Teaching Our Children to Value What Matters at Christmas Time

Yes, the leaves aren’t even cold on the ground and I am already thinking of Christmas! What can I say? I love this time of year! At the same time, the Christmas season, also adds christmas-treea small lump to my throat, as I think about my dad. He loved Christmas! Ah, what fond memories! Ours was not a rich community. What we had to give each were not store bought gifts. Instead our gifts were open doors to neighbors, family and friends to visit at anytime –day or night during the season; and the very best that we could offer –a clean and well decorated house, good food and Christmas delicacies—sorrel, pastelles, black cake, and ponche crema which we had made, like they say here, from scratch. These were the best gifts! And as I reminded my daughters the first time my mother-in-law presented them with not one, not two, but numerous purchased Christmas gifts, I was lucky to get ONE, and only ONE such gift at Christmas time! But, oh how I treasured it!

Now, as a parent to these two girls who are growing up in this country with so much, I find myself thinking about Christmas in a more intentional way. How can I pass on to them an appreciation for the simple gifts of Christmas time, amidst the cacophony of “Gimme” Gimme”? How can I help them cultivate a giving heart that is sensitive to the needs of others, in season and out of season? Here are some ideas that Mark and I are considering in the true spirit of Christmas celebration this year:

Focus on the Advent: The word “advent” means the arrival of a notable person or event. Therefore, to focus on advent means to prepare to celebrateooo the arrival of the baby Jesus. Although I did not grow up with this as part of my faith tradition, I decided to try it last year. We did not start off on the traditional Sunday or do the Advent wreath, but each night from December 1 to Christmas when we had dinner, we would share a devotional segment from the Focus on the Family 2015 Advent Calendar or another reading that we had chosen that centered our thinking on the significance of  the nativity. What a blessing! What thought provoking conversations that these devotions sparked! What laughter and family fun! We are planning to do it again this year with a customized version of this 2012 Advent Calendar — Knowing Him by Name.

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Give with Intention: For us, that means helping the girls to independently and thoughtfully choose causes for which they want to give. Additionally, it is important that the giving should come from them and not from us, and that it should be relational. In other words, we are careful to guide their selection to causes for which they can connect gifting to helping real people and not merely dropping a dollar in a can. In this way, we hope that they can get a sense of how a small act on their part can be a real blessing to someone else. This year, after considering a number of options, the girls seem most interested in creating greeting cards to send to sick children through Send Kids the World. It is eye-opening for them to see children just like themselves who are battling such serious illnesses.

Celebrate through Worship: I really should not have to write this one down! But with all the merry making and gift giving, worship can be the last thing we choose to do, except, maybe, when we go to church. This year, we hope to have communal worship not just at church, but to open our doors to friends in a special vesper celebration event. In keeping with our faith tradition of a Sabbath rest, we are looking forward to gathering with family and friends on a Friday night during the season around a simple meal and to worship Christ in praise, in thanksgiving and song.

Celebrate through Sacrifice: This is a tough one especially for my 6 year old, who loves gifts! However, undaunted, we are reminding the girls of the great sacrifice it was for God to send his only Son to this earth. Sacrifice means that it should cost them something—might even make them a bit sad to give THAT thing away. Hence, we are encouraging them to think about one gift, special toy, or item that they are willing to give up to someone in need this Christmas season. (I’ll let you know how that one goes!)

Celebrate through Service: We have a close family friend who is in a nursing home not far away. Have you been to a nursing home recently? Well, if you have, you know that some of them can be very dreary places indeed. We have been talking about visiting him for most of the year but have not done so! Shame on us! However, it is our intention to visit him this holiday season and take a bit of Christmas cheer. The girls are putting together a special program, and they are practicing a couple of duets—Alyssa is playing and Amya is singing. You should hear them do “Amazing Grace!” Even though I don’t see any music awards in their future, it does make my eyes water every time! I might even bake a cake and take a fruit basket. I am excited just thinking about the joy this simple visit might bring him! For some more great service ideas, check out The Center for a New American Dream.

Whatever your plans are for this holiday season, keep them simple and keep Christ at the center of them all. Have a blessed Christmas!

 

 

 

Standing in the Motherhood Gap

I have a deep and growing admiration for mothers and mothering. Now this may surprise you, coming from me, someone who was not raised by my mother but by a single parent father. And if you have read any of my blog posts, I am sure it is abundantly clear that I do have some emotional residuals from that intriguing saga. But I am not going to beat that drum today! Been there; done that! Instead, as I celebrate nine years of the highs and lows of parenting (My older daughter turns 9 today, October 18), I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity I have had to experience motherhood and mothering.

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Auguste Rodin- Young Mother in the Grotto 

Now, it would  be inaccurate to say that my foray into motherhood began with the birth of my own child. I can recognize that inclination from my earliest days of playing with dolls in the back room of my father’s garage and later at each stage of my professional journey. Without a doubt, my finest moments in the profession have been those times when I shook of my professorial garb and connected with students from a deeply rooted spirit of caring–of nurturing.  Similarly, I have been blessed with several mothers along my own life journey –strong and compassionate women who stood in the motherhood gap for me.

This weekend, I spent precious time with one such mother. Oh, how I wished I had met her years ago when I could barely boil an egg, when my rice and peas usually came out sappy and my biscuits… Well, who am I kidding? What biscuits?. My apologies to all past boyfriends and friends who suffered through my valiant early attempt at cooking–who ate undercooked potatoes and season less concoctions. Know that your sacrifices were not in vain. I did persevere, and not to boast or any thing, but Mama Dee, Mom (my mother-in-law), and “Ma” have taught me a thing or two about cooking! If you could only eat at my table now!! Ha!

Making Mama Dee’s Biscuits

Then there are women who stepped in to instruct me about womanhood. There is the next door neighbor who had “the talk” with my dad about what a growing young girl would need and introduced him to the concept of a “Bra”! Like, “Hello!”. The family friend who made sure Dad understood that I needed to be “on fleek” for my graduation party. Can I just say that I did represent!! There was the dean of women of Linda Austin Hall at the boarding school I attended during my teenage years. She would stand at the front door of our dormitory before we left for church and inspect us from head to toe sending us back to our rooms to get a half slip to put under THAT dress, pulling a safety pin out of her pocket to fix too low necklines, or tucking and pinning a stray curl with a hair pin from her other coat pocket. How we despised these inspections. And yet, (sigh), this morning as I waited in the foyer to inspect my daughters on the way out the door, I felt a great indebtedness to this woman. Thank you, Dean Beresford!

And there again, is Mom. Mom who was there for me in those big life moments. It was mom who took me to bridal store after bridal store, in search of that just right dress. How I remember well the moment, when we found THE dress.  As I came out of the dressing room, our eyes locked in a watery embrace compelling our arms to soon follow; we hugged each other tightly and cried openly.

But wait, there is more! When my first daughter was born, I remember well the anxieties and uncertainties that welled up within me. Could I do this? What was this that I had to do? How could I be a good mother when I had not been mothered? So many fears! But “Mom” had it covered. As Mark and I drove home from the hospital on that afternoon in late October, I could see her bent frame through the kitchen window; she was busy at work. When we walked into the house, the aroma of warm food enveloped us, and her arms encircled me –she fussed over me, fussed over the baby, fussed over her homemade chocolate cake –fuss, fuss fuss, and I…, shucks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Heck, I needed it! Mom stayed with us for several days helping me adjust to my new role. Ah, what a blessing!

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Mom holding Alyssa’s feet

I could go on and on reflecting on how each of these women and many, many more nurtured me, loved me, taught me, and shaped me into the woman I am always becoming. They filled an empty mothering hole till it was overflowing. I am because they are! And it occurs to me now, as I reflect on this that we all are who we are because of community– because of such connections. Each life is a patchwork quilt sewn together by a changing circle of hands, patch after patch, stitch after stitch, each hand building on the efforts of others until the work is perfected.

There is no lack of mothers where there is this kind of community! Hooray for mothers and motherhood ! Hooray for women with bottomless hearts and tireless hands who do not need the pretext of a navel string to bind themselves to others in need. And if you were privileged to be born female, well, then the mantle now falls on you and on me to continue this great work.

Please celebrate with me and share a reflection of the “mothers” who have blessed your life in the comment section below.

 

 

 

 

Ahem, Yes! I Did Wear that Before!

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Jacket Circa 2002 – Gift from Mark

I am becoming a staunch counterculturalist! I don’t know precisely when or how it started happening, but it is clear to me that if everyone is going left, then I will be the one staring longingly in the right direction with my hand raised high to ask the annoying question with a preface: “Ahhh, not to cause problems or anything, but exactly why aren’t we going right?”

That is certainly how I have felt about fashion and the media’s constant barrage at us to buy more new clothes. Well, “Not to cause problems or anything, but what’s the deal with this constant buying of new clothes for the change of season, a special event, a new job, or for no reason whatsoever?” I just don’t get it! As someone who deliberates long and hard about most clothing purchases, the lure of intentionally choosing to sign up again and again for a shopping encore, eludes me. Personally, I hardly have time for all the wonderful things in life that interest me to devote another minute more than necessary to shop for clothes—be it online or face-to-face.

But then again, perhaps my penchant for being this way is not even of my own doing; it is a function of growing up Trini. If there was one subject area that I learned while still in elementary school, it was economics. My father, aunts, uncles and teachers, well, almost everyone, it seemed was teaching us about economizing. What that meant in our house was that we should cut the cheese so thinly that we could see through it. What that meant was–“No, you cannot have bread with peanut butter AND jelly. Are you kidding me! It was one sandwich filling OR the other. My dad would say: “Learn to economize.” When I eventually got to high school and started the formal study of economics, I was thrilled that I already had a head start in understanding that in a world of limited resources we need to use what we have wisely.

In Trinidad, we were recycling, reducing, reusing long before it was fashionable to do so. In fact, I remember collecting glass bottles along with all the other children in our neighborhood, and waiting expectantly for the trucks that would drive through on certain days to swap our collection for coveted coins that would allow us to purchase a palette or ice-cream cone when that particular truck came by. All school children wore uniforms to school, and we washed and ironed them until they were so threadbare that the tired fabrics would burst forth in triumphant holes with any sudden slight exertion.

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Spring Jacket Circa 2005- Still Wearing It!

Is it any wonder that I still hold on to my clothes?  I have clothes in my closet that I have had for as many as twenty years. Yes, twenty years! In a younger life that would have perhaps bothered me a bit to admit, but now I celebrate it! There’s no shame in my game! First, can I just say that they still FIT (Well,  most of them, anyway.) Sheesh! That should be reason enough to celebrate, right? Those that don’t fit, I pass along to a friend or donate.  And if you are thinking well: “You must look a mess!” I think my husband would be the first to tell me so. (He was not fortunate to grow up as I did but had to contend with growing up here. Ha ha ha! Let’s just say, he does not quite share my passion for old clothes).

Now, I know that my approach to  fashion is not for everyone. So if this is not you, feel free to mosey on over to another blog at this point. However, if you have even a sliver of curiosity or are an aspiring counterculturalist, I will offer 10 tips for getting the most out of your clothes and in the process loving the planet a bit more.

  1. Recognize that you are MORE than what you wear. My personal mantra is my own butchering of a quote by Coco Chanel: “Dress showy and they notice the dress; dress immaculately and they notice the person.” Aim to dress in such a way that people notice YOU before they notice what you are wearing.
  2. Know your Style Formula and Work with It: Spend time thinking about what colors, fabrics, and styles work best for you and work that formula. For example, I have learned that I look best in autumn colors, long skirts, princess line cuts etc. I couldn’t care less about what is the rage this season. I do venture out to try new fabrics, styles, or colors on occasion, but for the most part I remain true to my formula.
  3. Go for Classic Designs: Avoid trendy looks that are in one season and out the next. Instead opt for wardrobe staples in classic cuts. If you work in a professional settings, go for classic blazers, suits, shirts, slacks and skirts that you can easily mix and match. Give as much thought to your casual look understanding your style formula and choosing timeless pieces that bring your collection together.
  4. Shop Quality over Quantity: Be prepared to spend a bit more on clothes that you intend to keep in your wardrobe for the long haul. Pay attention to the quality of fabric, go with trusted brands, and pay attention to care labels. However, quality does not always equate with high cost—(See next point).
  5. Shop End of Season for Next Season: Free from the compulsion to be the first to wear the latest color craze for the season, choose to wait until the end of the season to buy quality items when prices are sure to dip low. Be sure to also browse discount stores for good quality past season clothing.
  6. Care Creatively for your Clothes: Invest the time in taking care of your clothes. Follow care instructions for fabrics and be prepared to update, mend and even transform pieces. I have switched out buttons to update a suit, added appliques and decorative patches over holes, dyed fabric, and used needle and thread and/or my sewing machine to extend the life of a treasured piece.
  7. Share the Wealth: If you have taken great care of your clothes, then those that no longer fit or just don’t work for you anymore can be consigned or donated to benefit some else.
  8. Shop Consignment: If you want to cultivate a timeless look, consignment shops are a great place to find classic, hard to find, quality items at reduced cost. Moreover, with the push for conservation in recent times, consignment shops have undergone remarkable transformations. You can find clean shops that are very well run in upscale zip codes.
  9. Buy Only if It Passes the Test: Set up your own internal criteria for determining if a new item should become part of your wardrobe. I have about four test questions: Are there multiple occasions and events to which I can wear it? Does it play nice with other pieces in my collection? Is it consistent with my style brand? and Is it something that I can see myself wearing for years to come?
  10. Cultivate Your Style Brand: Well-worn pieces of clothing that have been with you through the years have a certain je nais se quoi quality to them—that money cannot buy. They become a part of your identity brand. The more you practice and adhere to the first 9 tips, the more your wardrobe will be congruent with your personal story. Your sense of style will effortlessly communicate your life brand without you even saying a word. What I hope my clothes communicate is my personal brand– elegantly simple.

I love going through my collection of clothes, and thinking back to the occasions and events on which I wore them. There is so much history there: the suit I wore for my first job interview after graduate school, the skirt I wore on one of my first dates with Mark, my first splurge on a pair of St. John’s shoes, the dress I wore to my father’s funeral, and the denim jacket –a gift from Mark while we were dating (I am wearing it now as I type). Oh my! There is more than old clothes here, more than fabric, more than fancy buttons, designer tags, and embellishments on these pieces—they are mile markers on my life journey, and it is comforting to fit into them and feel the warm nostalgia of yesteryear embracing me once again.

So I say: “Out with the new and in with the old!” And the next time you see me and are perhaps wondering: “Hmm, didn’t I see her wear that before?” Chances are that the answer is: “Yes!” Yes, indeed, and isn’t that a beautiful thing?

 

Finding Your Speaking Voice

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Windows on the World 2015

If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would one day earn my living by speaking, I would have said,”No way!” As a child, I was constantly teased about my voice–too squeaky, too mousy, too soft spoken! So to become a professor, and a frequent presenter in a variety of settings at that, I had to learn to find my speaking voice; I had to learn to own my voice as something that was unique about me–to think of it as an asset and not a liability.

I did not benefit from a formal speaking forum like Toastmasters International. I wish I had. Rather, I learned how to become a public speaker on the job. Being in the academy, I learned the importance of having good organizational structure for a presentation, of voice modulation, how to maintain eye contact, and to watch for vocal interferences.  Knowing how to cultivate good public speaking techniques has indeed helped to make me a more polished speaker; however, it is not what I think is most critical in making me or anyone not merely an effective public speaker, but an impactful one. Allow me to share with you three strategies that have helped me, and which I think will also help you find your voice to achieve speaking success:

1. Recognize that it’s not about you: Early in my career, I was intent on being “the presenter”–the one up front with the information to share with the waiting audience. The problem with this stance is that it separates you, the presenter, from your listeners, when the goal should be to connect you with them. Even if you have important information to share, it should be from the perspective that information is co-constructed between you and them–the audience.

When I give the same presentation to various groups, it is never the same presentation.hernandez presentation It changes because the audience is different and our combined interaction creates a unique information sharing experience. The information exchange in each context is as much about what I have to say as it is about what the audience has to say to me, non verbally and/or verbally. In recognizing that, I have learned to  privilege their presence above my own, and I listen to their needs as I speak and I am willing to accommodate as I go along, choosing to tell a joke or not, to know when to linger on a point or not, or to clarify further. Most importantly, when we choose to approach a speaking engagement in this way, the audience can feel it; it makes them more receptive to what we have to say. So recognize first of all that it’s not about you. It’s about the audience and the message.

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Presentation at University of the Virgin Islands

2. Be Authentic: Every year my husband sets up a tripod and we take a family photo with our girls in front of our Christmas tree. Even I will admit that the photos often look Hallmark ready. Perhaps, the only thing that might make them better was if we had a boy and a girl–but there’s no helping that any more!!

When we do send our photo out to our relatives and friends, we get lots of “Oohs and ahhs!” But what they do not see are  the dozens of photos that did not make the cut; the many freshening ups I did with the kids hair, and me begging them to please focus and smile. The perfect family photo is all a facade, isn’t it?

To find your voice in public speaking, it should be your goal to dispel the facade of the perfect speech or the perfect presenter. Lose the pretension and be real with the audience!  They do not want a perfect speech or a perfect presenter. What they want is a message and a presenter with whom their own imperfect humanity can connect.

Last November, I spoke at a church my family has attended for the last few years. I would guess that the Christmas card photo is pretty much the image that members of the church see of us each Saturday. However, when I spoke that morning, I referenced the time when I only had one pair of shoes for church. After the presentation, I received many compliments. Finally, a lady come up, hugged me hard and said,”Wow, I did not realize that you were one of us!” Others wanted to share their own one pair of shoes stories with me. I had broken through the facade by keeping it real.

3. Speak from your Pain and Your Passion: This is the hardest  skill to master. But if you want to provide added value in you presentations, you must learn to own your story and tell it with conviction and power. No matter what the topic is that I am called on to present, I look for ways to connect it to my pain and my passions because I know that these are my secret ingredients.

We live in an age of information obesity. Almost any information can be found with  a few taps on a keyboard. Yet, you and I own something valuable that cannot be found using Google–our story, our convictions, and no one is as qualified as I am to tell my story, as you are to tell your story. Now it is indeed hard to master this skill because it requires discipline to speak about your passions with conviction but not with anger; it requires courage and discipline to speak about your pain without falling apart at the podium. But then again, it’s okay if your voice quivers a bit. It’s okay if a tear falls because it tells people that you are just like them–human. Aspire to speak from your pain and your passion.

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Kappa Presentation with Jean

In 2009, my best friend Jean passed away after a 5 year battle with cancer, and I was asked to give a tribute at her memorial service. I did. But I am sure if that speech were evaluated on the basis of technique, it would be viewed as an epic failure. I cried my way through almost every major point, runny nose and all, with frequent pauses to compose myself all the way to the bitter end. I was a mess! And yet, as I listened to the audience through my tears, I heard and saw them laughing at my funny recollections, grieving with me this loss, and waiting patiently for me in those moments when I needed to compose myself. Someone had even gotten up from the pews and come to the podium to hand me some tissue.

I can now look back on that presentation as one of my finest hours in public speaking because I was applying these three strategies: I recognized that in that moment it was not about me but about giving my friend a tribute she deserved; I was being authentic about the feelings in my heart; and I was speaking through my pain and my passion with this same soft voice. I had come a long way in finding my speaking voice. I wish you every success as you continue to advance towards finding yours.

* A slightly different version of this post was given as a presentation to the Toastmaster Group of Tortola, British Virgin Islands on March 1, 2016.

In Search of An Unhurried Life

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Morning walk -Tortola, BVI

One of my friends shared a link to a book by Alan Fadling entitled, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. As I made a bee line to get the book from my library, I could not help but think: “Foiled again! Someone beat me to it!” Well, perhaps, not exactly, the title of the book I have been writing in my head for the past year or so, but close enough to the central thesis. But even as Fadlings’ book sits on my pile of books to read, my mind has taken off again with thoughts about the hurried age in which we live.

Somewhere along the line, I think we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that the level of busyness in our lives is in some way equal to our level of importance. In the book, Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace, Jan Johnson launches a sharp critique against a culture where we actually celebrate such busyness. In fact, it is common place to hear comments like: “Wow, I only got three hours of sleep last night”; or “I flew to 3 different states in this past week” (all uttered with an air of thinly concealed importance). Unbelievable! And wait for it! This is usually not a singular, once in a while occurrence. It is, in fact, a way of life. Well, not for me. I pass! Before you take me to task for adopting such a stance, I will offer three reasons in defense of my penchant for easy living.

First, I come by my quest for an unhurried life quite honestly. My aversion to such “madness” and I do call it “madness” stems in the first instance from a source that is partially out of my control—my socialization. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. For those of you who do not know, Trinidad and Tobago has been ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for having the most public holidays, 14 at last count. It seems that every week in Trinidad and Tobago, there is always something to celebrate—a moment to “kick back”, “buss a lime’ with friends and family, “have a fete”, or just take it easy. And though some have argued (I must admit with some credence) that this kind of frivolity is one of the chief culprits behind low levels of productivity, I would argue alternatively, that the benefits of such a life style to the “je no sais quoi” –that certain something that is so infectious, bubbly, inviting and warm-hearted about Trinidadians is in my view of inestimable worth.

The second influence, is a function my personality. Again, not exactly something I could control, right? I knew early in life that I wanted to find a job that would feel more like play than work for me—a job that would nurture my spirit life and also leave me enough time to live. I didn’t want to be pressured to take a bus, or train, or plane, or bicycle for that matter; in rain, wind or snow in a race to catch the mighty dollar; to get to a job that would suck up 8 hours of my day for 50 to 51 weeks out of the year. So, I became a professor And I don’t mean to gloat, but, hey, it works!

I can deal with less money in my pay check—but not less time to live. Living for me involves crafting out the right ratio between time to work and time for the really important things in my life. For me those things include time to seek out an old teacher/mentor or friend and reconnect, and tell them what a blessing they have been in my life; time to lose myself in a new favorite hobby that does not require clicking or dragging anything on a screen, time to ease into the day with a good talk with God so that I am clear on His assignment for me for that day; time to sip and enjoy a cup of tea and a good book; and time to look into my children’s eyes and really listen to what they are experiencing in their world.

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Sunrise run -Fort Myers, Florida.

The third influence on my quest for an unhurried life is the most critical. It is my faith. I believe that God calls us into a space of simplicity and quietude so that we can come to find him and know Him better. Moreover, I have been struck by how little “capacity” (a term my husband and I use to describe our lack of time) we have built into our lives for anything other than our concerns or what is in our Google calendar. There is just no time to do ministry, meet for a casual informal get together, stop by someone’s house just because, or help a neighbor in need.

Just to be clear, I do not live in “La La Land”. I know what it is like to have bills to pay and mouths to feed. In spite of my job and my desire for an unhurried life, each day, I push against the current and a tidal wave of activities and requests that threaten to crowd my life with ‘stuff to do” for me, for my kids, commitments at work and at church, financial commitments etc. etc. And yet, ultimately how we choose to spend our time has to be a personal choice. We can take control! How intentional are we in crafting out unhurried time and space, to reflect, take in the rhythms of life and to hear God’s voice? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God”. I don’t have all the answers, and I am not totally in the quiet, unhurried space I want to be so God can effectively use me, but with His help, I am continuing the search. I want to be ready for His interruptions! Won’t you join me?