Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.

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Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…

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What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.

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*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. 

Weighing That New Year’s Resolution

I’ve probably written about six posts since Thanksgiving. You didn’t see them? It’s because I wrote them in my head while driving or grocery shopping or exercising. I’ve mentally composed a few thoughts in the shower because warm water and soap inspire me.

It’s like that with most things. You have ideas. Intentions. Things you hope will happen. But ideas and intentions fall apart in the actual doing of something.

January begins, and by the end of the month (today), researchers say three-quarters of the people who created New Year’s resolutions have abandoned them. One month, and we’re paving the highway to hell, to mix my metaphors.

I was rather prosaic with my New Year’s resolution for 2013. It was as if I was on the set of Family Feud, and Richard Dawson was standing in front of me saying, “Name the top New Year’s resolutions Americans make each year.” I’m clapping my hands and shouting, “Lose weight” because I know it’s the #1 answer.

I’m challenging myself to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31, although I’m more interested in reaching that goal in a very doable 25 weeks.

It’s not a bad goal. It’s admirable to commit to better health, improve your diet, and increase your exercise. But it strikes me as a little boring. Sometimes I weigh things (yeah, pun intended) in terms of how my kids might look back and remember their growing up years. Will they remember when Mom lost 20 pounds. Maybe. Will it matter? Possibly, if it modeled for them the importance of good health.

It’s also possible that it’s a bit more about vanity and fitting into my size 2 clothes again…and that’s not a great message for my kids.

This evening, I read a story about Sarah, a woman who decided to host 500 people around her table in 2012. Meal by meal, she gathered friends and neighbors and people she didn’t know to join together at her table. Over the year, she hosted 27 parties, so that by Thanksgiving, she reached her goal of serving a meal to her 500th guest. No vague talk about “building community,” Sarah chose a concrete way to actually go out there and do it!

It’s such an incredible and amazing story. How much more fun to remember the year we invited 500 old and new friends into our home than to recall the year Mom dropped 20 pounds!

And so I’m counting up my plates along with my calories…planning some lean cuisine for the masses. Happy New Year!

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I’m supposed to be working on a final paper for one of my master’s classes today; an overall analysis of what’s worked and hasn’t worked on this blog. I have a cool table of the stories I’ve posted on here overlaid with traffic patterns and metrics of likes and shares.

Instead, my mind is on an email I received from my friend John’s wife today:

This morning at 6:32 a.m., John died in my arms. A few days ago, our hospice nurse (affectionately known as “Rachel the nurse”) told us that he would not last much longer. So his last days were spent with our whole family, lots of loving visitors, gorgeous notes, tearful Facebook messages, and precious time laying on our bed together. Last night, we sang hymns and prayed for John and ALL OF US in our bedroom, surrounded by dimly lit candles, tons of Kleenex, close friends, hope-filled hearts, and the peaceful presence of God.

It happened just today but it seems like so long ago. As for me, I am doing alright. In fact, John said last night that I have been “a trooper.” As I woke Jake up this morning with the news about his dad, he said “I’m sorry, Mom. You know we are gonna be OK, right?” Rachel knew why I was waking her up a bit early, but she smiled and said, “He is not suffering anymore, so I am very happy.”

I hate that this has happened to our family. I want God to bring good out of this, and I have asked Him for that. By some of your notes to me, I think He is doing that. Please know how sad we are, but how hopeful we are that we will meet again, and that God is working this out for all of our good. I’m not exactly sure how or what, but I am trusting in His Word that this horrible chapter in our story has not escaped His notice. He’s not going to leave us hanging. Never has.

John is having his Thanksgiving Feast a day early….and it will last for all eternity. He probably ate a hamburger first! Having not really eaten ANYTHING for about 6 weeks, that man—that gorgeous, funny, admirable and courageous man—is enjoying so much….feasting on the beauty of heaven, the beauty of our Savior, the non-caloric food, and the fellowship of those who have gone before us. Let’s be thankful today for John’s journey home. Thankful that he is no longer suffering. We know we are going to be OK—it is just going to hurt for a really long time. I already miss him so much. And I forgot how he taught me to transfer funds from one account to the other…John????! How do I …..? There will be a LOT of those “missing John moments” in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving, faithful friends. Enjoy your family and feast. Remember John and pray for our broken hearts.

Feeling God’s comfort,

Kristin, for John, Rachel and Jake

I’m sitting at my computer with three screens open: Final paper, blog metrics, and Kristin’s note. I read Kristin’s note and had to stop writing to find a box of kleenex to blot all the tears streaming down my face.

I’m not sure why this blog is so filled with references to death, with notes about attending funerals and tributes to friends who’ve passed away. I set out to write about my children and life and so much of the laughter that punctuates our days.

Maybe it’s because the specter of death makes the moments of this life all the more precious. I believe there’s another world, one without sorrow and tears. A world of health and healing and reunions of more perfect souls than we’ve known here.

But the partings from this life just make me want to chuck the paper and go and see a movie with my kids. I want to hike a mountain. Listen to some beautiful music. Swim in the ocean at sunset. Get lost in a novel while I bask in some sunshine. Eat a really great meal with people I love. I sort of want to crawl between cool, clean sheets with a hot guy, but that’s not my life right now. It’s a reaction to death that makes me want to seize life.

The paper just needs to be written. Then I need to buy cat food, join the throngs of folks at the grocery store, and pack clothes for the kids for our trip to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. I’ll pray throughout the day for Kristin and Rachel and Jake. And I’ll remember John who worked with my magazine team for years.

John jotted down all special occasions and took the time to note each one. I’d call his office in Charlottesville, VA to ask about a production issue and John would say, “Isn’t today Megan’s birthday?”

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner together at a conference in Nashville. I excused myself to renew a parking meter for my rental car, and John and his colleague Greg insisted on leaving their dinners to walk me to my car. A gentleman, always.

I know a little too well what lies ahead for Kristin, feeling her way through the next weeks and months of some aching loneliness. Seven years later, and I’ve never learned how to sleep in the center of my bed. I still have a side.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. And I’ll celebrate the day with gratitude for the small normalcy of our days. You have no idea how good it is to buy cat food and make small talk with Larry, the nicest, friendliest cashier at QFC, until normal is gone.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with both the lovely mundane as well as the moments that take your breath away. May you be grateful for both in your life.

John Baltes
March 26, 1976 – November 21, 2012

The Stranger in My Bed: Who You Married Isn’t Who You’re Married To

Note from Shelly: From time-to-time, I’m sharing some of the best thoughts from writers/friends that I’ve come across on the web. This guest post is from my friend Amber Johnson, who writes Weddedness, a marriage blog with her husband, Cliff. I regularly follow Amber’s blog because she and her husband have some wise perspectives on marriage after the “I do” part…and well, they’re just funny writers to boot. Read this, and then visit her blog as well.

Who are you again?

Ten  years ago, when Cliff and I got married, he had hair and I had thighs that would have fit into skinny jeans, had they been stylish then. I was shy in groups and reticent to ever express a strong opinion; Cliff was more brash. He was headed for a career in social work. I wanted to be a writer.

Cliff was thinking about converting to Catholicism. I thought women shouldn’t be pastors. We weren’t positive we wanted kids. Everything we cared about could fit in the trunk of our car.

Now, Cliff has moved past Catholicism: our pastor’s name is Laura. I’ve learned to share my opinion, and occasionally cross the line to brash; Cliff has softened his voice. He’s left social work behind and is now in non-profit management. I’m on the same career path. We own a house full of stuff, though the things we care about mostly still fit in the back of our car: safely buckled in two car seats. And the hair and thighs, well, time changes things.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: who I married on September 8, 2001, isn’t quite the same person in my bed tonight. The change has been gradual, but the differences are stark. In fact, our son recently looked at a picture from our wedding day, and asked, “Where are you guys?” Good question.

We’ve been lucky: we’ve changed roughly in step with each other. Many of the changes have been for the better (I’ve learned to be more direct; Cliff has learned to listen more). And we’ve developed the thick skin it takes to tolerate the changes that are a bit tougher to stomach.

Not everyone is so lucky: some changes take more adapting. Think of the career woman who decides to be a stay-at-home mom. Or the stay-at-home mom who finds herself yearning for a career. Either occupation is respectable, but a sudden and passionate swing from one to the other can unsettle a relationship, especially for a husband who thought he was married to one and finds himself working out weekly schedules and budgets with the other.

I know of other families where one partner has suddenly become a serious runner, requiring hours of Saturday morning training runs and changed diets for the whole family.

And what if your husband becomes more brash? Your wife more bossy? What if illness or parenthood or unemployment changes something fundamental about your partner’s personality? Even if only temporary, the result can be feeling like you’re in bed with a stranger.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says of his marriage, after 25 years, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of them has been me.”

What do we do about this? The answer isn’t to avoid change. The answer is to somehow respect the changes in each other, change in step when you can, and give your spouse space to be who he or she needs to be when you can’t. I think the answer also lies, somehow, in the promises we make to each other.

Smedes writes that “when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Essentially, you have to rise above who you are and who you see yourself with to be open to who your partner is becoming. Let the promises you made be the through-thread of your relationship, when other things seem less certain. Find unlimited potential in who you could become together. Find excitement in being in bed with someone new.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, quotes Smedes (above) and then offers this wisdom: ”Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.”

Amber Johnson works at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, Cliff, are the proud parents of Sam and Maggie. 

Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)