Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Goodbye 2019, Hello 2020!

        A new year, a new decade, the roaring twenties updated. I usually ponder the year just spent before moving ahead, it helps me put life in perspective.  

     2019 was a year of good things, sad times, and everything in between. I can see areas of growth in places I’ve struggled in the past. My desire for perfection has slowly been replaced with good enough, and the need to please people has lessened. Those are great strides for me, having lived most of my life in bondage to the whims and fancies of peoples’ expectations. That’s a lot of baggage to unload, and I don’t miss it one iota.

     2019 was a year of family togetherness, celebrations, Sunday lunches, Tuesday dinners, a wonderful vacation, and bonding with the granddogs. My family lost someone dear this year in the death of my cousin, Ruth. Her death left us shocked and saddened. There will always be a hole she filled with her love and kindness. The bonds of family are important to me, and I treasure time spent with those I love.

     I was blessed to lead a Bible study in the spring and fall, work in a ministry feeding the homeless and shut-ins, serve as secretary for the Foothills Writer’s Guild, and serve alongside women who have hearts for missions. I enjoyed playing hand bells and singing in my church choir. I don’t say all this to brag, but to say I’m thankful to be well emotionally and physically to do all the things I feel called to do. There was a time when I went through the motions of a happy life, but didn’t feel it. My smile was a mask that covered the turmoil within. 

     This was the year I became a published author with a collection of poetry, Breathings of My Heart. Exposure to great writers and the opportunity to take two poetry classes through Anderson University helped produce enough work to compile a collection. My healing continued as words from my heart found their way to the page. In all these things I give thanks to the One who has my life in the palm of His hand.

     As I look back on this year filled with many good things I realized it’s the simple things that mean the most. I’m thankful for special moments around the table with family and friends. Life isn’t always easy, but living is sweeter when shared with someone else. I treasure coffee dates, deep conversation, fellowship with my Bible study sisters, laughter about getting older, walking under a Carolina blue sky, front porch pondering, and the sight of cows and their calves. My passion for reading and learning was cranked up a notch in 2019. I’m thankful for new friends, and cherished friends of many years. I marvel at the beauty that surrounds me living the country life. The simplicity of a cup of tea as the sun rises reminds me of God’s mercies, new every morning. 

     A new decade is here, with new possibilities for serving and loving those around me. I pray blessings on you, my reader. I pray you know God this year in a deep and profound way that leaves you speechless at His goodness. Happy 2020!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

What Does Your Home Say?

     One of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1994 version of Miracle on 34thStreet. The movie centers on the Santa Claus, hired by Cole’s, the fictional department store that sponsors the yearly parade in New York City on Thanksgiving Day, and a little girl who must be convinced that Santa Claus is real. Near the end of the movie the main characters arrive at a charming house in the country. Susan Walker, the six-year-old daughter of Coles’ director of special events, runs inside to find a perfectly decorated home, complete with a tree covered in beautiful ornaments and tinsel, and Christmas presents stacked eye level. Her mother tells her this is their new home, as her eyes sparkle with delight. The house exudes warmth and the façade of a perfect life.
     My all-time favorite movie and its house is quite the opposite. Beaches was showing in theatres in January, 1989. We were in Charleston, South Carolina waiting for our daughter, who was arriving on a plane from Guatemala, making our family complete. Due to a delay, we had several hours before her appearance. The title of this movie beckoned us inside, unaware of the emotional wave about to hit. While the movie has a poignant ending, the friendship between the two main characters is sacrificial and faithful. The two friends retreat to a beach house as one of them prepares to die. This house is my vision of the perfect beach setting. The one-story cottage, with wraparound porches, draws me into the story, leaving me with the desire to sit, and breathe in life, even as death is lurking. Simple furnishings convey a laid back, homey feel.
     My choice in home atmosphere will always be simple living, rather than magazine worthy perfection. Natural hardwood floors that forgive footprints cast a golden glow. Long, bare windows invite sunshine to brighten the interior on cold, winter days. Spring breezes wafting through open windows are more appealing to me than heavily draped windows. 

     My desire is that guests are greeted by the luscious scent of freshly baked scones, and flowers that remind you of your grandma’s garden. A warm greeting will be remembered more than the first impression of a perfect room.

     The table decorations may be lovely, but is there lively conversation where you feel known and loved? Listening has more value than fussing with details in the kitchen, though details prepared beforehand speak volumes.

     What is the temperature of your home, and I don’t mean the degree you set your thermostat? Is it calm and peaceful, or loud and stressful? Our home has been all these conditions at one time or another, but I strive for calm and peaceful.

     If your children are still living in the home, are they comfortable inviting friends over? Is your home the “go to place,” or is it too much work hosting young people? 

     I can tell you from experience, my children won’t remember how the house looked, but they remember how our home made them feel. In a culture where children are often stressed over cultural issues, and the need to fit in, home should be a sanctuary from a troubled world.

     Are you present with your family members? Huddled together in the same room, each one’s attention buried in some form of technology is not being present. Conversation that involves listening and sharing communicates your presence, your availability. 

     We need to extend grace to one another, and remove the superficial tone of the perfect house, or life. The Biblical story of Mary and Martha sitting at Jesus’ feet is as current today as it was 2,000 years ago. Martha complained that Mary was lazy, and she was left to do all the work. Each of us can claim being Martha's or Mary's in a busy world.

     Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better thing.”

     I want to choose the better thing as well. In a world of busyness, and the lust for perfection, I want to choose simplicity that breeds joy and freedom. I want my home to say, “Welcome, I’m happy you’re here.”

     The two houses mentioned in the beginning are very different from one another in both style and temperature. The Miracle on 34thStreet house was a catalog home, decorated to sell Christmas. Life was make-believe until the new owners moved in. The Beaches house was filled with love, friendship, joy, pain, and grief. 

     Isn’t that what makes a house a home? The normal rhythms of life ebb and flow; seasons of pain and sorrow are followed by exuberant joy. As life happens, the good, and not so good, be sensitive to the atmosphere you allow. Pay attention to the subtle hints of your family and adjust the temperature to one of comfort and joy. It will cost you little in dollars, but the result is priceless.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Nostalgia Takes Me Home

     This was written for my series on Home. I submitted it to a writing contest, so the format is a little different. I hope this takes you to the place in your mind where home resides.
At the mention of the word “home” mental pictures come into focus without prompting. Each of us has roots that inform the way we view the world, and in particular, the little corner of the world we inhabit.
     When I’m feeling nostalgic, the word home transports me back in time to a little town in West Virginia. My roots were firmly planted in The Mountain State. The little grocery store at the end of the street was my destination on hot, summer days. Slipping in the back door, bare feet inching along on the cool, concrete floor, I’d make my way to the ice cream cooler. Orange push-ups were my favorite, as I searched through the familiar treats awaiting my taste buds.
     The pictures running through my mind reveal a little girl, hair flying in the wind, as she pedals her bicycle up and down the street she called home. I don’t remember being afraid of much back then, life was ideal. 
     I remember a lush, green hillside with a copper headstone, the name etched in raised letters telling of beginnings and endings. For many years there was a single name, and then my dad’s name joined hers. Nostalgia and longing for what once was beckons me to this quiet hillside. These people were my home of origin.
     My picture wouldn’t be complete without the memory of going to a little house on Second Street in West Madison. The most wonderful woman and her husband live there, and loved me well. Her hugs enveloped me, her hospitality taught me how to extend grace. I learned the meaning of unconditional love through experience, not preaching.
     That girl grew up, married, and left home, ventured to another small town in West Virginia where she established her own home. Young and ready for a new life, that little town became her home for the next six years. This was the place where sheep, goats, and horses meandered down to the little log cabin we lived in. The tiny kitchen, perfect for two, is where I honed my skill of baking pies, making the dough from scratch. This was also the place where the nursery sat empty, except for the cat that delivered her kittens in the closet…six times.
     The next move took us away from our beloved West Virginia to a state that is as beautiful, yet different, in a thousand ways. Our feet were planted in the sandy soil on the coast of South Carolina for several years. The sound of children’s laughter was a gift through adoption, and home took on new meaning. The simplicity and complexity of being a mom nurtured my heart in a way as never before. My desire to make home a place of comfort and security was overwhelming, yet I embraced my role and treasured the years of child rearing and homemaking.
     The in-between years of launching children from the nest were rocky. I didn’t know how to make a home without them coming through the door at the end of the day. Eventually, I adjusted, but not without pain and soul searching. It took many years to settle my anxious heart. 
     As I’ve grown older, home has become the place I stretch my weary self at the end of the day. It’s the place my hands dig in moist soil, planting flowers that make my heart smile. It’s the place where my favorite seat in the house is a rocking chair on the porch overlooking a sloping front yard. The view of the sun setting paints a picture in my mind of perfection. My kitchen is the place I prepare meals, roll out dough for piecrusts, and brew steaming pots of tea. The kitchen is the heart of our home where we gather for conversation, the breaking of bread, and the studying of the Word.
     Life is in constant transition, rife with stress, and the daily calling each of us must answer. Having a place to sink into the love and warmth of family gives strength for each new day.
     The address of our home has changed through the years, yet the timeless feeling of love, security, and homey comfort lives on. The people you surround yourself with have the power to evoke strong emotional connections that draw you into a cocoon of being home.
     At the heart of this fifty-something woman is where that little girl still resides, the little one reaching into the freezer for ice cream, content with simple pleasures. May she always reach for the simple gifts of family, faith, and home, knowing everything is a gift from God.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

When We We Were Ten, An Heirloom

This is an essay I wrote for a writing contest through the Foothills Writer's Guild. I'm posting it today in honor of my mom on Mother's Day. I hope she knows how much she's been missed through the years. I carry her memory with me through words and photos.

When We Were Ten, An Heirloom
By Cindy O'Brien
     Family pictures are the connection between generations. They tell a story without words, a story of love and loss, pain and sorrow, and remind us of the significance of certain events. No two stories are the same because every family has its own unique way of living. However, every family has its share of tragedy and triumph. The pictures we pass down from one generation to the next tell our story.
     While sitting at my writing desk, my eyes wander to the pictures on the shelf above me. Various family photos stare back at me, faces of those long gone haunt me. I want to know their stories; the ones lived in private. What were the dreams that went unfulfilled, the family secrets never shared? What did a typical Monday morning feel like, and what were the sorrows that kept them awake through the night? Time and life circumstances intervened and questions went unanswered.
Cindy - 10 Yrs. Old - 4th Grade
     Two little girls, ten or eleven years old, sit in separate frames on my shelf. I recognize the girl on the right. I remember the day the picture was made when I was in the fourth grade. Were my bangs long enough to put behind my ear, or would the photo capture the tooth I broke while twirling around the seesaw bar? 
     The girl on the left is a mystery, though I know her name, and shared a home with her. She taught me how to sew, and how to care for a home and family. She taught me about faith and perseverance, and yet so much was unspoken.
     If I could reach into the photo of my ten-year-old self, I’d take her face in my hands, and make her look into my eyes. I’d tell her to be curious, speak up, and ask the hard questions. She was such a timid little girl. Most of the time, the book in her hands diverted any attention to those around her, except maybe her beloved cat, Boots. The world she lived in was quiet and structured. I want to tell her not to be so critical of herself. Her fifty-something future self is still dragging that burden. I’d tell her to enjoy reading, but lay the book aside and find something to laugh about.
Juanita - 10 or 11 Yrs Old
     The picture sitting next to my ten-year-old self is more precious to me than diamonds or gold. My mother, hair in pigtails, freckle faced, and almost smiling, rests a few inches from my own freckled face. The resemblance catches my breath every time I look at her. What did that little girl do for fun? Did she have girlfriends? Did she like to read like me? Her childhood was saddled with The Great Depression and World War II. Did those events affect her everyday life? Did she enjoy the simplicity of the early fifties as a teenager? What were her dreams as she stood on the edge of freedom? Photos reveal a young woman at the cusp of everything good and hopeful. That woman beckons me to know her. But, as sand through an hourglass, that time is gone forever. 
     Her life was cut short by cancer at thirty-eight years of age. The memory of the two of us, heads together, comparing our ten-year-old selves would never find a place in my history. We passed in and out of each other’s lives for a few short years. I carry her DNA, her voice, hands and feet, and yet she is unknown to me. 
     The ache of missing her has lessened with the passing of time and years of counseling. There will always be a mother-sized hole in my heart that no one else can fill, though I’ve tried. I’m left with a photo, an heirloom, a reminder of little girls who grew out of their freckles, and for a fleeting moment, shared a love that will never die.

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who've poured themselves into my life. You know who you are and I love you! It takes a Godly village to raise a child, and my God has been faithful to place wonderful women who have loved and mentored me.

As a side note, this piece won 1st Place in a non-fiction category in the Spring 2018 Foothills Writer's Guild contest.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Home for the New Year

A new year always means a fresh start for me. I love cracking open a new planner; each month a possibility for new experiences, coffee dates, small group nights, celebrations, ministry opportunities, and even medical appointments. My planners are a record of my history in the making. I often return to past years and am reminded of special events I’ve been blessed to experience. It helps keep me humble and thankful for the life God has granted.

For the last several years I’ve chosen a word or theme to focus upon. Last year was all about simplifying, and I plan to continue the process. As I’ve pondered the new year, I keep coming back to “Home.” I tried to dodge this one because it seemed too obvious, but the word won’t leave my thoughts. I decided to stop fighting, and see where it leads.

My thoughts of home run deep. As I pondered what to write, it occurred to me that I needed to trace my feelings about home, and logically, the place to return was my foundation. As children, we form many impressions and habits that continue throughout our lives.

My home of origin was with my parents and younger brother. I have warm, sentimental feelings about a little house on First Street in my hometown of Madison. It’s the place I felt safest in my growing up years. After leaving the security of this little nest, life took many dark detours. The structure wasn’t as important as the simple, loving, and protected sense of being “home.” My life as an adult has centered on capturing that sense of love and security. 

As a child of the sixties and seventies, my life was simple, and predictable. Our world revolved around the church and school events. Summers were for long days of playing outside, cookouts with neighbors, church camp, housework, and lots of reading. During the school year, life involved sports, cheerleading, church activities, and lots of reading. I don’t remember having much homework in the elementary years. 

Home was about family. It was that one place where I was known and accepted; the bedroom I cleaned every Saturday morning, and the rhythm of meals with our family of four every evening. It was the every-other-Thursday nights of eating at Canturbury’s Restaurant; ordering the same thing for years…cubed steak, homemade french fries, and applesauce. It included the regular visits we made to Ma Bailey’s, and Papa and Aunt Phyllis’ house at least once a month, after church on Sunday. They each lived an hour away in Logan County. My introverted self thrived in this small world. 

There was a period of several years when home, as I knew it, disappeared. Losing the structure and security of my parents left me struggling emotionally and physically, and left an imprint on my heart. Because of my early struggles, home came to mean something much deeper as the years passed. 

When I became a parent at twenty-seven years of age, I wanted to create a stable home for my family. I understood too well the affects of not providing love and security to my children. It wasn’t always easy, and many sacrifices were made, but I’m thankful for the years of our home life. We made many memories I’ll forever cherish.

I’m thankful for parents who lived out their faith in front of me, giving me a foundation to secure my life in Christ. Without that beginning, I wouldn’t have known what to reach for. Never underestimate the value of giving your children stability with heavy doses of unconditional love. When the storms of life come, and they do for everyone, they will have something to cling to; a home base to return to when life becomes too hard. 

I’m not sure where this will go for the remainder of 2019, but I want to begin a conversation. As Dr. Dobson said in his long-running radio program, “Turn your heart toward home.” I look forward to the journey.