Hope for 2019: Is it an Oxymoron?

We are 15 days in to 2019, and I’m just now getting around to a New Year’s post.

Hey, I’m retired. I’m allowed to be on my own schedule.

Yesterday, was my first day of my second retirement. I did Meals on Wheels in the morning, made white chicken chili for dinner, read 5 chapters in My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante while drinking cinnamon tea in front of the wood stove. And looked out at the snow. And contemplated not having to go to work tomorrow.

Today, my second day of retirement, I studied Psalm 44, cleaned the kitchen, made a loaf of sourdough bread, and contemplated whether I should continue this blog, or just let it die.

I still haven’t decided. Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on a regular basis. But now, the complicated life of the past six months is behind me, and I’m contemplating what my new life will look like. Did you notice I’ve used the word contemplate three times in the last three paragraphs?

I’ve never been one for New Years’ Resolutions. Why set yourself up for failure? For awhile the one-word for the year thing was popular, but one-word for the year is not enough for me. Perhaps I’m easily bored. But as I was cleaning my office of personal effects, I found this tacked on the wall:

Immediately, I knew that those would be my ten phrases for the year. One for each month + the two that are hardest for me, I would do for two months…

I clipped it on the side of the fridge by the coffeemaker — no missing it there — so I can see it every morning. Mr. H.C. commented on it right away. We both need reminders — especially the Answer Without Arguing one…

We need this in 2019 more than any other year I can remember. We need love, compassion, and listening; we need to remember how to speak without accusing; we need a “good news” channel; (I have once again sworn off watching the evening news –I figure if something bad happens, someone will tell me!); we need to remember how to enjoy without complaint…

Well, really, we need all of them. All the time. But I’m doing the best I can, with one a month.

And I’m going to be a good news channel.

January is listen without interrupting. That’s going to be a tough one for me. It might even be a two-monther. But it’s okay, because I have time to listen.

After all, I’m retired…

The unexpected, unwanted lesson — Learning and letting go

This is a sermon I’ve been writing to myself. It may not apply to you. Just saying…

Silly me. I thought at my advanced age, lessons in life were already learned. I’m old enough now to be the one offering sage advice rather than stressing over just what this lesson is supposed to teach me.

I know better than that really. The road we travel is never guaranteed to be smooth no matter how new or old your vehicle, no matter what season. It is the season of potholes after all.

And the journey we’re on is always guaranteed to teach us something–if only we pay attention to the curves. Interstates are boring after all.

But this one — it was tough. I was blindsided by it and maybe still haven’t recovered. So I’m writing my way through it and trying to see it through a mirror of objectivity, which might be an impossibility since mirrors are reflections of what we ourselves see.

I try to believe the best of everyone. I try to be kind, and in turn, I think others should be kind. I try to deal with those who aren’t on a limited basis. Life is too short to be bothered by unkind people, don’t you think?

In February I took an online writing course. I was looking forward to it and eagerly did the first few assignments. And then…

The instructor sent me back a detailed critique. I wanted critique. Tell me that the scene didn’t work because the dialogue was unrealistic; tell me that there was too much description, not enough description, whatever specific critical analysis you’ve got. But don’t say general ugly words. When I read them, I was stunned. They had no purpose except to insult. I read them again. I was not only astonished that an instructor would write such things to a student, I was crushed.

eat your wordsI know that I should not care what some unknown person wrote to me under the guise of criticism. But I did.

Suddenly I doubted whether I should even be writing. I had been praying for answers as to whether I should continue writing this already-overlong piece of fiction; perhaps this was the answer? I put down my pen and unplugged my keyboard. I didn’t open WordPress. I didn’t open Scrivener. Instead of writing on a blog, a fiction project, and a non-fiction project, I wrote nothing.

And during this six weeks of quiet, I rediscovered that I do need to write. The writing may never turn into a novel. It may never be published. Yet whatever our creative outlets are–writing, art, music, storytelling, sewing, gardening, woodworking–they are neglected at peril to our own well-being.

I have been trying to banish the fear and ugliness that instructor dumped on me. I don’t know why the words were so unpleasant, but I have used prayer to try to forget them.  It isn’t easy for me to let things go; I’m a dweller. I dwell on what I should abandon and leave behind. Conveniently, the sermons at church these past few weeks have been walking us through the book of James, and I have listened with my heart to his apt words:

Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:2-4 (NIV)

Trials of many kinds. That means trials of all sizes and extents — from the huge life-altering events to the smaller every-day grouches that throw off one’s plans for the hour, day, or week. And please note what perseverance does — it makes us mature and complete, not lacking anything. What would be without trials?  Spoiled children, selfish and demanding, lacking character and wisdom. In just a few more verses, James tells us what will happen when we do persevere:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. — James 1:12 (NIV)

Having passed the test by not giving up, brings us God’s approval; not necessarily human approval, because human approval passes away with the seasons. It’s your fifteen minutes of fame, and pretty much only serves your pride; God’s view of our perseverance is like snow on daffodils– they droop in the snow, but when the sun comes out they stand taller and appear more golden than ever before. (Yes, there’s been a lot of snow on daffodils around here lately.)

That brings me to human approval. I’m guilty of wanting it. I’m guilty of being very unhappy when there is discord between humans I am close to. Heck, I’m even guilty of disliking it when people I don’t like dislike me. Or something I’ve done. Or something I’ve written.

But we can’t allow meanness or unkindness to win, and by dwelling on it, or taking it too seriously, we allow it too much power over our lives. By listening to churlish words, I allowed my own confidence to be shaken. I gave those words power.

Yet the truth is that words do have power, and if we read further in the book of James, he tells us that:

the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. — James 3:5-8 (NIV)

James doesn’t mince words. Our tongues are small, but vile, and cannot be controlled; he compares our tongues to a fire that can set the entire forest ablaze. We’ve all set wildfires with words; just because I was on the burnt end this time, doesn’t mean I can forget the times when I lit the match.

There are several lessons here.

1) Don’t let others’ words or actions derail you from your own goals or make you lose confidence. Be not afraid.

2) Don’t dwell on it; move on. Know that your perseverance will bring you maturity and strength.

3) Aim to please God, not humans. Forgive the imperfect humans that surround you, for you too, are imperfect.

4) There will always be curves ahead and potholes in the road, no matter what season. This journey is a pilgrimage and the way we travel is the substance of our lives. The words we say, the kindnesses we do, the love we show–that’s what counts. Those potholes will always be there — the significance is in how we deal with them.

5) Pray. We aren’t meant to drive off into the sunset alone. 

I Once Promised to Read Middlemarch…

It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I was taking one class for summer school — an Independent Study on Women’s Literature. For those unfamiliar with the concept, that meant I just read some books I wanted to read by women and wrote papers about them. I remember reading The Awakening, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Mrs. Dalloway; I’m sure I could name a few others if I really thought hard. At the end of the summer, the professor, Mrs. Constantine, told me I had done a great job, but she had slipped up in not requiring me to read Middlemarch, by George Eliot. It was one of the greatest books by any woman author ever, she said. I should really have made you read it. Promise me you will read it, and I’ll give you an A.

Two years later, I was unemployed during one of the hottest summers ever, and I spent it in the air-conditioned public library. It was the summer that convinced me to go back to school and get a library science degree. It was the summer of reading. One of the first books I checked out was Middlemarch. I think I made it to about page 60, and then I put it down in favor of The Lord of the Rings.

I’ll read it some other time, I thought.

Three years later I was finished with library school, working in a public library, and a used copy of Middlemarch fell into my hands at the library’s used book sale. 25 cents.

I brought it home and started to read. I got to about page 60, and put it down in favor of The Doll Maker by Harriet Arnow.

But at least it was now on my bookshelves. Every couple of years I would pick it up again. I would always make it to about page 60 before I put it down in favor of just about any other novel — Dune, Angle of Repose, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes….

The book finally took its toll on me — every time I went to my bookshelves, the thick spine haunted me — all 850 pages. I finally gave it back to another library’s used book sale to assuage my guilt.

The last time I tried to read it was ten years ago. I got to about page 60. When I put it down for what I thought was the last time, in favor of Anna Karenina, I apologized to Mrs. Constantine for accepting that A under false pretenses; I apologized to Mary Anne Evans for not being able to read her seminal work; I apologized to the muses of great literature for failing to make it beyond 60 pages of what has been called one of the greatest novels ever written; and I apologized to the great God of all for not keeping a promise.

Last month while adding to my Netflix queue, I discovered that Middlemarch had been done as a Masterpiece Theater series in 1994 and was available on 2 discs. I moved it to Number 1 & 2 and hoped Mr. H. C. was amenable to watching it.

I admit to having always always always decried watching the filmed version of a book, any book. From Charlotte’s Web to Empire Falls. From The Hobbit to Sophie’s Choice.

But we loved watching it.

So much that I have now downloaded Middlemarch to my Kindle, and I am now on page 137.

Perhaps that A wasn’t under false pretenses after all. At least I’ve made it past page 60.

(In case you are interested, dear reader, chapter 5 begins on page 60. Before that, chapter 4 is where Dorothea meets Casaubon at their dinner party. Like Celia, I must have been bored to tears by Casaubon…)