Reading books to young children is just one of the many simple joys of my life. I find a good challenge in bringing the stories to life. You’ve got to be careful, though, with such undertakings. If you get too … Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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!
In a couple of weeks, my older daughters will descend upon us. They will bring their spouses, one of them will have our first grandchild in tow, and they will all have luggage, gifts, and special food that you can’t find in Cincinnati. With all of them, plus the Christmas décor spread about the house, our almost-empty nest will be filled to overflowing.
The preparation for this cataclysmic event has already begun. The gift shopping started way back in January. I am a self-diagnosed thrift store shopaholic, so I decided to use this compulsion to my benefit – I now buy most of my Christmas gifts at thrift stores. I know what you’re thinking…, “Cheapskate!” I must confess, you are right about that. I don’t like to spend money. I like to be generous and buy things for people, but I don’t like regular stores. First of all, they’re often way too big. Let’s just talk about those membership/warehouse stores, for one example. I shop at one of them and count a shopping trip there as one of my weekly workouts. With my staple list of items that I buy from said store, and I have to walk the entire, outer perimeter to gather all the things I need, because the gut of the store is filled with “everything-I-don’t-need-but-they-really-want-me-to-buy” merchandise. Sometimes, if I am looking for something that they have moved, which happens a lot in this store, because, I am quite sure, this is how all the store employees get their daily doses of laughter, while monitoring the security cameras (i.e., “Look at that lady right there! I bet she’s looking for those 3-packs of sticky lint rollers, that we used to keep with the cleaning supplies. She will never guess that we hid them in the snack aisle, behind the oreos! Look at her, wandering aimlessly around for hours – I think she’s looking for one of us! Bwa, haa, haa!”), I will sometimes accidentally get caught in the merchandise-we-make-money-on section. I will gaze at the price tags, and wonder why someone would ever need that many magic markers, and why they would want to pay that much money for markers (or, whatever it might be). I guess that’s why this store also carries storage shelves and containers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also rented storage units out back.
Speaking of storage units, what about that Ikea place?! They have everything you could ever need in those stores, and all the storage containers to put it in. You could seriously get lost in there for days! You have to follow those little directional arrows on the floor (which, by the way, magically disappear when you stand directly on them, which just adds another layer of mystery and intrigue to the whole adventure), or you will end up in the stock room, where you will be put to work until you can plan an escape. I think you can probably rent out some of their display rooms for the night, if you are unable to make it through the entire store in one day. Then, in the morning, you can stop by the in-store restaurant for a nice, affordable breakfast for the entire family. Just think how fun that would be. Talk about a global village! It would be great, with neighbors from all walks of life, some of them snoring on the trendy display bed right next to your highly-fashionable display bed, because we all know that people must consider the latest fashions in every room of the house! At any rate, Ikea is my end-of-the-world survival plan. When the end is imminent, I am heading there immediately, and I will refuse to leave….ever! In the meantime, however, I will avoid these gargantuan stores with retail prices, and feast upon the wide variety, buried treasure, and amazingly low prices in our local thrift stores.
The one thing you can’t really find at thrift stores is food. There are those bakery thrift stores, but those don’t provide much in the way of healthy sustenance. If you need cookies, lunch-box fruit pies (without any fruit), or plain, white sandwich bread, this is your paradise, but otherwise, I recommend avoiding such places. I have to trudge to the grocery store with the common folk, watching for sales and stocking up. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that I am trying to buy more local, organic foods, so saving money on groceries has become difficult. I tell myself that food affects the entire body, so it’s more important than matching outfits for me, or an interior decorating theme for my home. I really like to feed my family well when they come to visit, so I’ll be choosing healthy options, and supporting my local farmers as much as possible. All the more reason to buy second-hand clothing and home décor…more left over to spend on real food!
One thing I never skimp on is my outdoor Christmas decorations. I don’t go overboard in that area – I think simple is more tasteful (and, not as much work) – but when I see something that I want to add to my small contribution of lighting up the world, I will buy it with very little guilt. When I drive up to my house at Christmas time, after dark, it fills my heart with joy to see the lights twinkling on my bushes, and the cute little spiral trees swaying in the breeze. If there’s some snow on top of the bushes to add that heavenly glow to my multi-color display, then I am happier than a dog with a bone. No all-white lights for me, buddy, no sir-ee! When I was a little kid, and we drove around enjoying the Christmas lights, they were colorful, so that’s how it’s gotta be at my house! The inside will be festive, too, with decorations handed down from my mother-in-law (many of them handmade by her), a Christmas tablecloth and matching apron that my mother gave me years ago, and a few of the hand-crafted items that my children made when they were young. I can see it now, when they walk in the door, dragging several bags of luggage and/or assorted baby paraphernalia, they will stop in their tracks and think to themselves, “I am HOME for Christmas!”
And then, I will send them all packing to their tiny rooms, with the haphazard color schemes, and well-used guest towels. We’ll bake cookies and play games and eat cookies and tell stories and eat more cookies. There will be get-togethers and visitations to local Christmas displays. We’ll go to Mass together on Christmas and practically fill a pew, and then we’ll have a big, beautiful, roasted turkey for Christmas dinner, with lots of healthy side dishes. Our little, cape cod will be bulging at the seams for two full weeks, and so will this mama’s heart. And, honestly, that’s all I want for Christmas, because it’s all that matters to me! If your family celebrates Christmas, don’t let anyone else (stores, commercials, peers) tell you what you need or want – take a step back, find the holiday spirit living in you, and breathe it in deep it this year.
Once again, in this wonderful life I have been given, I am passing through my favorite astronomical season. When the evenings begin to turn cool, and the breezes blow a bit more often from the north, I take a deep breath, and turn my eyes toward the heavens. Birds will soon be traveling en masse now, heading to a warmer clime ahead of winter’s first blast. When I was a child, my girl friends and I had a habit of shouting out, “My wedding,” whenever we saw a flock of birds soaring overhead. The idea was, whoever said it first claimed that group of birds, and that’s how many people would be in attendance at our wedding. I have no idea where this absurd superstition came from, but I can tell you that it doesn’t work. With all the flocks I won, I should have had more than 10,000 guests at my wedding, all perched on the back of the pews, chittering away and leaving droppings on the hymnals, but instead, there were less than two hundred in attendance, all relatively well-behaved…and potty trained. I often chuckle when I see a winged southbound assembly in the sky these days. My gut reaction (now that I’m old) is to yell out, “My funeral!” But it would bring stares of dismay and confusion, and it might be difficult to explain, so I refrain.
In lieu of garnering a potentially newsworthy attendance for my eventual send-off, I’ll focus on the foliage. Autumn leaves amaze and astound me, with their beauty and their variety, whether viewing from afar, or examining each leaf individually. The long-range view, overlooking a hillside or a valley, can be truly stunning, but I prefer the hands-on perspective. Sometimes, from just one tree, you can find leaves of orange and yellow flame right next to some so deeply red they are almost black. This same tree might also boast of red-veined green leaves, or soft browns. Up close or far away, the feast for the eyes never fails to stop me in my tracks, and take my breath away. I still pick up leaves like a little kid, and bring them home to dry them in a book. And when I am out walking, I purposely tread on the very edge of the sidewalk, through any gathering of fallen leaves I can find. Some of the leaves are extremely dry and crispy – these are my favorites. When you walk on them, it’s like eating potato chips with your feet. The sound is like the laughter of a baby – it brings a smile to my face and makes me feel young again. Most of the leaves are not quite so crisp, and those I just do a swing-step through, with a bit of a Charlie Chaplain swagger, so I can enjoy the soft rustle and watch the leaves leap-frogging in front of my feet. Can there be a simpler, lovelier treasure than that?!
I feel almost the same way about fossil hunting, but I learned last week that fall is not opportune timing for locating fossils in creekbeds. Creeks tend to wind through the woods, hence, they are filled to overflowing this time of year, not with water, but with fallen leaves. My leaf viewing was greatly enhanced, but I only found two brachiopods and two horn corals. However, in the past, while turning over large rocks during this time of year, I’ve come across lots of slow-moving salamanders and crawdads, and one amazing, segmented leach. I snagged that puppy and stuck it in a jar. Then, I took it with me when I picked up my girls from a youth group meeting. As I displayed this large, green, blood-sucking creature with a huge, horrifying mouth, all the boys from the youth group gathered around in fascination. The thought that popped into my head was, “I was never so popular with the boys….I should have thought of this back in my high school days!”
Other simple pleasures for me include the sudden rushing of the wind through a stand of trees. I am also enticed by the powerful rumbling of thunder. I sometimes feel like I could take on a John Muir adventure, and nestle on a tree branch while a thunderstorm passes by. It would be scary, yet electrifyingly intoxicating (pun intended!). Like most people, I am a sucker for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, although I have to admit that I rarely make it up in time for the sun’s rising. (Sleeping in, with relaxed mornings, just happens to be another of my favorites!) And the mad rushing of a mountain stream during the spring thaw cleanses my soul like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.
I seem to have an outdoor theme going here, and, to be sure, I am able to commune with God most ardently while surrounded by nature. However, I’ve got my happy “inside moments,” too. Peace and tranquility, apart from the outdoors, usually includes friends, family, good (home-baked) food, and laughter. If none of the aforementioned is present, I’ll settle for a glass of wine, stretchy pants, and my slippers. I have my preferred fall rituals for indoors, too. I love it when the time comes to travel to my upstairs cedar closet and pull out my thrift store wardrobe of cold-weather clothes. Having my jeans in the drawer and long-sleeved shirts filling my closet is almost as gratifying to me as leaf collecting. I have, indeed, been blessed with the art of enjoying the simple things in life.
If you’re wondering what my training ground is for acquiring this artistic talent, it’s this – God has forced me into it. And, after several years of fighting and whining, I finally succumbed to the Master’s guidance. My husband is self-employed, and has been for years. Sometimes business is great, but usually, it’s just enough to get by on. Despite this fact, we chose a stay-at-home mom approach for our family, with the added blessing of homeschooling our children. We have a small house, with three bedrooms and one full bathroom, in a neighborhood that is not quite as nice as it used to be. People these days generally do not want to spend their entire adult life in a house this small, even though most of the neighbors who were here when we moved in had done just that. We all want bigger and better, with one bathroom per person, more rooms than one family can ever navigate, and posh neighborhoods. When I get envious of such a style of living, I remind myself that there are children in some countries who abide in cardboard huts and dig through the trash to earn a living. I should be ashamed of myself for longing for more than I need. I have a warm house, a comfortable bed, plenty of clothes, and an abundance of food. The most crucial lesson I have learned, through my experience with breast cancer, is that I really only have the gift of today. Armed with that sobering knowledge, I will do my best to revel in it and thank God for all that I have, instead of focusing on what I think I am missing…well, at least I will try my very best, and ask for heavenly help when I fail.
In the week ahead, I encourage you to make a few choices that lend themselves to a more simple, no-frills, undemanding day. You will find an unadulterated joy in the sacrifice.