Shut up and drive

How often have you felt like you’re in an idling car in the midst of your own life?  Your motor is running, but you’re stuck in Park.  And your mind is in the driver’s seat, staring at an empty parking lot, having somehow forgotten how to shift the gear into Drive.

What’s keeping you?

Not long ago I felt that way.  I was in a funk, feeling empty but antsy, like I desperately needed to do something productive and purposeful, but everything that came to my mind was too daunting, too impossible to complete. And the never-ending demands of housework and children seemed to stand in the way of anything personally fulfilling I could do. I pulled out a couple of books filled with inspirational quotes and spiritual writing, hoping a passage would motivate me.

No such luck.

But the recesses of my mind were unknowingly at work, calling up the source I craved.  And out of nowhere, the thought:  I remember carefully choosing the readings at my wedding, and now I can’t even remember them. What were they?

With a sudden sense of urgency, I dug up my wedding DVD.  It’s been over ten years since our wedding, but I’ve never watched the video – ever.

I smiled at the first images of the clear blue sky and eager and expectant smiles, and I immediately felt the joy that was so rich on that day. I laughed when minor mishaps occurred – to include the reader not realizing he was supposed to read.  But then, there he was, reading the words that I needed to hear over ten years later:

“Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of the fleeting life that is granted to you under the sun. Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have. Again, I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor the riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of calamity comes to all alike.” – Ecclesiastes 9: 7, 9a, 10a, 11.

And here is where I realized what I’d been missing: my own get-up-and-do-it-ness.  And what had been keeping me from shifting my gear into Drive?  Perfection.  The need for immediate perfection.

Let me explain.

I watched my wedding video while reclining on my rather crumply made bed, wearing sweatpants and a flannel shirt. Several haphazard piles of my kids’ folded, outgrown clothes glared at me from my dresser.  We’re not going to put ourselves away, they sang wickedly. More dust than is acceptable lined the blades of the ceiling fan.  My three-year-old daughter danced around the bed, occasionally blocking my view to strike a pose as if I were taking her picture. When she flopped next to me on her back, sticking her feet under my nose and demanding, “Say pee-yew, Mama!  Stinky feet!”, I had to laugh at the utter reality of life, and at the comical juxtaposition of the chaotic scene in my bedroom and my wedding day.

Here I was, watching a day for which every detail had been carefully planned. Every minute had been finely choreographed.  Every word had been purposefully spoken.  And the day was glorious.  But it wasn’t perfect.  A cell phone rang during the service.  A baby screamed.  One of the unity candles was cracked nearly in half, teetering ominously next to the altar.  And through what we later learned was a complete miscommunication, the reader didn’t know he was supposed to read.  But the day was filled with joy and love and hope.

Sometimes we can’t shift our gear out of Park because we want to get to our destination without driving there.  We focus on the outcome – the finish line, the victory,the accomplishment, the reward, the praise – and we’re held back because we’re too afraid (or lazy) to make mistakes on our way there. We make excuses.  We resist the stumbles and the detours, the pauses and the restarts.  We want the perfect ending swiftly, skillfully, and sometimes we want it handed to us.

But what would we gain by that?  What would we learn?  And like the reader who forgot to read and my daughter’s stinky feet, what would make us laugh?

My time “under the sun,” like yours, is limited.  Time spent expecting perfection or making excuses is time wasted. No matter how perfect we try to make things, they will never be flawless.  There will always be a crack, an omission, an interruption.  So we can’t aim for perfection.  More specifically, we can’t aim for the fulfillment of perfection.  But we can aim for the fulfillment of doing.

In the doing, there is purpose.  In the doing, there is reward.  In the doing, there is the motivation, the inspiration, the drive that you are looking for.

And each one of us has the power to get up and do.  And we should get up and do. Ecclesiastes might have added that although the “race is not won by the swift,” it is certainly lost by the idle.  And if you consider the lines before it, you might see that, while the finish line is the same “calamity” for all of us, the winning is actually in the running, because it is there that you enjoy life “with a merry heart.”

Ecclesiastes’ words echoed in my heart for the rest of the day.  And that funk melted away. Even though sometimes we think of it in the reverse, that funk is often a state of mind, not a state of circumstances.  I wondered this to myself, and I ask anyone who is idling:

Continue reading


Women in Service

Yesterday, I had one of those moments. It was one of those moments that brought into sharp focus a reality that had stood before me everyday. But in this moment, the true significance was revealed.

I watched my good friend Jill promote to Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Reserves.  Presiding over the ceremony, aptly taking place at the Women in Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, were two other good friends: Rose, a Major in the USAF Reserves, and Ann, a retired Colonel also in the USAF Reserves.  Down the hall, in an electronic registry of thousands of women who have served in our nation’s military, was the photograph and biography of my grandmother, a WWII Army nurse.

The people, the place, and the importance of it all were, in a word, moving.  My three friends, smartly attired in their Service Dress, stood on stage and represented the Air Force and their country.  These three women stood in the company – albeit the spiritual company – of thousands of female service members who had gone before them.

As Rose led us through the formal motions of the ceremony and Ann and Jill each took their turns to speak, I watched Continue reading

“The House that Built Me”

“Won’t take nothin’ but a memory from the house that built me.” – Miranda Lambert

After you spend a number of years moving around, the  question “Where are you from?” becomes a bit comical to a military family, and it can be surprisingly difficult to answer.  The answer could be anywhere – the town where you were born, the home your parents moved to after you left, the assignment that you loved the most and that feels like home, the assignment you had before this one…

But recently I heard a song, Miranda Lambert’s “The House that Built Me,” which is about a woman retracing memories through her childhood home, and it got me thinking about where I come from… where I really come from: the place I came home to days after I was born, and the place I came home to every day for the next 21 years.  The place that’s in my mind’s eye when I think of home.

My childhood home was idyllic, a near-century-old home with creaky floors, single-sinked bathrooms, and a sprawling yard shaded by two 100-year-old oaks.  In the back, a long driveway that we called our alley was shared by ten houses.  Young kids trampled across backyards, rode bikes up and down the alley, and paid visits to the two elderly sisters living next door to us, who always had a stash of cookies.  Our mothers watched us through kitchen windows and called us in when it started to get dark.

Summers were dreamlike, with crickets chirping, children squealing, cicadas buzzing, breezes blowing, balls bouncing, bicycles whizzing, jump ropes slapping, chalk scraping, feet hopping, popsicles slurping, and cares… not existing.  The sounds of summer hung in that seemingly perpetual pinkish haze just before sunset, when the pure and blissful hearts of children gave exuberant life to a neighborhood that had existed for over a hundred years… and that would continue to exist for hundreds more.

It’s been fourteen years since my parents moved to a newer, shinier place, but when I sleep and dream of home, I’m back in that old house, walking through my bedroom or waving to my best friend across the yard.  And I wonder…

If I were to return, knock on the door as the woman in the song did, who would open the door?  What would I want to say to them, show them?  Would life exist for them as it did for us in that house?  Do they know, do they fully understand how special, how extraordinary  their  neighborhood is?

Do they know that my neighbors and my family experienced Continue reading

Standing on Her Shoulders

There’s a particular conversation that replays itself frequently between me and my husband.  No, it doesn’t involve taking out the trash, putting the cap back on the toothpaste, or making sure to turn off the light when you leave the room.  It’s actually about something a lot more interesting, something that never fails to leave us both with a sense of awe and appreciation:

The people we meet because of the military life are such a small fraction of society, and yet I feel like Continue reading

Veterans’ Day Tribute

(This piece was later published on Military Spouse’s web site.  Click here to read.)
On a recent visit to the World War II Memorial, my thoughts went quickly to a woman who, though curiously quiet, measured, and reserved, is among the many profoundly brave and courageous WWII veterans: my grandma. As I wandered through the memorial’s great stone structures, emblazoned with thousands of stars and immortalized proclamations, I recalled the day that a tightly knit group of women characterized her as not only an extraordinary veteran, but also as an exemplary military spouse.
I was sitting at my aunt’s dining room table with my sister and sister in law, my mom and her four sisters, and my ninety year old grandma and her own sister.  We were gathered for my grandma’s birthday, but my aunts also threw a wedding shower for me; I was going to marry an airman in five weeks and join a life they knew all too well.

My grandparents met in World War II.  My grandma, Rose, was an Army nurse and my grandpa, Jim, was a bombardier with the Army Air Corps.  They met in 1943 in England, where Grandma was with the 44th Evacuation Unit and Grandpa was with the 9th Air Force.  In his journal, Grandpa wrote extensively about his experiences, his colleagues, and the love of his life, whom he affectionately called “Rusty” after Grandma’s bright red hair.

My grandparents’ units weren’t always near each other, and in fact, sometimes they were in separate countries.  But Grandpa went to great lengths to arrange visits.  When Grandma learned that her unit would go to France after D-Day, she called Grandpa and indicated in vague terms that her unit was leaving.  Understanding what she couldn’t directly tell him, he and a friend took a jeep to where he knew her unit was preparing to leave.

Knowing he had to make it through several checkpoints, Grandpa confidently and urgently threw out official-sounding words and phrases to the MPs: “We’re the Advanced Element of the Forward Operating Group!”  They were speedily allowed through.

My grandma was surprised and happy to see him, and they made plans to meet after the war.

After returning to his own unit, Grandpa wasn’t satisfied.  Days passed, and he didn’t know where Grandma was.  He resolved to make a “wild trip alone” to find her.  As it turns out, Grandma’s unit had been delayed, and he located her in a tent where she and many others were watching a movie.  A loud whisper shot through the crowd: “Jim’s here!”  And this was followed by Grandma: “Oh boy!”

I like to imagine that she stood, walked quickly, bent over in front of the screen, her shadow projected onto Veronica Lake. Outside the tent, they said one last goodbye.  Maybe they shared a romantic embrace and a long conversation where Grandpa made Grandma laugh the way he was known to do. Maybe he bent down to her five-foot-nothing frame from his six-foot-one tower and kissed the top of her fiery hair.  What I know for sure is that Grandpa was determined to see her again as soon as possible, and a month and a half later he got approval to personally inspect rockets and gyro gunsights in France.  He was able to see Grandma, and they discussed getting married.  Within another couple of months, they were engaged and later married in the Chapel of the Seven Sorrows in Notre Dame Cathedral.

Before I got engaged to my husband, I visited Grandma for an afternoon to ask her one important question: “How did you do it?”  After all, she’d experienced twenty years of moves, deployments, anxiety, danger, and uncertainty.

And Grandma being Grandma, an uncomplicated, realistic, calm woman, told me simply, “Well, I was busy with the kids.  And, Grandpa was always just so funny – when he was home, it was such a relief.”

That was it.  I focused on my responsibility and I enjoyed every moment my husband was home. Plain and simple.

Back at my aunt’s house, after I’d finished opening presents, eating cake, and sharing wedding stories, I asked my aunts: “So, as kids growing up in the military, how did you keep it together?”

In an instant, and without a word, all five fingers pointed to their mom.

And, characteristically, Grandma dismissed that she did anything remarkable.  But her daughters insisted, “She was our rock.  She kept it together.”

Reflecting on her life, it’s easy to see how Grandma developed the resilience and fortitude that gave her children necessary strength and security.  Grandma grew up on a farm in central Iowa and was the only one who left.  It was, perhaps, her first uncommon choice, but it was certainly followed by many others along with immense challenges.

In 1934, she moved to Ottowa, IL, to become a nurse, and she trained with a group of friends in Chicago.  When the war broke out, she and a friend bravely decided to join the Army.  She went to war.  She was behind enemy lines in the Battle of the Bulge.  She escaped the Germans in the still of the night, in a truck that went 5 mph to avoid making noise by shifting gears.  The quiet, patience, and focused determination that must have been required that night are overwhelming to imagine. She witnessed gruesome events and the grisly aftermath of concentration camps.  And in the decades that followed, she kept the minds of seven babes at ease, comfortable, safe, trusting, and assured.  She was married happily to my grandpa for 55 years before he died.

Grandma passed away at ninety years old, just ten days before I got married.  She was laid to rest next to Grandpa, who had passed away seven years earlier.  At her burial, my aunts, my mom, my cousins, and my sister and I sang “Dona Nobis Pacem,” Latin for “grant us peace.”  My mom and her sisters sang it frequently growing up, a tradition they imparted to their own daughters.

When I stop and think about it, I conclude that there couldn’t be a better hymn for my own life, and really it’s a hymn for all military spouses.  Live peacefully.  Do not complicate or overanalyze.   We military spouses make uncommon choices and face unique challenges in our unpredictable lives, but like Grandma, we have the capability to weather this life with resolve and steady measure.  When we do, we make a difference to others.  Grandma sure did.  We can, too.

Happy Veterans’ Day to my Grandma, my Grandpa, those who have served and those who continue to serve.  Thank you for being brave enough to do what most are not.



The ear that listens

Years ago, I started a blog on a whim.  I made one post and never returned to it.  I just found it, and thought it made sense to include it here.  If the woman described in this story is still alive, she would be 91, and her husband 93.  I remember this conversation clearly, and I recall how impressed I was listening to her.  At the time, I was married with no children, working at a literacy organization and loving it.  My daily walks with my dog (who’s unfortunately no longer with us) were a treasure, and on this particular day, when I veered from our usual path, I came upon another treasure: someone with a story to tell.


August 17, 2009

On my evening stroll with the dog, I decided to turn down a road I’d never taken before.  Halfway down the block, an unfamiliar voice called out to me, Continue reading