Skip the Cards and Bards on Valentine’s Day

photo 3Valentine’s Day’s insane. The American Consumer Greed Association adopted it as the official holiday to support Hallmark writers through the doldrums between Christmas and Easter, and that season where it’s just a tad early to start stocking for Halloween.

“I know! Let’s celebrate…love.” Yes, St. Valentine was a real person, beheaded around 270 AD. He may, in fact, have been two people–not that the Roman Empire didn’t already have enough people to crucify and behead, but historians just aren’t sure.

The Roman Catholic Church wasn’t that sure. It stopped the veneration of the saint in 1969, either because there was enough LSD to render human love unnecessary, or because enough doubt existed as to whether the real deal was a dude who married a couple in the Christian rite in direct violation of the policies of Rome, or a photo 2-1the Bishop of Terni, who also met his maker without a single card or box of chocolates. I imagine that image would make a great card.

According to CNN, the average person will spend $130.97 on Valentine’s Day this year, and the nation will collectively consume $1.9B in flowers and $1.6B of candy. Most of that will be in my school today causing your kids to bounce themselves off the walls like the type of old-school ping-pong machine they’ve never seen, then they’ll marvel over who got the most flowers in the senior fundraiser. I never get any except maybe a broken one. Some kid says “Miss, this one’s broken. You can have it.” Thanks.

Still, I love Valentine’s Day, despite the fact that I feel more like Gandhi or Mandela making and keeping peace between teens sword fighting with carnations. I don’t have time to celebrate love, which historians think was created by Geoffrey Chaucer, anyway. He wrote a poem linking Beheaded Monk’s Day with courtly love in 1375. He needed something to do after The Plague. The title, “The Parliament of Fowls” totally makes me want to buy a card. If Chaucer were in my class I’d’ve said, “Edit title. Awful!”

Today, I’ll tell the kids all that, especially the fact that (one of) St. Valentine’s skull(s) is actually on display in Rome. They’ll like that. That skull should be on the cards, not hearts–a great idea for marketing to goths an teens with angst, which represent the lion’s part of the market share.

But if you’re just not in the mood this Feb. 14th, there are actually six days you might choose to celebrate your Valentine, according to History.com. Each of the possible St. Valentine’s has a feast day, a date of martyrdom, and there’s a separate day or two recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church due to schisms and differences in the calendar year and such.

photo 1So, the bottom line is this: If you’re broke today, unmotivated, or have been jilted, there’s hope for you.

I always celebrated the day with my good friend in high school. Maybe she did it out of pity because I was always single. Translation: no one liked me. All the cute guys liked her. It’s life in high school if you’re not a one-percenter.  We converted it into a day of friendship, and if I look hard enough, I can probably still find the hand-made t-shirts and cards. It always made me smile. I loved it.

And you know what? Despite the corporate greed and the fact that those chocolates in the heart boxes don’t taste very good, I have fun on Valentine’s Day. I’ll bring my students some donuts and take my family out to pizza. All the good restaurants are booked with people trying to impress people, and I don’t have a reservation. Pizza it is.

I really do like Valentine’s Day, or at least the spirit it represents. I think about you. My friends. My family. The potential to spread love and kindness throughout the world. I think of the beauty in the universe, now covered with snow. The stars in the sky, the icicles holding on for dear life. The beauty…the love…the magic…It’s all around us. That’s what is deserving of a holiday.

No matter how many bad writers Hallmark employs, it can never compete with that.

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The Smudged Star

Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 5.52.06 AMNew Year’s is time to pack up the tree. I remove each ornament and ponder its significance as I gently wrap it and put it in its special box. Except for the generic balls and fillers, each has a very special meaning–the power to make me travel to a time and place in my life represented by that little piece of wood, plastic, or glass. Twice a year–when I put them up, and when I take them down, I hold these little time machines in my hand.

Every year I get a special ornament for everyone. Mom began this tradition. Her thought was that everyone would have 20 or 30 of their own special ornaments when they struck out to start their own tree.

This year I bought three ceramic shapes on which to paint–one for Rusty, Brittany, and Declan. I made dinosaurs on Declan’s. He found and broke the snowflake that would have been Brittany’s. The star that would have been Rusty’s went missing. I cleaned. I searched. Gone. Too late to get another.

I gave Declan his ornament, since he’d already seen it. It’s usually part of a Christmas Eve pre-bed ceremony which includes putting out carrots for reindeer, a cookie for Santa, and tossing the boy into bed so I can sleep, too. “Mommy made this special for you this year.”
He looked at both sides. “I LOVE it!” There were two dinos. He examined each carefully reading the text. “I have something special for you,” he said. He went to his room into his “special box.” It’s a glass-topped wooden box with an etched compass–looks like it came out of a Kipling novel. He keeps his treasures inside, including his already been chewed “world record” gum, some pom poms, an elastic, and a plastic dinosaur. He pulled out a small crinkly-wrapped package and handed it to me.
“Open it, Mommy!” I did. It was the star ornament. “I hope it didn’t get smudged.” It did. Clearly, he’d used the wrong markers. “It says ‘To Mommy, Love Declan.” On the other side was a picture of stars. Smudged stars, but stars, nonetheless.
I can’t help but think that’s the best present of all. That’s what I told him, “I will never get another present better than this. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mommy. I love this ornament. Even though you put PLANT EATERS instead of CARNIVORES on it…I really love it, though.” I got the biggest Christmas hug.
==
When I was about 4 or 5, my grandmother was visiting. I found a pile of Hallmark cards she’d amassed for birthdays and such so she wouldn’t have to go to the store. I took each. I wrote, “I love you, Grandma, Love, Dawn.” I wrote happy birthday on the birthday cards, but I didn’t know what an anniversary was–I could read, but I didn’t know the word… I just put “I love you” on those.
There were about ten cards.
Mom found me. I’d ruined all of Grandma’s cards. Mom was really mad.
Grandma wasn’t.
Packing up the stolen star reminded me of that story from a generation ago, which I remember clear as if it were this morning.  Interesting how timeless the innocence of a child really is.
[image: marthastewart.com]

Watching People Not Suck: Moments of Kindness Pile Up Into a Movement for 2014

“We’re out of meat.”

That normally doesn’t affect me. It was the last day of the year. Vegetarians don’t ring in the new year with dead creatures, but meat makes the others happy. I like to make others happy. Being unable to wave my magic wand and procure meat, I got in the car and went to the store. I tucked the Visa gift card into the pocket with my phone. It was a gift from a friend whom we’d been blessed enough to help. I was touched by his letter reminding me that kindness is a continual circle. I’ve received so much–I am humbled to give what I can. In his case, I didn’t think we’d given enough. I guess that’s often the case with helping.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.05 AMUsually, on a day like New Year’s Eve, the store is crazy, carts crashing around like demolition derby. This time something seemed different. There were a million carts–it looked like the GW during rush hour, but the store was not the same. People were acting–nice. Like it was they’d all vacationed in Colorado and weren’t standing in Rhode Island. They were all smiling so pleasantly. I sniffed for incense. None.

“You first…” I’ve never heard that in the store. The air was ringing with “you firsts” as people picked up bags of kale and organic things I can’t pronounce. I got some kale, too. It reminded me I really should call my friend in Colorado. I haven’t seen her in a while.

I headed for the meat counter. There was a bit of a wait. I checked my email, dropping the Visa card to the ground.

“Excuse me. I think this is yours.” A smiling lady with bags of kale handed me a Visa gift card. Two Visa gift cards in one week. Fabulous! I realized it was mine. She’d rushed from the kale aisle to make sure I didn’t lose it. And she smiled. That never happens in a store. People find a spare twenty and it’s off to the races.

The meat guy smiled, people let people go first at the counter, and people waved me through the coffee. Was there a wine tasting going on? Everyone was so elated to be alive. Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 7.53.26 AMI passed the cheese samples, smiling at the Robustotasted normal. I looked around. No mushroom samples anywhere in sight.

Time to check out. The line was long but still smiling. Everyone put their kale and organic things I couldn’t pronounce on the belt in turn. They talked to each other instead of using the constipation face doing the old “New England ignore.”  It was a sight to behold–lines crowded with New Englanders on one of the busiest store days of the year and only kindness and love abounded. Not one single solitary person with constipation. And everyone intending to eat their vegetables. A tear rolled down my cheek. I put my stuff on the belt. I was ready to go.

Until I noticed the person behind me. She had one thing. “Sorry,” I said, I should have noticed you.”

“It’s okay.” It was a long wait for just piece of dead animal.

I took her roast off the belt. She looked surprised. I wanted to say, “Your roast is safe with me. I’m going after the kale.” Instead I joined in the spirit of communal love. “You have to go first. You only have one thing.” She smiled. Now we were all smiling, even though none of us vacationed in Colorado or ever found the mushroom samples near the cheese. I enjoyed paying forward the smallest act of consideration.

There’s plenty of kindness in the region, but it’s rare to see it coalesce into a bubble of human goodness so large it spills out into the parking lot. “You first,” people were waving. No one in Rhode Island does that unless they’re waving you through the outside lane of a four-lane road where the inside lane’s about to crush you. There were Rhode Islanders driving with respect even as I passed the parking lot to the Dunkin Donuts and the liquor store. That never happens. We’re the worst driving state in the union. Everyone knows if you’re going to get into an accident, it’s going to be in the parking lot of Dunkin Donuts. “Must get my coffee now…” But even there–people parked between the lines and waited for each other to go… I paused a moment to enjoy the perfection of the universe. Meanwhile, I let someone out of her space. Enjoy now–it won’t last forever. 

Or maybe it will if each and every one of us eats our kale and leaves the New England constipation face at home joining the “You First” moment, making it into a movement for 2014.

I don’t make resolutions. I’m getting old. I break them and the years whiz by so fast I hardly have time to break the first set before it’s time to make a new bunch to break. But if I did, I’d make 2014 the year of “You First,” because if everyone says that to everyone, at some point we’ll all be put to the front of the line. With love and kindness.

 

[images: shorpy.com and babyccinokids.com]

 

One Inspiration at a Time

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 5.01.36 AM

Silence is a source of great strength  –Lao Tsu

I write at 4AM. The moments before the birds sing bring me the most peace. My mind clears. Silence reveals the thoughts that drown in the clatters, jangles, and noise of the day. The fire glows, coffee sits to my left, and I think. I am inspired. As I start, I look for one inspiration each day. A quote. A blessing. A thought. Something to think about during the day. Sometimes I share them with a friend.

Today, caffeine is my daily inspiration. Hear me out on this one… After receiving “The List of No” from the doctor, he said “sure” on some caffeine. His colleague had taken it away. I suffered. I suffered a lot–not because I need the drug. I don’t need caffeine to live any more than I need crack or heroin. It’s just that decaf coffee tastes like a cup full of butt and I can’t find one that reminds me of coffee. I love coffee. It starts my thinking each day.

“There’s only so much I can make you suffer,” he said. “You can have some caffeine.”

I forgot to define “some” because my mind, celebrating the victory, was already onto the next negotiation. “I’d like to start running again.”

He gave me the look. He had been clear about the “no activity” mandate. I’ve obeyed, except I do forget things downstairs so I can run up and down the stairs to get them. The smallest exercise protest. Other than that, I obey.I negotiated. I begged.  I said, “You don’t understand. I’ve gone from 7-10 miles to couch instantly. I’m stir crazy. All my friends want your card so they can avoid exercise too.”

“You can go walking.”

“I hate walking. It bores me. I lack focus. I need to run. How about jogging? I’m not that fast anyway.” My jogging reminds people of walking. Semantics.

Hesitation. Slight opening of the mouth. Pause. “No………I don’t think so.” He’s Southern. Bound by law to be polite. “Nothing that gets your heart rate up. You could do stairmaster or elliptical a little if you take it slow.” I hate both of those things. And slow’s never been in my repertory. If exercise doesn’t beat me up, it’s not effective. I’ve run, played basketball, boxed, thrown, fought, done competition weightlifting (never competed–too scrawny) and played all the fast sports. Not well. That’s not the point.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 4.56.13 AMThe one activity that slowed me down–Japanese sword. It was good for me, meditation and inner peace combined with the ability to cut someone’s head off if I trained hard enough–a good combination. Then yoga. But I was highly, highly suspicious of yoga—what good could it do without pain? My friend of Indian lineage made me go on a yoga retreat. How could anyone of Indian lineage steer me wrong on yoga? He said “Experiences are everything,” and that I needed “to get rid of [my] monkey mind.” He was right on both accounts. Yoga centers me.

Yoga doesn’t really raise my heart rate. “How about yoga?” This was turning into a fierce negotiation. I felt the tone. I’d spent years in Career One negotiating with attorneys and body shops. Surely I could defeat one doctor on the issue of physical fitness despite the fact he had more degrees than me.

“Hmmmm…” He’d said a definite no to yoga the first time. But I obeyed his orders not to drop dead for an entire month, taken drug upon drug, and listened to his every command. Surely that gets a reward? “No, I don’t think so. Too much with the neck.” Defeated. Again. That’s when I asked him about caffeine.

He said yes.

Inspiration: Even when the list of “no’s” gets long, if we keep looking, we get one yes. Sometimes we have to look hard for it, not abandon the search. And when we find it, it’s golden;)

My coffee smiles in the mug my friend Kristen made. And it tastes very good.

[Images: Sarah Steenland and Kristen Runvik. Check out their stuff. Their art makes me smile]

Things Jesus Doesn’t Do

I am fixing my computer. I’ve issued a few “#$%$#%’s,” “GDs,” “F’s” and other words that color the rainbow. When I say “I’m” fixing my computer, I really mean someone I’m chatting with at Apple is so doing, as was the awesome guy with the Australian hat at the Genius Bar earlier today. He’s fixed my stuff before. I try to hide behind my long hair like Cousin It as the Genius does things like wipe the dust off my screen and do other things I should’ve done before going in.

I look at these Geniuses as if they’re demi-gods. I want to be like them, trying not to laugh at silly things people like me do. Right now, I’m being assured we’ll get this set today, but while we’re at it, lets just take a few hours to update my OS.

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 5.35.07 PMI should have prayed. I’m peaking at my social media feed between chat bubbles which indicate a couple of good football games passed while I was in the Land of I Don’t Care. Every post said “Jesus be praised” or “Thank you God!” Some were multi-line prayers of gratitude.

I never thought to ask God or Jesus about the password I forgot or to help set up my Gmail after several errors appeared on my restored system. I should’ve. He apparently sides with football teams. My mom gets him* to do amazing things–besides the real big things that people need, he takes time to find her parking spaces when she asks nicely.

I think that he’s busy. I’d like to establish a list of things God and Jesus do not do:

1. Jesus doesn’t play or fix football, baseball, or hockey. I know this because the Whalers didn’t get to stay in Hartford, now the only thing Hartford has going for it is some awesome Jamaican food on Albany Ave.

2. I’m not sure God finds parking spaces unless people aren’t feeling well and need to park close. He finds them for my mom, because she does a lot of extra good work for him. Parking closer gives her more time to help others and not run errands. God does, however, curse people who use other people’s handicapped plates or keep theirs too long just to get a space.

3. God does not help students who didn’t study for tests. You can’t go around being all faithful saying “Who needs to study for O-Chem? I have Jesus.” I think that gets him mad.

4. Jesus does not start cars. Especially if you don’t change your oil or follow the maintenance schedule.

5. God doesn’t create spontaneous sales in grocery stores unless you’re especially faithful, down on your luck, and share food with others. Then, he will give you all the pasta or eggs you want.

6. He doesn’t make kids behave. I know this, though my son knows the difference between the “good Jesus Christ,” as in when people pray, and the “bad Jesus Christ,” as in when someone (not me) says JESUS CHRIST!  I wish JC would take a moment, get rid of free will and make kids obey. Free will’s overrated. In any case, it shouldn’t be installed until kids turn 18. Or 21. Or when they move out of the house.

7. Jesus doesn’t get kids into college or get them financial aid. It’d be nice. Refer to #3.

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 5.38.33 PMIf you want to know what God and his associates really do, take a look outside first thing in the morning. You’ll see the sun peek over the horizon, hear the beauty of the birds singing a song, and feel the cool air on your face. You may even wish for the first flakes of winter snow. You’ll look into the face of your child or your other loved ones, and you’ll take a step or two toward beginning your day, which you can, because you’re alive, well, and graced by the power to live, impacting the world in an amazing and unforgettable way. God and the universe hope you do.

That’s what God does. Gives you the tools. The rest is all you. You’ll be great. Magic. A force to be reckoned with. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Now, if I could only fix this Mac. Jesus?

 

*I chose the pronoun “he” fully realizing God transcends gender.

[Image: Buddy Christ from Dogma and “Birds at Sunrise, Sam Stearman]

Don’t Need to “Get a Sweater”

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 5.40.37 AMThe wood stove is on. Rural New England’s got “the-leaves-have-turned” chill that sparks my competitive spirit. It’s five degrees colder than urban New England where the collective effects of the sun beating off the black pavement and all the car exhaust produces heat.

Growing up, leaving off the heat was a triumph. “I didn’t turn my heat on until November 17th,” one person bragged. My dad tried to trump it, like when I try to outrun the guy next to me on the treadmill. Every year he said, “I’ll give everyone heat for Christmas,” and “Get a sweater.” We wouldn’t think of touching the thermostat. It was relegated to the male head of household, like hooking up stereo parts or packing the trunk for vacation. There are just things women don’t do. Even in modern times.

When I got my own apartment, my first thought was, “Who’s going to turn on the heat?” I pondered from the first chilly day in September all the way through the fall. I wondered “What day can the heat go on? November 17th? Christmas? Or should I try to knock this out of the park and go for Groundhog Day? I can WIN this!”

There are things a person can do to avoid turning on heat. Wear many sweaters…but there are only so many layers one can wear before resembling the inside of a padded room. Baking works, too. But that’s cheating, because the energy that runs the stove–gas, electric, or propane isn’t free.

What is the reason for the “Get a sweater” anyway?  Why avoid heat, historically?

Flashback. My grandmother used to give the look when I put sugar in my tea. “Have some tea with your sugar.” Clear cut sarcasm. The best way to combat sarcasm, I’ve found, is to pretend to be too stupid to understand it.

“Okay. Thanks, Grandma.” In order for this to work, the response must be genuine and innocent. Any touch of return-volley sarcasm invites doom.

The point is, she remembered The Great Depression and World War II when ration cards restricted the amount of meat, sugar, eggs, and butter for her growing family. My uncle tells a story of losing the ration book on the way to the store. He didn’t go there straight away–he stopped to play with his friends. Everyone went out in the dark to hunt and luckily, it was found. They would’ve lost the food for the month, let alone the sugar.

“Have some sugar with your tea,” is a flashback to times of no sugar. Grandma also saved every plastic bag and odd gadgets before we recycled such things. Never know when they could be of use. We don’t have to worry about sugar now. There’s no need to ration it. It’s mass-produced in countries where people should get paid more, and it floods the nation. No shortage whatsoever.

Where did the “get a sweater,” originate? Where did freezing become a badge of honor? Growing up in the 70’s with electric heat–the type of heat that was supposed to end up cheaper and cleaner but really ended up making houses unsellable relics with bills that got up to 4-500/month…that’s where the sweater began for us. Then we lived in a large Victorian to start a group home that never quite got going, while my parents did about fifty things to make the world a better place–soup kitchens, grants, helping others in need. Meanwhile, they, themselves worried how to heat the large home they bought with the helping-others package. It had a wood stove that heated the center column of the house. The rest of the large house…got a sweater. Getting a sweater burrowed into two generations of psyche.

I don’t waste money. I can afford heat. Rusty gathered and chopped two years of wood himself, taking trees for people after the hurricane and turning them into round pieces then woodstove-sized logs. “It’s exercise.”

But here I sit, with the heat on early, toggling between guilty and defiant.  I’m drinking coffee enjoying the calm. I toss another log in the stove. The gloves cover my pajamas with soot. Forgot about that. That’s what you get for putting on the heat so early. I put the heat on because I can.

I remember times of need. I’ll see the faces of students and others this time of year–no coat, “Christmas sucks” (because I’m not going to get anything). Some have as much heat as they want in utilities-included apartments, others are “getting a sweater” too. And some remain blissfully unaffected by the needs around them. Innocent.

The winter and holidays are times of great compassion and generosity–food drives popping up everywhere, “Give a dollar for this cause,” in every grocery line.

I don’t need to “get a sweater” anymore, I’m blessed. I’ll joke about sweaters on Thanksgiving. But for a moment, I remember the times when I’ve needed them. And think about those who still do.

 

[image: tipsyelves.com . They have some cool sweaters. If you dare….]

If the Music Won’t Die, Neither Will I

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.03.34 PMHaven’t run in a while–it seemed like a great day to get back. 80 degrees in Rhode Island. Sun. When I got home from work, the world was happy and everyone doing his thing–the perfect time for sneaking off for a pre-grilling workout. But…the iPod was on red. Deep red. Would ten a minute charge be enough? I need tunes–ten minute charge. Exit stage left.  I needed the run. I needed the music–the same three playlists that I listen to every run… helps my meditation, and helps keep me from running backwards. I always mean to change the playlist but never do. Sort of like half the tasks we all have hanging like fruit waiting to be picked from a tree that just hangs and never gets eaten.

The music lasted–It lasted and lasted till the end of the several mile run. It was like the Maccabees and Hanukkah in iTunes land–the music should have gone a tenth of a mile, but it lasted all five miles.  A miracle even if it wasn’t oil lasting eight days.

I ran and ran and ran–too far for a first day back. I lack moderation. The music played. That made me want to run some more. I did.

The iPod on red. Music played. I ran. The iPod had more in it than I thought.

Sometimes, we have more in us than we think.

I consider this year–a very good year. A year of transformation. New job, new business, new voice. Getting things done. Quite amazing. Every time I thought I had nothing more to give, I survived. I made things happen. I became a better person.  Exhilarating.

I ran and ran and ran and the music never stopped. Each time I thought it would, it continued.

I remembered a lesson from Chinese medicine. I studied for a few years, never achieving mastery, but I learned some life lessons. There was a point on a meridian, not far from the knee, called zu san li. It translates to “three more miles.” When stimulated, it helps invigorate the patient. It was useful in constructing the Great Wall–legend has it that by using this point to treat exhausted workers, foremen could get three more miles of work out of them before they keeled over and died.

Pushing and pushing can be a bad thing–sometimes we go three more miles and burn out.

But it can also be the thing that makes all the difference, taking us exactly where we need to go–through the wall, over the hump, and in the place where we need to be. To the glory.

So, I ran until I knew it was really time to turn around–a few miles too late. I headed back. I waited for the music to cease. It never did. I picked up the pace. I listened more. I sprinted the last half mile.

The music never stopped. It made it to the end.  Sort of how it always seems to work out that way in life.