Waiting for the Ocean View – Recycled

This morning, I was feeling sorry for myself, stuck in Iowa for the entire winter, slogging through the rewrites of my new book, day dreaming about February of 2009 when Hiram, my sister, and I went to sunny southern California for a long weekend visit with an elderly relative. This post from February 27 of that year shows that the trip was not the completely idyllic interlude of my recollection. It also reminds me of the parents who found comfort in my first book, A Different Dream for My Child, and who want to read the second one, Different Dream Parenting.

It’s also the perfect segue into a reminder for readers. The Readers’ Choice Awards contest is still on, and A Different Dream for My Child is one of five finalists, presently in third place. The hot and heavy voting continues, and you can vote once a day, every day, through March 8 at about.com.  Thanks!

Waiting for the Ocean View

Okay, go ahead and laugh. We’re not in California and won’t get there until this evening since our morning flight to Minneapolis was delayed (mandatory rest for crew) so we missed our connecting flight. Our new flight doesn’t leave until later this afternoon, so Hiram and I are enjoying a day in the Omaha airport. Guess we can check that one off our Bucket Lists.

My sister, who drove to the Minneapolis airport through the snow, made her connection just fine. And to think that last night we were congratulating ourselves for picking the cheaper Omaha flight and missing the Minnesota snowstorm we would have driven through to fly out with her. She’s a really good sister. She didn’t even say “I told you so.”

But to wet my ocean whistle, I found this photo I took a few years ago. My friend, Helen, and I had a great afternoon, walking on the Atlantic beach and wading through the warm August ocean. After visiting Helen for a few days, I went to a writers’ conference near Boston. At that conference I hatched the idea for A Different Dream for My Child with the woman who advocated for my book and Discovery House Publishers and is now my editor.

This morning, we chatted with our linemates as we inched toward the ticket counter. We talked about our jobs and my book came up. One man asked how he could buy the book. He and his wife have one child, a five-year-old son with severe autism. I directed him to my website and gave him my business card, wishing the book was already published. Suddenly, the line moved. He went one way, we went another.

Afterwards I realized I didn’t know his name. But his son’s a beautiful, brown-eyed boy named Conner. And Conner’s dad said what every parent who needs the book says when they hear its title.  “That’s exactly what it is,” he said. “A Different Dream, not a bad one.”

His attitude put one less day at the beach in perspective. It’s a different dream, not a bad one.

Soy Beetles & Culture Shock

Though I’ve been back in Iowa for more than a week now, I’m still wrestling with culture shock. The rudest reminders that I’m no longer in sunny Califorian, but back in the Midwest, are the soy beetles.

These tiny critters first made their presence known around these parts in the fall of 2000. (I know this because they showed up the year Allen was a senior and our foreign exchange student, Adrian, lived with us.) The nasty little insects look like lady bugs, though they’re more orange than red and stinkier than all get out. They don’t do any harm, but they don’t do any good either.

Most of the year they stay outdoors, until the farmers harvest the soybeans and obliterate the soy beetles’ summer homes. The homeless, stinky bugs stay in the fields, shivering and immobile, as long as the weather stays cold. But give ‘em a sunny day to warm up their innards, and they become heat-seeking missiles, swarming the southern walls of every house on the outskirts of town, including ours.

But when the sun goes down and the temperature plummets, the bugs drop to the ground in small, orange drifts. The orange drift on the threshold of our kitchen door was my rude, culture shock reminder.

At the sight, I sprang into action, grabbing the broom and sweeping away the nasty proof of my return from paradise. Every sunny day, I sweep another drift away, humming while I work…I’m California dreaming on an autumn day.


Life at Kid Level

On Thursday I spoke at our town’s local chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an organization for professional women. Several of the women were former teaching colleagues of mine an during the question and answer time, one of them asked me if I missed teaching.

I didn’t want to offend anyone by saying “No!” with too much enthusiasm and conviction. So I paused to think before speaking, a practice I should use more often, and something came to mind. “I miss my teaching friends and the relationships we forged together.”

Several women nodded in agreement and smiled. As they did, my thoughts raced back to San Diego and my stay in the guest house on the mountain top. One morning as I did laps around the exterior of the mansion and back and forth on the section of driveway which was not more than a 5% grade, a little girl popped out the back door and asked, “Why do you keep walking by here?”

I stopped to explain. “I like to walk, and there aren’t many places to walk on top of a mountain. So I have to go in circles.”

“Oh.” She thought for a minute. “I’ll come with you.” And she did, though her feet were bare, her wavy brown hair was a beehive bed head, and her pajamas were an old t-shirt of her grandpa’s that nearly dragged on the ground.

“How old are you?” I asked.

The words tumbled out and her soft brown eyes sparkled. “I’m just passed four. I’ve only been five for a few weeks. My birthday was September 22. That’s two twos.”

“Did you have a party?”

Abruptly, she stopped walking and put her hands on her hips. “Yes, I did. And I invited you, but you didn’t come.”

I defended myself. “But I didn’t know you then.”

She shook her head. “I invited you. I know I did.”

No matter how many different ways I phrased it, she wouldn’t buy it. Finally, I had to promise to come next year if she invited me, even though it would take a drive in the car and two plane rides to get from my house to hers.

And I realized, as I spoke at Delta Kappa Gamma on Thursday night, that is what I miss about teaching: life at kid’s level where for a brief moment, I could make a difference and become different by bending down and seeing things with the eyes of a child.

“There’s one other thing I miss,” I told them. “Life at kid level.”

They knew exactly what I meant.

Ordinary Blessings

In the last seven days I’ve seen so many beautiful things: California sunrises and sunsets, rolling desert mountains, palatial homes, the Pacific Ocean, the posh resort where the classic movie Some Like It Hot was filmed, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, the Coronado Bridge.

But yesterday, between trips, I was home for 24 hours and spent one of them walking through the park. The leaves on the trees were brilliant, and I took picture after picture, trying to capture their beauty without much success. But when I left the park for home, walking on an ordinary small town sidewalk, I looked up at a tree so richly yellow it gleamed.

My heart skipped a beat, then I walked on. Seconds later, I retraced my steps, unwilling to abandon the shining moment. Ignoring the cars passing by, I aimed my camera up until the viewfinder was a solid mass of gold, and clicked. When I reviewed my pictures later, this one – the one I almost didn’t take, contained all the beauty of an Iowa fall morning.

In the past few days I’ve seen oceans and mountains, great cities and marvelous feats of engineering. But nothing has been more lovely than the pure gold I saw on an ordinary tree on an ordinary street in my ordinary little town.

The ordinary blessings, if I take time to see and appreciate them, are the greatest blessings of all.

Muriel & Me

One of the shining delights of this trip to San Diego, and there were many, was a visit with my grandfather’s cousin Muriel. She’s our family historian, so seven months ago my sister, Hiram and I flew out to pick her brain.

When this speaking engagement in San Diego materialized, along with a free guest ticket to the tea, I immediately invited Muriel. She immediately accepted the invitation. During the tea we didn’t have much time to chat, but afterwards we went to a little coffee shop and spent a couple hours catching up with one another.

In the seven months since we last met, the two Iranian immigrants Muriel had opened her home to moved out and are now in their own apartment. She’s still enjoying the “Read Through the Bible” class she attends one evening a week at her church. She’s also joined a writers’ group where she’s received valuable suggestions about how to expand and refine the biography she’s writing about her grandparents, Fred and Tabitha Hess, who are my great-great grandparents.

She hopes to pursue publication of the biography and the more than one hundred letters Fred wrote to Tabitha during his four year enlistment as a Union Civil War soldier. “And if I don’t get it published,” she told me, “it’s still valuable mental exercise.”

Did I mention that Muriel is eighty-one years old? As she shared the unfolding events of her life, my admiration for this remarkable woman grew, along with my gratitude for her single-handed efforts in recording and saving our family history.

After we said our good-byes and I watched her drive away, one thought came to mind. When I grow up, I want to be just like Muriel.

Paradise Found

Paradise is back again – the books arrived, the water’s on, and the scorpion’s been replaced with a hummingbird on the bouganvilla vine not far from my guest cottage. But a brief talk with my husband this morning reminded me of the paradise I left behind in Iowa.

My son and his fiance came down Thursday night to spend a long weekend. Hiram told of their plans to hike and visit old friends, and longing washed over me. Doubt rose, and my brain swirled with questions: What am I doing in California when I could be with my kids? Why did the timing work out like this? And what business do I have speaking to special needs moms whose children may never be made whole as Allen is?

I was feeling very inadequate when I checked my email and found a note from a mother who shared her story in Different Dream. The entire email was moving, but these words spoke to my dark and doubting heart.

“Thank you for sharing your gift and calling in completing this book. When I thought of you writing this book, I thought of the sacrifice you made in doing it, entering the dark places in the hearts of the people you were writing about over and over again. I pray that now that it is done, your heart will be light, knowing all the people it will minister too.”

Her words were exactly what I needed, and her prayers were effective. My heart felt light again, not because I feel adequate, but because she reminded me that God is more than adequate. He was at work, meeting my needs through her, and would work through me to meet the needs of the moms I would soon encounter.

Confidence in Someone who has resources beyond those I possess is, I am learning, paradise found.

No Water, No Books, $ Unwelcome Surprises

Greetings from paradise, or at least the nearest thing to paradise an Iowa girl can enjoy when the October she left behind is colder, wetter and windier than any in recent memory. At this writing, this Iowa girl is sitting on the front patio of an absolutely stunning mountaintop home, looking past palm trees to the mountains on the far side of a the sunny valley.

I know, I know. All this gushing is making you want to strangle me. So let me assure you that all is not perfect in paradise. The two cases of books the publisher shipped last week so they’d be here in plenty of time for tomorrow’s book signing have yet to arrive. I’m not biting my nails over it, but please send up your prayers that they will arrive in time. About 60 parents of special needs kids will attend tomorrow’s tea, and it would be lovely to have the book available to them.

Also, when I woke in the lovely guest cottage this morning, the one I’m not going to gush about since I’m a really sensitive person and know an accurate description would renew your henchman’s mentality, the water didn’t work. So Gloria, my hostess, drove me to her daughter’s house at the bottom of the mountain, where I showered and got ready for the day.

All was well in this bathroom, which I would describe as my dream bathroom except that I don’t want you to haul out the rope again, until the scorpion appeared. Having watched plenty of cowboy movies as a kid, I knew better than to tangle with scorpions, and moved to the other sink.

So you see, paradise is nice, but not perfect. In fact the lack of perfection is making me appreciate Iowa – where I have books on hand for when the orders start pouring in, running water, and mice instead of scorpions. In fact, if you would leave me here long enough – say until April when Iowa warms up again – I’ll be closing my eyes clicking my heels together like Dorothy, and murmuring, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Unless, of course, I trade my ruby slippers for sandals and my gingham dress for a swimming suit and become a beach bum.

Just kidding. Just kidding! And would you put away the rope? You’re making me nervous!

The Same, Day After Day

Hiram, my husband, had a birthday last Sunday. He’s fifty-three, as I will be in a few months. We’ve reached that age where people look at our wedding pictures and say things like, “Wow, Hiram, you had a lot of hair!” or “Jolene, you were so…young,” or some other exclamation that requires the speaker remove a foot from the mouth.

Our trip to California was his birthday present and he says it was a great one. We’ve been married for thirty-one years, so I could have predicted the reasons he enjoyed himself: jogging on the beach every morning, listening to the stories the elderly relative on my side of the family told, fixing a kitchen drawer for the same relative, and the engrossing tour of the Midway, a retired aircraft carrier. In fact when I couldn’t find him on the carrier, I knew right where to look. He was front and center at the “Ejection Seat Theater,” captivated by both the movie and his ejection seat.

In all the important ways, Hiram hasn’t changed at all. And when I look at his college pictures – with all his sun-blond hair and without glasses – I see him as he was then and as he is now. I have no words to explain how the passage of time has changed him (and me) without changing us at all. But one of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, says it perfectly in her new novel, Home.

The main character, Glory, describes her elderly father and his lifelong friend as they tell old stories and play checkers. “The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utter changed.”

Robinson’s words describe Hiram, a man of few words, so beautifully. “…the same day after day and…somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.” I can’t wait to finish her book or to watch my husband’s unchanging transformation during the rest of our lives together. Between the two of them, there will be words enough to keep me happy for a long time.


I could have spent our whole California vacation watching surfers. Their sport is as mesmerizing as the ocean, as wild and unpredictable as the waves, as precarious and exhilarating as a baby’s first steps.

For someone like me, who finds remaining upright a challenge and standing on a balance beam an impossibility, their sense of balance boggles the mind. How can their feet cling to the board? How can their bodies, clad in slick and glistening wet suits, react with such grace to the nuances and pummeling of wind and wave?

The more I watched the surfers, the more evident it became that a successful ride is the exception rather than the rule. The surfers spent most of their time lying on their boards, paddling in the ocean, waiting for the waves. When a good ones came along, their attempts to gain the wave usually failed, and cold water engulfed them. Seconds later, they emerged from the foam, climbed on their boards, and waited for another wave.

Though the surfers intrigue me, their sport is not calling my name. The water’s too cold, the waves are too wild, and the mental picture of my middle-aged body glistening in a wet suit is absurd. But every morning when it’s time to plan the day, I see myself carrying a board toward the ocean, dipping in my toe to test the water. Slowly I climb on my board and paddle toward the waves. Every day is a struggle as waves of phone calls and emails, writing and projects threaten to engulf me.

When I fail, my only option is to try and mount the board again. Because, on the few occasions when I find my balance, the sensation is exhilarating and the world is lovely from my rare vantage point. So I try again and again and again because balance is a gift not to be received, but to pursue.

The Pelican

It doesn’t take much to thrill two baby boomer Midwesterners on a sunny California beach in February. So when my sister and I came face to face with this pelican when we rounded the side of the restaurant at the end of the Oceanside pier, we were delighted. I manned the camcorder while my sister took still photos. (Credit for today’s photo goes to her.)

The attention didn’t phase the bird, intent as it was upon it’s morning grooming ritual. A few minutes into recording my version of The Pelican Brief, three things became abundantly clear: the bird was amazingly flexible, its beak is a lethal weapon, and the species has no need to invent toilet paper

Our encounter with the mangy and tourist-weary pelican reminded me of a limerick I learned in elementary school. Maybe you learned it, too. The part I memorized was:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,

I thought the poem was by Ogden Nash, but a little research informed me that humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt penned the ditty. The research also revealed why every elementary teacher’s rendition stops before the last line:

But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

No wonder teachers cut the last line. They want to keep their jobs. But after watching one bird contort it’s body and wield its beak as only a peli-can, the last line of Merritt’s poem makes perfect sense. Just don’t tell any of my former students I said that. They would be scandalized.