Monday, February 28, 2011

Better Questions

Asking the right question is important. At church yesterday a friend and I felt awkward approaching unfamiliar folks and asking, “Are you new here?” When we’ve been asked that question by well-meaning greeters, we’ve been a little hurt to not be recognized as long-term members, so we didn’t want to unwittingly distress others in this way. But she and I were part of the greeting team yesterday, so we needed to figure something out. We decided instead to approach people and say, “I don’t think we’ve met.” That seemed more like a win-win question.

Watching Academy Awards acceptances last night, I did not hear a single speech that answered the question I was asking. Not that Colin Firth or Natalie Portman sits by the phone Saturday awaiting my call to say what’s on my mind before composing a Sunday acceptance speech. But what I really want to know is what the winner did to so convincingly get into the role that he or she became a character who could memorably touch the inner parts of our hearts. I will say the winners’ gracious appreciation for others who have helped them answers part of my question. Their process involved other people. But I’d love to know more about preparation for a role. 

Sometimes I get irritated hearing the questions asked by TV news reporters. My pet peeve is, “How are you feeling?” when asked of someone whose house has just blown away in a tornado or whose child has just been murdered or who has just experienced another horrible, shocking loss. Why doesn’t the reporter just shove the microphone all the way up the person’s nose and kick him in the stomach? Duh-uh, the interviewee is feeling what every human would feel in similar circumstances; this is NOT news. It would be one thing if the reporter’s reason for asking the person’s feelings were to console him or to set up a website where compassionate viewers could express their sympathies. And I’m sure most reporters do feel compassion for their interviewees in these situations. But asking how I’m feeling in the midst of tragedy is more than a wasted question; it’s one that benefits no one and creates drama and a gapers-block mentality. Maybe I don’t want the world gaping at my pain in this moment. Maybe the reporter could ask a question that might instead protect interviewees and help viewers. How about, “What sounds did you hear right before the [incident]?” or “What would help you most right now?” or “How did it happen?”

I’ll end with one of my favorite questions. Although “How are you?” from a good friend is always welcome, I love hearing and asking the question, “What is God doing in your life?” Whether I am (or the friend is) wrestling with people or sin or doubt or life, whether we’re singing a happy tune—no matter what, I know the ensuing conversation will be fruitful, relationship-building, prayer-inspiring, and potentially life-changing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thomas Jefferson: Public Servant

During a July 2010 tour of Monticello, a guide told us Thomas Jefferson was such an introvert, one year he mailed in his state of the union address so that he wouldn’t have to make the speech. Surprising, considering the length of Jefferson’s public service (1770-1809) and constant stream of uninvited visitors to his home.  Another tour guide also told us that Jefferson’s guests had to wait in Monticello’s foyer until he had finished his daily readings and correspondence. Perhaps this was simply his discipline, but it may also have reflected his introverted nature.

Ninety miles south of Monticello, his main residence, Jefferson built a personal retreat home and ran a working plantation on inherited land called Poplar Forest. Only John Adams and a small number of friends even knew about Poplar Forest; even fewer were ever invited there, though family was always welcome. In those days, 90 miles was a two-and-a-half- to three-day journey. As one of his granddaughters noted, Jefferson found at Poplar Forest time to “carry on his favorite pursuits—to think, to study, to read.”

In Poplar Forest and Thomas Jefferson, S. Allen Chambers, Jr. underscores this with several direct quotations. Chambers says, “Throughout these (1774-1778) and later years of public service, Jefferson regularly expressed the wish to be at home, among his family and friends. Less than a month after he became governor of Virginia, on June 1, 1779, he wrote, ‘The hour of private retirement to which I am drawn by my nature with a propensity almost irresistible, will be the most welcome of my life.’”

I have long admired Thomas Jefferson for his personal and professional accomplishments; his appreciation of French culture; his passion for bringing life to and from land; his moral compass; his contribution as a Founding Father. Just the more notable tumultuous events of the time—the Revolutionary War, federalist-antifederalist (predecessors to modern-day Democratic-Republican) arguments, attacks on American trade ships by France and Britain, America’s war against pirates of the Barbary States, Aaron Burr’s treason, abolition of the slave trade—would challenge any politician. Given Jefferson’s contemplative nature, I have a new appreciation for his public service.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cache and Carry

Uploaded the entire contents of my camera's memory card to my computer tonight, then cleared the card for new photos. Scrolling through all 1,300 pictures carried me back several years. In some cases, seeing certain images again reminded me of a glorious spring day with purple pansies and orange and yellow poppies at the Chicago Botanic Garden or a hot summer afternoon in the park with a granddaughter who couldn't be persuaded to stop sliding down the slide, even for the promise of a "possica" (Popsicle) if she'd come home. All seasons of the past few years were represented in my photos. And that granddaughter showed up older in subsequent photos. Tonight I revisited my parents' last few birthday parties, the last two Mothers' Days, Christmases, Thanksgivings, and twice-a-year visits to my beloved South Haven ~ all with their own happy memories.

A few photos saddened me. L
ike one of my dog Charlie surrounded by colorful autumn leaves two Octobers ago, because we were about a half mile from home when I shot that photo, and his arthritis would make it impossible for him to walk that far now. And like one of Charlie licking my dad's cheek, because as Alzheimer's has eroded his mind these past few years, he always still asks me how Charlie is ~ until the other day when he asked instead, "Is Charlie a dog?"

My photo cache can carry me from today's blizzard to summer sunflowers.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Temporary Locals Make Memories

Saturday at a travel show, Rick Steves regaled an SRO crowd with stories to encourage people to become “temporary locals” when they travel. I love this idea; in fact, for decades, I have rented homes in my destinations so that I could do just that. Then I can savor vibrant markets, which is one huge advantage to having your own kitchen on vacation. Steves is generally more mobile than I am with a home base all week; he often stays only one or two days in one spot. In addition to enjoying colorful markets, he recommends joining locals in harvesting grapes, milking goats, attending church services, and watching soccer. Great ideas, don’t you think?

His talk prompted some reminiscing about one trip in particular—France in 2007 with my nieces and nephew. While in a public garden, the kids each aped the statue nearest them. Wish I could find that photo. They chatted in universal mime language with groups of young people of various origins in the Montmartre area.

Here is Jeremy with one French local. Was this the snail he serenaded with a Cher song? During our cooking class, in between filleting fish and stirring sauces, we had heard a group of locals practicing singing Cher’s “Believe” for their fete de la musique. Then we chatted a bit when they came inside to check out our class.

And on the magical evening we’d attended vespers inside the Chartres Cathedral and then discovered a sound and light show on the back of the building next door, Bethany suggested we make a memory. We decided we’d all dance freestyle to the music accompanying the gigantic historical photos being projected on the building exterior. Taking our positions in the garden, we danced our hearts out, oblivious to the crowd of onlookers gathering. When we were finished, they eagerly approached us to find out if we were part of the “spectacle.” No, we’re just making a memory, I replied in French. They smiled and moved on. We giggled about this unexpected part of our memory.