Gratitude—don’t settle for a warped version of FoMO

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An unseasonably spectacular fall day in Pennsylvania 

A couple of years ago, in conversation between classes, a student said to me, “I used to try to learn about God, but searching made me feel unhappy. Now, I don’t believe and I don’t try to believe.”

Faith in God, like breathing, is essential to me, and has been as long as I can remember, so the student might as well have been saying: I tried to breathe and I couldn’t, so I just stopped trying.

I wondered how he stood talking, quite lively, rather than slouched, blue and limp, along life’s way.  I was intrigued and wanted to know more about his approach to life and how it differed from mine.

My faith often influences my thought life. Throughout my day I think prayers like: Thank you. Or, help! Or, I’m really worried could you calm my thoughts?  Or, I really messed up that interaction—I’m sorry.

I wondered about someone who didn’t practice faith. When he encounters various life situations, what are his thoughts like?

The day the student and I talked was an unseasonably spectacular fall day. Sunlight warmed us and bounced on leaves that pivoted in the breeze showing off vibrant colors. The breeze playfully rearranged my hair and nudged my skin with playful taunts that seemed to say, I can touch you, but you don’t even know how to try to touch me.

Many people were outside, walking, sitting on benches, sprawled on the grass, enjoying the display of Pennsylvania’s outdoor features—like the day was autumn’s grand finale and everyone wanted to experience it. More so, because we knew drab winter was on the way.

I asked the student what he thought about that day’s fine weather and he agreed, “It’s a magnificent day.”

“On a day like this, I feel striking feelings of gratitude that I want to express,” I said.

“Absolutely. Me. Too.” he said.

“So how do you express your gratitude? What do you say?” I asked.   Continue reading “Gratitude—don’t settle for a warped version of FoMO”

When you wonder about the value of your work…

Last month, Steve and I visited the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

Picture of Andrew Wyeth print
Andrew Wyeth’s: Lobsterman

to see a closely guarded exhibition of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings.

In the museum gallery, as we admired one of Wyeth’s large, detailed paintings, Steve motioned me closer to the painting and, with his index finger, pointed to a wooden table in the picture. He wanted me to notice that the painted wood’s grainy, uneven surface looked so vivid it seemed that if you ran your hand across it, you’d risk a splinter.

As I leaned toward Steve’s finger and the painted tabletop, a talking human head bobbed between our heads, “Don’t get so close to the painting, Sir,” a museum guard quietly commanded. Continue reading “When you wonder about the value of your work…”

When someone you love considers suicide…

(Because it’s Mental Illness Awareness Week)

Recently, I attended an educational workshop which was geared to raising awareness of depression and suicide. The speaker, a clinical psychologist, clicked through PowerPoint slides at a steady clip. She listed the signs of depression. Click. New slide.

She stressed that depression is a disease that can be treated. Click. New Slide.

She said, “If you know someone who experiences chronic depression, you need to ask them if they are thinking about suicide.” Click.

Whoa. Continue reading “When someone you love considers suicide…”

When you won’t know until you try…

“How do you tell for certain that a cantaloupe is ripe?” I once asked my Uncle while restocking the melon display. My Uncle is a fruit and vegetable expert. He is a New England farmer who has grown and sold plants and produce in Pepperell, Massachusetts for decades.

Ripe cantaloupe

When I asked him about the cantaloupe, I was a college student earning tuition money by waiting on customers who frequented the fruit and vegetable stand that my Uncle owns.

 

To that point, in my life, I’d tried a number of techniques to select a ripe melon. I’d tried holding the melon to my ear, knocking my knuckles on the outer rind, and listening for a hollow sound. I’d tried sniffing the end where the stem had once been to see if I could detect a sweet, fruity smell. I’d tried examining the melons to find one with a light-colored oval on the skin—I’d heard a light-colored oval was a sure sign that the melon had ripened in the patch.

None of my methods really worked. Finding a ripe melon took a lucky guess. I wondered if the expert could teach me a more certain way. Continue reading “When you won’t know until you try…”

A secret to moving beyond all that divides us…

Porch swing and woods

The moment Steve claimed he could smell Sycamore trees, I was swinging–ever so slightly so as not to spill my coffee–on a wooden bench swing on the porch of a cabin we had rented during a recent vacation for just the two of us.

Before he spoke, I was sitting alone on the porch, gazing through the woods, past the Virginia Creeper bicycle trail, to Laurel Creek where sunbeams glittered on moving ripples of rushing water. I’d put the book I was reading, still open, in my lap and was half-listening to the ambient sounds around me. Birds chirped. The creek water gurgled. The gravel crunched when the occasional biker pedaled by.

Laurel Creek

From the cabin, Steve came out to the porch and sat down in a chair beside the swing. “Look at that walnut tree.”

Immediately, I was victim and judge. He was guilty. His crime: interrupting my reverie. Continue reading “A secret to moving beyond all that divides us…”

The smallest gift I ever gave…

Do you like to give large or small gifts?

At a public library, I stood in line to check out books not knowing I was about to face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give.

In front of me in line, a young, slim girl lifted an unwieldy stack of children’s picture books up onto the high checkout desk. She smiled as she unzipped a small change purse, pulled out her library card, and handed it up to the librarian. The girl’s mother stood to the side, watched, and nodded approval.

The child self in me envied the girl’s large pile of books. When I was a child, the library I frequented limited the number of books a patron could borrow to five at a time. Probably the girl didn’t even realize her great fortune. Continue reading “The smallest gift I ever gave…”

I can’t time travel, so I’m stuck in the happy-sad…

July 4, 2017 sunset. The setting sun’s brilliance next to the swirling clouds are a vivid picture of the happy-sad.

“Has anyone ever turned in a paper that you considered too long?” a student asked when I mentioned an approximate page length for an assignment.

Oh, yes.

Once, I asked students to define a term from their major area of study. Write two or three pages explaining the term to someone who’s not in your major, I said.

A zealous physics student emailed me a detailed, fourteen-page discourse on time travel. I opened the file, scrolled through the fourteen pages, and postponed grading the paper.

I did not put reading the paper on hold because its length discouraged me. I put the paper on hold because its promise engaged my curiosity. In the introduction, the student declared that time travel is currently possible. I was excited to learn about the possibilities. I saved his pages for last, so I’d have reading to anticipate. (I hear you. You aren’t the first. Others have called me gullible.)

The idea of time travel fascinates me. I have read A Wrinkle in Time, The Time Machine, and Danny Dunn Time Traveler more than once. I watched all the Back to the Future movies. More than once.

I have imagined being able to travel backwards and forwards through time. What time period would I visit? Continue reading “I can’t time travel, so I’m stuck in the happy-sad…”

How to find a purpose that delights you…

According to a recent Washington Post article, the American workforce faces a crisis of meaning. Millions of people report lack of fulfillment in their chosen jobs. They long for vocations that provide meaning and purpose but don’t know how to find them.


Steve and I don’t need any more stuff, but one recent Saturday, we stopped at a yard sale—just to look. We browsed through displays of other people’s castoffs—vintage purses, antique furniture, kitchen gadgets, books and tools.

Steve browses faster than I do. He got a few displays ahead of me.

After a few minutes, I looked for him and noticed he was doing more than browsing. As I watched, he handed some bills across a table to a vendor. And didn’t get any change. He seemed to be spending more than his fair share of the cash he’d pulled from our joint account on our way to the sale. Continue reading “How to find a purpose that delights you…”

What’s in a name?

The daily schedule of the writer’s conference I attended in early June did not coincide with my usual routine and by the time the early morning workshop concluded, the time for my usual second cup of coffee had long passed. I eagerly joined other attendees for a coffee break.

Coffee pots, cream, sugar, pastries and fruit were available on a long table that was set out on the campus lawn under the trees.

I made my way to one of the large coffee pots and fully engaged to adjust the spigot to fill my cup with coffee. My focus on pouring that beverage was so intense that most people would be pleased if their brain surgeon used half as much concentration when performing an intricate, high-stakes procedure.

My cup filled, I sidestepped to the cream station, added a splash of half-and-half, stirred, and, anticipating a big gulp, I surfaced from the act of preparing the coffee to find my nose almost touching the nose of a man who was equally intent on getting coffee.

Awkward. Continue reading “What’s in a name?”

Beyond comparing…

Last week, I felt sad and perplexed when the author of a book that I treasure compared herself to other authors and came up lacking.

The author Christina Baker Kline ,who wrote a book that I’ve recently enjoyed titled a piece of the world, spoke at the Princeton Public Library. I was in Princeton for a writer’s conference held at Princeton Seminary and when I discovered that she was speaking at the library, I happily skipped a conference event, so I could attend her outstanding presentation.

During the presentation’s question and answer part, I asked her to talk about her writing process. How did she get that novel written?

She explained that writing a book takes her a long time. Then because she had recently spoken at an event that included John Grisham and Harlan Coben, she compared her writing process to theirs. Wistfully, she said: They write so fast–a book or more a year–I wish I could write as fast as they do.
Continue reading “Beyond comparing…”