My Days as a Super Hero

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Everyone owns an interior cache of heroism, which rises to the surface in time of need. We can choose to act upon the gallant impulse, or talk ourselves out of it. That’s the dilemma with use-of-valor evaluation – the call to action does not ride alone. It comes accompanied by fear, suspicion, and the instinct of self-preservation. Not that those are bad traveling companions. In most cases, it really is quite prudent and essential to think twice before diving in, but sometimes, you just gotta trust your gut. Some of us are called to a continuous, high level of heroism. These are the kinds of people you will find most often in jobs of civil service, such as police officers and fire fighters. Take that one step further, and you’ll find members of our armed forces. They’re the folks who personify courage and self-sacrifice, living examples of bravery each and every day on the job. They also practice safety and prudence, but, because of their desire to serve others, they knowingly face unseen dangers at every turn. This is what is known as “laying one’s life down for a friend.” For the truly heroic, everyone in need of protection is a friend.

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However, that’s not to say that smaller deeds of valor have no significance – quite the opposite, actually. Tiny deeds, done with love, are magnified by God’s grace into life-changing acts of intervention. I have, in my lifetime, executed several acts of pint-sized prowess, and have often been repaid with unexpected blessing beyond measure. I believe that God sees into the heart, and is filled with joy by any act of courageous self-sacrifice, be it big or small, and just as any loving father, he rewards such actions with a big hug and “words” of encouragement. As a means of inspiring you in your day-to-day heroic efforts, I will share with you a few stories of my meager, super-hero exploits.

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I grew up in a rough neighborhood. At first glance, it might appear to be the quintessential, small town neighborhood – old houses with big yards and plentiful gardens, mixed in amongst farms with cows and/or horses in the pasture. I was raised on local produce, freshly harvested honey, and…..street fights. Yeah, you heard that right. And it wasn’t gang warfare, it was rugrat girls. We just could not get along. We’d pair up in groups of two, and wage battles against the other pairs. This way of interacting wasn’t limited to my local turf. This happened all around our little village. At the pool, down by the village Lawson’s store, at school, on a local playground, anywhere there was likely to be a group of young lassies, you could almost count on a girl-fight. Most of the time, it was a rather tempered tiff, with hair-pulling, scratching, kicking, pushing, throwing whatever was handy (and sometimes, even biting!) being the weapons of choice. At any rate, I often tried to step in and save the day, especially if things seemed to be getting a little out of hand, or if other people joined in and starting ganging up on someone. The intervention I remember most vividly actually did involve my small neighborhood group of girls. One winter, while going in search of my friend, I discovered her being attacked by the other girls. She was holed up in a small barn, which housed a pony that she was caring for. The enemy had taken up position outside the fence and would not allow my friend to walk out of the barn without being pelted by hard, icy snowballs. I swung into immediate action. I ran through the gate into the barn and grabbed a 5 gallon bucket. Using it as a shield, I ran out to the small watering pond and managed to break enough ice to fill the bucket half-way with water. Then, I worked my way over to the enemy camp, dodging ice-balls as I stumbled along under the weight of the bucket. I will never figure out why those girls just stood there while I walked right up to them, in plain view, with an arsenal of (literally!) freezing cold water in my possession, but that’s what they did. I strategized and aimed, and tossed the water so that it saturated both of them, and no one has heard anything about those girls since that day. Just kidding about that last part. They were around for many years after that, and I ended up being friends with both of them, after we outgrew that warring stage of adolescence, but, I did gain a reputation after that day of someone who should not be messed with, so our neighborhood really was a lot more peaceful after that brush with death!

Some other escapades (from later in my life) that I can recall are:

1) Chasing a young guy through the streets and alleys of downtown, after I witnessed him stealing an old lady’s purse. I followed him relentlessly and kept him in sight until he decided to drop the purse, which I was able to retrieve. I found some ID in the purse and returned it to its rightful owner.

2) I saw an older man struggling to get the door open to his downtown living quarters. I held his meager bag of groceries (which he was probably afraid to put down, in fear of them being grabbed by someone) while he got the door open. I looked in the door and saw a long flight of stairs heading up…no lobby, no elevator, just a poorly lit, steep stairwell for this elderly fellow. So, I offered to carry his groceries. Up we went, two flights, until we came to his tiny apartment, which was packed to the gills with all of his earthly possessions. He felt so blessed by my kind assistance that he gave me 25¢, and I graciously accepted it, along with the memory of helping out this sweet, old guy. I was filled with the hope that I somehow made a difference in his lonely, impoverished life.

3) Planning and executing many service/mission trips over the years, for teenagers and young adults in our homeschool community. We have had amazing, life-changing adventures, and made a difference in Appalachia & Tijuana, Mexico, and also right here in our own city, and God has allowed me to help fill many young hearts with a love for service and humble self-sacrifice.

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As you can see, being a hero doesn’t require a cape and/or local news coverage of the event. It only calls for you to step out of your comfort zone, practice compassion (and, maybe a little war-like strategy on occasion), and affect positive change on someone’s life. Be courageous this week. You might even earn a quarter!

Utensils vs U-turns

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My recent explorations of life have led me to yet another fork in the road, and it got me to thinking…..why, in our excursion of earthly existence, do we never come to U-turns? It would be so nice just to have the option to hang a 180 louie, and go back to where we had that first little inkling that we were lost, but no, that never happens. Instead, we amble on aimlessly, with the GPS disabled, until THE FORK is suddenly upon us, and strenuous selection is required. I also find myself wondering why we never come to a spoon in the road, or a knife? Personally, if I happened across a spoon in the road, I would interpret it as a message to stop for tea, or perhaps a bowl of ice cream. In other words, a spoon would be an obvious sign to stop for refreshment, so….., now that I think of it, I’ve had lotsa spoons in my life’s trek. I can’t say the same for knives, though. If I came to a knife in the road, I might consider it a sign of danger, time to turn back or keep a watchful eye as I journey on. Unless it happened to be merely a butter knife, in which case I would begin to get a craving for some toast. But if, by chance, it was a machete, I would definitely pick it up, because… I know myself well, and after I wander down the wrong road for quite a while, and the truth finally dawns on me (plus, considering the lack of u-turns), I could, possibly, use the machete to hack my way through the heavy forest underbrush to the proper path.

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Unfortunately though, the only utensil in my present passage is a fork, and, in my experience, forks always seem to make an appearance in the woods, where a murky dimness permeates the locale, and clear vision is compromised. Wherever it happens to show up, a fork definitely calls for some discernment and prayer, because it’s decision-making time. Should I take the left tine, or the right tine, or can I just plop down where I am and refuse to budge? Sometimes it’s very challenging, because we don’t always have an indication of where the branching tines might lead. There are times when we think that we are able to make a fairly reliable guess regarding where each path might convey us, at least for the first few miles, but paths seem to have a mind of their own, and like to head south just when we least expect it. If I were a poet (which I just might be), and two diverging tracks stood before me, I’d take “the one less traveled by.” Robert Frost recommends this route, and since he happens to be one of my favorite poets, I am apt to think of him at a time like this. Actually, I think (in my more mature years), I HAVE taken the road less traveled….or perhaps, with my obsession for alliteration, I’d call it the fork frequented by the fewest. Oh there were times, of course, when my goal was to be one of the lemmings, to travel in the rush hour horde of the “in-crowd,” but I left those days behind a long, long time ago. For many years now, I have preferred my own, singular brand of “coolness,” and believe me, in my desire to embrace my uniqueness, and follow the counsel of the Holy Spirit, I feel more trendsetting now than I ever did before (sans hipster clothes, flashy car, daily lattes, or perfectly plucked, big eyebrows).

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I digress, however, from my current crisis of utensil impediment. The choices are clear, in the sense that, it’s one way, or the other. But, a life of faith means that I am never alone in the matter of arduous appraisal. God has blessed me with many gifts to ease my burdensome backpack, as I navigate this earthly passage. I have a lamp for my feet, and a light unto my path (which seems rather redundant to me, but that’s a Psalm writer for ya’). And just in case that’s not enough, I have a heavenly appointed Guardian Angel, just waiting to be called upon for assistance. Should these ministrations not be quite sufficient, I have a Blessed Mother in heaven who loves me dearly, and is always willing to do what a mother does best, if I would simply run into her arms. Top that off with a multitudinous cloud of witnesses on my side (Hebrews 12:1, referring to all those saints who have gone before us and live now in heaven), how can I possibly go wrong….IF…, I can still my heart, toss aside my egoism, and just listen! Which is exactly what I did at Mass this past Sunday. I finally remembered to turn my spiritual GPS unit back on, and Christ touched my heart so clearly and profoundly that I was moved to tears. My choice was then confirmed by those in my life whom I love and trust the most, and with this group of like-minded sojourners, whose prayers continually lift me up, I have taken the first step down the trail upon which I surely must trod. I will not flinch, will not look back, because my heart is at peace, and my merry band of travelers walks with me, down my very own mystically lighted lane, which has become my only TRUE & HOLY choice. I travel now in tranquility, surrounded on all sides by comfort, protection, and assurance, as indicated by the beautiful words of this Irish lady’s favorite Emerald Isle saint. How can we possibly go wrong in such company?! Vaya con Dios!

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Dusting Off the Ashes

My return to normalcy has been slow and steady. Oh, sure – some days it seems like New Year’s Day was just a week or so ago (and, just in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about the “new” year of 2016!), but when I try to reflect on the past twelve months, my life blurs into one mad rush of “what-the-hell-just-happened-and-how-did-I-survive-it” scenario. We all go through times like this: long, drawn out seasons of challenge and change and confusion.

Such times are difficult, but necessary. When in the midst of these arduous passages, I often wonder if I will ever come out again on the other side. Time slows to a sloth-like progression, and daily responsibilities loom like treacherous storm clouds on the horizon. Despair casts its net, and I fight it with all I’ve got, trying to avoid being tripped up and dragged down. “Hang in there just ONE…MORE…DAY,” becomes my daily mantra, while my constant friends, hope & faith, try to remind me that this trailblazing, uphill climb is leading somewhere worthwhile. Each day takes me further and further afield, and I grow weary trying to find my own way back to where I’d like to be. What frustrates me the most in these situations is that I feel like I was listening, that God had made His plan very clear to me, and His guiding hand had gone before me. But the place I ended up didn’t seem all that great, and God was suddenly, suspiciously, quiet. I’ve been here before, but still, I always have to remind myself…often – this is where trust comes in to play. Trust is often referred to as “faith in action.” With genuine trust, people are able to get up every day and do what needs to be done, and those whose paths intersect with them do not see a lost soul – they see a person carrying their own particular cross, who acts with compassion, empathy, good humor, and hope, spreading the light of faith, in spite of the trials. I believe that I was able to do this. From the things that I shared, close friends and family knew that I was going through a difficult time, but I tried hard to give my best to those I served each and every day. (To keep this honest, however, I must confess that while I was hanging out at home, I was sometimes crabby, I played a lot of games on my Ipad, and I slept more than usual, with my cat on my lap. And creative pursuits, like blog writing and crafting, were stored on a dark shelf in the dungeon.)

Fast forward now to New Year’s 2017. Exactly how I got here is a fuzzy mix of images, but at least I have arrived safely, and the storm clouds that tormented me for months are now but a distant memory. My hard fought battle with uncertainty and anxiety has been won, and I’ve come to a land of quiet joy and peaceful beauty. I recognize this country, because…I’ve been here before as well. It is the place I stumble upon when I have won the fight, when I have refused to give up. Upon arriving in such surroundings, it always seems much too bright. I blink my eyes, wandering around in a daze, trying to get my bearings. Sometimes, quite honestly, it takes a while to realize that I am in a better setting. The transition from feeling bewildered and alone is difficult to shake off – I’ve gotten used to it, and am not sure that I want to let it go, just yet. Slowly, the sun warms my bones and sharpens my senses. I look back to the west, into the valley through which I have labored, and I am struck by the rugged beauty of it all. I am able to recollect the gifts I received, and the accomplishments I made, while stumbling down the path that was laid out for me. I can gaze from afar upon my completed course, and see the good mixed in with the bad, and the memories of the journey come back to me.

I made two job changes during the past year, first, with an agency that provided me with training for Home Health Aid certification. I had to sit in a classroom and take notes, and study for tests, and pass hands-on clinical testing, and I am proud to say that I triumphed. My new boss even hinted that I was the best of the class. I know for a fact that I was the only one who aced the final exam…100%!! (At the age of 56, these kinds of accomplishments take on new meaning.) At that point, I thought that this agency was going to be the place I retired from. Imagine my vexation when the illogical scheduling procedures, coupled with the two-hour shifts scheduled all over town, soon began to wear me to a frazzle…and, I was stuck there for 6 months, because of the training agreement. Right in the midst of this unwelcome revelation, my dearest, most beloved client died. She had been doing pretty well, then started with some virus-like symptoms, went into the hospital for a few days, and suffered a massive stroke on the day she was supposed to be sent home. She passed away about 2 weeks after that. The gift that I received through that was knowing that I had brought some spiritual rest to the end of her days, by finding a wonderful young priest to come and visit with her a few times. I was even asked to do a reading at her funeral Mass, which was a great honor and privilege. Shortly after that trauma, I had a horrifying clash with a neighbor, who stood in my yard screaming, over and over again, right in my face, that I was “foul,” and spitting on my face as he screamed like a crazy man. This was not the first time we have been verbally attacked by these neighbors, but it was, by far, the worst. This time, though, his extended family was there for a party and witnessed the whole thing. I believe that they were shockingly appalled by his behavior (and, gave him a good talking-to!). Things have been much improved since that clash, and, even though I suffered terribly after that attack, I can see the good that it has wrought. It was around this time that I also got hired (through a friend’s recommendation) by a handicapped woman needing another PCA (personal care assistant). She does direct hire, and offered me 50% more per hour than I was making through the agency, and gave me set hours. I worked for her and continued with the agency until I thought I would drop, and then left the agency almost exactly six months after my first day of work. That was a difficult, but absolutely necessary step in my “recovery.” The final stab of the difficult journey was the loss of my sweet little Albert, my most favorite-of-all-time-kitty. He had actually become very sick earlier in the year, while I was on the edge of depression, but he had rallied to stay with me for several more months. He got me through the toughest days, and then it was time for him to go. He went quickly, suddenly becoming very weak and dying within a few days of that. It still breaks my heart to think of him, I miss him so!

So, anyway, here I am now, after a blessed Christmas visit with my growing family, all settled into a new, happy place (which will be purr-fect when I find a new feline friend to sit on my lap), with a lovely, but challenging, job (that I might not have been confident enough to accept without the HHA training experience). My new client (who shares a birth year with me) is also my newest best friend. We enjoy our time together tremendously, even on the difficult days. I have learned a great deal, and become a stronger person in many ways. All I’m hoping for now is a quiet year, with no “traveling.” I’m hoping that you’ll hear from me regularly once again. Growth and challenge are good things, but, let’s face it – too much of a good thing can drive a person batty!

Good grief…I grew up with Charlie Brown!

This week, I was planning to share some time-saving tips for making your Thanksgiving celebration easier and more relaxing, however, I got so busy scalding and plucking my deceased (may they rest in peace) chickens, followed by pealing and cooking my pumpkins into puree for pumpkin pies, that Thanksgiving was over before I knew it! I’ll save all of my helpful hints for an easy holiday meal for next year. Instead, I’ll divert you with lessons learned in the course of my peculiar childhood.

Everything I needed to know about life I gleaned from my constant reading of Archie comic books and the Peanuts comic strip. My mom bought me several collections of Charles M. Schulz’s well known, and well-loved, comic strips. The Archie comics have long since been reduced to shreds, but the hardcover Peanuts books are with me still. Back then, I had every single one of those books (and there are several!) memorized from front to back. I used to have one of them lying open on the kitchen table for every breakfast and lunch during the long, lazy, summer months and/or the cold, cabin fever winters. I simply could not sit down to eat without something fun to read, some source of light entertainment. I’m sure you could find a few Spaghettios’ sauce splotches, ketchup smears, or chocolate stains still hiding amongst the pages today. When I was young and unenlightened, I thought the Peanuts comics were just plain fun…and funny. But, now, as a wizened grown-up, I realize that everything I didn’t learn in kindergarten, I was taught by all the Peanuts characters.

Let’s just start with Charlie Brown. Charlie is the lost, lonely little child in all of us. He loves baseball, but he’s a terrible manager, stuck with an inept, uninterested group of athletes on his hapless, homespun team. He never gets any valentines, even though he stands next to his mailbox hoping one will magically appear from the red-haired girl, with whom he is hopelessly in love. His kite always ends up crashing into the kite-eating tree, he always gets rocks in his trick-or-treat bag, and Lucy always pulls the football out from under him just as he takes a wild kick, sending him flying into the air. And the only help he gets in dealing with all this is the crazy, self-seeking counsel from Lucy’s psychiatric advice stand (5¢ per session). And his dog…well, he’s definitely not man’s best friend, as far as Charlie is concerned. However, through all of his struggles, Charlie Brown never gives up, and his one, true friend, Linus, is always there to encourage him. Think about that the next time things go wrong for you, and call on your inner Charlie Brown – try one more time, because you never know if this might just be the time when Lucy decides to leave the ball in position, and you’ll stand there amazed, watching as your football soars into the sky!

Speaking of Linus, how many of us have our moments of insecurity, bordering on sheer terror, when we wish we had a security blanket in which to bury our face and our fears? Linus suffers such insecurity that he can barely make it through washday, almost passing out before the end of the drying cycle. His big sister, Lucy, enjoys bossing him around and teasing him about his weakness. Snoopy likes to terrorize him, too, by snatching the blanket from him, and spinning him round and round if he doesn’t let go. Does Linus allow this weakness to hold him down? No, he doesn’t! He is confident in who he is, and he’s a wise and loyal playmate, always capable of saying the right thing to a friend in need, or pointing out the philosophical significance of an ordinary occurrence. We all have our moments, when self-doubt can freeze us in our tracks, but Linus would tell us to ignore our phobias, and forge ahead, and perhaps have an extra blanket handy for emergencies.

That brings me to Lucy, the self-proclaimed queen of crabbiness. People get on her nerves with very little provocation. She attends a crabbiness support group, and you better watch your step on meeting days! She knows the Achilles heel of all within her little comic strip world, and she aims right for it with amazing accuracy. She tries to manipulate and control with her cantankerously cutting comments, but she fails to have much of an effect on anyone (except for Charlie Brown). The person she would most like to snare in her web is Schroeder, the resident artist of the comic cast, but Schroeder, like all true creative souls, is at home only within his own expressive realm of (in his case) piano performance. Even though he plays on one of those antique, tinny-sounding toy pianos with about two octaves, he produces sounds of a concert pianist extraordinaire, until Lucy gets irritated with the artist and gives up on her oozy, beguiling sweetness long enough to get him mad. When that happens, we hear the true voice of the piano…and the irritated pianist! Schroeder brings out the soft side in Lucy, while she often draws out the best of his creative genius. Think of the two of them the next time your spouse or best friend is irritating the crap out of you…opposites attract for a reason!

I can’t mention Schroeder without getting a picture in my mind’s eye of Snoopy in the Peanuts Christmas video. Snoopy is the wild and crazy, devil-may-care persona which abides in all of us. It rises to the surface at least occasionally, if not with alarming regularity. In the animated special, Snoopy is jitterbugging to the amazing dance tunes provided by Schroeder’s flying fingers on his skimpy keyboard, and the music suddenly stops. All eyes are on Snoopy as he continues dancing with wild abandon, until it finally dawns on him that he is dancing alone, the room gone quiet. He gets embarrassed and slinks away, but we don’t feel too badly for him, because we all know he’s rebounded quickly, and is off somewhere on another reckless adventure. Snoopy is actually like most dogs we know. He is spoiled and weird and in his own little world, and, when he is not sleeping, he is usually involved in some sort of mischief. I guess that’s easy to understand, considering his owner is wishy-washy Charlie Brown, who couldn’t discipline a dog to save his life. But, still, we love Snoopy, because he’s wildly entertaining and he knows how to live in the moment, along with his strange assortment of friends.

There are lots of other eccentric characters in the Peanuts gang, each with their own little quirks. Freda has the naturally curly hair, which she mentions at every appearance, and Pig-Pen can get dirty walking in a snowstorm. Sally (Charlie Brown’s little sister) has a crush on Linus, who is still too busy with his blankie to care about girls. Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend, is probably the cutest of all, even if he can’t fly in a straight line. Quirkiness aside, however, they all reveal to us the tendency in ourselves to cling to certain behaviors long after we realize they’re not working. The characters also give us the strength and courage to move above and beyond our limitations, and to realize that every day is a clean slate, upon which a masterpiece may be written, if only we are willing to let it happen.

A footnote: I hope you got a chance to enjoy “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” last week, in it’s annual airing on TV. If not, be sure to mark your calendar for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” sure to be coming up sometime soon! And, in case you were wondering, Charles M. Schulz was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1922. He died on February 12, 2000, leaving to all of us the rich legacy of the Peanuts characters, which still entertains and enlightens today. Thank you, Mr. Charles M. Schulz, for many, many years of smiles and laughter, and for showing us the fears and dreams inside our own, fragile souls!