Category Archives: Musings

Chutes and ladders and the spiritual life

 

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This has to be one of the simplest games ever invented.  You spin, move your token, and if you land on good action (like rescuing a kitten from a tree), you go up the ladder; if you land on a bad action (like stealing a cookie), you go down the chute.

I hadn’t played this game in decades, until my kids spotted it in the closet at my parents’ house and wanted to get it out.  So lately, we’ve had a few Chutes and Ladders tournaments chez Moyer.  I will admit that it’s not the most intellectually gripping game — perhaps only CandyLand exceeds it for its totally stultifying lack of strategy — but it is strangely addictive.

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And I’m grateful for it, because it has given me a little spiritual food for thought.

As my summer vacation gets under way, and now that I’m not spending hours teaching, planning, and grading, I find I’m thinking more deeply about my daily habits.  What are the things I do that make me grounded, more mindful, more healthy?  What are the things I do that don’t?

The whole point of the game is that our actions have consequences.  Obviously, this is a point that kids need to learn – you lie to your teacher, you miss recess; you help your mom without asking, she rewards you with a huge hug and maybe an extra dessert.  But I’m embarrassed to admit that at the age of 43, I still struggle at times to accept that my actions lead to effects that I may not want.  I often know what I should do to reach my goals, but — due to inertia, or lethargy, or stubbornness – I choose the opposite.

What does my own personal Chutes and Ladders board look like?  Well, much like this:

Spend too much time on social media rather than reading a good book: slide down the chute and go to bed with the niggling feeling that I’ve wasted the evening.

Get up early to exercise: climb the ladder and feel healthy and energized all day

Stay up way too late watching Netflix: slide down the chute and feel like death warmed over the next morning

Make time for writing or prayer, or writing AS prayer: climb the ladder and stay in touch with the core of  who I am (with the added bonus of finding a gem of an idea for the next writing project)

I know, of course, that life isn’t quite as easy as a board game.  There are plenty of situations where I make thoughtful choices and end up taking bad tumbles just the same, through no fault of my own.  Likewise, we’ve probably all had that experience of suddenly getting a huge blessing or gift that we’ve done nothing to earn (in the biz, I believe that’s called “grace”).   Sometimes, there is no cause/effect we can control. Period.

But often there is, especially when it comes to the daily routines and habits that define me.   And that’s why this summer, with a lot more free and thinking time on my hands, I’m going to do some extra discernment about which things lift me up, and which drag me down.

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Because don’t we all want that good feeling of rescuing the kitten from the tree and climbing up to the sky, our new best friend by our side?

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An ordinary extraordinary life

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Ruth.  She was born in 1919 in Brooklyn; when she was seven, her family  moved cross-country for her father’s job (he was a cinematographer for early Hollywood).

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926.

It was a job that involved travel but also risk.  He died when Ruth was eleven, of illness contracted while filming a movie in Borneo.

Though Ruthie grew up without a father, she had a devoted mother and sister, and many happy childhood memories.  As a teenager, she met a fellow student, Baxter, and they became high school sweethearts.

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Baxter, a gifted artist, taught himself how to make cameos so he could make one of Ruth’s profile (I will pause while you swoon).  He wanted to give it to her as a ring but her mother thought a high school girl was too young to accept a ring from a boy, so he made it into a necklace for her instead.

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A few years later, they got engaged.  They were married in 1941.

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They loved squaredancing and boats.  They loved family, and created one of their own:  one girl and three boys.

Squaredancing, 1950

Squaredancing, 1950

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1958

Eventually they settled in Santa Barbara, in a small tract home.  Their two older children married; grandchildren came into their lives.  Then, in 1973, Baxter died suddenly of a heart attack while on a Boy Scout hike with his two youngest sons.  In her early fifties, Ruth was a widow, navigating life without her beloved soulmate.  Always a homemaker, she suddenly had to enter the workforce (she worked as a baker in the  local junior high school cafeteria) while raising two teenage boys.

And that was what she was doing when I first was old enough to know her: Ruth Elizabeth Stuart Adams Wolf, my grandmother.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been wanting to write this post for the past two weeks, ever since Grandma died on April 13th.  It’s felt a bit daunting, though, because I want more than anything to do my grandma justice.  And since she passed away, I’ve spent so much time reviewing her life and my experiences of it, and trying to put into words just why she was such a special lady, beloved by many.

In the process, I’ve been thinking about what just it means to live a meaningful life.  What sort of impact do we leave on the world?  When we die, what is taken out of the world?   When we go, what do people remember and miss?

By one measure, my grandma’s life wasn’t  notable.  She never had more than a high school education.  She did not have an impressive resume.  She never made a large salary.  Her world was very small; it was a big, BIG deal when we took her on a trip to England in 1996 (her ancestral homeland).  But she was perfectly happy with what she did have.  Few things gave her more pleasure than her little house, surrounded by garden. She was a fantastic baker and an accomplished seamstress and knitter.  I have homemade scarves, needlepoint, dolls that she has made for me over the years.

As small as her world was, though, her death has been felt like an earthquake by her family.  We all feel like the ground has come out from underneath us.

Because Grandma was always there: a rock that didn’t move even when everything around her did.  Her home, the home in which she was still living at the age of ninety-seven, was the place you went back to for holidays or for family get-togethers.  She’d have the Snickerdoodles baked for you, would serve you tamale pie.  For breakfast she’d have these Swedish coffeecakes that were like heaven in your mouth.  She was always glad to see you.

Grandma's snickerdoodle recipe

Grandma’s snickerdoodle recipe

At various points over the years, when family members were in transition or crisis of one kind or another, she’d give up the spare room and welcome them home.  Coming home was like entering a museum of your own life; the walls of her home were plasted with framed photos, and she created volume upon volume of photo albums, carefully documenting the lives of her four kids and grandkids and great-grandkids.    And in her own quiet, understated way, she had your back – always.  It was a family joke that if you said anything critical of Grandma’s kids, she would never forget. Her kids and their kids were her raison  d’être.  She believed in them – us – fiercely, always seeing potential.

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Others were the recipient of her kindness, too.  Every Christmas, she’d put together baggies of homemade cookies for the Arrowhead water delivery man, the postal carrier, the men who picked up her garbage.  At her celebration of life last weekend, I met her next door neighbors, who moved in last year from out-of-state.  They told me that Grandma had come over and said she wanted to host a coffee for them, so they could get to know the neighbors.   “We were so touched,” said the wife.  “No one does that kind of thing anymore, but your grandmother did.”   At age ninety-six, she was still spreading the welcome in the way she knew best: with homemade cookies and an open door.

And Grandma had a great sense of humor too.  She was a huge fan of the Martha Stewart show years ago and watched it religiously.  When Martha was arrested for insider trading, Grandma was indignant.  She proudly wore an apron my uncle had bought her:   FREE MARTHA it said on the front.  Seeing that slogan on my gray-haired eighty-something grandmother was a sight that will always make me smile.

But though Grandma was so many things to so many people, she was the most modest person you can imagine.  And I’ve been thinking about how she represented the polar opposite of the selfie culture of today, in which we put ourselves out there constantly, hungry for recognition and approval and likes.  Grandma didn’t need recognition and approval and likes. The doing of a thing was its own reward.  She lived quietly, happy with her home and garden and family.  She didn’t need or want anything more.  It strikes me that this is an increasingly rare quality.

Moving into the house, 1961

Moving into her new house, 1961

To see everyone who gathered last weekend was quite something.  More than eighty-five people came to her home, the small happy home in which she lived for fifty-five years, the home in which she died.  We shared food and stories and memories and laughs and tears.  And Grandma’s spirit was so very much there; alive, actually, in all the people who were shaped by her example and absorbed the lessons she quietly taught.

So no: she didn’t make a lot of money or have an impressive degree or a long resume.  But she did make a home that, for decades, has been a place of peace and welcome.   She had four children whose devotion to her knew no bounds and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved her more than they could put into words.  And in a changing world where image is often valued over substance, she showed everyone the power of quiet dignity and concrete acts of kindness, done simply because they are the right thing to do.

I love you, Grandma.  Thank you.

On Grandma's fridge, in her writing: "When God measure a man he puts the tape around the heart not the head."

On Grandma’s fridge, in her writing: “When God measures a man he puts the tape around the heart —  not the head.”

 

Six reasons to love coffee

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Gift from a friend who knows me well

I’ve heard it said that the traditional Irish name for whiskey is “the water of life.” With all due respect to whiskey, I don’t think it deserves that name.  I can think of another drink that, in my opinion, is far more life-giving.

That drink is coffee.

I say this not just because coffee is responsible for the daily resurrection of Ginny from the sleep of the dead. It’s for a whole host of reasons, actually.  In ways that are big and small and delicious, coffee has enhanced my life.  And — because I’m on spring break and I have time to systematically ponder these things — I’m going to share them here.

1.  Coffee is proof that God wants us to take pleasure in the senses.  Seriously, is there any more fabulous taste than a really good cup of coffee (in my case, laced with half and half)?  It is one of the few drinks that can render me speechless with delight.  No matter how early the alarm, that first sip makes me actually glad that I am no longer asleep.  That’s some serious magic.

And it’s not just taste, either – the mere smell of coffee is intoxicating.  Even people who don’t drink coffee will speak fondly of the dark, delicious scent of freshly-roasted or -ground beans.  Ahhhh.

2.  Coffee is a good companion for both the alone times and the social times.  I always sneak my cup of coffee back to my bedroom in the morning and close the door.  The kids think I’m getting dressed for the day, and I do, eventually — but first I sit at my prayer desk for a brief session of morning prayer, just me and my coffee and God.  It’s a quiet ritual that gets my day off to a good start.

But coffee has also traditionally and historically been a social beverage.  The first coffeehouse in Paris was a major magnet for the thinkers of the Enlightenment to meet and discuss Big Things with their pals.  Nowadays, we meet friends at Peet’s or Starbucks to catch up over a latte or an espresso.  Growing up, coffee always made an appearance at family dinners; my mom or grandma or aunt would brew a pot and pour mugs to share over the dinner table conversation.  A drink that brings people together and doesn’t result in a barfight: that’s one of the virtues of coffee.

The Coffee Bearer by John  Frederick Lewis

The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


3. Coffee is evidence (if such is needed) that I am a grownup.
As a kid, I hated it.  In college, I discovered a taste for it, and there was no going back. It was a rite of passage akin to getting my own checking account.

It also figured prominently in an important college lesson. One morning in the dining hall after staying up most of the night studying for a midterm, I was desperate to wake up.  I thought, in my hazy fog, that drinking two large glasses (not cups, mind: glasses) would make me alert for the test.  In fact, the coffee made me so manic and jittery that it was a struggle to restrain myself from running circles around around the classroom like a cartoon character with puffs of smoke at her heels.  It was a good lesson: Do all things in moderation.  From then on, I drank much less, and enjoyed it much more.

4. Coffee has given my husband a new hobby.  A few years back, looking for a cheaper way to fuel our daily coffee habit, Scott started researching places to purchase beans online.  That led him to websites that talked about roasting your own coffee.  That led him to try roasting beans with a popcorn popper, which led him to set off the smoke alarm, which led him to move the popper to the garage.  That, finally, led him to tell me that he wanted to buy a $300 coffee roasting machine.

“I seem to recall,” I told him, “that we started this whole thing as a way to cut costs.”

He patiently explained that he still had some birthday money left over, and that he had crunched the  numbers and it would start paying for itself within a not-so-distant date, and I gritted my teeth and said okay, and he embarked on a hobby that he loves to this day.  He buys green beans through the mail, and once a week or so he goes out to the garage and roasts. He has experimented with different kinds of beans from different places (my favorite: Ethiopian), and he has a log book where he records it all, and his coffee is hotly (ha! unintentional pun) in demand among our family and friends.  Because believe me, if you think coffee is good, coffee that is freshly-roasted is even better.

So it’s a hobby that has enriched my own life immeasurably.  And now we always have a Christmas gift for those hard-to-shop for folks!  What’s not to love?

5.  Coffee makes the world a little smaller.  I’m of the generation that remembers the commercials with Juan Valdez and his donkey.  As a kid seeing those ads, you knew that the coffee your parents brewed did not grow down the street but in some faraway place called Colombia.  In its own small way, it helped foster a fledgling global consciousness.  And now, with the emergence of the fair trade movement, the purchase of coffee can actively promote better lifestyles for people around the world.  That’s a pretty great thing.

6. It has a really cool and obscure patron saint.  At LA Congress the year after Scott started his roasting hobby, I found this magnet for sale.

St Drogo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had never heard of Saint Drogo before and frankly I was skeptical, because it sounds like a name invented by someone who has read too much Tolkein.  A little research, however,  proved that he is actually a legitimate Flemish saint of the twelfth century.  He is not only the saint of coffeehouse keepers, but also of deaf people, shepherds, gallstones, and (I quote) “people whom others find repulsive.”  He also apparently had the ability to bilocate, which in his bio is not specifically attributed to coffee consumption but which nonetheless seems like the kind of superpower you’d expect from the drink.

So that’s a sampling of reasons why I love coffee: the water of life, the nectar of the gods, the drink I can’t do without.

Retreat on wheels: Why I need my commute

My fellow commuter (note coffee stains)

My fellow commuter (and source of coffee splashes)

For many, “commute” is a four-letter word.  The daily drive to and from work is a torturous ritual that taxes patience and frays nerves.

Call me crazy, but I am increasingly considering my commute a sort of gift.

First off, I’m lucky in that my commute is only half an hour.  (I should specify that that is only true if I leave the house by 7:06; if I leave at 7:20, I’m toast.  Such is the reality of traffic here in the SF Bay Area).  And I’m lucky that the road I take is — usually — one that keeps moving, without the stop-and-go traffic that makes drivers gnash their teeth.

My commute is also particularly pretty, on a road that takes me through gentle sloping hills.  It’s especially lovely this time of year, when the hills are bright green from the rain.  (In summer and fall, they’re ochre — pretty in its own way, but not as captiviating.)

There are cows grazing, and occasionally horses doing the same.  Every now and then I see deer, usually in a small group.  At times I see a long thin blindingly white heron standing on the slopes absurdly near the road, or I catch a glimpse of a hawk sitting on a low fence, managing to look both hunched and regal at the same time.

There are mornings where I find myself driving into a sunrise that is almost too glorious to be true.  Some mornings, the road is so socked in with fog that a road I know by heart suddenly becomes unknown, unfamiliar; I have to pay close attention to the signs that emerge out of the mist so I don’t miss my exit.  There are also mornings where the freeway itself is clear but mist moves, wraithlike and mysterious, along the wooded hills in the distance.

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Commute sky

 

It is a good thing to start one’s workday with a shot of natural beauty.  It’s like a caffeine boost for the soul.

And I’ve found that the half-hour in the car by myself is a necessary transition for me.  I’m an introvert who lives the life of an extrovert; I am a mom and a teacher, and both of these jobs demand a lot from me.  They require near-constant social interaction, relentless service and a focus on meeting others’ needs.  I love both roles, don’t get me wrong, but as someone who recharges her batteries through solitude, having that half-hour to myself twice a day is a necessary ritual.

I used to listen to the news in the car.  I rarely do now, as I’ve found it just increases my stress level before the day has even started.  Instead, I listen to my own music or to the local classical radio station, which has beautiful music and a morning DJ with one of the most calming voices I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear.

And I let my thoughts go.  They lead me in places that are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising, and I find myself with new ideas for writing or lesson plans or how to address a problem on my mind.  Sometimes I consciously pray.  Sometimes I  just gather impressions from what I see around me, letting the green hills and oak trees and cows and morning fog sink into my memory, from which — in the way of the writing life — they may emerge again in future.

And I am, in those moments, ever-so-grateful that in my overfull and very social life, I am guaranteed two daily episodes of contemplation and silence, two daily chances to be alone with God and my thoughts.  I always wish for more, but what I have already is a gift.

Maybe that’s the secret to contentment: Looking at our lives and recognizing that God is already giving us what we need, even if it’s disguised as the morning commute.

Coloring books and parenting and prayer

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At my local Barnes and Noble the other day, I noticed that an entire display by the door is nothing but adult coloring books.   There were easily fifteen different ones on the shelf, each one offering intricate designs for frazzled adults to sit and color in hopes of restoring their sanity.

Apparently 2015 was the Year of the Adult Coloring Book, a publishing success story that very few saw coming.

But frankly, I — like a lot of moms, probably — figured this one out long ago.  I’ve known for years that sitting at a table with my kids and coloring in outlines, be they of Sesame Street characters or Hot Wheels cars, is a very renewing and positive thing.

A few weeks ago, in fact, the boys and I sat down on a rainy Sunday to color.  We had kids’ coloring books of the robot and cars variety; we had an old Ballet coloring book of mine from days long past (you find all kinds of things when you clean out your desk).  I colored in the picture of the ballet “La Sylphide” as the raindrops fell and the boys and I took turns sharing a box of color pencils.  A good time was had by all.

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From a parenting perspective, there is something about coloring with your kids that leads to conversation.  I’ve found that when we are sitting at a table, each with our head bent over a coloring book, conversation seems to go in directions I wouldn’t have expected and could never orchestrate myself.  It’s akin to what parents of teenagers often say about driving; when you are sitting in the car with your kids, they tend to open up, maybe because you’re not looking right at them and that little bit of space makes it easier for them to venture into more difficult topics.  I like that my boys will bring up random subjects over coloring books.  I learn a lot about them when they do.

And for my own self, I find it enjoyable to do something that focuses more on the visual than the verbal.  I adore writing and love playing around with words, but I find it renewing to branch out every now and then.  There’s a school of thought that says that any creative pursuit, even if it’s not the one in which you specialize, helps you as an artist, and I have to agree.  Doing things with pictures makes the words come more easily.

Some might argue that coloring in coloring books is  a watered-down sort of creativity.  I get that argument; coloring someone else’s picture is not as creative as drawing my own.  But I’ve found that isn’t really the point, and that coloring books still shake something loose inside me. There’s actually a prayer analogy here; I like to pray with my own words, and I often do.  But there are times when putting my own feelings (which may be a mystery even to myself)  into words simply makes it harder for me to pray.  Those are times when I turn to the Our Father or the rosary, glad that I can use someone else’s words and free myself from the self-imposed pressure of having to do it all myself.  I let someone else draw the prayer lines and I move within them, some part of me freer for doing so.

So I can’t say I’m surprised by the success of coloring books among the over-twenty set.  It’s a simple pastime that really isn’t simple at all.