Seeking Shelter in a Storm

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Life is difficult. This is what I often tell my children. That life isn’t all about things coming easily but that it often can be about rising to challenges, overcoming obstacles and mustering courage until things get better. What I forget to tell them is that we aren’t meant to suck it up and power through life’s challenges all on our own. That we should be cultivating friendships that provide more than just a gang to go to the movies or lunch with, but relationships that become a framework of stability made up of people whose ears listen, whose arms embrace and whose hearts desire only the best for us.

The news of Robin Williams’ suicide shines a light into the shadows of depression. It’s not that his passing is any more tragic than any other loss of human life, created in God’s image and deserving of love. But the shock of it, the reality that no amount of money, fame or success can insulate a person from the prowling lion of despair, demands a shift in thinking. How do we defend against hopelessness?

I once heard it said that depression can be like missing layers of protection necessary to guard the windows of your heart, mind and soul. So when the winds of calamity blow in, carrying heartache from around the globe via network news, or spin up like spontaneous tornados in our own personal lives, it’s impossible to draw the blinds, slam the sash or secure the shutters. It all just pours in unfiltered, overwhelming our coping mechanisms and churning up emotion void of perspective. I can only imagine that a similar unfiltered awareness of the world is also part of what makes an artist able to portray great depths of reality or an addict more prone to seeking shelter in the numbness of self-medication.

And when the storms come, to the depressive and non-depressive alike, why do we feel the need to hunker down alone? Do we really believe nobody else understands? Or cares? Are we embarrassed by our suffering or our seeming inability to improve our own condition? It’s probably this and more; cultural heritage, family history, fear of difficult or unwanted advice. Silent suffering is why we never seem to know when friends are getting divorced until the papers are filed or when someone has lost their job until the house goes into foreclosure. Lips remain sealed and those who are supposed to be our friends languish alone in a crowd.

I am blessed to have fairly well functioning “window coverings”, and yet I’m not immune to episodic bouts of gloom. Sometimes it’s hormonal or seasonal and I know from experience it will pass. But other times, a life event, like a storm brewing on the horizon with angry black clouds, can threaten the integrity of my otherwise good mental health. And when that happens, I am tempted not to tell. If it’s a recurring struggle, I don’t want to rehash an overplayed complaint. If it’s an embarrassing situation, I’m tempted to resist any exposure at all. And if my story would be a buzz-kill at a dinner party, I may simply lift my glass among the revelers, smile, remain silent and sip until I feel less…

But, No! I will not let the lying lips of despondency convince me to close off from those who love me. I will not avoid opportunities to talk about what’s bothering me. I will not refuse to at least consider well-intentioned advice or encouragement. I will affix blessings on my doorpost and I will not be deprived of the power of prayers offered up by the God-fearing people in my life.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

I will be honest. I will admit when I’m afraid or sad or in pain. And I will remind my children, my husband, and my friends that I love them and that although we are to have courage, we do not stand alone.

 

 

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Travel Tips from Our Family Vacation in Washington D.C. & NYC

We live on the tundra. This means I prefer to vacation someplace warm in winter and sit around sipping beers and reading books on my front porch during summer. We typically head to SoCal sometime between January and March because we have family in that area. But as our ducklings get closer to leaving the hubs and me to waddle around the yard alone, we’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and take a few family vacations to previously unexplored destinations.

We made a list of locales we’d like to visit and began to plan. First on the list was Mount Rushmore since it’s not far from home. But when the oldest went on a church mission trip to the area, South Dakota was demoted from priority status. Next was Washington D.C. because the middle school sponsors a student trip there. I convinced our sons, (decided for them) that it would be more fun to go with family. Plus, I’d never been there and was excited to see our nation’s capital for myself. So for the first time, we ventured east for a summer vacation. Here is some of what we learned along the way…

TRANSPORTATION

We flew and decided not to rent a car when we arrived. (We also packed light, each with only a backpack or small carryon suitcase.) I was told the Metro rail system around D.C. is easy and efficient. This proved to be true. Once we deciphered the fare machine and route maps, we became pros at navigating the city by subway. This may have been one of our kids’ favorite vacation activities.

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Re-loadable fare cards also work for the bus system and twice we used a combination of train and bus service to visit more distant attractions: the Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. But, the subway isn’t necessarily quicker than taking a taxi­–and for four passengers, riding the metro isn’t a lot cheaper either. So, if you’re in a hurry, are traveling in a group and don’t have far to go, a cab isn’t the worst decision. If you plan to drive, the traffic didn’t look horrible but I have no idea how much it costs to park.

Halfway through our trip, we boarded an Amtrak train to New York City. Friends had tied these two destinations into one vacation and it seemed like a good idea. Amtrak is much different than air travel: no security line and no assigned seats. I’d pre-purchased tickets online. From there, you just show up, wait for your track to be announced and rush the platform to ensure getting seats together. Not particularly scenic. Not luxurious. But easy enough.

ATTRACTIONS

We spent a total of eight days in D.C. and three days in NYC. This seemed adequate for seeing most of what we wanted to see. I did minimal pre-planning. Outside of the Amtrak tickets, the only pre-purchased tickets were for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, which was totally worth it. Getting to the ferry was a short cab ride from midtown. Security was tight but tourists were moved along efficiently and quickly.

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While in NYC, we also visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum. I’d been advised to purchase advance tickets but didn’t. No problem. We were able to walk right up and get tickets for the same day.

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Other NYC vacation highlights included a full day exploring Central Park (probably the kids’ favorite place with its large outcroppings of stones for climbing adventures), and a double-deck bus tour around Manhattan (this type of excursion was better in Chicago where the quality of our tour guide was superior). There is surely more to see and overall, everyone agreed we’d like to return to NYC sometime.

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In Washington D.C., we visited most every monument and museum as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon. We did not coordinate tours for the White House or the Capital building, which require advance planning. But we saw SO much, I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. Some of our D.C. highlights were:

Going inside the Washington Monument. (The hubs got in line at 7:30 a.m. for free same day tickets.)

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Strolling around the National Mall monuments at night.

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Resting my weary body after walking MILES each day.

FOOD

I’m not a trinket buyer so most of our pocket money went toward food. And I must say, I was disappointed by the lack of decent restaurant fare in D.C. Again, maybe my lack of proper pre-planning and research are to blame. But a simple Google search should have turned up something filling, healthy, moderately priced and within walking distance from the National Mall. But alas, our days were filled with fast food, cafeterias and bags of Combos. The museums have a great racket going with free admission, IKEA-style exhibit paths that make it virtually impossible to exit until you’re exhausted and famished, and then–a cafeteria filled with tourists and $40 family lunches not including beverages as we carried our own water.

Dining was easier in NYC with its wide variety of dine-in and take-out restaurants and delis. Many also had lovely patio seating.

We treated the kiddos to a meal in New York’s Little Italy one night for funzies. This was by far the most expensive dinner of our trip. But it was relaxing. The food was fresh and tasty. And of course, mama slowly sipped a wonderful glass of wine. (Most nights, I sipped my evening allotment of resveratrol back in the hotel room, poured from a bottle I picked up for $10 at a nearby drugstore. Don’t judge.)

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ACCOMODATIONS

We have been saving Marriott reward points for years thinking we’d use them to take the family to Europe someday. But that day may never come and if travel companies decide to change the rules before vacationers like us get the chance to use those precious points, we’re screwed. So we decided to start using points now. This meant ‘free’ hotel stays but limited us to three Marriott properties based on availability: the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Gateway in Arlington, VA and the Marriott Marquee in Times Square.

Arlington is a bit farther than I would have preferred for daily treks into D.C., but it was easily managed via Metro rail. I was really excited about staying on Times Square in NYC and the hotel is very nice. But, a room with a view costs extra and the tourists packed onto the street just outside the hotel made Times Square one of my least favorite places to wade through daily. I only needed to see it once.

Overall, the biggest surprise of the trip was being less overwhelmed than I anticipated. “Would a big city make us anxious?” Nah. Both cities seem pretty much the same as anyplace else, only bigger. Oh, and D.C. smells better than NYC. Gah! (More photos on Instagram @wordsbyangela)

Next on our list, Yosemite National Park!

If you have questions or additional travel tips for readers of this post, please add them to the comments section.

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Don’t Let the TV Define Beauty for your Daughter

My teenage self shopping in Beverly Hills.

My teenage self shopping in Beverly Hills.

I recently told a friend’s teenage daughter I was glad she wasn’t mine. Whoops. That came out wrong. What I meant to say is that I think in some ways it must be more difficult to parent daughters than sons. I remember being an incredibly sassy, strong-willed, thought-I-knew-everything kind of teenager. But of course boys and girls can be equally obnoxious. Teen girls haven’t cornered the market on moody outbursts or pompous condescension toward their parents. No. Something else seems more challenging about raising daughters, clothes shopping.

My friend and her daughter seem to be having an ongoing debate over what constitutes appropriate apparel for a young girl, or maybe even women in general. I get it. The pressure on young people to conform is enormous. And girls who want to fit in often have to squeeze their bodies into outfits that are not only inappropriate, but also often downright unfortunate. And all for what? To distract people from the enormity of their intelligence? I think not.

If I had a daughter, here are a few things I might say to her on the subject.

First, popular culture would have women of all ages believe that sexy and pretty are synonymous. They are not. To dress sexy, or “hot” as the kids like to say these days, is to be suggestive, to arouse desire and tell the world, this body is ready to rock and roll. This may be the case for Hollywood entertainers and many Wal-Mart shoppers, but it’s probably not the right message for my teenage daughter to be sending to the world. It is possible to be feminine, attractive and stylish without dressing for school as if you’re competing for the mirror ball trophy on Dancing With the Stars.

Also, if dressing in short shorts and low-cut tops garners attention–and you like the attention–then you may have been mislead into believing attention equals affection or admiration. It does not. And for every boy whose attention you’re hoping to grab, there are most likely countless creeps who are also enjoying the show.

Now I’m no prude and believe the human body can be a truly beautiful thing. But haven’t women evolved enough to understand the true nature of their own beauty? Or maybe it’s darker yet, maybe girls use sensuality to compete against other girls, winner take all in an adolescent game of physical prowess and one-upsmanship. The female version of boys flexing their muscles to display dominance in front of other guys. Gross.

If I had a daughter, hopefully she’d heed some of my wisdom on this topic. But if she didn’t, as a parent, I’d still bear responsibility for clothes purchased and clothes worn. I would need to set certain standards about modesty and be willing to go to the mat to protect my daughter from culturally distorted messages about beauty and body image. So, as I stated earlier, I’m glad she’s not my daughter.

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May God Bless Your Obedience and other “Whacky” Sentiments

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This July, the hubs and I celebrate 19 years married. Not to brag since many have logged more years than us. But as the daughter of divorced parents and granddaughter of divorced grandparents, it’s kind of a big deal to me. I have no disrespect for divorced people, especially those who’ve suffered through abuse, addiction or adultery. For them, divorce can be a most welcome salve to their wounded spirit. But if I had any tip for staying married under what some might call more ideal circumstances, it would be this–the needs of the marriage must trump the wants of the self.

To illustrate, let me share a story from my first year of marriage. The hubs and I had packed up and moved west for kicks and giggles. We told folks, if we loved it, we’d stay and if we hated it, we’d leave. Trouble was, we had no plan for if one of us loved it and the other didn’t. We purchased a house in a suburb outside Seattle and spent our evenings after work going for walks around our new neighborhood. We talked about the future, promotions we hoped to attain, money we hoped to make and the number of children we planned to have. One of the hubs’ recurring dreams was returning to the Midwest. “The Twin Cities are great,” he’d say. “You’d really like it there.”

I’d roll my eyes and nod my head. Being a Michigander who’d always dreamed of living west, I had no intention of ever doing winter again. I’d joke in response, “Fine but you’ll have to get a promotion and a relocation package, help selling our house, and I’ll need a winter clothing allowance.”

Two years into our west coast adventure, I’d snagged a great promotion and was excited for more travel, more responsibility and more money. Three months after that, the hubs was also offered a promotion and a relocation package to guess where?? That’s right, the Twin Cities.

His news disappointed me to say the least. But I recalled another component of our evening walks, discussions of starting a family. I wanted a career but I also wanted to someday parent our future kiddos full-time. I’d seen enough jet-set executives to know I couldn’t do both. That meant, gulp, that his promotion meant more to our future family in the long term. I resolved to move to Minnesota and find another job.

I broke into tears when telling a friend my tale of woe. She responded by saying, “God will bless your obedience.”

My tears may have sucked back up into their ducts as I stifled a laugh. Only a religious nutcase would say such a thing, or so I believed at the time.

But 19 years later, I’ll admit that getting to raise our kids in Minnesota is one of the many blessings I’ve experienced since letting go of what I thought I wanted in favor of what my marriage needed.

Growing up with a single mother taught me self-preservation. Submission was not modeled in my mother’s home. Like her, I refuse to be anybody’s doormat. Even the term submission may stir up a feminist rant complete with finger snaps, head bobs and curse words. And yet, year after year, regular practice of submission, putting my individual wants second to the needs of others, particularly my spouse–being obedient to what I know in my heart is right–has brought me blessing. Truth!

I blow a kiss across the plains to my religious nutcase friend whose wisdom once sounded whacky to me. And if you’re trying to cobble together some good years with someone in marriage or even in friendship, consider which small sacrifices each person in the relationship could make for the good of the whole. And may God bless your obedience.

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Sip Your Drink Slowly, and Other Tips for Handling Irksome Family Members.

Large Group of Happy People standing together.Things don’t always turn out how we want. Blah Blah. Heard it all before. Right? Make lemon drop martinis out of lemons… or something like that. But what about when people don’t behave how we want them to? Yes, if we’re honest, we must admit we have certain expectations about human behavior. Not usually our own behavior, no, our harshest criticism seems especially passionate when it comes to the folks who happen to be related to us.

It’s summer and the season offers plenty of opportunity for family gatherings, or at least the expectation of some level of family togetherness. And when it comes to family, what I seem to notice most consistently is the disappointment people harbor when it comes to certain family members.

“Why doesn’t he call more often?” “She forgot my birthday.” “He’s too busy and doesn’t make enough time for me.” “She’s spoiling her children.” “He doesn’t pay enough attention to his children.” “They only call when they need something.” “She’s so critical of everything I do.”

On and on it goes, an endless lament of unmet expectations sprinkled into a simmering stew of deeply held disappointments and grudges.

Welp, here’s the deal as far as I see it. When it comes to family, we’re kind of stuck. Unless there is some really hurtful dysfunction or brutality at work, a la August Osage County, it’s difficult to have relationships if we just pick up our toys and go home when others get on our nerves. Instead, consider a handful of coping techniques I’ve found helpful when tempted to complain about someone else’s behavior.

First, I’m willing to bet that most of the time another person’s behavior isn’t about me. It’s about them. They’re trying too hard or aren’t trying at all because they’re worried about perception or making a mistake. My mind can be hard to read and yours probably can be too. Heck, the people who live in my house with me are often unsure of how to make me happy. So how can we expect others to know exactly what to do or say to please us? Or maybe that person you’re annoyed with is just plain clueless and has no real intention of being helpful or hurtful. So what? Laugh it off. Give it a pass. Don’t keep a record of wrongs.

Second, generational and cultural differences do exist. So stop measuring other people by the social mores of whatever generation, town or religious tradition you came of age in. Be gentle, not condescending. And even when it’s difficult, try to give the old folks a break–for many reasons, but mostly because our behavior toward them is teaching our children how to treat us when we’re old. Seriously. Think about it.

Lastly, stop being pissed off that your family doesn’t mirror some romanticized TV version of unconditional campfire Kumbaya. The fact is many people simply cannot live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Either because they never learned how or are emotionally unequipped to do so. So when we get anxious, angry or agitated because others are not meeting our needs, we’re being just as annoying as they are. Put yourself in their shoes and consider the source. Then consider the only true source of life, the creator and maker of all things who stands ready to meet our very real needs.

I pray blessings on all of your family gatherings this summer and hope we can be quick to forgive, offer kindness and seek a spirit of harmony. May our expectations be in line with what’s realistic and our concerns be more about how we can bless others rather than how we desire others to bless us. Oh, and if life give you lemons, be sure to sip your lemon drop slowly.

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It’s Only Temporary

My "temporary" home.

My “temporary” home.

For the third time in 15 years, it seemed as if my husband’s employer might experience a merger. But this time was different. Instead of the company purchasing or partnering with another, it faced the threat of being swallowed up by a corporation with a reputation for improving efficiencies by slashing payrolls.

We followed news stories and stock prices. We waited. And during the waiting, I had a sort of epiphany.

I recall starting out our married life feeling as if we had nothing to lose. We pursued job offers in a city thousands of miles from home. We spent an entire night filling a moving truck with what little we had and gave away whatever wouldn’t fit. We’d signed a lease for an apartment sight unseen. We sold my car before we left to avoid paying to haul it.

But then, the job I thought I had lined up fell through. So, with no vehicle and the hubs off to learn his new job, I applied for work in an unfamiliar city and studied the bus schedule in order to get to scheduled interviews. It was challenging but we viewed it as part of a grand adventure. We never doubted things would work out.

It seems people spend their early years dreaming of what is possible. We take risks and work through whatever challenges come along. Most everything–from housing to employment–is temporary, and that’s expected, even welcomed.

But then, we accomplish things like working years with a company that pays well and provides healthcare and paid vacations. We buy houses, cars, furniture and timeshares. We have children who become accustomed to things like groceries, sporting equipment, piano lessons and orthodontia. And suddenly, we think we have a lot to lose.

During those weeks when the hubs and I told ourselves we weren’t worried about hostile takeovers or job losses, I realized that I prefer the adventurous nature of my younger self. When did living become about holding on so tightly to what we’ve accumulated instead of believing, as we once did, that everything is temporary and that something even better is just around the corner?

It seems that potential corporate takeover isn’t going to happen, at least not right now. But the experience has reminded me that security is an illusion. The Lord gives and He takes away. Praise be the name of the Lord. I don’t quote those lines as some flippant response to the everyday agony endured by many, but as a reminder that His grace is sufficient. And that life is sweeter when each moment is enjoyed with fists unclenched of what is temporary. Let life’s joys and sorrows run through open fingers. We cannot grasp one and refuse the other. Being open to change, expecting it or even welcoming it, still can be part of life’s grand adventure.

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Are the Wheels Round? Thoughts on the American Dream

It’s been established that I play a little tennis. And recently, my team played a match at a swanky country club surrounded by even swankier homes. And for a few minutes, after finishing my match, packing up my gear and re-fueling on a granola bar, I watched a young man hit tennis balls with one of the pros. The teen wore a t-shirt with the name of an elite private school. He was a decent tennis player and most likely a nice boy with a bright future.country club

But imagining his future did manage to turn me a bit green. He evidently lives a privileged life filled with opportunities like private school and private tennis lessons at a lovely suburban country club. I wished in that moment that I could give my children access to such privilege. Don’t misunderstand. We’re not broke. And our kids go to very good public schools. But I don’t see myself as wealthy and sometimes feel I lack the ability to provide access to a “good” life. Therein lies my problem.

I’m the kind of person who is impressed when another parent says their child goes to Stanford or Notre Dame. And yet, telling someone your offspring goes to an elite college really says next to nothing about your child. It maybe tells me that your child is intelligent and possibly even hardworking. It certainly tells me that your child is privileged. But where someone goes to school doesn’t say anything about whether that person is honest, patient, kind, generous, loyal, joyful, gentle or self-controlled.

So in essence, my jealousy–spurred only by my perception–of the young tennis player, mainly signals my desire for privilege in my own life. Whoa.

MercedesYears ago–before we had children–the hubs pondered a job opportunity in Nebraska. We were living on the west coast at the time and I joked to my grandfather about how the lower cost of living in flyover country meant the hubs should buy me a Mercedes for agreeing to move there. (Sorry Nebraska. I’m sure you’re state is lovely.) But the point is, my grandpa didn’t laugh at my joke nor did he understand how having a Mercedes could make me happy. In fact, his exact words to me were, “Are the wheels round?”

Puzzled, I squinted at him and asked, “What?”

“On a Mercedes,” he said. “Are the wheels round on a Mercedes?”

“Yes,” I answered slowly, not entirely sure if he was having a senior moment. But then he smiled and I understood. He needed not say more. Round wheels will get you where you’re going. Anything extra serves an entirely different purpose.

The vehicles we choose to drive, like the clothes we wear, say something about our tastes but nothing real about our person. And I don’t mean to be derogatory toward Mercedes. They are beautiful automobiles. Just as I’m sure Stanford is a good school and that many good and decent students attend there. I just need to check myself and be reminded that there are way more important things to offer my children than privilege. If you’ve never given this much thought, maybe consider how the way you live your life speaks to others. Do people know you to be honest, patient, kind, generous, loyal, joyful, gentle and self-controlled? Is instilling those traits in your children more important than providing them every privilege and opportunity? If not, why not?

photoToday is Memorial Day. A day to honor those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, to ensure the privilege of our continued way of life with its access to democracy, freedom and opportunity. My grandfather did not die in the line of duty. But he was a WWII veteran who served his country proudly and lived long enough to teach me much about what it looks like to live a good life. A life that need not include luxury cars or country clubs to be blessed. Happy Memorial Day.

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