Archive for January, 2011

“What are three things you can do to be a better friend to the people in your life?”

First, I should note that I actually don’t have a lot of friends.  That sounds horrible, but the thing is, when you come from a large family, you don’t actually need friends.  And when you are an introvert, as I am, friends on top of ten aunts, ten uncles, and 157 cousins (at last count) are an invitation to insanity.  That said, I do have a number of online friends, and I cherish these friendships.  They seem to ebb and flow according to the busyness of our lives, our various illnesses (we’re all Of a Certain Age), and the seasonal pulls on our time; but it’s a comfort to me to know that they are there.

However, I must also note that at my advanced age, I have actually lost touch with most of my cousins, and have only recently found a few of them via Facebook.  It’s great seeing familiar faces again, and catching up with their lives!  And the older I grow, the more grateful I am for my huge extended family.  Having lost them once, I’m not planning to lose them again.  So, under the influence of this prompt, I’m pushed to find three things that would make me a better friend, and the most important of these is:

1.  Pray for them.  Thankfully, we all believe in God, my cousins and I (and my online friends), so this is an easy one — I don’t have to worry about stepping on their spiritual toes.

2.  Keep in touch with them.  I once found a teabag tag with a saying so striking that I tore it off the teabag and kept it:  “Go often to your friend’s house, or weeds choke up the unused path.”  Every time I see it, it brings me up short, reminds me that there are people I need to stay in touch with because they are valuable to me; they enrich my life, and I hope I enrich theirs.

3.  Laugh with them, cry with them, rejoice with them, grieve with them.  Sometimes all you need from a friend is to know that they exist at the hard times in your life; sometimes, all you need from a friend is someone to share your overwhelming joy with.  My friends (and my relatives!) do this for me; I hope I return the favor, but if not, I need to.  More importantly, I want to.

It took me a long time to find friends, and even longer to realize that I had friends all along, in the form of my cousins.  May we all continue to be important to each other.

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“Is it always better to know the truth, even when it hurts?  Or is ignorance bliss?  Or are they both true some of the time?  Bonus twist: how does your opinion on truth jive with your opinion of wikileaks?”

First a note about the title of this post, which some of my readers may recognize:  It comes from an old Sesame Street skit, where a cartoon guy is wailing, “Tell me the truuuuth, Ruuuuuuth, I want the truuuuuth, Ruuuuuth, nothing but the truuuuth, Ruuuuth….”  Whereupon the girl he’s singing to gives it to him:  “My name is Pearl.”

Well, buddy, you asked for it.

Now for my take:  Yes, I think it’s always better to know the truth.  Always.  I notice that Wikileaks was given as an example (more like a prompt to vent, one way or another), and I know that the USA was embarrassed in the eyes of its various allies and quasi-enemies (I’m thinking Russia, since no one in government seems willing to give up on the Cold War):  Imagine if we had all been honest with one another from the very beginning, instead of all this diplomatic bowing and scraping and smiling, and slicing and dicing one another behind our backs.  Yes, this extends to your telling me that this blog is the most boring piece of tripe you’ve ever read, and why on earth am I wasting my time with it?!’

It does not extend to Wikileaks, or anything that genuinely threatens or breaches national security.  There’s a vast difference between the bald truth, and putting stuff out there that can be used by people whose intent is nothing but harm.  It’s one thing to say — what was it? — “Vladimir Putin is…”  Well, I can’t remember the assessment of some State Department flunky whose career is almost certainly about to be spent — all of it — as the third consul in charge of obtaining personal products for tourists in Tirane, Albania.  That was brain-dead.  It’s another thing to say, “Islam has always been part of America,” when you can’t even find a historical reference for a wild claim like that.  If I say, “France was the actual prime cause of the Second World War,” it’s certainly a wild claim, but I can make a case for it.  (Hint:  Think Napoleon.  Is it “Ratisbon” or “Regensburg”?  “Cologne” or “Koeln”?)

But when the US was the sole possessor of the hydrogen bomb, and that gave us an advantage over an enemy (whether perceived or actual) — i.e., something we could use to keep that enemy at bay — well, supposing today’s technology had been around sixty years ago, and the plans for the H-bomb had been posted for every little rinky-dink Tenth-World demi-nation to scarf up and use to terrorize its neighbors.  Posting things like that isn’t truth, it’s irresponsibility.  It’s a “clear and present danger.”  And if Julian Assange can’t be prosecuted for treason, since he isn’t an American citizen — there should be a way to prosecute him as being a menace and a danger to the population of the world.

And that’s the truth.

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“What’s the most important thing you’re putting off?  And why haven’t you done it yet?  What do you need to make it happen?”

I was brought up to believe that procrastination was right up there with idle hands, as in, “The devil makes work for idle hands to do.”  The procrastination version of this saying was, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So it was a shock to me to realize, some years ago, that procrastination has its place in the grand scheme of things.  I was in college as a “non-trad” — a non-traditional student, meaning someone who has left college before being graduated, then returned at a much later date to finish things up — in one of those colleges designed for people like me, who have day jobs and an alternate life.  Meaning, each semester lasted eight weeks; you took two courses per semester, and you had eight weeks to complete all the course work, including whatever final paper was due.  I would always leave my final paper till the very last week, unthinkable in my youth; but somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that if I began the paper during, say, the second week, I’d be putting it together without all the facts I needed, facts that I would have at hand by the seventh week of classes and that would make my research more efficient.  So I’d research during week seven, write during week eight, and come out of the process with an A in almost every course.  (The one B I earned was during a class that lasted until 10:15 p.m., and I’m a morning person.  That class was never going to be very successful.)

And yes, I am procrastinating now on answering this question, because it means opening up a semi-secret part of me, and I’m not sure I want to go there.

I write.

I have three complete book-length manuscripts squirrelled away in a drawer.  I have shared them with a very select audience, which seemed to like them, and with an editor at a publishing house who demanded that I make major changes to the plot line; and while I can see her point, I feel as if to do so would be to compromise the integrity of the story.  Just how much do I want to be published, anyway??

I’m still not sure.  And that’s why I’m putting off editing the manuscript of the very first book, which is the foundation for the other two that are already written, as well as for the final two in the series that, as yet, exist only in my brain.

What do I need to make it happen?  Either the courage to perform major surgery, or the courage to find somewhere else to submit the thing, that’s what!  And just at present, I have the perfect excuse for putting it off:  an impending death in the family.

So if I’m Missing in Action for a few days, you’ll know why.  And if I’m Missing in Action for more than a few days…you’ll know that I found the courage to become a “word surgeon.”    😉

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“Describe a time when you witnessed bravery: a) in your profession b) with your own eyes c) in someone you admire.”

Actually, I like the question better, “What is the bravest thing?”  But as it happens, I do know of an instance of bravery, which I will bring up before answering that question.

My stepfather is a quiet man.  Not to say that he never opens his mouth — he can hold a decent conversation with absolutely anybody, from any walk of life, the most memorable being the gravedigger at my mother’s burial.  (I don’t think anyone had ever engaged the man in conversation before!)  But when it comes to what matters in life, he’s not a talker.

Growing up, we all knew, to one extent or another, that Dad had earned a Bronze Star in Europe, and the explanation we got was that it was for exemplary service on repairs to airplanes in his squadron.  It wasn’t until one of my nephews interviewed him for school that we got the real story:  A plane had landed engulfed in flames, and Dad had gone into the plane again and again until every single crew member was out.  I don’t know why my parents withheld this from us when we were children.  Knowing Dad, probably out of concern that we would boast of it all over the neighborhood.  (We would have, too.)

This is one reason why it so galls me to hear members of the military described as “blood-thirsty killers.”  I have never known anyone to serve in the military who didn’t come out of the experience with a new and fuller appreciation for life.  You can’t see people dying next to you every day and not realized what a great gift Life is.

Which brings me to my answer for the question:  What is the bravest thing?

The very bravest thing I can think of is the person who gets up, goes through the day, goes home, and goes to bed, and then does it all over again the next day, and the next day, and the day after that — without giving in to the utter conviction that the world truly would be better off if he were not in it.  It takes enormous courage to make that affirmation of life when Life itself seems against you, and the reason I admire it is that it’s such a lonely struggle.  Nobody’s aware that you go home at night and spend the evening wrestling with the temptation to finish yourself off.  Nobody’s aware of the huge victory you’ve achieved just by going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.

You who win this victory every day:  I take my hat off to you.  And I make you this promise:  You will prevail.  It may take a long time, but keep saying it:  You will prevail.

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“What gives you hope? And what, if anything, makes you question hope?”

There was more to this:  “And what makes you question your questions of hope? And…” but it strikes me as too silly to be addressed.

Hope is either completely abstract, or completely personal; it strikes too close to the heart to be neutral.

In the abstract, Hope is what keeps us going.  I can have Hope in a good outcome, in a successful tomorrow, in better, improved health, in eternal life — for that matter, I can Hope there’s a Supreme Being, if that’s what floats my boat.  (That’s really abstract, since I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is not only a  Generic Supreme Being, but God Himself.)  And of course, when any of these falls through, then I might question my confidence in Hope.

Or it can be very personal, painfully personal.  Off and on over the years, I’ve blogged about the situation with my daughter.  This past weekend, Hope raised its head again — Hope that whatever has been eating at her all these years might finally be put to rest — and was dashed, yet again, when she told me in no uncertain terms that she’d rather have no relationship at all than “a” painful relationship (implied:  a relationship with me).

Yet…  I hope.  Why, I’m not sure; something atavistic, perhaps, some maternal instinct that refuses to forget that I ever gave birth to a daughter, this daughter?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s the hope I have for life eternal in God, that same God Who never, ever gives up on one of His lost children:  If He won’t give up, how dare I?

There are a lot of hopes I could question, have questioned, because they were answered with a decisive Divine Who are you kidding?!  Ironically, though, I think that’s what helps me hold onto Hope, at the end of the day:  All those times my hopes were answered with  that very definite Don’t even go there.  The thing is, at my time in life, Ive found one funny thing about those hopes:  Invariably, what God is really saying is, “Why on earth would you want this, when what I actually have in mind for you is THIS?!” being something beyond my wildest imaginings.

So yes, I continue to hope.  Not just for this, this time, but for THIS.

P.S.  Does anybody know how to format text size in WordPress???    😉

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“Do you believe everything happens for a reason?  Why or why not?”

There’s a tale told in the Eastern Orthodox Church — I hope I get this right — about a monk who was sent on an errand that would take the entire day.  He completed his errand, and on the way back to his monastery decided to stop for lunch at a fig grove.  As he was eating his simple lunch of bread, dates and figs, a very wealthy man showed up, parked himself under a nearby grove of trees, took out a bag of gold coins, counted it, and lay down for a nap.

The monk was just settling down for a small rest for himself before completing his journey, when he spotted an obviously poor man trudging up the road.  At sight of the rich man, the poor man stopped and, while the monk watched in horror, he untied the bag of gold coins from the rich man’s belt and ran off with them.  The monk was still debating whether or not to wake up the rich man and tell him what had happened when a third man stopped in the grove and took out his own lunch.  He had hardly taken a bite when the rich man woke up, found his bag of coins missing, swore loudly and, without missing a beat, took out his sword and killed the unsuspecting traveler, then mounted his horse and galloped away before the monk had a chance to tell him the truth. 

All the way back to his monastery, the monk grieved over his hesitancy.  By the time he got back, it was too late to wake up his spiritual father and confess his own negligence, so he simply went to bed and fell asleep, still grieving over the injustices he had witnessed.

In the night an angel visited him.  “You are troubled, Brother,” he said.  “Tell me why.”

“I will do that,” said the monk.  “We always talk about God’s great mercy, but tell me:  Where is the mercy when one man is killed for the theft of another?!  What is the reason for the thief to go free, while an innocent man is slain for his crime?!”

“Ah, but you do not know the circumstances,” replied the angel.  “When I tell you the whole tale, you will see that everything happens for a reason, and that our God is indeed a God of mercy.

“You see, the first man, the rich man, obtained that bag of gold coins by fraud.  He moved a property marker so that the field of a poor man was added to his own fields, and then he sold the field of the poor man and profited by it.

“While he slept, the poor man whose field he had stolen and sold came along, recognized the man who had stolen his field, and took the coins as his just due for the property that had been taken from him.–”

“Well and good,” said the monk, “but what about the third man?”

“Ah, the third man.  The third man had been a thief and a brigand in his youth, and had robbed and killed many innocent victims.  When he repented and came to God, he asked one thing only:  That he be allowed to die the same death he had inflicted on so many others, that is, to be killed by the sword.  God heard and accepted his prayer, and that man’s soul is in Paradise because of his genuine repentance and requital.  So when you confess tomorrow, confess your lack of faith in God, not your own hesitancy.  For you see, everything happens for a reason.”

The monk slept in peace, confessed his sin on the morrow, and doubted God no more.

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“Describe the wackiest but most useful advice you’ve ever received.”

That’s a tough one.  I don’t seem to be the kind of person who invites wacky advice.  I can’t say that all the advice I ever received was useful, and some of it was downright lousy, but I can’t think of a single piece of advice that was both wacky and useful.

Wait a minute:  Yes, I can.  High-school Glee Club.  We had a music instructor from Czechoslovakia (for you young folks, that was back in the days when the country of Slovakia was paired with the eastern German principalities of Bohemia and Moravia, both of which now make up the Czech Republic, and they called the whole mess Czechoslovakia).  Professor Rybka was a classically-trained musician who had been forced to flee his country when the Nazis annexed it, and he eked out a living by giving private voice lessons to talented singers, in addition to being on the payroll of the Catholic girls’ school I attended.  I sincerely hope he had other sources of income, since I can’t imagine he made much off casting his pearls before all us little piglets.

He was full of wacky advice.  Those vocal warm-ups:  “Mi-a-lo-la, mi-a-lo-la, LA-a-a-a-a-a-a-a” (on a descending scale).  “BrrrEEEEd!” he would command (he meant, Breathe.  Like we were all walking dead or something, which, considering the average mental state of the average teenager, isn’t too far off).  “SmILE!” he’d say, and broaden his own mouth in what was supposed to be an expression of musical bliss, and this was how we were supposed to sing, as if we were enjoying every second.  And the wackiest of all, “Oooooooooopen your mooooooooooooouuuuuth.”

Have you ever really opened your mouth to sing?!  I mean, wide open, like you were at the dentist?  Let me tell you, nothing feels more ridiculous, especially if your definition of singing involves the hottest rock ‘n’ roll band.  You don’t hold it in a perfect oval, either, like those pictures we all see on Christmas cards of angelic choirboys.  You literally “open wide,” just like at the dentist, and you feel like a complete idiot.

Well, I made it through high school, and Glee Club, for all its absurdities, was definitely the highlight.  I was relieved to be delivered of Professor’s injunctions, but I knew I would miss Glee Club, all the same.  Then I realized something:  I was grown up (at age 18), and could join the church choir.

So I did.  And what did I hear?  “Smile!  Breathe!  Open your mouth!”  And yes, all the same ridiculous warm-ups we had done in high school.  The thing was, this was New York City, so every rinky-dink choir out there was directed by someone who had been graduated from college with a degree in music, and full training in choral singing; so no matter where I went, if I was in a choir, that was what I was hearing.  Professor was on to something.

Fast-forward fifteen or so years.  My husband and I were on vacation in Upstate New York with our two kids, and had decided to track down a church on Sunday.  As we stood there, we heard a chanter, a woman with absolutely the loveliest, purest voice I have ever heard in my life.  “Oh, I wish I could sing like that,” I thought, and then it hit me:  You know all the tricks.  You know what you’re supposed to do to get that sound, so do it.  Bit by bit, week after week, I worked on my voice until I had a sound that approximated that exquisite, crystalline voice that I had heard one Sunday in church on vacation.

That was thirty years ago.  People still tell me what a wonderful voice I have — not just people who hear me in church, but professionals, too.  The best compliment I ever got was from a Russian opera singer who, like Professor, gave voice lessons:  “I wish I could have you for six months,” he beamed.  “You have such a young voice.”

Since my teen years, singing has been my life, my worship.  And whenever I Oooooooooooooopen my moooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuth to do it, I think of Professor Rybka and his wacky advice.

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