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Inspiration | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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Christmas Bells

This is a story of hope emerging from the worst of tragic losses, which in this case became the back story to the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells.” After you’ve read to the end of this blog, this Christmas carol’s meaning will never again be the same for you – it’s a message of renewal.

Christmas is hard when we have lost those we love.

During the Civil War, a husband struggled with the loss of his wife.  His first wife died when he was young, and he mourned seven years.

Then he married again.  They were a happy family, rejoicing in their five children.  His youngest three daughters filled their home with laughter: grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, and Edith with golden hair.

One hot spring day, while her husband slept in the next room, his wife trimmed Edith’s hair.  The golden curls were so pretty she decided to save one lock as a keepsake.  She used sealing wax to hold the lock of hair into place when tragedy struck.

A spring wind breezed through the room. Her dress burst into flames.  Either the sealing wax spilled onto her dress or the match did.  Her first instinct was to protect her daughters.  So she ran screaming, a tower of flames, into her husband’s study next door.  He awakened and tried to save her.

First, he covered her with a rug to smother the flames.  The rug was too small.  Still, she burned.  He threw his arms around her and put out the final flames with his own body.

She died of burns the next morning.  He was so badly injured that he could not attend her funeral.  His face was so burned that he was never able to shave again and wore a beard the rest of his life.

Her horrific death happened near the beginning of the Civil War. Then his firstborn son, 19, returned from the war, critically injured.  Christmas was the hardest.  He could not celebrate.  The man asked his friends, “Where is peace?”

God gave him solace to his grief on Christmas Day, 1863, as the morning church bells rang.

The mourning husband, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem that would become the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 I hope you hear the bells this Christmas Day! 

Beyond Thanksgrieving

No family really lives a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. Life is easier once you accept that.

Then the unbearable happens. We lose someone in our family’s holiday portrait. The first year is the hardest.  The bigger the presence, the bigger the gap. Sometimes at that first holiday we feel as though we will never laugh again. Joy is a memory. 

How do we get through a holiday when we’ve lost someone we love and our hearts are breaking?

This morning at church, I saw a family who lost their matriarch last week. Her husband, children, and grandchildren sat together starting this hardest of Thanksgivings together on their knees.  You see them there, together, every Thanksgiving, just as you do every Sunday.  Grandma would have been with them, singing and savoring her family. Kleenexes were in some hands.  When we stood up to sing, the youngest grand-daughter, sitting by her grandpa, grabbed his hand and gave him a big hug. 

It was like death was the Grinch who tried to steal their Thanksgiving, but Susie Who stood in the family circle and began singing.

If I could paint like Norman Rockwell, I would have painted the scene of a family, with an empty seat in the pew, helping one another get through the grief and the holiday.

Grief comes in waves. We can manage when it recedes. But when it laps close to the shore of our hearts, we sometimes feel as though we’re drowning. That’s where the beauty of helping one another through the grief can save us. Just  when I need it the most, you can throw me a lifeline which I’ll return to you when it’s your turn.

No one will ever fill that empty chair in the family portrait. We carry it with us. With time, and with each other’s help, it grows easier. The Thanksgrieving we endure now will eventually transform again to Thanksgiving, when we can thank God for our loved ones and what they gave us. Our suffering will one day help us better reach out to others in the same situation.

When your Thanksgiving becomes a year of Thanksgrieving, grab your Kleenex, and reach out for your loved ones.

We have been there too and will help you endure. You are not alone – never have been, never were. If we help each other, we can both again say more easily:

Happy Thanksgiving. And mean it.

Thankful for Pumpkins!

I am thankful for…

Pumpkins.

Pumpkins make me happy. From Labor Day through Thanksgiving, my home is decorated with them. They remind me of the most precious gifts in my life:

My son –a high school freshman, he began raising pumpkins several years ago.  He’s grown varieties from Baby Boo white ones to this year’s experiment with Prizewinner giants – a few of which had to be wheeled out of the garden and lifted by 2 men.  One of his Prizewinners won a Special Merit at the Indiana State Fair and was the largest pumpkin exhibited by an Indiana 4-H member this year. Nine of his pumpkins decorate our front porch, and two are the giant Prizewinners.  Every time I come home or leave, I see our pumpkins, and they make me smile. Another decorated the news set of a local meteorologist.

My daughter – a high school junior, makes pumpkin rolls and pies, which we’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving.

My husband Richard – all through the summer, as we take our son to his pumpkin patch, we watch him work and then get thrill of seeing his exhibit at the State Fair.

Our family – when the harvest is good, we get to share pumpkins with area family members.  Richard’s cousins in New York grow the super giant pumpkins and sent photos to us, which inspired our son to go for the big ones.

Our friends – One of our family friends hosts our son’s pumpkin patch in his large rural garden. He taught our son how to get started with pumpkins and raise them well. When we have a good harvest, we share the fun with pumpkin gifts for friends. Our yard is too small and shady for pumpkin raising.

Jack traded a cow for some bean seeds to grow the vine he climbed to kill a giant. Nothing that dramatic happens in the real world. Our pumpkin seeds cost less than a cow.  We can’t climb the vines and don’t kill giants.  But they are powerful.

This Thanksgiving, we’ll sit around the table, covered with a pumpkin tablecloth and decorated by a pumpkin-shaped candle. I’ll look across the table at Richard and thank God for the blessings our pumpkins remind me to appreciate.

Maybe, for an extra treat,  we’ll start a new family tradition: a pumpkin seed spitting contest!

What reminds you of your most precious gifts this Thanksgiving?

(Today, I was asked to be a guest blogger at Mom Got Blog, writing on the topic, I am thankful for… After I wrote my first piece, I also wrote this one.)

Sing through the Mountains

Morning sunrise

In my musical family, my instrument was French horn. I sang but was told, “Your sister is the soloist. You belong in the choir.” Music was more habit than artistic expression.

Those early years were hard. By the time I was 20, one too many heartbreaks silenced me. I quit singing. Completely. Singing reminded me of things and people I did not want to be. I chose not to.

When our children were born and I started going to church, I sang with them.  They got the childhood I never had, along with a strong musical education. Other than Sunday mornings, I never sang.

When my kids started singing in a professional choir, I became president of their parents group. I still didn’t sing with choirs myself. It had been so many years that now I was afraid to begin.

One Sunday morning when I was 40, a friend who’s often like a surrogate mom, Virginia, cornered me after the service. “Why aren’t you in church choir? They need you. They practice this Tuesday, and you should be there.”

So I went. The first week went ok, and I was so overwhelmed I cried the whole drive home.

Within a month, other choir members helped me begin to cantor, to lead the singing when needed at services. Each service felt like I was trying out a ski slope for the first time and had no idea what would happen between the start and when we got to the bottom of the hill.

That was 5 years ago. I cantored again last night.  As the music begins, I feel God grabbing my soul and pulling music from each heartbeat and heartbreak of a lifetime. The tremendous losses are there – death, illness, fire, flood, famine, and more.  Those losses neither defeated nor define me but are the valleys I went through that help me treasure time on the mountaintop.

Some said I wasn’t the sister with the good voice to sing the solos. But God had a different plan.

Every time I cantor, each song feels like Amazing Grace. For 20 years, I thought my music was dead. He brought it back and showed me how to pour my heart into every song.

Melodies dip into valleys of the shadow of death and soar on eagle’s wings to mountain tops.

Singing through the mountains helps me see the sunrise more clearly.

Give it a try.

No Classroom Dummies

One of the best investments a company can make is computer training of its employees. Training staff to make the best use of your computer investment can be the budget’s forgotten stepchild.

Companies sometimes pigeonhole or underestimate the abilities of their staff to use software well.

Once, before a corporate Access class began, students came in joking that the office computer “dummy” would hold them all back. I was asked how I would teach the class and help her too. Coworkers continued to joke when she entered the classroom.

After class began, I worked on a few issues with her.  For the first part of the class, she struggled to keep up with everyone else.

Everything changed when we started filters and queries.  For an entire hour, she was the first to suggest the best ways to find information quickly. 

How could someone like that suddenly show up everyone else in the room? She was not a digital native and needed help with a few basics.  When we hit filters and queries, she was in home turf. Her job required her to classify information and work through it methodically. Her years of experience shined in her classroom performance. 

She’s only one example why I refuse to believe anyone in my computer classes is a “dummy” incapable of learning.  Some take longer than others.  Yes, there are times I’ll tell someone where the spacebar is or that the shift key capitalizes.  I’ll explain the difference between the left and the right mouse buttons.

But I help them do more than that in class. I show them how using their software can make their jobs easier.  Whenever possible, we relate what we learn to practical applications.

What happened to the office designated dummy who blossomed into a filter query savant? By the next class, on her own, she had designed databases and queries that would make her job easier.

I’m glad her company trained her.  Now she can use a computer as a power tool to better do the job for which they hired her.

Computer dummies don’t come to my classes. The dummies are ones who never get trained or never make sure their staff is well trained on software they already have.

Smart companies and people are the ones who get as much training as they can. A little hard work and knowledge goes a long way.

From the Diary of Noah's Wife

Hello God?

You were talking to Noah this afternoon.  Well, this is Noah’s wife, and now I want to talk to you.

You told him to build a boat?  Don’t you know that man can’t catch a fish to save his life?

Don’t you know our plans for our farm? We’re growing it so it can support not only us but each of our son’s families as well.  Just getting the garden in and harvested, and taking care of the animals is a full time job.

I don’t even know the last time we had time to sit down.  Sometimes we’re so busy building the homestead we barely have time to have family time alone together.

Don’t you know how mean our neighbors are? What are they going to say when he starts building a boat? The closest water in walking distance is a creek, and we don’t need a boat to cross it.

And he says you want a big boat? With animals? Just where are those animals going to come from? He says the boys are going to help him build that boat too?

I don’t get it. Build a boat, you say. If he and the boys are building the boat, who will take care of the animals we do have – not just those you say we’re going to get?

When I asked him questions, he told me I needed a little faith.

If you didn’t tell him to build that boat and he’s gone crazy, would you stop him now before he turns our world upside down? Maybe give ME a hint so I know if it’s real or not?

If you did tell him to build that boat, would you tell me what to do and how to handle this?

Pitch? You said get some pitch? I’m not sure how that can help, but I’ll try.

Lord, if you called him to build a boat, show him what to do when he makes a leap of faith.

And if he makes that leap of faith, would you show me how to handle it so I can make a leap of trust?

Thanks for listening, God. After dinner, I’ll see if I can find something big to mix some pitch. Maybe that would be a good olive branch after I spouted off when he told me about the boat.

Learn by Living – 4H Achievement Records

Accountants have tax season. Greeks have hell week. With 4-H, I have Achievement Week, and this is it.

As chair of our county’s awards committee, I work with a committee that reviews 800 achievement records. Area companies have awarded scholarships which we give so our older members can attend state-level workshops in fields from food science to animal science to engineering. They also send 20 middle school students from our county to a 3-day career exploration workshop at Purdue University. Others send teens to leadership training.

Each 4-H member turns in an achievement record which we review to select award and scholarship trip winners.  We look for a lot more than the prize-winning jelly or grand champion dairy cow.  As we read, we look for the learning experiences that went into the project: experiments, failures, research, and more.  But that’s just the beginning of what we evaluate.  Drilling deeper, we review workshops, demonstrations, field trips, and community service projects that involved those project areas.  It’s not about the ribbon at the fair but about what you learn and how you will share it with the world to build a better community. We look for leadership experiences and activity participation.

Sometimes the project that earned a red ribbon and involved lots of struggles teaches more than a champion. 

I love the fact we nurture such a wide range of project categories that there is room for every member to discover an area of talent and be recognized for it.  Each time they try something new, their confidence grows.

4-H is a microcosm of life.  Our self worth is more than a resume. It’s more than a ribbon at the fair.

“Learn by doing” may be the 4-H motto, but when I see those 4-H records, I think of something else:

“Learn by living.”

Teaching Plato Outside the Cave to Teens

How could I get teens excited about ancient Greek literature?  Specifically, how could I help my 14 year old son who loves robots lots more than reading get Plato? As I sat on a back deck today, the sun beamed among the trees. I suddenly saw how to help get Plato’s cave. 

I called the teens outside and told them to pull chairs into a line, facing the house’s outer wall.  Then I told them their legs and necks were bound; the only thing they could see was the blank wall.  Sunshine was behind them, but they could not see it. We could make shadows with the sun, onto the wall of the house, but shadows were different from the real thing. This was our version of Plato’s cave.

One girl was “set free.” She walked behind the row of chairs and could see the sunshine.  I told her to note all the things she never saw because all she had known was a wall. Like the prisoner in a darkened cell, the sunshine would take some adjusting.  After she had explained it, I told her to go back to her chair to sit with the others.

I asked her what it felt like to return to the chair to only see the wall.  Depressing. I challenged her to explain what she had seen to those who had only seen the wall.  She struggled to find words, and the teens played along as good skeptics.   She was now the philosopher who had seen things the others never realized.

As a conclusion to the exercise, I noted Plato’s observation that if those who had always been chained got the chance, they would most likely kill the philosopher.

After the real live exercise of Plato’s allegory of the cave, the kids got it.

We sat in the sunshine after that, and I thought about how this applies to us. We think we know the whole universe, and then we see a light and realize we’ve gone from Kansas to technicolor Oz. If we then return to our old wineskins, we struggle to explain to those who’ve never seen the light what we’ve encountered.

Our challenge is to explain what the light is such that people will listen instead of kill us. Those ancient philosophers are more than just a bunch of dead Greek guys. 

Are you in a cave? Have you turned around to see the light? If so, did you share what you saw with others?

The Tweeting Working Girl (or if Tess Tweeted)

“Your hair is so big no one knows you have a brain,” I was once told in the 80’s. “You’re just like Tess McGill in Working Girl.  No one knew what she thought with all that hair.”

Tess McGill was my heroine at the time.  She read everything she could find, about business, culture, whatever. And then she saw new ways to use that information and make money. Her stock broker bosses used her ideas as their own while Tess was trapped in her working class caste.  Most of the movie is based on her machinations to rebrand herself and get her ideas taken seriously.

During the course of the movie, she pretends to be a manager and crashes a wedding to get the right people to hear her ideas.  Once the right people hear her, they listen and take note. Of course, Tess gets caught. But at the end of the movie, she is finally taken seriously, on her own merit.

Working Girl is a movie that most likely won’t be remade. Why?

Tess McGill would be on Twitter. She would share her clever ideas a single tweet at a time, often with a punch line at the end. She could tweet opportunities. 

Most importantly, she could skip past the gatekeepers who never saw past her hair and get direct access to the people in charge.  They could develop relationships with her on Twitter such that when she came up with the ingenious plan to buy radio instead of television, they would first make time to meet with her and then would listen to her ideas.

If she did pretend to be a manager, someone in Twitterworld would catch up with her and call her out.  If her stuffy boss, Katharine Parker, deigned to be on Twitter and really wrote her own Tweets, her pretentious tweets would sound like twits.

I think if Tess had been on Twitter, she would have met Jack Trainer without the subterfuge, and they would have built their own business empire.

Not as interesting a movie. But I’ll bet $ stories like it happen on Twitter every day.

Twitter offers you the chance to be what you tweet. You can be judged on the character, intellect, and humor of your thoughts and deeds.

It’s a new world just like what pioneers sought 200 years ago. And it’s just as exciting.

5 Steps to Avoid the Death of a Salesman

Willy Loman made it in sales in the 1950’s. By the 1970’s, his “charm”  failed in Arthur Miller’s tragedy, Death of a Salesman. When Willy realized he couldn’t sell in a new world, he killed himself. 

We’re in a tough economy of salespeople who want a happy ending. What once worked doesn’t.  Everything is different. We don’t know the end of the story or how the new economy will look. How do we change and survive?

  1. Listen – Willy’s boss, family, and friends tried to discuss problems with him. He would not listen.  Find your customers, potential customers, competitors, vendors, friends, and peers. What are they saying and where? 
  2. Learn – Willy discouraged his sons from studying new things. Do better. Learn to use new tools like Facebook, blogs, videos, and Twitter.  Make the time to learn to use them well. Your ROI in learning today could be that your business survives tomorrow.
  3. Position – Willy got so involved selling gizmos he didn’t think position. Then his boss fired him to position the business. Don’t be a pawn in chess – position your pieces across the board. Think strategy, not mere tactics. Anticipate; global is the new local. Find peers and potential customers around the planet. Surround yourself with great pros who will raise your game.
  4. Brand – Willy’s brand was full of sound and bluster, signifying nothing. The new brand shows who you and your company really are.  If you don’t build your brand, you won’t have a voice in what your brand becomes.  Your every move, online and in real life, reflects your brand. So be smart, be good, and be branded the same.
  5. Build – Willy only spoke of himself and his illusions of greatness. No one listened.  They didn’t think he cared, so they didn’t. If you build relationships, communities, and others, they will see that you care and will then pay attention to what you have to say.

Businesses survive when they listen to their customers’ needs, they provide the product to meet that need, their customers buy it, and their customers tell their friends. Purpose driven, not product driven, thrives.

Arthur Miller understood desperation in changing times. He captured how awful it feels.

I met him at a reading years ago, as he shared a new play.  Though his voice cracked and he was frail, he moved me to tears.  Unlike Willy, Arthur never gave up.

We can do the same.

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