Monday, March 31, 2014

Challenge: Moving that bushel

Behold my netbook keyboard.
After 4 years of heavy use, it shows the traffic patterns of commonly used letters and finger rest stops. EOASDLCNM are more or less gone, with a few more keys close behind. (The down arrow was lost in a dog-related incident.)

It's all good, though--I touch type! And a handy side benefit? It keeps my kids from 'borrowing' my primary computer each time I walk out of the room.

This lack of clarity is cute enough for an anecdote, but what about when it's a congregation with poor signage or an outdated website? Or systems making it difficult for people to figure out what is going on and how to make change?

Is this simply neglect, limited capacity, or for some reason or another putting the light of not just that congregation but our faith under a bushel [1]?

These questions are scalable--to the responsibility of individuals, of congregations, and of the denomination. Last month RevCyn wrote about ways the UUA as an organizaiton could simplify some of the website/publication woes with a standard template for all to use and adapt.

But for my purposes, let's start with the easy stuff.
*Can a first-time guest find your sanctuary? The restrooms?
*Does your website show what's going on in the coming month?
*If someone wants to join your congregation, is there a clear way to know those steps?
*If you found something wrong in your congregational printed or digital materials, whom would you contact to handle it?

My challenge to all of us: answer these questions honestly. Consider what needs fixing, and do something.

I could go on. But I need to go put these items on my own to-do list.

1: Matthew 5:15

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fixing our disconnects

Much earlier today, I posted to Facebook:

The disconnect between the general and the specific:

I am certain there is an abundance of good in the world.
But this morning I worry if there is enough coffee.

Yes, I was mostly making a goofy post about needing more caffeination, but there's some actual thought underneath (I think.)

It's easy enough to state a belief or even an idea based in fact, but the specifics of actually getting there? Oy, that is far more difficult.

From the personal-
A healthy diet is important... but Cheetos are delicious.

To the relational-
Peace is our goal... but I'm going to fight my sister for video game time.

This, my friends, is how life provides us with plentiful opportunities to practice our beliefs, whatever they may be. Embodying what you hold to be true takes a fair amount of spiritual muscle, whether it is striving forward to accomplish something, or to hold back your baser instincts.

So, what is your disconnect?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The roller coaster of the church year

You know the big hill on most roller coasters? The one that goes chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk as it climbs?  This is the March and early April phase of a church calendar, as we moved toward 'year end.'

The church year is an intriguing beast. Still tied to the academic calendar, which is in turn tied to agricultural calendars very few of us follow anymore. We start soon after Labor Day, go pretty steadily through September and October and most of November. There's the wiggles of the holidays between Thanksgiving and New Years, then some chance of new energy. January and February work their way and March (in Texas) has Spring Break. By the time April rolls around, it seems as if most are chugging toward the end of the church year, toward summer breaks or changes.

It's not that people's lives are always calm over the summer, that they will have no life-changing events or need for celebrations and connections.  It's not as if everyone in our congregations takes a vacation in the summer months, or that they are out enjoying a too-brief supper.

The summer reductions in church programming, to me, speak of a reluctance to take our faith seriously. When damnation was cast aside,  a weekly check-in with God and/or church community seemed less critical. A shrug and a "who would notice" inkling can lead to Sundays in nature, in bed, in errands.  Not a one of those is a poor use of time, but neither are they full lesson plans for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning--where the responsibility involves sharing one's ideas and requesting feedback.

What might be a sustainable option for year-round ministries, keeping energy up AND allowing for staff and clergy breaks as needed?  Who might step up to continue momentum? How might a congregation use collaborative leadership to be a part of the solution? What piece would you love to hold or to juggle?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Movie Dirt

It is Friday night, so movie time.

As I write this post, King Arthur (2004 movie) is on TV, and I am struck by the relative amounts of dirt on the various characters. Some of these guys are pretty darned filthy, while others appear to have modern-day standards of cleanliness and upkeep. This is especially obvious in a movie where half the people are wearing facial tattoos and paint.

This is true in so many movies. Of course, the main characters are often the cleanest. When they are royalty, I guess I can understand- they would have privilege (and staff!) beyond those around them. But secondary characters and fallen villains with facial hair requiring Tony Stark precision? Unlikely.

In general, the enemy seems to be dirtier than "the good guys"--accentuating the fact that they are somehow lesser? Playing on the conceit of "heathen" uncivilized versus godly people.  This becomes part of the character design, held up by a fleet of hair and makeup artists, wardrobe folks,and the continuity folks who make sure the dirt (or lack thereof) stays in the same places.

On a lighter note, I really want Lancelot's woven leather coat.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Preparations and Thomas Potter

Painting. It seems so very straightforward.  "Oh, I am going to pick out some paint and take care of the walls in that room." But there are so very many steps that come before painting a single stroke. Clearing stuff out of the room, washing the walls, doing any patching that needs doing (then sanding and finagling, then texturizing a bit), covering the walls, taping the trim and counters and whatnot, priming... the size of the room has very little to do with the time it takes to finish the process.

Prep is not at all glamorous. There is no sudden transformation, no sense of accomplishment, and the chaos seems to increase exponentially before there is any real progress. Sometimes I wonder WHAT I was possibly thinking, to come up with such an idea...

But without this prep, the paint wouldn't stick, or it might even accentuate every imperfection in the wall.  And if I forget to tape, I will definitely make a giant mess.

Sometimes life itself is all about laying good groundwork.

My spiritual story here is that of Thomas Potter, the 18th century farmer who came to believe in Universalism. He allowed people to worship on his land, and in a true Field of Dreams moment, decided to build a church with the hopes of a Universalist minister coming to serve.  Ten years passed and he had found no such minister.  But he was steadfast, even when his neighbors and family doubted.

The story goes that a ship got moored on a sandbar near Thomas, and he approached the ship with interest. And there was John Murray, a known English Universalist preacher, who had left his native land as his life and finances and spirit crumbled. John was certain he would never preach again, but Thomas made a deal--if the winds allow your ship to sail off, godspeed. But if you remain stuck here Sunday, please, come preach! And thus, on September 30, 1770, Murray preached in Potter's church.

You can learn much more about this story at the Murray Grove website.

And now I need to get back to taping...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Veggie balance

Disclaimer: While this is about my veggie co-op, this is not a health food post.

For the last ten years I have been volunteering at a local organic co-op, most every Wednesday at Way Too Early in the morning. When I started I mostly counted the produce as it came in, but eventually I moved up the volunteer ladder.

Basically my job is to manage variables.  First, I work with whatever comes in the door to create satisfactory shares for everyone who has preordered. Then whatever is left over goes to open market, where it is available to anyone who might drop in. We sell more when we have a welcoming variety of items out there, beyond a full box of turnips and two cases of seemingly expensive blueberries. (Co-op cannot offer the loss leaders of $1.40 pints that a local grocery might!)

From week to week things shift. Will the Valencia oranges be fifty-six to a box, or seventy-two?  Do the red onions weigh out at an even pound, or are they all over the place, from half a pound to two pounds? Will our local grower send the bunched broccoli we asked for, our bagged broccoli, which is smaller but more expensive? Did a late freeze knock out the spinach? Are we short twenty-two grapefruits? So many things are beyond our control, and do not always fit neatly into those spreadsheet cells. With this task come opportunities for mental flexibility.

In some ways this is very much like my 'day job' at church--doing very practical work to balance needs so all may be nourished.  We have a core group we know to plan for, and some idea of possible resources, interest, and support. And members let us know if we miss the mark. The same lettuce-tomato-apple-cucumber share, while we all know what to do with it, would get boring week after week, and not reflect the rhythm of seasons. People like and need a little stretching, but if we include too many dandelion greens or persimmons, we definitely hear about it.

Most important is the understanding that what we are doing is much more than vegetables.  It is education--recipes for unfamiliar produce, lifting up sustainable practices. It is about clarifying values and finding meaning communally, checking in with one another from time to time.
It is about creating community, both onsite Wednesdays, at other events around town, and through social media and door-to-door promotions. Like any human endeavor, we have plentiful opportunities to try new things, to fail spectacularly, to apologize and to be gracious, and to find joy and wonder in the smallest caterpillar.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What are the right clothes for the job?

When I have evening meetings, I usually stay at work getting something extra done in that time, rather than driving home and back. But my parents are in town, so today I left from my afternoon meeting and did not go back to the office until 6:30.

I went to see what Dad was working on and soon enough I was helping out- holding boards and smoothing caulk... in my nice office clothes.

Sure, I could have gotten changed into grub clothes, but I knew I was going back to the office in a couple of hours--mud-streaked jeans are not appropriate for a board meeting.

So I stubbornly continued on, eventually taking the caulk gun, and doing my best to avoid messes. The closest call came in washing my hands--Mom had thrown some bleach in the soapy water. But no, I did not shake my hands or wipe them on my (chocolate brown) pants.

Stubborn to be certain.  I suppose I could claim a certain amount of efficiency--no changes needed and somehow I got the work done!

But it was awkward and full of anxiety. Not only am I something of a klutz, but my dad can get a little carried away in his chaos. So I moved slowly and deliberately, over thought some things, and kept my distance from brute force.

Our hymnal features an excerpt from Marge Piercy's To Be Of Use--the part that comes to mind is "I want to be with people who submerge in the task." Submerging--sometimes that seems a little rash and messy.  We would rather tiptoe carefully around the edges of the task.  We might or might not ever get finished, but at least we'll clean up easily...

Or maybe not. Perhaps tomorrow, between my 3:30 staff meeting and 8 PM webinar, I'll be painting the master bath. Surely my colleagues will understand the streaks of primer on my cheek, the bandana tight on my head.

What wonderful things might happen, if only we're willing to get messy?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Puzzle pieces

In February I posted a sermon referencing a patio project having some fallow time. 

Well, this past week my father has been visiting, my kids on spring break, and we have mostly completed the work. Leveling the surface, putting in electrical for the fountain he made me, putting in pea gravel and finally arranging the flagstone.

Our flagstone selection is a rather varied bunch- no two pieces are the same, in thickness or size or shape. Some are smooth, some are bumpy, and we've got something of a range of colors as well. Piecing it is always a challenge, and in a round patio with a central round paver?  Even more of a challenge. An accepted practice with flagstone is to break off the pointy bits that get in the way. It certainly would make the work easier, but I have a hard time doing it--not only does it seem wasteful, but there's a loss of character.

So Dad and I spent at least as much time puzzling over the pieces, trying to find the best place for each. When things weren't fitting quite right, it was rarely a matter of moving one stone. And often it involved three. Flipping and shifting and trading pieces was intentional and trying work, even with a forgiving margin between stones, and in this small space. (And perhaps because of the small space!)

This could be a metaphor for so many things and so many relationships.
Tonight I am pretty sore, though, so I'll let you consider your own analogies to landscaping endeavors.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Existential crises and the one-hit wonder

A friend of mine mentioned 80s one-hit wonders on Facebook. One hundred thirty-three comments later, a group of us had quite the playlist. A combination of the sublime and the truly regrettable.

As my lazy Sunday night due diligence, I was googling to make sure my suggestions were truly 80s songs--time and again I saw that the "one-hit" artist(s) had multiple albums but for one reason or another, only one song had sunken in with a wide audience.

Some of these artists are still touring--mostly county fairs and smaller venues. Countless times they probably tried out something new, to hear a grumbling crowd holler "What's this $#!%?  Play what we came for!" Or do they just do that one song, in some crazy extended remix?

Have you ever had a point in your life when you felt like you were only known for ONE thing? Perhaps it was an academic achievement or some other performance or triumph of your own. Maybe it was a horrid failure or major embarassing moment.  Perhaps it was one component of your identity.  A single adjective or noun that can overshadow everything else--whether or not the role is permanent.

When I had my sons, suddenly I was "the twins' mom." As much as I had wanted my children, and as much as I loved the little guys,the invisibility of the rest of me was soul-sucking. Jordinn Nelson Long wrote recently about this 'mommyhood' trap.

Organizations, too, can get caught in the trap of the one-hit wonder, of the singular identity.  A church or a group does something amazing (or amazingly ludicrous.) It may be something from thirty years ago. But the narrative is overwhelming--the one thing people remember, and all goes through that filter. 

We all contain multitudes.  But getting those stories told as well?  That involves some excavation. The breaking free takes energy, courage, and time.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Trying something big (Post not Safe for Vegetarians)

Here in Texas, barbecue is a big deal.  And brisket is king.  A relatively cheap and tough cut, brisket's other uses are generally braises, simmers*, or being ground up as part of burger. But low and slow and smoky?  Oh my goodness.  Alchemy is a real thing, y'all.

Like many here, I keep an eye (nose?) out for great brisket. Last year I went to Austin (150 miles away), waited for an hour in line for barbecue at John Mueller Meat Company, ate, and headed back to Houston.  That brisket was transformative.  I'm told it's in the pit for thirty-six hours at 180 degrees.

Brisket w/ dry rub,
filling a half-sheet pan
While I'm a fairly good cook and am generally up for an experiment, this DIY had never really occurred to me.  I do not have (or want to justify buying) a smoker.  And a brisket is a pretty giant experiment...

But my mother--oh.  She wanted to make this happen.  She took on the google search and came up with this take on Franklin's BBQ (also Austin), including directions for a gas grill. Last night we found a good deal on whole briskets with a generous fat cap, and we were in business.

Tiny tidbit of
We got up before 7 AM on a Saturday to get the dry rub on this 13.85-lb beauty and set up our grilling rig (see the article above for a diagram.) Once it was on the grill it was a matter of watching the temperature and adding wood from time to time.

After 9.5 hours I took a small sample from the behemoth and we decided that it was time to pull the brisket off the grill.

It turns out that a brisket shrinks
significantly in the long hours on
the grill/smoker.
Then came the hardest part--tent and rest the meat.  My patience was extra super tested.  I kept myself occupied with projects across the house, and then with prepping the sides for supper.

But eventually I got to carve into the
deliciousness. I did not bring all of it to the table, for I was certain the family just might gorge on this bounty.

Side view of the moist
Was it the best brisket I've ever had?  No, not yet.  But I've paid for worse. The taste in our inaugural batch was great--essence of beef, with not too much pepper. No visible smoke ring, but the taste was in there. (We were working with applewood.  Oak is traditional.) On a future attempt I might apply the rub the night before, giving the flavors a chance to get further into the meat. And we really need to upgrade our thermometers so we can keep the temp as low as we would like, giving the meat even longer for magic goodness to happen. (And not a recipe note, but jeez, our grill is on its last legs.)

Long story short--say yes to experiments!  Know that the intertubes are full of recipes and ehows and videos for most anything.  And you'll get massive cred for your attempt.  (Spouse has been wandering around in a daze, "I can't believe y'all made that!")

*Come to think of it, I never did get around to corned beef for St. Patrick's Day...

Friday, March 21, 2014

Because DREs are resourceful

(or at least, have access to many resources.)

It's something of a joke at work--if people need something, they know I'll have it in the religious education office. A square of sandpaper or duct tape or screwdriver for an emergency  repair? Got it. Salt for the chalice? Yep. First aid supplies? Of course!

This really comes in handy when, say, you realize that a critical seam on your pants has split.  Yes, there I was at 8:30 AM with a handful of tiny safety pins.

I cannot take credit for the abundance of riches--most of the gathering was done long before I took this job.  No, I'm just a curator of it all, and there are still treasures to uncover.

Today I was pulling together craft supplies to make butterflies.  I had pulled out a bag of tissue paper pieces--and hey, origami paper in there, too.  Sort of an advanced version of the craft.

The same bag had these cardstock hearts--I set them aside, to put with the gazillion other heart-shaped supplies we have.

It was a full hour before I glanced at the hearts again, and noticed that they appeared to have a seam. Some sort of card?  I flipped it open and looked down.

Hey, butterfly!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Negotiating Space in the Fridge of Unitarian Universalism

When I have houseguests, I do my best to be hospitable. My parents are here right now--we had to make room in the fridge for Dad's beer and their homemade sausages. My mother rearranged the shelves to make room, and nothing is in its usual spot. A little unsettling, but it's probably good for me. If nothing else, we uncovered some intriguing mysteries and combined jars of spicy olives. And in a couple of weeks my parents will head out and a bunch of real estate will open back up (for more olives, most likely.)

When we deliberately share our lives with others, whether roommates or partners or family, territory can be a bigger deal and there will probably be times when negotiating is needed--hopefully before a big blowup over the two pickles taking up their gallon jar of space, or why anyone in their right mind needs to save thirty-two ketchup packets when there's a perfectly good squeeze bottle of organic ketchup on the door.

Sometimes churches can be like my fridge. Each of us has our own things we need--those things take space and time which are quite finite. We might need to get creative to make it all fit.  What if we need to make tough choices and take something out? What happens when people have different and sometimes opposing values?  Can we talk through it and assume that we'll find a fair solution? Do we leave their disgusting cilantro* out on the counter to rot? Possibly with a snide note about how disgusting cilantro* is and how you better not find that touching any of your food?

(Apologies to my gluten-free friends
and those with tomato allergies and
aversions. The fridge pic refused
to load. And the green stuff is basil.)
Beyond our congregational walls, as people of faith we have negotiating to do.  Unitarian Universalism is known to be non-credal, so there is no required statement of belief. Hypothetically, we could be open to anything showing up in our faith fridge. And yet there are personal preferences, style differences, and giant chunks of culture. The way things are in Houston, Texas may be quite different than in Canton, Massachusetts. Some of our congregations are vocally humanist, while others are far closer to the Unitarian and Universalist Christianity of our heritage.  Some services feature a harpsichord AND a historic organ, while others don't get their spirit on without a stirring refrain from the ukulele chorus.

What faith staples do we all keep on hand?  What deliciousness can we make together? What do some of us adore and others find to leave a horrible aftertaste? Is there anything SO anathema that we would call for another UU to remove it from the shelves entirely? How might we frame these conversations?

*I love cilantro. It's a metaphor, dagnabbit!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Irony, be not lost on us

My kids love love love their computer. They have an assortment of games they play whenever they possibly can- some singly and some with their friends as they talk via "Team speak".

It makes me more than a little grumpy when the children are tied to the computer more than anything else. When they have not read more than six pages in their books in days because they are busy with some endeavor online.  When I get that Heavy Sigh requiring full teen lung capacity if I suggest that it is time for a chore or bed or even going out  to a restaurant they like.

Of course, I am writing this observation on my computer, which has been near me much of the evening.  I have checked facebook and blog stats and email and my other email and the message board for my online course and chatted with colleagues and researched grills and read about Alban's closing and... well, you get the picture.

It is easy enough for me to claim that my time was productively spent. But when my sons and I stop to talk about it, the boys can explain how they are learning things, how they are connecting with people near and far, and how they are developing skills far beyond what I might have imagined.

And to be fair, they finished their chores, while I never got around to making coleslaw this evening.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Time travel at my desk

I cannot juggle. Really. I have an interesting relationship with gravity, and balls in the air hit the ground if I am in any way involved.

Life, however, demands prioritizing and making things fit. I find this is especially confusing when we are working on a variety of time frames.

There are the immediate things--an urgent phone call, the person who shows up in my office. The deadlines and things I need to get to others this week.

Further off are the plans I need to set for this summer. And ideas we need to start on for next year. And oh yes, we would like to consider our five-year and ten-year plan.

It is most definitely more than I can hold in my brain--sure, I have plenty of neural space, but it's easily waylaid with thoughts of today's lunch or bad recall loops of 80s lyrics.

So there are calendars and sticky notes and spreadsheets, which, I'll be honest, give me happy thrills. But they just do not compare to a gorgeous day outside, full of blooming flowers and bright blue skies and squirrels.

Curtains, perhaps.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Talkin' 'bout my generation..."*

Lately I've alternated between scoffing and laughing at the spate of articles talking about millenials and boomers, conveniently ignoring Gen X.  So I'm surprised when I come across an article specifially about us--this one from last August is about whether or not we're having midlife crises.

Of course I had to read it.

According to this article's conceits, I make a lousy Gen Xer.  My parents are Boomers (rather than the Silent Generation) and forty-two years of marriage in they have yet to divorce.  Rather than the 'extended adolescence' our generation is known for, I was married at 22 and had my children at 25.  We bought this home over 15 years ago, for heaven's sake.  (Ok, maybe it does have some Ikea and some homemade preserves.)

WHY do I pay attention to what sweeping generalizations some columnist offers about everyone born in the window ten years before to ten years after me?  Don't I hold to be true the unique spirit of each of us, and do my best to look past assumptions?

It all comes back to the question we have at every stage of life-- am I normal?  We seek out validation that we aren't too far off the norm (though we want to be a little edgy, perhaps.)  We want to know that we have a tribe, a cohort, someone who will understand.
It's just one more yearning for connection, with a hope of shared experience. I just wish it didn't have to feel so us versus them.

*My Generation was written just as the first Gen Xers were popping into being. I considered using a suitable generational tune, but that discernment would take days and there would be scads of disagreement.  Hmmm... there's one way to get comments on the internet...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Success Without Perfection (Thank goodness!)

I will admit to having some major perfectionist tendencies and not dealing well when things start spiraling out of control.  And let's face it--there's only so much control any of us have over things.

We were having people over for a dinner party Friday, and it was one of those days when nothing was going as smoothly as it might-

  • At some point in the prep, I realized that one of my kids had snitched half of the cauliflower from the gobi aloo (Indian dish featuring potatoes and cauliflower)
  • I dropped one of the side dishes on the floor--spicy mushrooms and porcelain mingled across the floor.  SMASH!  Wasted food and a big mess.
  • I made sure to leave time to shower and primp a little... and the hair dryer went kaput a minute into drying my hair.
  • Secondborn was working with a ganache frosting for the first time, and it was an insane mess.
  • I had a turmeric incident, and the pot of macaroni and cheese was NEON yellow.

Some of these things I could not change--there was no time to buy and roast more cauliflower, and those mushrooms and that bowl--gone, daddy, gone.

Others took a little problem solving--we figured out that the hair dryer went out because we tripped a circuit.  Easy enough.  And putting the cake and the ganache in the fridge for a bit helped
everything to firm up and get more cooperative.

The party was a big success--by the time our guests arrived we were going with the flow.  There was still plenty to eat, there was great conversation, and it turns out that people will devour macaroni and cheese regardless of its color.  I'm told that turmeric is good for the digestion.  Something about stimulating the liver...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Including fire exits and spiritual concierge service

(This is another angle on an idea I've been working on for a while.  The first take, from another angle, is here.)

From time to time people agree to be on a committee or take on a critical role, and at some point they might realize that it is not working.  Perhaps there has been a life change or too much time has passed, but maybe it is just NOT a good fit. Or maybe the person has not made that realization, yet change needs to happen.
Yes, laying a groundwork of terms and leadership development training are two important pieces of building healthy ministries.  But might we include some "escape" options in the infrastructure of our systems to make shifts possible, and maybe even encouraged?  
Put more simply--can someone say "No thanks" to an obligation and stay in the larger system?  Congregations need to make this reasonable, or risk these people fleeing in their shame/apathy.  (Last time I checked, neither shame nor apathy were spiritual values we want to uphold as Unitarian Universalists...)
Susan Smith, one of our Congregational Life folks down here, talks about how sometimes we are better at honoring people's Utilitarain Worth than their Inherent Worth.  How do we help congregations and individuals to make space for transformation, and to recognize that shifts are not just inevitable, but healthy?

Part of this, I think, would be an annual (or some periodic) honest and caring check in among leaders--how are things going?  Who is finding their work meaningful?  Who is feeling pulled in another direction?  Some of this may need to be one-on-one conversations, and a culture where no one need feel trapped.

Spiritually, the community needs a sense of grace and abundance.  People need to feel that they are still welcome even if they are not carrying a specific load, and there needs to be enough flexibility in the system that each shift is not immediately internalized as a 'loss'.  
There is so much to consider.  Thank goodness it is sacred work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Porta-pottie transport, and other late night ramblings

This morning I drove to work behind a flatbed carrying porta-potties.
FOURTEEN porta-potties, as it turned out.  I decided not to take this as an omen for my day, and I also kept a VERY safe following distance.  Just in case, dontcha know.

I stopped at the pie shop for pie and breakfast, and when I was finished, I found a very glossy Maserati parked next to my car. Looking more like it!

What are the random events that we let determine our attitudes as we go through the day?

Some input does have known impacts--a lack of sunshine can be hard of us, but especially those who have Seasonal Affective Disorers and such.

But the vast majority of the sensory input we get each day has very little import to how our day might go.  Unless we attach meanings to it.

Making meaning... that certainly sounds familiar.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Grandpa Chair

Behold the Grandpa chair.  I'm told that the designer realized that while people like the looks of an Adirondack chair, it would be much easier to get in and out of a chair that's higher off the ground.

This one's also called the Grandpa chair because my sons made it with my father when we were visiting his house.  They got to cut and drill and router (route?) and sand, then stain and assemble.  Once it was all together they numbered every piece and took the chair apart so it would fit into the car.

My father is visiting next week and my children are preparing in their own ways.  PICKLES was scrawled on the grocery list--they know what he likes.  And we had some tense negotiations this week, deciding that Saturday will be haircut day, before Grandpa can suggest the pet trimmers.  They're making lists of possible day trips and projects they'd like to fit into this shared Spring Break.  Maybe I'll get another chair out of the deal.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Could you say "No thanks" and stay?

Have you ever taken on an obligation and realized along the way that it was not for you? But out of a sense of duty you stayed the course?  While it might strengthen your character, it could also be pretty soul-sucking.

What if there were a way, something in the culture, where you could set that burden down, that it would be ok, and you could take something else on? There would be no shame, no "I told you so", no bitterness.

What might you move on to?

In our congregations (and in many other volunteer organizations), this first part seems to be very common.  People want to be helpers, so they say yes when asked. Perhaps they know the realities of the position ahead of time, but often they agree to obligations without knowing the full extent of duties and skills required.

How often is there a graceful way to say, "You know, this is not working for me. I love the organization and want to be of service, but not in this way" instead of either suffering through a term (hopefully there is a set term, and you aren't stuck forever) or sneaking away?

For those creating the leadership systems, what check-ins can we build into our processes?

I don't have the answers...yet.  Give me a couple of decades.

One resource I am finding helpful is Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers, by Nelson Searcy. While written from a very Christian point of view, it has a lot to offer Unitarian Universalists willing to do the translation.  The book provides some great infrastructure, particularly for the early stages of volunteering--giving people ways to get their feet wet and explore their gifts before they commit to something bigger than they can handle.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I have a headache again. It's a rebound headache from the one I had yesterday, and now it's too late in the evening for the caffeine-aspirin combo I would usually have as a first resort.

One of the biggest triggers for a migraine I've found thus far is poor sleep hygeine. Not getting enough sleep, or getting off my schedule, can easily push me over the edge, and suddenly I have to take to my darkened cave.  Ugh. As much as I love a nice nap, I prefer to avoid the pain and nausea.

I could blame the time change, but really it is all on me.  I took too long and too late a nap on Sunday, then stayed up far later than I should have that night, and got up far too late on Monday. I really do know better. And yet I'm up a little late now, when I know my alarm goes off early tomorrow...

Supposedly pain makes for an excellent teacher. And yet people will put up with considerable pain rather than consider changing their habits or losing something they have.  Rational?  Not especially.

Maybe one of these days we'll grow up.
Or at least stop making the same painful mistakes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Make it a "Birthday Week"

I am a little crazy for birthdays-they're a big deal and I believe they should all be celebrated. I have gained some slight level of maturity to recognize that we do not force others to make a big deal of their birthdays, but this Friday is MY birthday, so I can be as obnoxious as I like.

Really, I think we should get more than a day to celebrate. Especially if it is a milestone birthday. Or if your birthday is in the middle of the week, or on a day when you have lots of meetings.
It should be at least a whole weekend.  But a whole week sounds even better.

Some of the days happen before the actual anniversary of birth--a time to be mindful of the 'lasts' and to reflect on the year.  (Sort of like all the glossy year end articles and top 40 specials...) And then the big day! After, a few more days to extend the celebration to build a strong base of awesome to start the next year of one's life. (And some naps to keep rested.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014


I love toast. From time to time I consider just LIVING on toast.  Me, toaster, fixins, and a big pile of books-I could read all day and never have to get off the couch!  (Yes, in my fantasy, I can move the toaster into the living room.  But not into the bedroom, because who wants to sleep on toast crumbs?)

But sometimes at the end of a busy day *I* am toast.

And not delicious golden brown toast made from artisan bread and carefully slathered in good butter and homemade jam.

Nope.  Toast that was left in too long, charred and curled up on the edges.  Then forgotten and cold.  Dry and nasty.

When I am toast, I lose my nouns and get snippy. No, not snippy.  I become a grumpy badger--desperate to be alone in my den.

The cure is not as simple as scraping off the burny bits (and to be fair, that's not really a solution for the toast I eat, either.)

Thankfully, lunch helps. A nap. Some quiet. Then silly movies and nothing especially taxing.

Tomorrow is my day off.  And I am so very glad.  A little bit of hibernation will do me good.
Maybe I'll have some toast.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Urgency! (and soup)

"Hi, Mom.  We're done with our class."
Over forty-five minutes early, across town.
This is not the phone call you want just as your lunch arrives.
SOUP!  And these adorable peppers stuffed with goat cheese...

I suppose I could have asked for it to all be packed up. But none of that is in any way road food, and I was mighty hungry.  So I took the time to finish my soup and delicious peppers. I read an article and a half. I declined dessert.

When I got across town, the kids were playing happily. Mine were far from the only ones still waiting to be picked up.

Life is full of urgency.  So many things and people and ideas demand our attention Right This Moment. Rarely, however, do they require such immediate action that you should stop eating your soup.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Things It Might Be Safe to Assume

There's a link going around right now urging us to be furious that Facebook suspended the account of a grieving mother because she posted pictures of her baby who was born with a fatal birth defect.

Here's the thing--the story happened in 2012, and Facebook apologized within a few days.

Perhaps it is more viscerally satisfying just to be enraged and hit the Share button than to stop to consider things, maybe do a little fact checking.

In my line of work, we talk a lot about "Assume Good Intentions"--basically, know that most of us are doing the best we can with what we've got.

Here are a few more I might add to the list:
Assume that not a one of us is perfect, and sometimes we just whoops.  It does not mean we are evil or irredeemable or out to get you.

Assume that people need to be told what you need.  If mindreading were especially common, we would have scientific proof of it by now.

Assume that someone else may be able to pick up your technology and make it do things you did not know it could.  (This animated .gif is kind of freaking me out.)

Assume that you don't know someone's entire story, even if they've been talking to you for years.  Almost all of us have some parts we keep hidden away.

Assume that good things may yet happen, even when everything seems like one big pile of cold wet manure. (Warm manure would at least give comfort in that one way...)

Assume that love is possible.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What's Cooking?

I have not yet kissed my slow cooker, but that's only because when it's at its most alluring, it is also blisteringly hot.

As far as I am concerned, it is alchemy. I put ingredients within, leave the house, and the next thing I know--AMAZING smells and what's that?  Dinner is mostly ready?

Even better--sometimes I load it before I go to bed.  Most delicious dreams ever. And such a feeling of accomplishment when supper is ready before anyone else in the house is even awake!

And best of all? Quicker recipes (4-6 hours) for busy Sundays--load the crockpot, go do the heavy lifting of my Sunday morning, and open the door to a lovely and hearty meal?  It's like being invited into someone else's home... but I can do this in pajamas, and fall immediately into SundayAfternoonNap.

With my trusty smart phone I can stand in the grocery store in front of sale items, looking for the
best slow cooker recipe.  That's how we ended up with Wednesday's layered dish--the base was small potatoes cut in half (cut sizes up), 12 oz. sliced mushrooms, marinated chicken drumsticks, then collards on top.  Oh my goodness.  I ended up using some of the braising liquid to make some quick lentils with veggies and we had a delicious dinner on the table before 6.

This part of the week I have a bunch of meetings and will not be home for dinners.  So I made the guys something I knew they'd find a special treat--I grabbed a picnic roast and made carnitas (Mexican shredded pork), with a pound of pinto beans at the bottom of the slow cooker-- presto- bonus bean soup.  I walked in the door late this evening and saw three beaming faces. They're not at all sad that there are plenty of leftovers. (By the way- an 8-lb bone-in roast yields eight cups of finished carnitas. That's plenty, even when there are teenagers in the house.)

So, what should my next slow cooker adventure be?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lenten Photo Practice Day 1: Connection

I am taking part in this mindfulness project with a themed picture every day.

Today's word was Connection.

No problem, thought I!  For the past ten years I have gotten up early most Wednesdays to help set up my veggie co-op.  PLENTY of connection there!

I was excited to see that we were getting vine tomatoes--already connected?  Meant to be.

But before I could take a picture, one of the other volunteers had separated all the tomatoes.
Lesson:  When you don't communicate your needs, there can be some real disconnects.

Ah well.  I went on a search then, trying to come up with something else likely.

Bananas grow in bunches, and are shipped in these groupings--generally three to nine bananas. It's like a little yellow family. When I only need a couple I feel a little bad for breaking the connections.

Turnips, on the other hand, grow individually.  If we get them with fresh greens, they're most often bundled up like this.  This is more the chosen relationships of our lives--where and with whom do we choose to huddle?

Whatever your connections, may they be delicious!


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Taming "MALARKEY!" mind

My natural setting can be a little on the cynical side.  Sometimes I'm a little snarky.
I use Snopes like I use carmex--abundantly and with lip smacking.

Today someone posted this video*

and my first thought was "Well, I bet birds sit in all sorts of discordant and wacky patterns, too."

That in no way makes the video less wonderful. Indeed--it might be MORE wonderful, because it was exceptional. And it gets us thinking about patterns and connectedness and there's music, too?

And yet my brain went immediately to "MALARKEY!"

I'd rather go first to joy and beauty and love.

*Ok, it is 4.5 years old.  But there's an awful lot of things hiding around on the internet.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Blogging every day means

that sometimes you bore anyone unlucky enough to find the day's entry.

I will admit that I am still tired from Sunday-it is an occupational hazard.

I wanted to write a haiku about cheeseballs, but I couldn't figure out how many syllables are really in "orange"...and the weather has been so crazy that it's hard to know which season to reference.

I considered questions like "What if a congregation's newsletter deadline doesn't match candidating dates?" and "How many sermons have UUs done on the joy of NASCAR?" and "If we love coffee so much, why do we use percolators?", but really, I would rather nap than go into those.

So here--have a piece of king cake.  Mardi Gras is upon us!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Have Courage and Be Kind." (or Cinderella's To-Do List)

A sermon, given at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, TX, on March 2, 2014

Some of you are wondering-- how can we possibly be talking about a FAIRY TALE when the world is blowing up around us.  I know, the news coming out of the Ukraine scares me into paralysis--maybe it would have been easier to stay curled up under my blankets this morning...  And yet.  Today’s reading <excerpts from On Fairy Storieswas written by Tolkien in 1939, at the dawn of the Second World War.  It wasn't published until 1947 and his endnotes make reference to revisions he did in light of the horrors of that war.  But his central theses?  On those he held true.   (And not to put too fine a point on it, but he wrote much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in that same time frame.)

So yes, we’re talking about fairy tales today AND we are playing Sermon Bingo.  No one is required to play, but
 it will help some of us to pay attention.  I do ask that when you get a Bingo, please celebrate QUIETLY, and hand me your card AFTER the service to claim your prize.
It's funny--among Unitarian Universalists there is widespread hate of Cinderella.  Parents fear that their daughters will fall victim to Disney Princess Syndrome, twirling around in pink fluffy dresses and waiting for their Prince Charmings.

Sadly, most of us only know the Disney version of the Cinderella story, a cleaned up and shortened version of Charles Perrault's telling.  Now, Perrault was a seventeenth century author trying to influence friends in high places.  He took existing stories and carefully molded them to be appropriate for reading at the royal court. So his Cinderella is so very meek, so passive, in desperate need of rescue.

Whether it’s the Bible or a fairy tale, when you have a beef with a story, consider the narrator.

There are countless versions of this story--as I said, there are similar tales in most cultures, some over two thousand years old.  In many Cinderella shows diligence and initiative, not to mention a clever mind.  And a central message left out of Perrault’s telling?  Before Cinderella’s mother dies, she gives her daughter comfort, security, and a moral center, and the lesson-- Have Courage and Be Kind.

My friends, these are days indeed when we need to Have Courage and Be Kind.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have our own culture and if we were to retell the story, Cinderella might suddenly declare that she was being oppressed, demand the family estate be transformed into a workers’ cooperative, get a full-ride scholarship to Berkeley, and tell the king that his son needs sufficient social skills to find his own life partner-- the funds for royal balls would be put to better use feeding the hungry and assuring the fair treatment of children and their woodland creature friends. 

As a faith, and as Americans, we have our own myths about the solitary hero—something of an iconoclast even-the person who can break every societal mold and go out on their own, triumphantly conquering every obstacle. 
When we talk about Unitarian Universalist history, we often concentrate on individuals, with a larger-than-life picture of that iconoclast.  We think wistfully of Thoreau’s quiet contemplation in his self-sufficient solitude on Walden Pond... forgetting that the cabin was on Emerson's land, and that Thoreau went in to town or had visitors nearly every day-- there are stories of his mother making sure his laundry was done AND sending him baked goods.  It’s a good life if you can get it.

A story I prefer is that of the Iowa Sisterhood. In 1875, twenty-one Unitarian ministers who happened to be women  heard the call of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, head of the Western Unitarian Conference, and joined together to serve an area hungry for Unitarianism—the rapidly settling West, by which I mean the Midwest and Great Plains states.
The conditions were often rough and the pay lousy—these were postings that men would not take--but the women founded and supported congregations across those states. 

The Sisterhood also acted as mentors to other women with passions to ministry, helping them through the process in a time long before female clergy were common in any denomination.

Each Sunday we put these inserts in the orders of service, asking the congregation to answer a question or two to help us focus our sermons and class lessons.  Leading up to this week, I asked people to consider a time when they had a dream or a goal—what distracted them and who supported them on their way.  I was privileged to get many stories, and permission to share them-- several children answered, telling about their struggles to do things they had never done before, like running a lemonade stand or doing a triathlon.  I also heard from several adults who went back to school, either for a single class or a degree program.

Challenges fell into two categories.  The first was logistics—how do you fit something into an already busy life? Can you afford it?  What will you eat? The second category was self-talk.  The doubt and the fears of the not knowing, of the possibility of failure, of not being good enough. Sometimes it seems easier and more realistic to give up than to ask for help.

That last part of the question?  I got to learn about folks who supported your dreams with meals, with chore help, childcare, and with teaching, mentoring, and so much cheering on.

<Some personal stories of others omitted for web-publishing purposes>

We all need fairy godmothers.  We need cheerleaders; we need allies; we need minions to help us do the heavy lifting and the struggle and the celebration of our lives.

Rarely are our Fairy Godmothers immediately obvious.  Recently my son remarked over dinner, "Mom, the world needs more people like you." I looked at him quizzically, and yes, a little afraid. Then he continued-- "You know, people who are making the world a better place."

I do not share this as a brag on my child or on myself.  I say it because it was a Saving Moment.  It was that sudden burst of energy on a day when I was low--it filled my tank for days.  He did not say it lightly, nor to curry favor, but wow, did he enrich my soul.

In Sunday School classes today, the children are learning a story I have told here before—the story of Antoinette Brown and Olympia Brown—no relation.  Nearly two hundred years ago, when Antoinette was a young girl, she determined that she would be a minister, at a time where women just did not do such a thing.  Her mother never doubted her, and snipped a length of white ribbon and pinned it to Antoinette’s dress.  “You can achieve this,” she said.  Seventeen years later, Antoinette DID become a minister.

On a speaking tour, she met Olympia Brown, a young woman also interested in the ministry.  Antoinette shared her mother’s words and a bit of white ribbon.  In 1863, Olympia Brown was the first woman to be ordained by the Universalist Church. 

In later years the women worked together on Women’s suffrage, earning the vote when Antoinette was 95 and Olympia 85.

As much as we need supporters in our lives, we also need to be like Antoinette and continue the chain—sometimes we need to BE the fairy godmother (or minion, or cheerleader, or partner--choose the image that works for you.)

These (hold up wings) are my Fairy Godmother wings.  I have them because when my goddaughter was 3, she was in the hospital for Halloween.  I couldn't POSSIBLY visit without a costume, could I?  We had a grand old time that day.

With our friends and family we embody love quite organically.  We like their pictures on Facebook, we send them holiday cards and birthday cards, flowers when they are celebrating and casseroles when they are sick.

With fellow congregants we extend our connections, affirming and supporting one another.  Informally on a Sunday morning, and more deeply through our shared interests and covenant groups, sometimes intentionally through our Lay Pastoral Ministry Team.

As Unitarian Universalists, our principles call us to the inherent worth of every person, and to the interconnected web of existence.  William Ellery Channing, 19th century Unitarian, talked about the full unfolding of every human soul- the image that sticks in my mind is the flower from this morning's meditation <Carolyn S. Owen-Towle's Fragile and Rooted>. 

What would it take to ensure that every human soul could unfold to its most beautiful potential?

Our tradition calls for us, not to be passive wait-a-rounds, not to curl up in despair—but also not to be perfectionist heroes doing it all ourselves.  We are called to be active co-creators of our faith and our world.  Let me say that again-- active co-creators. Making the world, together—with the divine and with others—not just those in the pews, not just those we already know.

Throughout our faith history, Universalists and Unitarians have combined their voices and strengths to work for the abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage, for animal welfare and ending child labor.  More recently, Unitarian Universalists have worked for civil rights, education, health, the environment, peace. We have expanded our understandings to see how we must act as allies, not simply helping “the other”, but realizing how we are all held back by oppressions, and healed and transformed as we work together.

Closer to home, Emerson holds social action as a core ministry—our Share the Plate program distributes funds to worthy charities; our Groppe Scholarships start deserving young people on a course to higher learning.  The Emerson Abolitionists are tackling the tough issues of human trafficking and we are charter members of the Texas UU Justice Ministry, making sure that our state legislators understand that LOVE, not hate, should guide us.  And later this month we will work on our FIFTIETH Rebuild Together Houston house!  There is room for most every gift, and the Social Action Council welcomes your energy and your ideas, as together we work to build a better world.

There is still much to be done.  As Reverend Mark would put it, No Reason For Boredom Yet!

I started with the rather depressing news out of Ukraine. 
The other big news story of the week (for me at least) was US District Justice Orlando Garcia's decision that Texas's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  There’s a stay on the decision, so the parties at the registrar and justice of the peace offices have yet to start.  But it is an encouraging drop in a much larger bucket, that change is coming, and we may soon have another way in which people are more equal, another way love can be expressed.  It is hope, and it is a hope held dear by many Unitarian Universalists, and worked on by clergy and lay leaders alike.

I close today with these words from Rebecca Parker, minister and President of the Starr King School for the Ministry- <adapted from Blessing The World: What can save us now>

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world….
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the Intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kids and Chores--the short version

I'm slightly famous in certain (very small) circles for a single parenting rule I probably learned from my own parents.

Namely:  Do not do anything for your children that they can do for themselves.
This is a combination of encouraging domestic learning, and my ideas of fair distribution of labor (or perhaps laziness.)
  • Since the day we got a front-loading washing machine when they were eight or so, the boys have done their own laundry.  One basket for dark clothes, one for whites. (Bonus? This keeps their oopses from hurting MY clothes.)
  • They do the majority of the dishes, and are responsible for some of the tidying around the house.
  • They are entirely responsible for their bathroom, because ew.
  • We've been working on cooking lessons for ages now--they get to choose recipes and make us dinner, and breakfast on Saturdays if we're at home. This year they got their own chef's knives.
  • When given money, they can get themselves to the grocery store, do light shopping, and get it back home unscathed and uneaten.
(Ok, so this was early acclimation...)
Now, it does not always go perfectly, especially when we all have a busy week. And they do not like chores any more that the rest of us--sometimes some nagging has to happen.  

Through the years we have worked on different distributions of the chore list--they are pretty big on equity. Some weeks more gets done on Sunday than the whole rest of the week, as that's "Change-Over Day"--Monday morning they switch to the other set of chores.  It's the time of week where they inspect one another's areas and decide whether or not to accept the work or send 'em back for rewrites.

And here's that link about Montessori age-appropriate skills, with an editorial about why sometimes it works better than others.  Ayup.