Charming New England

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. Although I’ve lived in Florida for the past 20 years, New England is imprinted on my DNA, and I’ll always love it.

I grew up in a small town called Dartmouth, right next door to New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Herman Melville stayed for a spell before he embarked on an 18-month sea odyssey that inspired his greatest work, Moby-Dick. Although whaling around these parts is, mercifully, a thing of the past, many people still make their living fishing in the cold Atlantic waters for shellfish and fish such as lobster, crab, quahogs, cod, pollock, haddock, tuna, and mackerel.

Sidenote: Frederick Douglass and his wife lived in New Bedford from 1838 to 1841, choosing the city partly because of its reputation as an abolitionist stronghold and partly because of its fishing industry. (Douglass was a ship’s caulker by trade.)

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This part of Massachusetts, the southeast coast, lines up along Buzzards Bay. A stone’s throw to the east is the Cape Cod peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The sea salt–imbued air is intoxicating. You never grow tired of it.

Flora and Fauna

I visited at the invitation of my best friend, Paula, and her husband, Joe. I sat contentedly for hours in their sunroom, watching stunning but skittish cardinals and goldfinches, chickadees, sparrows, and hummingbirds flit to and from the feeders just outside the back door. Shiny blackbirds and fat mourning doves, too big to fit on the feeders, pecked at the ground for the seeds Joe scattered specifically for them. Bushy-tailed squirrels vied for the leftovers.

 

 

 

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A female cardinal appeared regularly. Her vibrant mate, however, proved to be frustratingly elusive.

An endless variety of trees have their roots firmly planted in New England: maple, pine, fir, birch, spruce, cedar, poplar, elm, hemlock, and oak, just to name a few. The grass is verdant and soft and lush. Hydrangeas in shades of pink and blue provide splashes of color. All things green contribute to the clean, crisp smell of the air.

 

 

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Old Gravestones

To some people, cemeteries are morbid places. I find them utterly peaceful. The permanent residents are quiet; visitors, respectful; birds, busy and cheerful.

Old gravestones—in particular, ones that mark the passing of nineteenth-century citizens—are especially fascinating. I like to imagine what these people looked like, where they lived, what they did. Were their lives filled with happiness or hardship? Did they enjoy blissful marriages and have healthy children? What did they hope for, fear, believe? Each stone tells its own story, even if that story is lost to the ages.

Stone Walls

Stone walls in New England have a 400-year history. They were constructed without mortar or cement or any other kind of sticky stuff to hold them in place. They are works of art in granite, unearthed stone by stone by the first European settlers in the Northeast as they cleared the land to farm. People study these unique walls, write books about them, and strive to preserve them and the stories they tell. (For a bit of background, see  https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/history-science-and-poetry-new-englands-stone-walls)

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

An excerpt from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

Weather

If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.

—Mark Twain

Twain nailed it. The weather was capricious, as all New Englanders expect. Even though it was the last week in July, the air was unseasonably cool. A couple of days were highlighted by a chilly rain, and a couple more dawned with temperatures hovering around 57 degrees, a more-than-welcome respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity of Florida, to which I’ve become reluctantly accustomed.

t-shirts-new-england-weather-t-shirt-2_1200x (2)If you’ve never been to New England, make it a destination someday. It is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I think God saved this little corner of the universe for last so He could pour more majesty into it.

 

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Better Late Than, You Know, Never

By some standards, I arrived at the motherhood party rather late. My first son was born when I was 35; my second, exactly 2 years and 18 days later. I’m now 52. Most women my age have grown children and an empty nest. I have teenagers.

There’s a reason God didn’t bless me with children in my 20s. Back then, I didn’t know who I was, but I do know what I was: selfish, impatient, and angry. With age comes wisdom, maturity, enlightenment, grace, and forgiveness—all things you need a lot of when you’re raising little people to become responsible, caring adults in a broken world.

It’s never too late to be what you might have been. —George Eliot

Come to think of it, my entire life has been a series of dreams delayed. After wasting the first decade after my college graduation at dead-end jobs—as a technical editor at a couple of government contractors—I landed my dream job as an editorial assistant at a book publisher when I was 32. This was the job that tapped into everything I loved to do: edit, proofread, and organize. I even went to the office on weekends to organize and label files! And the best part was that no two days were alike. I never got bored.

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I got to work with talented, professional authors, artists, photographers, designers, and fellow editors, some of whom have remained friends and colleagues throughout the years. For me, it wasn’t about collecting connections that could forward my career in the future. It was about forging connections on a deeper level with people who invested their time and best work to make the dream of a book a reality. The sense of accomplishment and pride I felt from transforming a rough manuscript into a beautiful, bound finished product was priceless.

Fast-forward to age 46. After suffering through an acrimonious divorce and the pain and loneliness of being separated from my children, I accepted a friend’s invitation to attend her church. Until then, I had been a lifelong Catholic and never imagined I’d be anything else. But I stepped out in faith, and it changed everything. I was truly born again and began the exhilarating transformation that draws me closer to God day by precious day. Like the apostle Paul, I’m a true convert. I used to think born-again Christians were the loopiest people on the planet. Now I know what the hubbub is about.

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Fast-forward again to right now. I thought my best skill was polishing other people’s words. But I’m being called to write. Among the countless gifts God has given me, He has endowed me with ideas, creativity, a deep love for the English language, and a voice. I don’t know where my calling will lead me, but I’m looking forward to the journey.

It doesn’t matter if you arrive at a party long after the other guests have left. Your own timing for your life is often irrelevant. If you’re paying attention, you’ll find that, more often than not, you’re in the right place at the right time, and everything falls into place. Call it serendipity. Call it fate. Call it the gracious hand of God. (I do.) We usually find exactly what we’re looking for when we stop looking.

Better late than never. —Mom

Doing More

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

My friend Jill is a dynamo in the Lord’s kingdom on earth. A physician’s assistant, she is the clinic director at a local resource center that provides not only medical and dental care but hot meals and hot showers, temporary and long-term housing, and job training and referrals to homeless and indigent people in our community. She further serves the Lord by traveling to the Dominican Republic at least once a year to administer sorely needed medical treatments and to teach people there about basic health care and hygiene. When she’s not busy working full-time or going on mission trips, she mentors other women, leads prayer groups, and serves in several capacities at her church. Her plate is full, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

What if Mother Teresa had taken one look at the poverty, disease, suffering, and utter chaos surrounding her in Calcutta and thought, Well, this is certainly overwhelming. I don’t see how I can make much of a difference here. Think I’ll catch the first rickshaw back to Macedonia? She didn’t see it that way, and neither does God.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

—Mother Teresa

Not all of us are called to be a Mother Teresa or even a Jill. Each of us was imbued before birth with a unique calling and purpose set forth by God. God may even have different plans for you at different stages of your life. He may call you as a teen or young adult to invite your friends to church so they can learn about God’s grace and the gift of salvation. If you’re in the season when you’re raising young children, He may simply call you to be the best parent you can be by making Jesus your role model. If you’re struggling with the loneliness of a divorce or an empty nest, He may be calling you to set aside your hurt and serve others, the surest way to put your own problems in perspective and view them as temporary yet vital opportunities to draw closer to God.

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

—Edmund Burke

You may sometimes think that your contribution is minuscule and doesn’t make a difference. But you serve a God of unlimited power and resources. He can multiply every penny you give to a homeless ministry or your church, every word of encouragement you speak, every act of kindness and selflessness you perform in His name. Its effects will ripple indefinitely. You may never know the difference you’ve made in someone’s life, and that’s OK. God keeps His promises even when we’re not privy to the results.

Not all of us are destined to do great things—heal broken bodies and spirits, lead nations, raise orphans, become preachers and teachers, fight on the front lines against abuse, poverty, and injustice. Most of us serve, day in and day out, in much smaller ways without fanfare, recognition, or extrinsic reward, just as God expects. As Mother Teresa reminded us, we can all do small things with great love.

We are born to encourage, help, and love one another as brothers and sisters of one Father. When you serve others in any way, you are serving the Lord Himself.

Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.

—Mother Teresa

You Gonna Eat That?

When my boys were young, I used to say, “I can’t wait until you eat me out of house and home.” I meant it. I looked forward to the time when they would eat nonstop, morphing into tall, strapping, strong young men.

During their baby and toddler years, they were rather picky eaters. Luke was always willing to try new fruits but not vegetables. He liked some pretty weird stuff for a kid, like kiwis and mangoes. Today, at seventeen, he’ll devour tomatoes, mushrooms, and potatoes but absolutely nothing that comes in any shade of green. So he never eats tomatoes if they dare to mingle in a bowl with lettuce and look even remotely like a salad. He’ll eat mushrooms only if they’re sautéed first—sans onions—and mixed with pasta. And he’ll eat his weight in baked or mashed white potatoes but not their orange cousin, the sweet tater. Picky, picky, picky.

With Jake, it wasn’t just a strange flavor that he objected to; it was often the texture of a food that was offensive to him. As a baby, he sealed his lips against any pureed meats that came in little glass jars. I’m loathe to remember how much perfectly good meaty goo I tossed out. Even now, at fifteen, he won’t eat things most of us consider pretty likable: grapes, blueberries, peaches. Anything with a skin is off-limits. Oddly enough, he loves strawberries. You know, those odd little fruits with their seeds on the outside. Talk about texture!

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Pasta can also be a fashion statement.

As much as I adore dragging my teenage cherubs along on my weekly Walmart runs, my budget and I usually end up regretting it. Luke immediately disappears. The kid is like lightning. Every so often, he emerges from the overstocked wilderness, carrying an armload of items, which he promptly deposits in the shopping cart and which may include any or all of the following: candy, yogurt (“the good kind”), Gatorade, ginger ale, beef jerky, cheese, ham. . . . The list goes on. He grows an average of three inches a day so it makes sense that he eats nonstop. Still . . .

The other day I stopped in the bread aisle to talk to my neighbor for a few minutes. It was a rookie mistake. I should have known better. While I was preoccupied, into the already-overloaded cart went ice cream, apples, bananas, cupcakes, and frozen pizza.

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Here, eat this.

I have never seen two people consume so much food. A freshly baked loaf of banana bread disappears within hours. Fresh fruit meets the same fate. Hunks of fried chicken are stripped to the bone in the time it takes me to ask someone to please pass the salt. Potato chips, crackers, whole packages of ham and sliced cheese, gallons of ice cream, milk, juice—it all vanishes as if the house were filled with a pack of wolves with unlimited access to the refrigerator (and opposable thumbs, of course).

Since we’re on the subject of eating, let’s discuss what I like to call Luke’s Supremely Stupid Seven-Minute Rule. He heard on an episode of Man V. Food that you can polish off a huge plate of food—presumably while you’re participating in some senseless eating competition—if you do it within seven minutes because that’s how long it takes your stomach to signal your brain that you’re full and should stop feeding your big, fat, greedy mouth as though you’re never going to eat again. (More wolf-like behavior.) So a mere seven minutes after sitting down to dinner, Luke has already excused himself from the table and gone to his room to lie down because he has a—gasp!—stomachache. Who could have seen that coming? I’ve tried to tell him that the real gauge is closer to twenty minutes, that he’s causing his body unnecessary stress, and that he’s kind of an idiot. He’ll figure it out eventually.

Be careful what you wish for.

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Eat, sleep, smooch!

Human ROI

Anyone who works in a financial field knows what a return on investment, or ROI, is. Essentially, it’s how much money you net on an investment. Say, for example, you buy $1,000 worth of stocks this year and sell your shares next year for $1,500. Your net profit is $500, and your ROI is, thus, 50%. Hooray for you!

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There’s another kind of ROI that’s much harder to calculate, and it has little or nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with investing, however.

Every day, we choose how to spend our time, energy, love, words, and deeds. When you choose to invest your resources in other people, you reap an ROI that is worth more than any amount of money can buy.

All of us hurt. Not one of us escapes the trials and heartaches of our brief existence on this planet. We’re all haunted by ghosts: regrets that gnaw at our souls, shameful behavior, mistakes we could have avoided, good advice we rejected, years spent on every detour that led us farther from our dreams. We all need kindness, respect, hope, and reassurance that we haven’t screwed up our lives beyond recognition and redemption.

What’s your ROI when you invest in lifting others up and encouraging them? It’s indeterminate and incalculable. It may take a few days or months or even years. You may not even see the results in your lifetime. But when you change one person’s life for the better, you set in motion a positive ripple effect that theoretically may have no end.

How do you reap your human ROI? Look around you. Then simply show up and care.

clothing-977402_1920Help serve meals at your local Salvation Army, homeless shelter, or church outreach event. The more often you serve, the more opportunities you have to get to know people on a deeper level than just in passing. Learn their names and their stories. Pray with them. Offer a ride to church. Press a few dollars into someone’s hand for a bus pass to get to a job interview. Buy a much-needed coat when the weather turns cold.

childrens-books-1246675_1920Volunteer at your child’s school. More than likely, there will be at least one child in his class whose clothes are a bit shabby, who lacks basic hygiene, or who is lagging behind the other students. Befriend that child. Read with him. Take a sincere interest in him. Tell him what a miracle he is. Maybe no one at home takes much notice of him. Your smile may be the highlight of his day or whole week. Your compassion and encouragement may mean more than you’ll ever know.

freedom-1125539_1920Visit your local jail or youth center and become a mentor to a teenager or young adult who needs to know it’s not too late to turn his life around. Share your story honestly and without shame. Share your mistakes and regrets. Talk about how you did the work to get to the high road and what it takes to stay there. You’re living proof that it can be done and that no one is beyond hope.

car-1485671_1920Visit people who are confined to a hospital or a nursing home or are homebound. You might never feel alone or lonely, but countless people struggle with feeling abandoned, overlooked, and hopeless every minute of their lives. More than likely, there’s at least one person in your own neighborhood who feels forgotten. Stop by, deliver a treat, chat for a while.

Time is not money. It’s free. But you can’t get back the time you waste, and you can’t buy more. We all get the same 24 hours every single day. Choose wisely how you spend your time. Be deliberate. Make it count.

How We All Deserve to Be Treated at Work

Have you ever worked for or with someone who treated you with disdain, disrespect, or downright contempt? How did it make you feel? Even if you’re the most confident person on the planet, you’re not immune to the unwarranted nastiness of others.

We’ve all heard that children live up or down to our expectations of them. That’s also true of adults, whether they’re our family members, friends, employees, or coworkers. When you expect the best of people, they tend to deliver exactly that: the best they can offer. Most people want to excel, to do good work, and to contribute to the success of those around them.

Lift people up with your words. Tell them that they’re doing a great job. I’m not talking about empty compliments here. I’m talking about constructive, honest, specific feedback when someone does something well, e.g.: “I’m impressed by how you handled the Baker contract, Emma. Their reps had some difficulty articulating exactly what they wanted, but you asked the right questions and delivered a custom-designed product. Great work!”

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I recently accompanied my teenage son and the rest of his high school orchestra on a field trip to a nearby school for what’s called a Music Performance Assessment. At the last minute, the music teacher was unable to attend, so the music intern was in charge. He’s a college senior who is finishing a degree in music and music education, and he’s been working with my son and his peers for all of four months. Not only did he evoke stellar performances from his charges, he successfully herded 60 silly, giggling teenagers around an unfamiliar school for several hours, ensuring that they were seated and ready to perform at the appointed times and that they all got to eat lunch before heading home—all the while being interrupted by an almost-constant barrage of questions from students and chaperones alike.

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In the teeming orchestra room back at my son’s school, the intern made his way over to another mom and me to thank us for chaperoning the trip. I made a point of complimenting him on his obvious conducting prowess and also on his ability to transform what could have been a disastrous day into something quite enjoyable.

“You handled the logistics like a pro,” I said. Everyone standing within earshot agreed. It felt good to give someone a well-deserved compliment, and he seemed to truly appreciate hearing it.

When you deliver positive feedback with genuineness and humility, the people around you will not only work harder to overcome every difficulty and roadblock at work, they will more than likely carry their newfound confidence into every other area of their lives and become better spouses, parents, children, and friends. It’s a win-win all around.

We all need encouragement. We all need to hear that we’re doing a good job and making a difference, even if it’s just in our own little corner of the world.

Call Me Clueless

I’m not a rocket scientist; neither am I a buffoon. I’m a college graduate, after all. I’ve been a copy editor/proofreader for the past twenty years. I’m raising two teenage boys. (You need at least a modicum of intelligence to pull that last one off!) But sometimes I’m absolutely clueless.

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Hmm . . .

If you’re worried that your brain sometimes goes on vacation without the rest of you, take heart: You are so not alone. I know because my friends share their blunders and brain blips with me. I suppose they don’t want me to feel too bad about myself.

Here’s the short list of the dumb things I’ve done.

I sometimes emerge from the shower with conditioner still clinging to my hair. I forget that whole final rinse thing, even though it’s right there in plain English on the bottle.

I once “introduced” two friends who had known each other for several years.

Recently I had to run three errands in the same plaza. Bank: check. Dry cleaner: check. Grocery store: duh. Drove. Right. By. It.

Getting ready to go to the YMCA one evening, I put my exercise pants on inside out and then thought, Have those tie strings always been on the outside?

toast-1077984_1920If I find myself staring at the toaster and wondering why a slice of bread hasn’t yet been transformed into a slice of toast, I must eventually ask myself, “Did you press the lever, Kris? Is this appliance even plugged in?” (Yes, this is generally the time when I start talking to myself and referring to you-know-who in the third person.)

Then there was the time I insisted I knew how to get to a school field trip at the airport fire station. No, I didn’t need directions. No, I didn’t need to follow someone. Thirty minutes after everyone else got there, I sheepishly arrived, hoping to blend in as if my son and I had been there from the get-go. No such luck. Everyone stared and giggled as we approached. How fortuitous that I was able to get directions after the fact, yes?

Not a clue.