Fast Away the Old Year Passes. . .


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Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday prompt: yule / you’ll / Yul

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

See the blazing Yule before us,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Follow me in merry measure,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
While I tell of Yule tide treasure,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Sing we joyous, all together,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

IMG_1284The word “Yule” always brings to mind one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly“—the one that inspired Lucy Van Pelt’s cynical comment about “deck them halls and all that stuff” in Charles Schultz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. I don’t know much about the “ancient Yuletide carol” mentioned in the first verse of “Deck the Halls,” but I do know something about Lucy’s ho-hum attitude about Christmas. In fact, a viewing of the Peanuts special would be good for me right about now. Whether it’s the over-the-top commercialism of an American Christmas or just my own particular brand of paralysis when I feel that a lot is expected from me—and let’s face it, a lot is expected from a mother of five at Christmastime—I haven’t been very enthusiastic about decking the halls this Christmas.

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In honor of “The Last Jedi,” BB-8 was the first ornament to grace our tree this year. Thanks to my youngest son, more ornaments have been added since last Saturday.

My oldest daughter was the one who finally got out the first box of decorations: every year, we put a motley crew of nutcrackers on the mantel in our family room. She brought up the box of nutcrackers and started arranging them one afternoon well into December. She also set up her old American Girl doll-size Christmas tree on the table in the front hall, and she even brought up a couple of boxes of Christmas pillows and placed them in the family room, music room, and living room. I think she hoped that she would ignite the Christmas spirit in me, but it didn’t take. We finally got a tree on December 11, but I’m sorry to say that few ornaments have been added. Of course, this particular daughter went to a friend’s wedding in the United Kingdom last week. I suspect that she anticipated a house all decked out in holly and what-have-you to greet her on her return home this past Wednesday.

Not so much, I’m afraid. The tree is at least up now. The stockings have been hung by the chimney, and I did put a wreath on the door. But I’m struggling this year. I suspect that NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, might be partly to blame? This was my first year to attempt the challenge of writing a novel in the month of November: while I succeeded in completing the novel, I lost touch with the regular rhythms of life during the writing. Anyway, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I am making an effort to get with the program. I made fudge yesterday, I’ve bought many presents during the past week, and, at the request of my youngest son, I made gingerbread dough, which we will roll out and cut into shapes tomorrow.

What do you do if it’s the season to “be jolly,” and you sort of have the blues? In my case, I’m thankful that some of the folks living in my house are making an effort to deck the halls. Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is in reaction to last year: last year, we hosted a party for my husband’s co-workers. Depending on how long you’ve been following my blog, you might be able to guess that this wasn’t exactly my forte. Somehow, though, we got the house decorated for Christmas by mid-December: not only did we decorate a live tree in the music room, but we decorated a smaller artificial tree in the living room. My collection of international Santas made its first appearance in several years. Candles, twinkling lights, poinsettias, garlands, bows, nativity sets, holiday china—everything came out. Christmas decorations that we hadn’t used in 20 years made an appearance last December.

We really should have hosted the party again this year, but someone else volunteered to do it, and I was off the hook. Looking back, though, I see that the pressure of having to get the house clean (at least the main floor of the house and, to a lesser extent, the basement kitchen) was good for me. I wish I weren’t the sort of person who needs accountability in her life, but I am. Or, maybe I should say: I wish I were the sort of person who could be accountable to herself. This year, I said to myself, “No one can make me deck the halls this year.” And no one could. But now, with Christmas Eve tomorrow, I wish that I had pushed myself harder. It was an enormous task getting the house bedecked last year, but the payoff was that our house looked lovely and festive. Perhaps the decking of the halls itself promoted jollity, too? Certainly the sense of having discharged my duty made me feel more at peace.

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 2017 was a tough year for a family photo: our family was together for one day in May and again at Thanksgiving. They’re all home now: that is a reason to be jolly!

This year, at least I did manage—with the aid of my youngest daughter—to order Christmas cards. The cards arrived on Friday, but I haven’t had time to address them yet. Maybe tonight? Historically, we’ve gone with a photo Christmas card but no letter or update on the family. With social media, most of my friends from high school and college know what our kids are up to. As I was reading over one of the letters that came with a Christmas card the other day, I realized that there is a very important purpose to those annual summaries that people send out. I haven’t wanted to write one because I wondered if that might entail bragging—or, at any rate, if people might interpret my accounts of this or that child’s endeavors as bragging. But, as I read my friend’s letter, I realized that that annual summary of each year is also a form of record-keeping.

For me, the years are beginning to bleed together. Photographs are a helpful place marker for me of past events, but pictures can only tell so much of a story. “Fast away the old year passes” indeed. It might be wise for me to start a tradition of writing an annual summary of the year just for our family. What were the highlights of the year? What were the year’s challenges? What exciting places did we visit? Did we find some new local hike that we loved?

To an extent, my blog might tell the year’s story, but I didn’t resume blogging until September in 2017. That makes me a little sad, as we had some great adventures this year.  In March, our family paid a two-day visit to Chicago, which was a wonderful experience: we made it to the Willis Tower, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Art Institute. True, we just grazed the surface in most of those places, but the windy city won me over.

In May, my son and I went to Nashville so he could play in a chess tournament; we lived in Nashville for five years, so that was a fun trip, even if we did spend all of our time in the vicinity of the Opryland Hotel. In June, I traveled through the mountains of West Virginia when I drove my daughter to her summer program in New York: I fell in love with the New River Gorge Bridge—so much so that I insisted we go home that way when we picked up my daughter. Strangely enough, I went back to the Chicago area again in July so that my son could attend a Suzuki strings camp: this time, we got to sit in Grant Park, eating Chicago-style pizza and listening to an orchestra play John Williams’ music.

We managed to squeeze in a couple of one-night camping trips this summer, and we went on a good number of hikes; exploring Roan Mountain in Tennessee was awesome (much as I love North Carolina; we hiked and camped there as well). Who knows? In the bleak months of January and February, I might even write some reflective posts about those trips (although they’re more likely to show up on my other blog).

In August, we swung by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio on our way to pick up our daughter in New York; football is not my favorite sport, but I enjoyed the HOF more than I expected, and my sons loved it. Niagara Falls (the American side) was probably the highlight of the year for me: I’d never been before, and the sheer power of American Falls and Horseshoe Falls surpassed my expectations. Going to the Stone Mountain Highland Games with my oldest daughter, who played her violin in a Scottish fiddle competition and at a clan banquet, was far more enjoyable than I’d expected.

And another highlight of the year has been my return to blogging this fall. While the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma was anything but pleasant, it did stir up that dormant desire to blog. It has been a delightful surprise to discover that many of the folks who I’d followed before are still churning out posts. (You’ll know who you are, I think.)

It’s been a good year, but, boy, it has gone by quickly. I’ll always hail the new year with joy because it means a fresh start. January opens the door to possibilities. Can I break bad habits? Form good ones? Learn to love my neighbor as myself? Include more people in the designation of “neighbor”? I feel uncharacteristically hopeful as I contemplate 2018.

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In 2009, my talented (and incredibly patient) sister filmed a family version of A Charlie Brown Christmas with my children and their cousins.

I still wouldn’t say that I feel “jolly,” but I’ve learned something from my low-key approach to Christmas decorating this year: yes, it’s a lot of work to haul up those boxes from the basement, but the superficial trimmings make a difference to my mood. Moving on to the task at hand, i.e. Christmas Day preparations: here’s hoping that I can somehow make the presents come out “even” on Christmas morning! Surely my children know by now that the presents aren’t what Christmas is about, anyway. I don’t have time to watch the Charlie Brown special, but here’s my favorite part:

Charlie Brown: I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.
[shouting in desperation]
Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.
[moves toward the center of the stage]
Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please.
[a spotlight shines on Linus]
Linus Van Pelt: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not:”
[Linus drops his security blanket on purpose]
Linus Van Pelt: “for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
[Luke 2:8-14 KJV]
Linus Van Pelt: [Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown] That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

socs-badge-2017-18-e1503097084778This post is written as part of Linda G. Hill’s weekly event, Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. Every Friday, Linda provides a prompt that serves as an impetus for a stream-of-consciousness post, written with minimal editing. Appropriately for the Friday before Christmas, Linda’s prompt this week was: yule / you’ll / Yul, or any of those words. Click on the link to read the rules for SoCS or to participate yourself. Thanks, Linda, for running the show!


The Drawbacks to French Doughnuts


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The trouble started Tuesday morning when I was supposed to be making beignets for my son’s Trip around the World class, which has been studying France. His teacher does a great job of exposing the class to the aura of a country—its language, culture, literature. Tuesday was French Food Day.

Since his basketball games and practices started, my son has been quite busy—too busy to do more than quickly look up French foods on Monday afternoon before the game (or after the game? It all blurs after a while). Beignets came up in his web search, so we agreed on that. After all, I’ve made beignets successfully before, right? Mais oui! I even had a box of Café du Monde beignet mix in the corner cabinet.

Successful beignets from 2013

The only drawback was—actually, there was more than one drawback, but this was the biggest one—I’ve also made beignets unsuccessfully. More than once, the beignets haven’t puffed up properly, even though the oil temperature was hot enough and the beignets were rolled out to the right degree of thinness. It’s been a while since I made beignets (also known as “French doughnuts”). Had I forgotten about my beignet failures? Somehow, success seemed the only outcome on Monday afternoon.

The other drawback was that beignets ought to be served warm. Since my son’s Trip around the World class wasn’t until 10:10 and his first class started at 8:30, it was difficult to make that work. Regretfully, my son and I concluded that I would have to make the beignets after he’d left and bring them just as his class was starting. This delay seemed sad—particularly since he’d enjoyed making magdalenas for Spanish Food Day. My husband dropped one or two helpful hints like, “I wonder how long it takes to make beignets” before driving our son to his homeschool classes. But I was focused on getting a shower, first, and getting more words added to my novel, second. (This November, I am attempting NaNoWriMo.)

Soon a third drawback presented itself: we were almost out of vegetable oil. Generally, an entire bottle of oil is needed to fill the electric skillet, which I use to fry the beignets. I might have had time to run to Walmart and buy cooking oil, but my shower would have gone by the wayside. Also, I thought it would be fine to cook the beignet dough, which you roll out on a floured board and cut into 2 1/4-inch pieces, in previously used cooking oil. We were planning to recycle the used oil, but my husband hadn’t taken it to the recycling place yet. It gleamed golden in the morning sunlight, tempting me to skip the trip to Walmart.

Come to find out, the quality of the oil may make a difference in beignet success. Aside from one or two that puffed up properly, my beignets didn’t turn out well. No matter how much I “basted” them, my little squares of dough remained mostly uninflated. Who can say why? By the time I was dropping the beignets into the oil and watching them mostly not puff up very well, it was nearly 10:00. At 10:10, I was frantically tearing open a bag of powdered sugar and frenziedly sifting sugar over any beignets that had the tiniest bit of air inside them. It takes 10 solid minutes to get from our house to the large church where his classes meet . . .

Sugar sifts on beignets on a happier morning. (2014)

All that to say, it was 10:15 by the time I was peeling out of our driveway and driving as fast as I dared down the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was 10:25 by the time I ran panting through the door of the church—no makeup, hair still damp, powdered sugar dusting my blue jeans, frazzled look on my face. I didn’t even bring all the beignets I had made because some of them were so flat. One or two were perfect, but the rest? A “mom fail” for sure.

It was definitely a “They died of shame” moment—only I managed not to die of shame. (Here I refer to one of my all-time favorite movies, The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.) Somehow, I persevered through the embarrassment of being late and the failure of my beignets. I took the elevator to the second floor and chatted with two polite girls who wanted to know what was in the basket. “I’m sure they’ll still taste good,” said one of the girls reassuringly as we exited the elevator. I peeked my head in the door of his classroom and glanced meaningfully at my son, willing him to walk across the room and take the basket of beignets—now cooling—from my hands. He looked at me in relief (I’m not sure he realized what a near miss he’d had) and announced to the teacher, “Beignets.”

“Beignets!” exclaimed his teacher in an appreciative voice. I shook my barely brushed out hair at her and said in a low voice, “They didn’t turn out.” Then I rushed down the stairs. Unfortunately, I ran into someone I knew at the bottom of the stairs; this was unfortunate because, aside from throwing on an old shirt, jeans, and sneakers with no socks, all I had done to improve my appearance post-shower was to brush out my hair. I tried to chat normally about the upcoming Geography Bee. I went to my car. I drove to the grocery. Before going in, I did my Bible reading on my phone. Mornings like this make me read my Bible.

I felt a bit better after the Bible reading and worked up the courage to enter the store. This Ingles has a Starbucks, and I decided that a gingerbread latte was in order; I hadn’t actually had any breakfast at this point. I bought the bargain turkey that my mother had told me about yesterday. (At 54, I still do the things my mother recommends. Dear Lord, what will I do when she is no longer living on this earth? How will I know what to do? Maybe my daughters will tell me.)

I got gas, and I came home. The kitchen didn’t look quite as bad as it had when I had sprinted from the room at 10:15. After his dentist appointment and haircut, my efficient husband had cleaned off the island somewhat. He had made a stab at cleaning off the counter where the powdered sugar bag lay, ripped open and spilling out its contents. The floor still needed sweeping. And mopping.

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Now I’m in a funk, but that isn’t fair to my husband. Every single difference that we have was highlighted today. Sometimes our differences cause us to repel one another, which is unfortunate. Maybe Wednesday will be better?

Do. Not. Die. Of. Shame.

Afterword: There were still a few beignets left in the basket when my husband and son came home. I could have chosen to feel insulted, but I decided to eat them instead. Whatever problems my beignets had, they were entirely eclipsed by the unfortunate effects of eating escargot on one of the students. My husband remarked, “It was a good day not to be the hall monitor.”

Pity the Poor Villain


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IMG_1159 (640x480)I pity the predetermined scapegoats of fiction. Currently, my son and I are listening to Anne of Green Gables, the first book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series about an imaginative red-headed orphan. When reading L. M. Montgomery’s books, I find myself feeling sorry for the Pye family: why do they have to get stuck with being “Pyes”? Why does everything go so well for Anne and her buddies? True, Anne has to deal with major problems like Matthew’s death and Marilla’s failing eyesight, while some of Anne’s friends, like Ruby Gillis, come to tragic ends. No matter what trials Anne experiences, however, she still gets to be pretty—her red hair does darken to a “real handsome auburn”—and thin and smart and gifted. I love the Anne books as much as anyone, and more than most. But it bothers me when certain characters get branded as “annoying” or “show offish” by an author, and there is no chance of that character ever developing or growing.

Similarly, listening to Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy reminded me of how much we pigeonhole one another. Poor Beth Ellen, Pinky, and the boy with the purple socks: Harriet, Sport, and Janie have put these other kids into boxes from which they can emerge only with great difficulty. Harriet the Spy is fiction, but presumably it is being written—as most books are—with input from the author’s own experiences. Criticizing or belittling other people enables Harriet and her friends to feel better about themselves. And therein lies the problem.

During my graduate school days, I was guilty of snubbing or laughing at other students myself (I say this with shame). Strangely, I don’t remember doing that at college; maybe going to a Christian college with students who were seeking to live life in a Christlike way made a difference. But, in grad school, we did the sort of thing that Harriet and her friends do: in self-defense, we found flaws in the students who were most dedicated to their work, most outspoken in class, most to be admired—and, therefore, most to be ridiculed by those of us who were threatened by their competency.

What I became—in those days of belittling others to assuage my own conscience—was a scoffer. When you are treated unfairly or overlooked by the system, it’s easy to become a scoffer; perhaps it’s even a defense mechanism of sorts. Unable to reach the tempting grapes, Aesop’s fox concluded, “Eh, those grapes were sour, anyway.” But were they, or was it the fox’s failure that made him conclude so? In a situation where one has encountered failure, it is extraordinarily difficult to praise those who succeeded. Such is my experience, anyway.

Psalm 1 warns us not to sit in the seat of the scoffer: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (ESV). (Pardon the use of the word “man” here; clearly, this applies to everyone who is seeking to walk in the way of the Lord.) My observation has been that scoffing, mocking, or belittling others ultimately hurts the scoffer as well as the scoffee. True, the one being targeted, whether behind her back or to her face, most likely suffers the most, but what does that sort of sneering nastiness do to us inside?

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Now here’s a villainous crew.

I’ve wandered a ways from my original topic, haven’t I? The best sort of writing incorporates multidimensional characters who aren’t completely bad or completely good. Perhaps this is one of the qualities that makes J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series so good: even Draco Malfoy isn’t beyond redemption. For that matter, even Voldemort, the unloved orphan whose bitterness leads him into a life of revenge and malice, isn’t beyond redemption. And Harry, who would like to avenge his parents, in the end extends mercy to Voldemort, just as Gandalf offers a second chance to Saruman in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

Don’t think I’m not tempted to belittle the achievements of others: as a parent, I frequently have to remind myself to be positive when someone other than my child wins the chess tournament or gets the starring role in the ballet. But kindness and encouragement are better life companions than meanness and criticism.

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Author’s Note: I wrote a draft of this post in 2014 when my son and I were listening to an audiobook of Harriet the Spy, which I had not read as a child, even though it was published in 1964. I found the book fun in many ways but sad because of the meanness of the children (both the insiders and the outsiders). Recently, we started listening to Anne of Green Gables, so I decided this was as good a time as any to publish my post.

The End of the Story


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“Would you be my backup date for the med school Christmas party?”

Holding the receiver to my ear, I stood—half-indignant, half-relieved—in the tiny kitchen of my apartment. Back then, you were tethered to your phone’s location by a spiral cord: no chatting as you walked across campus or through the grocery store in the late 1980s. Fortunately for the person on the other end of the phone (my future husband, although thoughts of marriage were far from our minds), the primary emotion I felt at the moment was amusement.

See, he wasn’t just asking me to be his backup date for the party: he was asking me to be his backup, backup date—I was his third-string date, a bench warmer who would only be called upon in an extreme situation. Had anyone else asked me for this absurd favor, I’d have probably said no. But we were good friends. We’d been swapping confidences about our romantic failures that fall. And he was two and a half years younger than I was: I saw him more as a younger brother than a potential suitor—hence the relief that he wasn’t really asking me out on a date.

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Co-ed Bible study circa 1988: George W. Bush was elected on this night. I’m in the back row, second from the left; my husband is in the back, second from the right. I spy a couple or two here, but most of us were single.

He had a good reason for making the request. For the past year and a half, he’d been part of a tight-knit group of medical students. The year before, they’d all gone out for a nice dinner before the medical school Christmas party. He was the only one of the group who didn’t have a “significant other”: two of his friends were married to older medical students, and the other two were in serious relationships. It was important to him to have a date to this pre-party event.

Naturally, he planned to parlay the medical school Christmas party into a dating opportunity. First, he was going to ask the girl he currently had a crush on. If she turned him down, he’d ask another girl he’d had his eye on for a while. If both girls turned him down, that was where I came in. Hmmm. What was I to say? Should I tell him he had his nerve and hang up, or say I’d go if his first two options failed?

I’ve already told a bit of our history in a previous post, so I won’t rehash that here. As for my husband’s history, the high school scene had been pure misery for him—socially, anyway; academically, he’d done well. In college, his social life had improved dramatically, especially in his junior year; he had dabbled in casual dating and tried his hand at slightly more serious dating. For the past year and a half, though, he’d been playing the field. Despite a confident exterior, he suffered from poor self-esteem where girls were concerned. It’s hard to shake off memories of your high school past, even five years after high school. While I have limited sympathy for guys because they seem to hold so much of the power in dating relationships, it isn’t easy for a guy to work up the courage to ask a girl out, only to face rejection.

I said yes. You knew I would, didn’t you? After all, I’m the girl who never said no to anyone who asked her out. At the time, I didn’t think anything would come of his request. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and, suddenly, I got the call that I was up to bat. Sadly for my husband, both girls had turned him down (not everyone had my easygoing attitude towards dating, it seems). Yikes! On the positive side, I had the perfect dress to wear. Back then, my mom made beautiful clothes for me. Few things are sadder than having a new dress and nowhere to wear it. At last my lovely new burgundy dress with the puffed sleeves and scoop neck had a place to go.

Med School Christmas party, December 1988

Our first date

Most of that evening is a blur: dinner at a Japanese steak house with my husband’s med school friends, who were funny and nice—and curious about the nature of our relationship but too polite to ask. Usually, I was tongue-tied on dates. Either the formality of the occasion or the unspoken expectations turned my brain to mush. But, on this particular evening, my husband and I were both relaxed. Neither of us was trying to impress the other. I’d go so far as to say we each felt safe with the other person. Even when we took to the dance floor, we had a great time: neither of us was a great dancer, but we had fun.

A few days after the party, my husband got the opportunity to do me a big favor: he drove me to the airport for—get this—a blind date in Pennsylvania. Yes, my single status had prompted well-meaning friends to fix me up with their single friends. This wasn’t my first blind date, but it was my first blind date in another state! Part of my justification in going was that I would get to spend a couple of days at the home of my married friend, a wonderful woman whom I’d known since childhood. By being his date, I would help her single friend, who needed an escort for his boss’s annual Christmas party. Since I didn’t have a dress that seemed appropriate, I got to buy one—a striking green dress that I accessorized with a scarf in Christmas colors.

As a thank-you to my husband for driving me to the airport, I had baked him chocolate chip cookies; after he took me to the airport, he was heading home for Christmas break. Later, he told me that a girl had never made him cookies before. Something about the cookies in conjunction with the wonderful time we’d had at the med school party pushed him over the brink: he switched me from third-string to first-string that day. Thoughtfully munching on the cookies I’d made him, he drove to his parents’ house in the mountains of North Carolina.

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I’ll always think of this as my blind-date-in-Pennsylvania dress. (This picture was taken at my parents’ house in Arkansas, though.)

Happily for my husband and me, my blind date in Philadelphia turned out to be a bust—at least in some respects. I still got to see my dear friend, her husband, and their adorable children. During the actual date itself, I froze as usual, but the guy was nice enough. He was even nice when I missed my flight the next afternoon because I’d lingered too long over Sunday dinner with my friend. Well do I remember the awkwardness of having to spend the night at his parents’ house while waiting for another flight the next morning.

Now my husband and I entered on a lopsided phase of our relationship: for the first time, one of us (him) was interested in the other party (me) romantically. He didn’t spell it out in so many words, but we were both aware that the dynamic had changed. Still, we kept doing things together; we were practically best friends now. I remember vividly the night when I realized things were heading somewhere. Our church had hosted a “worldview weekend” for UNC and Duke students (Christian faith could bridge the gap between basketball rivals, apparently). That weekend it snowed, and the roads became dangerously slick. After one event, my husband walked me back to my apartment since driving wasn’t safe. The sidewalk was slick, too. More than once he held my hand to steady me as we inched our way down to my apartment complex at the bottom of Hillsborough Street. Once we were safely at my apartment, he gave me a hug good night—were we really on such affectionate terms, I wonder?—and it was if I’d touched an electric wire. Sparks flew. Nothing else happened that night, but . . . the stage was set for a showdown.

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You can’t see the pink-and-white floral pattern here, but I was wearing this dress the day we had “the talk.” The girl in the hat is my friend Martha Reynolds, whose days on this earth were far too short. She made such a difference in my life! (Easter 1989)

Here my memory is hazy: how did we come to be in a park on a Sunday afternoon in early spring, sitting on the swings and trying to see through a fog of emotion and physical attraction? No idea, but there we were, and I distinctly remember what I was wearing: a pink-and-white floral, drop-waist dress that my mother had made from a Laura Ashley pattern. Although I don’t recall how we wound up at the park having THE conversation—should we date or not?—I remember the outcome. We acknowledged that (aside from the age difference, which bothered me more than him) there were two major obstacles to our dating: the M words—music, for me, and missions, for him. My husband was planning to be a medical missionary. At the age of 12, I had gone forward on a call for missions at a Baptist camp, but I had no real plans to become a missionary. Meanwhile, music was very important in my life: I played the piano and violin and had sung in school and church choirs; all five of my siblings played at least two instruments. While my husband enjoyed listening to music, he didn’t sing or play an instrument: performing “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” at his one and only piano recital was the highlight of his musical career. What were we to do about the importance of missions to him and the importance of music to me?

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My oldest brother is missing from this picture. While my husband still doesn’t sing or play an instrument, he has paid for many music lessons for our children and supported their musical endeavors. (Christmas 1988)

First, we prayed about it. Next, we decided that, to aid us in getting to know one another, we would each choose three books that the other person had to read in the categories of fiction, Christian teaching, and biography. I chose Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, and C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. He chose Hondo by Louis L’Amour, Walter D. Shepard’s Sent by the Sovereign, and Borden of Yale, Hudson Taylor’s biography of the missionary William Borden. Truthfully, we were a couple by the time we left that park hand in hand. No matter how much we discussed or analyzed our differences, we were destined to be a couple from henceforth and forevermore. While we didn’t notice them at the time, our similarities far outweighed our differences: we both had been raised in the South; our Christian faith was important to each of us—our very acquaintance was founded on our belonging to the same Protestant denomination. Intellectually, we were equals, even if I tended more towards the liberal arts and he leaned towards the sciences. We both loved history; while one of my college majors was history, his hobby is history, and he could almost certainly best me on any history test. We both enjoyed the outdoors and hiking; we laughed at the same jokes. Our church friends approved of and encouraged our decision to date one another exclusively.

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Meeting my dad in Arkansas (my husband had met my folks before but not as “the boyfriend”). I have few couple photos; this was the pre-cell phone age, after all.

No surprise, then, that things progressed quickly. My roommate moved out at the end of May, and my new roommate wouldn’t arrive until August. That meant my husband and I had my apartment to ourselves on the rare occasions when he wasn’t doing a rotation that summer. Hmmm. My parents were far away, little realizing the danger their daughter was in. Thanks to his Christian principles and his upbringing as a gentleman, he kept things from escalating too much. Physical attraction is a very powerful force, as I discovered, and it played a role in our becoming closer. Within a month of our conversation in the park, he was driving home to Arkansas with me; I attended his brother’s college graduation, and he went with me to the wedding of a college friend. In August I left to vacation with my family and the family of my matchmaking friend from Pennsylvania. Inevitably, my boyfriend was a topic of conversation: we’d only been dating for a few months, but my friend, her mother, and my mother half-jokingly planned our wedding. I got back from the trip to discover that he had spelled out “SANDI, I LOVE YOU” in M&Ms on my bed (my new roommate had let him in while I was gone). Who could say no to a guy like that? Not me! (I wasn’t good at saying no, anyway.) That fall, he tentatively proposed marriage after a day trip to the NC Zoo. On my birthday, he made it official. The next summer, nearly five years after we had met, we were married in Chapel Hill.

M&Ms message 001 (640x462)Is there a moral to this story—other than the obvious warning to beware the power of sexual attraction, even when you’re with a “safe” guy? [My husband would say there are no safe guys. I’m still naive enough to hope he’s wrong.] Make sure the guy you’re going to marry likes Jane Austen? After all, you need someone who’s willing to watch those period dramas on PBS with you. Just kidding, although he did pass the Jane Austen test with flying colors; the jury is still out on whether he’s more of a Bingley or a Darcy. Not only did I enjoy the Louis L’Amour books—I’ve always liked Western movies—but my mother introduced him to The Virginian, the original Western and a book that he likes to quote. We both loved the fantasy worlds created by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; perhaps he was fonder of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and I of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, but we both liked mysteries. Our shared love of books has certainly enriched our marriage and caused us to buy more bookshelves than you typically find in an American household. Common interests will strengthen any relationship, but that goes without saying.

There’s no reason for any single person to heed my advice, but I’ll give it anyway. Think outside the box when it comes to dating. For years, I kept searching for this dreamy musician; ironically, a practical physician turned out to be the guy who fit me like a glove.  I would describe our relationship as complementary: I’d like to think that our differences enable us to help one another, although it doesn’t always work out that way. No other marriage in the world looks quite like ours, and that’s okay; some couples have more overlapping interests or similarities. All couples will face challenges, which is why it’s so important not to choose a potential date—or mate—based solely on something as superficial as looks; as my mother often reminded me, looks are the one thing that you know will change in a person. [Here my husband objected, “I was pretty superficial in choosing who to date.” I pointed out that he had never gone out with any girl who didn’t share his religious convictions.] Go for personality, character, and trustworthiness—someone who has your back.

I realize there is not a happily-ever-after ending for everyone, nor is every person called to marriage. For us, marriage was the right answer for many reasons. I did, however, make the classic mistake of thinking that marriage to my Prince Charming was the end of the story. Wrong. It was the beginning of the story—and it wasn’t the story that either of us was expecting. As Sky Masterson tells Adelaide in the movie Guys and Dolls, “My daddy once told me: No matter who you get married to, you wake up married to somebody else. You take it the way the dice falls.” When I think of how few arguments my husband and I had during the time we were dating, it makes me laugh. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I seem like a veritable angel during those days of courtship. I am no angel. In this fallen world, you will not find a perfect mate, nor will you be a perfect mate.  I am thankful that I married someone who understands the importance of forgiveness and the power of self-sacrificing love.

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”–Psalm 127:1

The excerpt below is part of a longer passage from Philippians that was read at our wedding:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:1-4

This post is the fourth and final installment in an impromptu series of posts on dating, relationships, and marriage: The Dubious Practice of Dating was first, followed by Whatever Happened to Casual Dating? and Prelude to a Romance. After reading this final post, my husband said to me, “What if I had just walked across the room in 1985 and said, ‘I think you’re the person I’m supposed to marry. Will you marry me?'” My first thought was, “Boy, that would have saved a lot of trouble. And I wouldn’t have had to go to those concerts in Greensboro by myself.” My second thought was, “But then I wouldn’t have gotten to go to Selma, Alabama. And I wouldn’t have gotten to meet a lot of interesting guys or had some solo adventures.” He also agreed that the intervening years—when we knew one another but weren’t dating—had provided valuable cultural and character-building experiences. Trust the timing.

Prelude to a Romance


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Many thanks to Jill, the first reader who asked me to tell the story of the “backup date“! Your encouragement was needed, as every one of these personal posts leaves me wondering why I feel compelled to spill my guts, so to speak, in a public forum. Will hearing this story give anyone hope—or at least a chuckle? My family and close friends have heard (probably ad nauseum) the story of how my husband and I FINALLY became a couple three and a half years after we met at the hallowed halls of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s a cliché, but, in our situation, timing was everything. If I had to give a moral for my story, I’d say: 1) Trust the timing (I’m stealing that line from a blogging friend’s book). 2) Listen to your mother; she is rarely wrong.

Old Well 001 (640x454)Flashback to the mid 80s: I’ve arrived at UNC, fresh from a tiny Christian college and intimidated by what I perceive as a “secular state university.” My parents and I had caravaned to North Carolina so that they could help me settle into the dorm where I lived for the first year of my masters program.  I did not know a soul in Chapel Hill except for a nice couple from my grandmother’s church in Louisiana. The couple worked for Campus Crusade (now known as Cru); my parents must have told them I was coming to Chapel Hill because Tricia, the wife, left a yellow post-it note on my dorm room door inviting me to come to the next Crusade meeting.

Being an introvert, I didn’t want to go, but my mother strongly encouraged me to try it at least once. Experience had taught me that my mother’s advice, even when it wasn’t what I wanted to do, was invariably good. I’ll admit it: even in my 50s, I still worry about what could happen if I disobey my mother. At 22, I sure wasn’t going to risk it. I went to the meeting.

I knew it was a mistake immediately: for one thing, I was underdressed in my kelly-green shorts, gingham shirt, and minimal make-up. A sizeable portion of the students involved in the campus ministry came from the Greek population (fraternities or sororities). Those girls knew how to dress, or so it seemed to my newcomer’s eyes. I was also older than the other students; it turned out there was a separate group for graduate students. But something important happened: my husband, who makes a habit of introducing himself to strangers, came up and asked where I’d gone for undergrad. Prefacing my explanation with the words “You’ve probably never heard of it,” I told him that I’d gone to Covenant College, the official college of the Presybterian Church in America. He immediately said, “Yes, I have heard of it! I go to a PCA church. If you’re PCA, you might be interested in a new PCA church that’s getting started in Chapel Hill. Right now, we’re meeting in the pastor’s living room.”

[My husband has a different version of this story. He says that he noticed this cute girl whom he hadn’t met yet standing on the other side of the room. Cue “Some Enchanted Evening,” right? I’m not sure I buy that, given how many cute girls were in that room, but I appreciate the compliment.]

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My wonderful roommate: we were “randomly” put together in a dorm where many grad students lived at the time.


Wow. What a reward for following my mother’s advice! I got the details about the next Bible study for the start-up church, stayed for the rest of the meeting, and left Campus Crusade, never to return. Over the next three years, I saw my husband many times—first at the Bible study in the pastor’s living room and later in a Bible study that met at the home of a lovely older couple. Occasionally, we interacted on-campus, but neither of us was the least bit interested in the other.  I’m older than my husband. Two and a half years is not so much in the long run, but when you’re a graduate student, you’re not interested in dating a junior in college. From my husband’s perspective, there were scores of attractive undergrad girls at Chapel Hill; why would he be interested in an older woman? Also, I started dating another graduate student—a cute guy from Alabama who was studying classics, loved organ music, and went by the incongruous name of Bubba.

But, gradually, my future husband and I got to be friends. The great thing about not having dated one another was that our friendship became a constant of my life in Chapel Hill. Things fizzled out with Bubba. I went on dates with other people and reconnected with a couple of guys I’d gone out with in college, but nothing took. Meanwhile, my husband kept dating around. He nearly got serious with one girl the spring of his senior year but then broke up with her. By then, our church had grown so much that more small groups were forming, and my husband left our group, which was composed of couples with a few single people, for one that was entirely made up of unmarried people. We saw each other less. At the time, I was self-righteously condemning of his decision to leave our tight-knit group.

A year later, I felt differently. The summer of 1988 had been the loneliest time of my life. I was working for an academic journal while starting my Ph.D.; at the rate of one class a semester, it was going to take a while, but I’d needed to make some money because my car had hit the point of no repair. With most of my friends from the masters program gone, I had moved to a two-bedroom apartment with one of my remaining friends, but she had a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend. She house-sat that summer and was rarely around; if she was in the apartment, she and her boyfriend were in her room with the door closed. I remember gratefully the kindness of my married friends and of co-workers who invited me to parties, but I didn’t really have a social group any more, and I was living many hours from my family.

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Person Hall at UNC, circa 1985

Guess what I did in the fall? Yep, I switched from my mostly-married-folks Bible study to the co-ed singles Bible study that my husband was in: technically, there were two groups, a guys and a girls, but they got together for social activities, and a group usually went out for lunch after church. And the fall brought to Chapel Hill a wonderful woman who was doing her post-doc in chemistry and joined the girls’ Bible study. Sadly, she is now deceased, so I’ll use her name: Martha Reynolds. What a difference a friend makes in your life! Martha became a dear friend and confidante. My husband, meanwhile, had had a rough summer himself: he had gone to West Africa to work with medical missionaries and had contracted malaria.

Now—this part does remind me of When Harry Met Sally—we really got to be friends. One night at a church meeting, an event called “Suppers for Six” was announced: three couples would have dinner over a period of three months, with dinner at a different couple’s home each month. Although we were merely good friends, my husband approached me after the meeting and suggested that we, for the sake of convenience, could form a “couple” and participate. Sure, why not? Both of us had crushes on other people at the time, so there was no danger of his meaning anything more than friendship by this proposal.

[I’d forgotten about Suppers for Six, but my husband says it was important in our getting to know one another better. Again, his version is different: he claims that he scanned the room for the best-looking single girl present before inviting me to be his partner in Suppers for Six. Hmmm. He knows he’s gonna look bad in the next chapter of this story.]

By now, we chatted with one another on the phone and interacted regularly at church events. Would we have remained “friends” without my husband’s need for a date to the Med School Christmas party?

(To be continued. . . .)

Note to Reader: This is Part III of a series of posts about dating—-make that, my experience of dating—that I found myself writing. “The Dubious Practice of Dating” was first, followed by “Whatever Happened to Casual Dating?” My hope is that Part IV (as yet unwritten) will be the final installment.

Caroline Elizabeth: A Cherished Life


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When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

—Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1876)

View from a gondola in VeniceWe were in Venice when we learned that Caroline was not well. It was the year 2000, and my husband and I had gone to Italy for our tenth anniversary, leaving our four children in the care of their grandmothers. Aside from a week in England on our way back from Pakistan in 1991, neither of us had been to Europe. Just being free from the responsibility of caring for four children ages eight and under would have been a vacation in itself, even if we hadn’t been in a country so renowned for its art and history. We had flown into Milan, immediately boarded a train for Florence, and three days later traveled to Venice.

I can remember exactly where I was when my mother told me about Caroline: in our room with the green shutters at the Hotel Bernardi Semenzato. After I’d inquired about our children, I casually asked, “How is Elizabeth doing?” My sister Elizabeth was pregnant with her third child; her son and daughter were four and two—the same ages as my two youngest children. Elizabeth’s birthday was in two days. There was a long pause. Then Mom said, “I wasn’t going to tell you, but . . . Caroline has cancer.”


This photo was taken on Easter Sunday 2000.

Pivotal moments, good or bad, stay with you. Hearing that my two-year-old niece had been diagnosed with cancer—an aggressive neuroblastoma—was one of those moments. I had been writing in our travel journal each night, but on July 29, 2000, the entry is in my husband’s handwriting: “Phone call. Caroline diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Prayed for them.” Somehow, we pushed through with our touring in Venice, but, as I wrote in the journal, “our thoughts did keep returning to Caroline and her grave illness.”

Two days later, we traveled from Venice to Como. In Como, amid that beautiful, serene lake and the encircling hills, the news sank in. My memories of Como are tinged with sadness. In my entry for August 1, I wrote:Boat tour of Lake Como

. . . Almost immediately, even though it was nearly 10:30 and we hadn’t eaten since our panini in Milan [where we boarded a train for Como], we called my mother, as we hadn’t had a chance to call her on Sunday. It turned out that she’d just gotten off the phone with Tari [a family friend], who providentially had been in Atlanta for a conference and had been with Elizabeth for the afternoon.

Caroline had had a hard day: she’d needed general anesthesia for the biopsy, and had had some sort of breathing problem, which caused her to need a chest tube and a night in the ICU. Tari described Elizabeth as being ‘white as a sheet,’ and Mom had decided that she needed to return our kids to [their other grandmother] and go on to Atlanta the next day to give emotional support to Elizabeth. Her idea was that Bryson’s mom, who was giving a bridal shower on August 5, could get babysitters to help her with the kids. . . . .

In the end, some dear friends watched our children at home in the states while we finished our anniversary trip, but little Caroline’s battle against an unseen opponent was just beginning. In the midst of trips to Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta and to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, my sister gave birth to her third child—a healthy boy—in November. Family and friends rallied around Caroline and her parents, but, despite repeated plans for surgery and bouts of chemo that caused Caroline to lose her beautiful golden hair, she succumbed to cancer on March 11, 2001. She was two months shy of her third birthday.Flowers 001 (640x435)

Later, my sister and her husband had three more children: a boy, a girl, and another boy. Beloved as those children are, they do not take the place of Caroline, whose first two years of life were filled with the typical delights of a child: playing outside on the swing set, driving the Cozy Coupe, celebrating her second birthday with a Blue’s Clues cake and party hats, “cooking” in her small kitchen, singing to herself, playing with her Bitty Baby, having tea parties, dressing up. Not long after Caroline’s second birthday, my mother traveled to Georgia, where my sister lived, to take care of my two youngest children and Elizabeth’s two children for a week: I was commuting to and from a Suzuki violin institute with my two oldest children, while Elizabeth and her husband were away at a conference. No doubt it was an intense week for my mother as she entertained four children ages four and under, but I am so thankful for the times of dress-up and playground outings that my children had with Caroline. Who knew in June that Caroline’s carefree life would change dramatically in a month?

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Caroline and my youngest daughter enjoy the dress-up clothes provided by their grandmother.

Caroline loved birthdays; I remember her singing “Happy Birthday” to her older brother, who turned four shortly before Caroline’s cancer was discovered. During the seven and a half months following Caroline’s diagnosis, my sister and my mother celebrated many birthdays with Caroline: my mother would buy a cake, candles, and decorations, and a celebration would take place—sometimes at my sister’s home, sometimes at the hospital. While Caroline celebrated only two “real” birthdays, she enjoyed many such birthday parties with family members. Stickers and videos were a welcome distraction from her pain; Pete’s Dragon and Waiting for Santa, which featured the purple dinosaur Barney, were among the videos that she requested again and again. None of us had had much use for Barney before Caroline became ill, but Caroline loved Barney and found comfort in watching Barney videos, so we learned to love Barney. Rather than despairing, my sister and her husband tried to celebrate each day of life with Caroline, choosing smiles and hope over tears and anxiety. Despite their doubts and fears, they found little things to be happy about; their faith in God, already strong, became a constant source of strength and renewal.

The Christmas that Caroline was battling cancer, our extended family came to Georgia for the holidays. My mother had moved into an apartment near my sister’s home so that she could help my sister and brother-in-law with Caroline’s needs and with their two other children. Somehow, we all squeezed into the apartment. Wanting to try out the editing software on his computer, my younger brother made a home movie of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol, while we were in Georgia: my five-year-old son was a rather temperamental Ebenezer Scrooge chastising Bob Cratchit, played by his cousin, for daring to request Christmas Day off, while my older daughter took on the dual roles of Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past; my older son and nieces completed the cast, with the younger children having small parts. Still, the effect was charming (to our biased eyes, at any rate). Caroline played Mrs. Cratchit, and the scene with the Cratchit family celebrating Christmas never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

IMG_0609Cherished is indeed the right word to describe the short life of Caroline Elizabeth, this darling little girl who loved to ride the carousel and to color pictures, who enjoyed Easter egg hunts and puzzles and “Ring around the Rosy.”  Caroline touched so many people—nurses and doctors who cared for her, neighbors and friends who reached out to my sister’s family, her cousins who were too young to grasp the extent of Caroline’s suffering, her aunts, uncles, and grandparents who wanted to help in any way they could. Every picture, every video, every memory of Caroline is treasured by her parents and her siblings, some of whom will not meet their sister until they see her in heaven.

On May 27, 2001, I wrote this prayer in my journal:

Dear Father,

yesterday was Caroline’s birthday—and how I ached to be unable to rejoice in her being three at last. Instead, she is FREE at last. And, we are left with nothing but to trust You, Lord—‘where would we go, Lord?’ We must believe that Caroline, a beloved covenant child, is with you in Paradise.

Please give us peace—


Sixteen years have passed since Caroline left us. Looking at the beautiful calendar that my sister made—filled with pictures of Caroline and other family members—helps me to remember her life and the small joys that made each day with her precious. As I think about Caroline, the ache is still there, and I am only Caroline’s aunt, not her mother or father, grandmother or grandfather. My sister, her husband, and their family still cling to the faith that carried them through those difficult days of Caroline’s illness. While they will never forget their beautiful girl, they have chosen to be grateful for the time they had with her and to live each day with joy because of the hope that they have in Christ.

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This post was written in loving memory of my niece, Caroline Elizabeth, and as part of the Cherished Blogfest hosted by Dan Antion in collaboration with several other bloggers. I began writing this post as part of Linda G. Hill’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday event, using the prompt “well”; however, it took me a couple of weeks to finish writing, and I eventually began quoting from old journals. Still, the prompt “well” was helpful in giving me a place to start telling a story that is not easy to tell, even though many years have passed.

Whatever Happened to Casual Dating?


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College scene 001 (3) (551x624)Looking back, I’m grateful to have been young and single in an era when casual dating was common—in Christian circles, anyway. I had the good fortune to go out with guys who were gentlemen: they weren’t expecting anything from a date except the pleasure of company and conversation—really. That was the advantage of going to a college where most students took their Christianity seriously; the absence of alcohol was also a help. Both guys and girls operated under the assumption that the ultimate end of dating was to find a spouse, but many of us were in no hurry. It takes a while to find the right person (I didn’t find the “right person” at that college), and casual dating was a way to learn how well you interacted one-on-one with that cute guy who sat in the carrel next to yours at the library or the quirky philosophy major who edited the college newspaper.

Being asked out on a date didn’t mean that a guy was proposing marriage to you: a date might mean, “Hey, I want to go to this movie, and I think it’d be more fun if I had company” or “We’re both going to this concert, anyway: why not go together?” My husband was the master of casual dating: he took a drama class in college and had to attend a certain number of plays, so he typically would ask a girl to go with him; the class gave him a pretext for asking a girl out, and her presence made the play more enjoyable. For him, it was about the companionship, and it also gave him a chance to get to know the girl better.

It was important not to read too much into that first or even second date; dating was just another way of socializing and of sharing experiences. As long as everyone remembered to keep it casual, dating was fun, and no one’s feelings got hurt too much. Keeping physical involvement strictly to a minimum made casual dating possible. Here I give those young men full credit for treating me on a date the way you’d want your sister or your daughter to be treated. I was naive, and I am grateful to every guy who took me out in college and grad school for not taking advantage of me.

If nothing “happened” on those dates, what was the point? Learning how to interact with a member of the opposite sex, for one thing. Since dating was new to me, I tended to freeze when I was on a date with a guy, even if he and I interacted normally at breakfast in the cafeteria or in the newspaper section of the library. (Here’s a tip for college girls wanting to get asked out: go to breakfast. Maybe things have changed, but often I was the only girl in the dining hall at 7:30 a.m. Guys are hungry, and they will get up for breakfast if they’re on the meal plan and have no other source of food. I attribute my college dating success to the fact that I had a rigorous academic schedule and disciplined myself to make it to breakfast every morning, whether I had an 8 o’clock class or not. Wish I still had that discipline. But I digress.)

My college sponsored two annual events that encouraged dating: Kilter Night, which gave girls the power of asking guys, and Spring Banquet, which was a formal occasion with corsages and long dresses. Like high school formals, these two official dating nights probably caused more sadness than happiness, since many people didn’t go—either because they weren’t asked or were too shy to do the asking. Still, the two events did serve as catalysts for romance, although there was sometimes a twist: after Kilter Night my freshman year, I began dating a senior English major I’d interacted with at the square dance (an exemption to the no-dancing rule), but he wasn’t the guy I had invited to Kilter Night. As with any invitation, you took a risk in asking someone to Kilter Night or Spring Banquet, since there was the chance that you could be turned down. Still, sometimes the upcoming occasion was just the incentive that a guy (or girl) needed to ask someone out. In my view, it was bad manners to turn down someone for a first date; I even went on a blind date or two in my time, because why not give someone a chance?

I vividly remember my roommate’s mother saying to us, “Keep your options open, girls!” By that time, I was in grad school, and I was hoping Mr. Right would show up. I had moved from the Christian college to a public university, and finding guys with similar values was a challenge. Fortunately, I only remember one time in grad school when I found myself in the company of a guy who would have pressed his advantage: my fun-loving roommate and I had drifted into a frat party, and a dental student suggested in a creepy way that we go back to his apartment to get to know him and his friend better. Ugh. I found my roommate and insisted that we leave immediately; as we walked back across the dimly lit campus to our dorm, she tried to tell me that it would have been fine. I felt like we had had a close call.  No way was I going to the apartment of a guy I’d just met. Innocent though I was, he was sending signals that were anything but casual.

Still, casual dating can be beneficial to both parties, if it stays casual. I went to the Cleveland Motor Speedway on a date with a friend. I heard Wynton Marsalis play, thanks to casual dating. I listened to Os Guiness speak on a casual date. I hope that my dates had a better time because of having my companionship at those events? I still remember a moment of humiliation as I was riding to Durham to hear the Os Guiness lecture: the traffic was heavy, and my guy friend mentioned that there was a Fleetwood Mac concert that night. “Fleetwood Mac? I don’t think I’ve ever heard him.” Stunned by my lack of pop-culture savvy, my date explained to me that Fleetwood Mac was a group. Ouch. I never listened to the radio in high school. Embarrassing moments will occur on dates, and they need to be taken lightly, if possible. The occasional faux pas is part of casual dating—it makes for a good story later, right?

My sense is that the practice of casual dating has disappeared from the Christian social scene.  In my opinion, that’s a shame. Sure, group dates can be fun, but it’s harder to get to know someone in a group. Ideally, it’s better if you’ve been friends before you start dating, but what if you’re in a situation where you don’t know many people? In my case, most of my friends moved away from Chapel Hill after finishing in the masters program. After I got my masters, I started working full-time; it was harder to meet people when I was spending my daytime hours in the basement of Dey Hall. I began to feel lonely. There are worse things than loneliness, but I lived 15 hours away from my family, and my roommate at the time had a steady boyfriend and was never around. Yet, during my very first week at Carolina, I had already met the man I was going to marry. . . . (to be continued)


The Dubious Practice of Dating


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Relationships. They’re complicated, aren’t they? And dating—the default system in American society for two people seeking a marriage partner—is often clumsy, ineffective, and painful. How well can you get to know someone in an artificial situation where both parties are showing their best sides or, conversely, may be extremely nervous and therefore are showing their worst sides? Online dating is another way of meeting potential partners, but it is plagued by many of the same problems as traditional dating. Arranged marriages have their limitations as well. With an arranged marriage, you are likely to find someone with similar values, which might eliminate the conflict that results when people from very different backgrounds marry. But surely there is more to finding a spouse than shared beliefs or heritage?

Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind when I think about marriage. Who can forget the “Matchmaker” song: “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a match! Find me a find! Catch me a catch!” The father, a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye, has five daughters whom he hopes to marry advantageously. Alas for Tevye, he also has a sympathetic heart, so, one by one, his daughters pair off with the men whom their hearts desire. Interestingly, “each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith” (“Fiddler on the Roof,” Wikipedia, 9/30/2017): Tevye’s oldest daughter marries a poor tailor instead of the wealthy butcher her parents had chosen; the second daughter makes her own match with a radical thinker while the third daughter falls in love with a Gentile. Reflecting on his own arranged marriage and its lack of romance, Tevye can’t bring himself to force a loveless union on his beloved daughters.

Tevye’s love for his daughters and his bittersweet feelings about their growing up and getting married come through in the melancholy song “Sunrise, Sunset”: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older: when did they?” That song has been sung at many a wedding; memorably, I heard it performed at a wedding by a group of older women singing a cappella. The effect was lovely–it might have even been the song to which the bride walked down the aisle? Neither of my daughters has married yet, but both have now dated a bit, which is why I find myself reflecting on the seeming randomness of how people find their lifelong mates these days.

Online dating didn’t exist back in my dating days, and the unspoken rule was that the guy got to do the asking. The flip side of that arrangement was that the guy was also supposed to treat the girl; however, if the guy and girl got together on her initiative or if they were hanging out rather than on a date, the couple might go Dutch. Since most of the guys I went out with in college didn’t have much money, I rarely was taken out for a full meal: often, I was fed dessert at a nice restaurant after we’d ushered at the symphony or opera so that we could get in free. (Presumably, we’d had dinner at the college dining hall before we drove to the concert.) Not a bad deal for the guy, who got the benefit of beautiful music and the companionship of a girl dressed in her best concert-going attire—all for the price of a little gas and a piece of French silk pie! The girl benefited, too (particularly if she didn’t have a car and enjoyed getting dressed up and going to concerts). And maybe the guy and girl got a little closer to figuring out if they enjoyed one another’s company? Still, that was just a baby step on the road to a relationship.

In my freshman year of college, I caught the eye of an older English major who wrote me poetry and did me the great favor of taking me to Spring Banquet, which was sort of a glorified prom (no dancing at my conservative Christian college, although that rule has since been changed). Being asked to Spring Banquet meant a lot because no one had asked me to my prom—or to any dance in high school, for that matter. Girls didn’t go stag back then, so a good friend and I hung out together on the night of Senior Prom. Misery doesn’t exactly love company, or I wish it didn’t, but it sure did help that someone else was in the same boat. Both my friend and I are happily married to wonderful men now, by the way, so not having a date to Senior Prom did not mean that I would never be in a romantic relationship (although it felt like it at the time).

Courtship and Marriage (2) (640x322)

Twenty years after my senior prom, I returned to my hometown for a class reunion (photo on the right). My husband—who had also skipped his high school prom—and I had a great time dancing to songs like Kool & the Gang’s “Celebrate.” We were one of the last couples to leave the dance floor.

While I appreciated the attentions of that older, poetry-writing guy who took me out during the spring of my freshman year, he graduated, went on to grad school and seminary, and essentially exited my life: we wrote letters for a while—both of us being English majors, they were long and articulate letters—but that relationship was not to be. I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship: college itself was the real attraction for me. Impractical though my degrees (double major in English and history and minor in music) have turned out to be, I enjoyed writing, researching, reading, singing in the choir, playing last-chair violin in the tiny chamber orchestra, talking philosophy with friends, taking long walks by myself or with others, going to concerts and plays, performing piano solos at recitals, posting editorials on the “Wittenburg Door,” contributing to the college newspaper, making midnight doughnut runs, penning poems in the most atmospheric way I could contrive, solving the problems of the world in late-night discussions, and, above all, learning and thinking. Life was grand in college, aside from the occasional round of unrequited love, and I don’t regret not having dated any one guy consistently at that time.

Still, it does amaze me that our awkward modern dating system yields any successful results.  No wonder there is a great deal of miscommunication and misreading in the world of dating. But I’ll save those thoughts for another day. Perhaps I’ll even share the story of how my husband’s ridiculous request that I be his “backup date” for the med school Christmas party led to our marriage—if I’m feeling humble, that is.

Should Safety Be First?


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“Safe!” yells the umpire as the player slides into home plate, seconds before the ball thuds into the catcher’s mitt. With that magic word—safe—the umpire seals the fate of the game, and the fans stream from the bleachers, some elated with the final call, others grumbling at the outcome. In baseball, getting to that white square in time will make you safe—able to stay in the game and advance from base to base, or, even better, have your run added to your team’s total. Similarly, in a children’s game of tag, getting to whatever object has been designated as the base—a tree, or the swingset—will make you safe, unable to be tagged.

Sandi and Dad

I take after my dad, who is also a born worrier.

In life, though, “safe” is not so easy to find, or even to define. One of my childhood memories is of sitting behind my dad in our white station wagon, my eyes glued to the dark country highway just barely visible in the car’s headlights. I was looking for cows in the road. Once, I had heard my father tell my mother about someone who hit a cow in the road. I didn’t sleep on a family car trip for years: I was convinced that we would be the next ones to hit a cow. (We never did, by the way, although my dad probably was amused and perhaps appreciative of having a small lookout posted in the back seat of the car.)

Similarly, when we went on a camping trip to Petit Jean—I was about seven at the time—I was convinced that I would encounter a bear. This was a strange fear, considering that we were actually going to stay in a cabin! I’m not even sure that there are bears still roaming North Arkansas, but I read a lot as a child: by then, I might have latched on to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Bears—and cows—both show up in Little House in the Big Woods, and Laura, growing up in a wooded Wisconsin, would have been right to fear bears. Me? Not so much, but the fear was real in my mind. In the end, I wasn’t satisfied until my mother wrote me a guarantee that bears wouldn’t get me while I was at Petit Jean. True story.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Perhaps you’re either born with a fear of the world and a desire to stay safe, or you’re not. (It’s obvious which camp I fall into.) The interesting thing is that it sometimes doesn’t seem to matter whether we choose the “safe” option or not. My husband and I happened to be in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan when the Gulf War broke out in 1991: he was doing a two-month rotation at a missions hospital in Qalandarabad (city of the wandering holy man—which was a puzzling name, since, if the holy man wandered, how did he come to have a designated city?), and I had accompanied him. That was actually my first time to leave the United States; we had no idea when we left that a war would break out not so very far from our part of the world. The real danger to us was of an uprising against the foreigners living in the hospital compound. One night, my husband and some other men were invited to dinner at the home of a grateful patient: their host’s vehicle, which they were following, had a poster of Saddam Hussein on its back windshield. Yet we were safe in Pakistan and came home greatly enriched by the experience—and with a few stories to tell.

1-7-91 Pakistan

Our two months in Pakistan are a treasured memory. I’m still sad that we didn’t make a road trip to see the Hindu Kush because of concerns about safety.

I try to remind myself of our safety in Pakistan when my children want to do something that strikes me as being unsafe. Often, driving is involved. Maybe it isn’t surprising that car crashes are ranked as one of the top causes of death in the United States because we simply spend so much of our time in cars? And, of course, you can’t do anything about how the other guy is driving, aside from trying to stay alert. But, in the end, I can’t keep my children safe, even more than my parents could do anything to keep me safe when I was halfway around the world during an international war.

We try to give them good counsel, of course: this past summer, our daughter had been at a fiddle camp in Ohio and wanted to go visit a friend in Wisconsin “on the way home.” She would have been driving an extra 10 hours or so on 4th of July weekend, and it seemed like a bad idea to us—particularly since she was driving solo and would only be with her friend in Wisconsin for a day. She’s an adult now, and she could have disregarded our advice, but she decided not to add on the Wisconsin trip, mostly because she knew she’d be wiped out when she got home and she had editing work that was overdue.

Later, I wondered: were we right to discourage her? Hard to say. The work was the deciding factor for her, not our concerns about her safety, but maybe we should have been less negative. Opportunities to see other parts of the country, or the world, don’t come around that often. We were concerned for her safety, but if safety becomes the primary concern, where is the joy in life? And sometimes, we aren’t safe even when we’re home in our own beds, as I was reminded a few weeks ago when Hurricane Irma’s high winds strayed into Georgia and North Carolina; a large tree fell in our yard—-happily not on anyone or anything; a gentleman living in Georgia was not so fortunate, however: a tree fell on his bedroom, and he died.

Getting your life philosophy from a movie isn’t really a great idea, but a line from the quirky movie Strictly Ballroom can be helpful to me when I realize I’ve become too preoccupied with safety: “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (My daughter likes to quote that line to me when I’m pouring cold water on her latest scheme.) Believe me, I still advocate wearing helmets when you go biking and bringing water bottles when you go on a hike. And sunscreen—don’t forget the importance of sunscreen! But letting my fears about possible problems prevent me from the enjoyment of life is just as foolish as not putting on my seatbelt. It will rob life of its possibilities and its zest. By always putting safety as the top priority, what exactly is it that I’m trying to save?

Climbing the West Face Trail at Cadillac Mountain wasn’t the safest thing I’d ever done, but what a pay-off! (Probably wouldn’t do it again, though.)

This post was written in response to the prompt “save/safe” as part of Linda G. Hill’s Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday event. Click on the link to read Linda’s rules for writing an SoCS post. Thanks to Joey of Joeyfully Stated for hosting this week! socs-badge-2017-18-e1503097084778

 Man’s Inhumanity to Man


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Excerpt from “Man was made to mourn: A Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, 1784

On Facebook, someone had shared a link from the site, which is paying tribute to each person killed by the Las Vegas shooter on Sunday. Somehow, I felt that I owed it to these innocent victims to read about each of them, each of these people who will never draw another breath or drink another cup of coffee, who will never again hug a friend or feel the sun’s warmth, who will never send another text or post another picture. As I read through profile after profile posted by hurting friends or relatives, I could hardly process what had happened.

America was stunned by the unprovoked slaughter on Sunday night. Even the brother of the shooter, who killed himself as police were closing in, had no explanation. Who was this Stephen Paddock? Son of a notorious bank robber. High-stakes gambler. Former accountant. Twice divorced. The massacre was planned; it must have taken months, perhaps years, to amass the weapons. Somehow, he moved more than 10 suitcases into a hotel suite without raising suspicions. He had even adapted the guns for his deadly purposes.

Why? He must have hated the world very much to inflict so much pain and agony on people whom he had never met. What was his motive? Was he promoting something, or, rather, was he promoting nothing? At what point did he lose touch with reality—for surely he had lost touch with what is important and what is beautiful in life. “Chilling” is the adjective that has cropped up again and again to describe his behavior. Does a psychopath behave in such a rational manner? Paddock had connected remote cameras to his tablet so that he could know when law enforcement was about to storm his room.

We have seen wide-scale attacks before, but usually the killer had some personal grudge or vendetta. Was Paddock’s grudge against the gambling industry or Las Vegas itself? Was he angry that his lawsuit against a Las Vegas resort was dismissed? A small offense can become a large one in our minds; years of fretting about something can make us obsessive and irrational.

Typically, I try not to follow sensational news stories, although I read more than usual about the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 because it was closer to my part of the world. While there was no known motive for that shooting, the perpetrator had a history of instability. My daughter knew someone whose friend was seriously injured in the Aurora shooting. In that instance, the killer seemed to be seeking attention. Like Paddock, he wanted to kill as many people as possible. Unfortunately for those attending the country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday, Paddock was frighteningly efficient.

“The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). That was all I could think on Monday when I heard about the shooting in Las Vegas. I also told myself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I had parents who loved me and disciplined me, who called me to account for my selfishness or my lack of self-control, who made me feel that I was loved and wanted. One suspects that Stephen Paddock did not. I don’t excuse him. I am groping to understand a man who saw people at a concert merely as targets to be mowed down.

Robert Burns’ words “man’s inhumanity to man” came to mind as I reflected on Paddock’s blatant disregard for the lives of others. While he may have cared for a few individuals, he showed utter contempt for people en masse. Not seeing his fellow beings as humans worthy of respect, he became inhuman. Indeed, he became a monster whose heinous acts have made “countless thousands mourn,” to borrow from Burns again. Across the country, we grieve with and for the slaughtered. I pray that God will comfort those who have lost loved ones or who wait anxiously in Las Vegas, not knowing whether death or life will be the verdict.

As to what prompted Paddock’s actions, we may never know. I wrote this post as an act of carthasis, and I am hesitant to publish it publicly because I don’t want to drag others into contemplation of an incomprehensible man. There is a lesson for me, however: to remember that every person I encounter is created in the image of God. Do I see the dignity of the homeless man holding up his sign by the side of the highway? Do I meet the eye of the bored cashier or the tired woman who passes me in the aisle at the grocery store? Do I see people as individuals who have importance? Do I love my neighbor as myself?

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).