Pumpkin Parables

pumpkin 2010

Nick’s State Fair Pumpkin, 2010

Little did I know when I took my kids to their first 4-H meeting 11 years ago how it would change our lives.

The leader walked in with a box of small pumpkins. He pulled a pumpkin out of the box and told a story. The pumpkin had a single bad spot on the back. “The pumpkin could spend its time focused on this bad spot and worrying about its flaws. If it does it misses the point that if you see the other side, you see a pumpkin that’s round and fun and makes people smile.” He had raised  the pumpkins in his garden. Then he gave the kids a pumpkin to take home.

Over time, Dan, that 4-H Leader, became one of the closest friends of my family. He took my kids to heart like he did all the kids in his club, cheering their victories and encouraging their talents. When my son decided he wanted to learn to grow pumpkins as a 4-H project, Dan agreed to let him grow them in his pumpkin patch. He taught Nick how to start them from seed transplant them, and then care for them. Their pumpkin plants became an annual tradition. Each year, they tried different varieties. When the harvest was good, like the year they harvested a truckload, Nick shared pumpkins with all his friends. In lean years, they struggled to find one ready to show at the county and state fairs. Each year, they tried again. Several of Nick’s pumpkins won special merits at the State Fair.

Dan encouraged members of his 4-H Club to participate in speech and demonstration contests, both at the county and state levels. Often, when his club members competed at state speech and demonstration contests, Dan went to support them. In the 20 years Dan has been head leader of his 4-H Club, 5 members won State Fair Demonstration Contests and won trips to Washington, D.C.  Yes, I’m biased – my kids were 2 of those 5. With his encouragement, my daughter won a spot as 1 of 2 Indiana delegates to the National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C., and my son won a spot as 1 of 9 Indiana delegates to the National 4-H Congress in Atlanta. His vision broadened my children’s worlds.

Dan’s influence on our family extended beyond pumpkins. He recruited me to become a 4-H Leader and encouraged me to get more involved with our county’s 4-H Leaders and 4-H Council. When our county needed a new computer project superintendent, Dan encouraged me to take it on, and his mother (also a 4-H Leader) showed me how to do the job.

When my daughter broadened her 4-H experiences to include animals, Dan was there. During high school, she exhibited both chickens and llamas, and Dan was always willing to buy her animals at our fair’s premium auction.

As Nick got involved with robotics contests in our area, Dan encouraged me when I decided to start a county robotics project. That expanded into my starting a new club, and Dan again encouraged me to take the leap that became our 4-H Tech Club. Tech Club opened 4-H opportunities to a whole new audience, and Dan used his experiences to mentor me with my new club. I worked to replicate his standards for excellence and desire for diversity and inclusion. Dan had served 2 terms on the National 4-H Leadership Trust and shared their vision with me to help raise the standards in my own club.

Dan became the older brother I never had – the kind who could be completely trusted. He saw me at my worst but inspired me to be my best. I could count on Dan to give me his honest opinion in each situation, which sometimes meant we disagreed. He had no problem telling me no when he thought it was what I needed to hear.

Nick's Confirmation

Nick’s Confirmation

My kids also knew Dan could be trusted – when Nick went through Confirmation, he chose Dan as his sponsor. At the time, Nick told me Dan would make a good sponsor because he lived his faith and always did the right thing. Dan was more than a 4-H Leader; he worked as a local prosecutor for the past 24 years, as the director of drug law enforcement in Vanderburgh County and then as the Chief Deputy Prosecutor of Warrick County.

Dan gave his time to multiple non-profits, including serving as the President of our diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Conference that works to help the poor. His legal expertise helped multiple nonprofits, including our 4-H program and multiple Catholic organizations. In my own community service leadership, Dan helped me whenever needed.

Dan is among that handful of trusted friends I have who are family. During our challenges the past 11 years, including keeping our business viable during the 2008 downturn, recovering from my heart attack, or helping me with legal situations, he was there when needed.

And now times change. The Indiana Prosecuting Attorney’s Council hired Dan as their drug resource prosecutor. He will be moving to Indianapolis to start his new job and a new chapter in his life. So he’s moving when we’re all decorating with pumpkins.

Smiley Face Pumpkin

Smiley Face Pumpkin

Nick displayed his final pumpkin at this year’s fair. He snagged one of my Sharpies and drew a big smiley face on it. I asked him why, and he said that smiley faces make people smile, and he wanted people to smile when they went through the vegetable exhibits.

Anyone who knows my son knows he shares his humor and always finds ways to make life more fun for those around him.

The take-away? When Dan brought that box of pumpkins to a meeting 11 years ago, he was doing with pumpkins what Johnny Appleseed once did. He planted seeds in the youth of his club, as well as countless other organizations. Those seeds have and will spring forth to bear fruit – good fruit – that already do and will continue to make the world a better place.


Faith and Forgiveness in a Fallen World

Beware the carousel trap of hate and anger. It’s like an amusement park ride where you choose your horse, go up and down peaks and valleys, and hope that things will get better when you go around the next turn.

The problem is the carousel horse simply goes in a circle. As the music repeats itself, we ride up, and down, and up again, and sometimes get so preoccupied with the ups and downs that we fail to recognize we’re just going in a circle with no chance of betting out of the trap.

Life in a fallen world can be hard. We can be lied about, betrayed, hurt, shunned, or worse.

I have a lifetime of experience of the above and know how easy it is to respond first with anger and hurt. It’s important to feel and acknowledge the pain. When we are on the receiving end of those bad things, we can slip into self-pity and sometimes feel like what we are going through is unexplored territory in the history of humankind.

Wrong. People have done bad things to each other ever since Cain and Abel. Once we realize that, it makes forgiveness easier.

When we forgive those who did terrible things to us, we do not free the perpetrators from accountability. Forgiving does not mean we open ourselves to continued abuse. Sometimes, the only course we can take is to permanently remove ourselves from an abusive situation.

What do we do instead?

When we forgive those who are evil, we give ourselves the freedom to heal. And with the healing come opportunities to build something new.

In other words, there comes a time when the smartest thing we can do is say, “Stop the carousel. I want to get off.”

When we do, perhaps one day we will find a real horse and ride it into new adventures.

We must forgive in order to live. And when we do, we will discover that faith is possible in a fallen world.

I am still learning to ride off into the sunset. But as I learn, I’ve discovered the huge difference between a wooden carousel horse of hate and the real thing of joy, love, and learning.

Wanna join me?

 


Ripples from Gugin’s Bench

A lifetime ago, I sat at Gugin’s Bench – before it was formally dedicated at the University of Evansville this year.

What did that mean? I was a headstrong kid sometimes living on more chutzpah than money, who could do as well in school as I did badly in life. But no matter how I messed up my personal life or made stupid choices, I could go sit at Gugin’s Bench.

Gugin would sit there, ask me penetrating questions, and bark at me. No matter how hard he barked at my choices and me, I trusted Dr. Gugin completely and knew he had my best interests at heart. He saw potential in me and encouraged it.

I was not alone. Lots of other diamonds in the rough – kids with battle wounds and scars – also sat at Gugin’s Bench. Both local and international students flocked to that bench.

Gugin saw our vulnerabilities but built up our strengths – almost like a real life Professor X in the X Men. I learned more sitting on that bench than I did in most classrooms.

Two funny stories about Gugin – when my husband met him, Gugin privately talked to him – “She’s special and if you mess with her, you’ll answer to me.” (For a girl without a Dad, I truly appreciate that.)

The other is when I took time off my career to raise my kids. I drove by that same bench as I took my kids to violin lessons and Gugin would bark at me, “When the hell will you get a job and start your career?”

I barked back at him, “These kids are my job.” He told me he knew that, and we would both laugh.

What life lesson did I learn from him?

Inclusion is powerful. When we seek and work with people from different places, with experiences and cultures different from our own, we all gain in the long run.

One professor, sitting on a bench, on a circular drive in the middle of a college campus became a magnet for many. I took what I learned at that bench and have used it to impact other people in my world.

We will always grow more with different people who challenge us than if we sit comfortably in a rut full of people who live and look just like we do.

Over the years,  I’ve met others who sat at Gugin’s Bench. We then have an instant bond of what we gained while sitting there.

And I wonder, as we have paid what we gained forward, will we create our own benches, and where will they be.

Ripples….

 

 


The Outcasts of the Cafeteria Pack – and the Leadership Opportunities They Have

Bret Harte once wrote a tragic tale of what happened to “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” What they experience is familiar to anyone who didn’t quite fit in the mold in high school.

Often in teen-aged cliques (especially those with girls), those who are part of the “in” crowd have set rules for what they can and cannot do, speak to, or wear. If someone in the clique dares to venture an independent thought, the clique shuns the outsider, circles the wagons, and then self-congratulates in the inner circle that they kept  their tribe clean and intact.

And that’s rough for the girl who doesn’t fit in that crowd – or other crowds either.

I wish I could tell the girls in that position that they have a unique opportunity. They can mingle and get to know a diverse range of people. The more different people they meet, the more creative ideas they will encounter. They will experience different cultures, see unique ways to solve problems and will learn the first rule of true leadership:

Finding that spark of genius or excitement in everyone you meet and finding ways for those you meet to work together to create something new and wonderful.

When you meet those different people, you’ll discover a bigger world from the pristine popular illusion described above. It’s a world where people stumble, fall, fail, pick themselves up, and try again.

Another thing you will learn is how to spot wanna be leaders who never grew beyond the popular girl cafeteria table and spend their lives trying to recreate that world. That’s the world that Skeeter Phelan alienates in the movie The Help, when she reaches beyond the white world of segregation into a more diverse one that reflects compassion and understanding for those who are different from her.

Once she stepped outside those strictly set rules, she discovered her true talent and also found a niche where she could use it. She developed her voice and went to a new place, where her talents were valued and she could blossom and grow.

So my advice to those who walk into the cafeteria and find yourselves shunned by the in crowd and queen bees. Don’t get sucked into their game. You were born for a bigger world than the cafeteria, and now’s your chance to start developing the skills to get there.


The Risks of Class Envy

Class envy is a huge threat to the poor and the needy.

Read to the end to understand my meaning. Often, the best thing we can do for the poor is to not simply help them today but to empower them to help themselves and seek to break the cycles of poverty.

I write of this from personal experience from living in poverty. Without going into too many details, I’ve lost almost everything I owned twice in a lifetime. The first time was after my parent’s divorce and a scandal involving my father. The second time was 13 years ago, a year after my husband and I started our own digital arts business. Our home and business burned on a Saturday night. Our kids were ages 5 and 7. That Sunday morning, we went to church in borrowed clothes and borrowed shoes, without a home or livelihood but with no idea where we would sleep that night or how we would provide for our children.

Add to that I’ve been on my own since age 18. I’ve spent time as a couch surfer because I had no home, I spent a month sleeping on the living room floor of a friend’s apartment because I had no home, and have gone hungry because the cupboards were bare and the refrigerator was empty.

So I discuss class envy from the perspective of someone who’s pulled herself out of poverty by her bootstraps – on more than one occasion.

I am thankful for many people who stepped up and helped us in many different ways. If I tried a lifetime, I couldn’t pay their generosity forward.

One of the greatest things they gave me was encouragement and confidence, as well as opportunities for our family to work ourselves out of messes. We rebuilt our home and business. When the economy went south in 2008, we kept the business going and scrambled every way we possibly could to get through it.

If we had wasted time and energy on class envy, we wouldn’t have had enough left over to find solutions. Every moment spent resenting those who have more, who drive a nicer car, or live in a nicer home is a moment that could have been better spent savoring what we do have and working to tend our own gardens.

Further, class envy makes us focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. Resentment and anger do not breed solutions for poverty. They merely exacerbate it. Victimology does nothing to help those who are victims. It merely perpetuates and worsens the cycles that put them there.

Finally, often those who have more than we do also give more than we do. Many do not share all they do with their time, talent, and treasure to help others.

One of the commandments was not to covet our neighbor’s goods. It makes sense and is one of the smartest strategies we can adopt in the war on poverty.


The World Through the Eye of the Needle

I am utterly flabbergasted.

Today, I saw a new exhibit at the Evansville Museum, Through the Eye of the Needle: Fabric of Survival. I knew it was coming and knew it was about World War II but knew nothing else. The exhibit is a collection of tapestries that walk you through a story of loss and survival through the eyes of a young girl in Poland in World War II. I won’t share their story because the exhibit itself tells you.

As I started the exhibit, looking at tapestries, I was drawn in after the first two tapestries. What was going to happen? How would things change? Who would live and how would those who did live survive?

Note – I don’t recommend seeing the video until after you see the exhibit. Let the tapestries tell their own story.

These tapestries combine the beauty of excellent crewel embroidery with a primitive talent better than Grandma Moses with a true story that is unimaginable in its pain and resilience. Her ability to capture the beauty of the surroundings of rural Poland in the midst of catastrophe gives them an incomparable power.

This is hands down the most important exhibit to come to Evansville in decades. I love art museums and have visited exhibits my whole life. I would rank the power of this one with seeing Rodin’s The Kiss at the Tate Gallery in London in 1987, the Monet series at the Art Institute in Chicago in 1990, and the Vatican Collection in St. Louis in 1998.

Why?

Some in our world have forgotten that we are all human and we must honor human dignity. This exhibit tells in artistic form the story of a slippery slope down the path of human cruelty. The slope, made slippery with human suffering, ends in concentration camps.

We must not forget what happens when human dignity pushed to the side for any reason.

This exhibit will stay with me for a long time.

If you live near Evansville. go see this exhibit. It’s a must see. It’s here till November 30.

 


Letting Go – A Cycle

Thirteen years ago, Richard and I left our kids with friends and went to our burned-out shell of a home to personally throw out the kids’ toys. Our home had burned, and we learned that the smoke from burning plastic during the fire could have adhered to their toys that we had thought would be saved.

We had a dumpster in our driveway, and we gritted our teeth as we threw out our kids’ favorite toys. We didn’t want them to see us throw out the toy kitchen, the Legos, and bins of toys I had so painstakingly found for them. Our kids, in kindergarten and second grade, didn’t know that that year, their Christmas toy replacements were paid for with our insurance claim.

That fall, as we tossed out most of our belongings, I hesitated to throw out my cookbook collection. I had spent a lifetime collecting my favorite cookbooks and had carefully marked them with notes. The books that were left were scorched and smoked. I hoped the smell would one day go away, so I put them in an air tight tub with fabric softener sheets. Maybe with time the smell would go away.

A few times over the next 13 years, I opened that tub, hoping the smell would be gone. It didn’t happen. Each time, the smell brought back all those bad memories.

Now, my kids are in college, and we’re reorganizing our empty nest. We’re making room for the next chapter in our lives.

Yesterday, I re-discovered the tub of charred cookbooks. They still smelled. In 13 years, I’ve never once been able to look at my notes or retrieve a favorite recipe. It was time.

Our son, who was 5 years old at the time of the fire and had just started kindergarten, was helping us move and re-arrange furniture. The tub was too heavy for me to lift to throw out.

I went with him to the trash can. As soon as I saw those old recipes, I knew I couldn’t watch.  “Throw them out,” I told him.

“Do you want to go through them?” He asked.

“Just get rid of them,” I said as I went back inside.

The little boy I helped a lifetime ago in the biggest loss of our lives was now helping me.

I thought of the other things in our lives that are broken that we sometimes hold onto. We hope they will change, and we wrap them up tightly in our hearts. The pain returns when we remember those packages.

Sometimes, we have to simply purge those charred remains in our hearts to make room for the joy in our present, in our now.


Beyond Thorns in the Flesh

When Paul writes about thorns in the flesh, I think his reference is an understatement. A thorn in the flesh is an annoyance.

Sometimes it feels like a knife in the heart. It could be a silent sorrow of a stabbing you’ve endured for 40 years. Or it could be the new and improved, 21st century rocker knife which rocks back and forth, slicing and dicing your feelings with each stroke. Like Paul, I asked God to remove them, but it didn’t happen.

The good in my life outweighs those thorns in the flesh – or the knives. Most of the time that’s what I focus on and talk about.

The thorns are still there. We sometimes forget the thorn is there and then something shifts and it hurts all over again. The pain gets easier with time. At first, it felt like a twisting of that knife in the heart, or a punch in the gut that would reduce me to tears. Now it fills me with a sadness as I long for what might have been but isn’t.

As I dealt with that thorn in the flesh yesterday, it was now an ache. I prayed for God to help me handle it, and Psalm 27 came to me – “the Lord is my light and my salvation.”

Then I turned on K-Love radio – my car radio and I have a special relationship. When I need it most, I can turn it on and the song that is playing matches perfectly what I need to hear. I was hurting too much to know what the song was that was playing, but basically, it was that Jesus shed His blood for me, and He loves me no matter what.

I knew as the song played that I was not alone, and I do have a light and a salvation that will carry me through the valleys of the shadows of despair.

Those thorns in the flesh are what opened my own heart to compassion for others. They help me see pain in others, even when they don’t discuss it , and my thorns help me help and inspire other people.

Like Paul said of his own thorns in the flesh – when I am weak, I am strong.  The things that should break us – but don’t – are the things that God uses for our greatest strengths.


Praying Parents

Parenting doesn’t stop with the diapers. Or the swim lessons, the piano lessons, and the homework.

Frankly, I enjoy my empty nest and relish my kids writing their own stories. Both are in college. The only regret I have about raising my kids is that I didn’t enjoy the moment more. Even so, Richard and I resolved before having them to make them our priority and do the best we kid in raising them.

For 20 years, that has been our priority. Now, we are marking our own new paths while they venture on their own.

But we still have an important job. Each morning we are able starts with a mission – to head to daily Mass to pray for our kids. I imagine for the rest of our lives, so long as we are able to get there and there is an early morning Mass, that’s where we’ll be.  Walking in together, that time in Mass, worshiping together and commending our kids to the care and influence of all the saints and angels under heaven, we start each day. And with that commendation, we can move forward for the day.

And I realize in the circle of life, we’re beginning a new round in that circle. For 25 years, since Richard’s mother met me, she has prayed for me at daily Mass just as she prayed for her sons and grandchildren. She continues today.

When our time on  earth has ended, our prayers will continue.

 


5 Questions to Ask Before Helping a Non-Profit

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank

People are good at heart, but when we reach out to help others, in addition to helping them, we must carefully discern how and when to help other people.

Most people may be good at heart, but a few who work with a few nonprofits are not. That fact marked my life in ways I wish it had not; one of my family members who raised funds for a charity stole those funds and went to jail because of it. As a result, people who thought they were helping poor children were swindled, as was the charity involved.

With that personal experience, I am extremely careful with nonprofit fundraisers and donations. I only support causes and organizations I fully agree with, that I believe are being good stewards of the time, talents, and treasure they are given.

Sometimes, a charity’s fundraiser may become a popular fad, and others jump on the bandwagon without first asking these questions.

Please, please ask these questions before helping any charitable organization:

  1. What does the organization believe? Do their mission and vision statements, as well as foundational beliefs, agree with your own? Often, this is not an issue. But what if the organization you are supporting works in ways that are directly opposed to your core beliefs? The good news is there are enough charities out there that you can find others for the same cause whose core beliefs more closely reflect your own.
  2. Who manages the money and how? Determine what percentage of the funds generate go into administrative costs and also how much goes into direct services. How frugal are they? Charity Navigator and other sources can help you determine this.
  3. Where does their line item spending go? How much goes into direct services in your local area? Be sure to evaluate this one on a yearly basis with national organizations – some great causes streamline by cutting services to area communities. Does the organization have accounting and audit reviews in place to ensure money is properly spent and documented?
  4. How do they manage their fundraisers? This again goes into the accounting. Fundraisers must be carefully managed from a financial standpoint because they offer the greatest temptation to that small group of volunteers who have sticky fingers.
  5. What are the organization’s short term and long term goals? Have they developed short and long term plans so that when you donate to help them, you have a good feeling that the charity will still be here in 1, 5, or 10 years?

Most of us want to help those in need. I think that’s a basic human response to suffering. It feels good to know we did something to help solve someone else’s problem.

However, don’t just jump on the fundraiser bandwagon because everyone else is helping a worthy cause. Make your help deliberate and intentional, so that you know the help  you give is used in the most effective way possible. That will feel even better.


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