Goodbye Column

How it all began

Eight years ago, I began a life coaching business titled “The Good Life” grounded in the idea from Aristotle that when we live well and build good habits, we can begin to live a flourishing life. Through my business, I wanted to help individuals overcome the obstacles, negative thinking and bad habits that prevent them from finding the path towards fulfillment.

I reached out to the editor of this newspaper, Frank George at the time, and asked if I could write a weekly column about these ideas. Those first pieces were focused on what it means to live a flourishing life, the concept of virtue, the beauty of relationships, and obstacles such as anxiety or anger that act as roadblocks on our path.

And life happened.

After the birth of my son, it became apparent that I would not be able to be available in the way a life coach ought to be for her patients, and so I closed the business but continue writing weekly for the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch. In time, my column was reprinted in the Waterford Times and Hilmar Times.

I answered an advertisement in this paper, and became a regular reporter for Hughson, and so you’ve seen my work ever since.

It was the second editor I wrote for, Wendy Krier, who, when asked about how long my column should be, gave me a low word count for fear I’d burn out after a few months.

And now it’s been eight years.

Eight years that began with writing self-help skills and turned to a more reflective bent as I needed to help myself cope with the rougher waves of life. The focus remained the same – asking and answering the question “What does it mean to life a good life?” and celebrating the moments when we embrace it.

That life isn’t lived in isolation.

You’ve read adventures with my children, stories celebrating tradition and moments of contemplation. As time has gone on and despite our challenges, I see the good we’ve been able to live out in our home, I’ve wanted to share that with you in case some aspect of it might be helpful. I hope to bring that out in writing.

It can be so easy to feel like the good life is unobtainable when you’re living in Hughson, California or any other small town, when you haven’t loads of money or access to resources or experiences, that you have to go away to experience life in its fullness. I do not believe that is true and with this column I have striven to show that.

Last month it was brought to my attention that MidValley Publications would like this column to go in a different direction and focus instead on storytelling or sharing the people and features of this community, which I already do through news reporting and weekly features. The Publisher no longer wanted musings or book reviews, even if they were local in nature by being brought to the community though a local resident.

The column as it was would cease to exist.

Some years back I began republishing my column here on this blog. Writing and subjects became consistent. I published regularly missing only the odd week when I mixed up my publishing dates. I wrote through grief, through the birth of babies, through times of leisure and times of never-ending work.

Without the deadline of the newspaper, I’m not sure how the shape of this blog will change. A few ideas are to continue book and event reviews, recapping local church events, literary discussions and digressions and a platform for poetry.

It’s a grand adventure, but, to be honest, I’m not sure that I can make it work. So while I process this rebranding, please be patient, and let me know in the comments what your favorite type of content has been.

Life is full of so many things

Her shadow grows 6 ft tall as we stand before the rising sun, watching hot air balloons drift in the west, farther and farther south, out of our view.

Hot air balloons

This was on the heels of a day at the hospital where I sat with a friend whose husband lies unconscious. He’s only 45 years old.

Life is full of so many things, I think to myself as I gaze up into the sky at those hot air balloons and feel the sheer joy of a little kid and the magic of these colorful things floating off into the sky carrying wizards to Oz and eccentric millionaires around the world in 80 days.

Life is full of so many things.

When grief hits us, the world blurs as our ability to process things around us pauses, and our minds sit in the shock of what just happened. All we can do is try to wrap our minds around the world as it is now.

And then, in time, we may experience a shift. If we keep our eyes open, the depth of grief we experience will begin to correspond with a strange depth of joy. It is as if the grief dug into our hearts, drilling deeper and deeper until we thought we would break. We felt pain that seemed like it would break us, pain that was unbearable.

It’s so important to keep living at this time.

It’s so important to keep looking, watching, observing, and being part of the world so that we can see the hot air balloons.

Hot air balloons

These thoughts pass through my mind as I wake up the morning after I took the “Introduction to Bookbinding Workshop” at the San Francisco Center for the Book. I discovered the Center for the Book during a midday walk, part of my regular routine when my son is in the hospital. For years, I watched their website, noted the dates of their workshops, poured over descriptions, and wished I could participate in one.

I made my plans, reserved my spot, and put it on the calendar. I made additional plans to wander the city, visit its bookstores, and visit the old spots, those spots of beauty I found in the midst of grief that I wrote about in my memoir.

But plans changed.

Instead of recapturing those past emotions of wonder in the midst of grief, I went and sat by the side of my friend in the hospital. This was the better place to be, where I now hold and treasure moments and memories in my heart, things I feel utterly unworthy of having witnessed, that are so much bigger than me or her or all the world, where something greater is at work, however devastatingly sad it is.

And then, I left for the workshop.

It seems so strange and inappropriate to go and do something light-hearted, fun, and without gravitas after such depth and weight and seriousness. The last time I attended a workshop in San Francisco, my son was in the hospital, and there was that strange feeling again.

But as much as it feels like to do justice to the situation, we must always be grieving, we are not built that way.

So I see the hot air balloons, I make paper notebooks in a 3-hour workshop, and I can well understand the motivation behind a Superintendent who wants to unify a mascot across schools when there’s more “serious business” going on and Hughson city staff who want to implement sidewalk art for a bit of whimsy on our downtown streets.

But I can also understand the temptation to stay in that place of the hard things, the drudgery, and the sadness and seriousness of life. We’re facing inflation, international tensions, wars abroad and political wars at home, pressures left and right from never-ending politics and election cycles, personal tragedies, financial stresses, and the hardship of just having relationships in an ever-changing world that pulls us and distracts us for profit. It can be hard to stop, look, and think about how in the midst of this, I can make the world a more beautiful place.

The first step

I think the first step is for us to take those walks, to see the beauty, to indulge in it a little. To stop and smell the roses, as the old saying goes. And then, once we have begun to do that, then it becomes easier to see what little I could do to be part of this. Plant to seed, offer a smile, visit the sick or elderly, and read a book to a child.

The city didn’t receive any submissions for that sidewalk art project. So if you have some artistic bent or even just some good ideas of the way that our shadows can take shape in our imaginations, maybe consider sending a sketch on paper or a digital drawing, and see if there’s something you can do to add to someone else’s walk. You don’t know what kind of smile it might bring in the midst of great sadness. That is the beauty of these little offerings, these short workshops, these flower gardens, and a hot air balloon festival.

Hot air balloon

Life is full of so many things.

I hope we have eyes open enough to see them.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?, the 1960 children’s book written by P.D. Eastman, was only of the earliest books I read to my children. After his mother flies away from the nest to find some food, a baby bird hatches and searches for his mother. Without a sense of who or what he is, the baby bird asked animals and machines of various stripes if they are his mother. In a moment of harrowing adventure, the baby bird cries to go home, to be with his mother, and is put back in the nest. The moment she arrives, he recognizes and knows her to be the one he has sought, his mother.

He knows her because it is his nature to know her.

And while it would have been more perfect had she been there all along, she comes to him as motherly as she can, with food and comfort and familiarity.

How have I recognized mothers of late?

On a Thursday morning, with the May sun shining down on us, I watched as a mother dressed in black spread dirt on the coffin of her miscarried child. She invited her other children to come and do the same. Soon, she backed away and wept in the arms of her husband, her parents, her neighbors and friends. Miscarriage is a hidden loss, but with her courage to bury her child in the presence of family and friends, she shows her empty hands and broken heart.

And of the children surrounding the tiny grave, only the eldest carried the weight of sorrow. It was sadness about the burying itself. “It’s dirty work,” she said to me, with a little smirk, before she told my children they could help if they wanted to. (They did).

A common impulse of adults is to want to shield and protect children from all that could distress them.

By allowing these children to see how much a part of life death is, and to be a part of the picture by participating in a physical and meaningful way, this mother did more than give life to those she was privileged to bear all the way through a pregnancy. She does more than educate their minds by teaching them to read and name their colors, by handing on her faith. She helps to form them to face the world, to know that even in the dark times of life, that she is there, family, neighbors and friends are there, who will join alongside them to bury the loves they can no longer hold close to them.

A mother has the power to teach

A mother has the power to teach, kneeling down in the dirt, absorbed in the moment and yet aware of her surroundings. On a different day entirely, my daughter, the same age as my friend’s daughter, commented on how she saw me move through the garden, walking slowly, examining the plants lovingly, gently brushing against them with my open hands. I plant the roots, press down the soil, pull the week and, in time, harvest the flowers and arrange them to take to the cemetery today.

I cannot carry the weight of grief for my friend.

But standing there in the cemetery, present with our hearts and mind, providing unasked-for flowers, I show my children another lesson. In times when our hands are empty, we could hide that emptiness in the name of being strong or holding it together. But when we know and live our lives knowing that weakness is a perfectly acceptable part of being human, then others can come to fill us up, in their own way. So a woman made a rosary. Another gifted a piece of memorial art. The woman who works at the cemetery gave her an angel carved from stone. And I gave her flowers.

Thus we show our children both that community could be there, and how to be part of a community for others. We show how to comfort, that it is safe and acceptable to need comfort. In a way unlike any other relationship, the mother has the power to show the child that when he or she cries out, someone will be there.

Like that mother bird, we may not do it perfectly.

Our children will face times of sorrow. But when we do the best we can, there is hope that this accumulation of lessons, both oral and by example, will do more than we could possibly imagine for the ones entrusted to our care.

We cannot control the past or the ways in which our mothers might have missed a thing or two, but we can choose what we do with those who live in our world. We can choose to be a safe haven for those who are vulnerable enough to express their need.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Artist, Be Generous

In which I receive some very good advice: be generous

Linda Bunney-Sarhad is an octogenarian poet who began songwriting after saying yes to Deborah Kavasch when Kavasch walked down the CSU Stanislaus English department hallway looking for an artistic partner for a song of a Medieval French romance. Bunney-Sarhad, who taught English and French, said yes. Forty years later, the two still collaborate today. Their tides have turned from a strictly musical partnership to the multifaceted world of opera as the two agreed to create The Race, an opera that premiered not as the stage performance expected but as a pandemic-era film in 2021. Bunney-Sarhad was 77 at the time.

When asked her advice to aspiring poets, Bunney-Sarhad said,

“Be generous.”

After decades in the business, Bunney-Sarhad is clear that the poet will never grow rich from his poetry. This straightforward advice may take a mental shift for my generation as the internet has created many ways to profit from one’s craft. There are many more publications for the poet and writer, and submitting to them is easier than ever. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists can focus on growing their audience in the hopes of landing a book deal, record label, or independent film award.

Be open

Turning away from that path, Bunney-Sarhad recommends a more in-person approach. “You just have to put yourself out there and link what you love to do with the things in your life,” she said. That might mean contributing poems that commemorate community events or anniversaries. It might mean writing poetry to celebrate a special religious feast. Then present the work to the organizers involved.

Bunney-Sarhad did this for the City of Turlock. Exploring the idea of writing a religious poem, she said someone might like it and put it in the church bulletin or newsletter, or a choir director may choose to set it to music. You just never know what direction it could take.

Be patient

Waiting to see what comes of it takes patience. “It’s patience and waiting, and you don’t know what you’re waiting for; you can’t define it. I never would have come up with the idea of waiting for an opera. I just had a passion to write. You cast your fate to the wind quite a bit when you’re in the arts. So much can come out of something if you don’t get discouraged and give up,” Bunney-Sarhad said.

In all that waiting, be open. “It’s really important to be open. If you define what you’re waiting for, you might not be open to the really wonderful thing that’s coming in your path,” she said.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous.

At the end of April, I attended two events focused on their founding. At the Hughson Fruit and Nut Festival, the Chamber of Commerce chooses an honoree each year to celebrate during the opening ceremonies. This year they honored Marie Assali, co-founder of the festival, which began in 1988. Pastor Ernie Spears and then-Mayor Dave Spears volunteered Assali to help them raise $50,000 to build a community center. She did not initially want to do it, but for the sake of the relationship, she consented. The event raised $53,000 and was so successful that the team, at the City’s request, brought the festival back as an annual tradition in 1990. Assali believes much of its success comes from the way it supports local non-profit organizations and brings the community together.

The next day, Opera Modesto held its 40th Anniversary Gala and celebrated the vibrancy of the program in Modesto. “Opera is alive in Modesto!” Artistic directors Roy Stevens and Analisa Winberg said. The program gave a detailed and loving perspective of its founding in 1983 as Townsend Opera Players by Erik “Buck” Townsend (1936-2008). Townsend wanted to build a professional opera company in Modesto and educate youth along the way. Stevens and Winberg, along with the many speakers of the evening, reminisced about Townsend’s impossible dream. Townsend’s wife, Erika, explained he was a Don Quixote of sorts, and you could not tell him “no” or “can’t.”

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

Five years ago, the struggling Townsend Opera Players rebranded as Opera Modesto, signaling a shift in its path. Since then, the program has stabilized, grown and diversified, attracting students for the Summer Opera Institute from all over California and international performers for their main stage and Story into Song operas.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous.

What would have happened if these players were focused only on building an audience for one?

What would have happened if they had required professional-level compensation instead of volunteering from the beginning?

What would have happened if they were focused on “out there” and the big, official world of national or international recognition instead of looking in their backyard for their project?

Bunney-Sarhad taught at CSU Stanislaus for decades.

Marie Assali worked with her husband, owning and operating Assali Hulling and Shelling in Hughson.

Townsend was an international opera performer and gave vocal lessons.

But they also did this.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous. You have no idea the world you can build and just how far it will go.

Make Your Soul Sing

Figuring out the online/in-person balance

Building a career in the arts in an interesting business.

When I joined Hope Writers in 2017, the industry advice for a writer was to blog, write consistently to a targeted audience with fairly consistent topics that point the reader to the book you plan to write, guest author for others, grow that email list and keep on offering quality to increase the audience. Growing the audience, and this meant specifically the email list, rather than likes, follows, or shares, was the number publishers were most interested in. If it reached a certain threshold, your carefully crafted book proposal and appealing sample chapters were enough to support laying that contract on the table.

I tried it; I really did. Ultimately, I learned that much of the online work was soul-sucking for me.

What Makes Your Soul Sing?

Through newspaper reporting, I met people, heard their stories, and celebrated their successes. It isn’t online. I can’t measure the eyeballs that read this as an algorithm can. But it “makes my soul sing,” an expression I heard from Jewel Whitaker, Opera Modesto’s Marketing Director who will make her directorial debut at the Gallo Center directing the “Tales of Edgar Allen Poe” in Modesto on May 5-7.Online work or in-person work need not conflict with one another.

They may require different ratios for different workers.

When Scott Beck, drummer for the band Flying Blind, spoke at the Hughson Historical Society, he referenced the power radio DJs had to put a band on the map by finding music that DJs thought worthwhile enough to play. Beck explained that only a handful of companies now own most radio stations and use a master list to direct what the stations should play. “If you listen for a few hours, you hear the songs over and over,” he said. “The DJs have no control anymore.”

Through the many streaming services out there, with a combination of timing,  talent and luck, someone could make it big and make a lot more money than the traditional path of radio and record labels.But a solely online presence would be lacking, whether for the writer or musician. Beck said, as a performer, he feeds off the crowd’s reaction. “You have instant feedback,” he said. “An audience keeps you motivated.”

If the crowd loves it, you’ll know it then and there.

Likes and shares don’t have the same impact. It’s the same as seeing a newspaper clipping cut out and pasted in someone’s book or pinned to their bulletin board.

For aspiring musicians, Beck encourages them to

“Believe in what you’re doing and work hard. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Find ways to share it with as many people as possible.”

Does that mean more of an online presence?

Not necessarily. Beck plays weekly at Ranch Hand in Hughson. “With me playing here in town, it’s so nice to have the support of friendly faces coming out. They’re letting me know I’m doing something they enjoy.”

From Beck’s perspective, the online world helps get the word out. “You’re grabbing the audience so you can get in front of them.” And there, in person, is where the magic happens.What’s the moral of the story? It isn’t one-size-fits-all. Industry advice is there for a reason, but selling advice is an industry unto itself. As Beck shared in his account at the Historical Society Meeting, several events outside the band’s control changed its trajectory, and it can be frustrating to look back. “At the end of the day, I am so thankful for the experience that I’ve had, the things I got to see, the places I got to go. I’ve gotten to experience more than most bands or most musicians even.”

Meanwhile, Beck shared that his best project has been played 12 million times, a song about the states and capitals on a children’s music album titled “Musical Stew.” High production value combined with humor and education makes this song so successful, even as it markedly departs from the style of Flying Blind’s “Smokescreen.”

The projects that surprise and delight you are the surest ways to build the creative career you desire. It may be a slow and steady build, and it may not be the primary way you pay the bills, but if it makes your soul sing, you’ve got a sure sign to keep going.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Something old and something new

Out with the old

“Black and white movies are boring,” I heard classmates say.

“Shakespeare is boring,” it goes on.

“Poetry is boring,” and on and on.

Oftentimes it isn’t the thing itself that’s boring, it’s the idea that the things that are unfamiliar and old.

Old. Dated. Not trending.

Out with the new?

On one side we have those who will tell us, “In my days, we respected our elders” or “We knew how to talk to people” or “We didn’t have all this trash in the movies” and so on.

The default for some is that the tried and true is the way to go, and it’s all been downhill since the 1960s.

What media do you consume?

Records, radio, CDs, or Spotify? DVDs, cable television or Netflix? Books, magazines, blogs, Audible?

What visual communications do you see?

Oil paintings in museums, oil paintings in galleries, watercolors in antique shops, or calligraphy in pop-up shops? Advertisements on billboards, in newspapers, or on Instagram?

You’re reading this, I venture to guess you lead towards the older media, good ol’ tactile, stain your fingers with freshly printed ink newsprint, or you appreciate the sentiment, so the value of the classics is probably not one that needs arguing for you. Perhaps if I made a case for modern works that will take a bit longer.

I will not say either/or.

Our lives are better with art, music, and reading. But which art? Which music? What type of reading or what genres?

The list of books I want to read is so long, I tend to stick to the ones that earned their good reputation over the decades. But I would miss out if I left it at that.

At the Benedict XVI Institute Lenten Prayer Service, composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca said that modern compositions can complement Renaissance music. I do not know music theory, so I scheduled a phone call with La Rocca to ask him more about what he meant.

He explained that in the evolution of tonality, we moved from one singer to two singers producing different notes, eventually to the Renaissance with polyphony, a multitude of voices. That multitude can sing in harmony, but with the multitude, the composer carefully introduced a little dissonance. That dissonance is, in shorthand, sometimes painted as a bit of darkness, a bit of bad, with the good.

Time went on and there were strict aesthetic standards about how much dissonance was allowed and in what way.

Imagine mapping this idea onto emotion.

A simple life holds simpler emotions. As time goes on, so grows the complexity and our understanding of what we feel. Society allows some emotions like grief, but whether or not the blues are seen as normal is somewhat cultural.

Come the 20th century and La Rocca explained the field broke wide open as to what was musically acceptable. While that led to all kinds of John Cage experimentation, it also meant that those composers looking to the past could bring those ideas of Renaissance music to the present, with the wide open field of dissonance.

Is it better? Were they just blind back then?

No, La Rocca explains.

What we heard as engaging or not particularly startling might have jarred the ears of those Renaissance composers to distraction. But, perhaps, La Rocca proposes, because of what we as a world have experienced, the world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so much more, we moderns may have a different capacity or appetite for the dissonance.

Maybe we’re already carrying the dark emotions of sorrow, grief, or anxiety, and maybe they need an expression. They can do this still within a framework of beauty.

I think back to the artwork by Louisa Benhissen.

Her paintings displayed great technical skill and beauty. The subject, as a social portrait, sought to bring expression to something that might be seen as less beautiful than a Renaissance masterpiece, but then again, part of what she portrays comes from a willingness to see the whole picture, to paint on site, capturing the color, the attitude, and the nuances of what she sees. Maybe this was distasteful at certain times, but maybe it’s what we need to see now.

Something old and something new

There is value in visiting museums to see the old masters or to look at books of classic artwork. And there is value in going to new galleries, meeting the artists, and hearing them speak about their work. The same with the music. The same with books.

It is harder to sort through, undoubtedly, as it would have been in those Renaissance days, but like curating a home, we curate the mind, old with the new, traditional with innovation, for a worldview that is fuller and more complete, and therefore more whole and more beautiful.

Lifting the World up by Beauty

Contemplation through beauty

It was a day of beauty. It was my husband’s birthday. It was the day of the Benedict XVI Institute’s Annual Lenten Prayer Service presided by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at Mission Dolores Basilica. It was the day of Philomena Iorn’s first solo concert held at the Mistlin Art Gallery in Modesto.

Prayer services take all different shapes. This one set a choir of twenty singers, called Band of Voices, to one side of the church. Frank La Rocca, the composer in residence, arranged the program, alternating between a Renaissance piece and a modern composition, commissioned by the Institute last year, using the same text.

During a Q&A time at the reception following the prayer service, La Rocca explained that there are qualities of Renaissance and modern music that align and work well together. This allowed the composers, La Rocca, Daniel Knaggs, Mark Nowakowski, and Jeffrey Quick, to deepen and explore their expression of that spiritual text. Nowakowski later explained the challenge of this task because “you have to humble yourself before the text.”

The music was spellbinding.

Without electronic amplification, the Band of Voices led by Alfred Calabrese expanded and contracted, filling the Basilica without accompaniment, moving our hearts with the physicality of music that it is only possible with the human voice or the organ. I often held back tears.

Most moving to me was “Ad Te levavi oculi meus” based on Psalm 123 composed by Nowakowski. “What makes it sound so hopeful?” I asked my husband. I perceived through the music this sense of the darkness, and yet, lifting one’s eyes to the light, through the ashes or through the fog.

“It’s very Polish,” he answered simply.

Speaking with Nowakowski I asked him about this. There is something about the years, the generations of oppression faced by a people. He inherits this cultural blood through the stories, though he grew up in Chicago. But it lives in the personal experience as well, when we meet with suffering. Heritage gives a musical language to it, even if one nation seeks to wipe out the heritage of another. Only with great difficulty could it touch the music. How do you outlaw a note? You cannot outlaw hope.

Mission Dolores Basilica

This was my first experience at the basilica. The grandeur of the church old church moved us with awe as ducked into the side doorway from the rain. It was built in 1918.

“Imagine,” I said to my daughter, “they finished this building at the end of World War I. Imagine the devastation and grief people felt at that time.” The church is dedicated the Mother of Sorrows, not running from grief or avoiding it, but knowing there is a place for grief in the church, in religion. We do not have to hide our tears.

We saw the cemetery on the mission grounds.

The ancient garden and its ancient stones, mark those who have died. It took our breath away as the rain fell softly against the leaves, the drops gathering together and dripping down the vegetation. Silence shielded the enclosure like a fog. It was a sanctuary from the rough world outside the garden walls.

We rushed back inside the basilica as the service began.

Contemplation through nature

On the drive home our windows were animated with splashes of bright yellow wildflowers against the green rolling hills, some pockets filled with bursts of orange California poppies. All were illuminated, as if they produced their own light, against the gray skies. Closer to the valley we call home, the skies opened and clouds created their own land formations, showing us just how vast it all is.

We were home for just one hour before leaving again. The children burst into the backyard and made for the trampoline. The little ones rode scooters and tricycles knowing their time outdoors was diminished in this day of the arts. They laughed and shouted and acted in all the ways children were meant to do.

Philomena and Friends

The hour passed. My husband left to play earthy Celtic music at a corned beef and cabbage dinner. The children and I drove to Modesto to see a young soprano perform heartbreaking ballads from Scotland and the British Isles. Over 100 people packed into the art gallery to hear her, illustrating the power and importance of community to create and support beauty.

She sang with Abner Arias, tenor, and Michael Balerite, baritone. Iorns, Arias and Balerite students in Opera Modesto’s Summer Opera Institute. The concert took place through Modesto Unplugged, an organization focused on supporting live music in Modesto. Their vocal quality and stage presence was only enhanced by the sincerity and earnestness that comes whenever youth commit themselves to a project. Iorns told us of her Scottish grandmother’s homesickness and the day her sons brought  musicians to her home to perform “Danny Boy.” Iorns dedicated that song to her. “You were magnificent,” my daughter told her and I agreed. While we ought to evaluate a performance objectively, it is impossible not to think of these young people, already so accomplished, and how far they’ll go.

I thought back to my brief conversation with the Archbishop as I thanked him for all he does with the Benedict XVI Institute. Humbly, he said,

“We’re just trying to lift the world up with beauty.”

With the darkness, drudgery, isolation and confusion of this world, that sounds like something we all need.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

A Little Goes a Long Way

It isn’t surprising that life coaches, therapists and elementary school teachers recommend to those they mentor to start with baby steps, set small, digestible, concrete goals. The advice is ubiquitous because it is realistic and not likely to overwhelm us.


How does this look in practice?

For Lent, it might be choosing the smaller sacrifice. Fasting from meat on Fridays. Giving up chocolate. Adding five minutes of prayer. Attending an additional mass once a week.

In art, it might be simple exercises once a week. Paint with acrylic. Paint an picture with horizontal lines this week and vertical lines next week. The set-up is easy, the materials are inexpensive, so the buy-in is low.

Or writing 100 words reflectively or creatively that are not shared on social media.

For supporting community, it might mean signing up for volunteer work once a week or even once a month. Or even just signing up for one or two annual events.

For donating financially, $10 here or there when asked, or a donation once a year that covers the annual giving you want to give.

It might mean, for a musician, to play once a month with a low-commitment group. Or attending a community concert. Or attending the solo performance of a friend’s daughter.

Maybe it’s reading one short story a week in an anthology for the person who wants to read more on paper and less on the screen.

Maybe it’s cutting back from the screen thirty minutes, setting one of those applications on the phone to limit your screen time after so many hours, ahem, so much time.

It could mean a daily walk. Or a daily walk with one short span of running.

The key is starting small

I think it is important to start small when we want to enact lasting change. White knuckling it, pushing us through a short period of time no matter how hard it is, is unlikely to leave a lasting impression that the thing was good. We are less likely to grow in the actual virtue that way because we made the avoidance of vice just so miserable.

Let’s allow ourselves to build some muscle.

But then what?

Unless the changes are urgently needed, and sometimes they are, it can be good to start small as long as we are willing to take the next step.

Amp it up. A little.

Take the next step.

That next step is the key. If you set yourself a goal to fast, to diet, to exercise, to give something up or take something on, you know your first step. The step you take after that is not just to do it harder, but perhaps to allow the next step to guide you in the direction of the positive effect you want to achieve.

If you want to run marathons, by all means, run harder and longer. But if the goal is a healthy life with movement, what does that look like and what shape would it take?

Instead of thinking linear in the progress of our goals, commitments, ambitions, what if we thought in a more rounded way and take a wide approach, adding step by step and then doing those things better.

Write the 100 words. Then edit. And edit again.

Paint the picture. Learn a new technique and apply that replicating one painting I already made.

Take on a bigger task at that annual event, or ask the organizer what other events you could help with.

The tasks are small and contained, moving slowly but surely within the one task. Rather than looking online, make the communication personal.

It is just an idea but these days it feels like a good deal of life is set for us. We get up, complete the morning routine, start our school or work day, eat, wash up, and end the day. Each day a little different, but each day so much the same. Creative endeavors give way to time online or are absorbed in what we give to our work or our children and their many holidays and birthdays. It is hard to focus on personal goals and enrichment while maintaining an attitude of giving of ourselves to those around us.

But the work matters.

As a mother of many children, who grow older and older, we seem to be deepening the ruts in the road along our track. How do we recapture the things that fell by the wayside or whose spotlight diminished?

Little by little.

I use the seasons of Advent or Lent to enact the changes, and hope to carry them out after the season is over. The nonreligious world has similar ideas. Meatless Mondays. Dry January. The leisure of summer or vacations make space for creativity.

It’s ever so easy to simply entertain ourselves. Let’s try for something more.

making a plan of the next little step we can take

Let’s take that next small step.

New Year, New You?

Photo by Tara Glaser on Unsplash

On January 1, I received following message:

“Happy New Year! I’ve decided I can’t manage much but my two goals are family exercise and music practice.”

So she bought a YMCA gym membership for her family to help them survive the Minnesota winter. Each year, she faces the same uphill, snow-filled battle, active kids in need of stimulation in a house in which they don’t quite fit.

The day after New Year’s, she wrote me again,

“We went to the gym. It feels so good to have a place to go. I feel like I’m getting to know again the person I was pre-kids.”

“You still are that person,” I wrote, “you just haven’t been accessing it.”

And she agreed.

The power to change is in you.

Or so I hear. It seems awfully simple, doesn’t it?

We have our will. We have our emotions as a guide. They act as indicator lights that something needs our intention; they motivate us; they are an important part of the process of overcoming obstacles. We have our intelligence to help us to reason and problem-solve those goals we want to put in place.

So as with every New Year’s column, let’s look at what’s missing.

What do you want?


What is preventing you from getting it?

“I always wanted to take cello lessons. Maybe when there is more time,” a woman told me. Then she shrugged her shoulders and acknowledged, “There’s never more time.”

Photo by V T on Unsplash

It helps to talk it through.

What are our excuses?

Some obstacles come from within. It may be a scheduling issue. It may be an issue of prioritizing ourselves over others. It may be a matter of letting the urgent demands or interruptions dictate our days rather than the important and less urgent ones.

Most enriching things will not be urgent, but they are important.

Changes to aid our health are not urgent, until they suddenly become so. But even then, after a time, the desire to eat this or drink that is stronger than the doctor’s orders.

We must make time for the things that are not urgent but are important.

The will to change may not be enough. We are nested in relationships, in an environment that may need some adjusting to help us reach our goals.

Talk it through again, only this time with those you live with, and problem-solve a way to make space for what you want to do.

I have been making the mistake of buying duplicate books at used book sales or antique shops. I don’t need three copies of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

So I spoke to my spouse about a strange goal for Christmas break. My office is built into a detached garage, just across the porch, 21 feet away. But getting there and staying there uninterrupted without the children falling down a well is the challenge. To my husband, I shared my desire. I want to catalog my books. He shared his support.

Over break, each day when we had no plans, I let him know I was going and spent my hours in nerdful bliss, realizing the professional benefit this strange task would give me the next time I write a book or essay in need of formal citations. That added thought made the goal suddenly more important, to me, at least. “You’re a writer, after all,” my husband said.

  • Goals related to health
  • Goals related to enrichment
  • Goals related to organization

These may be the pivotal categories to consider this time of year. Do not fall for trends.

Look within you to listen to your desire for what is missing.

The longing is in us because there are things we are meant for. All work and no play, etc., etc. 

My next goal is, when I have the impulse to share something deep or poetic, to take to my notebook rather than my phone, to record the thought for me rather than send it out into the text messaging bliss. Who knows, there may be something at the end worth saving, editing and sharing.

What are your goals for 2023?

And how are you going to make them happen?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What is Auld Lang Syne all about?

Happy New Year!

I am, not surprisingly, sentimental about the old traditional song, “Auld Lang Syne” that we bring out and dust off this time of year. For decades it was sung to bid farewell to the old year or at farewells and endings of other occasions. The chorus says “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Auld lang syne translates to standard English as “old long since” but means, less literally, “old times” or “days gone by.”

Let’s plug the standard English in to see what it means. “Should old acquaintances be forgotten, for old times, let’s drink a cup.”

Translate it further, “Just in case I should forget you, let’s celebrate this moment together.”

And why?

This moment is not forever, and our relationships will likely change, so while we are here now, let us celebrate and savor the moment.

Three years ago my husband and I hosted our first “fancy night” on New Year’s Eve, inviting another cocktail-loving couple. She wore a fur stole. The men wore suits. I put on a long dress and opera-length gloves. My husband stocked the bar and offered a menu list. We attempted to sing, but there were no requirements, we were simply together.

Fancy night

That same friend and I dried oranges the following year. We crafted, we antiqued. And in the spring she was gone. Their family, as part of the Californian exodus, moved to Indiana.

There are friendships and times together we are not likely to forget, but not knowing when we will have this moment together, let us toast to it, savor it, and bring it into our hearts as a lasting memory.

Take a mental picture.

Take note of the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings.

And now another goodbye

Now I say a strange farewell to another friend, because I do not know when I shall see her again. Social media and text messaging connect us, but nothing can be the same. We are not likely to ever experience Suzy Cakes, Baker Beach, Stuff, or the pirate shop together again. The time was too short and yet I hold the memories in mind and turn them over, knowing their shape and color, so I will not forget them.

Before she leaves I want to build a little time capsule in my heart.

Flowers for my friend

Friendship comes in seasons and cycles.

I learned this when our life changed so radically. Those were the friendships of my youth and life called for something different. We grew apart, we fell apart, we simply lost touch. A new season began.

And something new is happening again. My life is one of homeschooling and newspaper work, so much less the medical world I became accustomed to. I rarely see people I know in the UCSF clinic building where once I was sure to run into people. Staff retire, nurses move on, life changes.

What are the constants?

I suppose it’s hard to say early in life. Only with time does it reveal itself. In that, we see those who have aged with wisdom understand what matters most in this life, and prioritize it.

For now, I know this:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Philippians 4:8

Perhaps this was the reason that when I met painter Jonathan Troxler and later learned he painted the old church of St. Stanislaus in Modesto, where my husband met and dated all those years ago, I knew that painting was meant for our home. And as it hangs on the wall, I point here and there and tell my children the stories. It brings the memories to life. We’re in a good place now, and we were in a good place there. I want to hold both in my life – in memory and in our day-to-day.

So with that, the end of another year, I’m holding onto what is good and looking back with a better effort to remember and tell the stories to my children. It has been another year of raising children and teaching them, of writing and working in the news, of publishing books and promoting them, of trying to make the little world of our home a more beautiful place.

Whatever you think of resolutions and thoughts about all the things we probably can’t control in 2023, stop and look at 2022, gather up the mental snapshots, review them, savor them, share them and add them to the collection of good memories in your heart, auld lang syne.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.