back?" created buzz
around this trend. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have made newsworthy the thought of expanding large families through adoption. My friends of many children get tired of answering the obvious question "Yes, they're all mine". I have to say that, had I not known women personally who have mothered many, I would have thought it was all a little crazy, despite my childhood fascination. As I struggled to get lunches made for school, make sure the laundry was done, cleaned the house, helped with homework, driven to hockey, soccer, ballet, baseball and sailing, volunteered at book sales, bake sales and raffles, met with teachers for both children and still tried to work on my own projects, the task was daunting. What I've learned from my Megafamily 'sisters' is that they still need to do all of those just requires further planning, a sense of teamwork, and help where they can get it. The television shows, the movies, the pop phenomenon aspect of large families, in some ways, diminishes the magic of it. The women I know who live this life every day do find themselves exhausted, overwhelmed and frustrated. But, they also find immense joy in seeing the specialness of each child's singular uniqueness. These 'not for television' families are the ones who make the loving alchemy happen. These are the moms who are Goddesses. They take the family shape of triangle and square, with which I am familiar, and create hexagons and decagons.

In my yoga classes, I try to balance the male and female elements in our practice. Just as there are male and female nouns in French and Spanish, and one must make the appropriate pronoun use, there are male and female based Asanas, or poses. I try to balance the number of these to create a flowing class that will leave my students feeling both energized and empowered. The Asana that is especially popular for this goal is Goddess. It's a powerful squat with arms raised shoulder height and hands up. I've seen ancient art in the tribal sections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris that show figures in this same pose. Initially, it makes the yogini feel strong, robust, courageous and mighty. After a few moments, it starts to feel heavy, fatiguing, sapped and burdensome. These are adjectives I've been told by my students, and have felt myself, while practicing Goddess. What fascinates me is that these same adjectives could be applied to motherhood itself, regardless of family size; we begin feeling on top of the world, yet after a while, we find ourselves weary. This helps me to understand that Ancient cultures felt just the same way we do...without the carpooling.

Am I sorry that I'm the mother of 'just two'? Not at all. I cherish my children, and I feel that the family I have is the family I was meant to have. I find myself both ecstatic and worn out with my small tribe. Do I judge people with large families? I don't judge, but I do find them curious and fascinating. I wonder how they manage it all. I respect their efforts and love to see them at work. As I find 'the road less traveled' to be gaining in popularity, I remain confident in my life but passionately curious about their other path.

And, I wish all families, large, small and somewhere in the middle, a very happy holiday season.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Holiday Hot Bath

There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them. ~Sylvia Plath,The Bell Jar

During this busy time of year, the most common answer I hear, when I ask "How are you?" is "Stressed!". Most people I know have Christmas lists that resemble the size and length of a Bill, set before Congress, to become a law. People have to shop for their families' gifts, which becomes more difficult each successive year. How many years can you make cookies for people, or give them a bottle of wine, without seeming uncreative? There are Christmas card photos to take...and with every passing year the children become older, wiser, less cooperative and not as easily bribed into standing still. There are addresses to look up, because in our more mobile society, few people still live in the same house that they may have a few years ago. There are parties to attend, which sounds like an enormous amount of fun until you try to schedule around them. There are parties to give, which is even more stressful....between making sure the dog hasn't eaten the sofa, the hors d'oeuvres or the front porch steps before the guests arrive. There are party dresses that fit last year but now seem sized for a completely differently shaped woman. There are recipes that are "Never Fail!' in the cookbook, but manage to do just that. There are sporting events to attend, cheering for your children while wearing Santa hats. There are office events that we want to appear at our best, yet cultivate a savoie-faire attitude (and not make a fool of ourselves, like Roy from Accounting did one year). There are gingerbread houses that collapse and require power tools to fix. We try to play Secret Santa, without our victim figuring out who is leaving boxes of caramels on her desk. There are Caroling parties that always seem to be held on the one evening per year that disproves global warming. There are Christmas Pageants, concerts and plays. There is too much clutter, and not enough "Yankee Swap" gatherings to dispose of it all. There are important Charity events, such as Toys for Tots drives, Adopt a Family and care packages to support our troops overseas. There is too much to do, crammed into too short a period of time, and far too much enforced merriment. It's hard to 'merry' when everyone is telling you to do just my five commitments each afternoon.

Bah Hambug! So, how do we get out of the doldrums and into the delight? We find time every day for a hot holiday bath. We need to close the door, and draw the hot water, putting on whatever music relaxes us the most. In my case, it happens to be Andrea Bocelli, but you may enjoy hymns, Christmas carols, show tunes, or whatever happens to be your 'happy place', musically. You will want to be luxurious with your bath products. Lavender is wonderful for relaxation, but for the more adventurous, Bath & Body Works has developed a line of holiday bubble baths. My two favorites are their Twisted Peppermint and Nutcracker Suite. Each one lathers up heavenly and takes me far away from the bottle drive I need to coordinate for the hockey team. Make sure that your bathroom is stress's tough to relax, when you're looking at a counter filled with half empty bottles and an exploded toothpaste container. Either earlier in the day, or while your bath is drawing, "clean sweep" whatever you need to...simply put it in a box and deal with it later. (You may find that, once it becomes later, you don't miss that half empty container of bug repellent in December). Lock the door if you need to, but just make your holiday hot bath a ritual you do for yourself. Pour yourself a glass of wine, or a cup of hot chocolate, and sink back, promising yourself that you won't think about anything on your Christmas "to do" list for the duration of your sanctuary in the tub.

However, if you find that your mind is having a hard time shutting off, as mine often does, bring a good book into the tub with you. While I wouldn't recommend trying this even with the steadiest of hands for Kindle users, but if you take care, it shouldn't be a problem for a tradition book. I'd recommend reading something inspirational, uplifting, heart warming, or at the very least, light hearted. We have enough drama in our lives this time of year. This isn't the moment to read Tom Clancy's latest, or any Lee Childs thriller. You don't want heart pounding action.You want to be renewed. Action books can be enormous fun, and can pull us into a web of adrenaline that leaves us feeling mysterious and accomplished. But, during times of great busyness, it's often helpful to read words that are more life affirming. This will help us ease tension and find inner peace. You may enjoy reading inspirational books by The Dalai Lama, or by inspirational Jewish and Christian writers, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner or Max Lucado. Richard Paul Evans writes beautiful,"easily read in a night or two" books that uplift, entertain, inspire but aren't insipid novels. Most of all, I'd recommend reading Mitch Albom's new book, "have a little faith". The journey the author takes, from being asked to write his childhood rabbi's eulogy (when the spiritual leader was still very much alive), to connecting with an inner city homeless project run by an extraordinary pastor, this novel will kindle a light within you may find flickering and on the point of blowing out altogether if you don't nourish the flame.

There are so many ways that we celebrate the holiday season. We spend time with family and friends. We do good works in our communities. We try to make the holidays special for our create memories they'll look back upon with great happiness. But, in all of that activity, we often do 'forget the meaning of the season'. I don't like being reminded, again and again, that we need to reach into our faith traditions, and dwell there exclusively, while I have no ethical way to get out of honoring my other, secular commitments. I don't like hearing how badly the stock market is doing because people "just aren't shopping enough", when I'm trying to teach my teenagers to think of one or two special items, as opposed to one of everything at Circuit City. What I do like is finding a way to balance the must do's, the want to do's, the love to do's and 'do's for my health and sanity'. For me, this means taking a hot bath every night. It means finding a way to shut out everyone, including the people I love desperately, just for a chance to recharge my Elf Engine.

I think that creating a Hot Holiday Bath ritual is a healthy, non-addictive way to deal with holiday pressures. It can relieve tense muscles, warm you all over from a frosty night and give you a much needed break. If nothing else, the presents that the kids have unwrapped, and then tried (unsuccessfully) to re-wrap will still be there when you get out. And, you may just have a more effective, gentler method of handling it all, warm and cozy from Peppermint bubbles.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Supporting Soldiers

No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation - General Douglas MacArthur

When I first met the man who would become my husband, he was a student at United States Military Academy at West Point. I didn't know much about the military. All of my impressions of Army life came second hand. I read the "Red Badge of Courage" in Junior High School, and knew the Army ranks, just as random facts. I had no idea that the military would play a defining role in my life as an adult. I remember watching "The Sands of Iwo Jima", "The Alamo" and "The Great Escape" with my father, curled up on the couch. Growing up, soldiers felt brave, strong, intelligent...and far away. Little did I know that one week after my 21st birthday, I'd be married to an Army Ranger Lieutenant and living in another country. Thus, my education in military life began.

My first impression of Army life was overwhelming. I learned that there were acronyms for everything from housing to my own status as an Army wife. I discovered that there were specific ways of doing everything, and took classes in the appropriate protocol. Despite the amount of information thrown at me, I also came to see the Army as an extended family. When the soldiers were out in the field, as they often were, we spouses clung together. We were there for one another. We nursed each other through trauma, through ordeals and through fear.We had the support of our entire community, and, during Desert Storm, we became an oasis of security when our cars were searched, when protests were marched in nearby German towns and husbands would leave without the ability to call home on satellite phones or Skype. We knew we had an effective support system in place.

When I first heard the story about the three Navy Seals being prosecuted for allegedly abusing an Iraqi prisoner and then covering up the offense, I was disgusted. Having read almost everything I can about this case, I can only come away shaking my head at the injustice being done to these three men: Petty Officer Second Class Matthew McCabe, Petty Officer 1st class Julio Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd class Jonathan Keefe. Petty Officer McCabe is charged with punching a terrorist in the midsection. The other two SEALS are charged with aiding and lying. Have the circumstances regarding this terrorist been released? Do we know what this terrorist may have said or done to military forces in the past? Have we been informed of his record? Were these highly trained men just acting like schoolyard bullies, out to beat up whomever they could find?

Hardly. We know a great deal about this terrorist. "The supposed victim, Ahmed Hashim Abed, was the mastermind behind killing, burning and mutilating four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. His followers hung the desiccated corpses high on a box-girder bridge over the Euphrates River. Mr. Abed was run down by the SEALs on a covert mission in September 2009." The fact that he was captured by the SEALS at all is an exceptional accomplishment. This criminal had been evading US Forces for at least five years. For five years, he'd been working to murder and slaughter civilians and military personnel. For five years, families mourned their loved ones without justice in sight. These SEALS are heroes, who captured a sociopath. Did they show anger? Absolutely. But, was it out of control and tortuous? Absolutely not.

Many people do not understand what it is that SEALS do in the Navy. SEALS "are employed in direct action and special reconnaissance operations. SEALs are also capable of undertaking unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, and other missions." As an Army Ranger's wife, I know quite a bit about the intense training a Ranger undergoes before graduation. Less than half of all Ranger trainees make it to that ceremony.The Naval SEAL program is 5 times longer, and with an even lower, more competitive and tougher graduation profile. Navy SEALS are among the most disciplined, the most courageous and the most Spartan of all soldiers in any branch of the US military. They do not become SEALS lightly and they are not bestowed with the title easily. It's a hard won honor...and with that distinction comes the knowledge that upon graduation, he may well be on his way to a mission from which he will not return. For those who do come back from missions successful, there is always the understanding that there will be another "mission impossible" to carry out...during which they may lose their own lives, or watch their teammates suffer. SEALS believe in Honor above all, and one of their closest credos is to never leave a man behind. SEALS will risk danger to themselves to retrieve and rescue a fallen comrade.

So, where is the support for the Petty Officers McCabe, Huertas and Keefe? Where are the branches of government to stand up for them? The military, particularly during time of war, is meant to pull together and create a cohesive team. But, when our own government is prosecuting heroes for during their jobs, when brave men save the lives of others for capturing a known terrorist, how we can trust that they will take care of any soldier? The ramifications of this prosecution can be taken outside the military, as well. Who can say that a District Attorney won't file charges against a police officer for taking out a bank robber? Or an overzealous government to prosecute Special Forces operatives for going after Pirates in the Mediterranean? What about firefighters who aren't able to save every single person from a burning apartment building? Will they be tried for negligence? The fact remains that brave men and women put their lives at risk every single day to keep us, the civilian population, safe. If these heroes are second guessing their actions every moment, in fear of prosecution, will any of us be truly secure?

It's all very well and good to bake cookies to send to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for Christmas. It is thoughtful to create care packages to mail overseas. It's positive to hold potluck suppers to benefit those wounded in action and through their rehabilitation. It's important to support those spouses left behind when a soldier or sailor deploys. But, unless we can create an atmosphere in which soldiers are allowed to do their jobs, and can risk their lives without worrying about prosecution for every action, we are not supporting our troops. The current political climate of 'trying to be understanding to terrorists' is an abomination. Our soldiers can't risk their lives while politicians see opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the war's progress. War is ugly. War isn't cheap, in money or lives. War isn't the desired state of world affairs. But, like it or not, we are in the midst of a two front war, and if those who wish us harm see that our brave troops can be sent to prison for doing their jobs, it will only increase the terrorist violence....knowing that retaliation will bring impunity to those who commit the crimes, and jail for the soldiers fighting.

As far as the punch in the stomach goes, it was a regrettable action. But, ask yourself this question: what would have happened if Petty Officer McCabe had been captured by Ahmed Hashim Abed? Would Ahmed Hashim Abed get in trouble for one belt to the midsection by his superiors? He would have been applauded by them for publicly executing Petty Officer McCabe, and allowing McCabe's relatives to watch the public horror on television.

I respectfully suggest that the prosecutors attend an NHL game at some point. They clearly need a lesson in what one punch means.

In the meantime, I also suggest joining our team on Facebook, to help support these three brave SEALS:

In Defense of Libraries

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy. ~Edward P. Morgan

I once read that Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush, describes herself as a "Reader", above all other labels she could possess. I found myself smiling at that description. Of the many "hats" I wear, as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer, a foil, an animal lover, a Yogini or a klutz, "Reader" is the most accurate definition of what makes me, me. I am never without a book. I carry one with me at all times. If you ask any of my close friends or family, they will say I'm happiest, curled up, cup of tea by my side, reading. It's an image that encompasses the way I feel about myself; learning, peaceful, traveling in spirit and engrossed. I read to my babies from birth, and some of my favorite memories of the early years of motherhood, are those curled up with two toddlers, snuggled in close, rapt attention at what would happen next in the Narnia series.

Because my love of reading has been such a critical part of my life, libraries have naturally been my sanctuary. I learned to read long before I began Kindergarten. My mother taught me when I showed an interest around age 3. My Kindergarten teacher, a sadist of a woman who should not have been allowed to talk to children, let alone teach them, shrieked at my mother that I "wasn't ready to read before Kindergarten". My mother calmly informed "Mrs. Amie" that, had I not been ready, I wouldn't be reading. So, when the other children were learning their alphabet, I was 'banished' to the library, where I couldn't corrupt the innocent non-readers. As time went on, and I changed both states of residence and schools multiple times, I made friends with every librarian. My librarians were not the ridiculously stereotyped 'shushing' old spinsters, but loving, gentle book admirers who welcomed me into their sisterhood without question. Librarians would pull books for me, give me a hug, or a piece of peppermint, when I was being bullied. They would eagerly discuss the books I loved with me, and share insights of their own. Often several would gather with me, and allow me into their inner sanctum, behind the desk, where we could discuss biographies, novels and classics. These women gave me a sense of community when I felt little elsewhere in my life. I found myself rushing through my lessons in class, so that I could be excused to go to the library. It became my safe haven, my other home and my catechism of true learning. I only needed to step inside a library, smell the aroma of books, pens and antiseptic cleaner, and I could know I was home. Throughout 12 years of traditional school and 4 years of college, I knew that, even if I was the 'new kid' in school, the library would be the one place I could feel peacefully welcome. The first place I visited, once my new husband and I moved to Army posts in the States, and abroad, was the library on post. Every library contained hundreds, even thousands, of new friends....the books. I might have been thousands of miles from home, from each library welcomed me in like a devotee on a pilgrimage.

Not long ago, on my way back from Massachusetts, a radio news program pronounced that "libraries are dead". The story went on to discuss the fact that, in light of book sellers like Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble, library use was at an all time low and could cease to exist in 20 years. I was both shocked and horrified. On the one hand, these stores, both online and brick and mortar, do make shopping for purchased books much easier. Yet, for a voracious reader like myself, the idea of buying every single book I read was staggering. How could I possibly afford to pay for three or four books a week? Not to mention, where would I put all of these books that I might read once, but not again? I'd be bankrupt and drowning in both debt and hardbacks!

My personal book journey begins at my local library. I find a book I'd like to read. This is an almost alchemical process. I peruse, I wander, I pick up, I research. If our library does not have the Holy Grail of the Moment, they are able to order it for me through inter-library loan. This exceptional program allows me to receive almost any book imaginable, that's available in any Maine library, at no cost to me. When I receive a phone call that my ordered book is in...which I receive almost's Christmas morning. It is walking down the stairs to see a shiny new bike under the tree. It's a wedding day, feeling like a bride in her beautiful gown for the first time. It's the excitement of discovering a kindred soul in a person you have not yet met. Finding a new book in this way is falling head over heels in love again...and again...and again.

But my library is more than just a place to procure books to 'feed my habit'; it's an important part of my community. I have met some of my closest friends at the library. We met with our very young children at story hour. We became bonded conspirators over keeping little ones in place, as we helped them glue together projects for "Dr. Seuss" week or learning to dance the Hora at the library's Hanukkah celebration. We sat and talked about grown up things beyond laundry, pediatricians and coupons. We were able to share ideas that didn't involve Sesame Street. At that time, the library became our haven, during the long, cold Maine winters, where our children could safely play and read, and we could be surrounded by intellectual thought. Now that my children are older, my library is still essential to my well being; I help out where I can, and I am thrilled to discuss books with staff and patrons alike.

A library is more than bricks and mortar. As Aristotle wrote, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts". The books are essential, but it's the people who make a library a sanctum. Kindles and bookstores are wonderful. They provide a way to own the books we have come to love, and wish to add to our collection. But a library is the collection and the wealth of knowledge that every single patron adds to. A library is a school, a hospital, a harbor and a neighborhood. Reading can happen in other places, but a library brings health to that pursuit.

To those who insist that "libraries are dead", I ask them to visit any one, during a Thursday morning story hour, and rethink their position.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins

"Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful." --Benjamin Franklin

Wrath. Sloth. Greed. Lust. Gluttony. Pride. Envy. The Seven Deadly Sins are those traits that each human being, no matter how upright, must still fight against. The Catholic Church, as the only church of its time, began circulating these flaws as early as the 11th century. By the 14th century, they'd become a popular topic of artists, the most common theme for homilies, and the subject of endless debate over which of the sins was the worst. For a Catholic, to die with one of these sins un-confessed would be fatal to one's soul, hence the moniker. Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy", an allegorical journey through Purgatory, Hell, and finally Paradise, gave a lasting impression to the way these vices were viewed by the public...even by those, centuries later, who had never read Dante's work. Each vice had its own particular form of punishment in Dante's imagination, and in his own way, he created the expression to come of "Let the punishment fit the crime."

Although I don't share Dante's vision of Hell or Purgatory, I do believe that we create a mess for ourselves, in the lives we're living right now, by allowing these sins---or poor behavior patterns---into our lives and into our hearts. When we behave badly, the one person we hurt the most is ourselves. Regardless of the larger spiritual ramifications, if we are jealous, hateful, quick to anger or terribly lazy, the real loser in the situation is not the person we're feeling negatively about; the real loser is our self. We damage our hearts, our minds, our thoughts, our spirits, our bodies and our life choices when we allow ourselves to be dragged through the muck of disgusting our own selfish impulses. It's very difficult not to pin blame on our shortcomings onto someone else. This is how the term "scapegoat" first came to be: in the ancient cultures in Mesopotamia, the priests sacrificed a sheep, or goat, every year to contain symbolically the sins of all the people. By sacrificing this goat, the 'sinners' were able to shift all of their blame onto another source, and feel forgiven at the end of its life. But, did they really "feel better" by doing so?

While I'd be hard pressed to understand the logic and reason of our ancestors from many centuries ago, I can attest to the fact that I feel lousy about myself when I'm in the wrong. There are times, no matter how much I would like to place the wrong doing onto another person, I have to take responsibility for my own part in misbehavior. For example, the two sins I struggle most with are Pride and Wrath. Most people think I'm a nice person. I don't carry a switchblade. I am pro-gun-control. I volunteer for several worthwhile charities. I'm kind to animals. I've tried to be a positive influence in my family, and in my community. I say "yes" more than I say "no". I am polite, friendly, outgoing and helpful. And yet, deep within me lies a well of rage that I constantly have to keep in check. I don't think I'm unusual in this way. I'm not about to hurt another soul, and even take spiders outside, rather than hurt them. Yet, when my pride is attacked, I become a Lioness on the hunt in the African bush. I take slights to my character, to my family and to my friends personally. I may not be lazy by nature, and I may have good control over my gastronomic desires, but I can hold a grudge longer than a Las Vegas poker player can keep a straight face when holding four aces. And yet, at the end of the day, do I feel any more satisfied with myself by thinking up methods of revenge worthy of The Count of Monte Christo?

Of course, the answer is no. I can keep myself up for nights on end replaying nasty comments said to me, snarky rumors spread by people I trusted and ways in which my children had been treated unfairly. I can hit my mental rewind button so many times that I have memorized the conversational details. Unfortunately, with every retelling I find myself exaggerating the wrongs done until a gesture of utter stupidity becomes a call for a duel of honor. The problem? The person who created this inner drama knows nothing of the effect she's had on me, and I, myself, am torn up by feelings of vengeance, dread and immobility. The sin may have started by the rude remark. But, I took it to the next level by refusing to acknowledge my own part in its inception and then releasing it. Which sin is bigger? The instigating one, or the retaliation...even if the retaliation is only in my anger? The answer, of course, is neither. Both are wrong. But, I only have the ability to control my own behavior and my own reactions. Life doesn't give us an abacus on which we add the wrongs done to us, and then subtract our own faults. Our character is made up of who we are *in spite of* the behavior of others.

In my Yoga classes, I try to stress balance over all the other skills I teach. I am completely honest with my students. I am not a perfect Yogini, nor am I a perfect human being. But, in working on balance in all areas of our lives, we can try to illuminate the path so we can see where we're going astray. When I'm practicing a balance pose, such as Pose of the Dancer, I can't look all over the room. I can't gaze at my reflection in the mirror, checking my posture. I can't keep track of what's going on outside the studio. I need to find an immovable gazing point at which to look firmly. I need to keep my eyes on that mark and not allow them to drift. If my gaze falters, I will not be able to hold the pose at all. It's the same way in life: if I allow my thoughts to drift over to my distractions of pride begetting wrath, I will not be able to remain calm, kind or focused in any other area.

The Seven Deadly Sins are a provocative and fascinating subject. Most of us have one or two real problem areas that we can focus our energies in solving.We need to examine these in our lives, not just for our spiritual souls, not just for the comfort of those around us, but the way we intend to live our lives into the future. Interestingly, there is another list that has never gained the fame and familiarity as the Seven Deadly Sins: these are the Seven Virtues. There were first publicized at the same time as their negative counterparts. They are Patience, Diligence, Generosity, Purity, Temperance, Humility and Kindness.

Perhaps by keeping our eyes firmly focused on these Seven Virtues, we can keep our gaze from shifting to their shadow side....and we can save ourselves a great deal of emotional devastation by doing so. We can never fully purge our weaknesses out of our lives. But, with time, patience and commitment, we can fix our eyes on the positive path. In doing so, we'll also be a whole lot happier.

And, I will finally be able to sleep without thinking of new ways to leave poop bombs on doorsteps.