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Mary Biever | One Writing Mother |

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! 

The Un Christmas Letter

Today’s blog is a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Letters Past in my Family Parenting Adventures….

1998 - I took my kids alone to Disney on Ice in a strange city.  I bought my son, age 2, a harness. He was a running escape artist of locks and carseats.  When we went to the bathroom at intermission, I hooked his harness to the bathroom stall’s coat hook while I went to the bathroom. He unlocked the bathroom door, grabbed his sister, body slammed the door, and tried to escape. The harness hook caught him, while the bathroom line of women stared, wondering what I was doing with my children. An hour later, he broke the harness.

2000 - My neighbors laid a new concrete driveway. All the neighborhood kids played in my yard, and I took them all to watch the cement mixer, admonishing them not to walk in the wet concrete. All the kids behaved until it was time to leave. My son tried to run through the concrete for a shortcut and got 3 steps in before realizing he was ankle deep in concrete. A cement worker picked him up, hosed off his shoes, and redid the driveway.

2001 - My son, age 5, played an actor playing Batman by tying a jump rope to our slide to do the Bat Climb. The rope got loose, he fell, and he broke his arm.

2002 - My daughter, age 8, walked into Borders, angry because I told her I didn’t have enough money to buy her a new book. So she went to the children’s area clerk and loudly said, “My parents don’t allow me to have books and won’t buy me any.”

2004 - My kids sat with a Congressman at a fundraiser while I worked the kitchen. My son, age 8, won a lemonade chugging contest with a friend while he sat there – he drank 20 glasses, while his friend only drank 18. That year, at a banquet, kids shared what they were thankful for. Other kids were thankful for animals, flowers, and family. My son? “Thankful for my guns.”

2006 - My son, age 10 handcuffed himself and a friend to a sculpture at a college art exhibit and sat to see how long it would take me to notice. (half an hour)

My Christmas letters are the story of our family – not just the accomplishments, but the full picture. They remind me why my hair might have turned grey if I didn’t color it.

And why I have laugh lines – I wouldn’t trade a single moment.

Peace on earth and in the checkout lane

“America is going to rot!” the man in front of me ranted at the bread store. “Our government has no money. What will happen when they break down and everyone owes money?”

“Look at all these people shopping with money they don’t have? Why don’t they quit?”

He said all this to the checkout clerk.

Every store owner’s dream is to have a customer yelling in the front of the store to quit spending money. Not. But the clerk handled him perfectly.  She acknowledged his concern and told him she wished they could talk more, but she needed to check out customers.  I felt more comfortable when he finally left the building.

“Peace on earth,” I told her. What a fantastic sales clerk.  Her eyes met mine, and she knew I got it too.

“Good will to men,” she answered.

“Are you sexist? Why didn’t you say good will to men AND women!” the woman in line behind me interjected.

The clerk continued working and answered her, “I mean good will to every man, woman, and child God put on the earth.”

What an answer. Once again, she perfectly handled an angry customer.

The clerk reminded me how important it is for us to share good will. And to remember the store clerks, often working for low wages, who deal a whole range of people and emotions every single hour they work on their feet. Some are so so. Others, like this lady, are exceptional.

They all deserve a dose of Christmas spirit during the busiest time of the year. Please, please make an extra effort to thank them and treat them well.

Your smile could be the only one they see for an entire hour or a whole day.

Share a moment of peace in the checkout lane.

Snow Day Express

We didn’t have a snow day in southern Illinois in January, 1978, when I was in the 7th grade; we had a snow month. After a 16 inch storm one week and a blizzard the next – leaving 8 foot snow drifts – the town’s lone radio station announced, “All schools in the area are canceled until further notice.”

How times of snow day notices have changed. Now we have multiple channel alerts:

  • TV and radio stations on air and web
  • Websites
  • Oncall systems to telephone and/or text families
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

When schools debate the To Close or Not to Close question, families, teachers, school corp employees, and students all discuss it online, before the world. Smart schools provide an official voice to the social media conversation. They develop social media policies that encourage conversation in a constructive manner.

Slipping into Old Geezer mode to compare the present to the Blizzard of ’78.

I was a pedestrian newspaper carrier during that winter. I walked to the newspaper office downtown and then delivered papers to every store and home on either side of Main Street. Every Monday through Saturday of that winter, I delivered the paper, even the day the wind chill hit 10 below.

Snow drifts 2-3 foot high divided the middle of Main Street. As I went from customer to customer delivering papers, I warmed up in 1 store to then venture to the next.

That newspaper, with the radio station, were our town’s lifeline. Weather radios did not exist for consumers. Our pre-cable TV news was from Evansville, Indiana.

Now, when the threat of severe weather hits, we watch the forecasts on the news and listen to them on the radio. We rely more on news online than in print. Facebook lets me see how the storm impacts my friends. Twitter gives me a view of the storm’s impact on our area and what will happen next.

If or when a comparable blizzard hits, technology will make it easier to survive.  Smart schools will leverage tech to communicate better.

Maybe, if or when a future blizzard happens, my grandchildren won’t miss a month of school and trudge a paper route. Schools will keep classes going online, sharing information instantly with students in ways not yet invented.

Steps to Prepare for & Survive an Ice Storm

Two years ago, we survived an ice storm, spending 2 days in our home without power, with a tree limb crashed through my daughter’s ceiling. Our power was restored 2 days later. When an ice storm was forecast for later this week, I went through what I had learned and what would help us prepare if God forbid we had to manage that again:

Before the storm:

  • Fuel: Fill your car tanks, your propane tanks, and your kerosene heaters. Make sure you have batteries for your weather radio.
  • Charge: Charge all phones and laptops.
  • Gather: Get candles and flashlights together in a convenient location, along with backup batteries.
  • Clean: Wash all dishes, finish all laundry, and clear clutter from living areas.
  • Stock: have ready to eat food items plus staples. Shelf stable is good. So is variety. You will want bread and milk.
  • Review: safety procedures for any indoor heat or cooking sources. Carbon monoxide kills. Print safety guidelines if needed.

If you lose power:

When we lost power, tree limbs covered our yard, our roof, and our street. There was no way to drive in or out of our street the first day. Plus a tree limb went through our roof, our attic, and our daughter’s bedroom.  Here are steps we took to survive:

  • Simplify: We rearranged our living room as our living quarters with sleeping space for all. Our goal was to conserve heat in one room.
  • Insulate: We gathered every blanket, throw, comforter, sleeping bag, and large towel from our entire house. We covered every window with towels, closed all doors in the house and the basement, closed all blinds, and covered both doorways to the living room with makeshift blankets.
  • Heat: We do not have a fireplace or wood-burning stove. However, we did have a kerosene heater in our disaster plan. We placed it in the kitchen, next to the living room, and used it for brief periods of time in the daytime when all were awake. We ventilated the kitchen to ensure against carbon monoxide. When the kerosene heater was running, I kept a pan of water on it to humidify the air – moister air feels warmer.  We followed the same procedure with a mini propane stove, only keeping it on long enough to heat and eat food.
  • Refrigerate: We opened the refrigerator door once and put food we would need into a cooler which we kept outside the kitchen door.  We did not open freezer doors, managing on canned convenience foods and sandwiches.
  • Illuminate: candles can provide some heat, but do not leave them on overnight. Though the bathroom doors were closed, we kept a flashlight in there.
  • Entertain: once we had done what we could to survive, we read books aloud. In late evenings in the dark, we watched DVD movies on laptops on battery. I knit a scarf during that ice storm.
  • Communicate: if you can, talk with the outside world. We were grateful we still had a landline phone so we could conserve our cell phone batteries.
  • Evacuate: if you have a way out and your home is a risk, leave. When our house fell below 40 degrees, we left until power was restored.

My memories of our survival hang with me such that warnings of an ice storm give me chills. But we got over the chills and begin the business of caring for ourselves and those we love.

4 Steps to Listening Your Way to Teaching & Social Media Success

“Don’t teach. Facilitate,” I explained to skeptical instructors in a train the trainer program 15 years ago. The points of our program were:

  1. Look at your audience. They are unique. Know who they are and reach them there.
  2. Ask your audience questions. Assume nothing – start with basics. If they can answer the basics, they will gain confidence to master the tougher stuff.
  3. Answer your audience’s questions. Keep control of the conversation, but make a list of questions to get back to, if needed afterwards.
  4. Engage your audience. Find novel ways for them to participate. The more they participate, the more likely they are to incorporate it into their lives. See what works and what doesn’t, tweak it, and try again.

Look + Ask + Answer + Engage = Listen.

At first, I didn’t believe facilitation worked. I lacked the time to “Facilitate” when I was supposed to “Teach.” Teaching meant going through my list of exactly what was to be learned, opening the heads of my students, and dumping it there.

A brain dump ends up with a toxic brainfill with so much stuff nothing is absorbed, and the good stuff runs off first time it rains.  If an adult was subjected to a bad teacher who pushed, pushed, pushed, odds are students tuned out the teacher. So when instructors of adults push too hard, adult students respond by tuning them out.

Tune out = nothing accomplished. Listen so they tune in = students find new ways to apply what they learn and keep using it.

Facilitation can work. In order to work, the “facilitator” has to pan for gold – sift the rocks in the lecture and keep the best nuggets.  Listen to the audience but make sure the nuggets and important information is covered.

In the social media age, I see the same transition happening in marketing and advertising. Generations of salespeople were taught to PUSH their message, PUSH their product, and PUSH to get sales.

Problem is PUSH is now as attractive and current as that avocado green toilet was when we bought our house.

After a lifetime of PUSH, consumers now tune out the moment the PUSH pitch begins.

Marketers wishing to survive in the 21st century had better learn to PULL, to listen, and to facilitate to survive. Follow those same steps we gave teachers:

Look, Ask, Answer, and Engage.

5 Ways to Meet the Excel 5 Second Rule

File ManagementOoops! A spreadsheet was left in the office copier! Whose is it? If a page falls out of a 100 page spreadsheet report, can we tell where to refile it?

5 Second Excel Rule: a total stranger can see your spreadsheet and know where it goes within 5 seconds.  With a printed spreadsheet in hand, you should be able to open the computer file in 5 seconds.  In 5 seconds of opening the computer file, you should know the latest status of that project.

  1. Title. Make sure you title tells the who, when, and what of the spreadsheet’s purpose. If the title only appears front center of page 1, then have it mentioned in the header of subsequent pages.
  2. Readability. Print columns and row headers on multiple page reports.
  3. File Name. Include the file name in your headers or footers.  List a file path or a department name if needed.
  4. Date and Time. Include the date and time in your footer to print the date and time when a page is printed. Sometimes I print 5 final copies in 10 minutes and tweak each. This helps me quickly find the final, final version for distribution. It’s easier than distributing the wrong final version and having to fix mistakes after the fact.
  5. A1 Comment. On complex collaboration projects, insert a comment in cell A1, a virtual sticky note of the spreadsheet’s status. If a copy is sent to a client,  note the date, time, and delivery method. When a revised version is distributed, I edit the comment to include that. Some spreadsheet projects take weeks or months to complete. By using the A1 Comment to keep updates, we can quickly see project status, finding it on the computer before we could retrieve a hard copy file folder and find a printed spreadsheet with a real stickly note on it.

Anyone can make a convoluted spreadsheet. It takes a savvy number cruncher to build one that is easy to read. These steps will help that and also make sure your spreadsheet is only 5 seconds away.

Winter Carnival – Evansville’s Best Family Fun for Christmas

Santa's Workshop

Remember when Ralphie looks at the department store displays in A Christmas Story? Evansville families can see comparable displays at the Vanderburgh 4-H Center Winter Carnival. Freewill donations are accepted for this first class family outing. What makes the Winter Carnival special?

Outdoor Light Display. Santa’s Workshop (in the SIAM building in the center of the lights display). The Southern Indiana Antique Machinery Club has restored Main Street’s department store Christmas displays and exhibits them from 6-9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sundays.  Santa will be sitting in the workshop if you would like to visit him or have your picture taken with him.

Christmas Tree Contest. Nineteen area 4-H and extension homemaker clubs decorated trees inside Santa’s Workshop. A donation bucket sits under each tree so visitors can vote for their favorites. Tree themes reflect their decorators. Themes include sunflowers, pink feathers, a frog theme made with recycled soda cans, and contest ribbons. Some donate decorations to charity after the carnival – one has school supplies, and another hats and gloves. Shameless hint: my kids helped with the Tech, Energetics, and Livestock club treese. The Tech treeme is decorated with household items donated by club members which will be donated as a housewarming present to a Habitat for Humanity family after Christmas. The Energetics tree is decorated with Christmas candies the members strung into garland and fashioned into ornaments. The Livestock tree is decorated with animal ornaments which club members made out of recycled soda cans and hollowed out eggs.

Support the 4-H Center. The Vanderburgh 4-H Center is the ONLY Indiana fairgrounds which is a private not-for-profit.  They do not receive government funding to stay open. They survive solely on facility rentals and donations. Your donations at the Winter Carnival help them continue to provide facilities to local 4-H clubs, maintain their playground and basketball goals, and provide a wonderful place for local families to walk and picnic. 

Volunteers from SIAM, the 4-H Center, and over 20 local 4-H and extension homemakers clubs come together to decorate for the Winter Carnival. They provide an affordable Christmas outing for families and hope the donations received help us preserve this local treasure.

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 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.)

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