Saturday, March 17, 2012

Things I Don't Do

I just enjoyed an amazing two days at the Hearts at Home National Conference. It's a conference to encourage and educate moms and is spiritually based. I heard really wonderful speakers and came away with strategies around organization, nutrition, parenting and improving our marriage. The workshop: 50 Ways To Improve Your Relationship With Your Husband was wonderful and am already using some of the tips. We also enjoyed a fabulous Mom's Night Out with wonderful music and an improv group.

This morning there was a really moving talk titled: What To Do When God Says "Wait" The presenter spoke about her experience trying to adopt, coming close but not getting a baby, and the heartbreaking waiting time. I'd read her bio and I purposely preferenced this workshop last as I thought I'd have a hard time holding it together and wasn't sure I wanted to get emotional in the middle of the conference. But God had another plan and I was matched with the workshop.  I'm sure glad I was--I wasn't the only one in tears and there was much I needed to hear.

But now to expand on the title of this blog "Things I Don't Do," This phrase was from speaker Linda Anderson, founder of Mom to Mom Ministries.  I loved her talk as it truly struck a chord with me.  Linda guest posted on Hearts at Home CEO Jill Savage's blog earlier this week and I'm pasting a section of this blog below.

Linda Anderson's Post (Click here for Linda's guest blog to read her entire post.)

I was suffering from a common mom-malady, which I think has intensified recently: TMS (The Too Much Syndrome) Recognize it?

• TMI (Too Much Information) We are bombarded 24/7 with cable news, the internet, Facebook friends, even magazines at the supermarket—all full of suggestions for who we are to be as moms and what we should be doing for our kids.

• TMA (Too Many Activities) All good things. But too much of even a good thing is too much. Do your kids see only the “van view” of you– the back of your head while carpooling?

• TMT (Too Much Technology) The noise is deafening. Are you (or your kids) texting your way through life as it passes you by? Do you know your FB friends better than your family?

• TME (Too Many Expectations) We expect too much of our husbands, our kids—and mostly ourselves. Our “To Do” lists are killing us.

So what’s a mom to do? Or, put more appropriately, what’s a mom to not do? My suggestion? Try making a list of things you don’t do. As a recovering perfectionist mom, I gradually compiled my own list of things I just didn’t do—in order to do the things that mattered most.

Then recently, I came across author Shauna Niequist’s chapter “Things I Don’t Do” in her wonderful little book Bittersweet (p. 53-60). If you want to pick up the book, you’ll find her list inspiring.—and freeing.

Making a “Things I don’t do” list is hard. There’s a lot a mom just can’t cut out of her schedule. Like diapers and meals and laundry. But if you think clearly about your priorities and creatively about your daily life, you’ll be surprised at what you can let go.

Here are a few “Don’t Do That” items from my own list:

• Gourmet meals: My kids were well-fed and nourished, but no Julia Child here. I once asked my grown son what meal he most remembered from his childhood. His reply? “Those “Steakum” sandwiches you made before Little League games”! Full disclosure: He went on to list other slightly more sophisticated family meal favorites. But you get the picture.

• Crafts—or anything handmade: Just not my gift! I’m not a “crafty” person. I often wish I were. But somehow my kids survived without hand-sewn Halloween costumes and Martha Stewart decorations on their birthday cakes.

• White glove cleaning: Being a first-born half-German recovering perfectionist, I do need a certain degree of order in my life. So I did pick up toys and clear the countertops fairly regularly. But deep cleaning (like washing the kitchen floor frequently)? Not so much.

• Gardening: Here’s another gift I wish I had. But I don’t. I did assist one of our sons (with the help of a Grandpa) in raising tomato plants one or two seasons. But that’s about it.

I hope this sampling from my “Don’t Do” list will not alarm you. My kids seem to have survived quite well into healthy, happy adulthood. But I do hope it will inspire you. Making this list—and living it without guilt—can be very freeing!

What’s on your “I don’t do that” list?
I can so identify with Linda's "Too Much Syndrome."  In fact, I arrived late to the session as I had stayed behind to speak with the previous presenter.  So I stood in the back of the balcony--out of sight of Linda and the other attendees and proceeded to respond to e-mails while listening with one ear to the first part of her talk. To be fair, I had kept my cell phone in my bag all day and had been only focused on the workshops. But for some reason I felt the need to multitask during this one--maybe because I was driving back to Chicago directly following and wanted to get on the road. So when she spoke about "Too Much Technology," I chuckled to myself, put my phone away, and gave the talk my full attention.

Coincidentally, my women's small group at church is reading Wayne Muller's A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough. Reviewer Frank Ostaseski describes this book as "an antidote to ‘more is better’ and the madness of multitasking. It offers a respite from the endless cycle of seeking that perpetuates our suffering. This book is a great reminder of the joy of keeping it simple, of the abundance present in this moment, and that even these few words are enough.”

I'm behind on my reading as the past few months have been quite busy.  I plan to finish the book and then spend some time in prayer and reflection looking at my priorities, how I spend my time, and what I do and don't do. I'm really grateful for experiences like this conference to get me out of my routines and challenge me to be more intentional.

Monday, March 5, 2012

To Nina on Her 41st Birthday

Today my dear friend Nina would have turned 41.  She passed away unexpectedly seven years ago and I deeply miss her.  She was a wonderful mom to two little girls (who are getting less little all the time).  She was a loving wife to one of my best friends from high school.  She came from a caring, fun Italian family--I've seldom felt more immediately welcome than I did when visiting her family. 

Nina was an amazing friend.  We would go out dancing downtown at Excalibur, talk about life for hours, and wash each others feet while attending Holy Thursday mass together at the church we shared (Northwestern University's Sheil Catholic Church).  I last spoke to her on the phone about a month before she died.  I had lived in New Jersey for six years and I was moving back to Chicago in a couple months. We talked about how wonderful it would be to be in the same city again and not just see each other when I came back home to visit.

Nina had a huge heart.  She was one of those people who genuinely cared about others.  She regularly volunteered at the downtown Evanston soup kitchen that our church supports.  Every year since she passed, her husband, daughters, father, brother and sister-in-law (and their kids), and Bill and I have cooked at the soup kitchen in her memory.  Sometimes a couple of our high school friends have joined us, too. After cooking we celebrate Nina with a dinner at a nearby restaurant.  I also have a mass said for her at our church. I look forward to this tradition as it honors her spirit and keeps Nina alive for me in a way.

At Christmastime every year Nina and her husband would prepare breakfast to be served at the soup kitchen/homeless shelter where another volunteer and her son would serve the meal.  The woman who served the food is an amazing writer--she has a Masters in Journalism from Northwestern's Medill and wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years).  When she heard of Nina's death she wrote the most beautiful tribute.  I re-read it every year, re-send it to our close friends, have a few tears, and remember Nina.  She really did have "a heart the size of Montana" as the writer Barbara describes.  I've pasted her writing below--I think it will touch you even if you didn't know her.

Lastly, I titled this post after the title of a play I saw back in high school "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday."  You may have seen the play, too, or the movie.  There are no similarities in their stories at all (other than leaving this world far too young and leaving a husband and children behind).  It just came to me as I was writing a title and seemed fitting.  I miss you Nina.

Here's Barbara's beautiful story of Nina

eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour

soon as the numbers beside my bed flash 4:01 sunday morn, i'll be unearthing myself from the covers, stretching a wary toe out into the cold and the black of christmas eve before most of the world gets with the program. 

it'll be time, as it has been for the past four christmas eve mornings, to wake a sleeping boy, now an almost-man child, and head out with our shopping bags and our crates of clementines to a soup kitchen where we'll be the ones to turn on the lights.  

and no doubt i'll be carrying with me the story of nina

for two christmases, nina was my compatriot in this pre-dawn drill of cooking the yummiest, oozingest christmas eve breakfast that ever there was. 

nina, she took the hard part. a one-time caterer, now a mother of two--two girls under three, mind you--she went to town on her end of the deal. and i'm tellin' you, the woman could cook.

you see, nina had a heart the size of montana. once, on one hour's notice, when no one showed to cook sunday-night supper, she turned her little family's tuna noodle casserole into tuna noodle for 40, and dashed it straight to the soup kitchen. 

but the thing about nina was that she was admittedly, emphatically, not a morning person, and certainly not with two little ones who needed to wake up to their mama. so she took what she called the day job, gave me the night job, or at least the still-dark-out start of the shift.

she made the strata, a haute strata, mind you, a huge one, a strata bulging with eggs and imported cheeses, sausage, potatoes and God only knows what. what i know is that when i plated it up to that long line of hungry souls in the chill of christmas eve morn, their eyes how they glistened, their tummies they growled. 

my end of the deal has to do with the 4 and the zeroes flashing at the side of my bed, nudging me up out from the covers. has me shuffling down the hall to rustle the sleeping heap i call my firstborn son. it's been my job to gather all that goes with the strata: the cocoa, the candy canes, the great mound of marshmallows. since it's christmas eve after all, and the folks we're feeding are homeless or sheltered in bunks down below from the kitchen, 12 to a room, we go for fresh-squeezed orange juice, serious stand-up coffee doused with industrial-sized shakes from the cinnamon shaker, and sweet breads of cranberry walnut or orange and pecan. 

for back-to-back christmas eves it worked just like that. we were a team, in touch through the phone. i'd talk to nina the day before to go over the plan. then, once home, and starting to wilt, i always called nina to give her play-by-play praise from the men and the women who came back for seconds and thirds of her strata. 

i never met nina the first year, but i fell in love with her over the phone. and i wasn't supposed to meet her the second year. 

only there in the dark, on a christmas eve that was frost-bitingly cold, as we pulled to the back stairs to unload, i was startled by carlights at 4:40 a.m.. in a dark south evanston alley, you don't want to be running into just anyone. and since nina always made such a fuss about not being up before dawn, she was the last one i expected to find there under the hood of a great arctic parka. i'd never seen her before, but i knew in an instant who those big brown eyes belonged to. "nina?" i called out. "what in the world are you doing awake?"

"we were running behind," she started explaining. "we stayed up late doing the tree and never got to deliver the strata, so we just decided to stay up and bring it over now," she said, laughing. and then barely a blink later, the vision under the fur-trimmed hood was gone in the dark of the too-early morn.
as always, the strata had the hungry and even the not-so-hungry coming back for more. and more. as always, i called later that morning to pass along every last kudo. 

that was the last time i talked to wonderful, generous, spontaneous nina

two months later, late at night, my phone rang. it was my friend harriett who lines up the cooks and the servers for soup kitchen; she was sobbing. in between sobs, i made out the words: "nina died this morning. she just died."

nina was 37, tops. her little girls, the ones who couldn't wake up without her, were 3 and 2. her husband, michael, the one who made the pre-dawn strata delivery, he was left alone in an emergency room, bundling together her things. nina had had a headache the day before, and within hours of walking into the ER, the doctors were telling her husband they were so sorry, she'd died. it was an aneurysm that couldn't be stopped.  

i decided then and there on the phone that night that every christmas eve breakfast from then on in would be in the spirit of nina, nina who could not do enough for the world. 

i called starbucks, hoping for a gift card for each soup kitchen soul. i went begging at the bread store, asking if i could pick up any unsold bread or sweet rolls to take it up a notch. 

i was thumbing through strata recipes, looking for one that might be like nina's. then my friend harriett called. the strata would be taken care of, she told me. nina's father and michael, her husband, would make it. they'd drop it off, in true nina style, the night before, but of course.  

so last christmas eve, nina's strata was, once again, the absolute hit of the soup kitchen counter.   

and i, the one spooning it out onto plates, couldn't stop thinking of the love of two men, her father, her husband, side-by-side in nina's kitchen, carrying on, following nina's instructions, line by line, layering their grief with the generous heart of the woman who all of us so achingly missed.

here's a thought: what if i get michael to share nina's recipe, and all of us whip up a batch of sweet nina's strata? and then, in the spirit of the woman with the unstoppable heart, we give it away to someone who needs reason to glisten this holiday season.