Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I spent Friday evening at a college Shakespeare production. I’m sure many of you are shuddering at the thought and before I went I would have seen your shudder and raised you an “eewww.” What would possess me, you ask? Family obligation. My great-niece, Johanna, is a college Freshman (and the family history as to why I have nieces and nephews older than me is way too complex to get into here) at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Given the fact that I was a theatre major in college as well, along with my relative proximity to her college, it seemed appropriate to make the road trip down I35.

The other appeal was that – in one of those weird 6 Degrees of Separation things – the Director of the show was my old college theatre buddy, Tom Woldt. He’s been at Simpson for several years now, yet this was the first time that I had made it down for one of his shows. I admit – it’s the drive. 4 hours one way. And I also admit to the guilt. I suspect it’s a theatre thing. When you major in theatre you understand the incredible amount of work that goes into the making of a production. As such, you go to see your friends’ shows. It’s the right thing to do – and you want to do it as well. Yet, 4 hours in the car, to Iowa no less, has been a deterrent. I hang my head in shame.

Let me tell you, the drive was worth it. More importantly, it would have been worth it even if Johanna had not been in the show. The production was Henry V and while it is Shakespeare and, thus, you can count on a well written and interesting play, it isn’t one of his comedies which are – of course – much more 'fun.' Mistaken identities, chases through the woods, thwarted lovers all make for a good time at the theatre. War, death, and destruction, while all significant matters particularly given our current climate, aren’t really what we would call ‘fun’.

But this show was fun. Really! The production was 90 minutes and the audience was a part of it. We stood and moved through the show and the action and actors both surrounded us and mingled with us. The actors were good – some of them Very good. They spoke with meaning and moved with purpose. You felt as though you were in the midst of this battle. I watched one woman in the audience as she ducked and flinched at the action on the platforms with eyes wide and her hands to her mouth. She clearly was caught up in the action and the story. I admit to a flinch or three myself during the fight scenes.

The set and costumes had this great ‘Mad Max’ feel to them - lots of pipes and metal scaffolding for the set and lots of leather and fishnet in the costumes. And, I think all who saw the show would agree that Johanna’s hair was the BEST of all the actors – conical spikes that stood out 4 and 5 inches from her head. (Curtain was at 7:30 and she arrived at 4:30 to start doing her hair. And some people think theatre is ‘glamorous.’)

In addition to the set and costumes, the casting was interesting. The English, including Henry V and all his brothers, were played by women. The French were all played by men. The text of the play takes on new levels, and wars and conflicts take on new meaning. It’s a show that stays with you after you leave, and I find myself thinking about it days later, and talking it up to my friends. That’s the sign of a really good show. And a really good show is the sign of a really good director – someone with vision and inspiration, and the ability to pull it together and pull if off.

I wish I could encourage you all to see it this weekend. Unfortunately, it ran only last weekend. I can, though, encourage you to check out another show at Simpson. If you’re in the general neighborhood, I can honestly say it is worth the drive.

And, in true great-aunt style, I can also say that Johanna, while she wasn’t the lead, of course was the best!

You can check the Simpson schedule and theatre department online at
Simpson is just 30 minutes south of Des Moines so you can make it a weekend road trip and check out one of Iowa’s fair cities at the same time.

And, for those of you who would rather visit Minnesota, Tom will be directing a show, Expecting Isabel, at the Yellow Tree Theatre which runs from April 23-May 16. You can find out more at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I put up twinkle lights this past weekend. I’ve never been big on the outdoor decorating thing. I’ll be honest and say I’ve always thought that it was a little on the foolish side having seen plenty of neighbors over the years standing out on a ladder in the snow trying to get their eaves strung with lights. A few years back a friend of a friend fell off the roof attempting it and broke his ankle and that seemed a pretty clear message. But this year I decided that a change of pace is a good thing. Plus, it’s mid- November and it’s still an amazing 50 degrees out so the danger seemed minimal.

I have a latticework trellis on my back deck which seemed to be calling out for a frame of lights. I also have an architectural piece in my front garden that is the perfect shape to be an outdoor ‘tree’ this Christmas season. So, out I went, lights in hand, stepladder at the ready.

I started with the trellis since it didn’t require the ladder. This should be easy right? Not so much. Even though it was a simple ‘frame’ job it wasn’t a straight shot. So there I stood, weaving a strand of lights in and out of latticework. I started in the middle and worked toward the ends and it actually went relatively quickly, though not as quickly as I had anticipated. Then I ran the big extension cord, hooked it up to an outdoor timer, and there it was – ready for the addition of a little outdoor lighted tree once we pass Thanksgiving. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.

I’ll admit, I got a little cocky. I went around to the ‘tree’ in front, thinking I would whip this thing out in half an hour or so. It seemed straightforward in my head – 2 strands of lights, start at the top with the middle of the strands, then go down opposite sides winding the strands around the ‘legs’ of the tree. The reality wasn’t quite that simple. First, there was the ladder. Ladders and I have a love/hate relationship that goes back to my years in theatre and a rather intense experience painting at the top of a 22 foot A-frame (I was 20 and indestructible if you’re looking for the logic in it.) This time I was much closer to the ground (never more than 4 feet above it if you must know) but my sense of balance is not quite what it was when I was 20 so there were a few ‘moments’.

Then there was the winding. My ‘tree’ is actually somewhat ornate and has lots of swirls and multiple pieces of iron which made for lots of winding of a Big strand of lights through a very Small opening. It took forever and I have to admit to several broken bulbs that needed replacement when I was finished although I am happy to report that only a minimum of blood was shed from grabbing a broken bulb or two during the winding process. I'm certainly no 'artiste' but I have twinkle lights and I'm pretty happy with the outcome.

This experience has given me a new respect for people that do this every year (although I still think that being up on the ladder in the snow and ice is less than smart.) But doing something new and different, even something as simple as lights on your deck, gives you a new perspective. Your brain has to operate differently, look at the physical world differently, and your hands have to respond in a new way. It reminds you that your default ways of thinking and doing aren’t always necessarily the best or most effective. It causes you to look at a challenge or a problem or a situation in a new way, or to consider the idea that the way someone else might approach something might be better than the way you always have.

And in the end, you get to see things in a whole new light.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I have a lawn service. How hoity-toity does that make me sound, huh? But, I have a good reason. When I bought my house part of the appeal was the wonderful shade trees - two 60-foot elm trees and three equally tall maple trees. How much more could you ask for in terms of summertime shade to cool the house, I thought. What I didn’t think of was Fall Clean-up.

The first year, it took three full weekends and over a hundred leaf bags. That was interspersed with a constant sinus infection from the leaf mold and the dust along with twice weekly visits to the chiropractor during that time and for a full month after. The second year, I didn’t get it all done. Of course, in Minnesota you can’t always count on sunny weekends and I work during the week. That year, rain was on order and I simply couldn’t get it all done before the snow fell. The next Spring clean-up was a nightmare. Moldy, sodden layers of leaves and underneath those, mold on my grass. That was all it took – I knew I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life!

Finding a lawn service that will do only Fall clean up is virtually impossible. And, who can blame them. So, I hired a lawn service for the entire season. Weekly mowing, gutter cleaning 3 times a season, and both Spring and Fall clean-up. That first summer was tough. I felt guilty paying someone else to mow. Also, I grew up mowing the lawn as a kid and I actually kind of like it. Those first two summers I would turn it into a mini-workout, trying to do it at a fast enough clip to get in a good cardio work out and with my heavy mower that was actually pretty easy. It was also good ‘thinking’ time since no one can really talk to you while you’re behind all those decibels.

On the down side, I often would end up with a sinus infection from the dust and dirt I would breathe in added to all those things I have become allergic to since living in Minnesota – including grass. Plus, even with a teacher’s schedule it was often difficult to get it done. The day you had set aside to do the mowing – it rained. When it was nice, you didn’t have the time. The next thing you knew your grass was 6 inches tall and in the middle of the mowing you find yourself in the emergency room having a finger stitched and set and thanking God you weren’t going to lose it completely (don’t ask.) Afterward, you discover the challenges of pushing that heavy mower with your dominant arm in a sling and the subsequent healing of the broken bone.

Still, it was tough to make the decision to pay someone else to do something you think you should be doing yourself. But then came Fall clean-up. It was amazing. I went to work one morning with a lawn knee-deep in leaves. When I came home they were gone. Gutters clean, gardens blown clean – not a leaf to be seen. Two days later, it snowed. Guilt disappeared - I was hooked!

This morning my lawn service came and did this year’s Fall clean-up. This was the first time I have been home to watch it happen. What a sight! 5 guys, 2 big riding mowers, one with a massive catch basket, 2 guys with industrial strength leaf blowers hooked to jet packs on their backs (think Star Wars), and a guy with a 12-inch diameter suction hose leading into an enclosed truck box. It took them 20 minutes – start to finish. It was amazing to watch – almost like watching a beautifully choreographed contemporary dance performance. And now I’m looking out onto a yard that has not a leaf to be seen. My yard is ready for winter.

As it turns out, paying someone else to do something for you doesn’t always end up being as terrible as you might think. You’ve contributed to the economy, and you’ve gifted yourself with countless hours of time in which to do something that you are better at. It’s a great lesson for me – what should I be spending my time on? What are my gifts? my strengths? If time is a commodity that has value, then doesn’t spending it well become good stewardship? And, if that’s just a rationalization, that’s okay too. I still have a great looking yard!!

5/17/10 - Unfortunately since I wrote this post my lawn service has deteriorated significantly. I can no longer recommend this company. If anyone took my advice last Fall and hired them and they aren't doing good work for you - my deepest apologies. I'm giving it the summer, but may be looking for a new company if anyone has one they'd like to recommend to me!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I started doing Yoga again this morning. I first started last Spring when I took a class taught by my friend and massage therapist, JoAnn. It was 2 nights a week after work, and I went religiously. It was a fabulous class and a fabulous experience. I’ve been intending to start it again on my own for months but have had 15 million excuses as to why I can’t do it ‘today.’ This morning my excuses ran out.

Part of what I liked so much about the class was how absolutely bad I was when the class started (I’m remembering that feeling vividly today!) and how much better I was so quickly (which I’m praying happens again!) Yoga is a clear testimony to that old and rather irritating adage that practice makes perfect or, at least in this case, it makes better and less painful.

Another thing I liked about class was the completely selfish nature of it. The focus is all on you. JoAnn was clear in her instructions at the beginning of and throughout each class that the point is not to compare yourself with anyone or anything. You are to be where you are and make no excuses or apologies for it. You are to focus on what you are able to do – not on what someone else is able to do.

Of course, at first, that was impossible. I have been conditioned by my years in American culture which stress that what is important is how you compare to everyone around you. So, regardless of her instruction not to – I did. I compared myself to what I thought I should be able to do. I compared myself to others in the class. I felt bad when I couldn’t do what another person could, and I felt shamefully good when I was better than someone else – particularly when that someone was thinner than I and who should have been, therefore, automatically better at this.

Amazingly, that comparison stopped relatively quickly. Perhaps it was her gentle repetition of the instruction, perhaps it was that feeling bad about how you compare to others gets old really quickly, but I really did begin to focus. I stopped thinking about and looking at the other people in the room. I started to think about myself. I started to think about how I was stretching. I started to think about my breathing. I started to think about my balance. And, as I started to focus on those things, they all began to improve. And, they began to improve quickly.

This morning when I plugged in the DVD and began, I forgot all those things and my first thought was the old comparison – how bad I was now, compared to how good I was the last time I did this. That thought was a little depressing (okay - a lot), and for many people might have been enough to make them turn off the DVD and reach for coffee and a donut. But then JoAnn (on DVD) began her instructions – don’t compare yourself, work where you are, don’t try to push yourself beyond your current ability, work slowly and improvement will come. And I remembered the focus. So I started. I started to focus on my breathing. I started to focus on my stretching, my movement, my position. An hour disappeared as I thought about nothing more than those things. When I was done, I was calm, relaxed, and I felt good about what I had done.

The lesson of Yoga is one that seems significant enough for me to take other places. At work – focus. There is no need to compare myself to another – my job is to do the best I can, and as I focus on that I will become better. In relationship – focus. I can’t compare this relationship to a past one or to someone else’s. My job is to be the best I can be here – in this relationship. It’s true for us all. We can only do what we can do. We can only improve if we start where we are. Whatever the circumstance, focus and relax, and you will be who and what you are intended to be.

If you're interested in JoAnn's yoga DVD, here's her contact information:
DVD's are $15 plus shipping.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I spent this past weekend at Shalom Hill farm. It’s a retreat center in south central Minnesota – just north and a bit west of Windom. Its main purpose is a training center for those going into rural ministry although they rent their space out to other groups as well. http://www.shalomhillfarm.org/ I technically went for a ‘scrapbooking retreat’ with a friend but if truth be told that’s simply an excuse to stay at the place. It’s set on a hill, overlooking the rolling prairie. You can watch the sun come up, play with one of the farm kittens that will follow you around if you step outdoors, or watch the chickens chase each other around the yard. You can walk the road for your morning exercise – down the hill half a mile and uphill on the way back. No need for the stairmaster, with the added benefit of being outside in the fresh air and quiet.

The sleeping rooms are simple – twin beds with homemade quilts, a small chest, a mirror, a lamp, a window. The food is simple and plentiful, home-made with ingredients produced at the farm – fresh eggs from the chickens, tomatoes from the garden. You’re asked to be conscious of the resources you use and aware of where those resources come from. The main room we were using is in a building called The Shed. It’s a lovely space, lots of windows and natural light, a fireplace, comfortable sofas to relax on, a little kitchen where you can make coffee or tea and grab a snack while working. Over at the main building, the large meeting room is full of quilters this weekend and you can wander over and take a look at what they’re working on when you need to stand up and stretch a bit.

One of the best things about this weekend is being away from your regular environment. There are none of your usual distractions. You don’t have to do the dishes or run the vacuum. You get to focus. The first time I went to Shalom Hill I went with a goal – get something done. This time, my goal was different – be. Be in the moment. It’s a valuable message to be reminded of. You don’t have to be running full-speed all the time. Slowing down and appreciating your surroundings allows you to experience things in a different way. You get to spend time in your thoughts, spend time in nature, spend time in a book, spend time in conversation. And you get to do those things without an agenda or a deadline – which allows you to experience them all in a new way.

We often get so caught up in our ‘schedule’ that we forget to actually experience the things we are doing and the people we are with. Taking a little time out to do it deliberately can hopefully help us to start doing it more in our daily life, which helps us more fully appreciate those things and people we have.