A list for the new year

Last week, I asked friends to send a single word for column inspiration. They sent an amazing list of words, including joy, perspective, procrastinate, conflicted, mercy, vacation, praline, sparkle, meditate, peace, angels, laughter, serenity, kumquat, hope, serendipity, kinkajou, penultimate, obstreperous, Africa, blessed and bucolic.
The words and their origins are as varied as my friends! The sheer variety of words and people who sent them my way was enough to inspire another Long Story Short — and I am always grateful for inspiration. Having had the privilege to share my thoughts, stories and life with so many of you for another year (topping more than 600 columns since I began back in early 2002) is something I don’t take for granted.
One of my friends suggested the word transpontine, a word I had never heard. It’s an adjective that means across or beyond a bridge. The teacher in me is ashamed I didn’t figure out its meaning — trans for cross and the French pont for bridge should have been all the clues I needed. It’s a great word that is appropriate for this time of year. To me, it sounds like a word filled with possibility, of opportunity, of the unknown.
Learning new and useful words brings me inexplicable joy. One of the best things about using an electronic reader is the being able to look up and mark words on the spot. I find myself checking the definition of a lot more words when I use an electronic reader than when reading traditional books — even words whose meaning I know or can surmise. I like the ease of checking to get the full story and giving my brain a little nudge.
In an attempt expand my vocabulary, I’ve taken to highlighting words I’d like to use more — some are new and unfamiliar and some I learned long ago and have simply forgotten to use through the years.
We do that, don’t we? Sometimes we overuse the familiar. Incorporating new in our lives takes energy and effort, but the new year provides the perfect jumping off point to do so — and lists help.
During 2013, my words-to-use list has grown. I’ve decided to have some fun and share a portion of my list with you. Throughout the coming year, I’ll do my best to use each of the following words in a column. If you spot one, email me and I’ll send you an original poem, probably one dedicated to that word — or maybe to you. Truthfully, I’d rather have you keep me accountable regarding my diet and exercise, but we’ll start the play-along-at-home segment appropriately with a list of words to be used in an upcoming column:

Galahad-like: meaning one who is pure, noble and unselfish
accede: to express approval or give consent
Rubicon: a bounding or limiting line, especially when crossed, commits a person irrevocably
aesthete: one having sensitivity to the beautiful, especially an art
rivulet: a small stream
jingoism: extreme chauvinism or nationalism marked especially by a belligerent foreign policy
Sisyphean: endless and futile
djinn: a genie
athwart: across
trenchant: incisive, vigorous, effective, energetic
byword: saying or a proverb
anneal: to strengthen or toughen
acme: the highest point or summit
bonhomie: good-natured, easy friendliness
recondite: difficult for one of ordinary understanding to comprehend
prolix: marked by an excess of words
vulpine: foxy or crafty

For practice: Tis the transpontine season. As we say goodbye to 2013 and hello to 2014, I wish you much bonhomie in your adventures. Here’s to a wonderful 2014!

Christmas birthday of mystery and joy

Turning 12.


Tomorrow, my baby girl turns 12.
The days leading to her birthday are full of emotion for both of us. Even though Piper’s big day is in the midst of Christmas hullabaloo, we do our best to do it up right and she is excited. On the other hand, and unlike most children her age, she approaches her birthday with a tinge of melancholy.
While every birth is grounded in some degree of mystery and faith, hers has more mystery than most — though she is one of thousands who share a similar story.
We adopted our daughter 11 years ago from a “small town” of about 5 million in Southeast China. From the moment we laid eyes on her, we were smitten. The convoluted and complicated path her short life had followed until that point brought her into our arms — and for that we will always be grateful.
We had little energy for the lack of certainties in her life — pre-us. For example, the Chinese adoption agency told us they believed her birthday to be accurate with a great degree of confidence, but she and I can’t help but wonder. Yet, as a friend and adoptive mother of Chinese daughters told me, “Their birthdates are one of the few ‘facts’ we were given. So we never question them and just celebrate.”
Like our friends, we celebrate her birthday with gusto, but unlike them, Piper has plenty of questions. Her focus on the circumstances of her birth seems to be the exception rather than the rule in the world of international adoption. As her mom, I do my best to honor what she needs and keep the focus healthy.
For example, one day, when she was about four, she was feeling especially sad about having so little information about the circumstances that led her birth family to place her, bundled in pink clothes, in a small box on a busy sidewalk in a lovely part of her hometown. Sitting in my lap going over the possibilities, Piper began to weep about her birth mom and said, “I didn’t even get to tell her goodbye.”
Those words stay with you. That feeling of incompleteness stays with you. There is so much we’d both like her birth mom to know. Mainly, I wish she could know that even though moments of genuine grief peek through in this little girl’s world, at her core, she is a child of joy and light. Her dad and I will be eternally grateful for the comfortable bliss that abides in this child — and it’s something we recognize we have little to nothing to do with.
Often, Piper and I wish there wasn’t a world between her birth mom and us. We would like this stranger in another land to know that sometimes, we feel her presence. We believe she did her best by her baby girl. And in that, I want her to know that I do my best to do right by her sacrifice.
And there are little things sprinkled through our days that I wish this unknown woman could witness — I wish she could see Piper skip. I wish she could hear her sing or watch her play the piano. I wish she could admire one of her drawings or share her obsession with pens. I wish she could watch her giggle, dance and run with the wind.
Sometimes I wish Piper’s birthday were during a time when we could focus more attention on her day, rather than the holiday frenzy. The reality is though that the whole Christmas celebration is about a birthday — of another child born in less than ideal circumstances who came to represent love, peace, hope and grace. It’s also about adoption — adoption by an earthly father of an earthly son and adoption through grace for so many.
Happy birthday, Piper, and Merry Christmas to all.

Happy Holidays. That’s right. I said it.

Happy Holidays!This is a story with two simple points:
Five years ago, on Christmas Eve, I found myself working in a retail store — a bookstore, in fact. I had not worked in retail since high school and had never worked in a store on Christmas Eve. Books and people who were in a gift-finding frenzy surrounded me — so it was kind of fun. The customers were trying to get their last-minute gifts as quickly as possible — and get to the place they really wanted to be.
The day was part madness and part joy. I love books and helping people find the perfect book for their friend or loved one was a rush for me. I decided early in the day to make a game out of how many customers I could help find just such the perfect book for the person still waiting to be checked off the list. After all, the clock was ticking. To make it even more fun, I solicited a few other fun-spirited associates to join my game. We had an informal competition, going so far as to keep score as to how many gifts we helped customers find. Sometimes, to get an extra point, I would literally run toward customers. My philosophy was, “We are here whether we like it or not. We might as well find a way to make it fun.”
And we did.
At some point early in the afternoon, I was working at the cash register. I was in a jolly mood, filled with Christmas cheer. A lady came to the register with four books to check out. We chitchatted as I scanned the items she was purchasing and completed the transaction. As I placed her books in a bag, I handed her her purchases, smiled and said, “Happy holidays!”
I meant it.
And then I looked up. The look on her face told me something was very wrong. She was not pleased. She huffed and puffed and scowled at me and said, “No thank you!” Then she snatched the bag I was handing her. “You may wish me ‘Merry Christmas’ if you’d like, but do not wish me ‘Happy holidays!’”
Stunned, I mumbled, “Merry Christmas,” and she headed for the door, leaving me staring after her in disbelief. So much for the Christmas spirit.
Five years later, I remember the moment with the same incredulity. How could anyone with a good conscience or heart support this type of behavior? I genuinely wished her happiness — not just for that day, but also for the coming week, when many people take the whole time off between Christmas and New Year’s. I would go before any court arguing that saying “Happy holidays,” does not necessarily imply a politically correct agenda. If her implication was that I was trying to acknowledge Hanukkah, that celebration had been over several weeks by then. Even so, to scowl, scorn and scoff at a person working on Christmas Eve who just offered positive, peaceful wishes to you, seems to negate any spirit of the Christ in Christmas a person could call herself supporting.
A friend of mine said, “I just don’t get it. I’m a devout, practicing Christian, but I really resent being vilified for saying, ‘Happy holidays.’”
Point no. 1: To be certain, there are people out there persecuting others, but the persecutors are not the ones saying, “Happy holidays.” Be nice to them; they’re wishing you well.
Point no. 2: The people working retail are not making a load of money. They have usually been standing on their feet for a long time. With a few exceptions, most of them are good people trying to make ends meet by providing a service to others. They celebrate holidays too. Even if you’re tired and grumpy, this shopping season, go out of your way to be nice to the people who work in retail.
A long time ago, I realized that one of the best ways to understand the true character of a person is to observe how he or she treats those in service positions. Use this season of celebration to show the world the good stuff.

Time Capsule in Paris.

Time Capsule in ParisThis article fascinates me. Why wouldn’t she have gone back?

From the UK’s Independent by John Hall

Revealed: Eerie new images show forgotten French apartment that was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II and left untouched for 70 years

Other than a thick layer of dust covering the furniture, the room looks exactly as it would have done 70 years ago when its occupants fled Paris for the south of France as the Second World War erupted in Europe.

With Germany devising the Fall Gelb – a military sub-campaign later known as the Manstein Plan, with an objective conquering Northern France – the owner of the chic apartment decided that leaving the capital was the only way she could guarantee her safety.

The flat’s titleholder, a woman known only as Mrs De Florian, never returned to the apartment and never rented it out. Its existence only came to light in 2010, when Mrs De Florian died without issue at the age of 91 and experts were brought in to value the property.

The flat, which is close to the Pigalle red-light district in Paris’ 9th Arrondissement, was said to be like a “stumbling in to the castle of Sleeping Beauty” by one expert, as a room full of artworks and beautiful furniture was discovered behind its long-locked font door.

One specialist, Oliver Choppin-Janvry, said he was particularly impressed by a tableau of a woman in a pink muslin evening dress, which turned out to be a work by the 19th Century Italian artist Giovanni Boldini.

As if to complete to fairy-tale discovery, it later emerged that the beautiful woman in the portrait was Mrs De Florian’s grandmother Marthe, who had been a renowned actress, socialite and Boldini’s muse.

Although the never-exhibited artwork was not signed by Boldini, a love letter accompanying it identified the work, and it was later dated to 1898 after a reference was found in a book by the artist’s widow.

Originally put up for sale at £253,000, an astonishing ten bidders pushed its final sale price up to almost £1.8 million – no doubt partially inspired by the astonishing story behind the long-lost piece.

Are you up for the Grocery Store Challenge?

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A friend in another state wrote me a note this week.

It went something like this: “Tonight I was at the grocery store in the self-checkout lane. A woman and her 10-year-old daughter were next to me. They were obviously really poor. Torn, dirty clothes. They smelled. They were buying cheap peanut butter and bread. I had cheese that cost more than their food for the next few days. She clung to her money as she put it in the machine.”

Now, let me tell you about my friend.

She is a giving soul. She is not wealthy, but she is great at giving. She has learned the secret — giving to others provides more value to her than the money is worth. So, she buys dinner for strangers in restaurants. She buys cups of coffee for the people behind her in line at the drive through. She gives money to charitable organizations that help support people who live in poverty. She buys the “holiday dinner grocery bags filled with food to donate over the holidays.

She is also a talker. She is not afraid to talk to anyone.

So here is where her story gets interesting.

She wrote to me, “In the face of two real people going through a bad time, one in which I could have helped out, I was paralyzed.”

She didn’t want to be rude.

“My fear of saying the wrong thing impeded me from helping someone. What’s the worst that could have happened if I had offered help? They tell me they weren’t poor and had just finished cleaning their gutters or something? I don’t know,” she wrote.

She is right. She is also wise enough to know how quickly she recovers from being embarrassed, but neither of us know much about how long it takes to recover from hungry.

Her situation made me think of another friend — one who is a successful attorney today. A decade ago, she was a young, single mother struggling to get an education and working three jobs. Even though she wasn’t a complainer, several people took note of her efforts. One day as the holidays approached, one of them was courageous enough to fill the trunk of her car with food. That act of generosity changed my friend’s life. It was a bold act that could have been awkward and embarrassing for both of them, but her co-worker took the chance — and in doing so, her generosity has touched an untold number of lives.

Last week, my friend in the grocery store was paralyzed with fear and didn’t take that chance. I’ve done the same thing before and missed opportunities to help or share with others. Instead, she went home and cried. I don’t blame her at all. Maintaining everyone’s dignity is complicated and can be uncomfortable, but as my friend learned, it’s awkwardness worth risking.

Once struck with the magnitude of missed opportunities, something clicks in some of us — and we just start living our lives differently.

“We just seem to get in our own way too much,” she wrote. “I felt so stupidly pampered — and so glad I wasn’t them, which made me feel guilty.”

We’re not accustomed to running into hungry people in the grocery store, or at least people we recognize as hungry. When we do, we don’t know what to do. The lesson is, “Be prepared to help — look for the opportunities all around.”

You will be amazed at what it will do to your life. Who wants to go home and cry over a missed opportunity at helping someone in need, when the answer of what to do is right in front of you — albeit a little out of your comfort zone?

The next time my friend will know what to do. I’m convinced things like this happen to us so that we’re prepared for something bigger — even though she and I both wish she could have helped that pair too. Maybe my friend’s candor will help others learn too.

Maybe you, yes, that would be you, who just read that sentence, will be presented with an up-close and personal opportunity to make a positive difference in the life of someone or several someones sooner than you’d expect. Or maybe you already have.

Either way, you know what to do.