Ah, January



Ah, it’s January and I started back at the YMCA in the 7:00 AM water exercise class that I have been participating for years. In fact, this class runs MWF and I actually teach the Friday session. It’s a wonderful conglomeration of people, most of us 60 or older. It’s great fun, and good exercise. This Monday, the first class of the new Y session, no one was missing. Pretty much everyone who had ever been in the class was there. It’s a common phenomenon, the drive to get back to exercise after the excesses of the holidays.

But at the start of this holiday season, Thanksgiving, I spent time with one of my sons and his girl friend and her family. We had a lovely time in California, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, but Jeff, in his blunt but kind way, told me that I needed to bump things up a bit. “Water exercise is fine, Mom,” he said, “but it’s not enough now. If you are going to live another 15 years, you have to do more”

This was not a message I welcomed, although I did appreciate it because I knew what motivated it. I took it as kindness, and I know that I need to be doing more weight bearing exercise.

And so what am I doing besides water exercise? Why do I have to do anything besides water exercise? The why is obvious. I need to be in better shape. I need to lose more weight to be a healthy person. But the what is a different question. I find treadmills and elliptical trainers boring. I love walking outside but tend to amble because I like to look at birds and animal tracks and also, because of two knee replacements, I am cautious about falling on ice or on uneven sidewalk

The solution has presented itself pretty clearly. Many of the members of the MWF water class gather in the “gold room”, (the fancy locker room) for coffee before class. Some of the members of the class are there as much as an hour early. Being there by six seems a little extreme, but I can easily be there by 6:30. I can walk on the treadmill and still talk to my buddies and get in half an hour of walking before class. The water feels wonderful after walking, and I feel virtuous.

It’s a start, but even more important than my buddies in the gold room, or the walking itself, I have a cheerleader. I text my son every time I do at least half an hour on the treadmill He always texts back something positive and encouraging.

Exercise is important. In general, we don’t get enough of it. It helps our physical and mental health, but it’s important to have cheerleaders, too. I highly recommend that if, in your New Year’s Resolutions, you have decided to improve your exercise routine, find someone who will exercise with you, or who will text you encouraging things, or someone who is just in your corner as you work on a new regime. It makes all the difference.


An Unlikely Exit

blooper the dog

unfortunately there is a photo…

When I was twelve I played a spotted dog in my church’s holiday musical. I ran up the aisle of the old Presbyterian Church on my hands and knees, howling, and barking. I was a confident, loud dog. I loved my costume’s fleecy ears and the black sweat pants and knee pads. It never occurred to me to be embarrassed by the casting – Blooper was the most coveted role in the play. My stardom was fleeting; the singing songbook stole the show and I never appeared on stage again. It turns out I’m tone deaf and my sense of timing is frightening – I still can’t believe I was allowed near musical theater. Leaving the stage was a no brainer.

My departure from church life took a bit longer.

christmas at grandmas

matching church outfits for Christmas circa 1982

In retrospect, I stuck around so long because of the Blooper effect. The Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Miles City, Montana was familiar and comfortable. In the 80’s it seemed like everyone in Eastern Montana went to church on Sundays. The Catholics were in and out quickly, the Mormons stayed all day, and the Presbyterians sat in the back of their beautiful stained glass chapel for exactly one hour. My family went to church early for Sunday school and singing. We stayed after church for weak coffee and sugar cookies in the Narthex. My mother attended church circles on most Wednesdays and I went to the church basement for youth group and rubbery lasagna.

But church looked different after Blooper. Most teenagers hate church, so maybe my dissent was normal. As my experience of world widened, the messages I heard at church and from church friends no longer seemed so solid. I found myself caught in circular arguments about diversity and acceptance – about certainty and concrete answers. I read about Buddhism in my AP humanities classroom. I celebrated Hanukkah with two of the seven Jewish people in Eastern Montana. I studied Catholicism and Lutheranism in Presbyterian Sunday school. I was enamored with a world of possibilities outside of my own experience. And almost without knowing it, I made a big decision about my natural approach to the world: I learned to value healthy skepticism.

I now know that my skepticism was no accident. My father set himself at the task of raising skeptical children – his quiet, unobtrusive faith highlighted life’s gray areas. My mother voiced her opinions as only her own. She was careful to give voice to lots of different ideas, “Some people believe…” she’d say before she suggested some alternative view of the world. This couldn’t have been an easy way to raise a teenager – I argued at every turn. And ultimately, my need for supportive skepticism led me away from American Christianity.

What I am just now realizing is that the comfortable cultural community that was the 1980’s church, has changed for much of the country. All too often, it seems that skepticism and doubt is not tolerated by most faith communities. If patience for doubt exists, it is temporary – a momentary separation from an inevitable truth.

But shouldn’t healthy skepticism be at the heart of faith? If we are to accept and trust that which we cannot see or touch, shouldn’t we consider all of our options? Shouldn’t we find our way to church by way of understanding and thought rather than fear? For me this is the only certainty, the only thing I know for sure about church – I don’t always need my questions answered, but I must have the opportunity to ask them. I want to wallow in skepticism, to sink into doubt, and find the solid ground beneath.

I don’t remember not liking church as a child. No one asked me if I wanted to be there – it was a given. No one asked me if I believed the stories or if I’d been saved. No one mentioned doubt. My parents talked about God in the abstract – there wasn’t a man in the clouds with a beard or a robe; God was an idea or maybe an action. My father was fond of saying, “God is a verb.”

I cling to this idea of action. It exists without the church, without the rules and regulations that disallow skepticism and doubt. And it may be enough.

In the Bleak MidWinter




In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Christina Rossetti’s words, set to music by Gustave Holst remind us that much about winter is unforgiving. She is, of course, writing about the winter of northern Europe and North America, and not about the Christmas of the Middle East or Australia, but for us who live in these latitudes, winter is often bleak. I remember the first winter I spent in Wyoming, and how I looked out of my window at what seemed like a moonscape. It seemed that there was “snow on snow, snow on snow.” In pioneer days, people who died in the winter often remained a cold corpse in someone’s barn until the ground was thawed enough to dig a grave.

So when the first snow fell this November, I looked out the window with trepidation. It was still half-dark. The sun had not fully risen, and the buffalo in the pasture across from my house all wore thick white shawls. My heart sank a bit because we have had such a beautiful and warm fall, with the colors lasting weeks longer than usual, but at the same time I could see the beauty of the fresh snow, the way it caught in the branches of trees, the way it covered the lawns that had faded to brown.

Contrast is necessary for our spirits. We need the snow, and the ice. We need the diminishing light so that we can rejoice in its return. I know that in another six weeks, the sun will begin, once again, to rise earlier and set later, but right now, the late afternoon darkness makes me want to crawl into bed at six o’clock.

Long ago, I lived in California for two years, and for two Christmases, I experienced warm days when I wore shorts and worked outside. I didn’t live there long enough to learn to appreciate the subtleties of the weather, the almost imperceptible changes in the seasons. For me the jasmine was always blooming, and it rarely rained and it felt odd, as if the world I knew were slightly off balance.

We talk about life-cycles, birth, death, rebirth, leading again to death and rebirth. Sometimes where we live reinforces these cycles. We feel them in our bones as we turn up the heat, hunker down in from of a fire, but even when the climate doesn’t tune itself to our spiritual cycles, they are there. We must go through the dark times in order to see the light. Sometimes the light in our hearts returns slowly; sometimes it bursts out like a sudden sunrise, lighting our world with joy.

Recently I listened to a Ted Talk in which the woman spoke of whole-hearted people those people who rejoice in vulnerability, and who embrace the world in which they find themselves. Who throw themselves into whatever situation arises. Whole-hearted implies generosity of spirit, and implies a person who is alive to the world.  The last stanza of the Rossetti poem goes like this:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

I need to remember to give my heart over to the seasons and cycles of my life. I need to rejoice in the snow as much as in the fall sunshine, or the summer’s warmth, to feel within me the recurring life, death and rebirth that all our human lives entail.






” I Believe in Books”



My granddaughter, who is in year six, at the primary school in her English village, participates in a Philosophy class in which the students, ten and eleven year-olds, engage in complex and difficult discussions. Recently her class was invited to hold their discussion on the stage in an auditorium filled with attendees at a Religious Education Conference held in a nearby town. (This being England and not the United States, there is no separation of church and state. Queen Elizabeth is, after all, called, among other things, “Defender of the Faith,” just as Henry the XIII was.)  These students decided on the question that they would be discussing, “Do people choose religion or does religion choose people?”  At the beginning of the discussion, the children introduced themselves and gave a small description of their own religious experiences.  My granddaughter was the first to introduce herself. She gave her name and then she said, “I have my own religion.” She stopped there and did not elucidate further.  Later in the car on the way home, her father asked her what her religion was. She answered that she believed in books, and then she went on to say that sometimes she asked characters in books to help her if she had questions about something.

Aside from the fact that she is my granddaughter, and I might be prejudiced, I actually think that this is quite profound on a number of levels. First, when children read books that have characters who get themselves out of difficult situations, or solve interesting problems, they see  examples of admirable behavior. I remember reading Little Women and thinking about a passage in which Jo asks her mother if she has ever been angry. Her mother answers that she is often angry but she has learned how to (and I am paraphrasing here) temper that anger, she has learned how to say nothing when what she has to say would be said in anger. This passage has stayed with me much of my adult life.  But we don’t need to read work as didactic as Little Women in order to learn something.  Many children have learned to be resourceful by reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and certainly Harry Potter shows us ways to grow up, even without magic wands.

My granddaughter is also participating in a far larger community than she realizes, since the Abrahamic religions that predate Islam, that is Judaism and Christianity, have both been called “People of the Book.”  Not only does this tell us that these religions have sacred texts, the Torah, the Bible, but also that participants in these religions understand that there is something important to be gained from reading, thinking about, and analyzing texts. Hermeneutics, or the analysis of text for meaning, was originally applied to sacred texts, the Bible in particular, and so what my granddaughter was saying about her religion being books really connects her to a far older tradition.  When we think about the stories in the ancient text, we think about what they teach us. What many ideas can we take away from the story of Ruth, for example, or the story of the Good Samaritan?

My granddaughter’s response reminds me again, as if I needed reminding again, that reading is critical, not only to developing analytical skill and understanding what stories have to teach us, but reading is critical  to developing empathy.  Several semesters ago, I taught three books as part of a second level writing course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Winter in the Blood  by James Welch. I wanted to teach the two novels by Native  American writers, but I wanted my students to have some background in Native American History before they read the novels, and therefore, I assigned the Dee Brown book. At the end of the course, I asked students to describe what they had learned in the course of the semester. One student wrote that he had learned to think about his own opinions and to decide whether or not those opinions were based on fact or prejudice. I cannot think of a more important thing for a student to learn. While it is possible that this student would have learned that elsewhere, reading books that took him out of his own experience and showed him the experiences of other people, helped him become a more empathetic person.

So, I, too, believe in books.


A Whole New World…. Musing on this month’s topic: technology



My 10 year-old granddaughter, Skye, sent me a video that she made not long ago that she told me was “Epic.”  She provided very little other explanation, so I had to ask her father, my son, to explain this black thing with blinking lights on it.  He told me that she was trying to recreate the partial eclipse of the sun that they had seen recently. He said that Skye was really excited by seeing the eclipse, so she took a black t-shirt, sewed some LED lights in a circle using conductive thread. Then she programmed a computer chip so that it would turn the lights on sequentially. She sewed the computer chip onto the shirt and attached it to the conductive thread. When the lights glowed around the circle, the display did actually look  sort of like the partial eclipse of the sun.

I am not writing this to highlight my granddaughter’s ability, but rather to think about ways that our grandchildren, even more than our children are using and will be using technology. Lots of people talk about the dangers of people too attached to their screens, or so attached to screens that they forget how to interact with real people, but I think that while these fears have some merit, they limit our thinking about children and computers.   We clearly are not going to put this genie back in the bottle. Computers are here, and will get more and more powerful and sophisticated. Our children and grandchildren will need to learn computer coding because these skills will be critical to helping them make many of the decisions they will have to make to help both preserve and protect the beauty and diversity of our planet.

We live on a planet filled with wonders, and a planet that is changing dramatically and it is my grandchildren’s generation that will have to deal with those changes in one way or another. My granddaughter, like many children of her generation, are well aware of pending extinctions, and the effects of climate change. Skye is lucky to have an uncle who has taken a lot of time to introduce her to the wonders of nature.  Young people like Skye  will need all the tools they can find to figure out ways for creatures, including humans, to survive.  These young people will, first of all, need to develop an appreciation of the diverse and beautiful world. This appreciation comes from spending time outside, from spending time watching ants, or breathing in the fragrance of fir trees. All people need to feel fresh air against their skin, need to go walking in a field.   We need to make sure that these things happen because only when people deeply experience the world in a sensory way, can they see that the world is worth caring for.

The human brain has difficulty grasping big stuff. We have difficulty understanding ecological patterns that take place over many generations.  One of the reasons, I think, for example, that many people have difficulty accepting human evolution is that is an extremely slow process, and even though we can understand development over several generations, we cannot understand development over thousands of generations, but computers can do these calculations. As computers become more and more powerful, they will be able to show us models of what the world will look like under many different kinds of conditions. Computers will be able (in fact already are) to develop models of what the long-term ramifications of certain kinds of decisions will be in a much more nimble way than the human brain can.  Computers can help humans make decisions that will benefit the ants and the fir trees and their human relatives.

Skye’s eclipse project makes me think about this because she started with an experience in the world. She watched a partial eclipse of the sun, through a pin-hole camera. She experienced the wonder of the universe (or at least our solar system).  Once she had had that experience, she translated it into an EPIC  technology/art/ project. (And art is always experience filtered through the sensibility of the artist).  Skye’s project is wonderful, but more importantly she is learning to integrate technology with her experience of the world around her. She doesn’t see a disconnect between technology and the rest of her world, but sees them as connected to each other.  As she continues to develop these skills, she, and other young people like her, will be able to make long-term predictions, develop long-term solutions and ultimately, create and value a world that continues to be filled with wonders.