Resolved: The Unplanned New Year

The best resolution I ever heard was from my middle son when he was about eight. After explaining what resolutions were and why people made them, I asked him what he wanted to do in the new year. His response? “Have fun.”

The most interesting time of year might just be now, when people decide the lives they are living are deficient in some ways and overabundant in others. To wit: resolutions. New calendars. A whole new set of twelve pristine months in which to beat ourselves up over goals we set while listening to the top-100 songs of the past year with the Year In Review Time Magazine lying next to the sparkling white pages of the upcoming unsullied year.

Resolutions to have more fun. Watch less TV. Get IT together. Lose weight. Buy organic. Quit smoking. Volunteer more. Get a different job. Drink less. Go back to school. Start a garden. You’ve heard them all. You’ve probably made some of these resolutions yourself.

got it togetherIn my younger years, when I demanded a lot from myself and even more from others, I also hopped on this bandwagon. (NB: Being highly, unremittingly demanding of anyone, even one’s self, is a recipe for disaster, but that’s a topic for another day.) New Year’s Day found me starting a new journal with outlines of what I needed to accomplish in the next 365 days. Such outlines included projections, charts, deadlines, pictures, and even punishments and rewards for when I failed to or actually achieved these things. Those journals now have the first ten pages ripped out and are sitting on my shelf waiting to be repurposed.

In my forties, I sent the resolution bandwagon on ahead without me. And, you know what’s interesting? I have gotten more done in the past seven years than any of the years when I wasted those journals. I have made some purposeful steps; some of them at the outset of the year, but many of them as they came, as the opportunity presented itself.  I bought a house; accepted a new position at school; taught a new class; made new friends; spent more time with friends deepening relationships; cleaned out boxes of junk (literally and metaphorically); made peace with the past; learned meditation. These things didn’t just happen, but I had them in the back of my mind, and as the year progressed so did I. No resolutions needed.

Last year, I started the year purposefully — with a word. Change. 2014 was going to be a year of change; it was time for me to unstagnate, move forward. Nothing was written down; no calendar was set; only a general idea was in my mind, but I worked bit by bit in an uncalendared way on making changes. And, you know what? It worked.

Don’t get me wrong, I planned. Man did I plan – but only when I needed to –  to move; to renew my teaching certificate; to take my son to college. Other times, I just had a general idea or no idea at all and that opened up my life.

The I-have-a-calendar-but-I-only-look-at-it-occasionally approach has allowed me to sit with friends in the hospital, commiserate with those facing troubles, accept invitations for drinks, help the neighbor rake his lawn, sleep in, and bake treats for colleagues. At the same time, taking an unoutlined, uncharted, semi-purposeful approach to life has opened my eyes not only to the evolution of my own life, and rather than bemoaning a missed workout or a failure to rise early on Saturday, I have had time see and rejoice in my friends’ opportunities and changes. By not being too committed to things that I decided were important one day at the very start of the year, I have had the privilege to be a part of and see my friends rediscover lost passion, change the course of their careers, more fully invest in their families, move across the country, find new love, lose weight, start a new hobby, recover from illness, celebrate birthdays…the list could go on.

I have always been in awe of people who have a specific calendar and stick to it. In fact, I have aspired to that kind of organization and purposefulness. My mother has kept a kitchen calendar (she calls it her “book”) as long as I can remember. My mother writes down not only birthdays, but also when she is buying cards and gifts and when she is sending them. She keeps track not only of people’s birthday, but also of their ages. Mom writes in reminders of when family members have died, or “left us” – the term she prefers.  She even writes L/S on every day of the year, reminding herself to do laundry and plan supper. Every day of the year.

I am not my mother. This apple not only fell far from the tree, but also rolled down the hill, across the road, and under the fence. I now get birthday gifts on time for everyone, but some days you might find me thinking that popcorn at 9pm is a perfectly legitimate supper. I don’t plan my life with a calendar or with a set of resolutions charted on December 31.


So, whether or not you make resolutions and keep a calendar, here’s to the messiness of life, to all the celebrations, new friendships, poetry readings, hand-holding, driveway shoveling, unforeseen messes, late-night conversations, silly text messages, brunches, tears, bestsellers, cross-country road trips, comfort foods, springtime flowers, cocktail hours, kisses, homemade soup, fall leaves, vacations at the lake, new hobbies, old friends reunited, snowmen, sold houses, new wardrobes, art projects, concerts, and cake.

May 2015 be filled with unexpected and unplanned beauty.

Oh, and make sure to have fun!





Um, No. A Minor Reflection on Wife Points and Charity

Youngest son and I were having late lunch out after his show choir performances yesterday. The restaurant was airy and sparsely populated. Seated near the servers’ station, I overheard an exchange between two female servers and one male server.

Red-haired female: “He uses a points system. It’s wife points.”

Blonde female: “What???”

Red-Hair: “It’s like this, if I like do something for him I get wife points. Like if I make dinner or do laundry, he gives me points. After I get so many points then he like takes me out to dinner or something.”

Blonde: Are you fucking kidding me? (looks at male for agreement)

Male: “Hmph.” (walks away)

Red-Hair: “Yeah, it’s like totally normal.”

Blonde: “That is totally sexist.” (walks away)

Normal? Probably not. Healthy? Definitely not.

I don’t know much about being successfully married; just five years ago you could have heard me saying to anyone who would listen, “I don’t know how to be married.” My kind friends would respond, “You just don’t know how to pick a person worth marrying.” Even kinder friends would nod and offer me another glass of wine.

It’s true. Based on my experiences thus far in life, I am not a fan of nor successful with marriage. Despite a wide variety of examples in my family and among my friends, I would not presume to tell Red-Hair what does make a happy marriage. However, I am confident enough in my knowledge, experience, and the holes in both that I will say: wife points are not the way to go.

scoreboardI have a wide range of rich friendships, and I might assert that marriage is a special kind of friendship. You probably don’t keep friend points, do you? Neighbor points? Family points? Pet points? If, perhaps, you do keep score in some way, how do you know if you’ve won? When does the game end? We are here to care for each other not to keep score.

Around the holidays in  America we are encouraged to give to charities and take extra care of those less fortunate. In Augusta, the local paper has a donation drive to help provide Christmas foods and presents for the underprivileged. In Cedar Rapids, I know a local auto dealer solicits letters nominating those who struggle or go above and beyond; then, the dealership gives them specific help or gifts to brighten their holidays.

The National Philanthropic Trust states that Americans gave just over 335 billion dollars to charity in 2013. That does not account for those who don’t ask for a receipt, those who give their time, or those who help out their neighbors. How much was it worth when our neighbor and his son came around after the ice storm last year, cut up everyone’s fallen branches, and hauled them to the curb? Is there a way to measure the value of taking care of a friend’s pets while he is hospitalized? How many points should I give to my friend who let my son stay overnight with her so I could travel overseas? How do you measure the casseroles and love delivered to a house grieving a death?

Nietzsche statement that, “Man is the cruelest animal.” We certainly can see evidence of that in our world lately: from Ukraine to Ferguson to Syria to Portland to Sierra Leone to Kabul. There is horror all around; but, within the horror we latch on to hope.  Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2014? The Ebola Fighters. One of my friend’s husbands paid off layaway for several people. A man in Norway saved a drowning duck.

Novelist Taylor Caldwell said, “I like animals because they are not consciously cruel and don’t betray each other.” I’m reminded of the backyard we had years ago where a one-eyed cat, a dog, two ducks, and a multitude of squirrels lived peacefully if antically together.

I would offer that I like humans because they are capable of sitting by hospital bedsides; they run to the store for neighbors when a blizzard is on the way; they send texts of encouragement; they advise you when your marriage falls apart; they rescue animals; they buy a coffee for the car behind them; they care for the deathly ill half a world away from home; they try to make it all work.

Of course, there are those who ‘keep track’ or feel indebted or owed; some of them even keep wife points. (Something the four-times married Caldwell might take issue with.) Insecure? Unhappy? Controlling? Cruel? Perhaps. Imbalanced? Most likely.

Although an imbalance in the world can result in upsetting even devastating responses, the results can also overflow with beautiful generosity leading to understanding, kindness, and hope.



It’s Okay to Look Away

We have all been driving, going along our merry way, when traffic slows and halts. Something has happened to interrupt the flow of our travel. Undoubtedly many of us are guilty of gawking: the stalled semi; the fender bender; or, God forbid, the kind of thing where Life Flight was called in.

Our country needs some kind of Life Flight; in the past two weeks in Ferguson and Staten Island; in follow up to August in North Carolina. I’m not a news junkie. I don’t take a daily paper. I do not watch the evening news. Still, I have been riveted to learning as much as I can about these three cases. But, I have to look away. It’s too much.

The violence. The race issues. The protests. The outcries. The deniers. The blame. The death. The excuses.

Before you write me off, stick with me a few minutes. I’m not going to tell you it’s the holiday season so be happy, be compassionate, and buy nice presents. Neither am I going to analyze the news of the aforementioned situations. I’m not going to point out cat videos or cow pictures on Face Book to divert you from the multitude of issues that surround the working (or lack thereof) of grand juries and the legal system.

I am going to say: there are a lot of things happening in this world right now.  And, it’s okay to take a breath.

Let’s take a peek:

1. In the New York Times today there was a correction that the Royal Desert Forces in Jordan carry ghee, not lard as was reported in an article last week. Who cares? Why does this even need to be corrected? Because the difference between ghee (clarified butter) and lard (often rendered from pork) is significant to Muslims around the world.

Not impressed? I wasn’t really, either. But, it was interesting and I needed to look away.

2. The 2014 Notable Book List has been released. There’s something for everyone there. May I recommend Bone Clocks by David Mitchell? Perhaps a tome that’s not on this list, but has my rapt attention at the moment: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund? Or, Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan if you’re in the mood for lighter verse. Want to see what kids are reading? Look here.

I needed to read words that were not vitriolic and divisive and mongering. I had to look away.

3. Newcastle ended Chelsea’s unbeaten run. Soccer, folks. Check it out. I don’t follow soccer except in World Cup years, so this served as a diversion. It’s very European.

It helped me look away.

4. Hey, did you know that Ebola is not over? I know American reporting has moved on – for the moment- but, Ebola is still a real issue.  On the front page of today’s New York Times you can see what I’m talking about. There are very real people dying. An empty clinic. Delayed blood testing.

Horrifying. But, we need to be reminded that just because it’s not on the front page of the Gazette or Chronicle, does not mean cures have been found and all is well.

5. Locally, New Pioneer Food Co-op is opening a new store in Cedar Rapids. This is a great place to browse, get a snack, and do some healthful shopping. You can become a shareholder, too.

Like I said, I had to look away.

But here’s the thing: I also have to look back. I can’t just push Ferguson and Staten Island out of my mind and go about business as usual. Yes, these incidents will fade from our collective consciousness, but they should not. Even someone as innocuous as I am must face what has been happening and what continues in our country. I have to make the lives lost and the forces that took these lives and the disregard for these lost lives some part of my personal story. I am a human being and that which happens to one happens to all.

My sister, an historian and political scientist, had Martin Niemoller’s quotation on her refrigerator at her home and in her university office:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are all connected. Like me, you may need to look away for a minute. Please don’t forget to look back. Violence and social justice and race are part of our times. Our lives. Our country. Our shared history. This matters. You matter.

What happens in this world matters.