Women of the Year

Each year a certain mainstream magazine publishes its Women of the Year. Their choices range from the obvious to the obscure, featuring women who have made remarkable impacts on their little corners of the world. That got me to thinking: What women have made a difference in my life in the last year? Who would I dub my Women of the Year?

2017 was one of the most extraordinary years of my life. I had recently resigned from a 24-year career in teaching and had more flexibility than before. I traveled to places I’d only dreamed of: Israel, Alaska, and Poland. I saw my only daughter marry into an absolutely terrific family. I began and ended a second career. 2017 was hard and wonderful and everything in between.

As I reflect on the last twelve months, the people and experiences that shaped me, I see that two very different ladies have taught me the same very important lesson: gratitude.

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From the time I met a group of Holocaust Survivors four years ago, I began praying about going to Israel. It is a tiny, mysterious land, ripe with historical and spiritual significance. It was also home to some new friends who had almost immediately wrapped themselves around my heart. But making a trip to Israel is no small feat. There are places where it simply is not wise for a woman to go alone. I have never been farther than the shopping mall by myself, and I can get lost going somewhere I’ve been a dozen times. There was no way I could do this on my own. Enter Karen. I shared with her my dream of making the trip to Israel: I had the time and the money (a totally cool story in itself) but I needed someone with experience to go with me. She immediately volunteered.

Here’s the thing. I could not have chosen a more perfect travel companion if I’d tried. Karen is a former airlines employee who has literally been all over the world, including several trips to Israel. While I am a very much the introvert, Karen has never met a stranger. She has contacts in most any country or culture you can possibly imagine…and even when she doesn’t, she knows someone who does. She’s also extremely laid back, which was a much needed balance to my OCD tendency to over-plan and then nut up a little when the plan doesn’t work. So this woman, this amazing woman, at her own expense, gave up a month of her life to accompany me on the trip of my dreams. Wow.

That’s not even the best thing about Karen. Karen is a woman who has this uncanny ability to breathe in chaos and breathe out peace. If you are around her for more than five minutes, you will hear her say, “I’m so grateful….” All day. In any situation. Now most people have a pet saying, like, “You know what I mean?” or “Ummm” or some such. That can get annoying. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. Not so with Karen. A genuine heart of gratitude continually flows out of her. It is, without question, who she is. And after spending time with her, it starts to color who you are and how you see the world around you.

More than once we got lost in questionable neighborhoods and the two block walk back to our lodging might easily turn into a mile or more. Somehow we always managed to find our way back, fueled by her optimism and excellent memory. Even the wrong turns became mini adventures. I saw new places and ate new foods and tried new things that I probably never would have on my own. And I am grateful for the experience.

IMG_0042The second woman who has taught me gratitude is my friend Hawa. She is from Sudan, the mother of nine of the sweetest children I’ve ever met, and though we are different in practically every way imaginable, she is my sister and I cannot imagine living my life without her.

I first met Hawa a little over a year ago when I began volunteering in an English language class. The second week, the leader asked me if I could give Hawa a ride. I was so nervous about having someone in my car who I could barely communicate with. But we both survived it, and I drove her again the following week. Somewhere along the way, things just sort of clicked. A few weeks later I spent the day with Hawa and she taught me how to make a traditional Sudanese meal (which was unbelievably delicious!) Periodically I go over to visit her and play with the children. We will build with blocks and put together puzzles. Before too long, someone will bring out a book, and we have an impromptu English lesson. Two of my favorite memories were last year when my family had the opportunity to introduce Hawa, her husband, and all the kids to their first American Thanksgiving and Christmas. We played in the floor (all of us), ate together, then taught the adults and older children how to drive the golf cart. Now THAT was hilarious! Language can be an issue sometimes, but never a barrier. Usually our miscommunication moments leave us laughing, and laughter is the same in any language.

One of the things I’ve learned from watching Hawa is how naturally the social graces are a part of her DNA. She always asks about my family and friends that she has met, then shares greetings from her friends I have been introduced to. And she feeds me. Have mercy, she feeds me! A visit to Hawa’s house is always accompanied by coffee (which she confessed she doesn’t really like, yet she always makes and drinks some with me) and snacks, or even a light meal. This beautiful woman spoils me rotten.

My Sudanese friends have a close bond that many American families would envy. It is not at all unusual to find the entire family together outside, sitting on a blanket in the sunshine, drawing pictures, practicing writing English words, or kicking around a soccer ball. They are affectionate and kind and always take care of each other. You have not lived until you have held a sleeping Sudanese baby. They just sort of melt into you…melting your heart at the same time. Hawa’s family lives very modestly by American standards. Their small home is humble, impeccably clean, and somehow there’s plenty of room for everyone. There is no pretense. No putting on airs. What they have is enough. They are grateful for it, and more than willing to share.

Karen and Hawa have both quietly made an incredible impact on my life, not so much because they set out to teach me lessons in tranquility and gratitude, but simply because that is who they are. It is impossible to be around them and not soak that up. I am a better person, calmer and more loving, for having spent so much time with these two special ladies.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Who’s The Genius?

Tonight the Haywood’s played a little game called “Who’s the Genius?”

When our paths finally converged this afternoon, Jeff and I met at a building where he needed to do an electrical job after the business closed. When he was finished, we planned to do some Christmas shopping for three little girls who have wrapped themselves firmly around our hearts. 

As we walked out to leave, Jeff said, “Follow me.” Sure. That sounded simple enough. The parking area behind the building was like a dirt bowling alley – long and very skinny. We had to drive all the way to the far end, turn around, then head back out the way that we had come in. I didn’t quite understand the logic of that, but Jeff said to follow. So I followed. When he reached the back of the lot and made his turn, it occurred to me that my car needs considerably less space to corner than his truck. I went ahead and made my left turn – right into a giant mud pit. I never saw the gaping expanse until the moment I sank into it. I quickly noticed that I was indeed not the first to slide into its soggy depths. This was no consolation. The hole was about a foot deep, black mud was up to my bumper, and I just so happened to be wearing the single most expensive pair of shoes I own. Face palm. Actually several face palms. 

I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. 

Completely unfazed, Jeff went straight to work. He removed a tiny circle from my front bumper (which I never even knew was there), attached a short bar from the jack, then stretched out the chain that he ever so conveniently had in his truck. With a brilliant rooster tail of black mud, he pulled me right out. Christmas (shopping) was saved!

Some observations:

1. My husband is an amazing man in both attitude and abilities. 

2. The car extraction plan my brain feverishly conjured up would surely have ripped the bumper right off the car. And I’d probably still be stuck. 

3. I am convinced that southern men with pickup trucks secretly long for the day when they can pull out a big ole chain or a set of jumper cables and rescue people like me who accidentally do stupid things at inopportune times. 

4. Sometimes when you are given directions it is sufficient to follow the general spirit of the instructions. Other times it is imperative to observe the full letter of the law.

When The Going Gets Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough go tromping through mud and wet grass for a three-mile run. It was a great plan. I’ve been in such a purple funk lately, fighting my way back to solid ground after letting the circumstances of life toss me about. Over the last few years, running has been both my physical fitness activity of choice and my emotional release from the stresses of life. It was the obvious choice.

I had determined that this summer would be the time I got my running game back on track. Or at least on treadmill. And wouldn’t ya know it, we have experienced one of the rainiest summers in recent memory. On any given day, once I got finished with work or whatever else needed doing that day, the monsoon had begun. I do own a treadmill. It is totally accessible. I just hate using it. So, most days, I don’t.

This particular day was surprisingly sunny, though not surprisingly, humid. I suited up in a cute runner girl ensemble and headed out the front door for a run around our property. To say that I went for a run is, I must admit, a liberal use of the term, but I was running at some points, so you will have to give me the benefit of the doubt here. Truth be told, our land has never been pane-of-glass smooth, but after a visit from Hurricane Matthew last year, it was even less so. Running in the grassy sections would be unwise because there could be a hole there and I would never know it until I found air instead of solid ground beneath my feet. So mostly I was doing some brisk power walking through two sides of the rectangular area and running when I hit the road and my driveway. It was a great plan. Until it wasn’t.

In my closet there are any number of running shoes, various types for various purposes. I wore my old favorites because they are comfortable, and I wasn’t too worried about getting them all muddy. It seemed like a logical choice at the time. I was about halfway through my distance goal of three miles. There were about five running strides left before I shifted back to power walking. Without warning, I did a face plant. I’m not even sure what I managed to trip over, but in a movie-like slow-motion sequence, I watched the muddy ground get closer as my left ankle twist painfully and awkwardly to one side. The ridiculous thought that raced through my mind at the moment I bounced off the terra firma was, “Woman! You have trail shoes in your closet!”

In one slightly less than fluid motion, I picked myself up and scraped the worst of the mud off my legs. The ankle was none too happy but could support weight, so I took a step, then another, and decided to press on with the run. After one slow and steady lap, I felt confident that there was no damage and returned to the running segments. While I was chugging along, I remembered a time when I’d had a much more serious fall while running down a street in near-total darkness. With the help of my friends, I hopped up, ignored the blood, and kept on running. Recalling that incident gave me the courage to not wimp out this time. If I bounced back from a tough run once, I could surely do it again.

That made me think about King David. Long before he assumed the title of king, David was the runt-of-the-litter little brother who was left behind to take care of the sheep while his older brothers, by all accounts burly and impressive young men, who were off having exciting exploits as members of Israel’s army. Only things weren’t going so well for them. David showed up and offered his assistance. When the brawny brothers pointed out that David was indeed a runt, he remembered times in the past when he’d faced tough situations and how the God of Israel had strengthened him. He said, “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (2 Sam 17:37). You might say that David had a giant problem. This is quite literally true because David was about to face off with a giant, not in a figurative sense, but in the original, honest-to-goodness, for real and for true giant named Goliath who was nine feet tall and not at all a nice person.

In that moment, David recalled the way he had faced challenging situations before and triumphed. He knew that his God provided the strength necessary. He didn’t cower in fear and run for cover. He didn’t complain about how he’d been in much better shape when he faced the lion, or that the conditions had been better on that day. But what he did do was remember a success from the past, which in turn gave him the courage to face the giant on this day.

Now I don’t claim to be a David, and getting up after a small stumble may not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. But perhaps there are some lessons we can learn here.

  • Remembering the trials we have overcome in the past can give us courage to face different, but equally challenging, difficulties in our present.
  • We often need to think of our circumstances differently. In a crisis situation, it is easy for molehills to become mountains in our minds. Taking a step back and calming down can do wonders for our perspective. When we are calm we simply make better decisions.
  • Sometimes we just have to develop the best plan we can and go for it. I’m sure David’s sling and rock attack didn’t look like an especially wise military maneuver to anyone else. But he trusted his God and slung that rock. The results speak for themselves.
  • My Faith not in my Strength – that comes and goes – but my Strength is in my Faith. More specifically, my Strength is in the One who is the source of my Faith.

Psalm 121:1-2, written by David, this same shepherd boy turned mighty warrior, says, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (NIV)

When the going gets tough, the tough call on Jesus.

Cutting & Rolling: Lessons From a Paintbrush 

Truth be told, I really hate painting. Not the fancy kind that people display in art museums and dentist offices. The kind where your living room looks dingy or dated and the obvious cure is a fresh coat of paint. That’s the one I’m not so fond of.  

I think it all started when we were building our house. My husband told me that as soon as we were done painting, we could move in. I thought, “YES!!! We will be in by the weekend!” HA! Or not. We painted for a month. One long, hot, thought-it-would-never-ever-end month. We both worked full-time jobs, came home, consumed some manner of edible substance, grabbed our brushes, and picked up wherever we’d left off at midnight the night before. It was not my favorite aspect of the house-building process. 

My first job was putty-er. Jeff would nail the trim down with an air hammer, then I would come along and putty each and every individual hole with caulk. I used a caulk gun, popsicle sticks, my bare fingers, damp cloths, anything to make the job go easier and faster. Then I had to sand the trim to a smooth texture. By the time this was completed, my fingertips were raw and swollen, my back ached all the time, and my attitude was slightly south of chipper. Then…and only then…was I given a paintbrush. Finally, we’ll make some progress, I thought. Or not.  

While Jeff and some friends who were kind enough to come bail us out on occasion were wielding paint rollers and even this awesome electric air sprayer for the cathedral ceilings, I had a brush. A stinking, hand-operated brush. I may have contemplated bopping them in the head with their fancy equipment. Maybe. One thing is for sure, I was exhausted, and I was grumpy. It’s a wonder that people who were around during this season of life still spoke to me without an armed guard and a pound of chocolate present. 

I’ve matured a little bit in the last twenty years. Painting is still my least favorite construction activity and I will do just about anything to avoid it. While on mission trips with my church, this has led to me developing other skills, like operating a skill saw, running a weed eater, and even using a bit of feng shui to build a pretty amazing rock-lined ditch.  

Recently my friend asked me to help paint the stage at church. I still hate painting, but I love both my friend and my church. Of course, I said yes. As is so often the case when there is painting to be done, I found myself in command of a hand-operated brush. I got a little pan of paint and set to work. Rather than being resentful of this particular duty as I have in the past, I found myself waxing philosophical as I began tracing around the edges of the trim. 

When it comes to painting a wall, there are two primary roles: roller and cutter. Rolling creates the more noticeable end product. Great masses of wall can be covered in a very short time. The results are obvious, and the room looks better almost instantly. Rolling is showy. Rolling is glam.  

Cutting-in, by contrast, is slow. It is tedious. It takes time and precision, and often brings tired knees and aching backs from sitting in the floor to carefully trace over electrical outlets and along baseboards, window casings and door jambs. Cutting-in requires a steady hand; rushing can be disastrous.  There is little to show for your work. Certainly it lacks the “ooooh” factor of rolling an entire wall in five minutes.  

But is one better than the other? Absolutely not. If the wall were to be painted using only a roller, the outer perimeter would look sloppy and highly distracting, in a word, awful. Of course walls can be painted using only a regular brush, but the time and effort involved would most likely outweigh the benefits. Your list of available friends would diminish quickly if that were the proposed painting plan.Each method of painting has its strengths and weaknesses. Rolling gets the job done quickly and thoroughly, and and cutting-in provides the pop, the attention to detail, that sets the room off properly. Cutting makes rolling “work”. 

So that’s all well and good if you happen to be standing there with a gallon of semi-gloss and a natural bristle brush in your hand. But what does this have to do with real life, you may well ask. Quite simply, everything. We all have our own fair share of both strengths and weaknesses. There are things that we do well and things that we wish we were better at. In the Bible, Paul speaks to this very issue in 1 Corinthians 12. Using the analogy of the human body and its many parts, he says that while some are more prominent than others, the contributions of all are essential to the proper functioning of the whole body. Ever broken a finger or had a toothache? It impacts the efficiency of the entire body. This is true of our physical bodies, our churches, our businesses, our families, and of our society as a whole.  

We each have different roles to play. Some are more flashy, more noticeable. Some are more subtle and occur quietly, behind the scenes. Each has great value. Every individual part matters to the proper functioning of the whole. So we all need to figure out what we are wired to do. What is your passion? What are you doing when you feel most alive? Writing news stories? Cooking? Building houses? Balancing budgets? Organizing gala events? Designing spacecraft? Teaching a toddler to use a spoon? All of these things matter. Learn your role and do it with excellence. Even if you are one of those wacky, amazing people who just so happens to love painting. Whether you are the roller or the cutter or the kid who stirs the paint, give it all you’ve got. Our businesses and families and nation and world need you to get out there and be you! 

You are the only one who can. 

(On a side note, in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 12 is followed by Chapter 13. I’m pretty clever, huh? This famous passage is known as “The Love Chapter”. I don’t think this progression is an accident. Once you figure out your passion, consider how you might use it to love the people around you, and maybe even those on the other side of the globe. Goodness knows, genuine love and compassion can be hard to find these days. But we can be the generation that turns that around. You hold in your hands an incredible amount of power. You possess the ability to impact the world …..beginning by being nice to the people you come into contact with. Think about that.) 

Chugging Along

It’s been just over a week since I made my bold declaration to quit moping around and start taking steps toward better health. This update is two-fold: to hold myself accountable; and to encourage others who may be struggling to make positive progress in some area of their lives, whatever it might be.

So far I’ve gone running three times in the past week. There would have been a fourth, but an impending thunderstorm interrupted that idea. In the end, it was a thunder sprinkle, but I am not so keen on the threat of a lightning strike. My eating habits were improved – not perfect, but considerably better than before. The clean- to processed- food ratio inverted itself, and there were fresh, crunchy vegetables at almost every meal. To further add to the encouragement of these small improvements, I’m down a pound or two from this same time last week. That’s not exactly monumental, but still a nice place to start.

As far as the actual running goes, I still have quite a bit of room for improvement. My legs know what to do, but my lungs haven’t completely gotten with the program yet. As I have been shuffling along and trying not to literally gasp for air (I sometimes giggle about what other runners on the trail must think I sound like!), slowly, oh so slowly, I am noticing improvements. Serious runners keep track of their split times, which means how long each individual mile takes over the course of a longer run. While I am still too embarrassed to state outright what my splits have been this week, I will say that today’s outing was 20 seconds per mile faster than the one a week ago. Afterwards, I felt sufficiently tired, but not inches from death. So, there’s that.

As I was wrapping up my last mile today, however, the best thing happened. OK, maybe not as great as being given a private resort/writing sanctuary on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean…but it has definitely been the best part of this new health improvement journey. I noticed that I was THINKING like a RUNNER! Let that sink in for a second. I noticed I had a stride and not a shuffle. My arms were straight and pumping in rhythm with my foot-falls. My mind was calculating what to put in my run bag so I would be ready at a moment’s notice to come running next week. AND I was already mentally planning the next run: what day it could happen, skills to focus on, challenging myself to beat today’s time. Today I wasn’t thinking like a formerly fluffy, formerly thin, getting fluffy again girl just trying to counter the effects of too many Cheetos. I re-found that little something-something that used to drive me on, to set goals and annihilate them. I am a runner. I am a RUNNER! It’s still a tiny spark, but it’s there. Every good decision now is simply more fuel for the fire.

Pushing That Train Back Up The Hill

Several years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight. It was no easy task, but I was determined and dedicated, and I cut no corners. It took a little time to see success, but slowly, ever so slowly, I did. Then, it was almost as if I could barely keep up with the ever-increasing need for smaller clothes, I was losing weight so quickly. Once I reached my target weight, with the perspective that only time can bring, I equated a health and wellness journey to pushing a train up a hill – it is laboriously slow and difficult in the beginning, but once you crest that peak, you better hold on, baby, because this machine is about to take off!

And so it was. During this golden era, I stubbornly made good food choices. The junk food I formerly craved lost its appeal. Trying to entice me with that slice of cake? Not interested. Give me some fresh coconut and raw snap peas and I was one happy girl. I exercised almost every day – not because I “had” to, but because I just enjoyed it so much. Fat burned away. Muscles, though tiny, began to give my silhouette a sleek, strong stance. My confidence sky-rocketed. It. Was. Fantastic!

Then, as is so often the case, life happened. My work loads at school and church increased significantly, as did my stress level. Instead of making my way to the gym, I started making excuses. And for a while I almost had me fooled, because, after all, I am a wordie girl, and the bent logic I fed myself was almost as delicious as the mac-n-cheese on my plate. Almost. The trouble with excuses, of course, is that they never stand up to any real scrutiny. The pants, however, do not lie.

And so it would go. My clothes would get tight. I’d say, “This is bad. I need to get up and exercise.” Two fairly decent weeks of physical fitness would begin. Followed by another slacking off. Then, the tight clothes. “This is bad…” and on, and on, and on it went.

About a week ago, I almost blew a gasket. I am tired much of the time. Most nights my sleep is fitful. My pants are oh-so-tight. More than anything though, I seem to have misplaced that confident, can-do attitude. My work life, my physical health, my spiritual life all suffer from the emotional weight brought on reverting to those old ways. That simply will not do! I got so mad – seriously PO’ed at myself. Why on earth did I just sit still and let this happen? I worked so hard to build a healthy lifestyle. Why did I let myself to default to all the negative habits that I knew perfectly well were the reason I had been heavy and unhappy in the first place?

Enough. ENOUGH! It is far past time to push this train back up the hill. I am finally fed up with settling for mediocrity and making excuses. Although putting some weight back on is certainly an issue, the number on the scale is not the primary problem. The simple truth is when I eat healthy food and exercise regularly, I feel better. I think and act and speak more efficiently. I am more creative and productive. No doubt, I am more pleasant to be around as well. And that sleek, poised, Wonder Woman? I sure do miss her smiling back at me in the mirror each morning, ready to tackle the day.

Sometimes you’ve just got to get fed up with your own junk and choose to do something about it.

Here are a few positive affirmations as I snatch my own rumpus back in gear:
• I may not have been acting like Wonder Woman, but that is who I am.
• I will act like who I am. Not who I’m afraid of oozing back into, but who I am.
• That same determination and dedication that brought success before is still right here inside of me.
• Being a stick-thin supermodel is not my goal.
• I want this earthly temple to be an honorable dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
• Strength and good health are more satisfying and last much longer than any slice of cake.
• I really do like coconut and raw snap peas.
• The train is not so far in the valley as it was seven years ago.
• This week, I have already put my shoulder to this caboose and moved it forward an inch or two.
• I WILL push this train back over that hill. I WILL.

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PS This is the first time I’m double-dipping with my FB health journey page “Running After His Heart” and my Coddliwompling.com blog site. Feel free to check them both out.

A Tale of Two Tables

Friday was hard for me. Actually, it all began much earlier than that. I have been away from home for almost a month now. The homesick that had been nipping at my heels for weeks finally caught up. A friend in Israel I had been so looking forward to connecting with was unable to meet with me. It was the first time in 27 years I missed my daughter’s birthday. It was a trifecta of circumstances, the perfect storm for a pity party. Thursday night I cried myself to sleep, silent sobs of deep despair.

This trip has been so good, yet nothing – absolutely NOTHING – has gone as expected. I have seen some absolutely amazing places and God has opened my eyes to things in Scripture that I never noticed before. Yet the things I most wanted to happen, the conversations and stories I most wanted to hear, didn’t. I began to question why I was even here. What was the purpose? I only know that God said, “GO!” The how and why of what He will do with these experiences remains to be seen. In all fairness, I did pray for God to wreck my plans with His. On the one hand, it is exciting that He most certainly has, but perhaps I will be a little more selective with my choice of verbs the next time I pray something that bold. 😛

Friday morning as my friend and I joined our hosts at the breakfast table, I was a basket case. At first I tried to hide my feelings, but I simply could not stop crying. Five good minutes would pass then the tears would start up. Again. The three people sharing this incredibly awkward meal did all they could to point me in a positive direction. They acknowledged my sadness but did not allow me to wallow. Sometimes the best thing to do is just keep moving. We went to Nazareth Village that day. The more the day progressed, the more my focus shifted. I learned so much in this humble place, and my emotional energy was transferred from myself to the wonder of all that Christ has done. Seeing this site, perhaps more than any other during this trip, made me hungry to revisit Scripture now that I have walked where they took place: the vineyard, the olive press, among the almond blossoms, the grazing sheep, the flowers of the field, the dust of the paths. What an honor that is!

Friday evening, just after sundown, we sat again at that very same kitchen table. What a stark contrast this meal was from the one mere hours before. I celebrated my first Israeli Shabbat. Our hosts invited us to join them and a couple friends for this weekly feast. We lit the candles and sang songs of praise and worship. We spoke traditional prayers and blessings over each other. We toasted the fruit of the vine. We ate challah and roasted chicken and apple pie. It was a time to reflect on the goodness of God, to be still, to rest in His Presence.

My bent heart is mending. Although the book I envisioned writing simply is not going to happen right now, I choose to trust. I believe there are still stories for me to tell. I have mourned the perceived loss of a dream, but in my quiet times, God has been taking me beyond that kind of thinking. In some crazy way this time in Israel feels more like an introduction than a conclusion.