I wrote last month about my addiction to sweeping, but if you didn’t get to read my confessional, you can check it out in my November archives. But sweeping isn’t my only addiction. I have an even better fix when it comes to facing the challenges the world throws at me. Maybe I shouldn’t call this one an addiction, though I think of it as such. It’s not a behavior that I could get rid of, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, but it is something worth confessing.

I am addicted to joy.big be joyous

I am addicted to seeing the bright side of things, the silver lining, the best in a bad situation. Somewhere deep in my DNA, the cosmos embedded a gene that made me an eternal optimist. While other people might say, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” I say “Watch me,” but don’t blame me if you end up wanting to kiss it. I am sure that my intractable tendency to joy is both endearing and frustrating to the people I know, especially my pessimistic husband, Tim. It may be one of the traits that he fell in love with, but it is also one of the things that has caused the most arguments in our household as well. I think his realistic point of view can be depressing, but sometimes he feels like he’s married to Mary Poppins. I have to admit that I agree with her theory. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, then I say, “Bottoms up!”

I think optimism and joy need to be defended sometimes. They are too often seen as naïve, or immature emotions. But they are not the same as being oblivious to the sorrows of world, or mere shallowness. A true optimist is fully aware of the painful realities of life, but they are equally aware of the potential within each of those realities for growth, for transformation, for a positive outcome. If you trust in the existence of goodness within each person, or each problem, you call it forth by that your very belief in its presence. You can’t see something that you don’t believe in, so I think it’s a loss when we focus too much on reality, or what we think we know about life. We might lose our ability to affect the very outcome we most desire.

As you can imagine, Christmas is a wonderful time of year for people like me. It’s as if everyone finally catches on to what we’ve been saying all along. It may take you eleven months out of twelve every year, but we don’t get discouraged. We know it’s possible. We know that eventually we’ll all get on the same page. Peace! Hope! Joy! Love! We aren’t picky about what holiday you celebrate: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or even just New Years Day! Give yourself some time and space to believe it’s all going to be okay and it just might work out that way.

I’ve taken some heat over the years for my Pollyanna way of looking at the world, but I hope it’s something I never lose, not just because it makes my life better, but because I’ve been told it does the same for the lives of those around me. Henri Nouwen had this to say about joy, “ Real joy always wants to share. It belongs to the nature of joy to communicate itself to others and to invite others to take part in the gifts we have received.”

I hope over the next two weeks, as we head into the home stretch of the holiday season, that you find yourself in the company of someone joyful and that the joyful person is you. I hope that true optimism fills your heart and soul, not ignoring the truth of the past year’s struggles, or losses, nor the challenges of the months ahead, but believing in the possibility of goodness, love, joy and peace. Making space for those realities can make the best of any bad situation.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I have a daily prayer practice. I’d like to call it meditation, which sounds so much cooler, but I’d be lying. I don’t light incense, or chant. I don’t clear my mind. I am much more likely to have a thought, follow it and watch it unfold. However, I do breathe deeply. I do invite the divine presence (s) to be with me. I do try to be honest about my life – what I’ve done and failed to do, what has made laugh and/ or cry. I look for patterns, try to find perspective, and ask for grace. Having a serious prayer practice isn’t nearly as holy, or pious as it sounds, but I do know that it’s useful, or has been for me.

On my best days, I have an hour before my family wakes to sit and pray. But most days aren’t my “best days,” so more often than not, I get 30 minutes or so, and on the weekends, I might neglect to set the alarm and take what I can get later on. But last night, I did something that I have never done before. I was tossing and turning; it was close to midnight and I reached over and turned off my alarm, not because I wanted to sleep in (which I’ve done often enough before), but because God and I had had a bit of an argument the day before and I wasn’t sure I was ready to talk to Him yet. In short, I was planning on giving Him the silent treatment.

He, however, had other plans. I woke up this morning and thought to myself smugly, “Ha! I showed him. I slept right through our time,” but when I looked over at the clock, it was precisely 5:58 a.m., the exact time we begin every morning. Ha! He showed me. He seemed to be saying, “Whether you planned to speak to me or not, you’re up, so you may as well.”  I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that He was right, so I got up and began my prayer with equal parts relief and trepidation.

The danger with giving someone the silent treatment is that you’ll stay there for far too long. I think that there is a time for silence when you’re angry, when you’ve gotten past the point where words are useful, and they’ve become blunt force objects whose sole purpose is to injure and maim. Most of us have probably learned where that threshold is and can hold our tongues. However, the silent treatment is a different weapon all together. It’s meant to punish the other, but more effectively punishes us. While we might stop speaking our thoughts out loud, we typically launch into self-justifying monologues in our own heads, rants of George Carlin-esque proportions. We inflate the righteousness of our own position, while reducing the other person, usually someone we love, to an insignificant speck in the cosmic scheme of things. And then there’s that awkward moment when you do have to speak again, when you have to let go of your anger, and find a way to move on.

You can see why this might be a problem when your adversary is God.

So I sat on the couch, closed my eyes and sighed. The rants, the anger, the dirty looks are useless when your opponent is Love, boundless and unchangeable. There is nothing I can do that will hurt Him. Even if I’m angry, if I stamp my feet, and try to run away, I can’t. There is nowhere I can go that isn’t in the palm of His hand, inside the circle of His arms. The silent treatment is useless against unconditional Love.

So when I got over myself and began to speak again, He was there, waiting patiently for me. There was no awkwardness, no apologies needed. He was ready to listen, willing to hear whatever it was I had to say. And so I tried again to express what I was feeling and I tried even harder to listen to what He might have to say on the subject. No, I’m not a mystic, or a religious nut. I never hear His voice, or words coming down from the Heavens. But I hear Him all the same, if I am paying attention. If I am open to it, if I am aware, then His response unfolds in the every day occurrences of my life, in something I read, a movie I watch, a conversation I have. Sometimes, He even deigns to speak through a Facebook post.

After thinking about it, I’ll probably try to avoid giving anyone the silent treatment in the near future. Silence?  Yes, as long as it’s necessary and helpful. But mute anger? I think I’ll pass. And I hope that the next time someone (probably Keara) tries it on me, I’ll react differently. I hope I can take a lesson from God’s playbook and remain uninjured and unoffended. I’ll try to communicate that no matter how far she goes, my love goes farther and that I will be waiting here patiently, ready to listen, no apology necessary.

That’s what Love does, or so I’ve heard.

I’ve had a crazy last week and with the Christmas holidays rapidly approaching, it doesn’t feel like things will be getting better any time soon. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we had a nine-hour drive home from the San Francisco Bay area. On Sunday, I hit the ground running with a pre-dawn trip to the market, so we would have milk and bagels for breakfast. From there, I was on to laundry, creating an African tribal mask for Finn’s 7th grade history class, and following up on all of the homework that had ‘accidentally’ gotten left at home over vacation. After working from home on Monday and Tuesday, I headed out of town for three nights to work at my company’s Orange County office, leaving my sick husband and three kids in the care of my mother-in-law, who was thankfully visiting us from Montana.

I screeched into the driveway on Friday morning in enough time to drive carpool, and to shop and prep for a special event we were hosting at our own business on Friday night. Drinks, desserts and door prizes at “Ladies Night Out” at Wavelines! Come one and come all to shop for Christmas. Life was all good, all fine, all (mostly) under control, but as Tim and I got ready Saturday morning to head out to Molly’s soccer game in San Ysidro, just a ½ mile from the Mexican border, I leaned into him and sighed.

“Do you know what I want for Christmas?” I asked him.

“Do you know what I can afford?” he countered.

“Perfect,” I said, “ It won’t cost you a thing. I just want a button I can push that will stop the world and everyone in it for about 1 month…”

“You mean, like a vacation?” He interrupted, “A sabbatical, where you disappear for a month? I could maybe give you two or three days, but…”

“No, honey, like magic. Like everything in the world stops, except for me, like a bad episode of “Bewitched.” No one else moves and I can just scurry around and get caught up on everything, more than caught up, ahead even!” I pictured myself baking dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies, cleaning the house from top to bottom, including the closets, writing 50 pages for the book I’m dreaming of, having time to go to the gym, the movies and the beach for a surf, guilt-free.

He’s such a man. He suggested that I skip Molly’s soccer game and get some work done. Three hours versus thirty days…

Close enough, right?

But the thing is that I really wanted to go to Molly’s soccer game. Going to a soccer game, especially after being out of town for work that week, felt like the most important thing I could do that day, even though there was not a single Christmas present bought, or card sent.  I wanted to be fully present to my daughter for that hour, to share in her triumph or defeat, her grin when she made a good play, or the slump of her shoulders if she felt like she let her team down. I wanted to drive away from my chores, my laptop, the big box of work under my desk. I wanted to be out in the winter sunshine, cheering like a maniac with my phone nowhere in sight.

So I did. And it was glorious.

And when I got home, it was back to the drawing board. Laundry, dinner, sweeping, writing, life. Finally, I pulled myself away and got in a hot bath around 7, with the promise of a movie with Tim at 8. The kids were happily watching TV downstairs, and I was content. Tim hadn’t been able to get me that magic button I asked for (yet), but somehow I had found the button inside, the one that paused me. I already have access to the button that makes me stop, and I know it’s the only one I am ever going to get. I curled up next to him and we started to watch our film, but after 10 minutes, he thought it was too depressing and went downstairs. Oh well, it was time to get the kids into bed anyway.

So I walked downstairs and back into the firestorm of my life. I thought of the 6:30 am wake up call that was coming for Molly’s game on the border the next day and knew I’d better gather all the bits of her uniform right now. And I thought of the orange slices I had better cut and the socks I had better Febreeze. I thought of the pile of laundry that was still sitting in the dryer waiting to be folded. I reminded Keara, my 14-year-old, to practice her piano, which led to a tense conversation about the rights and responsibilities of parents’ to direct their children’s lives. I was so keyed up by the time that 30 minutes were through that I had to clean off my desk just to get my emotions under control. Have I mentioned before that I soothe myself by cleaning?

By the time I rejoined Tim upstairs where he had escaped to after he kissed the kids goodnight, another hour had passed and he felt badly that he had ever let me go back downstairs at all. I think he was googling “How to stop the world for a busy mom,” but he wasn’t having any luck. I shook my head at him, and sat down to write.

I am the only one who can choose to get off this merry-go-round, because I know it won’t stop. Things will get done, or they won’t, by my choice and my limitations. And that’s okay. As I write this, late on Saturday night, I plan on pushing the button again tomorrow. I am leaving my house at 8 and won’t be back until 2pm. Christmas lights be damned! I am going to watch my little girl run up and down the sidelines, defending her goal with all her might. I’ll invite Tim to lay his head in my lap and take a nap between games on the sideline grass. I hope to challenge a passel of nine-year-old girls to a game of BS and lose on purpose, just to hear them giggle. Those are the kinds of experiences I gain when I lose sight of what I should be doing. I may not be able to do it all the time, but after tonight, I realize how important it is that I do it at all.

I had breakfast with an old friend yesterday, and by old, I mean my age. She was a college roommate at Santa Clara, the first university I went to straight out of high school.She became known as Big Meg, which was unfortunate, because there was and is nothing big about her. She is 5”5’, slim and athletic, but we had to distinguish her somehow from Little Meg, who was maybe 5” and might have weighed more than Big Meg herself. She was in town, visiting from Seattle and got in touch. Out of the 4 days, between our family and work commitments, we found 90 minutes to see each other, early on a Monday morning.

"Big Meg" and me at a party, circa 1990

I would like to say that we hadn’t changed a bit. Isn’t that what you are supposed to say about a woman you haven’t seen in 15 years? But the truth of the matter is that we have. We might look youngish for our 40 years, but the restaurant was flooded with early morning sunshine and every line on our faces was highlighted, along with our crows feet and the sunspots on the backs of our hands. A darker café would have been more forgiving, but I was glad to be where we were. I think it made it easier to pick up where we left off, with the vulnerable honesty that came naturally when we were 19 years old. The bright light of day seemed to say, “Here you go; there’s no room to hide; just let it out.”

So we jumped right in and I asked her to tell me her story, the roads she’s taken since she left college, where she’s been and what she’s done. And I told her a little bit about mine as well. After our initial start, we spent very little time reminiscing, which I was so grateful for and in some ways, surprised by. We didn’t rehash the past, gossip about old friends, or relive our ‘glory days,’ because they weren’t. No matter what is going on in our lives now, the present moment is our greatest gift.

Not dwelling on our past allowed us to move right on to our presents and futures. Although our life circumstances are very different, it looks like we are both headed in the same direction – to find greater purpose and significance in the work that we do. We’ve both come to the edge of a cliff. But whereas Meg is leaping, because she wants to fly, I am hanging on to the edge, hoping that the universe hands me a parachute. I think our two approaches have everything to do with the stories we’ve been telling ourselves our whole lives. Meg shared that she always thought she was destined to do something significant, that she would make an impact on the world somehow, while I have never imagined that my influence would extend beyond the boundaries of my own home. But apparently, like it our not, we are both destined to go into freefall here in our 4oth years. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one in flight.

And in that moment across that sun-drenched breakfast table, I did see the girl I used to know and she hadn’t changed a bit. She was still the kind, warm, authentic person I met and fell in love with all those years ago on the 11th floor of a freshman dorm. She still has the quick smile, the easy laugh and the self-confidence to be honest within the space of a few minutes. That kind of vulnerability is rare. Most people won’t be that intimate with you over the course of two years, much less a two-course meal.

We hugged as we left each other and made all the usual promises to keep in better touch, but the funny thing is, I think we actually meant them. After more than 20 years, we found ourselves meeting again in the same place we did the first time, emotionally if not geographically. We are leaving the security of a warm nest to discover our place in the larger world, to find out who and what we are meant to be, to bring our dreams to life.

Tim caught me red-handed today. I thought he had left for work. He’d taken his cooler, his keys and his cup of coffee and headed out the door. I thought I was safe, but I should have known better. I didn’t get my kiss goodbye, which is always the last thing he does before he leaves. I was just so eager to get started that I overlooked that final step in his daily ritual. After setting some things in his car and messing around in the garage, he walked back in the front door and said, “Honey, what are you doing?”

Darn.  He caught me sweeping. Again.

Could I hide the evidence behind my back? Could I kick away the incriminating pile of dirt, lying at my feet? No, not this time, so instead I blushed, gave him my sweetest smile and handed over the broom. He took it gently from my hands, held me close for a minute, and gave me the goodbye kiss I had missed. He then took my broom out to his truck and drove away with it to work.

Double darn. Now what was I going to do?

Contrary to how that story makes me sound, I am not insane. Nor do I have OCD, or some other disorder. I am not even anal retentive, or a particularly good housekeeper. What I do have, like everyone else I know if they would just admit it, is an addiction. And I don’t think it is even that unusual. I think it’s easy for many of us to turn up our noses at what we consider the bad addicts – the raging alcoholics, the druggies, the sex addicts, and the smokers. Individually, we might have more sympathy for the addicts whose temptations we can relate to – the overeaters, the anorexics, or bulimics, maybe even those who attend GA (Gambler’s Anonymous, as if you didn’t know).

Until recently, I was more likely to scoff at the concept of addiction than I was to see it at work in my own life. But I read something the other day that made me rethink my stereotypes. I read about process addictions, which we all suffer from. They are the little things we do that calm us down, that make us “feel normal,” whatever that means. These are the habits that make us feel as if everything is under control somehow. The writer suggested that one of the most common process addictions today is checking our cell phones, especially if they link us to email, Facebook and interactive games, like Words with Friends. If you’re honest, how many times a day do you look at your phone and why? But we do other things as well. Some people run; some cook; some people knit, and others bite their nails.

I happen to sweep. I didn’t even realize how I was using my broom until after I read the article. I thought I was just using it to clean my house. Five people (plus companions) traipse in and out of my house all day long. It gets dirty. I sweep it. It gets clean, for about 5 minutes. That means I can sweep again. It made perfect sense in my mind, until I thought about when and why I sweep and how it makes me feel.

Sweeping brings me great pleasure and deep satisfaction. When I recognized the warm sensation I got in the pit of my belly whenever I swept, I knew I had a problem. I use my broom and the rhythmic motion of sweeping to calm myself down, to give myself some illusion of control over my household and my life and to clear my head. I tend to want to sweep first thing in the morning, when everyone has left the house, and in the evenings after dinner, when everyone is done tracking in mud and creating crumbs at the dinner table. On a perfect day, I also get to sweep after homework time, when my kids’ liberal use of erasers has created rubber snowflakes all over the kitchen floor. On stressful days, I am tempted to sweep 5 times or more.

I realize that sweeping may not be that bad as far as addictions go, especially if I recognize it for what it is and treat it accordingly. I think that is where Tim’s kidnapping of my broom came from. It was an intervention of sorts, and a humorous one at that. I really didn’t need to be sweeping this morning. I would be okay without it and the floor was pretty clean anyway. He wasn’t trying to be mean; he was just trying to help me break the cycle. Like any addict in recovery, I want to reprogram my mind to handle stress in many ways, not just the one way I’ve come to rely on. A run in the mornings would be good for me, and so would sitting quietly for 5 minutes. I think Tim would love it if I developed a dish-washing addiction, but then again, maybe not. That would mean he’d have to come up with a new one for himself.

The other day, Keara and I were working around the house, doing some baking, cleaning and sweeping and I asked her if I could put on some music. If it doesn’t need to be quiet, I like to have a soundtrack to my life. When I am doing my serious house cleaning, I crank up Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and sing along to “PYT,” while I wash the windows, and scrub the floor. If we’re out by the pool, then our neighbors are sure to hear Jack Johnson, or Donavon Frankenreiter blaring. Doing dishes after dinner calls for something more pensive, like Norah Jones, while road trips bring out the country music fan in me, old school stuff like Willie Nelson and Eddie Rabbit.

So Keara acquiesced to my musical request as long as I didn’t put on “that guy,” she said with an eye roll.

“What guy?” I asked innocently. And really, I was innocent. I didn’t know which one of my male singer-songwriters she was objecting to.

With the patience you use with a toddler, she looked me in the eye and said, “You know Mom, the ‘orange sky’ guy.”

Oh, “that guy.” I shrugged casually and said, “Sure honey, no problem,” while I rapidly deleted “that guy’s” name from my Itunes search field and carefully chose another band instead.

“That guy” she was referring to was Alexi Murdoch and my daughter has a serious aversion to him. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate his music, or his low, melodic voice. For a teenager, she has a surprisingly diverse and advanced taste in music. It might be her 5+ years of piano lessons, but I’d also like to think it has something to do with our refusal to ever purchase Kidz Bop albums, or allow boy bands in our home. But despite her appreciation for his talent, she can’t stand listening to Alexei Murdoch. We burned her out on him last year. If she has to hear “Orange Sky,” or “Wait for Me” one more time, she thinks her head might explode.

I turned on The Black Eyes Peas for Keara that morning, instead of “that guy,” but I slowly drifted out of the room, and let Alexi’s music play freely in my own head. It filled my heart and mind and brought back a flood of emotions, both good and bad from last year, when I played him almost without ceasing. Every morning when the kids woke up, I would have his album Time Without Consequence going in the background. Most days when Tim got home from work, I would put on one of my favorite tracks and we would slow dance in the entryway. It was my way, our way really, of centering ourselves on what was truly important, as we transitioned in and out of the painful realities of our days.

Last year, our business was struggling to make ends meet. We were trying hard to find solutions to problems that felt very far beyond our reach, and we had to rely heavily on business contacts, friends, and family for guidance. But mostly, we had to rely on each other and together we relied on Alexi. His music seemed to speak to us, to articulate what we were going through, and to remind us of what we needed and what we needed to be doing. So each time we listened to “Orange Sky,” as we held hands, heart to heart on our entryway dance floor, or looked at one another across the dinner table with tears in our eyes, we heard, “Here is what I know now, goes like this… In your love, my salvation lies…oh you know I am so weary and you know my heart’s been broken…When I am alone, when I’ve thrown off the weight of this crazy stone, when I’ve lost all care for the things I own, that’s when I miss you, you who are my home and here is what I know now: in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, in your love, in your love.”  We remembered that love, the stuff that exists between us and within our family, would be our salvation, no matter what else happened out there, beyond the walls of our home.

I heard a story once about Roberta Flack and the song she made famous in the 1970s called, “Killing Me Softly.” Maybe you remember it. The story goes that she went to hear Christopher Cross sing in a nightclub and that as she listened to him, she had this surreal feeling that he had been inside her heart and mind. “He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair” and that his song was “telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song.”

Alexi Murdoch is my Christopher Cross. Without him, and that album, Tim and I may not have been able to articulate what we needed from each other. And we all know that if you can’t name something, then you have little chance of ever finding it. How can you look for something that you don’t even know exists?  So sometimes we were clinging to love for our salvation, and other times, we would listen to “Wait for Me,” and ask the question, “So if I stumble and if I fall and if I slip now and lose it all and if I can’t be all that I could be, will you wait for me? Please wait for me….” Alexi expressed our deepest longings and fears, as we faced some of our lowest points in our twenty years together, but he also gave us the words and the melody to find peace and hope in those moments as well.

So as I came out of my reverie last week, to the sound of “Boom, Boom Pow” in background, I thought of Keara and her distaste for Time Without Consequence. I can’t really blame her for it. I am sure it is more than just being tired of the songs. The music must carry a subconscious weight for her as well. But instead of finding solace in the profound truths in the songs like we did, she simply witnessed the emotional response, which probably looked a lot like grief. No matter how much we tried to protect the kids from what was going on, as the oldest, she probably understood more than we thought. Alexi Murdoch will probably always mean heartbreak to her, while he will always be “killing me softly.” Whenever I hear those songs, until the day I die, they will always speak of the greatest truths I know.

That love waits for us to become who we are meant to be, no matter how long it takes.

That in love our best hope for salvation is found.

That with love, I am home.

Thank you Alexi.

And as a mother, I hope that someday Keara finds a soundtrack for her own truths as well.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Alexi Murdoch’s work, I’ve included two links to youtube, where you can listen to “Orange Sky” and “Wait.”  My snippets of lyrics don’t do justice to the poetry of the songwriter.


Have you ever gotten a name completely wrong, and no matter how many times you hear it said the right way, you can’t help but say it the wrong way? When my kids were small, I was thrilled by these little misnomers. I would encourage them in their mispronunciations, knowing that too soon, the correct words would come. Some family favorites still include bezras, the black and white striped animals found on the African plains, and Jophus, the husband of Mary, and the father of Baby Jesus. My least favorite example is my own father’s insistence on calling my daughter Kara, (rhymes with hair-a) instead of the correct Keara (rhymes with deer-a) for the first several years of her life. I went with simpler names for child #2 and #3.

My son recently introduced me to a show that he and his friends watch (and I am going to do everything in my power to get the name right this first time) called Destroy, Build, Destroy. No matter how many times he corrects me, I keep referring to it as Build, Destroy, Build. I am sure it’s because I am a mother, but it goes against my intuition to end a show with a Destroy instead of a Build. Why would you do that? And also, how can you destroy something before you’ve built it? It just doesn’t make sense to me. And here’s the kicker in my opinion. The winning team gets to destroy the machine, built with great care and effort by the losing team. Let me repeat that: The winner is the destroyer. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we don’t allow 12-year-old males to vote. That is Lord of the Flies for the millennial generation.  Left to their own devices, or given a chance to create their own TV show, “kill or be killed” is their mentality.

And as I watch our current election races heat up, I am saddened by how little we’ve grown up, or asked our candidates to do so. At least on the TV show, each team is given a chance to build something before their opponents are allowed to destroy it. In our political climate, no candidate is allowed to create a healthy idea, image, or campaign before it is attacked and brought low. I don’t know what a healthier, feasible alternative would look like, but I get so tired of watching the 12-year-old, male mentality of politics that I mostly tune out, or turn it off, just like I do with Destroy Build Destroy. I want to stay engaged. I want to do better, but I just can’t get past the feeling that I am watching bad, reality TV and that the winner, no matter who it is, can’t help but be a destroyer. It’s the way we’ve created the game.

My husband, Tim, and I recently saw a preview for a movie called J Edgar. Leo DiCaprio stars as J Edgar Hoover, as a young man until his final days. I don’t know that we will see the film, although I am sure it would be educational. I know nothing about Hoover, his life, or the rise of the FBI. In the trailer, DiCaprio, as Hoover, uses a familiar line while trying to recruit a new man for his team. He says, “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Of course, the implication is that this particular good man needs to come work for Hoover in order to stop the evil within our nation. I am sure that the movie will play with that theme on many levels during its two hours of allotted time. What is evil? How do we define it? Can you use evil for the sake of good, without becoming evil yourself? None of these are new thoughts of course, but they might play out in a new way, with Clint Eastwood directing and DiCaprio as the star.

Hearing that line in the darkened theater got me thinking about how often I’ve heard it, in political speeches and rallies, in history classes and ethics seminars. Each time, it’s been in the context of the universal, the “out there” of things. It’s a poetic call to action in the world. We can’t simply become complacent and look away. If we do, evil will flourish. Obviously and simply said.

But as I heard it this time, I heard it differently. I heard it about my own life, my own self. What if the only thing necessary for evil to flourish in me, is for me to simply do nothing about it? I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t consider myself particularly evil, but it is something worth thinking about. Like most things, I think you can put evil on a sliding scale. I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionaries Online and found that evil can run the gamut from “profound immorality and wickedness” to “something which is harmful or undesirable.” While I may not be aware of the former lurking deep within, I am certainly culpable of the latter. Let me quote one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here.

Evil, (my emphasis) “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

I love thee in my desire to overindulge in rich food, red wines, and salty margaritas. I love thee in my ability to gossip, even if it is only with my husband, instead of everyone I meet. I love thee in my tendency to rail at my children when they drive me crazy. I love thee in my profound distaste for overly pious, or righteous people of any religion, as I judge them just as thoroughly as they judge me. I love thee in my vanity, my ego, and my selfishness. Evil, I love thee in every way that you encourage me to simply be, instead of striving to be better.

And I think that is where the line rings true in the universal and the personal. It is so much easier to just be and not think about the ways I fall short, to just shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well. That’s just the way I am and I’m not so bad after all.” It doesn’t matter if I am letting evil go out there, or in here. I have to act against the temptation to just be every day, or every week, or at least every month. Certainly more than once a year, right? Because if I don’t, those evils are going to flourish.

Flourish isn’t just surviving, creeping along, centimeters a year. Flourish is robust, healthy, magnificent growth. It’s what gardeners hope for, a farmer’s dream.  The last thing I want is to let those evils I “love” to actually flourish in my mind, body and soul. There would be little room left for the good to grow.

So I keep looking for ways to keep those evils in check. None of them are fail proof, but they offer me some tools to keep the weeds at bay. I meditate; I contemplate; I pray. I read good books. I write. I try to talk to my husband about something significant every day. I count to 10. I take a deep breath. I count to 10 again. It’s a start.


Without a doubt, the most important part of my day is the early morning. I set my alarm to wake me up well before anyone else, usually while it is still dark out. Thanks to the timer, I have a freshly brewed pot of coffee waiting for me. I get cozy on the couch, the easy chair, or if it’s summertime, on a chaise lounge in the back yard. And once I am settled, I close my eyes, breathe deeply and begin to pray. I might meditate on the words of a master, on yesterday’s highs and lows, or on this day’s hopes and fears. I try to gather wisdom from the universe about who I am, my place and purpose in this world. All this happens on a good day.

A not-so-good-day might begin with any one of these.

I forget to make the coffee. I oversleep and only have a few minutes to pray, before the school lunches have to be made. I have two glasses of wine the night before, instead of one, and wake up with a headache and cottonmouth. I neglect to put on a bathrobe when I get out of bed and spend my time shivering in a fetal position, completely unable to concentrate on any cosmic thoughts at all. Sometimes, my peaceful morning ritual is a comedy of errors.

One recent morning, I tiptoed downstairs and my youngest child greeted me in the hallway, sleepy-eyed and crabby. This particular phenomenon happens with some regularity and when it does, it is not likely that my morning ritual will proceed as I want it to. Sometimes I can successfully distract her with an early morning television show, or a bowl of cereal and a request to please let mom have her little bit of morning quiet time. But then, she is occupying the only unoccupied room in the house, besides the bathrooms. Meditating with a hot cup of coffee on the closed lid of a toilet is not an ideal situation, but that may just be me.

Most of the time, she wants to curl up in my lap and ‘pray with me,’ which sounds so much sweeter than it is. That girl can’t sit still for a minute, and her capacity for silence is even less impressive. So when I found her standing at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me, I tried to suppress my internal groan. I offered her the usual distractions, which she quickly declined and instead curled up next to me on the couch. We spilled my coffee on our laps; we changed positions six times and we exchanged more words in those 60 seconds than I usually speak in the first two hours I am awake on any given day. I finally got frustrated and stalked back upstairs, leaving her sitting forlornly on the couch. I sat on the edge of my bed and whined to myself about missing my peace, quiet and meditation. However, after that kind of performance, I knew that the only thing the universe was going to tell me was to get back downstairs, apologize to my daughter and love on her. So, I went, albeit grudgingly and sheepishly at the same time, if that’s possible.

Molly feels things deeply, but she doesn’t hold a grudge, so I was immediately forgiven and within seconds, I felt little tears on my chest as she told me why she was up early. She’d had a bad dream and some things had happened yesterday that she didn’t like, so she didn’t want to go to school today. Although I heard a jumbled, early-morning version of what happened, the bottom line is that she doesn’t like it when she comes up short in any area, academics, sports, or clubs. She is constantly comparing herself to her peers, and wanting to make sure that she measures up. This is not a burden we’ve put on her. It’s a burden we’ve been trying to take off her since she started elementary school.

So I held her close to my heart for a moment and then I pushed her away and asked her to look in my eyes. I told her that she only has to be the best Molly she can be on any given day – not the best anything else – not the best anybody else. She doesn’t even have to be the best she has ever been. She simply has to be her best for this day.

As I said those words to her, still carrying the guilt of my bad behavior 5 minutes before, I thought, “What a mantra for all of us. I only have to be the best me I can be this day.”  It doesn’t matter if I am being a mom, or wife, daughter, or friend, employee, or employer. Whatever the world asks of me each day – that is all I can do. When I hold this mantra in my mind, I can pause when I see myself being less than my best, and try to adjust, just like I did after I stomped upstairs and abandoned my sad, little girl.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my best is really pretty stinky. But still, if that’s the best I can do this day, really stink it up, then so be it. Occasionally, I hope I can pause to see the way I am behaving, and ask myself, “Is that really the best you’ve got?” The more often I do it, the more I see the truth that I choose how I react to my circumstances and that if I don’t choose rightly the first time, I can always go back and make amends. And truth be told, I spend a lot of time making amends. I may not always apologize, but there are always opportunities to repair what has been damaged, and heal what has been hurt when I have not been my best self.

And after I got my kids to school that day and the house was empty, there was plenty of time to recover the peace and quiet that had been lost to my early morning companion and I knew that nothing of value had been lost. The universe had spoken to me after all.

That's Good! That's Bad!

When my friend Laura first started teaching kindergarten, she had something called a “Listening Center” in her classroom with tape recorders, headphones and a selection of picture books with audiocassettes. Seeing those recorders lined up brought me back to my childhood days and the time I spent at the Huntington Beach Public Library. I would lounge on a bean bag with headphones on, in the library’s “Listening Center,” while my mom browsed the Adult Fiction, two floors away. Those were blissful moments for this nerdy little girl.

A few years later, when my own children were ready for picture books, I gleefully marched them into the public library, right up to my favorite childhood section, the picture books on tape, rack upon rack of auditory gold.

Although it has been many years since my children checked out a book on tape, there is one story I remember listening to with great fondness. It had a bright yellow cover, with a boy being lifted into the air by a big red balloon. The title was simply That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margaret Cuyler. It was the story of a little boy floating and dropping, landing and hopping, all over a jungle, filled with wild animals. I remember the cadence of the readers’ voices as they chanted the refrain from the book’s title. The children on the CD would all cheer, “Oh, that’s good,” but the adult reader would quickly correct them, “No, that’s bad.” On the next page, the roles were reversed and what seemed bad would, in fact, turn out to be good.  Listening to the book was a pleasure, but the real joy came from my kids’ anticipatory giggles as they waited for the other shoe to drop, for what they thought was so clearly good, to be shown to be so obviously bad, and vice versa.

After listening to that book countless times over the years, you’d think I would have remembered the universal theme:

You can’t really judge if something’s good, or bad, until you turn the page. 

But gosh, that’s a hard truth to hold on to. Life is very much like that story book. Something happens that raises our spirits, and we silently cheer, Oh, that’s good! but it is quickly followed by the realization, No, that’s bad! Of course, the reverse holds true just as often, if not more so. We never really know if something is good, or bad, until much, much later, and even then, we can’t really be sure, because the story’s not over yet.

Of course, I’ve always been on this roller coaster of judgment, but it has really picked up speed since the Fall of 2008. My husband and I own a small retail business and the last three years have not been easy. Our lives and livelihood have been built around that business. Apart from his family, the ‘shop,’ as we lovingly call it, is his pride and joy. Since the start of the Great Recession, we’ve hit a lot of peaks and valleys. We’ve reinvented the way he works, the way I work, the way the business works, but it still seems like we are often groaning, Oh, that’s bad. However, we keep reminding ourselves, No, that’s good, because, unlike a lot of mom-and-pop stores, our doors are still open and we are still paying the bills, or at least most of them.

It works that way in my personal life as well. I go through my days, attaching too much significance to each and every thing that comes my way. I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” just to have something occur to me a moment later that has me convinced, “No, that’s bad.” It’s an emotional ping-pong game, and I am always the loser. Whether it is phone calls, emails, invitations, conversations, red lights, green lights, doctor visits, or burned dinners, I wish I were not so hasty to judge whether it is good news, or bad news. I wish I could remember that in life, there is always another page. The story isn’t over yet.

At the end of the children’s book, the boy is dropped back into his parents’ loving arms, where they greet him with a huge kiss and a sigh of relief. The children on the CD, confident that this is the end of the story, shout with all their might, “Oh, that’s good!” But the author surprises them with another twist. You have to turn the page, risking another fall, when she emphatically says, “No, that’s GREAT!”

The last page on the recession and it’s affect on my family and our way of life is still a ways off. My personal last page may come tomorrow, or it may be far away. I don’t have the answer to that. But what I do know is that I can end each day’s story by dropping into the arms of my loving family, holding them close and saying goodnight with a huge kiss. When I leave their bedrooms, teeth brushed and blankets tucked, I give a sigh of relief, knowing, that for now, “Oh, that’s good,” very, very good, indeed.

Afterword: If you are over 40, don’t have children, or think yourself above learning a lesson from a children’s picture book, here is a famous zen koan that imparts the same wisdom. It’s a great story, but not nearly as much fun.

There was an old farmer who worked hard on his little farm. There was never any money left over, but the farmer did have one sturdy, fine horse that helped the man and his young adult son with the farm labor.

One morning the farmer woke to find that the horse had broken out of the pen, and ran away. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer that he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”

The next morning when the farmer woke, he found that his sturdy, fine horse had returned, bringing with him a small herd of wild horses. The neighbors came over, nodding their heads. They told the farmer that he had very good luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”

Early the next morning, the farmer’s son was out breaking the new horses. The young man was tossed off a wild horse, and his leg broke. It was a bad injury, and the son would not be able to work for months. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who know?”

The next morning, the army came through the village conscripting all young men to go and fight. His son could not go.

Good luck, bad luck? Who knows?