Monday, December 31, 2018

End of Year Wrap Up

Greetings!  Tonight is New Year's Eve, and I've been reflecting on the year, as I'm sure many of you have.  To be honest, I often approach the new year with a bit of trepidation.  It's a huge question mark.  This year, however, I'm actually excited for all that the new year has in store.  Sweet Divinity is set for publication in 2019.  I'm working on establishing a name in freelance writing.  I have tickets to see Fleetwood Mac and Elton John early in the year.  I'm turning fabulous forty.

So much to look forward to!

But before I look too far ahead, I'm looking back.  I've been excited to see that quite a few people I follow on social media have been sharing their "Best Of" lists, and so I thought I'd add mine to the mix.

I read fifty books this year, and I'd like to share my top ten with you. I enter my books on Goodreads immediately upon reading the final page. The following books received my highest ranking this year.  You should know that I'm very picky with my five star ranking.  These lucky books are listed beginning with the most recently read.

Blue Iris: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Red Bird by Mary Oliver
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Adichie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou

And this one received four stars but still makes the top ten:
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Please share the best book you read this year...I'll add it to my list for 2019!

I wish you all the best in the new year.  May it be filled with passion, confidence, and joy.



Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas Traditions

Another Christmas has come and gone, and now it's time to focus on finishing this year's reading challenge on Goodreads and to make my New Year's resolutions.

But I couldn't let this Christmas season (which technically began yesterday and runs until Epiphany, for those of you who are keeping track) pass by without sharing our family's unique Christmas Eve tradition.

We take part in many common Christmas traditions.  We decorate, bake cookies, light the Advent wreath, keep up with an Advent calendar, leave cookies for Santa, and set out reindeer food.  But my favorite Christmas tradition is our annual Christmas Eve meal at Outback Steakhouse.

Stick with me.

When my husband and I were first married, we owned a little townhouse in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  We bought a cute little tree that I referred to as our "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree", and we decorated it with a few ornaments and a tiny strand of tinsel.  Two tiny gifts sat underneath the tree, which was perched on a cheap TV table.  We didn't have a lot of money, but I purchased a couple of steaks from the butcher and baked potatoes, ready for the grand debut of married life Christmas Eve dinner.

The potatoes were in the oven and I had just put the steaks on the stove top to sear when the power went out.  For no reason.  It wasn't raining.  There were no wind gusts.  It was a beautiful Christmas Eve.  With no power.

We waited for a few minutes as my heart broke apart even further--our first Christmas, and it was ruined.  And more so--I had wasted all of this money on the partially-seared steaks.

Eventually we had to admit that the power wasn't coming back on in time to salvage our meal, so we got in the car and agreed to stop at the first restaurant that was open and had power.  Lo and behold, the Outback Steakhouse sign illuminated the darkened sky!

And so, every year since, we've made it a tradition to have our Christmas Eve meal at Outback Steakhouse.  The kids have even gotten into the tradition, and they make us tell the story each year as we nosh on cheese fries and that wonderful, warm bread that soothed our bellies fifteen years ago.

Some holiday traditions come out of culture or even family backgrounds.  But often the most meaningful traditions are the ones we make for ourselves.  They remind us where we've been and help us keep perspective at a time of year when it is easy to lose.  Perhaps our meal at Outback Steakhouse doesn't seem as significant as lighting candles, singing traditional songs, or visiting family, but it certainly brings us together (except when we're fighting over the last cheese fry).

Monday, December 17, 2018

Advent Musings

I was recently asked to give a talk at my school for the Friday morning non-denominational student gathering.  Here is what I presented.  I hope it gives you some food for thought.  No matter your creed, faith, or personal beliefs, I wish you the happiest of holidays!  May we all see in one another beautiful beings embodying inherent worth and dignity.

Good morning.  I’m so honored to be here with you today.  I’ve been to many Agape gatherings in previous years, and I’ve always been impressed with the atmosphere you’ve created here.  An atmosphere of love, acceptance, and fellowship. An atmosphere of unity. As a Lutheran, I’ve also appreciate your willingness to invite protestant preachers and teachers, to hear their witness to the love of Christ.  It helps us see what we all have in common.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I should talk about today.  I don’t have much opportunity to talk about my faith journey in my everyday life, and yet it is such an essential part of who I am. .

There’s so much I’d like to say to you, but since we’re in my favorite season, Advent, I thought I would talk a little bit about what’s heavy on my heart this advent, and give you some suggestions of how you and I can make this Advent and Christmas season more Christ-centered.

I’m struggling this Advent.  It’s my favorite time of year, but this year, I’m having a difficult time getting into the spirit of things.  Like I said, I love Advent. I love going to church every Sunday and seeing the Advent candles lit (and I love the song we sing while we light them). I love the Christmas pageant my kids participate in at church. I love the service of Lessons and Carols I was at this past Wednesday. And, in a broader context, I love driving around and looking at Christmas lights.  I love wrapping gifts. I love baking and giving the treats away in bags signed, “from the Christmas elves”. I love Charlie Brown Christmas. I love Linus telling the Christmas story, even though I thought it was long and boring as a child.  I love decorating. I love Christmas Eve service and singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

But I’m struggling this year.  And here’s why.

Everywhere I turn I see signs proclaiming “Keep Christ in Christmas”.  I turn on the news to see people getting all uptight about people greeting one another with “Happy Holidays” or if the Starbucks cup isn’t “Christmasy” enough. And then the very next story, on the very same news channel, is about the dangers of immigrants and asylum seekers with people arguing about what we’re supposed to do to keep people out.

And this bothers me.  It doesn’t necessarily bother me for political reasons.  It bothers me because how we treat others is a Christian issue.  And if we’re so concerned with “Keeping Christ in Christmas”, then we need to realize that WE are the way to keep Christ in Christmas.  As many of you know, I have a motto by which I live. "Words matter". So when we say “Keep Christ in Christmas”, we need to mean it. And not just by making sure we aren’t consumed by materialism.  But by being Christ to those around us. Keep Christ in Christmas should be an instruction, a directive, in how we treat one another not only at Christmastime, but all year long.

When I was in high school, it was really popular to wear “WWJD” bracelets--what would Jesus do?  And as much as that became a trend, the message is correct.

Being Christ to others--keeping Christ in Christmas.  That means seeing everyone around us with the inherent human dignity that they embody as children of God. That means speaking of and to our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters with dignity. That means not using words like “Gay” and “Retarded” as derogatory terms.  Words that describe something essential to the identity of others should NEVER be used to tear people down. Keeping Christ in Christmas means seeing the beauty of faith in people who have different religious beliefs than ours.  That means asking questions and learning from people whose stories differ from our own.

What would Jesus do?  Jesus was the best listener.  He would sit amongst those who were different, those who would scare many of us or make us uncomfortable, and he would listen and then extend love to each and every one of them.  I see the way people are treated in this country and in this school as a serious issue for us as Christians, because we are called to love every one.

The Book of John reads:
As the Father has loved me, so I have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.




We need to look at asylum seekers as Christians should.  Where would Jesus be? Would He be to the side, his back turned, overgeneralizing and looking at a group as a threat?  No. He would be amongst them, seeing the humanity in every man, woman, and child. He would be listening. He would be loving.  He would be a protector, to be sure. But He would not dismiss people out of hand.




If Jesus were in the hallway of this school, and He heard someone use a slur against another student or in reference to a student who wasn’t present, would He walk past?  No. He would intervene immediately. And probably flip over a table.


You see, Jesus isn’t a bystander.  Jesus is political. Jesus is engaged.  Jesus is passionate. And Jesus is a listener.




Okay, Mrs. Koon, this is a pretty tall order.  What are you suggesting we do?




I’ll tell you.




I’m suggesting that you decide that this Advent, you will look at every person you encounter as the child of God that they are.  I’m suggesting that you acknowledge the inherent dignity of every single person. Every single creation of God.




I’m suggesting that you leave a note in the locker of someone whom you often see alone.  A note that says, “You are a beautiful child of God. Merry Christmas.”




I’m suggesting that the next time you hear someone call someone or something “Gay” or “retarded”, that you intervene.  Tell them that they cannot use that language. Be Christ turning over the tables. Be brave through your faith.




I’m suggesting that you reach out to those in need.  Jesus was a migrant, an asylum seeker, a baby in need. Reach out to those who are also sleeping in cardboard boxes and shanties.  Reach out with prayer. Or, at the very least, look at their faces and see the dignity within. See the person in front of you, created by God.




I’m suggesting that you tell members of our school community who feel isolated because they are a minority--through race, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, or religious belief--that they are loved and appreciated. That they have inherent worth.




I’m suggesting that we all take responsibility for our words.




I see signs of Christ’s love everywhere.  I see it when a student hugs a crying classmate in the hall.  I see it when a student writes a thoughtful message on a clothespin and clips it to the backpack of a student who is completely unaware.  I see it when teachers share the ah-ha moments of students in class. I see it when I hear people ringing bells by Salvation Army kettles.  I see it when my son looks at me and says, with no prompting. “Mommy, I just love you.” I see it when students sit in my class arguing for justice and reconciliation in the world.  I see it when a student reaches out to someone they don’t know and says, “It’ll get better.”





I’m suggesting that this Christmas we move beyond words.  I’m suggesting that this Christmas we don’t just say “Keep Christ in Christmas”.  I’m suggesting that we BE Christ in Christmas and in this world. I’m suggesting that we take it upon ourselves through our words and actions, to be the ones who keep Christ in Christmas.  Not on a banner, a bumper sticker, or a billboard, but through our actions and our words. Be Christ for others. Create the Kingdom of God on Earth. Keep Christ in Christmas. Be Christ to all of God’s children.

I want to close by praying over all of you.  I love praying over people, and I don’t get to do it as often as I would like.

Lord, I pray that you would bless these students.  Bless their tongues that they may speak words that spread your love, bless their hands that they may reach out and hold the hands of those in need of your touch.  Bless their eyes that they may see You in all people. Bless their hearts, that they may be open to seeing ALL people, every single one, as a child of God, no matter the person’s race, age, gender, sexual identity, physical and mental ability, socioeconomic status, political party, nationality, religious faith.  May we not pass the judgement on others that we so fear being passed on us. Bless them that they may have the courage to speak out against the words and actions that harm our precious brothers and sisters. I give you thanks, Lord, for the opportunity to be your face in the world. I give you thanks for these beautiful students. May we be, above all, the face of Your love.

Amen.



Sunday, December 2, 2018

Slow Down, Lady

I am a person who goes one hundred miles an hour at all times.  Seriously, ask my students.  I decided early in my teaching career that if students didn't have time to get distracted, they wouldn't be a problem.  It's worked for me for fifteen years.  Additionally, I am passionate about that to which I dedicate myself.  Thus I get really, really excited...about teaching, about conversing, about puzzles, about baking, about music, about--well--everything. 

So I've lived my life at a rapid pace for some time now.  I get up each morning, get ready, dress my son, shoo my daughter downstairs, make breakfast for my son and self, throw together snacks for my day, get my son's teeth brushed, and drive my daughter to school (hubby handles our son--praise!).  At work, I get everything together for the day, perhaps run morning car line, teach classes, meet with students during "planning periods" about college essays or help with class, sit in club meetings at lunch, and then meet with students or fellow teachers after school.  I pick up my daughter, go to the gym (if there's time--there usually isn't), come home, cook dinner, get my son in the bath, dress him, read to him, check on my daughter's homework, get a shower myself, pick out clothes for tomorrow, and get in bed with a book.

This is a normal day for me, but I've come to realize it isn't normal.

I'm an over-committer.  And this pneumonia has been a swift kick in the rear, a reminder that I need to take care of myself.  Caring for myself isn't being selfish; it's being respectful of the gift of my body, my mind, and my emotions. 

I imagine a lot of you are over-committers, like me.  The real problem is that I genuinely want to do all of the things I've over-committed myself to doing.  None of it is a chore to me.  There's nothing I'd easily cut out.

And yet, I am certain that's what I'm being called to do.  To sand down the business of my life and leave time for myself.

Did you notice what was missing from my "daily routine"?  Writing.  And yet, as I've written here before, I am, at my core, a writer.  And in denying myself the time to write, I'm denying a bit of who I truly am.

In the past few days, as I've languished on the couch, unable to focus on writing and unable to do any work, I've watched amazing movies: Black Panther and Call Me By Your Name, read two books, and watched two Trevor Noah comedy specials, the pilot of The Man in the High Castle and the pilot of Victoria.  I love movies, and it's crazy to me that I'm just seeing these two.  I love reading, and yet I still need to read ten books to meet this year's goal.  I love escaping into comedy and into period dramas, and yet I don't take time for that either.  Amazingly, though I haven't felt like "myself", my high-speed, go-get-em self, for the last week, in some ways, I've felt more like myself.

My anxiety has decreased amazingly.  Granted, my chest still hurts, but it's not from anxiety.  I've cancelled almost everything on my calendar for the next two weeks, excepting church services, which feed my soul, and, of course, Hamilton.  And I'm finding that I'm okay with that.  I learned to own my "no" a long time ago, but being able to wield a "no" and knowing that you have to are two different things.  I'm grateful to be learning that now.

All of this is to say, that I encourage each one of you to take a look at your life right now.  Take inventory.  Write down your typical day and decide which parts of it are for the benefit of YOU--your physical, mental, and emotional health.  If you don't see it there, then I ask you to honor yourself and make some time.  Say "no", not because you want to, but because you need to.  And in so doing, you will say "yes" to yourself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Literary Illness, Take Two

Evidently I'm prone to pneumonia.  So I, along with my 80-year old relatives, will be lining up to get a pneumonia vaccination as soon as I'm well.

I had pneumonia back in 2016.  I've written on this blog about how it was during that time that I began sending out queries for Sweet Divinity after a hiatus.  Pneumonia is a very literary disease, and by that I mean that it seems to be the ailment of choice in a lot of classic literature, and also, that one can get a lot of literary work done whilst recovering from it.

I tend to pretend I'm not sick and keep living life at a ridiculously rapid pace.  And then in comes pneumonia, knocking me on my rear end and reminding me that I should actually listen to my body.

And so I've spent the better part of three days quarantined in an upstairs room, occupying myself with Outlander, Black Panther, The Man in the High Castle, and Trevor Noah stand up.  But I've also been writing.

I've been trying for months to pound out the opening of the sequel to Sweet Divinity.  I've written some funny stuff, but nothing that is just right.  I love the opening of Sweet Divinity.  Its sequel deserves something just as grand.

And then this morning, snuggled under my blankets, eating crackers (which is basically all I've eaten in the past forty-eight hours), it happened.  I opened a document, titled it "Aunt Annie Mae", and went to town.

But I'm not thanking pneumonia.  It's a horrible illness that really wrecks lives, but I am thanking the cosmos for the swift kick in the pants, and thanking my amazing doctor who's given me some good stuff.  I'll happily crawl back beneath my covers now and rest a bit.  Until the next bout of inspiration hits.

I advise you to take some quiet time for yourself...no...I advise you to choose some quiet time for yourself.  Only then can we hear our inner genius.


Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thankful

I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am aware that there are so many people who struggle on this day to find gratitude in lives that are lived with so much struggle.  So before I begin this list of things for which I am thankful, I send out a prayer of gratitude and a prayer of supplication for those who struggle to find the places of gratitude in their lives.  I wish that they would, in the coming year, experience the love and acknowledgement of dignity that we, as humans, have the ability to gift one another.  I will strive to do my part.

A few things I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving:

1. My children.  Even at six o'clock in the morning on a Saturday when I hear, "Mommy...Mommy...Mommy...Mommy" in monotone.
2. My husband.  Who lives with a writer.  Enough said.
3. Books.  I just finished Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, a fantastic read.  I was swept back in time by this convoluted tale.  I could feel the smoke closing in around me.
4. Words.  I'm currently reading Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah.  Words matter.
5. Food.  I know that I am blessed to have more than enough to eat, but I'd be lying if I weren't especially thankful today for cranberry sauce and sweet potato casserole (with brown sugar pecans, no marshmallows).
5. Family.  We don't agree on everything, but we agree to love.
6. Friends.  Man, a tribe is so necessary.
7. Beauty.  It's everywhere, but I find it so particularly in nature.  I love to be in nature, first thing in the morning, when the creatures haven't yet been disrupted by our human antics.
8. Mary Oliver.
9. Beds.  My favorite moment of the day is getting in bed.  Under the covers.  Snuggled with a book.
10. Lemurs.  They're adorable.  Weirdly adorable.
11. Central heating and air.  And blankets.
12. Faith.  Believing in more than myself keeps me centered.
13. Bubbles.
14. Puzzles.  They focus my mind when it tries to pull me astray.
15. Art.  Because expression is of utmost importance.
16. Chocolate.  My body may not tolerate you, but my taste buds are grateful.
17. Stars.  They keep my self-importance in check.
18. Seashells.  Natural art.
19. My abilities.  I must write, and I'm so thankful that I can.
20. Support.  If you're reading this, thank you.

There's much more, but I'll stop, for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is on the horizon.  I wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving.  May you eat, drink, and be merry.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

What I'm Watching

Perhaps the question I'm most often asked by young people is, "What do you watch?"  In the age of binge-watching and Netflix, this question seems to have taken over the classic, "What are you reading?".  I read constantly, and right now I'm in the midst of a self-help frenzy; after all, I somehow timed my family so that I have a tween and a toddler in the house!

I do watch a few shows religiously.  I'm not proud of all of them, but I'm not embarrassed either.  What we watch says a lot about us; this I believe.  And I give you the freedom to judge me based on my watch list.

Outlander: I've come late to the party on this one (much as I did with Downton Abbey and my all-time favorite show: Lost--not Penny's boat!); however, I have been fully immersed for the past few weeks catching up on this gem.  I read the book about eight years ago as part of a book club, and I fully admit, I had dreaded reading it, thinking my high brow taste for classic literature would be offended.  Wrong.  I was captivated by the historic setting, the politics, the romance.  And now the same can be said for the Starz adaptation.  I love escaping into another world, another time.  I love gazing upon the rich landscape, and I adore the characters.  I'm certain that this show is going to break my heart every time I sit down to watch.  I'm right.

Jane the Virgin: A friend recommended this show to me after I rolled my eyes at her insistence that it was great.  The title didn't appeal to me in the least.  Yet I soon realized that this show is everything I love in entertainment.  The casting is spectacular.  It has all the drama of a telenovela (and I'm a dramatic lady).  The writing is absolutely fantastic.  And best of all?  The protagonist is a writer, struggling to publish and to make her way through this unpredictable profession.  She's optimistic, romantic, and loving--and her father is one of my favorite characters ever!  This show depicts familial love in such a beautiful way.  My heart is happy every time I watch.

Star Trek: Beyond: I came to Trek through marriage, but I'm all in.  As a child, I watched a little TNG and I saw Star Trek VI in theatres because Christian Slater was in it for two seconds.  This iteration of Trek is compelling each and every week.  The writing is tight and the filming is technically brilliant.  It remembers that what so many of us love about Trek are the character dynamics.  And man, does this show have some dynamic characters!

Will and Grace: Fabulous in the 90's and fabulous now.

The Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor in Paradise: I have watched every episode of this franchise, and I have no shame.  I am absolutely a reality TV junkie.  This series, in particular, feeds my love of romance and my desire to see "happily ever after".  It doesn't matter to me if they end up actually getting married.  I want to see people find love and happiness.  And, full disclosure, I love the drama.  And the dates.  And world travel.  And the clothes.  And the beaches.  And Ashley and Jared. 

Dancing with the Stars: Every time I watch, I consider signing up for ballroom lessons, until I recognize, once again, that I am not at all coordinated.  Though I do fantasize about becoming just famous enough to be asked on the show.  I would happily don the costumes and make a fool of myself on national television, as long as Mark is my partner.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Thank you, Netflix.  I loved this show in its original iteration, but man, this new version is even better!  Not only is the show uplifting, funny, and actually quite helpful (I can now identify a "french tuck"), but it's important and relevant.  One of my favorite episodes features Karamo in a conversation about race and police brutality with a southern police officer.  That's just one example of many times the show features dialogue amongst people who come from different backgrounds, belief systems, communities, and identity groups.  This show is important.  Required viewing.

That's about it.  No crime dramas, medical dramas, weekly tear-jerkers, or I'm-So-Rich reality shows.  That's fine for other people, but I like to want to jump into the shows I watch.  I watch to experience a different life or a different world (you see what I did there?  a great show from my childhood!).  Any recommendations to augment my list?