Sunday, January 1, 2012

"I Really Like Your Outfit"

About three weeks before Christmas, I stopped by Wal-Mart one night after work. The store was surprisingly crowded for a weeknight and maneuvering through the aisles was difficult. I finally got the items I needed and proceeded toward the check-out area, but I wasn’t making much progress.

I found myself walking along beside a Wal-Mart employee who I had seen in the store many times before. I only knew a few things about him: he always had a big smile for everyone, was helpful and friendly, and had Down syndrome. As I walked along beside him, he smiled at me and we exchanged greetings. I finally reached the checkout area at the front of the store. Just before he walked away, he turned to me and said with childlike innocence: “I really like your outfit.”

His sincere compliment caught me off guard and I was surprised by how much he had touched me with his simple words of genuine human kindness. I was still smiling a few minutes later as I walked out into the cold December night air. I thought about him later that night and wondered how many times a day he lifted someone else’s heart - even for just a moment - as he had mine.

I have made only a few New Year’s resolutions for 2012 and none of them involve exercise or food, but one of them grew out of my experience that night. I want to be more conscious of the people all around me every day, and watch for ways to lift their hearts, as he did mine. There are so many simple things we can do and say, and so much gladness we can share, if we would just pay better attention to the people right beside us. And I am resolved this year to pay better attention.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Could You Please Bring Back the Bench That Faces the House?

Sometime between last Saturday night and Sunday morning, someone took both of my moonflower benches from my front yard. One of them is the bench I wrote about in my book Conversations with a Moonflower. It was the bench that faced the house.

The two of them together weren’t worth more than one hundred dollars. Their only value was sentimental – for it was on the large bench that I had so many conversations with the moonflower. A friend’s youngest daughter gave the small bench to me several years ago. She and her mom brought it to me one evening so that the little children who came to watch the moonflower bloom would have their own bench to sit on. We placed the child’s bench in front of the larger bench and called it our ‘stadium seating’.

When I came home tonight, it looked so strange not to see it sitting there facing the flowerbeds, just as it has for the past eight summers. It made me feel a little sad for a moment, but it’s an easy fix - I’ll just have to start looking for a new one.

But I do have something I would like to say to whoever took it:

The bench is used to having people sit quietly on it each night at sunset and think, ask questions, and listen. The people who sit on the bench often contemplate their many blessings and wonder what they can do to bless the lives of others.

So whoever you are, please sit quietly on the bench in the cool evening air and contemplate your own life, your blessings, and your purpose. As soon as you’re finished, I would be so grateful if you would bring the bench back.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We Came Here to Finish the Race

My daughter finished an Olympic triathlon today – a feat that is accomplished by thousands every weekend across the country. There are probably many who might not think she ran an exceptional race because she finished last - she actually didn't come across the finish line until nearly two hours after the race ended. But I have never been more proud to be her mom.

Em lettered in track all four years of high school and was on her college track team her freshman year of college. She was running errands for me a few days before her brother’s wedding when the van she was driving was rear-ended by a large truck. She sustained severe neck and back injuries. Her injuries required surgery, which crushed her dreams of excelling in track events in college. Eventually, she healed to a point that allowed her to slowly start exercising again, but she was often plagued with violent headaches following running.

She married, and she and her husband now have three beautiful childre; the busyness of young motherhood put running on the back burner most of the time.

Several of her older brothers love running and biking. Whenever possible, Em would be at their races, standing on the side of the road, cheering them on as they participated in triathlon’s, bike races, LOTOJA, and Ironman events. She would often comment to me as they ran or rode by that someday she would run such a race.

She decided this spring that the time had come. She began training, and entered the Rockcliff Triathlon, held at the Jordanelle Reservoir today. She wanted to use the race as a fundraiser for her 9 year-old nephew who has been battling cancer. The event was an Olympic Triathlon – swim 1500 meters, bike 24 miles, run 6.2 miles.

She was plagued with problems from the beginning. The water was flowing swiftly and the buoys, which were not anchored, began to drift. One man who came in before her was wearing a GPS watch that indicated his swim was over 2300 meters. By the time Em reached the buoys they had drifted even further out. When she finally got out of the 60-degree mountain run-off water she was exhausted, and had to begin the 24-mile bike ride.

Already behind the other racers, and without a race-buddy, she fell further and further behind. We caught up with her at about mile 21 of the bike race. She burst into tears as we talked and told us she was exhausted and discouraged. She knew she was the last one on the course, and was far behind the others. We encouraged her on and then drove ahead to wait for her at the bike-run transition point. There, we met up with her older brother and were all waiting for her to come in when she called. She was crying and was very upset because they had stopped her about 300 yards from the transition area and told her she couldn’t finish the race - she was just too far behind. She was absolutely devastated.

When I told her older brother they weren't going to let her finish the race he got in the back seat of our car and asked us to take him to where she was. When we got to her he jumped out and hugged her while she told him what had happened. He said, “Em, you came here to finish this race.” “But they won’t let me!” she sobbed. Her brother replied, “You didn’t go through all this to not finish this race, and you’re not going to quit. They can’t stop you from going for a run along these roads with your brother. I’ll run with you or walk with you – I don’t care if we walk the whole six miles. You came here to finish and you’re not going to quit because of this.”

By the time she began the 6.2-mile run, all the other participants had finished the race, and the organizers were starting to take the equipment down. As I watched Em and her brother slowly jog up the hill, some of the staff began deflating the big red blow-up finish line arch.

They would jog a short distance, then walk for a while, then jog again. Her brother later told us that she kept overheating, so they would run by the river where he would take off his shirt, soak it in the cold water and squeeze it out over her head in an icy shower. Other times he took her to the fish-cleaning station and sprayed her with the hose. The run course looped around the finish line three times, and we all clapped and cheered each time they passed us.

When we finally saw them running towards us on their last loop, tears filled my eyes. She ran down the hill, over the bridge and across the field to the exact spot where the finish line had been. She hugged her brother, her husband, her children, her dad and me, and her sister and then laid down on the pile of ice that was still left from when the event organizers had emptied all the water coolers on the grass - it was all that was left of the finish line. Not the finish line she had dreamed of and trained for, but in my mind and heart it was even better, because against all odds, she had finished her race.

Why do people enter such events that seem to tax them physically and emotionally? I’m not a runner, so I’m not really sure. But it seems to me that life has to be more than working, even when you really love what you do. There need to be some moments now and then of absolute measurable accomplishment that come from striving for things just beyond our grasp and reaching them.

Some seasons of our lives seem filled with disappointment, exhaustion, and pain. And during those seasons it often feels like the buoys keep drifting further and further away from us and we don't think we have the strength to go on. How wonderful when there is someone who will walk beside us, and encourage us to keep going until we finish the race; someone who won’t give up on us, and won’t let us give up on ourselves.

As one of the event organizers was leaving - about an hour before our daughter finished her race - he walked over to my husband and me and said, “Tell your daughter for me that I think she is a champion and I applaud her human spirit!”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Day is Done

On a recent trip to upstate New York to attend my nephew’s wedding, my husband and I decided to take a day trip to Cattaraugus County, in the southern tier of NY State, to visit Marissa, the wonderful Amish woman who had introduced me to her moonflowers nine years ago. I also wanted to see her husband’s grandparents, Jacob and Melinda Yoder, who had lived down the hill from our family farm since the early 1950’s. They had extended many kindnesses to my grandmother during the 40 years she lived alone on our family farm following the death of my grandfather, and they were very dear to me. We invited our daughter, her husband, and their 8-month old twins to go with us.

Upon arriving in Conewango Valley, we first stopped at the cemetery where my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are buried, and planted flowers at their graves.

Then we stopped at Grandma’s one-room schoolhouse, where she taught the Amish children until she was well into her seventies. The school is still used by the Amish and as we climbed up the little hill to the school, I noticed there were curtains hanging in the windows. I was surprised, as I have never seen an Amish home that had curtains in the windows. We had just walked around the back of the schoolhouse when I heard my husband call to me to come to over to the window where he was standing. The curtain was slightly parted and I could see into the classroom. Tears filled my eyes as I peeked through - it was as if I had stepped back in time to another century – back to the more simple and serene time of the 19th century. The cast iron and wooden school desks sat in neat rows, the teacher’s desk was uncluttered.

We arrived at Jacob’s home in the early evening. As we drove into the yard, I noticed several men working in the fields by the house. A young man in his early twenties was unhitching a team of horses from a wagon. He looked up as I approached and nodded to me, took the horses into the barn, and then walked over to where I was standing. I asked him if Jacob was home and he said, “Yah – he is in the house.”

Jacob opened the door almost as soon as I knocked and greeted us warmly. I asked him if Melinda was home and he looked surprised. Then he turned his head away from me for a moment, tried to regain his composure, but had to turn his head away again. Finally he was able to tell me that she had passed away. I don’t know which surprised me more - the fact that she had died – or seeing Jacob show such emotion. Finally he spoke, “Everyone has their time to go,” he said quietly, “and it was just her time.”

He invited us into his home. We followed him into a small room off the kitchen, filled with wooden rocking chairs. We all sat down and instinctively began to rock back and forth. Our 8 month-old twin grandsons smiled and babbled and filled the room with life. Jacob told us about his 12 children and his grandchildren; where they all lived, and how they were doing. I was disappointed to learn that his grandson’s wife Marissa, who had introduced me to her moonflowers, had moved to Wisconsin. I told him how much her moonflowers had affected me and that I had written a book about my experience, and that he and his family were in the book. I gave him a copy of Conversations with a Moonflower, and was surprised to see tears come to his eyes again. The minutes stretched into an hour. I felt such peace and joy, but I knew the time was coming when we would need to leave. Their clock struck the hour and we all glanced at our watches. The clock on the table said it was seven o’clock but our watches said eight, and then we realized the Amish don't recognize Daylight Saving Time in their homes or community. What would they be saving the time for?

We still had a 3-hour drive ahead of us that night to get back to upstate New York where my sister lived. As much as I wanted to stay, I finally stood up. Jacob said, “If you didn’t need to go right away, I would take you out to my shop and show you what I have been working on.” Suddenly, it didn't seem that important to get back on the road and our daughter and her husband both said how much they would like to see what he was making. I had been hoping that my son-in-law would get to see his woodworking shop and was delighted that Jacob had mentioned it. Jacob gave my husband and me a gift of a handmade chessboard he had made and showed our daughter and her husband the inlaid wood cutting-boards that he made and sold in the little store off their house.

I stepped quietly out of his shop while they visited, and leaned against Jacob’s woodpile, gazing out at the incredibly beautiful rolling hills and farms. The air and countryside looked so bright and clean from the late afternoon rainstorm, and I breathed in deeply that indescribable smell of evening country air. I could hear Jacob explaining things to my son-in-law, and I felt overcome with emotion as I realized I might never see him again.

Jacob’s home was quite large and had been divided over the years into two homes – the smaller side had been for Jacob and his wife Melinda, and in the other side lived one of Jacob’s grandsons with his large family. His grandson’s family had always been outside working in the fields or around the barns whenever we had been there before, but I became aware that no one was still working and that everyone had gone inside the house. I looked up the road to another Amish farm – not a person was in sight. It was still light out, but their work for this day was done.

I sighed. Did I ever feel that my work was done for the day? Not often, for I could always think of one more task that needed to be finished. But their day was done. It brought to my mind a song I learned as a child:

“Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky,
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”

Rest - safely rest. That is what I had been neglecting. The past few months of my life had become unusually hectic and I had somehow forgotten what my treasured moonflower had taught me. Three months of 28-bloom days was beginning to take its toll. “Thank you for bringing me back here,” I said quietly as I breathed slowly and deeply in the cooling night air, in the place I loved so much.

All too soon Jacob and my family came out of the workshop, and I knew we really had to leave. As we began the drive back, I became aware that many of the other farmers who lived in that region were still outside working. They were on their tractors - out in their fields - trying to get a little more work finished in last few moments of sunlight, before calling it a day. But for the Amish, their day's work was done.

There is a part of me that yearns for the serenity of the Amish way of life, but I do not live in their world, nor would I, if I could choose. But far too often in recent months, my life has resembled that of the farmers, driving their tractors in their fields at sunset, squinting to try and see where they are going in the last bit of fading light. Could I remember how to find that balance once again – between both worlds?

We arrived back at our home in Utah a few days later and as soon as I got out of the car I walked over to check on my moonflowers. The plants had grown in the week we were gone and I noted that the first pod would bloom in a few more days.

The weather this spring has been wet and cool, and the moonflower is a few weeks behind schedule. I usually don’t put the bench out until the plant is ready to bloom, but that doesn’t seem to matter to me this year. I just need to sit quietly when the day is done, on the bench that faces the house. I need to ask questions, wait patiently, breathe deeply, and listen. Somehow, in the past few months, peace got away from me.

Last Thursday night, as I stood by Jacob’s woodpile in Conewango Valley, New York, I remembered how to get it back.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Conversation with Amanda

One of the most delightful experiences I had in getting Conversations with a Moonflower published involved trying to get an endorsement that I desperately wanted from Amanda Dickson. Amanda is a local talk show host for KSL radio here in Salt Lake City, and I have loved listening to her for years. She is endearingly optimistic, lively, and passionate about life – and she cracks me up.

I had met Amanda during the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics. I was a volunteer who had the good fortune to be one of 5 assistants to the stage manager for the closing ceremonies. We were in and out of the green room countless times during rehearsals and the night of the closing ceremonies, as we escorted the various acts around the stadium. Amanda was there, waiting to go on and do her part. The room was filled with celebrities – Josh Groban, Willie Nelson, Kiss, Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estevan, Bon Jovi and many more. I was there as a volunteer, but she could not have been more gracious or interested in learning about me and my part in the ceremonies if I had been a performer myself. I found her even more charming and engaging in real life than on the radio.

About six months ago, I was driving to work early one morning and as I heard Amanda’s voice on the radio, I knew I wanted her to read my book, and hopefully to endorse it.

Time went on, the book was finished and I signed a contract with Cedar Fort on December 7, 2010. They told me they were going to ‘fast track’ my book to try and get it into stores in time for Mother’s Day. On December 16th, I wrote my editor, explaining my hope that Amanda would endorse my book and asking if Cedar Fort would contact her to set it up. They replied, “I’m not sure you could get Amanda Dickson because so many authors approach her with their books.” They also told me that authors always get their own endorsements.

I knew what I had to do to make this happen, and time was of the essence. My husband called KSL to find out if Amanda was doing any live remotes that week, but he couldn’t get in touch with anyone who knew. The next Tuesday, as I was driving to work, I heard Amanda say that on Thursday, December 23, she would be at the South Jordan Walmart and I knew what I had to do.

On Thursday, I printed a copy of the manuscript, wrote her a cover letter, and summoning all my courage, I drove to Walmart. As I parked the car, my stomach was churning, and I was amazed at my boldness in approaching her, and yet I felt fearless at the same time. I entered the store, found where they were doing the remote and headed over. As the crowd thinned I saw her sitting in a chair, laughing with a colleague. Not knowing exactly what I was going to say, I approached her.
“Hi Amanda,” I ventured as she made eye contact with me. She stood up and cheerfully said. “Hello!”

“Amanda, I’m sure you don’t remember me” I began. “But I do!” she exclaimed – “I just can’t remember from where!” I told her I met her in the green room during the Olympics. “Yes!” she said – “I remember you! You’re the one who told me they didn’t want the volunteers asking the celebrities for their autographs!”

I couldn’t believe she would remember that detail from nine years ago. She immediately asked how I was and what I had been doing. I took a deep breath and told her I had just signed a contract with Cedar Fort for a book I had written. She seemed delighted and said she thought that was wonderful.

I told her that for a number of months I had hoped that she would read my book and that if she liked it, that she would write an endorsement. I also told her that my editor said that getting her to do an endorsement would be hard because everyone wanted an endorsement from Amanda Dickson. She laughed and said, “Oh – that’s not true!” and asked me what my book was about.

As I told her, she seemed genuinely touched by the story line and said, “I would love to read your book. Do you have a copy of it?” I handed her the packet and she kind of hugged it to her and said, “I just feel like you were supposed to come here today and give this to me.”

The nervousness I had felt for days gave way and my eyes filled with tears. “Oh Amanda,” I stammered, “Thank you so much for being willing to read this. I have been so nervous for days knowing I was going to bring this to you.” She assured me it was her pleasure. She put the packet down, reached across the table, took a hold of my hands and looked me right in the eyes. “Now Chris,” she said, slowly and deliberately, “You go home and have yourself a merry little Christmas and don’t you worry about this one more minute.”

The day after Christmas, in the late afternoon, I opened my email and saw she had written to me. It said:

“Dear Chris,
I am so humbled. I’m not sure I have the right words to express what your book meant to me. And I have no faith that the quote I give you will be sufficient, but here’s what I’m thinking:

“Once in a great while a book comes along at the exact moment you need it and changes your life. Let Conversations with a Moonflower be that for you as it has been for me. Thank you, Chris. I will bloom as soon as I’m ready.”

-Amanda Dickson, KSL radio announcer and author”

I was the one who was humbled! Thank you Amanda.