Friday, March 19, 2010

Family Travels

The weather’s slowly warming across the country, and along with snow melt and longer days comes that familiar family travel time known as Spring Vacation. And though they may not be, as Charles Dickens’s wrote, “the best of times, the worst of times” in your family’s lives, travels together as a group can be some of the happiest as well as most stressful times you have together as a family.

Time away from our regular routines is essential for good mental health. We do tend to thrive with a healthy balance of the familiar and the different, and vacations are one way many of us create difference in our lives. We can put away the same responsibilities, schedules, foods, sights, people, and weather for something different, a change that can make for a sense of escape as well as renewal upon our return. When we travel with our families, we get a chance to make shared memories and then recall them again and again in the future. Many of us remember the time spent in the back seat of our family station wagons going somewhere together as hallmarks of our childhood.

But like everything else with our families, traveling together as companions is a mixed blessing. While we can anticipate one another’s reactions and find pleasure in those shared experiences and understandings, we also make instantaneous assumptions, judgments and responses to each other that can zap the joy out of the newness of travel. In other words, it can be great and awful at the same time! (Recall the Clark Griswold’s of the 1983 movie, “Vacation,” and you’ll instantly know what I mean).

So, before you come unglued in your rush to close the house and get on that plane for that long-awaited winter escape, consider a few things that may make for a more relaxed, pleasant and renewing family trip. If you have some more ideas to share, be sure to add your comment at the bottom of this post.

1. Stay Within the Budget
Nothing can kill the joy of a family trip than spending more than you can afford. No one wants to be paying off credit card travel expenses 11 months after that dream visit to Disneyworld. Do all you can to stay inside your planned budget, making room for the spontaneous and unexpected, and you will have a much less stressful time while vacationing, and particularly, upon return.

2. Prepare to Travel
Don’t wait until the night before you leave to know if you have enough cash, if you have or need your passport, if your favorite shorts still fit, if the car needs an oil change, or if you have renewed your daily prescriptions at the pharmacy. None of us needs the emotional turmoil of last-minute, rushed packing. It can take all the pleasure out of the first part of your vacation, and can really stall your trip through airport security!

3. Lower your Expectations
No destination is going to be as great as the travel brochure, the website, or your dreams set you up to expect. Even Hawaii has problems. Lower your expectations of your perfect honeymoon or family trip, and instead, ready yourself to be pleasantly surprised and flexible. More fun will be had by all!

4. Manage your Job
Most successful employers know that we are better at our jobs when we can leave them for awhile. While it’s tempting to stay connected via email, texts, photos or even phone calls to work, unplug from the people at work and turn toward the people you’re with. After all, it’s your family that will stick around long after that job is over. And if you are self-employed like I am, make a plan to limit the contact you need to have with your business and stick to your plan.

5. We Bring Ourselves with Us
Your son isn’t automatically going to be well behaved just because he’s visiting grandma, and your spouse isn’t miraculously going to be easy going, generous and relaxed just because you’re in a different place. Remember that while your family is pretty much the same wherever they go, so are you. Cut everyone a little slack.

6. Staying with Extended Family
Nothing says “emotional overload” like traveling with your family and staying with even more. Be sure to treat the family you visit with respect, do your share of the extra work you create, and make time to get out from under their feet, and you will probably be invited back!

7. Returning
Some of us appreciate more time at home before the rush back to the normal begins. I know I need time to get some of the laundry done, to make sure there’s enough milk in the refrigerator, and to sort the mail before I go back to work. Others don’t need much re-entry time, eking out as much vacation time as possible. Know your preferences and honor them. That way coming home will be as pleasant as possible.

And in all journeying, safe travels!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Memoirs R Us

American readers seem deeply interested in memoirs this year. I've been wondering why.

What books people write, publish, review, buy, share and talk about tend to go in waves. Some years, historical fiction rules; in others, fantasy and other worldliness (think Gone With the Wind and the Harry Potter series as examples). A few years ago biographies were flying off the shelves; last year, anything vampire sold. All it takes is one, big, humongous publishing success and it seems like we are all off to the races.

I read a lot of book reviews, in search of the next great American novel. And while the great novel is still being written, more memoirs are available than ever. Of particular note are two of the more famous memoirists: James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Mary Karr (The Liar's Club; Cherry; and now, Lit). You may remember that a minor brouhaha erupted after Frey admitted to fictionalizing some of his drug addiction and treatment story; Oprah, who had chosen the book for her Book Club brought him onto her show to confront him. While Karr, a brilliant writer and poet, seems to have been spared the public skewering that Frey endured, her 3 volume story of degradation and personal reform seems impossible to fit into one small lifetime. 

Americans are endlessly interested in how other people live their lives. But what seems to have shifted in our culture is that the lives we want to read about are less about strength, courage or righteousness and more about failure and secrecy. Instead of presidents and religious leaders, we buy books about drug addicted professors or single women on a quest for God. We want to peer behind the curtain to reveal the humanness of those around us, and not only confirm our own brokenness, but also heave sighs of relief when our own lives aren't so dramatically distorted and bent.

It fits with the trends of paparazzi following the famous, the famous repenting on television, and the not so famous watching this all on 24/7 news cycles. It also follows on the decline of the organized Church, where not too long ago the lives of saints, old and new, were held up as models of faithful living.

People are always going to look for help in living their lives, and trying to understand their own through the lens of another is one powerful way to do it. But I wonder: is it helping anyone to lead a better, more satisfying life when all the stories we buy and sell are those of deep failure, relationship pain, and the crawling back toward the shores of self respect? Or does it set us up for lives of lower standards, lives measured against the latest and biggest personal fall?

Among other things, we are what we spend time reading and thinking about. Garbage in, garbage out?  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Praise of the Institutional Church

In celebration of Ash Wednesday, and my struggle to maintain my confidence in the Church, I share this wonderful paragraph from the Christian Century (1/12/2010), Slow Motion Conversion, p. 30:

Carol Zaleski writes: 

"How would we know Christ without the institutional church? Who else would preserve the great secret of the gospel for us through the centuries, keeping it safe in the wilderness of opinions? We live in a world of institutions or in no world at all., and the institutional church is surely the greatest institution the world has ever known. It is the mediating institution between the family we are thrust into and the government that is either forced upon us or chosen by us from a distance. It equips us with every grace, every insight, every support for a decent life and then, like so many parents, is disappointed but not surprised when we turn around and say - we dont' need you, we can do this on our own, you are a fossil, an impediment."


Thanks be to God for the broken but holy Church, that despite itself - by God's grace alone - has preserved the sacred texts and still reads, proclaims, studies and attempts to live the gospel of Jesus. All so that each believer, in their own life of faith, might experience forgiveness, hope and belonging, and share that with those they love, and those they may not . Amen


Monday, February 15, 2010

I Don't Want to Be Governor

Tim Pawlenty has my sympathy.

It's budget time, and he's trying to lead our great state in spending only what it takes in. That's a very painful equation now with a depressed economic climate, declining federal support and increasing demands on education and health care.  He says he wants a budget that will cut everything but K-12 education, safety and veteran's benefits.

I get it, but it is going to be insane. And I mean that literally. The hospitals and programs that care for the most chronically mentally ill are being stripped of millions of dollars. That means that institutions like HCMC in downtown Minneapolis are not going to be able to run the adult emergency mental health unit as it has, and will have to turn people away everyday.

What does that mean? It means that those chronically mentally ill, many of whom are in and out of hospitals, chemical dependency units and homelessness are going to be showing up at your local emergency rooms. The sick in mind and body will have to share the same time with the ER docs, and that isn't a good use of anybody's time, energy or money.

I worry about this. Yet, what can be done but cut the budget? This seems like a weird turn of affairs in a state that just a handful of years ago (can you say Jessie?) had more money than it could spend and sent millions of dollars back in rebates. I wasn't in favor of that then, and I am angry about that now. We need savings, even in government, for the downturns and rainy days. If this isn't that time, I don't know what is. We don't get major earthquakes here in MN. But this budget crisis seems like an earthquake to me.

Good luck to our legislators, and the same to our governor. But Pawlenty should cut all his maybe-I'll-run and maybe-I-won't weekend runs to the presidential primary states. That is getting very old, Governor. It's crunch time in our great state. Iowans don't need more face time with you; Minnesotans do. Stay home, Tim, stay home!  

Monday, February 1, 2010

Helplessness & Haiti

It's been over two weeks since the earthquake devastated the people of Haiti.

Tens of thousands have died, including people you may know. And along with a desire to help, and a deepening sense of helplessness as we watch that impoverish nation respond, I am struck by a familiar conflict, or perhaps it is an observation about human life.

I continue to wonder how my life can go on in its normal way while massive, untold despair, suffering and death occurs around me. It's the same experience those who suffer grief describe: how does the world continue on its way while my life seems to have stopped?

I struggle with a low-grade angst; not a guilt exactly, but close to it. As if I have witnessed a massive car crash from the safety of my own vehicle and go careening by, with just a glance in my rear view mirror. I continue on, glad it wasn't me in that car, confident someone more capable is responding.

I believe this soft anguish reflects this existential truth: we are single human beings. We are separate from one another at birth, and will die that way. In between, we live daily life as multiple connections. When connections are broken, by suffering we cannot solve, or death we cannot stop, we are brought up short by the truth of our singleness of self.

What is grief but the crashing in of this solitude, and the choice to risk connecting again?

Kyrie eleison.    Lord, have mercy.