The Preacher and the Pragmatist

Margaret Marron writes mystery novels set in eastern North Carolina.  Her heroine is a lawyer turned judge.  Deborah Knott is a bootlegger’s daughter, the youngest and only girl in a family of boys.  Deborah is the name of one of the few female judges in the Old Testament.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great literary fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott has her own version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  She calls these two inner voices the preacher and the pragmatist. I can relate to that.  The preacher is my inner theologian, the pragmatist my inner economist. Both have something to say when it comes to making both individual and collective choices.

In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.   He wrote that each of us may listen to the preacher on our shoulder as an individual but get us together in a situation of collective decision making—otherwise known as democracy—and we tend to sink toward the lowest common denominator.  Pragmatists all, we take what we can get and settle for less than we want.  And if we aren’t good negotiators, maybe even less that we could have achieved if we had been a little more stubborn, or a little more patient.

Most of us have some firm principles that we are unwilling to compromise.  For the League of Women Voters, for example, the one no-compromise principle is nonpartisanship. It is vital to the credibility of the League in its advocacy and voter service work.

The League was born out of the struggle for women’s right to vote. Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the 100 signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, and the survivor was too ill to get to the polls. But there is another part of that story that is often overlooked, a compromise that still reverberates with us today.. 

There was a deep division between the suffragists fighting for the right to vote and the National Women’s Party insisting on a broader Equal Rights Amendment that would cover the many forms of discrimination against women solely on account of their sex.  The prevailing pragmatists settled for the right to vote, figuring they could use the vote to make the other changes in divorce laws, child labor laws, access to health care, protection from domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, fair labor standards.  The ERA was introduced in the still male-dominated Congress but never made much headway. Legislators argued that they had given women the vote and what else did they want?

Finally, in 1972 at the height of the women’s movement, Congress passed the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification with a time limit of seven years, later extended to ten. (Most amendments have no time limits.) Thirty-five of the necessary 38 states ratified fairly promptly,  but only in 2019 did Virginia become the 38th, long past the deadline.  ERA is still unratified.  On the other hand, if the preachers, the idealists, the perfectionists had insisted on the ERA, might women have found ourselves with neither?  Who was right—the preacher, or the pragmatists?

Politics is about principles like justice and honesty and responsibility,  but it is also about the art of compromise, and figuring out what can garner enough support to make it into law and policy and what can’t.  That tension is evident in the federal government even at this writing with the infrastructure bill, the voting rights bill, and the proposed bill dealing with human services.  Other aspects of life have the same tension.  Between justice and mercy.   Between patience and action, present and future, bridging and belonging, aggression and affiliation. Or my favorite, which I quote often from E.B. White, between enjoying the world and improving the world.

We need both the voice of the preacher who reminds us of what is right and the words of the pragmatist who tells us what works, what can be done now, how far we can push the envelope.  May they guide our personal lives, our common life, and our politics so that we accomplish the possible in the moment while still holding fast of a shared vision of how we would like our world to be.

When Hope Is Hard to Find

Do you ever feel that your personal life is going fine, but the outside world is going to hell in a handbasket?  I was feeling that way already—climate change, COVID, political polarization and deadlock, frequent mass shootings—when I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix last night.  Along with depressing me with the presentation of the widespread addiction to exploitative and divisive social media sites, this documentary affirmed my decision almost a year ago to divorce Facebook.

As a born activist, my response was, what can I do?  And the answer is, not enough. I can make my tiny contributions to slowing climate change, but they are not enough, and it may already be too late.  I can protect myself from COVID, and encourage others to do the same, but I can’t get through the noise about the vaccine and the refusal to take responsibility that make it hard to get back to anything we would consider normal life. I am trying to engage in dialogue across boundaries, but I am not a very effective little progressive wave against a Tucker Carlson ocean.

Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy describes the merely muscular Christian as one who attempts to continuously ladle from a bowl that is never replenished. So, after watching the climate disaster play out in Germany and the Western US (in the southeast, we are enjoying an unusually mild summer), after watching The Social Dilemma and then news of shootings and political fighting, how do I refill the bowl with healthier thoughts?  

I am not a Buddhist, but Buddhism does offer good advice for hard times.  Take refuge in the sangha, which I translate as community. Family, friends, congregation, voluntary associations (the League of Women Voters at the local level, in my case).  Take refuge in the dharma (which I translate as wisdom—the teachings of faith traditions and philosophers). Take refuge in the Buddha (which I translate as the presence of the sacred, by whatever name you may call it.)  And go for long walks in the woods.

May you find ways to refill your bowl and go forth with your ladle to save the world.

Who Speaks for Me?

I am a moderate Democrat, living in South Carolina.  We don’t have party representation, so I can’t prove it, but while I find much to admire in respect in a more conservative Republican position and much to appreciate in the left wing of my own party, I know my identity.  Based on results of 2018  gubernatorial(McMaster/Smith)  and 2020 senate (Graham/Harrison) races, South Carolina is about 55 percent Republican and 45 percent Democratic, although it varies depending on the candidates and the turnout.

The state, like all states, has two senators. It has seven House representatives,  currently six Republicans and one Democrat, although we did have a brief two years of 5-2 when Democrat Joe Cunningham won an unexpected victory in 2018. If our delegation in Washington was representative of the people of South Carolina, it would consist of one senator from each party and four Republicans and three Democrats in the house.  (We did have a very long period when the state had Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings in the Senate, but that was in the distant past.)

Ah, you think, this is a diatribe about gerrymandering. Not really.  For one thing, the Senate is immune to gerrymandering, unless you think we should also redraw state lines very 10 years based on population. The idea of one person, one vote is not well served by having equal representation in the Senate for both California and Wyoming, both Texas and Delaware.  A majority of the U.S. senators currently serving were elected by 43.5 percent of the voters. So, while I would love to see one senator from each party representing the state I adopted 55 years ago, it is not going to happen. 

I am thinking about the House.   Gerrymandering may enhance the over-representation of the majority party, but the real fly in the political ointment is the winner take all structure of electing members of Congress.  At the local level, like most of our cities, we elect a city council with staggered terms, three every two years, mayor every four years.  The elections re nonpartisan, but they could just as well be partisan.  They key is that the candidates do not represent a particular part of the city—they all run against everyone else, each voter gets to vote for three, and the top three get elected. What if we did that with Congress? After all, the member of Congress from House District Three, where I live, does not just represent the interests and concerns of the northwest corner of the state, he represents our state on national matters. What If I could vote for all seven members of Congress instead of one? My chances of getting more than one member of the U.S. House whose views were closer to my own and my fellow 45 percent of South Carolina voters would be a lot better.  And we wouldn’t have to go through redrawing Congressional district lines every ten years!

Two ideas have been floating around out there for decades and have gained some traction to address this concerns in some races, although not yet for Congress.  In a few states, notably California, they have what has been nicknamed a jungle primary with multiple candidates for, say, the state legislature.  The top two candidates then go forward to the general election. Suppose you, like me, were a moderate Democrat in a heavily Republican district. If I am sure  that a Democrat will not get to the ballot in November, I might vote for the more centrist Republican so that I am more nearly represented. Very often in districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic, the resulting general election will offer a choice between  two candidates of the same party representing different wings of their party, perhaps a moderate versus a liberal Democrat or a moderate versus a conservative Republican.

Another idea that people are just waking up to is ranked choice voting, which has been used in Maine for some time.  It got a lot of attention when it was used in the New York City Democratic primary for mayor. Voters rank their choices. If no one emerges with a majority from counting just firs choice votes, the vote counters drop the lowest ranking candidate and redistribute those votes to the voters’ second choices.  And so on, until someone gains a clear majority.  No runoff, and the outcome represents  a better understanding of what voters really want. Right now, there is a push on to call a Constitutional Convention.  I am wary of that effort because the nation is deeply divided and none of us from far right to far left has any idea what might be changed. But if I could change just one thing, I would rethink the way we elect the House of Representatives to make it truly representative.

Don’t be a Lone Ranger!

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer in a church, civic organization, or other kind of non-business organization, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or failing to find, train and support new leaders.

In describing the work of corporations, economists invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In nonprofit organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligants.  In a church the residual often the minister.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the president, or the secretary (paid or volunteer), or some of each.  Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.

The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has droped an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/cake provider/greeter.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in another dimension of leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family. 

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman. The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular familiar to college faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate, I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways in which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better. 

If you think I have real people in mind, you are right. And at various times in my leadership roles, I have been guilty of at least the last two. What all three have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout.

A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic. Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative.

Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to avoid becoming the residual obligant. Delegating doesn’t mean that you do nothing.  You are a part of a team, and everyone on the team pitches in to make things happen.  Just don’t take on more than your share of the responsibility. If the team is sponsoring an even that requires food, bring one item. When you are functioning in your president role to conduct a membership meeting or introduce a speaker, it’s someone else’s job to set up chairs, greet visitors, or make the coffee. Your job in that moment is to be the president. The next time you are tempted to say, I can take care of that—stifle yourself. Failure to delegate is a form of enabling others to shirk.  Ask someone else. Wait for the silence to get someone to step forward. Or consider whether that particular event, or action, needs to happen at all if nobody cares enough to do it. It’s a teachable moment. Make the most of it.

I Am the Matriarch!

I am the last surviving member of my birth family. My sister died in 2008, followed two years later by her husband. My brother died in May, and I am not close to his wife or their children. I am, however close to my sisters two offspring, so for my 80th Birthday part 2, I found an air BnB and invited my three daughters, three sons-in-law, four grandchildren and my niece and nephew to spend a few days together in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville. Despite some ups and downs, it was a really good experience, one I promised to repeat next year. A good mix of outdoor stuff, swimming and hiking, lots of interesting food, and city stuff in Asheville, an oasis of liberal and folk culture in the South.

I grew up with family reunions on my father’s side on my Uncle Duane’s farm, My Grandmother was the matriarch, sharing that role with her two sisters and their descendants, including some relatives that I never quite figured out–I think maybe they were my grandmother’s cousins. We shot off fireworks and drank water from a tin cup at the well and picked corn in the garden only when the water was boiling. This year the fireworks were courtesy of the city of Asheville and there was corn and burgers and watermelon. I am convinced that the 4th of July celebration is really a modern embodiment of the summer solstice, which was celebrated with bonfires at noon.

My uncle died in 1969 and there were no more family reunions until a single one in the 1990s on his sister Olive’s farm about a mile away–and a generation away, because the planning was done by my cousins,, the matriarchal great-aunts were all long dead and only a few survived from my parents’ generation–now they are all gone. So for my children, niece and nephew (who graciously offered me his arm on a fairly rocky hike!), I as the youngest in my birth family have been promoted to matriarch. Which means I am now responsible for planning family reunions (but not for cooking!. There are, currently 13 of us, but we expect an addition to the family in November 2022 when my #2 granddaughter gets married. I try to maintain a link to the eight people in my children’s generation with a weekly email newsletter and an invitation to reply. Growing up, most of my relatives lived in my home town, but we rarely saw them except at the reunion. Now because only two of the five families are close by–the others are scattered in Washington DC, New Jersey and Connecticut. My niece and nephew have children, but I’m not sure they are interested in being included.

I am new to the matriarchy thing. I like the fact that it apparently means that my adult children and my sister’s children are stepping up to the plate, letting me provide the venue but doing the driving, planning the expeditions and the meals, and cleaning up the kitchen. I accept the fact that not everyone loves everyone else, that there is sibling friction and accommodations for different eating styles and needs (including allergies and vegetarians), and sharing two bathrooms among nine people in the main building can be challenging–especially when one bathroom has four doors!.

In the Olympic sprint from birth to death, I have become the torch bearer, looking behind me to see to whom the torch will be passed. For all of my readers who have reached that pinnacle of matriarchy (or patriarchy in the positive sense!), welcome to the club. Old age has its frustrations, but also its celebrations. May yours be joyous and memorable in knitting together across the generations.

Don’t Wait Till Your Obituary

I lost four close friends and a brother in the past year. I dutifully sent a charitable contribution to the designated causes each of them favored, but it got me to thinking. About eight years ago my friend Dianne (who died four years ago) threw herself an 80th birthday party. She asked guests to bring, not gifts, but a contribution to one of her three favorite local charities. So when my turn at reaching that 80 year milestone came about on June 30th, I decided to build on her example–both the party and the request. I had a specific charity in mind.

I love books. I read them, I write them, I share them, I give them as gifts, I donate to libraries. In December, one of my four granddaughters, Caroline, will receive her BA in elementary education and embark on her teaching career. (No worries about finding a job. She’s a great student and a natural teacher, and there’s a serious shortage of teachers in our state.) She and her cohort of December 2021 gradates from the University of South Carolina–Aiken are building their libraries with a plan to pool and divide their stashes of books when they get their teaching assignments and find out what grades each of them will be teaching. I have been buying books for Caroline for the past year, but Dianne’s example led me to say to my invited birthday guests: no gifts please, but if you want to contribute a new or lightly used book suitable for grades 1-5, it would be appreciated. My 25 party guests contributed 60 books to the cause and had great fun picking them out.

I am sure that when I die, people will be invited to contribute to a charity in my name. In fact, I have written out instructions for my executor to that effect. But as we get older, and birthdays become a celebration of just still being alive, we need fewer things and more legacies. It can be a source of joy to experience that legacy while we are still here. My passion for books will be embodied in six classroom libraries of brand new teachers come January 2022. I encourage you all to consider what your passion is and how it can become a part of the next big birthday number coming up that ends in a zero or a five.

Summer Solstice

Monday marks the summer solstice,the longest day of the year. In Celtic mythology, the sun God is at the peak of his powers, the mother Goddess is pregnant with his child who will be born at the winter solstice. In Australia, New Zealand, and a chunk of South America, it is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There they huddle before a warm fire, and celebrate the opposite solstice in December at the beach.

The four sky holidays (equinoxes ans solstices) are celebrated with bonfires–spring at dawn, summer and midday,autumn at dusk, winter at midnight. If those times of day remind you of Easter sunrise services and midnight mass, you have penetrated the Celtic roots of some of our non-biblical religious customs. Many of the quaint practices of Easter–rabbits, eggs, lilies, new clothes–are vestiges of pre-Christian religious customs celebrating the arrival of spring.

The ancient Celts, according to tradition, observed eight evenly spaced nature holidays. Solstices and equinoxes were dictated by the rotation of the earth around the sun, while the four cross-quarter holidays were earth-centered. The Celtic New year (Samhain) was on November 1st, surviving as Halloween and All Saints Day and the Mexican Day of he Dead (November 2nd). Like the Jews, whose New Year is observed in the fall, the Celts began their days at desk and went through the darkness of both night and winter into the light of renewal, revival, and rebirth.Samhain was the time of the final harvest and bringing the animals back from pasture for the winter.

Anticipation of spring with the birth of lambs gave the February 1st the name of Imbolc, or ewe’s milk. We observe it as Groundhog Day on February 2nd. This ancient holiday was a time to clean house n anticipation of spring. (Last chance to take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations!) .

Beltane was a fertility festival celebrated on May 1st. May Day was originally a flower-centered festival, gathering wildflowers and planting crops, not an international labor holiday. Lammas or Lughnasad, August 1st, celebrated the first harvest. It comes much sooner in warmer climates in the northern hemisphere, but these holidays originated in Northern Europe. Colonial New Englanders continued the ancient Celtic custom of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to church to be blessed and shared at Lammas. (I prefer a blessing of the vegetables to a blessing of the animals. Vegetables are much better behaved in church.)

We modern humans are largely disconnected from these rhythms of earth and sky, insulated by air-conditioning and food from the grocery store that can be frozen or refrigerated. WE can eat blueberries and watermelon year-round even if it means shipping them long distance from Chile or other pints far south. Change of clothing is one of our few requirements as the seasons change and we swap coats and sweaters for t-shirts and bathing suits. And yet, the pull of the rhythm of the seasons is still strong. The urge to plant is evident int he spring, even if we are more often planting for beauty than for sustenance. Recreation moves outdoors in the warm summer months, while long winter nights are a time to huddle in front of the fireplace, with short daytime forays for snow sports in colder climates. We can try to insulate ourselves from nature,but we are in fact a part of nature,and our bodies and hearts pulsate to its changes. We are also dependent on nature for all the resources that sustain us–food, water, electricity, fossil fuels, metals and minerals, plants and animals.

Each season brings different gifts of both beauty and sustenance, challenge and opportunity. If a single word unites these eight ancient holidays into a common thread, it should be gratitude. Gratitude for rain and sun, soil and water, food and fuel,beauty and wonder. Eight chances to county our blessings and honor Mother Earth and Father Sky. A joyous summer solstice to all my readers!

I Can Do It Myself!

Bet you said that when you were two years old. And five. And ten. And maybe 70. Most of us take pride in our competence, or strength, and our know-how,whether it is tying one’s shoes (before Velcro), fixing one’s faucet, or making a garden grow. We enjoy using our powers to take care of ourselves and others. As we grow older we gain strength and skills, but somewhere between 60 and 80, our physical ability to perform those tasks becomes more limited with declining vision, hearing, and physical stamina and strength.

As I approach 80, I look forward to the end of my mowing days, either by replacing my last patch of lawn with ground cover or paying someone else to do it. Many of my friends and neighbors are more enthusiastic about offloading chores than I am. The service sector has grown immensely to serve that preference in recent decades. You don’t have to wash your own car, cook your own meals, pay your own bills, walk or bath your own dog. (Full disclosure: my neighbor Anne fixed my faucet while showing me how to do it, and my dog always went to the groomer because I couldn’t manage to bath a 55 pound dog.) I have also concluded that it is probably a good idea to pay someone else to change the furnace filer in the ceiling so that I don’t have to climb a ladder, look up, unscrew the cover in order to exchange filters..

Maybe the Myers-Briggs scale needs another pair of Letters, MY, for Me do it or You do it. In fairness to my aging neighbors, there are increasing limitations on our abilities to do certain things as we get older and have to cope with impaired vision and hearing, arthritis, balance problems, and heath issues. We old folks are faced with a continuous series of choices about what we try to manage for ourselves and what we turn over to others as we cycle away from the autonomy of adolescence and adulthood back to more dependence on help from others.

I’ve been an M most of my life. I think my “M-ness” comes from a frugal New England upbringing. I prefer to do my own house and yard work , and I was raised to make my own clothes (I’ve given that one up!) and cook my own meals (I am open to compromise on that one). But I have to admit that just because I can do something, it doesn’t mean that I can do it as well or as quickly as someone who specializes in that particular kind of work.

Part of my “I can do it myself!” attitude is a desire to stay connected to my habitat–to clean my own floors, wash my own windows, weed my own flower beds, prune my now shrubs. On the other hand, I have an inner Y that reminds me that there is someone out there who can do a better job of painting my walls, troubleshooting my computer, and mulching my former front lawn (see my earlier blog, My War on Grass). I have always enjoyed practicing and honing my own skills as a teacher, writer, preacher, organizational leader and policy analyst.But fragmenting myself among many tasks means that few of them get treated with the respect and attention needed to perform them well. At the same time, I notice the pride others take in their skills such as painting, landscaping, gardening, and getting my computer humming smoothly along. Anyone who can earn a living doing something they enjoy and are good at deserves to have that opportunity. ‘

Me-do and You-do are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Most of us don’t have the means to live like ancient aristocrats (or modern billionaires) with an army of servants to relieve them of the daily chores of living. And some of us are grateful that we don’t! Most of us are neither very rich or very poor, so we have to make choices about how to spend our money, our time, and our energy, and outsource some of those tasks. Each of us needs to assess our skills, our abilities (which change over the decades), and the other uses for our time in choosing which tasks to do ourselves and which ones to outsource–and why.

Two for the Price of One

Two recent news items about the fading of the pandemic in this country converged in my head to emerge as serendipity..  We have spent more than a year in our sweatpants, sitting in front of our computers to work, shop, socialize, and eat. Especially eat.  Being home all the time is dangerous for your resistance to food.. Plus being home all the time is boring, and lonely (or if you have kids, stressful), all of which encourage more shopping online and eating.

So here is Doctor Holley’s prescription for how to do something for yourself and your country at the same time .(Yes, I know, PhDs aren’t empowered to write prescriptions.). This twofer reminds me of the activists who just won seats on Exxon-Mobil’s board, demanding higher profits THROUGH emerging technologies.  Social responsibility and shareholder wealth in the same package? Who knew?

So, what are you being asked to do? Go shopping in real stores. Grocery stores. Clothing stores. Big box stores. Boutiques. Eat at a restaurant.  How does that help you lose the pandemic ten? Or twenty?  Well, in March I started on a new weight loss program that strongly encourages walking, so I have been tracking my steps.  The days I track the most steps are the ones when I go shopping. Don’t make your fingers do the walking (an old slogan that transfers easily form the yellow pages to the keyboard). Walking, regular walking, is one of the healthiest ways to control or even lose weight. It doesn’t require equipment or a personal trainer or a class (although exercise classes can provide a social outlet as you emerge from hibernation). Just download a free app on your iPhone and start counting your steps.

Your presence in stores also boosts the local retail establishment, which is good for the local economy. Yes, online shopping is great for finding obscure things, like a replacement flag for your mailbox, but local stores and services create jobs pay taxes and support high school teams and lots of other good community endeavors. Retailers and service provides have had a tough 14 months, and the survivors need your patronage.

Stand strong for America! Get up, get moving, and go shopping!

Last Surviving Member

Ever read an obituary that says, “she was the last surviving member of her immediate family?”  Which is to say, birth family.  My father left home when I was a toddler, and died in 1977. My mother died in 2002 at the ripe age of 92, my older sister at 71 in 2008, and last week, my older  brother, age 81.  I am now the last surviving member, the memory keeper, and as a widow, the matriarch of a family of ten (three daughters, three sons-in-law, four granddaughters). How did I become the survivor on the island? Probably as the youngest and healthiest of the three siblings. More important, how do I pass on those memories to the next two generations?

My mother and my Aunt Marion, my father’s sister, were both good storytellers.  I know so much about my forebears because they told stories.  I continued the tradition.  My  #3 grandchild, Bella, used to sit at my dining room table and say, Tell me another family story, Grandma. I would tell how we missed seeing my husband’s Coast Guard cutter Acushnet on our way to Bar Harbor Maine, only to learn that it was being relocated the next day to the west coast. Or the time my daughters wanted to know if there were birds in the birdhouse on the tree in the backyard.  My husband obligingly climbed a ladder to look, a bird flew out into his face, and he fell and landed in a trash can.  The answer was yes. Or the time my mother and her sister and brother each inherited $1000 from their grandmother.  My mother’s sister bought a car.  My mother, age 18, was eager to learn to drive.  She decided to borrow Laura’s car and practice one more time before taking her test.  She totaled the car, was arrested for driving without a license, had to give most of her inheritance to Laura to buy another car, and didn’t get a license until she was 55 years old. I have interspersed pictures and begats with many of these family memories in a volume called “Stories for My Grandchildren,” printing just 22 copies for daughters, granddaughters, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nieces and nephews.

Humans told stories long before there was writing.  The Druids refused to write things down because they thought it impaired the ability to remember.  They spent years memorizing the Druid stories, customs, knowledge, and folkways. Telling stories is good, but so is writing them down. The next generation is not always ready to hear what we have to tell when we are there to tell it, and sometimes the stories are lost.  My Aunt Marion died at the age of 96 and even then , I  hadn’t asked her all the questions I wanted  her to answer.

It is said that even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, you will at least survive in memory until the last person who remembers you dies.  That thought is comforting, but too narrow a measure of the power of memory. I believe we all have eternal life in the people whom we have influenced, comforted, supported, and challenged who become better because of us, and lives on in them and those they influence in turn, long after the persons who were the source of their strength and wisdom have been buried in the earth.

We in turn are the bearers of the wisdom and experience of whom we knew, or knew of, and the people who shaped them. By that standard, I was shaped by my grandfather Charles Stewart, architect and motorcyclist who died in 1916 in a motorcycle accident, leaving his wife to raise three young children alone. And by his mother, my great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage and lived long enough to vote, passing on her passion for politics to my mother, me, and my daughters. Even though both of them died before I was born, they live on in me and  past me, because I have shared their stories with my children. I do not know who shaped them, but those unknown forebears, some genetic, some not, also live on in me. Alice’s father’s desk, restored to its glory from its creation in the 18940s, sits in my living room as a visible link to that past.

In 1973, my husband and I and our 2-1/2 children were driving back too South Carolina on our way home from Christmas with family in Connecticut when we ran out of gas. Looking like a bunch of hippies, my bearded husband and his pregnant wife and two little girls stood by the side of the road. A local man stopped, had a gas can in his car, and took my husband into town to get gas. He told Carl that just before Christmas he and his son went out to buy a tree and saw a sign in a year saying “free Christmas tree.” He knocked. Yes, the man said, take it. It’s my gift. Pass it on. So our rescuer said to us, I’m passing it on.

So, I invite you to commit yourself to memory keeping and memory sharing. To asking questions of older family members and getting them to tell their stories,. To passing these stories on to the next generations so their stories will not be lost. Life is good, life is rich, life is challenging, life is meaningful.  Pass it on!