Monday, February 28, 2011

One Step

Overwhelming--I often hear that word and even more often say it when faced with what seem to be impossible tasks. Occasionally I watch a TV show about people who suffer from compulsive hoarding tendencies or who are long neglectful of day to day clean-up. All have reached a point where the clutter or hoarded items become impossible to deal with. Too much. Overwhelming. Unfixable.

Yet, I know there is a way through this. This ordinary saying rings in my head when I look at what seems like an impossible task in front of me: "The journey of thousand miles begins with a single step."

The origination of the statement is variously attributed to Confucius and to Lao-tzu. It was probably floating around long before either of them wrote or spoke it.  It's a piece of common wisdom--like "One day at a time."  

A single step. Not one thing will get done without taking that first single step.  

Last week, I surveyed my yard and garden with significant dismay. Family and health issues, a lingering sadness over my mother's death, all coupled with work pressures and a need to finish a major writing project meant that I never cleaned up the yard or garden last fall. My husband had begun rebuilding the vegetable beds in the back. That task also remains unfinished. Early spring weeds flourish, almost inevitable with our preference for all organic methods, but they bother my eye and need for neatness.  

It's just a mess. As I looked with growing despair, I starting thinking about people who have lost everything in floods, fires, and other natural disasters. The rebuild seems overwhelming, utterly impossible. I considered those whose financial futures have been trashed by the economic upheavals of the past few years. My mind soared to those in Egypt and Libya and other places where the entire societies are going to have to be rebuilt. I pondered broken relationships, the ones that seem unreconcilable. Overwhelming. Impossible. Where to start?

With one step, of course. Just start someplace.

Here is a suggestion, a first step:Wednesday, March 9, is Ash Wednesday. This day marks the beginning of Lent, a time set aside each year for rigorous soul examination. We accompany Jesus on that final journey to Jerusalem, through the darkness of undeserved death and then awaken to the joy of new life on Easter Sunday. 

The first step, that place to start? Observe a Holy Lent this year. Attend an Ash Wednesday service--you'll be welcome where ever you go--and choose as part of your Lenten observance to take one step each day toward dealing with the overwhelming impossibles in your life. One step. Each day.

I took that first step in the garden. I bent down, pulled away dead foliage, and saw masses of day lilies beginning to emerge. I looked at my climbing roses--winter dead was rapidly, almost in front of my eyes, turning to spring green. I pulled a few weeds, trimmed some bushes, cleaned up trash, re-potted a plant, swept the patio. 

One step. The journey begins again. 

Ash Wednesday--one step into your soul.  One step to opening your heart to God. One step to transformation. Walk with me--we can take one step together. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pretty Faces Everywhere

I have on my desk an invitation to a conference for women to encourage them with the Word of God, the joy of music, and the spirit of friendship.

Three very good reasons to get together, no doubt about it.

For a multiplicity of reasons, I no longer attend these types of conferences, but I have gone to them before and found them quite enjoyable and often very helpful. Women, often isolated from deep and nurturing friendships by the demands of job and family, need to get away periodically and reconnect with themselves and these close to them.

However, as I was looking through the conference bulletin, I was struck by something: A multitude of female speakers were featured.  With two exceptions, the photos show young, beautiful, slim, Caucasian women. One older Caucasian woman looked a bit hefty (as in: normal), and she is a well-known writer. The other older woman, also with more normal body size, is a woman of color, and is also nationally known.

So, here are the role models for Christian women: holders of impossible-to-reach standards by the masses, yet much of the emphasis of these types of conferences are, "You, too, can be better."

Presenting high accomplishments and beauty standards as attainable to all taps into some sort of particularly American consciousness of self-improvement that often ends up leaving many feeling like failures. Now, I know that is not in any sense the goal of these who are promoting these conferences, but it may be an unintended consequence.

This push for self-improvement and attendant questions of personal failure spawn untold numbers of basically useless self-help books (useless except to make money for the writer).  A important fact to know: any time someone pronounces something like "Seven steps to . . . " be assured of a set of easy answers to very, very complex problems.

Actually, there are easy answers to hard questions. They just don't work.

An example: weight-loss solutions.  Easy answer: Exercise a lot, a whole lot; eat only real foods and minimal carbs, get plenty of sleep at night, avoid all artificial or modified sweeteners, and quit eating three hours before bedtime.  Trust me, you will lose weight doing that. 

However, even with that easy answer readily available, obesity has taken over the nation. Why? This easy answer is very difficult to implement. 

Societal forces, work and entertainment habits mean most of us are growing increasingly sedentary. Buying only "real foods" is an expensive proposition, plus those foods are not readily available in areas where people most beset with weight issues live, i.e., people with lower to poverty income levels. 

As for getting enough sleep, note this: during the four days of iced-in isolation that many experienced the first week of February this year, a lot of families reported that they spent much of the time sleeping.  Almost no one gets the amount of sleep needed for good health anymore. We are a nation of sleep-deprived people and that is not getting any better.

So, in order to follow through the "easy answers" to weight problems, we have to change the entire culture in which we live.  Not so easy, after all, is it?

This is why I say in a complex world where so many forces work against easy answers and simple living, and where very few are magazine-cover beautiful and nationally known for their accomplishments, anyone who wakes up and manages to live another day, caring for themselves and serving anyone else in any way, even just offering a smile of gratitude, is a hero to me.  That's success. I think the angels rejoice even at those small acts--they are victories. Let's savor them for this one day.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It Staggers My Mind

A couple of weeks ago when mindlessly surfing the web, I came across a health news article that struck me in several ways.

Research suggests that a drug called Truvada may offer nearly complete protection from HIV infections in those who unfailingly take it daily and also rigorously practice other safe sex habits.

A medical breakthrough like this is good news. HIV is a nasty disease with world-wide devastating effects. But the good news is tempered by two significant factors.

First, as is often the case with pharmaceutical solutions to such complex health issues, there are significant side effects related to Truvada. Primary are diarrhea, 
nausea and fatigue but liver damage and a dangerous build up of acid in the blood are also real possibilities.

Second is cost: $36/day (over $13,000/year) and it must be taken daily. Otherwise, a far more difficult to treat super-infection may arise. Once infected with HIV, medications to maintain health currently run from $12,000 to $40,000 a year. Of course, most people don’t pay that much because of health insurance, but that payment disparity is fodder for another column. Today, I just want to speak of the expense of sexual expression outside a covenant relationship where two people promise love and fidelity to one another.

Frankly, it staggers my mind. 

I live fairly frugally, both by necessity and by choice. It is beyond me to consider spending over $1000/month on a medication that would keep me safe from getting a horrific disease when behavioral choices can provide safety at no expense.

I am not naïve. We live in a complicated sexual culture. Teens and young adults, at the top of sexual desires and power and at the bottom of impulse control, are bombarded with messages that say, “Go for it! Explore your sexuality to the fullest. Restraint is old fashioned, stupid and unreasonable.” 

Furthermore, reports suggest that abstinence-only sex education has a miserable track record for preventing teen sex and unwanted pregnancies.

In addition, we tell these emerging adults not to marry young, because they’ll make a mistake in picking their life partner if they do. Then they are to finish their education and establish their place in the workforce before marriage. 

What a double-bind dilemma!

I think it is time to reaffirm some basic truths. 

First, sexual expression, when given and received in a relationship planted firmly in the ground of mutual covenant and commitment, is a holy pleasure and should be acknowledged as such.

Second, unrestrained sexual expression damages both body and soul. It’s easy to quote a Bible verse here and say, “see, I told you so.” It’s just as easy to listen to people’s stories, especially those of young women and those who suffer life-long health consequences and say sorrowfully, “God never intended this.”

Third, we need a lot better way to help our teens and young adults to figure this one out so they can learn to appreciate and to respect their own bodies and also appreciate and handle their emerging sexuality. Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not going to accomplish anything.

Fourth, we must raise our awareness of the waters that the media industry offer us to swim in. Most of us just leap on in and bring our children with us, and then wonder why we’ve had so little influence on their sexual decisions when they start swimming in their own oceans.

Fifth, I think it would be wise to ask ourselves what our decisions really do cost us. How about starting here: If you have $13,000 this year to spend on your pleasures, how would you most like to spend it? 

I’d love to hear some really creative ideas here on spending $13,000 a year on something besides side-effect ridden medications and life choices that may leave one full of regret later.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Speeding Through a School Zone

I am in Richardson right now, checking on my mother’s house and trying (vainly, mostly) to get caught up on some paperwork. Decided to make a quick grocery run to get something to fix for dinner and passed through a school zone on the way. No activity. Perfectly quiet. No one out. I still slowed down, of course, at the flashing lights, as this was near the end of the school day.

On my return trip, school had just let out and the children thronged near the intersection—a stoplight that led on one side to a residential neighborhood; on the other to the school parking lot.

I slowed again, as did other vehicles. Suddenly, a car raced by me on my left, sped up as the driver got near the intersection and the light turned yellow, and then continued at that same rate through the light and past the rest of the school zone.

Fortunately, there were no children or guards on the crosswalk.

I ask, “Why?” What is so important that an extra minute or even two minutes waiting for children to get safely across can’t take priority?

Probably nothing. More than likely, the driver of the car was distracted (phone call anyone?) and the school zone lights never even registered in conscious thinking. 

Probably just distracted. Most of us are, much of the time. We still think we can multi-task, even as more and more evidence shows the futility of such activity. We think we can drive, listen to the radio, talk or even text on our smart phones, chat with our friends, search for lost items, discipline our children, and still be perfectly safe.

We can’t. There are some human limitations that can’t be overcome and this is one of them. 

I know how often I personally am distracted and start checking out of the present situation. I know when that happens, my ears lose all ability to actually hear and my eyes all ability to really see what is in front of me. Mindfulness, the opposite of distraction, takes discipline. 

In my opinion, loss of mindfulness is also loss of the delight of the moment. It is also the most likely time to do something that will bring everlasting regret.

Just my call today to all of us: pay attention. Life is right in front of us, and that life right in front of us matters a lot more than whether a text is immediately returned or a phone conversation completed.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Lord of the Flies

On a Facebook post during the week of ice, snow, and enforced time with family, one father wrote that, left unchecked, his sons quickly developed a “Lord of the Flies” mentality. “Lord of the Flies” mentality refers to the book by William Golding, first published in 1954, about a group of British schoolboys who find themselves on an abandoned island with no adult supervision. Although they first try to cooperate, this immature society eventually degenerates to a point where brutality takes over.

I laughed at the post, and figured he wasn’t the only one dealing with such things. It takes much work and maturity to civilize our children. Real civility goes against much human nature that says, “me, first,” or even, “me, only.” Civilization says, “Everyone matters.”

Last week, in the midst of our snowbound lives, many Egyptians became unbound as protests took over. Some indicated a willingness to fight to the death in order to bring democracy to that country. President Mubarek has ruled there for 30 years. During that entire time, the constitutional rights of the people have been suspended, censorship legalized, and the government has retained the right to imprison people for any period of time and for any reason.

The people have finally said, “enough.” Perhaps a more open leadership will be established. But it will be a long, complicated, messy project. It always is for any people who have essentially lived under slavery, where a tight, power-hungry few make the rules.

Rarely is such a situation stable, and often another set of power-hungry people end up reliving the history of tyranny.

Only when there is a common shared value of decency and moral understanding can a society build itself well. While I’m not sure that the US was necessarily a Christian nation, it did from its inception have a common core of understanding. The foundation and the glue that has given us the privilege of being somewhat civilized have been the moral and governmental principles found in the Bible, particularly what are known as the Ten Commandments.

Summed up, they say “Love God and Love Neighbor.” Specifically, they remind us to move past the “me, first” or “me, only” orientation. They explain fairly simply how to do this: Remember that God is God, we are not, and neither is anyone else, or anything in the created world, including money, time and power. Remember that others, especially our parents, are people too, and need to be honored by truthful, faithful and honest actions. Be aware that envy of others will bring us down, because envy destroys relationships.

Once those shared values are lost, so is civilization. I don’t think we in this nation are far off from leaving civilization behind. Fewer and fewer people live by those values.

We’re in trouble because we are simply not teaching these things well to our children. By an increasingly ridiculous stretching of the meaning of the separation of church and state, our school children are no longer given instruction in the basic principles that civilize us and hold us together. With fewer and fewer parents honoring the need to bring their children to church schools, the future decision makers in this country will lead the nation without the firm foundation of knowing that some actions really are not negotiable.

I say it again. We are in trouble. As I cheer on those brave people in Egypt who have had enough and want to build democracy, I also suggest they not look at the present state of this nation for a model and pattern. We could not pull off a revolution here again without turning into our own version of “Lord of the Flies.” I just don’t think we have what it takes any more.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Rolling Blackouts

Today, and I would guess for several days, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex power users will be subject to rolling blackouts—approximately every two hours, all electricity goes out in selected areas for a minimum of 15 minutes. Some areas have experienced well over an hour before the power comes back on.


I personally was expecting this.  I’ve been in this area before when lingering cold hit and knew that the system would become overloaded at some point.


So far, it’s no big deal.  It’s daytime, we can still see to read or play games, and, at least in my area, power hasn’t been off so long that houses can’t reheat a bit.  I say “a bit” because it is clear that the inside temperature here will not go above 64. 


Now, just as I wrote that last sentence, the power went off again.  It is 12:12, approximately two hours since the last one.


I’m able to keep writing because the battery on my laptop is fully charged and this particular document is on my hard drive, not in the “cloud” where I usually compose.  Had it been there, access would have been lost.


The house is eerily silent. I had been listening to the radio. It is gone. No background noise of warm air blowing through the vents. No hum of the refrigerator motor. No cars drive by. No children’s voices—I have none at home and it is just too cold for the neighborhood children to be out.


I pull on an extra sweater and another pair of socks, and cover my legs with a blanket.  I was able to make a cup of hot tea because I was keeping some water hot in a teapot with a candle underneath, but the tea quickly cools.


All pretty doable right now, but it is going to get less doable when darkness settles in.  I have very few candles in the house and am not sure there is a flashlight here.  I’ll pull out what I do have and get myself ready for the evening, knowing I will be fine.  I can get under the covers. I did recently purchase for myself an e-reader with a case that has a light—and that battery is fully powered.


Nonetheless, this experience does remind me of just how fragile we humans are and how much we depend upon each other for survival basics.  It wouldn’t take many hours without power for this house, a pretty well-built one with decent insulation, to become inhabitable.


At 12:28, the power came back on.  Very short blackout.  I already feel the house warming again—which shows just how quickly it lost temperature when the power stopped.


Time to check candle supplies, find matches, and search for a flashlight. I'm concerned for the elderly of the church and have been in contact with most of them. For now, all seem to be OK. Everyone has adequate food and warm clothing. Most off of them have faced some very difficult challenges in their lives, and this is just no big deal. It's harder on the children who are used to being wired and connected and entertained electronically so much of the time. Could be a very, very interesting time for all of us.