A Christmas of Tears

A lot of folks joke about "homemade" presents, but I'm a big fan. If I had the time and didn’t wallow in procrastination, I would be able to make all my Christmas gifts each year. This year I unfortunately made nothing - but the kind of gifts I received this year can’t be bought. And, coincidentally, they all involved the word “Daddy.”

My sister, bless her soul, has been spending countless hours working on our family genealogy on our father’s side. Unlike our mother with her close family, Daddy (who died at age 64 in 1980) presented us with only one memorable relative - his mother, who died when we were adolescents, so we didn’t know her that well. Our dad, as I’ve posted before, was one of a kind. His experiences in life gave him a social conscious that became his passion and directed his choices. In his life, he did everything from touring in a bell ringer group to being a clerk in the army to being a choir director for decades. What led up to this remarkable man’s life? Who are the people and what are the events that shaped his mind? My sister, using Daddy’s journals and detailed records, went on a fascinating journey, starting in 1747 when Thomas Tiffin was born “somewhere in North Carolina.” Every once in a while she would send me e-mails of various facts she had learned, and I had often wished I had them compiled in a chronological story format to enjoy. She gave me that this Christmas in a book she created, including family history up to our current kids and grandkids, with scanned photos ancient and new. She did all the work and I (and future generations) get to reap the benefits. What a gift! What a treasure! I cried, of course.

Then my daughter and her husband worked tirelessly to transfer our silent home movies (from the ‘50s through the ‘70s that my father took) from VHS to a digital format, burned onto DVDs. She gave them to me with a poignant letter about how watching every minute of these hours of family history affected her, how she realized she had been born into a family that loved each other, and loved her. She said she cried many times during the process. She cried tears of joy that she had been born into such an environment, and she cried tears of sadness that my Daddy, her grandfather, died a month before she turned 2 years old, and she described the heartbreak of never knowing him - and that this gift of home movies was basically his gift to her almost 30 years after he left this earth. I got a double gift - the gift of my precious home movies in a format that assures their continued existence, and the gift that my daughter had such an emotional reaction realizing how blessed our family has been. She wrote, “It was surreal to see my parents get married, my pregnant mother walk around, and to see Papa stroke my baby back and Paw-Paw tickle my baby feet...I can only hope that one day my girls will remember their childhood and family as fondly.” She cried when she presented it to me, and I cried when I received it.

Finally (besides giving me comfy gloves and slippers that I needed desperately) my son and his wife presented me with the ultimate homemade gift when they told us recently that Sarah was pregnant with their first child which will be born this summer! More tears of happiness from me - and I still can hardly believe that my “baby” is going to be a daddy, and that around July 2010, I will get to hold our third beloved grandchild.

I cried a lot this Christmas season. I was blessed to see the march of time from 1747, through my father’s exceptional life, through the growing-up years of my sister and me, then through making preparations to welcome a new baby to the family and beyond. I got to travel through memories of the past and hopes and dreams of things to come. I found it highly appropriate that this Christmas, I felt a little like Scrooge and his whirlwind journey through time.

All the money in the world could not buy the “homemade” gifts I received this Christmas of 2009!

Two years and counting

I used to love Cokes. Occasionally I’d drink Dr. Pepper, Sprite, or even Pepsi, but Coke was my lifeline. I’d guess I used to drink at least a bottle or two a day. Since I have always hated coffee, Coke provided that caffeine for me.

I write about Cokes in the past tense because as of yesterday, December 20, 2009, I have been without a Coke for 2 years. It doesn’t sound like much, considering Ed has been sober for 25 years, but it’s a big thing for me. This time in 2007, I just finally decided that Cokes had no redeeming value (hey, even ice cream has calcium!) and no telling what the high-fructose was doing to me, so I quit cold-turkey.

Standing here in 2009 and looking back, I can’t believe I managed to do it. I understand one of the difficulties in giving up cigarettes, because I now have to drink something else with fast food, with pizza, first thing in the morning, and all the other times Coke was by my side.

The older I get, the more excited I become when I do something or overcome something that I just knew I couldn’t do or overcome. You’d think by age 55 I would know more of myself and my capabilities, but I’m constantly learning. Of course, I have a ton of bad habits and personal weaknesses to work on - but to say that in December 2009 I’ve been without Cokes for 2 years? That brings a smile to my face!

I think I’ll celebrate - with a Coke! (Just kidding!)

First class recorded and Gawd 'elp yer

The British postal service, so people are fond of saying, is the best in the world. If that’s the case, heaven help you if you live in the rest of the world!

This year has seen a series of postal strikes, half-cocked and intermittent: I am not sure what they resolved, if anything, but perhaps they made somebody feel better.

Meanwhile naturally, the delivery service was (as planned) seriously disrupted – though to be fair it was not always that easy to tell.

Back in May my daughter Grace planned a home birth at the little house where her sisters live in St Leonards-on-Sea. Accordingly, since the birth was to take place in my bed there, I sent for two spare sheets, a waterproof terry-towelling mattress protector, and a set of similar protectors for the six pillows. They did not arrive. The ebay vendor from whom I had purchased them, a philosophical type well-acquainted with the British postal service (the best in the world), expressed no surprise, and dispatched a second set with good success, by private courier.

In the anxious time awaiting the arrival of the original set, I quizzed the postie several times. They were, he said, all at sixes and sevens in the sorting office. The parcel might eventually get through. Or it might not. To my wondering aloud whether I should walk over to the sorting office and investigate, he responded with an emphatic negative: 'I wouldn't do that if I were you!'
That was a large parcel. What on earth did they do with it? I can understand delay and confusion – but even a sorting office is only a box, not a wormhole in the solar system. If they have a parcel there, surely at some point it must come to light? If they have a habit of absorbing non-delivered parcels, surely the building must eventually reach capacity? How odd.

More recently, one of my family at that same little house was approached by the postie while she was waiting at the bus stop. ‘There’s no-one in at home,’ he remarked: ‘I’ve put your parcel in the black bin to save time’. She had no idea what he meant. Afraid of appearing foolish, she nodded and smiled as one does, and assumed he had taken the parcel away and fed it into a separate section of the system. The following day, when emptying her rubbish, something caught her eye at the bottom of the dustbin. Only then did she realize that the postie had actually deposited her parcel in the rubbish bin, ‘to save time’! What?!?

The postie likes my girls. Just as well. He is meant to deliver only letters and packets, but the other day he brought round a parcel, explaining that it had been sitting on the shelf at the sorting office for a week, but the man who was supposed to bring it couldn’t be bothered, so he thought he’d pop it in his own bag and deliver it. To reiterate: heaven help the rest of the world!

This December I have bought a number of items from ebay. In the main they are trickling through eventually. Yesterday a parcel was brought to my door. I live in a typical English street, smallish houses in rows, odd numbers down one side of the street, even numbers down the other side. My house is number 18. The delivery man asked if I would take in a parcel for the lady next door. I did not have my glasses on or look at the label, but said I would. I asked which next door, and he spoke confirming his earlier jerk of the head – it was intended for Sylvia at No 20. She was surprised when I took it round later, as she had not been expecting a parcel. Inspection revealed it to be for No 21 – which is some way down the street on the other side. I took it over. The householder laughed. ‘I’ve got one for No 10,’ he said. The day before, I took in a parcel that I was assured was for me. It turned out to be destined for the old people's home.

Feeling nervous about my ebay packages, which are late arriving as might be expected in this pressured time of year approaching Christmas, I looked at the receipt for the most important of the parcels now several days delayed, and felt relieved to discover that a tracked delivery mode had been selected, and a tracking number provided.

I went to the Royal Mail website and entered the tracking number, hoping to be reassured that something was known about my parcel, and it was at least possible to verify its passage through the system. Nothing in my imagination could have prepared me for the (automatically generated) response to my tracking enquiry; which was that this particular category of tracked mail could be tracked only after it had already been safely delivered.

I say again; if the British postal system is the best in the world, Heaven help the rest of you.
Almost every year on the first Sunday in January, someone asks at church if we have made New Year resolutions and, if so, what they were.

Every year I think, ooh what a good idea – but haven’t made any resolutions, and then my mind goes blank; and apart from vague aspirations towards slimming, nothing occurs.

So I thought this year I’d think about it in advance, and accumulate a few resolutions for 2010. So far I have 3.

I read a thing once that Wayne Dyer said. He explained that psychologists assert that human beings are not capable of doing things they think are not good. They might do things they think would be bad if someone else did them, or think they do it only because they have no choice, or that the exceptional circumstances make it the right thing to do this time only – but they will always convince themselves that what they are doing is, at least on this one occasion, good. So Wayne Dyer said that people – even quite abhorrently awful people – are always doing the best they are capable of with the information they have at the present time, however deeply flawed their reasoning. People change by enlightenment, by embracing a different conceptualization. How the Bible puts it is: ‘Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds’. So berating and accusing never works; only new understanding changes things, and people are always more open to new understanding when they feel safe and relaxed rather than defensive and under attack. My first resolution is to hold in mind that all people are always doing the best they know with the information they currently have. I hope this will help me to criticize less, blame less, and go my way in a more peaceful manner.

Trees are vital to human wellbeing and the future of Planet Earth. There’s a DiscWorld novel which involves a special book that is believed to be precious because through this Book people will be saved. I haven’t read this story, only had it recounted to me, but I understand that there comes a point in the narrative where two characters are stranded at night in the open, very cold. The only thing they can do to keep warm is burn the book. So it turns out their salvation was indeed in the book – but not in the way they think. I’m really interested in the Christian tradition of referring to the Cross as ‘the Tree’. It’s seen as a Tree of Life because of Jesus’ life-giving sacrifice. Crucifixes depict Christ’s passion & death, and so create a legacy of an image showing salvation as a man who stands for the whole human race pinned firmly to a saving Tree. And that’s oddly true for everyone without exception whether they believe in the Christian gospel or not. It’s still true that our future is pinned to the future of the tree: without trees, people have no hope. The Man and the Tree – in that union is salvation. So my second resolution is wherever I can to make choices that support the continuing existence and well-being of trees. I am going to make nut roasts a lot, and eat nuts for snacks. I’m going to choose fruit that grows on trees – apples, pears, cherries, plums, bananas, dates, figs. Some essential oils come from trees without harming the tree, I think; and same with maple syrup. So we can develop a tree-friendly home. We’re going to plant in our garden three apple trees and a pear tree, a silver birch and a walnut tree. There’s going to be a Michael tree too, for Grace’s child (my grandson). This was a thought of his father, Clay; to have a tree in a pot that would grow alongside the child, eventually to be planted out when they can afford their own place. Tony is going to start donating to tree-planting organizations because of the carbon emissions from his necessary car travel while he still works in Oxford. I will try to find out about firewood sources that come from coppiced woodland – there’s lots of it in Sussex, and though it involves cutting a tree down, it’s part of a managed cycle that protects the future of the woodlands. You can buy BBQ charcoal sourced in the same way, from local woodlands, here.

I have my usual general aim – to explore more deeply into simplicity. The last few years I was concentrating on cutting down my possessions and taking up less space; also on using less electricity and gas (thermos cooking etc). I did quite well. There were some BIG decisions, like moving to live in a shared home, and not running a car. Recently I bought an electric machine for making my tea in the morning while Tony is away. That didn’t fit the general programme! I’m not sure I’ll keep it over time, but I’m certainly appreciating it at the moment! But for my third resolution, this year I’d like to concentrate on developing a life that uses less and less money. My life here in Hastings is part of my response to the Word of the Spirit within me when I asked the question (repeatedly, over about 2-3 years) ‘What was I sent here to do?’ Though writing books fits in with what I was sent here to do, because I was sent to teach and guide and share the things I notice, I was also sent for a ministry of love and kindness, making a home where people are welcomed and sheltered, encouraged and healed. That’s a groovy ministry, but there’s not much money in it – so it’s important I now start to learn how to live with very little money. Up to now, though I’ve lived simply, I haven’t been especially careful with money – just earned more when I needed more. I don’t use up a lot of money by general modern standards, but there’s a lot of margin for shrinking that right down – so it will be an interesting experiment.

Well, those are my resolutions so far. Maybe I’ll think of some more, but real ones, not pointless ones just to make up a list.

A lesson in lenses

Part of the advice given to the newbie medical transcriptionist from the experienced transcriptionist is usually, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more and realize what you don’t know.”

Rachel found that out this week. She got glasses. She used to wear glasses for a short period of time as an adolescent, but thinking she didn't really need them, she quit wearing them. She seemed to do fine with school and everything else - graduated from high school and college with excellent grades, went into teaching, etc. Recently, however, she is feeling her “old age” of 31, she says, and she realized she was having trouble reading fine print. She made an ophthalmology appointment and lo and behold, she needed glasses. She told me that she was shocked when, after receiving her new glasses, what a difference it made. The clerk asked her to read a sample of fine print with her glasses, then asked her to read it without the glasses. Rachel was amazed in the difference in clear vision and blurred vision. She didn’t know what she was missing until she saw clearly.

Ed said when he first got glasses as a child, he finally realized the things he had missed seeing. Once he realized what sharp vision was like, he understood what poor vision was like. Until that happened, he assumed he was seeing the same way as everyone else.

Both Ed and Rachel “didn’t know what they didn’t know” until the situation changed and their eyes were opened, so to speak. Assumptions can be a dangerous part of life. Like Ed who assumed his vision was supposed to be that limited, we are often so darn sure of what we think we “know” until something happens to challenge our perspective.

Ed and I have gotten into the habit of doing the crossword puzzle in our daily newspaper. In yesterday’s puzzle, I had one of those words that I absolutely knew fit the clue. The number of letters fit, the middle letter fit, and the whole word was a sure thing. I penciled that word in and tried to work around it. Then I got to a point where I was stuck. Some of the words I was lettering in didn’t make sense. It got to be very frustrating. Finally after a good deal of time, I realized by trial and error that the very word I had put down in the beginning, the sure bet, the word I just knew was the right one, was - of course - wrong. Once I got the right word, everything else fell into place.

You’d think we humans would have become smart enough and wise enough to realize we don’t know everything. One of my favorite movies is “Christmas in Connecticut.” The heroine has been living a life totally incongruent with her real identity. She is a magazine feature writer who writes about her life - and claims to live on a farm in Connecticut, cook divinely, is the perfect homemaker and wife and mother. In real life, however, she lives in an city apartment, is single, has never been to a farm (much less lived on one), and can’t even boil water. The trouble starts when her publisher decides to visit “her farm” for Christmas and despite our heroine's desperate attempts to maintain the farce, keeping up appearances becomes harder and harder until it all blows up. She gets fed up with the mess she has caused by pretending to be something she is not. She says in essence how she is disgusted with herself because she appears to have all the answers, and everybody believes that, but in reality really she is clueless. She got tired of being expected to know everything and having to pretend she did.

Yet we still fight on to preserve our way of thinking, even if our basic assumption is as unworkable as my “sure thing” word in my crossword puzzle. We are so stubborn (or arrogant) sometimes to think we have life down pat, we know more than anyone else, we have nothing to learn, and frequently that stubbornness gets us in tight spots because we refuse to let go. When we start out with a false assumption as our foundation, and build from there, the life we are building always topples in some way and we have to start over. Also, when we are so sure of our thinking and pathway, we are blind to life’s little pleasant surprises when they appear. Whether we are politicians, preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or dishwashers, a sense of humility is always appreciated. Even if you are one of the world’s expert in one thing, I can guarantee you there are thousands of more things you don’t know or understand - the preferred outcome being, of course, that you become wise enough to “know you don’t know.” I don’t think we can even look at the universe and think we know all the answers. Without humility, there can be no awe.

It is true that the longer I am a medical transcriptionist, the more I realize I don’t know about anatomy, body systems, instrument names, medicines, and everything else. And that is, as Martha Steward would say, "a good thing." It shows I am growing in wisdom, I am ready to learn, I never become so rigid that I let self-confidence become arrogance, and I never lose my respect for the complexity and miracle of life itself. Sometimes you see clearly and realize your vision was always flawed before - or you keep insisting you see fine and don't need any changes. Sometimes you figure out substituting one word for another in the crossword puzzle can alter the whole outcome - or you throw the whole paper away in frustration because you can't grasp the possibility that the answers you are so sure of may be wrong. Sometimes you can realize your weakness, swallow your pride and say, "I'm sorry...it was my fault...please forgive me" - or you can be stubborn and defend your actions to the grave.

These are the choices we have in life. The hymn I sang at my dad's funeral was "Be Thou My Vision." Sometimes a new way of looking at things can make all the difference.