Waiting for Spring ~ 10 things to do now

IMG_4102I was given a paperwhite bulb kit as a holiday hostess gift. Two months ago, I put the soil in the white ceramic container and planted the bulb with the pointy tip just barely peeking out. I set the pot near a window that gets plenty of direct sunlight and watered it as directed. The green stem grew quickly and produced a promising bud, but it never bloomed. I’m afraid the flower needed more sunny days than the weatherman delivered to southern Illinois this season.

As we reach the end of winter, are you feeling a little like my pitiful paperwhite ~ droopy, unproductive and bit yellow around the edges? I’ve given up hope of my paperwhite blooming, but not on spring’s arrival. Here are ten ways to get us through the final stretch while we wait.

  1. Spread some sunshine. I do my share of grumbling about the weather, but I’m challenging myself to go the whole week without complaining about it. Put a smile on your face, a spring in your step and hum that great Temptations’ classic, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
  2. Arrange some fresh flowers. It’s amazing how a bunch of inexpensive, grocery store flowers boosts my mood. Separate them into several containers or plop the whole bunch in a single vase. Flowers help us possess what French philosopher Albert Camus called an invincible summer.
  3. Do spring cleaning now. Start in the kitchen by removing everything from the cabinets and pantry. Give all the shelves a good wipe down and put everything back neatly, discarding expired items and donating things you don’t use. If you get a second wind, go through the same process in your bathrooms and closets. When warmer weather arrives, you’ll be free to go out and enjoy it.
  4. Shake up your day. Especially in the winter, we can fall into a dull and monotonous routine. For a change of pace, take a different route to work, go someplace for breakfast or coffee, bake something delicious or wear something special. Give yourself a tiny thrill to look forward to each day.
  5. Wash the car. As a child, I would often surprise my dad by cleaning his car, and it’s something I like do for my husband now. Crank the heat, climb in, and clean all the interior surfaces and windows. Pick up trash and wayward objects and vacuum the seats and floors. Go through the car wash, knowing full well you’ll hit several large muddy potholes on your way home.
  6. Escape from reality. A tropical vacation would be wonderful, but we can leave the world behind on a budget. Duck into a movie theater, stroll through a museum, wander the stacks at the library and then dive into a good book. I’m revisiting all the delightful characters in Jan Karon’s Mitford series for a second (or third) time.
  7. Plan your spring garden. Decide what plants and flowers you want to grow in your vegetable garden, flower beds and pots this year. Look at gardening books and magazines for inspiration. The photos are so beautiful you may bring them to your nose hoping to catch a whiff of sweet fragrance.
  8. Savor the sun. When the sun does make an appearance, however briefly, welcome it with open arms. Sit in a sunny window and bask in its warmth. Bundle up and take a walk. One of my favorite quirky things to do on a clear cold day is park my car in the sun and read with the heater warming my feet.
  9. Finish indoor projects. You probably made a mental list of things you planned to do while cooped up indoors this winter. Paint bathroom. File paperwork. Organize photographs. There’s still time to check off a few things before spring arrives.
  10. Enjoy the season. By this time of year, even those of us who like winter need to be reminded of its beauty. How lovely that on a dreary February day, it’s perfectly acceptable to stay in our comfy pants, curl up by the fire with a warm cup of something and dreamily wait for spring. §

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus, French philosopher

Creating Beauty this February ~ Thinking About Our Words

IMG_4297When considering how to create beauty, we may think of decorating our living room, arranging flowers or setting a table. Maybe we imagine painting a picture or playing a piano concerto. These may all be worthy pursuits, but we can create beauty simply by the words we choose to speak.

One of my goals as a middle school teacher was to create a beautiful classroom environment. I wanted our language arts classroom to be a place filled with lovely words. Of course, the best way to fulfill this goal was to let my own words model what I desired. At one time I had a poster in my classroom that read ~

Before you speak, THINK…
T – is it true?
H – is it helpful?
I – is it inspiring?
N – is it necessary?
K – is it kind? 

I admit the poster was as much for me as it was for my students. Now that I’m retired, I’ve noticed my own words have become less admirable. How easy it is to let the words that come out of our mouths create ugliness instead of beauty, especially in a world where toxic language is often the norm. It’s difficult to go through a single day without hearing words that are rude, crude, sarcastic and negative. None of this will ever create beauty ~ for ourselves or for others.

Recently, my morning devotional (once again) seemed written specifically for me. It ended with this prayer, “Lord, please put a guard and filter over my mouth and help me speak only what is edifying, uplifting and encouraging to those around me. Help me to see the good in others the way you do. Help me to highlight that which will bless another heart and make someone else’s day.”

Oh, if I could only do that how much beauty I could create in the world! Like anything that requires self-discipline, I’m taking it one day at a time. Just for today, I will think before I speak and ask myself if it is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind. §

“Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”
Proverbs 16:24

Loving the Land of Lincoln

IMG_4012Ask me who my favorite president is, and I will respond without hesitation. I feel a personal and serendipitous connection to Abraham Lincoln. Our 16th president isn’t just a distant historical figure to me; his presence has been woven into the fabric of my life since childhood.

I grew up in Mount Vernon where I attended Lincoln Elementary School. In the school’s foyer, which in my memory was quite grand, hung a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that became as familiar as a photo of a beloved relative. From kindergarten through sixth grade, I felt Lincoln’s sleepy warm eyes watching over me.

I’ve admired the man since the day my first grade teacher told a story of Lincoln working as a store clerk in New Salem, Illinois. Honest Abe accidentally short-changed a customer by a few pennies and walked several miles to return the money. The simple story cemented in my young mind the value of honesty and the integrity of Lincoln.

As a child, I was always proud to be from the Land of Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln moved with his family in 1830. He grew up poor and never had more than a year of formal education, but he studied to become a lawyer and eventually served as an Illinois state representative. Like most sons and daughters of Mount Vernon, I knew that long ago Lincoln visited our town to work at the impressive white building called the Appellate Courthouse.

It wasn’t until fifth grade that our new young teacher, Mr. Cleo Holt, captivated me with his lessons about our school’s namesake leading our country through an unfathomable time in history. The classroom faded away, as Mr. Holt passionately taught us how Lincoln was elected as president just weeks before the first state seceded from the Union, how his presidency was consumed by the brutal Civil War, how he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, gave the Gettysburg Address, won a second presidential election and was tragically shot and killed.

I left my hometown after high school and became an English teacher in Florida where schools were commonly and uncomfortably named for Confederate generals. Lincoln was with me every time I tearfully taught the poem Oh Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman. Through extended metaphor, the poem tells about the death of Lincoln just after the Civil War ended. The last lines read, “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won: Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead.”

Lincoln was with me year after year when I taught Irene Hunt’s beautiful novel Across Five Aprils which tells the story of the Creighton family who lives in Jasper County, Illinois during the time of the Civil War. The protagonist, Jethro, is only nine when the war begins. As he struggles with mixed messages from family members who support opposite sides of the war, he writes to President Lincoln. Lincoln’s kind response provides the guidance, wisdom and mercy that young Jethro is seeking. In turn, readers feel personally comforted and led by Lincoln’s words.

I felt I’d returned to my roots when I found myself teaching at Grant Middle School in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Ulysses S. Grant was, of course, a dear friend of Lincoln. The most memorable field trip I ever took with my students was to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I was touched by the incredible exhibits, particularly one that highlighted Lincoln as an imperfect man of faith whose antislavery stance grew more firm as he sought guidance from scripture. He said, “I know there is a God, and that he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me – and I think he has – I believe I am ready.”

Thomas Wolfe wrote you can’t go home again, but a couple of years ago I landed right back in Mount Vernon. I remember taking a drive to reacquaint myself with my hometown. As I turned toward the Appellate Courthouse, I saw something new to me ~ a beautiful bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln. The nine-foot-tall statue features Lincoln wearing his distinctive stove top hat and carrying a briefcase. His other hand is outstretched, as if to personally welcome me back home.

The statue, created by Ohio sculptor Alan Cottrill, portrays Lincoln as a young lawyer and is accessible to the public through the black iron gates of the Appellate Courthouse which continues to be used in the same manner as it was when constructed in 1857. An inscription explains the monument commemorates Lincoln’s visit to the courthouse in November, 1859 on behalf of his client the Illinois Central Railroad. The plaque reads, “Lincoln’s victory in this case rescued the railroad from financial ruin. If Lincoln had lost this case, the Illinois Central most likely would have been forced into bankruptcy, which would have been disastrous to the state of Illinois and its economy.”

The monument came into existence through the efforts of a local Illinois Bicentennial Committee, led by attorney Mark Hassikis. The committee secured close to $100,000 including donations from the community, commissioned the statue, and held the monument’s dedication in 2008. Hassikis also attended Lincoln Elementary School and happens to be a longtime friend of my family. I called him to chat about the statue which led down a trail of conversation about our school days, our hometown, and our mutual esteem for our 16th president. Seems I’m not the only one who feels such a nostalgic connection to Abraham Lincoln and is proud to call the Land of Lincoln home. §

“Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
~ Abraham Lincoln

Something Sublime for February ~ Friendship

IMG_4237I’ve been thinking a lot about the beauty of friendship. Our friends exist on a continuum from the most casual to the most intimate, but they all make life more worth the journey. Literature holds so many profound quotes about friendship, but I’m partial to this one from Winnie-the-Pooh, “A friend is one of the nicest things you can have and one of the best things you can be.”

A few days ago I hosted a few gal-pals to celebrate our dear friend’s 85th birthday and Galentine’s Day. The group of ladies that filled my living room ranged in age from 30 to 89. Most I’ve known my whole life but others I’ve met more recently, reminding us that a circle of friends can always get bigger. The cold and blustery day made being together feel that much warmer, and the memories will remain as sparkling as the punch, as sweet as the cake and as happy as the bouquet of flowers decorating the table.

Another day this week my husband and I attended a funeral visitation. Hundreds of people had come to say goodbye to their friend and offer condolences to her family. I was struck, though not surprised, how the line overflowed from the sanctuary and wound through the church. What a friend she must have been to her family, classmates, neighbors, co-workers, students, church, close friends and casual acquaintances. Several times I fought back tears at the example and victory of a life so well lived.

That same evening, we sat around a kitchen table playing dominoes with my lifelong friends and their dad. (I was in our friends’ wedding 37 years ago!) Our parents were all close friends for as long as we can remember, but there is only one left to play dominoes with us. I was so distracted by the bittersweet memories, I forgot most of the rules of Mexican Train and lost every single game, but it was an evening filled with the delight of friendship.

Now and then, the storm clouds of life make us especially grateful for those few special people who are there for us come rain or come shine. Just a couple of days ago, I needed to reach out to my closest crew for their support and guidance, and I only hope I can return the favor. Good old Pooh Bear said it best, “Anyone can show up when you’re happy. But the ones who stay by your side when your heart falls apart, they are your true friends.”

As good and true as friends can be, there is someone else we can always count on. As the hymn goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” I’m honored to count God among my dearest friends. I know he was there at our party, at the funeral, around the kitchen table and in that moment when everything seemed to be falling apart. “Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.” §

“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.
~ A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Speaking the Language of Love

IMG_4034Ah, love is in the air! This Valentine’s Day, Americans are expected to spend nearly $3 billion helping Cupid shoot his arrow into the hearts of those we love. That’s a whole lot of flowers and chocolate, but what if our loved ones really just want us to hold their hand, say those three little words or unload the dishwasher?

Thirty years ago marriage counselor Gary Chapman wrote a best-selling book called The 5 Love Languages. The book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 50 different languages. Chapman believes everyone gives and receives love in different ways. He asserts that we all speak one of five specific love languages and that to create loving long-lasting relationships, we must learn to speak each other’s language.

Chapman’s five love languages include words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. His theory applies to all relationships including those with friends, parents, children, siblings and even co-workers. Here’s a brief description of each love language ~

Love Language #1 Words of Affirmation ~ This language uses words to affirm other people. Verbal compliments and words of appreciation are powerful communicators of love. Chapman says they are best expressed in simple, straightforward statements of affirmation. For example you might take the time to sincerely say, “I appreciate the time you took to put together our family reunion. You did a great job.”

Love Language #2 Quality Time ~ This language is all about giving the other person your undivided attention. Chapman explains the concept means giving someone your full attention while wholeheartedly doing something they enjoy. This might mean going with them to a concert, movie or sporting event, even if that’s not your favorite thing to do.

Love Language #3 Receiving Gifts ~ For some people, receiving a heartfelt gift is what makes them feel most loved. Chapman writes, “Gifts are visual symbols of love.” The gift need not be expensive. What’s important is that you thought of that person. The gift is a tangible expression of that thoughtfulness.

Love Language #4 Acts of Service ~ For these people, actions speak louder than words. By this, Chapman means doing something for someone that lightens their load. Such actions might include cooking a meal, filling the car with gas, helping a child with homework or mowing the lawn. Chapman writes these acts of service “require thought, planning, time, effort and energy. If done with a positive spirit, they are indeed expressions of love.”

Love Language #5 Physical Touch ~ To this person, nothing speaks more deeply than a caring touch. Research shows babies who are held and cuddled develop a healthier emotional life than those who don’t receive physical contact. Many individuals feel unloved without physical touch.

If you are interested in knowing more about Gary Chapman’s work with love languages, go to 5lovelanguages.com. There you will find a love language quiz as well as other resources. By learning to recognize these preferences in ourself and those we love, we can identify the root of conflicts, connect more profoundly, and grow more loving relationships.

Before you spend the average $175 on a Valentine’s Day gift this week, consider your recipient’s love language. Maybe she really will swoon over that five-foot stuffed Teddy bear, but then again maybe she’d just like you to take out the trash. §

“The number of ways to express love within a love language is limited only by your imagination.”
~ Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages

February Presence ~ Breath Prayers

IMG_4164If you’ve ever made any effort to be more present or mindful, you’ve probably practiced deep breathing exercises. I’ve recently learned to take this idea a step further with something called breath prayer, the ancient practice of meditating on a short verse or phrase while slowly inhaling and exhaling.

I noticed the term breath prayer for the first time while re-reading Rick Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life. A little more research revealed breath prayer is a common practice, and there are many books devoted entirely to the subject. Apparently, I’ve been missing out on something pretty simple and incredibly powerful!

The beauty of the breath prayer is that it can be done any place, any time. You don’t have to be sitting in meditation, in a church pew or have your eyes closed. You can be in the car, in the grocery store, at work, in the middle of a conversation, vacuuming the living room or taking a walk.

We all know that without breath, we die, yet it’s not something we often stop and think about. Research shows breathing deeply can ~

  • calm the sympathetic nervous system
  • lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • relieve pain
  • increase energy
  • improve symptoms of depression
  • improve memory
  • reduce inflammation
  • improve core muscle stability

I turned to several sources to help me better understand breath prayer. According to Jennifer Tucker, author of Breath as Prayer (Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul), “Breath prayers combine deep breathing with prayers of meditation on God’s Word to help ease anxiety while turning your mind to Truth.”

Here is the simple process for the personal breath prayer I’ve been practicing ~                               .

  1. As I slowly and deeply inhale, I think on these words: Inhale God’s Love…
  2. As I slowly and deeply exhale, I think of these words: Exhale God’s Love…
  3. I repeat the prayer many times throughout the day. 

Here are a few other recommended scriptures and phrases for breath prayers ~

  • “Not my will…but yours be done. (Luke 22:42)
  • “May your unfailing love..be my comfort.”(Psalm 119:76a)
  • “When I am afraid…I will trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)
  • “My soul finds rest…in God alone.” (Psalm 62:1a)
  • “The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want. (Psalm 23:1)
  • “Rejoice always…pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)
  • Inhale His peace…exhale my anxiety.
  • Inhale His presence…exhale my fear.
  • More Jesus…less me.

I don’t know what you have going on today or what you might be up against, but I hope this practice brings you the peace and presence it is bringing me. §

“Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is to life.”
Jonathan Edwards, 1700s theologian

Nature’s Encouragement to Hold On


Picture the late winter landscape painted with a stark and limited palette. Only shades of black and gray are needed for wet tree trunks and the tangle of bare limbs against an endless graphite sky. A few strokes of green capture ever-faithful pines. Surprisingly, the artist needs a touch of rich copper to paint odd clusters of leaves that still hold on to branches in February.

Step into the scene and listen. Hear the brittle brown leaves shake like maracas, growing loud and lively in the blowing wind. Despite the cold, rain and snow, they dance and sing. Winter’s harshness is no match for the perseverance of these brave leaves.

There’s a scientific explanation why some trees retain their leaves through the winter. It’s called marcescence, the withering and persistence of plant organs, such as leaves, that normally shed. Here in the Midwest of the United States, this phenomenon is most obvious in deciduous trees like oak, beech and hornbeam. Not being an arborist, I see those tenacious leaves as much-needed encouragement to keep holding on.

Sometimes we hold on through a difficult time. “Holding on to hope when everything is dark, is the greatest test of faith,” said educator Yasmin Mogahed. An exhausted caregiver struggles to get through another day. A devoted student faces an all-nighter during finals week. A patient counts down the number of chemo treatments. A broken heart takes time to heal. Life has its challenges, trials and grief, but we can’t give up. We must hold on.

Sometimes we hold on in anticipation of something wonderful. A woman awaits the birth of her baby. A bride awaits her wedding day. A child awaits a birthday. A prayer is finally answered. Life is marked by joyous celebrations. The wait can be excruciating, but we have to be patient. French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote, “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.” We must hold on.

Sometimes we simply hold on for the arrival of spring. Like marcescent leaves, we bravely turn our faces to another cold, gray day and cling a little tighter. The frosty wind grabs and shakes us, but we don’t let go. We let it become the palette of the season, knowing that spring will return with all its color, just as it always does. Way back in the 1600s poet Anne Bradstreet wrote, “If we had no winter the spring would not be so pleasant.” We must hold on.

We all have seasons in our lives that we simply have to wait out with courage and hope. These waiting times may last an hour, a few weeks or even years, but we hold on we must. The penny-colored leaves that dot the winter landscape show us the way. §

“Holding-on can be a joyful ‘this is just the nature of life, so I may as well enjoy it’ kind of holding-on.”
~ Jonathan Lockwood Huie, author

February Poetry ~ a surprising choice?


When I decided to write about poetry the first Wednesday of each month this year, I thought February would be easy. Poetry books are filled with beautiful love poems that help us celebrate the season of Saint Valentine’s Day. At closer look though, many of them fell short, feeling trite, tragic or melodramatic. As important as love is, I’m taking my choice seriously here.

I almost went with a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning or another written by her husband Robert Browning. But those poems are about romantic love and, as we all know, that’s not the only kind of love that exists. It is widely thought that there are four basic types of love, which come from Greek words. Eros is romantic love. Philia is brotherly love or friendship. Storge is familial love. Agape is the love of mankind. (Hallmark is cashing in on all of them!)

As I searched for the perfect poem, a well-known scripture kept running across my mind. You’ve probably heard it recited at many a wedding. The Apostle Paul wrote it in a letter to the people of Corinth telling them their problems stemmed from a lack of love for one another.

Especially around Valentine’s Day we tend to think of love in deep, flowery and abstract ways. We like to turn love inside out and upside down making it so complicated and dramatic, so convoluted and difficult. The verses from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 do read a bit like poetry, employing literary devices including repetition, tone and rhythm.

But Paul’s lovely words offer us a practical, crystal clear list of what love is and what love is not. So when we get confused about this crazy little thing called love, these poetic verses make for a simple, holistic and beautiful reminder.

Love is patient, love is kind.

It does not envy,
it does not boast,
it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others,
it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

Love never fails. §

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
~ 1 Corinthians 13:13