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Crouching Mama Hidden Ninja

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When Michael Reynolds tossed a Ninja to me at an Inbox Zero workshop last fall, he didn’t know what would happen. That Ninja, trained in the art of email management, is talented with WordPress too. With a new year and new website, I discovered his talent.

The last 2 weeks, I’ve worked to migrate my blog from WordPress.com to self-hosting. The software differences remind me of moving from DOS to Windows or from Lotus to Excel. Many concepts are the same, but the setup is different enough to give me a headache and heartburn. 

With WordPress help and encouragement from Talina Norris-Ryder and Nibby Priest (thank you both!), I’ve made it to the other side of the WordPress aisle.  Many years ago, my husband Richard bought my domain name, saying I would one day want and use it.  In the last two weeks, he’s patiently created, re-created, and tweaked the graphics for the new site.

Learning the new software was harder than I thought it would be. And it was more stressful. For a lifetime, I’ve helped family and friends go after their brass rings. Ten years ago, Richard and I started the Copper Lion, Inc., so he could provide digital graphics to ad agencies.

What I didn’t realize till halfway through the new site is this time, it’s MY behind on the line.  It’s not only my behind, but my name. When I couldn’t find a fast answer to my question, I would jump, yell, and be ready to quit. Then I would see the Ninja on my desk and remember Harrison Painter‘s latest blog on Coffee with Harrison.

As I wrestled with WordPress, I looked at my ninja and repeated Harrison’s advice: knock’em over! Once I remembered that, I became Crouching Mama Hidden Ninja, ready to conquer an army of widgets and subdue Attila the Plugin’s legions.

Victory! If I couldn’t find the answer, I could find someone or some website to help. With time, help, and hard work, the site came together.

Just like any action story, you know the widgets and plugins will be back with future challenges. My Ninja and I are in training, making ourselves stronger so we can handle whatever they try next.

That’s my Ninja story, and I’m sticking to it.

When you hit the wall, what’s your Ninja and what keeps YOU going?

Your Cat's NOT in My Cradle

“Cat’s in the Cradle,” by Johnny Cash is my parenting theme song. With a twist. (hint – play while reading this blog)

He sings of making bad parenting choices and his son’s repeating that pattern. That doesn’t have to happen. I don’t repeat the patterns of my childhood.

Instead, I sing, “I’ll be nothing like you – your cat’s NOT in my cradle.”  I deliberately chose a better path.

My family – my children and my husband – have and always will come first.

Struggling to survive the “childhood-that-wasn’t” shaped my character. However, I chose how I would use it. 

Your childhood script can be flipped with hard work.

By the grace of God and with the support of a wonderful husband who’s spent the past 20 years gently loving away the rough edges, I changed. Once a scared but tough survivor who managed on my own since age 18 with long hair and short skirts, I had moved 26 times in 24 years when we first met. Sometimes I had slept on friends’ couches or floors when I was between addresses. 

My husband helped me become a wife and mom. We built our family together – talking, laughing, and sometimes arguing our way through family dinner hours, laundry piles, teen angst, and carpools. We have a good time now.

I have neither anger nor regrets about the past. At the end of Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that what man meant for ill can be used for good by God to help others.

How can God use my terrible experiences of a lifetime ago? I can help young people struggling in their own stories, reach their hearts and tell them life can be better. As Corrie ten Boom once said, there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still. We are not alone. There is hope.

Because of where I was, my life and family now is doubly precious. Instead of being trapped in past problems, God sent a husband and friends to help me write my own song.

Your cat’s not in my cradle.  I’m not just like you. My kids aren’t just like me.

The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon…my children had a childhood.

Stories that start sadly can change and get the happy ending. Mine did.

It’s our choices, not the cat in the cradle, that determine the outcome of our lives.

So Long, Farewell

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” we sang at the beginning of my friend’s funeral.

When a singer goes to an organist’s funeral, it is a trip with the Ghosts of Church Music past. To the far left is the organist I’ve known for decades. To the right is a lady I sang with from my kids’ choir. Beside me is another singer from a former choir. The pianist and I worked together decades ago on other projects.  There was a time our lives were intertwined.

Sometimes we struggled through music for this performance or the drama of the rehearsal where nothing worked.

We’ve come together to honor the memory of a friend, for whom his music was his life.  Here, in this congregation joined to celebrate the memory of a friend, are the strands of his life and our own. 

As our voices blend at the funeral, I don’t remember the bad rehearsals. I do remember the joy we had when we sang together and things worked – the Hallelujah Chorus. The a capella “Panis Angelicus.”

Our singing is our final tribute, our final farewell to a musician friend. Every line of every song has new purpose. 

It feels like The Sound of Music, when the Trapp family sings “So Long, Farewell, auf Wiedersehen, Good-bye.”

At the funeral, we each sing our own final personal tribute. When the music ends, we wish each other a final good-bye in the parking lot. Our lives, once joined together, have ventured on different paths. 

This good-bye is no more final than the one we said to our friend who died.  Our worlds will touch again in the future. We will sing together again. Hopefully not just at funerals.

Perhaps when I sing my Alleluia and you sing your Amazing Grace, in our separate lives, we can remember each other and sing them together in our hearts.

The So Long Farewell isn’t final.  It’s just awhile –

Till we meet again.

Farewell to a Friend

Yesterday, I learned that an organist who had accompanied my singing, Joe Jacobs, had died.

This blog is a thank you to accompanists and other unsung heroes everywhere.

I’ve sung with good accompanists and bad ones. When I sang with one accompanist, I felt like she was the organ grinder and I was the monkey. I followed her playing and direction. When she stopped, the monkey (me) stopped singing. Sometimes I felt like I was singing an obstacle course on a reality show, with the congregation as the viewing audience.

Then there’s the other kind. The accompanist who listens. He can spot when I’m shaky on a melody line and emphasize the melody. We would watch together to see how many verses of a hymn to sing and when to stop. We had hidden cues we both understood – when I set my hand on the side of the organ, he knew I thought we needed to finish this verse and end.  When he nodded at me, I knew to pause between verses so he could improvise an interlude.

Great accompanists are patient with singers and roll with our stumbles. Once, while I was cantoring, as we exchanged peace, I saw the priest shaking hands with my son, who was serving. I was caught up in the moment, overwhelmed with mama pride, when I heard a hissing, “Mary!” I had forgotten it was time to sing the next response. Back to the job. If I sang the wrong verse or stumbled, he added emphasis to his playing so I could get back on track.

They are also reliable. Musicians don’t have the luxury of only performing when at the top of their game. They play in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, in good times and in bad. When there was an ice storm one Christmas Eve, services were cancelled and everyone forgot to tell the organist. So he braved the slick roads and ice, arriving at a darkened church with no services, and never complained about the oversight.

When he played we had those moments when I could feel music flowing from us through a whole sanctuary.

My friend died unexpectedly yesterday. I didn’t get a chance to tell him thanks. Look around you – who do you know who’s reliable, forgiving, and empathetic?

Thank them while you can.

How to React to a Shooting

Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the best impromptu speech I’ve seen. I show this video to every impromptu speech class I lead.

Setting for the speech: Kennedy was on a campaign stop in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968.  He was scheduled to speak to a minority audience, and local police asked him to cancel his speech after the assassination because they feared a riot.  Kennedy refused.  You will hear when he learns the audience does not know King has been shot. Kennedy’s speech prevented the feared riot.:

What makes Kennedy’s response great?

  1. Tell the bad news. He told what was known. Kennedy did not blame or suggest suspects.
  2. Acknowledge the horror. He acknowledged the grief and shock his audience felt upon hearing the news.
  3. Share personal experience. He shared his experiences and response 5 years earlier to his brother’s assassination.
  4. Draw on education and training. Classically educated, Kennedy quoted the play Agamemnon, by the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Kennedy’s speech concludes with a call to wisdom – to understanding.

Instead of a call to action.  Let law enforcement find who committed the crime, why they did it, and use that knowledge to better prevent future shootings.

As one out of many in the general public, my job is the same as Kennedy’s audience.

  • Remember that our Declaration of Independence declares our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all have those rights – not just our friends but our enemies.
  • Disagree with others on matters of substance but honor their dignity.
  • Remind our friends and others of the gift of human dignity.  Tragedies happen when we forget inalienable rights and human dignity.

Tragedies and senseless shootings continue. Two months after this speech, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. His speech on reacting to violence can still teach and inspire us today.

I doubt I’ll ever personally stop a shooter. Nevertheless, if I heed Kennedy’s call to wisdom, perhaps I can help build a stronger culture of respect for others.

When the temperature in the cooking pot lowers, there’s less chance of a boil over. Will you join me?

6 Steps to Advocate and Protect Your Own

Squeaky wheels get the grease. I’ve effectively used the same advocacy steps in tough medical, educational, and insurance challenges.

My challenges?

  1. Medical – because of a rare blood incompatibility (PLA1-), I destroy baby platelets. My son’s pregnancy included 4 PUBS, 5 weeks of high dose IvIgg treatments, and a month-long hospital stay.
  2. Educational – 1 of my children needed intensive early intervention.
  3. Insurance - 10 years ago, our home burned, and we had to rebuild.

I used the same steps to get my son medical treatment he needed, obtained needed speech therapy, and rebuild our home.

  1. Assess. Determine the issues, the players, and your resources.
  2. Organize. I use binders with dividers and prep like I’m an attorney getting ready for trial. During my son’s pregnancy, I kept a file of all diagnoses, lab results, and insurance correpondence. We took it to each appointment and procedure. With our IEP meetings, I kept a binder with diagnoses, insurance correspondence, school correspondence, along with applicable state and federal laws. For our fire recovery, I compiled a file bucket for claim information, orders, and contractor estimates.
  3. Plan for meetings. Before tough meetings, write your talking points. Simplify them to 3-4 points and 1 to 2 goals. Keep those in front of you to stay focused. Just before a tough meeting, I pray, asking God to help me do what’s needed.
  4. Delegate. Evaluate your talent pool and delegate. Delegate roles during meetings – who argues, who takes note, and who’s the good cop.
  5. Find experts. During my son’s pregnancy, I found the world’s leading expert in New York, spoke with him, and convinced insurance to cover his consultation. With our speech therapy issue, I found the world’s leading expert (at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN) in his problem, took my son to meet him and be diagnosed, and asked him to help us advocate for services in our local school system. When we disagreed with our fire reconstruction contractor on replacement of a bedroom ceiling, I brought in an engineer friend who backed up my concerns; after it was demolished, they found mold growing in it post fire.
  6. Use the Internet. Tweet, email, and blog to find other resources.

Sometimes, with those you love, your job is to be the squeaky wheel. Your agenda is their health and well-being – not policy, protocol, or bottom lines. Squeak loud, early, and often till you get the needed grease.

This is a chess game – with lifechanging stakes. Sometimes, the survival of a crisis depends on who’s the best advocate.

Advocate. Protect Your Own.

A Cantor's Christmas Gift from Connecticut

“Can you substitute cantor New Year’s Eve?” our church’s music director asked when she called earlier this week.  The scheduled cantor was ill.

After I mentioned my cantoring to a friend, he commented, “Once I walked into a church for the first time, and a nun walked up and asked me if I could help the choir sing.  The best way to keep get new people involved is to ask for their help.”

Yesterday, I arrived at 3:30 to review music before the 4:00 service.  It was easy, except the communion song, “Holy is His Name.” I had never heard nor sung it. I struggled with the rhythms, missed some entrances, and we ran out of rehearsal time.

“God, help me not look like a fool,” I desperately prayed.

Five minutes before we began, musician friends of mine from Connecticut walked in.  He’s music director and she’s director of religious education at churches, and they love to sing.  I grabbed them and introduced them to our music director.  “Can you help?” she immediately asked. When she learned he played guitar, she handed him one.  He quickly tuned the guitar he had never before touched.

The beginning of the Mass felt like skiing downhill on a slope for the first time, when you don’t know what will happen till you reach the bottom. We had never rehearsed and had no time to talk.

We began smoothly. I worried about the communion song.  “God, please make this ok,” I desperately prayed.

When we began singing it, I realized they had sung the song before. 

Then the miracle happened.  We had finished the verses and needed more time, so we began to repeat the refrain, “Holy, holy is His name.”  In 3-part harmony, with guitar and keyboard – using music with no harmonies written. It jelled.  My arms were covered with goosebumps from the Holy Spirit by the time we finished.

It was the most profound, moving musical experience I’ve ever had. Unrehearsed, unplanned, and totally from God.

Music gives us a chance to share our souls with the world. Sometimes, we feel the hand of God with each note. This was one of those times.

Have a feeling this is going to be a great year.  When I asked for help, it was given.

If someone asks you for help and you share your talents, great things happen.

How I Began Living Well Instead of Hell

Old dogs can learn new tricks. Middle aged mothers can change their lives.

For a lifetime, I’ve survived sickness and health through fire, famine, and flood. Sometimes just barely. By the grace of God, love of a great husband, and help of good friends.

I’ve spent my life helping family and friends, raising my children, and helping my husband begin and grow his business.

My kids are nearly grown. What will my life be when our nest is empty? 

Four months ago, I went on a retreat, Living Hell to Living Well by Kimberly Delcoco. This was my first ever retreat just for me.

That weekend, I dug into who I am and who God wants me to be – personally and professionally. 

We set goals – short and long term, big and small.  Kim gave us tools so our goals wouldn’t just be a wish list that never happens but would effect real and long term improvement in our lives.

I’ve never had a long range life plan.  Since returning home, with the encouragement of our retreat small group, I’m reaching for my goals.  For the first time since Richard and I started our business ten years ago, we took a real family vacation.

The retreat inspired me to try a new adventure – developing my computer coaching business. I love to empower people to use computers better.  Now, I hope to do it better.

There’s a transition from helping everyone else pursue their dreams to seeking my own. 

Thanks to entrepreneur friends & fellow retreaters who encourage me – Mandy Gregory, Stacy Shanks, and Dana Nelson. And a big thanks to Jennifer Butler Hollander, who’s helping me focus, plan, and organize this new adventure. 

Living well is more fun than surviving whatever comes next. Thanks, Kim, for helping me change my outlook and my life.

My 2011 resolution is simple: keep on adventure I began on the retreat, From Living Hell to Living Well.

My American dream….

5 Steps for Perfect Pitch

Small children’s violins should come with a surgeon general’s advisory: Flat violin notes cause toe curling, hair loss, early onset arthritis from cringing and upset stomachs for parents of children who play them.

When my preschoolers were in violin, I was the Pitch Nazi who insisted they hit notes neither sharp nor flat, but on pitch because the alternative made me physically ill. Their pitch might not be perfect, but it didn’t need to be mortally wrong.

Perfect pitch – the ability to hit a note correctly without a cue. Traditional American thought is you’re born with perfect pitch, or you’re not. Japanese thought, however, is perfect pitch can be trained. The older I get, the more I agree with the Japanese.

When I play the perfect pitch game, I’m often 2 steps flat – maybe my childhood piano was flat.  After 13 years as a music mom as my kids have sung and played guitar, piano, handbells, percussion, and violin, I win the pitch game more often than I used to.

Isn’t life a lot like perfect pitch? Some assume those with wonderful lives were born to them or got lucky. Others believe with hard work, we can make our lives better.

Let’s assume perfect pitch – and a better life – are trainable. What can improve your ability to hit the notes right? As a former Suzuki mom, these are the steps I’ve seen to develop perfect pitch:

  1. Repetition - Repeat basic building blocks often, no matter how advanced you get.
  2. Focus - When practicing, don’t get distracted. If you get distracted, refocus yourself.
  3. Smaller chunks – if a building block is too difficult, make smaller chunks of it that you can handle.
  4. Expand your repertoire - After mastery of building blocks, always seek to develop your talent.
  5. Share your talent with the world – Play in public with others. When you play music with other people, you must listen not only to yourself but the world.

Perfect pitch will get new tech twists in the future.  When my daughter takes her violin to play in public, she uses the G-Strings app on my phone to ensure she’s tuned. 

Though we may never have truly perfect pitch, we can develop the talents we do have and make them better.

With great love, anyone can learn new things.

Christmas Lights

On August 11, 2001, our home and business burned. A month later, September 11 attacks changed our world.  We returned to our rebuilt home just before Thanksgiving and continued to rebuild our lives that Christmas season. 

I wanted somehow to show our kids, ages 5 and 7, that in times of great loss, we celebrate new beginnings and hope for the future  – and to inspire and encourage neighbors on our quiet, urban street. Thus began Operation Christmas Lights.

That December, a friend and I collected milk jugs and asked our friends to help.  We collected over 50 jugs, made Chinese lanterns of them with votive candles and kitty litter, and attached a Christmas card to each milk jug handle.  It  took us days to complete.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, our families worked up two city blocks, placing a lantern in front of each home.  I was nervous placing candles in front of some of our neighbors’ homes; sometimes inner city neighbors are volatile.  It was growing dark, the wind began to whip, and we hurried to light the candles before our family went to Christmas Eve services.  I couldn’t be late because the kids were singing before the service, and I was “volunteered” to direct them!

A light dusting of snow began to fall while we were in the service.  When we returned home, the white snow dusted the street and sidewalks and reflected off the dark night sky.   There was a unique calm and silence on our street.  In front of each house, reflecting against the snow, were our recycled milk jug Christmas lights.  They lit the path to our newly rebuilt home. 

The neighbor I most paused at leaving a light in front of had rearranged the milk jugs so there were three lights in front of her home.  Even they caught the Christmas spirit that evening.

My prayer now, as my kids are teens, is that they remember to share the light they have with others, especially in bad times. And they know no matter how bad things are, there will always be a path of lights leading them home for Christmas.

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