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Who’s Your Bestest Friend?

Donut

Monday, ice that caused closings and delays. Tuesday, an accident.  Wednesday, another accident.  Thursday, flooding that closed two of the three routes I can take to work.  Today, I have no idea what the problem was, but it slowed traffic to a crawl and turned my 40-minute commute into a 70-minute pressure-cooker.

My blood pressure high, I greeted the secretaries with frustration: “That’s 70 minutes of my life I’m never getting back!”

But I still got a premium parking spot—on the end where I can park far enough from the next spot so that no one will ding my doors or scrape a bag the entire length of my car, which happens with frequency in a large office building where everyone is in a hurry.  That means that I was one of the earliest arrivals.  And yet when I arrived, all five secretaries in our office suite were already at their desks, cheerful and welcoming.

As the staff of teacher specialists and supervisors straggled in, the secretaries greeted us with unfailing optimism.  And once everyone had arrived, one secretary brought out heart-shaped donuts glazed in chocolate in celebration of another secretary’s birthday.  Another made a chocolate chip pie from scratch, which the birthday celebrant shared with everyone in the office.  At lunch, the secretaries all gathered around a desk in the center of the open space where they all work to have lunch together.  But they never left the office, as the rest of us do when one of us has a birthday, and they interrupted their lunch to take turns answering the phone whenever it rang.

When I worked in a school, I thought that those who worked in the district office took long lunches at fine restaurants.  I was wrong.  The last time my team went out to lunch, a distant memory at this point, we went to a chain sandwich place for a team member’s birthday and were back to work within an hour.  And even that is more time than the secretaries take—ever.

The school system just paid Gallup to conduct a survey about the engagement of our work force.  When we filled out the survey, we all laughed at one question, which asked us to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement, “I have a best friend at work.” When we talked about it, most people rolled their eyes and said that they stopped using the term “best friend” after adolescence.

I use the term—to refer to my husband and one or two very dear friends. But most of my colleagues, especially the men, said they didn’t use the term at all.  And while I found myself wondering how much the school system paid Gallup to do the poll, I was curious about the results.  As you can imagine, that question had, by far, the lowest rate of agreement.

So, no, I don’t have a best friend at work.  But this morning, I was grateful for the secretaries, who always ask how my morning is going and who gave me a heart-shaped donut with chocolate frosting on a morning when I sorely needed a pick-me-up.

So tomorrow it’s back to a healthier diet….as soon as I leave the pasta cooking class that I’m going to in the afternoon with three of my bestest friends—my daughter, my sister-in-law, and my niece.

But it’s nice to get through the week with colleagues who, while we may not be best friends, care about each other.

So tell me your stories of friends, good friends, and best friends.

Blue Monday?

Duracho

Monday.  Even though I like my current job and loved teaching when I was in the classroom, I’ve never felt thrilled when the alarm sounds on a Monday morning, heralding the beginning of the work week.  Today was particularly difficult for me.  The air damp and gray, I began the day with sleet that delayed the work day for many in the D.C. area.  I reset the alarm and slept for an extra hour, so I tried to be grateful, thanking God in my morning quiet time for the extended sleep and the much-needed rain.

But it was still Monday when I backed my car out of the garage—a garage for which I was grateful on such a cold and dreary morning.  It was still Monday when I got to the school where I was helping out a group of teachers.  I thanked God for getting me through the 40-minute commute safely.  But then I felt sorry for myself when I walked through the exuberant teenagers in the halls, who made me miss teaching as they do every time I visit a school.  But then I remembered that having a job where I don’t have to grade essays every weekend has given me time to write a book and create this web site and blog.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I spent the morning bouncing back and forth between feeling blue and giving myself a pep talk about how great my life is.  I suspect a lot of us do this.  We know that we live in the wealthiest country in the world, a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 40% of the world’s wealth.

But it’s still Monday even after we give ourselves a pep talk.  And yesterday at my church, the bulletin proclaimed it as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Simply put, ordinary time is that time in the church calendar that has nothing to do with the Big Two—Christmas and Easter.

So here we are, on just another ordinary Monday.  The babe has been born, the tree has gone out in the recycling, and the stories of my faith have turned to Christ’s ministry in the world.  Today’s readings were anything but ordinary.  The psalms spoke of finding refuge in the shadow of God’s wings, a God who is “gracious and merciful…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the Gospel reading from Mark, Chapter 5 told stories of Jesus’ kindness to two very different people—a woman who is convinced she’ll be healed if she can just touch Jesus’ clothing and a little girl whose father, a synagogue leader, shows no such certainty but whose prayer for his daughter’s life is answered just the same.

And so I made it through an ordinary Monday, reminded that no day is ordinary for any of us—whether we’re Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Muslim, believer or atheist—when we can reach outside ourselves, touch what we believe in, and find resurrection in our faith.  For it is in staying in touch with what’s within and reaching out to connect with the world that we can know that nothing in this spectacular world is ever truly ordinary.

So tell me your stories of Ordinary Time.

For Whom Are You Grateful Today?

Omar Teachers

I am thinking of Percy Dillard today.  My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard terrified me at the beginning of the school year that fall of 1963.  He wore a black glove on one hand, which I think he had injured in World War II.  As if that weren’t scary enough, he announced on the first day of school that we would have a spelling test every Friday—and that for every word we missed, we would get a lick with his long wooden paddle, which still looms large in my mind after 50 years.

For first grade, I’d had Mrs. Fenny, a chubby, friendly woman who mothered all of us.  Mr. Dillard had none of her qualities.  He was a black man, the only black teacher in my elementary school, and I only know now how unusual that was, even today—for a second grader to have a teacher who is male and black.

When I came home in tears on the first day of school, my dad thought I was afraid of him because of the color of his skin.  My father had quit school in fifth grade, and his response to my tears was this:  “That man is just the same as you and me.  But he got hisself an education.  You listen to him.”

When I protested to dad that he was scary, that he wore a black glove and planned to paddle us for every missed spelling word, my dad laughed. “Well, then, I guess you won’t be missing any spelling words this year, will you.”

And I didn’t.  Mr. Dillard became less scary each Friday, and I still remember that he told us that we were all equal in his room and that what would set us apart was how hard we worked.

That November, Mr. Dillard stood at the chalkboard, the classroom door open, when Mrs. Fenny came running to the door, tears streaming down her face, and said shrilly, “The president has been shot!”  Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face her and put the chalk down in the tray.  He stepped outside the door and closed it, and we children watched in silence as they talked.

Mr. Dillard returned, sitting heavily at his desk.  He looked at us sadly and said, “Children, our president is gone.  And we’re sending you home to be with your families.”  He watched stoically as we gathered our things and went home to watch the television coverage of the stunning loss of a leader with such promise for the future.

In the past four years, I’ve heard President Obama’s critics say that Jack Kennedy was the last great democratic leader.  But President Kennedy’s critics said much the same thing about him in the years he was in office before a tragic and early death catapulted him to the ranks of the greatest presidents.  And, thinking of that day, it’s hard for me to breathe when President Obama is surrounded by hordes of people, as he is today for the Inaugural Parade.

I wish Percy Dillard had lived to see President Obama inaugurated, but Mr. Dillard died in 2001.  I would never have called him my favorite teacher—I loved the motherly ones who told me how gifted I was.  But I feel fortunate to have spent a year in Mr. Dillard’s class.  He was the only elementary teacher I had to work hard to please.  And he taught me that effort was the great equalizer.

A few years later my dad lost his job, and my family moved to an all-white town in the next county where another coal mine was hiring.  I would not have another African-American teacher or have classes with people of other races until I got to college.  But because of Percy Dillard, I grew up knowing that diversity is a positive thing and that overcoming discrimination in all its insidious forms is essential.

Mr. Dillard, while spell-check now makes it less important never to misspell a word, I know that you taught me far more important lessons.  And I hope you’re up there somewhere today, watching, and knowing that, like President Kennedy and President Obama, you have a legacy.

Just Another Resolution?

Walk on Beach

I made no resolutions this year.  Why?  Because I’ve never kept a single one past the first few weeks of the year.  Had I made a resolution, it would have been the same one that most Americans make—to exercise more, lose weight, and eat a more healthy diet.

The morning news today reported that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower mortality rate than people whose weight is in the normal range.  Though the authors of the study have no data to suggest why this is the case, they speculate that it’s because people who are overweight but not obese probably see a doctor more often than people who are healthier.

Are you shaking your head yet that money has been spent on a study of the obvious?  Like a lot of us who struggle to keep our weight under control, I try very hard to keep myself out of the obesity range.  My mother, who weighed 98 pounds when she married my father, gave up trying to control her weight in favor of warning my siblings and me to work on losing weight while it was five pounds rather than 50.  She once looked at me and said, “If you ever do gain weight, your legs are going to look just like mine—like chicken drumsticks.”

With that warning in mind, I tried to balance work, parenthood, home-making, and time for myself, just as all of us do—whether we work inside or outside the home.  When I couldn’t manage all of them, guess which one got short shrift?  I love to cook, though I sometimes found myself turning to prepared foods after a challenging day at work.  But given the number of hours in a day, I often found during those years that getting exercise was the one thing I couldn’t get into my schedule.

Two things coincided to change that dynamic.  In the same year that I became an empty-nester, I received a diagnosis of cancer that forced me to see a doctor more frequently—every two weeks at first and now, nine years later, at least every six months, sometimes more often.  At one point during chemotherapy, I lost so much weight that I was wearing my daughter’s size 4 jeans.  Concerned about the weight loss, my doctor encouraged me to eat whatever I could eat until I finished chemotherapy.

And so I did.  And bread was the one thing I could eat consistently.  And as the nausea ended, I continued to eat bread…and chocolate…and…now…I’m back in that overweight range again.  Back in the fall, I decided to eliminate bread and chocolate and to limit wine to weekends.  I lost ten pounds.  But then the holidays approached, offering me lots of opportunities to make excuses to break my new routine.

But when the waistline of my skirt begins to fit more snugly, I start to hear my mother’s voice again, so in the nine years since cancer, my weight and dress size have remained more or less the same.  I have changed my diet—fewer red meats, less fat, more green vegetables.  I generally walk a couple of miles each morning at 5:30—even in the dark of winter—because even though I’m not a morning person, I’ve found that is the one time of day over which I have control.

I’ve also learned that I love the crisp air and the stars and the quiet, the silence broken only by the sound of my footsteps and the jingling of the dog’s tags against his leash.  And if there are a few days of rain or snow, I miss the walking that has now become habit.

So now that the holidays are over, I’ll try to get back to turning down that wine and bread and chocolate a little more often so that it becomes habit.  I’ll take it one day at a time, as I did in September and October.

I’ll laugh ruefully when my British friend posts an altered picture of Michelangelo’s David with a paunch and the caption, “David after being on tour in the United States.”  And I’ll try to keep myself from moving from being overweight to obese.

Is that a resolution?  Maybe.  But I refuse to call it a New Year’s resolution just because my resolve gets a little stronger again after the holidays. Let’s just call it a plan—one that involves a walk on the beach within the hour.  That I can do.

What about you?  What plans do you have for an optimistic new year?

Feeling Cyber Stalked?

Cyber America

It’s Cyber Monday, and as soon as I opened my laptop, I heard repeated pings from my inbox–merchants touting the advantages of rushing onto the shopping super-highway and making stop after stop to shop while I’m still in my pajamas.  And though I had taken the day off, I knew that in offices around the country, workers turned from the mundane to flirt with the cyber lover who would offer the most for the least in return.

As I have been each year since Cyber Monday came into existence, I’ll be in the passenger seat of my car today for a six-hour drive home from a long weekend at the ocean. But the difference this year?  We have a 4G iPad that would allow my two super-highways to converge if I wanted.

Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m one of those rare people my age who revels in the possibilities of technology.  At my job I write lesson packages for interactive whiteboards and use software to design slideshows with voice-overs while I marvel that when I began teaching, one of my college classes taught me how to make my own filmstrip.  (Does anyone even remember what those were?)  My 26-year-old laughs that I spend more time on Facebook than she does, and when she shared my web site and this blog with her friends, she J that her mom is more tech savvy than she is.  I love it that I can reconnect with old friends, that I can find an answer to a burning question without waiting to go to the library, that I can want a book and have it in my hands in less than a minute, that I can share my thoughts with the world without waiting for a publisher to decide they’re worthwhile.

But I also have to admit that I find it a little creepy when companies pursue me from the cyber cloud.  I compare a book on Amazon and in the iTunes store, and within a few days I get an email from the merchant I didn’t choose reminding me that I was considering the book and another email from the merchant I chose telling me about comparable books I might like.  If I buy something and then neglect the merchant for a while, I get an email with an offer that sounds a lot like a wistful letter from a former lover asking, “Why don’t you like me any more?”

And as if hearing all those political ads weren’t torture enough, I signed a petition for a cause I supported and got email after email from the organization that started the petition and for the party that included the issue in its platform.  And now that the election is over, I’m still getting at least an email a day from each of them, even though I’ve unsubscribed.

And perhaps creepiest of all, after cleaning out my history and deleting hundreds of cookies, these same merchants force me to allow the cookies if I want to shop again in their online store.

So I think I’ll just go to the mall this year and actually hold in my hands the things I want to buy for the people I love.  And, hey, maybe it’ll be easier to get a parking space after all of you buy your goods from the cyber stalkers.

What about you?  Are you buying the latest pick-up line from your smooth-talking cyber suitor?

Who Really Works Hard?

 

Spending time at the hospital with my husband this week reminded me that this time last October, I spent the night by my mother’s bedside and wrote this piece as she slept:

“I work hard for my money,” you said from the next table in the country club dining room.  You wore an expensive Bobby Jones polo shirt, casual slacks, and Tiger-style Nike shoes.  Swirling your second glass of 25-year old Scotch, you admired the amber color as it slid in gentle arcs around the glass.  You wafted the glass under your nose and sipped before continuing, “And I don’t want the government to take more of it to give to people who are too lazy to work.”

I think of you now as I sit by my ailing mother’s bedside and watch her work hard to breathe.  I know you from a distance, enough to know that you own a lucrative company that packages health insurance for businesses.  And that you spend many afternoons golfing while those for whom you’ve created jobs in your small business work in an expensive suite of offices nearby.

My mother coughs, and I watch her labor to take in the oxygen that flows through the only clear tube attached to her body.  She has labored all her life—mostly for no money at all—as the mother of five children and the wife of a coal miner.  She refused to put my father in a nursing home, taking care of him for four years as he slowly died from the black lung he developed as a result of 30 years of hard labor in a West Virginia coal mine.

Her nurse, Redheem, rushes into the room for my mother’s 2:00 a.m. vitals and medications, takes two gloves from the dispenser inside the door, and slips them on quickly as she crosses the room.  But when Redheem reaches the bed, she slows her pace and touches my mother gently, waking her from sleep.  I watch the nurse’s face, perfectly framed by the tightly wrapped hijab that catches the light from the hallway.  She disconnects the tube that drips from one of the four bags hanging on the IV pole.  Then she works efficiently to add pain medications to the IV and to check all the wires before going to the computer to log her work.  She tells my mother that she will return at 4:00 a.m. to check her again and give her a bath, which she does—with the same gentle touch I’ve watched Mom use on her newborn grandchildren.

As Redheem works, she asks me, “Does your mom have all girls?”  She has seen only my sister and me at our mother’s bedside.

“No, just my sister and me…and three sons.”  Unwilling to disturb my mother’s peace by talking about my brother who died of a drug overdose, I turn the conversation.  “Do you have children?”

“No,” Redheem answers.  “I take care of my parents.  They live with me.  And my sister.  I’m paying for my sister’s college because I don’t want her to have loans.  My parents paid for my college, so I’m paying it forward.”

Ready to change the sheets on the bed, Redheem calls for a nurse’s assistant to help her roll my mother from side to side.  Mom grimaces but does not complain.  Redheem repeatedly apologizes for disturbing her.  They finish promptly, cover Mom, and ask her if she needs anything.  As they leave, Redheem thanks my mom and turns to me: “Your mother is so sweet.”

Exhausted, my mother looks at me and smiles. Her jaw slackens as she quickly returns to sleep.

Brian, the nurse’s assistant, comes into the room and, like Redheem, he dons the blue gloves in the time it takes me to notice his entry.  He approaches the bed and stoops to examine the bag at the end of the long catheter tube.   He tilts his head and nods, satisfied, then waves to me quietly as he leaves.

The room is still again, except for the ticking of the heart monitor and the soft swishing of the suction devices.

My mind drifts back to the table at the country club.  I wonder if you have ever sat by the bed of a loved one who receives the gentle and attentive ministrations of the countless Redheems and Brians who work so hard.

And I see again your golf partner’s discomfort with the conversation you initiated, not for the first or the second or even the third time.  And then I wanted to cheer as I watched his response.  He squirmed in his seat and, with resolve, he met your eyes above the Scotch glass and asked for the first time, “How much is enough?”