The day after

‘Twas the day after Thanksgiving, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Oops, wrong holiday. However, the same sentiment applies. Yesterday was a quiet, peaceful day capped with a great meal that almost everyone had a hand in making. For example, I made dessert, something I haven’t done for many years. The leg of lamb was cooked on the grill, and was really delicious. We all ate together at the table (a rarity) and had good discussions with one another (even more of a rarity) while enjoying many good things to eat.

As I write this, I was sitting alone in our living room until my wife joined me a few minutes ago. It is a fairly dreary day outside but inside is a bit brighter with the Christmas tree lit. We bought WiFi-connected electrical plugs so that I can now control the Christmas tree lighting from my smartphone. It is a nice feature yet at the same time, I wonder if it’s just the latest pinnacle of American laziness. A remote-controlled, WiFi-enabled bed frame, then a Christmas tree — what is this world coming to?

I know many people who are really struggling during this time, and my thankfulness for a quiet and peaceful holiday is tempered by that knowledge. There are so many people who are alone and lonely right now, missing departed loved ones, struggling with anxiety or dysfunction, or overwhelmed by the chaos and stress of the times we all live in. Or all of the above mixed together. Of course, there is also the travesty of hunger, the shortage of food availability in a country that is among the most prosperous the world has ever known.

My mood hasn’t been improved by reading a few opinion pieces in today’s NYT about the recent election results. Or by the fact that today, known as Black Friday, is traditionally a day where many people participate in an orgy of shopping for Christmas. It is a spectacle that is a shadow of its formal self in these Amazon-dominated times, yet still somehow makes me feel ill.

For some reason, my mind turns to a favorite, well-worn scripture:

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

Psalm 119:15 (NIV)

Flowers growing in hard places

A favorite devotional for me is L. Cowman’s Streams in the Desert. Today’s entry referenced flowers growing in hard places, and I thought it was an apt phrase for my experiences this past year. The soil of life has been spare and minimal, squeezed in between rocky, hard places. But even so, looking back, I can see flowers, bright spots, in the midst of difficulty.

One example of this is how my relationships with my wife and children have developed and grown during the enforced stay-at-home work during this pandemic. I think we are in a better place than a year ago, although I know a lot of hard work remains. A symbol of this was when one of my children decided to install the Christmas tree earlier than ever before. About a year ago, that child was in hospital during Christmas and we could not celebrate it together on that day. This year, we have a beautifully decorated Christmas tree that was put up with Christmas music playing in the background. It meant a lot to all of us to realize anew how much we have to be thankful for.

Relationships with my own side of the family have likewise grown and changed for the better. I would go so far as to say that we are closer to one another, and have shared more of our lives, than at any previous point. Rough spots remain, but I take this situation as another flower growing in hard places. As previously mentioned, this relationship growth has occurred almost entirely through the use of weekly Zoom meetings, which is remarkable.

This year, we are staying at home for Thanksgiving. Rather than let that get us down, we are rethinking the whole thing in positive ways. For example, no turkey for the Thanksgiving meal. Instead, we will have roast leg of lamb (personally, my favorite, but everyone else is enthusiastic about it as well). We will have a lot more Christmas decorations up by the time that day arrives than we’ve ever had before, inside and outside. I’m sure we will have some Zoom calls during the day to check in with family and friends as well.

Some other flowers that have grown and bloomed in hard places:

  • We bought paint in a nice blue color to paint the front door, the side door to the garage, and surrounding trim. This will be the first time we’ve ever painted them. We need to get the job done soon, though, because the weather will only get colder. When finished, it will be a huge improvement.
  • For the first time ever, soon, all of the leaves in our yard will be raked up and burned. In addition, all of the gutters and the roof are fully cleaned for winter — another first.
  • Our front deck has been thoroughly cleaned and repaired.
  • We have tiles and other repair ideas ready to go for revamping our entryway.
  • We were able to afford to have our youngest dog spayed, which will help her calm down quite a bit and hopefully cause less daily chaos.
  • I’ve applied for a new job and feel at peace about whatever happens.

There are many hard places, still, and I suspect there always will be. But it is heartening to look back and see that God is moving and guiding me to learn and grow in new ways. I am thankful.

Pine warblers, migraines, and job cuts

Friday was noteworthy because we spotted a pair of pine warblers at our feeders. As far as I know, I have never seen this type of bird before as they are not common at all around here. The pair at our feeders was likely migratory, and they didn’t stay long enough for me to get a photo, unfortunately.

Migraines are more frequent than ever and frankly are getting very tiresome. A new prescription medicine that is supposed to help is having no effect so far. I’ll just have to keep trying various solutions.

Most of my mental energy has lately been focused on the reality that there will be some job cuts at my place of work. We have a mandate to achieve a 10% reduction across the board, not just in our collections funds, but on the operational side as well. Frankly, it is gut wrenching. Of course, many other institutions of higher education are much worse off, and that helps keep things in perspective while at the same time, providing little comfort.

It appears that I have been largely proven wrong about my institution’s handling of an in-person semester. We are almost to Thanksgiving now, and the Fall semester has pretty much played out as planned and hoped for. However, the pandemic is wreaking more havoc than ever in our region and we are approaching the real possibility of another lockdown.

My family and I plan to spend the Thanksgiving holiday by ourselves. Disappointing, but necessary.

Work, work, work

A lot of physically demanding work got done this weekend, thankfully. I cleaned out the gutters, which is a dangerous thing to do when you have a two story house on a hill. But it really needed to be done since so many pine needles and leaves had long ago clogged up the downspouts. We can’t afford to install gutter guards yet, but that would be really helpful in preventing the problem.

I also finished power washing the front deck and part of the house, removing years of dirt, grime, and gunk. The front deck was especially important to finish so that the cracks in between the boards in the walkway were cleaned out to enable water to drain. Over the years, as dirt accumulated, the deck became especially slippery during wet and cold weather.

Many more things are left to complete, including painting the front door and the side door to our garage, as well as the surrounding trim. The garage needs to be cleaned out for the first time in about 15 years, as well, and there is quite a bit of yard work to finish. One of the teenagers helpfully did a lot of leaf raking and burning already, but there is more to be done.

It’s all work, work, work.

Here’s the good part, though. For the first time in years, all of this necessary work around the house seems possible and doable. That is a sign that I’m getting better, physically, and that the modest amount of exercising I’ve been doing is helping. Another positive is the weather right now, which is practically perfect in every way. Soon, the weather will turn much colder.

A bed frame behemoth

Thanks to the amazing generosity of a family member, we have a new bed frame for the first time in 20 years. And not just any old bed frame: this one has an astonishing list price and comes with multiple power and USB outlets as well as its own, dedicated smartphone app. It is also a behemoth, weighing in at well over 200 lbs. It massages, it maneuvers the head and foot of the bed into various positions, and it even makes a fresh pot of coffee on command and cures cancer. Well, not the last part, but it might as well.

What is equally remarkable is that we were able to get the thing into our house and installed in our bedroom with a minimum of people thanks to my idea to purchase a $20 thing at Menard’s called Ready Lifter. Basically, it’s a large canvas strap that can be attached to two harnesses that allows two people to lift and move heavy objects pretty easily. We’ll be using this a lot more in coming days as we continue to clean out and clean up our house to fix it up.

You know we live in strange times when a bed frame is sophisticated enough to have its own smartphone app. And the strangeness extends to the not-quite-yet-finished presidential election in the U.S. The “hanging chad” controversies of the 2000 presidential election are but a vague and far-fetched dream compared to what is currently happening. On a more positive note, I am thankful that so far, it seems like there is not as much election-related violence as feared. But there is still plenty of time for that, and I have no illusions about longer term discontent. After all, we have a popular vote count that is the highest total in history, and although there is a clear winner, the margin of victory is still uncomfortably close.

The weekend will be occupied with lots of grading, as well as further thought and work on job application essays. <sigh>

Disunited states

This long, horrible, no good election season is not over yet. Almost, but not yet. I am mildly optimistic that the current regime will be turned out of office, after all. Once again, polls are stupid. Once again, many people underestimated the depth and extent of the problem that is the people who somehow keep supporting this horrible regime.

We live in a country that makes a mockery of its name. It should instead be called the DISunited States.

I won’t claim to have foreseen this election result. Truthfully, I hoped for a landslide in favor of the other side so that the current regime would be left in no doubt about its repudiation by the vast majority of voters. Clearly, that did not happen. But in my heart, I felt it would be a close contest and am not greatly surprised by what has happened.

One bright spot is how little effect social media has had this time around — because I don’t use it. Thank the Lord for small mercies!

I keep thinking about applicable scriptures. Ever since the last election result, one Bible story that keeps coming to my mind is how the children of Israel clamored for a strong leader, and they ended up with Saul. No, the other side is not like David, but there are many other parallels in terms of the children of Israel and how things are in today’s U.S.

Obliviosity

Absence from writing here lately does not equate to lack of eventful days. Really, it just means that my mind is preoccupied with many other things and the thought of writing a blog post is somehow far from it.

Recently, I coined a new word: obliviosity. My definition: a state of not being aware or concerned with what is going on around oneself. In my experience, this state of being is commonly associated with people in leadership roles, or at least, that is where it is commonly observed. There was one person in particular, a recent supervisor of mine, who seemed to have perfected this state to such a degree that it always felt like we were talking at cross purposes. A typical scenario was when I’d say, “There is a lot of x happening,” to which this person would reply, “I’m really concerned about y and z.”

As you can imagine, it is behavior that is both disconcerting and disheartening. In darker moments, I wonder if this is a key ingredient to longevity as a leader. I sure hope not.

Turning to more mundane but less negative reflections, autumn is one of my favorite times. The beautiful color palette engenders wonder and joy. Sometimes the light is just right so that trees and shrubs become luminous, seeming to have a special glow. As I write this, we are having a smidgen of snow, even. (I love snow.)

Some extended family members have contracted COVID, and there are other ongoing health problems among them, so I’m pretty worried about all of that.

The deed is done

Last night, my wife and I drove to a nearby ballot box to deposit our mail-in ballots for the upcoming presidential election. We were greeted by a special kind of ballot box watcher. We need more of this kind of voting observer than the kind called for by the current U.S. president.

It feels good to have voted in this most difficult election time of my life so far.

More powerful than voting is prayer, which I will continue to do, to pray for change.

Yesterday was a day of lassitude, and I didn’t get anything done. That may be because of overdoing it a bit the evening before, when I went on a three mile hike at a nearby forest preserve. That is more than twice as long of a walk than I normally take, so I was pretty tired out. The autumnal colors were beautiful to see though, and the weather was near perfect.

Cleanup on the aisle of atrocities

Never in a million years did I think I’d become a fairly regular reader of that bastion of liberals and glorifier of a city I don’t even particularly like, the New York Times. Yet, here I am, reading it, without any shame or remorse.

I also never thought I’d categorize myself politically as a liberal. Such is the dramatic impact of the bizarre state of affairs in my country, especially when it comes to politics.

Sitting next to me, waiting to be filled out soon, is a mail-in ballot for the upcoming presidential election. This is the first time I will have ever used one. It’s worth noting, also, that there have not been too many elections in which I’ve voted at all. (There is a reason for that, but it’s a long story that I won’t tell here.) At this point, I’m thinking that I’ll fill out the ballot by voting for every single Democrat I can identify, I feel so strongly opposed to the Republican Party and anyone who identifies with it. Because to be a Republican today is to be a sycophant to the biggest and most dangerous phoney of our times, whether people want to admit it or not.

This morning when reading the NYT, I was particularly glad to see an opinion piece by Marilynne Robinson on the topic of the current state of the U.S. Robinson is perhaps the greatest Midwestern writer alive today, and certainly one of the best American writers, period. I have loved reading and learning from her books, and count the time when she spoke at a conference at my college as one of the best and most interesting events I’ve ever attended. Robinson is a deeply faithful person, a Christian, and a self-professed liberal. Go read her piece, which is typically thoughtful and thought-provoking, wise, and somehow ultimately uplifting.

Another piece in the NYT also caught my eye today, written by Timothy Egan, a regular columnist and another favorite author whose books I’ve enjoyed. He discusses the dangerous enabler that is our current vice president. One of Egan’s more scathing lines is that “He’s cleanup on the aisle of atrocities at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Egan argues that this guy is arguably more dangerous even than the president because he gives a faith-based gloss to everything the president does and says. I find a lot in Egan’s piece that resonates with my own assessment.

The power of observation

A powerful yet simple truth is that we learn quite a lot from observation. I’ve been thinking about that this morning, and recalling incidents in which I developed and changed over my lifetime as a result of watching others. I can recall, for example, the great power of observing my grandma kneeling at her bedside, praying. I didn’t see a lot of personal prayer time and Bible reading from my own parents (not that they didn’t do those things), and I’ve recently realized how much that impacted me when I became aware that I, too, have not demonstrated the value of those things to my own children. I tend to keep my prayer time and Bible reading very private, to myself. These are just a few examples that come to mind.

My immediate family was and is my most prominent subject for observation, and I suppose that is only natural. The ritual of making and drinking coffee is a good example of this. My parents were big coffee drinkers, and eventually we all as their children followed suit. I can recall my own children, even when they were little, wanting to drink coffee, and I think this was due in part to their observation of my wife and me as we drank our coffee every day. A more negative example is watching my father’s behavior when drinking alcohol and what that taught me about the horrors of alcoholism. To this day, I have a great fear that I’ll somehow turn out like my father.

Another aspect of this thought is the frequently used phrase that life is “caught rather than taught.” I noticed, especially during my growing up years, how different what is taught can be from what is actually done, what is observed, what is “caught.” The dichotomy between what is supposed to be and what actually is can make one pretty cynical. You tend then to be rather critical. You are reluctant to give in to belief in something or someone. I think this is largely why or how I lost the carefree, optimistic attitude of my youth.

Bottom line: live your life with the realization that others are watching. How you behave and what you do or don’t do may be a bigger influence than you think. This is not to make us paranoid and worried, like Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. (Remember the iconic line from that female creature in Monsters, Inc. who observed in her brazen accent that “I’m watching you Wazowski, always watching…”?) Recognize that what we believe is played out in what we do or don’t do in clearer ways than any lecture or moral stance can convey.

This in turn reminds me of Jesus’ words to his disciples:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:35 (NIV)

There is hardly a more important and convicting statement than that, especially in our present times.