Les Mis offers message for the new year

I first watched Les Miserables nearly 25 years ago. I was young (and unafraid, and dreams were made and used and wasted). Though I had never heard of the show before I went, I left the theater a changed person.

The message of the musical moved me to a degree that when I walked out of the theater that afternoon, I began to live my life differently. I did my best to take Victor Hugo’s words to heart — to love another person is to see the face of God.

I saw the musical on my first trip to Los Angeles. I was with a friend who had grown up there. She knew her way around — and coming from a small town in Mississippi, I certainly didn’t.

We had participated in a conference that morning that finished earlier than we expected. She suggested we go see a show. We made a call, bought the last two tickets, walked outside, got in a taxi (my first ever), rode about 10 minutes and walked in the theater to take our top-row-of-the-balcony seats just as the curtain was rising. The ease of getting there astounded me. I had heard about the horrors of Los Angeles traffic for most of my life — and yet we ended up in the theater seats like magic.

For the next two hours, my mind was properly blown. Until then, I hadn’t known such man-made beauty existed. We left the theater, went straight to a music store and I bought the musical’s CD, which was a monumental financial decision for me at the time.

There was only one problem.

CDs were just hitting the scene — and I didn’t have a CD player yet. The next day after I flew home, I went to a store, spent the rest of what money I had and bought a portable CD player. That double CD set of the London original cast recording of Les Miserables was the only music I had for the next six months.

I didn’t mind it.

The magnanimous gift that inspired Jean Valjean’s decision to live a different life, followed by his forgiveness of self and his dedication to serve and love others changed me profoundly. The story made me want to be a better person. Every time I sang the songs (and I sang loud and proud — people who lived in the apartments beside or above me could attest to my volume and commitment to the lyrics), my conviction to be a better person was brought round again.

Through the years, I’ve seen the live musical five times. I’ve watched the PBS broadcast of the 25th anniversary concert more times than I care to admit — and yet, I am moved every time by the beauty of the voices and music. I have shared my love of the story with my husband and children.

When I heard they were making a movie, I was hopeful, but cautious. The more I read and saw of the movie, the more hopeful and cautious I became. Seeing it the day after Christmas was almost like an out-of-body experience. Hugh Jackman won my heart. Anne Hathaway was inspiring, and Eddie Redmayne was a wonder and joy to watch.

Yes, there are things some will and have criticized. There are even things I would do differently about the film. For example, as fine of an actor as Russell Crowe is, I don’t believe his musical ability did the character of Javert justice, but I can’t be impartial and am happy the story is being shared with so many others. I believe the movie conveys the beauty of its songs and story well.

Go see it. The cast, characters, compositions and lyrics may not change your life as profoundly as the musical did mine long ago, but it’s a good message to consider for the new year.

Acknowledge the sins of our past. Forgive each other. Forgive yourself. Love others. Serve others.

A better place to live starts with us

Last week was a busy, difficult week for almost everyone I know. Underneath the busy days and long nights was a deep sadness.

Even if we didn’t want to think about, read about or watch news coverage of what happened in Connecticut, the sadness was still there, in stark contrast to what was supposed to be the joy of the season.

So many questions to ask — ranging from, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” to “How many sectors of our society do we need to change?”

The answers are complex, at best, and so hard to come by that few have the fortitude to tackle them, but we must. If we don’t try, we’ve lost the fight without even starting.

We can make this a better place to live. Of course, there is work to be done involving bureaucracies — but, as always, the place to start is with each and every one of us.

In this time of year, when most of us are able to be with the ones we love most, we can take the opportunity to face this next week with a different level of gratitude at the blessings of our lives. We can, for this week, vow to do things differently — to be the people we aspire to be.

We can sit a little longer at the table.

We can laugh a little louder with our brother.

We can be more generous with our sister.

We can hold our tongue longer with our father.

We can be gentler with our mother.

We can listen more to our children.

We can reconnect with old friends and show our appreciation to new ones.

We can watch television less. We can play board games more. We can take walks in the afternoons and look for birds on limbs bare. We can put together jigsaw puzzles.

We can get up and do it ourselves, rather than asking someone else to do it for us. We can exercise more and eat less. But when we do have the guilty pleasure of fast food or great coffee and find ourselves waiting in line at the drive-through, we can pay for the order of the person behind us. We can sit in easy chairs and take a nap or read a book.

We can read a book to a child. We can sing songs we love — and we can sing songs we don’t love because they’re the songs loved by people we love.

If we have to work during this part of the year, we can give an honest day’s work to our employers and leave work knowing we’ve done the right thing.

We can open our hearts fully to the people around us and give generously, without holding back.

This is the season, and this day will never pass again. The time is now.

Email Jan Risher at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: A list for my daughters

Alexandra Stoddard’s beautiful book, Things I Want My Daughters to Know, has inspired me to think about the simple lessons I want my daughters to know. Stoddard and I have a different take on some aspects of life, but here are my offerings:

1) Accept the love that comes your way — and there’s a lot of it. Believe in that love and yourself. Every morning, wake up and say, “I am loved, and I love myself. My responsibility is to love others and to choose to live in a way that makes the world a better place.” Don’t just say it once and move on. Live it. Live the love that has been showered on you through the years.

2) Serve others. The greatest gift you’ll ever receive is to give to others. Seriously. I’m not making this up. Try it. You’ll see. I can tell you about how wonderful and fulfilling it is all day long, but until you live it, you can’t understand the grace that comes from voluntarily giving of yourself to others. If you decide to take this path, know that a few people will take advantage of you. Figure out how to minimize your dealings with those people. On the other hand, the people who love you will work to find ways to do things for you. My mother is a great example of this. She lives most of her life to serve others. In turn, everyone wants to do what they can to see her happy. In writing this, I realize that while I work to give to many, I am not a great example of this at home. I ask your forgiveness. I will never be my mother, but I will try to do better.

3) Acknowledge your shortcomings. Ask forgiveness. Try to do better.

4) Smile and be happy. A smile makes someone else feel — and sometimes, it even makes you feel better too. While I’m not a fan of being a fake, some times deciding to be happy goes a long way. No, it’s not always possible — and an occasional wallow in the doldrums is acceptable. If you feel the need to wallow, set aside three hours and do it. Put on your flannel nightgown. Watch a movie that makes you cry and eat ice cream. Acknowledge and move on. Sometimes you have to say, “I’m going to focus on the positive things in life.” A friend recently said to me, “You know how some people say that if you want to feel better that you need to stop saying negative things? I tried it. For three weeks, I forced myself to not say or rephrase anything that I began to say that was negative or no-centric. Girl, that stuff works. I was feeling like a different person by the end of those three weeks.”

5) Appreciate beauty around you. Seek it out. Call it out. Loveliness abounds. Be grateful for beauty that’s been recognized by others — in artwork, buildings, music or drama. However, it’s also critical to find beauty in places you don’t expect — remember the beauty we found in a leaf that was disintegrating and looked like lace?

6) Take that extra step and find ways to delight yourself and others — even in your work or schoolwork. A little whimsy goes a long way. People like to be surprised by the unexpected — something joyful, charming and/or amusing. When given the opportunity, always go for wonder.

7) Seek adventure. Don’t take the same path you always take, and don’t take the same route as others. Do your research. Find your own course. Don’t put on blinders. Be open to new and unexpected paths along the way.

8) Exercise a little every day. Drink lots of water, and stop drinking soft drinks. Eat lots of greens.

9) Always have a dinner table — and use it. Cook dinner and eat it at a real table at home with your family, or those you love, at least four nights a week. Make room for more at the table when you have the chance.

10) Keep a list of all the books you read, and limit your time on the Internet (or whatever else that’s eating into your life) to no more than 90 minutes a day.

LSS: Pay it forward

We call it our sacred lunch.

Every Wednesday, my friend, Celeste White, and I meet for lunch. We rehash the week. We catch up. We vent. We look for new solutions. We celebrate successes. We laugh. We’ve only been having our sacred lunch for three months, but we both recognize as a great idea.

This week, Celeste and I sat at a table, eating our French Onion soup and steamed asparagus, discussing surprise gifts that have come our way — surprise gifts from even more surprising sources.

She told me about years ago when she was a young, single mother, barely making ends meet. When December rolled around, her circumstances worsened — not enough money for food, gas or gifts for her child. Not only was she working fulltime, but she was also in college. Plus, bartending late at night on top of school and work. She was trying to better her situation.

That December, at the end of a workday in a small office in downtown Lafayette, one of her co-workers asked if she would walk with her to her car.

Celeste did. When they got there, her friend, Bobbi Ormston, opened the trunk of her car. It was full of groceries — groceries for Celeste and her young one.

“I was just overwhelmed,” Celeste said. “I needed it so badly and my problem was suddenly solved with no effort on my part. I just couldn’t process that a person had gone to the store and with her own money bought all this stuff to feed us — to care for us because we couldn’t do it ourselves. It was a wonderful, strange feeling.”

She told me Bobbi Ormston was working for the school district now. I was able to track her down and ask if she remembered her gift of groceries to Celeste and if it was something she did on a regular basis.

“I was a late bloomer,” Bobbi said, as the start of the explanation of her near-angel status.

At the encouragement of her husband, she went back to school at the age of 35. At the end of her second year in college, her husband died. She was left with to raise their 14-year-old daughter.

“I had to work to support us, go to school full time and try to be a parent to our daughter. It was not easy,” Bobbi said. “Money was tight and sometimes not there at all after paying rent and electricity.”

She remembered one point during Christmas, when her electricity was turned off for two weeks.

“Not long after this, my daughter moved in with my mother and my younger brother took me in,” she said. “With their help, I was able to finish my degree.”

She said she was unsure how she would have made it without the kindness of friends and family. At one point, her car broke down.

“My neighbor sold her car to me for $500, and she let me pay her $50 a month to help me,” she said. “Someone would bring me a bundle of frozen fish — claiming they didn’t have room for it in their freezer. A friend would stop by with a bag of satsumas or potatoes.”

She said the gestures of love greatly affected her.

“I understood that people saw my struggle, knew I was determined and wanted to be a part of my success,” she said. “I promised myself that one day I would be able to do things for others just like they did for me.”

And so, when she watched her friend, Celeste, struggling with difficulties she knew all too well, she did what she could.

“It’s one thing to go without as an adult, but to see your child go without is hard to take,” she said. “I knew she would not be able to say no to a few bags of groceries. It made me very happy.”

These days, Ormston continues to do what she can to help others.

“I can never forget the kindness people have shown me throughout my life. I have been blessed. If I can pass that on, I will.”

What to accept and what to change

I went to the furniture store on a mission.

I intended to find and buy the perfect chair for me. Though I have a small office outside my home, I do most of my writing in my living room, feet propped up and looking out the window. I am not a potato, but I do write every day — and the quietness of my living room just works for me. However, after years of moving from couch to chair to table and back again trying to pacify one minor discomfort or the other, I decided the time had come to buy a designated Writing Chair — that’s right, a capital W and capital C Writing Chair.

I explained to the patient sales attendant my goal. She and I proceeded to walk around the entire furniture store looking for my ideal perch. She would point. I would sit and determine if each chair was a possibility or an outright no. Within an hour, I had made my decision.

Three months later, I am happy to report it was a good one.

I feel like Goldilocks.

My Writing Chair is not too soft. It’s not too hard. It’s just the right height and just the right depth. The footstool suits me too.

Buying it was a splurge, but it wasn’t a budget buster or overly extravagant.

I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.

Really, I’ve thought about it a lot and can’t figure out why I didn’t find a better solution years ago. Maybe it was because I got too comfortable and too familiar with the problem — and rather than genuinely finding a solution, I just made do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in being resourceful. However, I also believe there’s a difference between being practical and making do versus exacerbating or prolonging a situation that actually has a logical, sometimes even a simple way out — in instances somewhat trivial (like my Writing Chair situation) and in instances of great consequence (you fill in the blank here).

Now and again, we get so comfortable in our discomfort that we forget about trying to find a solution. Instead, we move around from place to place in our living rooms from sofa to chair and back again, rather than face the situation and find a better solution to the problem. Apparently, something has to jar us from our near zombie-like acceptance of whatever it is in life — from a missing piece of furniture to something more complicated — that could be improved.

The trick, of course, is knowing what to accept and what to change.

Like the Serenity Prayer says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Sometimes, when we need to create change in our lives, there’s a step that comes before courage — something has to stir us to remind us that there’s a better way. Something has to rouse us to the possibilities beyond moving around the metaphorical living room from sofa to chair. Great mystery lies in how some catalysts provoke us to take the necessary steps to improve our lives or situation, while we simply ignore or don’t notice others.

At any rate, this I know. As I sit in my Writing Chair writing, my feet are propped just right. The fire to my left warms my toes. Our freshly cut and decorated Christmas tree, full of whimsy, warms my heart — and I am full of gratitude for the blessings of a near perfect place to feed my spirit and rest my bones.