Mercy Me! I've got work to do.

Mercy Me — I've got work to do! making the world a better place – starting with me.


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The problem of gratitude

It’s been decades since I have been in grammar school, so when I think of Thanksgiving, pilgrims or Indians don’t generally come to mind. I think of whose bringing what, where am I supposed to go, when will I get my Christmas shopping done and why, oh why, do men watch so much football.

Back in 1621, there were no parades, no Black Friday circulars, and no grocery stores to buy the bounty. There were just groups of people from different cultures celebrating thanks.

I do think I would have liked to be an Indian though – to wear my hair in braids, with a papoose of babies in the front and bow and arrow on my back. I think that would have been super cool. It appeals to me so much more than being a pilgrim girl and wearing one of those confining bonnets tied around my neck.

But whether you wear braids or bonnets or even flat iron your hair, most of us celebrate Thanksgiving. It makes us feel good to count each one of our many blessings from hot coffee to warm hugs, and having an excuse to eat copious amounts of food is like adding gravy to the mashed potatoes. It just makes everything that much better.

I only wish the spirit of this holiday lasted more than a day – that I could remember to be thankful all year long

But somehow, I usually forget.

I tried to start a gratitude journal once. I committed to write down three things everyday that made me thankful. On the days that I did it, I never wrote just three. There was no way I could limit myself when so many came to mind.  By the time I wrote three blessings, three more came to mind and then six, and then nine. At some point I realized math was happening- that gratitude was increasing exponentially and that the more I acknowledged my thankfulness the more there was to acknowledge.

I wrote about such moments as holding my nephew, going on a trip with my husband, coming home, lunch with my mom, walking with my friend, a song that reminded me of being pregnant with my first born and for times when his younger brother gently playing with my hair.

I also wrote some dubious things on my gratitude list that included sweating, hiding under the covers (no doubt from myself) and cleaning mildew.

It didn’t matter that it sounded kind of hodge-podge. It mattered that I felt gratitude and it mattered more that I took a few measly minutes to acknowledge it.

If it were an algebra problem, and it is perplexing enough to be one, then the unknown in the equation would be if it was indeed so great, so magical to recognize all the things I had to be thankful for — then why did I quit?

It was the giant X in a problem that ultimately had a very simple answer – choice.

To know gratitude is a blessing in itself, but it doesn’t happen on its own. Like so much in life, it is a choice. It is a decision we make, time we take, and selfishness we forsake. (That has a nice rhyme to it, so don’t be surprised if it shows up in a rap song someday.)

But when we don’t take time to choose gratitude, we choose otherwise.

Perhaps the lyrics of the song Freewill by the rock band, Rush, say it best “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

We have to choose to pause, to notice, and to acknowledge, otherwise by default, it seems we’ve made an entirely different choice. We inadvertently ignore the blessings of gratitude.

Each day we have the chance to notice all the abundance in our lives, all the beauty in nature and all the hope in humanity. 

It’s easy enough to make the choice on a day such as Thanksgiving when we are surrounded by food, family, and if you are a fan, you could even add football to that list. It’s the rest of the days that the choice of gratitude often gets left undecided.

I am thankful that the Indians and pilgrims chose gratitude and for the generations who followed them who kept the tradition thriving all the way into a new millennium, so that centuries later, I am reminded of my own choice.

The legacy of thanks is one that can expand into infinity, if we choose to decide, and if we don’t, well, we would do well to remember that we still have made a choice.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to list the three things I am thankful for today.

  1. Sleeping cats
  2. Goodbye kisses
  3. No mildew to clean

 

And of course, each of you.

What are you thankful for today?


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Why firewood is the perfect birthday gift – 5 ways to live simply

My birthday was last week and instead of getting diamonds, pearls, or even something useful like shower gel, I received a box of firewood as one of my gifts.

Yep. Firewood.

I would show you a picture of me posing with it on the big day, but somehow no one managed to capture the surprised look on my face.

Surprise isn’t really the right word either. I was more confused than surprised. I wondered, is there a diamond wrapped in the box of firewood?

No, it was indeed a box of firewood.

Believe it or not, it was actually one of the more thoughtful gifts I have received from my husband.

The other gifts did not include lighter fluid, matches or charcoal either. In fact, over the years, he has bought me lots of nice presents that did not involve kindling.

As I grow older, or just grow, I find that I want fewer things. The material becomes immaterial as I focus on creating moments that matter instead of curating a collection of more stuff.

I want to live more simply, and my feeble attempt to express that has been to tell my husband that I want to live like people do on a farm.

That’s what the firewood was all about. It wasn’t so we could have a fire this winter and talk about what crops we were going to plant in the spring. It was about giving me some of the simplicity I crave.

He knows I am kind of over my suburban lifestyle.

For one, I am tired of buying in bulk. It’s heavy. I feel like I need a farmhand just to load it all in my car.

Then, there is the waste. My Sunday ritual now includes throwing out all of the food we didn’t eat during the week. This week that included smoked salmon, two hard-boiled eggs and some left over quinoa. I am of the generation that grew up being guiltily reminded about the starving children in Ethiopia so I cringe every time I throw away food.

And while I am grateful for health insurance and good medical care, my children have had more x-rays, cat scans and seen more specialists than I have in all of my 42 years.

On the farm we would just see the doctor if we were dead, dying or bleeding to death, and the doctor would make house-calls. We would not have to drive across town to a medical complex and hunt for a parking a space that will fit our tractor-sized SUVs, only to have to crawl out the hatch back since all the spaces are made for compact cars.

Instead of waiting for the doctor in your own bed like on a farm, you go wait in an icy room with a bunch of magazines about crafts you can’t do, recipes too complicated to make and fashion that nobody could actually wear off of a runway. Eventually you see the doctor, but that’s only a blink of an eye of the whole experience.

But alas, I don’t live on a farm and thus will take my son to an orthopedist tomorrow – in my own SUV.

After listening to my conversations about farm living, my son has told me he can’t do chores on the farm with a separated growth plate in his right shoulder. I explained that on the farm he would just have to use his left arm, and like Gloria Gaynor, he would survive.

While I, myself, might be a little bit like Eva Gabor on the seventies sit-com Green Acres if I actually had to live on a farm, the concept of living more simply appeals to me.

So I have been trying to take small steps that really don’t require overalls or a move to the country. The only thing they entail is a decision to live mindfully.

Here’s my list of some ways I want to live:

1. Shop locally. I have always tried to do this, but have made more of a concerted effort lately. I know there is Amazon.com, mega malls and credit card points, but there are also small businesses who thoughtfully help you as you shop. They aren’t worried about making commission. They are more interested in conversation. One of the best things about shopping locally isn’t just supporting neighborhood retail and all they offer communities. It is that they carefully wrap whatever you purchase in crisp white tissue paper and put it in a bag that’s made out of paper. I love that. It feels so special — like you just sold the farm to make that purchase and they recognize that.

2. Buy what you need. I am not going to say much about this because the truth is we don’t need much. Not things. We need friendship, family and fellowship. We need love and mercy. We need God and goodness. We need conversation and conversions. Other than that, we just need a toothbrush, a little food, and some good wine.

3. Use what you buy. The waste drives me mad. It just feels gross, indulgent and disrespectful. I am trying to be more conscientious when I shop. I am trying to buy better food. Food that feels special. Food that looks beautiful like it was grown on a real farm. One night, I bought 4 chocolate covered strawberries for our dessert. One for each of us. It was perfect and somehow felt decadent to have only exactly what we needed.

4. Offer thanks. There is so much to be thankful for and you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to acknowledge your life’s blessings. If you don’t think you are blessed, go outside. Feel the sunshine on your face – or the rain. Feel the breath you inhale. Feel the gentleness of the wind. Feel alive with possibility. Just let yourself feel — until you get it. Feel the fullness that is gratitude.

5. Light a fire. You don’t necessarily need firewood to do this. You just need a spark – something that gets you excited, people who make you feel warm; passions that make you feel purposeful. Life is short, and we really never know how short either. Birthdays are finite. So it is important to live it like it matters, so the people in it know they matter. IMG_1825

Because in the end, whether you choose city life or green acres, it won’t really matter. It’s the time you spend enjoying moments such as sitting by the fire with someone who somehow always knows exactly what you need – that will ultimately matter.

Those moments are the best gifts you can give, and the best gifts you can get.

Do you have any ideas to share on ways we can all live more simply? More deliberately? Be a good farmer and share your crop of ideas with us!


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Christians practicing yoga- why get bent out of shape?

I got bent out of shape last week when I happened upon a blog post written by a priest regarding the controversy of Christians practicing yoga.

Maybe I have spent too much time in shavasana, the deep relaxation pose that means corpse in Sanskrit, but I had no idea of such a controversy.  So when I read his post explaining that yoga is more than physical, but leads practitioners toward non-religious spirituality and Buddhism, I was stunned.

Over the years I have tried many forms of yoga – Bikram , Vinyasa, Baptiste and Hatha. Regardless of how much I sweat, stood on one leg, wrapped my limbs like wet noodles, folded myself in half, balanced, breathed, backbend or stood upside down, never once did anyone bring up Buddhism or spirituality.

Not once.

So I was confused.

I reread his article. I read some of the comments of people who had enjoyed yoga practices, but gave it up to avoid being led away from Christ.

This controversy about contorting your body seems twisted.

I guess it’s plausible that one day a Christian spends too much time in downward dog and the next he is down with the devil. But really, evil, temptation and false gods are everywhere not just in the yoga studio.

It’s the value we assign things, including our relationship with God that is most significant.  If I saw that practicing yoga was interfering with that relationship, I would need to acknowledge it and deal with it in the same way I do the rest of my sins.

While I feel uncomfortable disagreeing with a priest, I am just as uncomfortable not speaking up about his misgivings, which seem far-fetched and alarmist.  I would not choose the practice of yoga over my faith. But why should I be asked to choose?

Yoga is an hour of my day that I don’t think, plan, fret, speak, work, check email, or take care of other people.  Do you have any idea what a blessing that is? Wouldn’t you stand on one leg to have an hour like that?

It is place where I can just be.   I am not stoned on incense or in some meditative coma.  I am not thinking of Buddha and his big fat belly, and how he looks like he has not been to a single yoga class in any of his countless reincarnations.

I am just there physically strengthening my body that I was taught to respect as a temple – a teaching that comes from my Bible not Buddha.  I am there restoring my body with the oxygen that fuels each cell that God carefully selected to make me unique.  I am there relaxing not with alcohol, Xanax, oxycodone or any other chemical concoction, but with the same breath that God used to create me. And to the Christians who believe that yoga leads to paths divergent from God, you may find it hard to believe that while I am there, I often pray.

I do not do this at the encouragement of the instructor, because I have never heard it mentioned, nor because I have been told to meditate, as I have not.  I do it because somehow it occurs to me to pray, just as it does at other points in my day.  I even assign the prayers to people in my life or in this world that I think may need them –meaning I am consciously praying.

I don’t credit yoga for that, but it makes the argument about the practice turning people away from Christianity all the more baffling to me.

I guess what frustrated me most and made me feel that it was not a subject I should even acknowledge, is that this controversy has nothing to do with living out the Gospel.

Jesus spent His life, His whole being showing us the way to live, the way to love, the way to care for one another.  I see suffering in so many places regardless of wealth or poverty.  Suffering all over the place.   God sent His son to show us ways to comfort one another.  This is what we should spend our lives doing.  We should be bent over backwards trying to emulate the examples of service that Jesus gave us because the needs are tremendous and whether you choose to practice yoga or law is really insignificant in the whole scheme of life.

Maybe Jesus never stood on His head, but I think He is less concerned with our physical posturing and more so with where we stand in our relationship with Him and others.

Yoga is referred to as a practice because it has nothing to do with perfection. It’s a lot like life that way.

Some days are simply easier than others. Sometimes we wobble on an unsteady path.  Sometimes we are balanced; sometimes we fall.  On really great days we stand tall and strong like a mountain.  But the best day of all, at least for me, are the days when I feel the peace of God’s love and am successful at sharing it with others.

Like yoga, it’s something I have to practice, but when I get it right its pure bliss.   And that’s got nothing to do with Buddha.

As always, I love your comments.  There is still so much work to be done to ease the lives of others so if you have an experience to share, I welcome the inspiration! Peace xo ~ Lara


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Don’t Stop Believin’ — the Magic of Christmas

We all know Christmas is about an innocent baby born in a manger. But for me, what embodies the spirit of the season this year has to do with a 49-year-old man who will be getting out of prison this week.

I know that doesn’t make you all warm and fuzzy the way your footed pajamas and hot cocoa by the fire does.

I get that.

The birth of our Savior is the greatest story ever told, not to mention it has baby lambs in it too.  There’s no way I can compete with that.

Certainly, the man in prison is no Christ-child.

He is an addict.

He is an ordinary Joe.  Well, kind of anyway.

What I mean by ordinary is he made a mistake, and how much more ordinary can you get than making mistakes – it seems to be at the essence of our humanity.

I guess what is unique about his mistake, unlike so many of mine, is it landed him in prison.

Thirteen years ago Joe was arrested for buying cocaine for personal use, and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker.  His punishment was 20 years with no chance of parole.

Kind of harsh.

The world is full of addicts though. It seems everyone’s addicted to something — drugs, fame, possessions, power and oh, how I could go on.  So, Joe is kind of ordinary that way.

Joe is one of six boys whose family grew up next door to a dear friend of mine.  Their moms were best friends for 40 years.  Even the way my friend described her childhood, that Joe was so much a part of, was kind of ordinary.  They carpooled together, teased each other, and played with all the other kids until way past dark.

When he was arrested and given such a severe sentence, my friend said all she heard everyone say was “what a shame.” Two years later, when talking about their beloved friend Joe, old friends would still say “what a shame.” Six years later… “what a shame.”

I guess she got tired of the hopeless sentiment and decided to do something about it.

Joe had already made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.  Each one was denied.  The only hope he had was clemency from the Governor to commute the duration of the sentence, which was basically the equivalent of a snowball’s chance in hell.

My friend and his brothers took that chance.

So I guess that’s when the ordinary became extraordinary.

She had worked tirelessly on trying to get him out of prison since 2006.

When I say tirelessly, I assure you she was tired.

She has three kids and didn’t have time to dedicate driving six hours round trip in a day to meet with clemency aides.  But she did.

Several times.

Perhaps as remarkable, she had another friend who had no ties to this family working just as diligently on the case.

As the years passed I saw how much time, effort and prayer, that she and the others involved put into the effort to get Joe out of prison.

Finally after six years, Joe was granted a clemency hearing.  Sadly, Joe’s mom passed away less than a month before it would be held.  After learning of her death from a prison guard, Joe was not allowed to attend her funeral.

The tragedies of it all, hardly made me think of the word believe.

Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s on 34th Street was a huge sign in brilliant white lights that said just that word.

Believe.

believe2

Earlier that morning, I was rushing to get dressed.  We were going to meet another couple that traveled with us for breakfast, and then a day of…well, everything.  We were in New York City, after all.

At 7:39 a.m.  I received a text from my friend back in Florida with the novena prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe.   I was just one of the many prayer warriors she had commissioned to pray on behalf of Joe.  His clemency hearing happened to be on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was the last day of our novena.

I told my husband that I wanted to go by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle for Joe, his family, my friend, and all of the other people who worked so hard to get to this point and yes, for his mama too.

altar

While I was putting on my umpteenth layer of clothing for the clearly we-are-not-in-Florida-anymore cold, my husband pulls out his Ipad.

The clemency hearing was going to be broadcast on one of those boring government channels that no one watches, and my husband (who is clearly not boring) knew where to find it!

Suddenly, I was nervous.

The night before I left for New York, I saw my friend and she was anxious about the upcoming hearing.  I told her she had to have faith – she had to believe. I told her that this was about so many more people than Joe.  God had a plan for each person that had been affected.  However it ended up would be just another part of His plan.

We all talk about letting go and trusting God, but it’s scary as hell when you have to do it.  She had done her diligence.  I had no doubts about that.  Truly, it was time to let it go.

Still, I was scared for her.  I knew the chances were slim.  This Governor had never commuted a sentence before.

As the clemency hearing played out in real time, I intermittently watched and walked away. I was anxious.  I couldn’t imagine the pressure they were all feeling.  For the first time ever, I thought how hope is a terrible thing.

I didn’t want to believe.  Believing was causing me to pace and cry and fix my eye make up all over again.  Believing caused a pit in my stomach that wouldn’t have been there if I could just walk away.

I listened to Joe’s good friend tell the Clemency Board and the Governor about how he visited him in prison and brought his children along on many of those visits.  He spoke of the time his daughter was asked to choose the catholic she admired most and she chose Joe – the prisoner.

Apparently she saw Joe embody Christ, not a cocaine addict.

One of Joe’s brothers spoke of how his parents never regretted the time they spent visiting him in prison, sometimes driving as long as 10 hours to see him.  He also read a letter from Joe accepting responsibility for his crime and its consequences.  He asked for mercy.

Mercy.  That is the word Joe used, if you can believe.

My eyes pooled again when my friend’s 80-year-old mother spoke, after her 8-hour commute to the Florida Capital, about the little boy of her best friend.  I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to honor the legacy of their friendship than speaking with a mother’s love on behalf of the friend she had just buried.

She said Joe was a good man who gave in to the temptation of drugs.  She testified that indeed he has a good network of friends and family who will support his transition out of prison, but that his mother has an even greater network of friends both on earth and in heaven that would make sure he stays on the right path.

I didn’t think there was much that the Governor could say about that.

The last speaker on Joe’s behalf was the woman who became familiar with the case through my friend.  I am just going to quote her because there is no way I could say it better.

“As I understand it, clemency is mercy or favor or grace, and a relief from a just penalty.  I am reminded of that definition during Advent as we approach the commemoration of the birth of Christ.”

manger

So, I thought some about the birth of the baby in the manger and all the years and generations of believers who have come and gone since then; all those who brought petitions, pleas and pardon before Him since that momentous night in the stable – THIS was just one more in a flurry of billions which He has heard.

But He heard.

The Governor did what he had never done before.  He granted clemency to this man who made a bad a choice, and paid the price for 13 years for that choice. This man, who had lost so much more than his freedom behind bars, will be set free

Joe will be given a second chance – just in time for Christmas.

Extraordinary.

After turning off the live broadcast, we went to a crowded bagel joint for breakfast and I kept crying tears of joy, gratitude and humility from the goodness of it all.  And, the beautiful thing about crying in New York, is no one tries to hug you or ask if you are okay.  They just leave you alone to cry salty tears over your toasted bagel with salmon spread.

This just made me love New York all the more.

I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and like an eager child, I lit a candle at the first altar I could, just besotted with gratitude.  Afterward, I visited the many altars at the beautiful cathedral including the one to our Lady of Guadalupe which was covered in flowers and surrounded by people who had come to honor her feast day.

Guadalupe

It was a beautiful sight and how grateful I was to have prayed for her intercession on behalf of this man.  The power of prayer is as strong as ever, reminding me that even though I may just be a speck on this universe, I am a speck who God thinks is quite special.

That night I had yet another religious experience – rock and roll.

No, not the Elvis kind –the eighties kind.  You know Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake and  Quiet Riot.

We went to see Rock of Ages, the musical where they glorify 80s rock music.

It was almost impossible for me to sit in my seat as the talented cast belted out songs from the decade of my youth.  It was both hilarious and irreverent.  I enjoyed every single minute of it.

rockofages

The final song of the production embodied not only the spirit of Christmas, but that of faith.

It was the song by Journey – Don’t stop believin’.

As it filled the theater, with its pleas to hold on to that feeling, I was on my feet and celebrating that feeling of faith that had been renewed in me.

It’s easy to stop believing.

One day you realize there is no Santa Claus.  There are no talking snowmen or elves or reindeer.

That magic is gone, and we think that it is okay because it’s childish and silly and there is no room for that in our grown up, real world lives.

But it’s in our adult lives that faith is paramount.

We have to keep believing even when the odds are against us.  We have to stay soft and open to the gifts that await.  Gifts that have nothing to do with Macy’s, despite the brilliant sign it boasts this time of year.

This Christmas, for the first in such long time, I can say that I believe.

While I have never lost faith in that baby boy born in a manger with the sweet lambs nearby, I did somehow lose the magic of this time of year which has nothing to do with lists and everything to do with faith in the people in my life.

The people who stand by you at your darkest hour, who petition for you, who forgive you, who believe you are worth a second try, who get what it’s like to emulate the life of Christ no matter the time of year, those are the people who make the season magic, merry and bright.

So if you have not found that magic yet, don’t stop believing.  I promise it’s out there.

And if you are fortunate to already believe, find a way, no matter what life throws at you, to hold on to that feeling.

Each of you who have taken the time to read, comment and share have added to the magic of my year. May your faith in God, goodness and mankind spread with each kindness you share, so that others may believe.  Merry Christmas to you!