Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Give thanks with a grateful heart...

The following is the devotion I gave at the November meeting of Maple Lawn Home’s Auxiliary. These are snippets from websites that express what the person is thankful for. None of them are mine, but I identify with several of them.

I found them by typing, “I am thankful for…” in Google. These are some of the items that popped up.

I present them here in honor of Thanksgiving.
  • I am thankful for my family because they’re always there for me.
  • I am thankful for a lot of things…my good health, my friends, my coach, my family, my faith, all the people in my life ...
  • I Am Thankful For the teenager who is not doing dishes but is watching TV , because that means he is at home and not on the streets. ...
  • I am thankful for those who invented cameras (and) photography
  • I am thankful for all the good memories
  • I am thankful for the smiles of my children, for the feel of their arms strangling my neck, for the trust I see in their eyes, for the peace I see in their faces when they sleep, for the joy in their faces when they play in fresh snow, for the simple fact that they are alive.
  • I am thankful for the love our family shares and the love we share with friends.
  • I am thankful the chance to stop and take a deep breath now and then and savor the beauty that surrounds me and keeps me sane!!
  • I am thankful for hugs.
  • I am thankful for having chosen to take a path less travelled, firm in my belief and my resolve that I would make a positive difference, that I would help
  • I am thankful for my mother and my brother, and my papa, who is always with me.
  • I am thankful for my friends, both near and far.
  • I am thankful for pumpkins.
  • I am thankful for leaves that change color.
  • I am thankful for hockey.
  • I am thankful for books. Especially cookbooks.
  • I am thankful for measuring spoons. And flour. And sugar. And butter. And eggs.
  • I am thankful for a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning and gutters that need fixing because it means I have a home. ...
  • I am thankful for My Eyes
  • I am thankful for 16 wonderful years with my daughter Danielle and her friends.

 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Idiomatically Speaking

Once upon a time…well, actually it was just the other day, I was mulling over the colorful idioms—figures of speech—we sprinkle into our everyday conversations. For instance, when I ride the Maple Lawn bus to town on shopping trips, a man in the front always says “We’re off like a herd of turtles!” as we leave the parking lot.

Then others chime in with, “we’re off to the races,” or “off like a dirty shirt.” Then on the return trip, someone always says, “Home James,” to which the driver—whose name is John—replies, “There’s no James here.”

We all chuckle good naturedly, but that led me to questions like, Where do these quaint sayings come from? Why do they endure? How do they become commonly known within a particular culture?

But I’ll leave those questions for another column. Because when I brought the subject up at Pizza Hut recently, where I hang out with my posse after church choir practice, a friend mentioned off-handedly, “wouldn’t it be interesting to write an entire column idiomatically?”

I was dumbfounded! She had thrown down the gauntlet. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, a chance to achieve greatness. I had to see this through to the bitter end. So here it is—my crowning glory or my agonizing defeat—you decide.

A re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, with alternate ending

Long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a prince who was dying to get hitched to a princess; but she had to be the real McCoy, he wasn’t going to settle for just any plain Jane. He gallivanted across the globe looking under every rock and behind every tree, but he came up empty-handed every time.

The earth was crawling with princesses—you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one of them—but it was a whole other kettle of fish, to crack the code and figure out if she were the real deal or simply a gold-digger.

There was always something about them that seemed shady, not quite kosher, off the beam, a little fishy. So he would schlep back to his crib bummed out after each of his failed missions.

He felt like he was tilting at windmills and was ready to throw in the towel. All he wanted was to make the genuine article his main squeeze. But he was bound and determined to follow his quixotic quest to kingdom come or die trying.

One dark and stormy night it was raining cats and dogs and the thunder and lightning were giving a show-stopping display of nature’s fireworks. Out of the blue, came a pounding at the city gate, and the old buzzard, er, I mean, king went to open it.

Lo and behold it was a princess standing out there, bold as brass for all the world to see! But, goodness gracious, she looked like something the cat dragged in—like a drowned rat, death warmed over on a bad day—I mean she was ugly as a mud fence! Her hair looked like wet noodles, and her clothes were hanging off her, sopping wet. Still, she swore up and down, cross her heart and hope to die, that she was a real princess.

“Well, we'll see about that,” thought the old biddy, I mean, queen. She didn’t tip her hand, but she had a plan up her sleeve. She was going to set a trap for the ragamuffin claiming to have royal blood.

The queen wanted to test the theory that real princesses were delicate, but she stacked the deck against the interloper. She went into the guestroom, stripped the bed, and laid a pea on the bottom. Then she took 20 mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then 20 eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

This is where the princess was expected to lay her head and drift off to slumber land. In the morning, the royal family eagerly asked how she had slept.

"I didn’t sleep a wink!" she exclaimed. "I tossed and turned all night. Heaven knows what was in the bed. I searched high and low, but couldn’t find hide nor hair of the bugger. I don’t know what it was, but it was hard as a rock and sharp as a tack. My body is riddled with bruises—I’m black and blue all over. It stinks!"

They were filled with shock and awe. She had passed with flying colors. Now they were 100 percent sure that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the mountain of mattresses.

So the prince took the princess for his bride and they lived happily ever after, just one big happy family….or did they?

Alternate ending

Once the prince discovered that a marriage to the princess would carry on the royal blood line, he got down on one knee and popped the question on the spot. The princess, however, was having none of that. She put her hands on her hips and said, “whoa, hold your horses, buddy.

“You hardly know me from Eve. And don’t give me that ‘love at first sight’ business, I saw your look of horror when I showed up dripping wet on your doorstep.

“You couldn’t wait to get rid of me, and your mom, here, tried to pull the wool over my eyes with that crazy contraption of a bed. None of you gave me the benefit of the doubt when I insisted I was truly of royal blood.

“Now, if you want me to be your one and only, I suggest we back up a few steps. We’ll start with courting, then you’ll meet the parents. We can take long walks and talk a blue streak, sharing our tastes in music and art, our party affiliations and our thoughts on going green.

“Then if we decide we were made for each other,” she said, holding up her left hand, “you can put a ring on it.”

The prince, who had never met such a forward woman, except perhaps, the queen mum, stood there like a deer caught in the headlights before putting his big boy boxers on. He reared up, squared his shoulders, looked her straight in the eye and said, “OK.” It sounded to him like much ado about nothing, but he thought it prudent not to open that can of worms just yet.

He was really jonesing to grab the brass ring—she was the prize, and he was going to win her hand come hell or high water. Little did he know he had just met his match, and she was going to have him wrapped around her finger before he knew what hit him.

Then they lived happily ever after, or at least stuck to each other like glue, for better or worse, through thick and thin, until the 12th of never…and that’s a long, long time.

[As published in the Woodford County Journal Oct. 7, 2010]

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Note to my Body

I can feel my surgery-sweet blood, traveling down my veins, like a slow, syrupy drip.
It seeps into every part of my body, I shiver and press numb fingers to my pounding head.
My heart beats heavily. I am alone in my grief tonight.
Alone in my convictions to reclaim my life,
Regain composure,
Find clarity of thought,
Peace of mind, body and soul.
I am the walking dead.
The abused and abuser in one moment, one act, one neglectful, thoughtless, self-destructive lifetime.
I turn to my body for answers, but it does not speak. Trust is gone.
I plead, “Tell me what you need, what you claim as your right, what you desire.”
“Eyes, what is it you wish to see?
How can I clear the way to comprehend your vision?'
“Feet, where is it you want to walk?
Can you lead me to the clear, cool waters, walking upstream to see what is offered there?'
“Shoulders, what are you carrying?
What burdens can I remove from you?'
“Jaws, clinched and clinching, what do you want to say?
Would I even recognize your voice?'
“Head, swimming and brimming with, overwhelmed by…what?
What would give you clarity, what would cool your fever?'
“Stomach, round, curved, always yearning to be fed, even when the brain says, ‘Enough!’
How can I satiate you?”
Body, myBody…
I can feel my surgery-sweet blood, traveling down my body, like a slow, syrupy drip…
Walk me to the river.
Let me wash away the sins of my own making.
Let me come up from the waters, renewed, reborn, reclaimed.

Beach Feet

NOTE: The following is an article I wrote when I was a chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University to students in my dorm. I wrote a regular online column called Feed Your Spirit. (I've updated it here.)\

A few years ago, I was leading a women's retreat in Bethany Beach, Delaware. The church campgrounds where we stayed was literally two blocks from the ocean. We took advantage of the location by planning plenty of breaks in the retreat schedule so we could walk to the beach 2 or 3 times a day.

So I spent a lot of time standing on the shore with my feet planted in the sand, allowing the waves to crash over my feet. It was during a tropical storm that caused some concern but little damage to the area. It was wreaking havoc further south along the Atlantic, but we were just experiencing some residual stormy weather and high winds.

The waves were pretty fierce that weekend. I usually found myself mesmerized as I stood there watching them crest and fall onto the shore. They would crisscross each other, racing to the sloping sand.

Often, I had to replant my feet as the larger waves came and washed over them. I could feel the sand slip out from under me, so I would shift my weight and twist my feet to make sure I didn't fall into the water. It actually took some agility and muscle to make sure I didn't have to trudge back to the cabin soaking wet from head to toe.

Growing up in the Midwest. I didn't have an ocean to visit. I am more accustomed to rivers and streams. I am used to being able to count on the shore to hold me fast without fear of being towed under. The banks of a river are usually more solid, less fragile than an ocean beach on a stormy day.

So my beach experience was a new one, and something that got me thinking about life itself. I thought of many life metaphors staring at the ocean, but the most significant was that life is always shifting and changing...you might need to reestablish your footing, shift your position, change your perspective, in order to meet life head on.

Maybe that sounds 'cheesy,' but you all are in a position of great change and it may seem like the ground beneath you is constantly shifting. Dig your toes in and hang on!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Unblinding Light

Oprah is smiling at me from the magazine rack across the waiting room at Barnes Retina Institute in St. Louis. With her arms flung wide, her body slightly bent at the waist, she looks ready to laugh with her whole body.

I stare at her for awhile, wanting to be in on the joke. When she becomes blurry, I will know that the eye drops the technician put in several minutes ago have taken effect.

Maybe if they dilate soon, we can get this over with quickly. It’s my sixth surgery to correct diabetic retinopathy, but I am not used to this procedure. I can’t shake the anxiety of waiting.

I close my eyes to help speed the process of opening my pupils wide so the doctor can shine his bright light into them and cauterize the swollen, leaking blood vessels behind the retina and prevent any potential vision loss.

“I’ve had about 67 of these surgeries,” an older man’s voice invades my thoughts. Sitting behind me, he tells his friend about his struggles with diabetes. “I just can’t get it under control,” he says.

I try to remember when was the last time I monitored my blood sugar…and did I remember to take my medicine today? What about that donut I had last night? “I’m killing myself from the inside,” I chide myself. “God, don’t let me go blind,” I almost whisper. I shift in my seat, check my watch and survey the overflowing waiting room. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

The waiting room is nearly empty when my name is finally called. I follow another technician to a smaller room with a lot of strange equipment that has begun to at least look familiar. The doctor greets me kindly, if not warmly.

His name is Dr. Blinder. Even in my anxiety, I always want to tease him in a voice reserved for close friends, “So, Dr. Blinder, anybody give you a hard time about your name?”

But he doesn’t invite such familiarity. Soft-spoken and reserved, he looks like he takes his job way too seriously. Today, though, I’m glad he does, so I decide again not to broach the subject.

More eye drops go in, these to numb my eyes. The doctor adjusts the chin rest so that if I lean forward a bit, I can rest my head in front of his machine almost comfortably. The technician fastens a cloth band around the back of my head, “just to remind you to keep your chin down during the procedure,” she says.

During a series of equipment adjustments and murmured communication between doctor and assistant, my heart begins to beat faster…almost imperceptibly at first. “Breathe,” I tell myself as the doctor puts a sort of monocle in my left eye to keep it open. “Don’t forget to breathe.”

It’s a brief warning before the flashes of light begin. The intense white light seems to bore through my pupil and into my body. My toes curl and lift off the ground. My fingers clench around the armrests. I concentrate on my breathing again to suppress the scream welling up in my chest.

“Just breathe,” I urge myself as the laser flashes over and over. “In…out; again, in…out.”

“Try to keep your right eye open,” he says gently. But it is almost impossible, as it tightens defensively against the tortuous light. Twice before, my opposite eye squeezed so tightly, the monocle popped out.

It seems like an eternity, but it couldn’t be more than fifteen minutes before the doctor turns off the light, moves his machine back and says, “OK, all done. You did great.”

Unstrapped from the chin rest, I look around the room. Everything is bathed in red. I know it will go away, but it always startles me. I nod as the doctor tells me to “take it easy” for the rest of the day. We exchange pleasantries.

Walking back into the empty waiting room, I fish around in my bag for the sunglasses I am almost positive I dropped in there this morning. I’m going to need them. It is so bright in here.



*NOTE: Since writing this for a seminary class assignment in 2002, I have had several more surgeries in both eyes. I am legally blind in my right eye and have significant damage in the left one. Doctors say my eyes have stabilized—meaning no current leakage—but no treatment or surgery can get the vision that I’ve lost back. My diabetes continues to be a struggle, and I now take insulin to control it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Battle scars

I don't always notice it when I'm looking in the mirror. But every so often, it stands out in stark contrast to my pale skin.

I run my fingers along the red-rimmed, slightly crooked valley it left on my chest…and I thank God again for staying steadfastly by my side—through what I blithely refer to as my 2008 “health crisis.”

The valley is created by a combination of two overlapping scars. One is a misshapened, round dent in my throat where a tracheotomy was once performed to help me breathe. The other is a narrow scar that runs from my throat, down along my breast bone to the top of my ribcage. That's from the heart valve replacement.

It's hard for me to believe, but I've had these scars for over a year and a half now. The heart surgery dates back to Christmastime, 2008. I had an infection that destroyed my mitral valve. Bits of infection broke off and floated to my brain, causing a stroke.

The trach came later--sometime in January or February. I was having trouble catching my breath and kept passing out when my breathing stopped altogether. I couldn't talk for a long time and was on a feeding tube at one point.

There was a time where I felt virtually no emotion. I couldn’t write, couldn’t pray, couldn’t laugh or cry. It concerned me; I wondered if I would ever feel again, ever love again, if I would ever be passionate about anything again. But somehow, I persevered and eventually broke through my flat affect.

I kept a journal in the hospital. My handwriting is shaky and I chose the wrong words sometimes. But on Feb. 5, 2009, I wrote, “I’m crying finally….I’m also talking to God again. ‘Hello, God. It’s me, Arlene. I’ve missed you.’”

It has been a slow, arduous recovery, and I still have setbacks from time to time, but it’s mostly behind me, now. When I look at these scars—unsightly as they are—I am not inclined to cover them up. I don’t feel self-conscious about them, nor am I embarrassed by how they look.

I wear these scars like a badge of courage, a gold star of achievement, an emblem of the journey from near-death back to full life. To me, they are beautiful.

They are my battle scars…reminding me of the journey home, with all its bumps, detours and turn backs; all its straight climbs and sharp curves, and all the falls and get-back-ups, too. These scars call out to me—“You are a survivor!”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Shades of Green



Varigated green
Sweeps through the hearty landscape
Vibrant abundance

(A view of the gardens at Maple Lawn Homes in Eureka)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Persona Poem

Arlene
Sister, friend, writer, pastor;
Lover of words, ideas, & stories;
Who dreams of peace in all nations, compassion in all hearts, & tolerance in all minds;
Who needs love, kindness &  understanding;
Who gives her heart, freely; her mind openly; & her self, wholly;
Who fears darkness, emptiness, & loneliness;
Who would like to see wholeness of body, mind, & spirit
for everyone, everywhere, for all time;
Franks.

Peace Poem

Peace
Precious, priceless
Yearning, seeking, grasping…
It is a journey, not a destination
Grace

Grandma's Garden

As Published in the Woodford County Journal
July 29, 2010
Frankly Speaking

My Grandma Hansel was a hard woman to know. She was stern, austere—I saw her frown more often than smile. Her anger always frightened me, as I constantly thought I was in trouble for unknown misdeed.

She died when I was about 6 years old, so my memories of her were as a small child visiting her and Grandpa Hansel’s home near Terre Haute, Indiana. They had an old farm house on a few acres of land.

When we would visit from our small town near Indianapolis, we would pile out of the van—all 7 of us—and go around the house, past the kitchen door, by the root cellar where grandma cultivated her African violets.

I remember vividly going past the house lined with grandma’s flower beds, with large geodes and other stones from grandpa’s rock collection scattered around them.

We would walk by the garage, a barn-like structure that was full of equipment and tools and, well, stuff, up to the rafters. Attached to the garage was an outhouse.

I’m sure that many of you remember outhouses. This one was a two-holer that Grandpa had built and attached to the garage so young hoodlums couldn’t tip it over on Halloween. Grandpa didn’t put a bathroom in the house until the mid-1970s.

Beyond the buildings, the back lawn opened up to a magnificent garden. My eyes would widen as I took in the scene--my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles brothers and sisters and cousins all milling about in the garden.
First, I would look through the tall corn stalks--as tall as sky-scrapers to me. I’d see a cousin peering back from the other end of the row, and we’d wave at each other.

Past the walls of corn, the garden opened up to plants with vines and leaves reaching out and overlapping one another. There were tomatoes of various colors and every kind of pepper one would want. She had varieties of squash and there were always potatoes; peas; carrots; radishes; turnips; pole beans, with their vines twirling around the tall sticks rising up from the ground…and kohl rabbi.

It was a root vegetable we would eat straight from the garden. I don’t even remember washing off the dirt! Even my picky-eater siblings liked it—it had a mild, slightly sweet taste as I recall. I haven’t had it sine then, because I’ve never found it in any store or vegetable stand.

Off to the side, in a place of honor it seemed, was an asparagus bed. Did you know that when you plant asparagus you don’t see the fruits of your labor for two years? I was always amazed at that, especially since I hate asparagus. But for Grandma, it was worth the wait and effort.

My grandmother spent all her time in the garden, planting, tilling, weeding, coaxing. My mom has stories from her childhood of grandma attempting to make dinner for the family.

She would put on a pot to boil, and go back to the garden. By the time she remembered to check the pot, there would be a hole in the bottom because all the liquid had boiled away. Consequently, my grandfather did most of the cooking.

When Grandma was in the garden, she came alive. She smiled, she laughed….you don’t know how rare it was to see my grandma laugh. I remember the sound of it, the way her eyes would crinkle and glisten as she talked to anyone who cared about her garden.

Sitting beside her on the big swing under the willow tree, I learned skills I rarely use anymore--shucking corn, shelling peas, snapping beans. But I also learned skills I still use--compassion, humor, curiosity as I listened to the adults talk and laugh and share family stories.

This is how my grandmother was able to express her love for her children and grandchildren. It was confusing to me, because this image of her was so different than the demanding and disapproving one I usually experienced.

As a child, I didn’t know who the real Grandma was, but looking back on that time, I realize now that both images were true and real.

Love is complicated and messy sometimes. At times, love is difficult to give and just as hard to receive. But love comes in so many packages, so many shapes and sizes. Love comes in unexpected ways, and we don’t always recognize it when it appears.

Sometimes it takes us years, even decades to look back and see clearly how an ordinary act held within it so much love. And at other times, love is immediately recognizable.

In my mind, I am about 4 years old looking at all the vines weaving around the tomato cages and sprawling out over the ground in Grandma’s garden. Those tomatoes looked like red and yellow jewels hidden within the prickly vines, but I knew better than to touch the forbidden fruit.

So I stand there lost in a daydream about a heroic girl fending her way through a vine-like forest to reach the lost treasure. Suddenly I become aware of my grandmother’s gaze on me. I look up into her eyes with more than a bit of fear, even though she is smiling at me. I always thought she could see right into my soul.

After a moment, without saying a word, she reaches into those tangled, sticky vines and plucks the reddest, most ripe tomato she sees. She hands it to me, the smile now enveloping her face and making her eyes sparkle.

“Here,” she says as she hands me the precious fruit. “Eat it just like an apple. You don‘t even need salt”
I do, and she is right, and it tastes like manna from heaven. For one clear moment, I know that she loves me, and that’s all that matters.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

You've got to have friends

As Published in the Woodford County Journal July 8, 2010
Frankly Speaking
You’ve got to have friends
By Arlene Franks

“A Friend won’t defend a husband who buys his wife an electric skillet for her birthday.” ~Erma Bombeck
So, let’s talk about reality TV. In an earlier “Frankly Speaking,” I wrote about crime shows, how addictive they are and harmful to our individual and collective sense of hope. This time, I want to make a case for how reality TV (which more accurately should be called surreality TV) tends to distort our perception of relationships.

Reality shows aren’t as addictive to me as crime shows. I weed most of them out categorically. I have rules, you know:

~no celebriality.

~nothing tacky, sleazy or salacious.

~no spoiled brats (see celebriality, above).

~no violent, mean, back-stabbing or scary reality.

~no ‘vote ‘em off the island’ (or outta the house) shows.

~no ‘get me a date’ (or a partner for the rest of my life) shows.

~no kiddie pageants (See spoiled brats, above).

That pretty-much pares it down to shows based on skill, like “Top Chef,” “Project Runway” and “The Amazing Race,” and even they get close to the edge sometimes.

Now, there have been times when I’ve broken my own rules and became engrossed in a show from my ‘no watch’ list. For instance, a couple of years ago, I somehow got caught up in one of those ‘find me a date’ shows. It fit squarely into several categories—sleazy, mean, vote ‘em off, pseudo celebriality, etc.

I’m embarrassed to say I watched every appalling episode, each more disgusting than the last. (shudder) I sat there week after week, asking myself, “Why am I watching this?” I excused it in my mind as being material for my continual study of human nature. (Yeah, well, it was the best I could come up with.)

This year, I used the same rationale for getting caught up in “The Real Housewives of New York.” What hooked me in was a conflict between two of the women that eventually affected the whole tribe of wealthy and privileged women the show follows to each party; shopping trip; and self-promoting, exhibitionist event around NYC.

It was a silly, petty argument that turned into a major messy brawl. Most of the women were taking sides, while one woman valiantly tried to bridge the rift until the pressure got to her and she exploded all over the place. It wasn’t pretty.

But what was even uglier was the way these women—purported to be friends—treated one another. Degrading one another in public, making snide comments behind the other’s back, laughing in triumph each time they won in their ‘gotcha’ game—they were vicious. And, in my humble opinion, that’s not friendship.

I grew up with TV as a constant backdrop to my life. I know how influential it can be to kids just forming their world views. Reality TV strengthens the stereotypes that feed our bigotry and make our lives smaller.

In the ‘reality’ world:

~women are catty—they bicker and treat one another shabbily.

~men are Neanderthals—rude, crude and lewd—who get into trouble whenever they’re together.

~marriage is based on looks, lies, and wealth—infidelity is ramped.

~families are completely hopeless, with idiot parents who live vicariously through their children who are wild, entitled and ungrateful.

~friendships are superficial, interchangeable, and disposable—if one doesn’t fit throw it away and try another one on for size.

Isn’t that a pretty bleak and even dangerous view of the world? It certainly runs counter to my own experience. I have found most people in my world to be kind, compassionate, and giving. Most folks have a sense of humor, taking themselves lightly and their life’s call seriously.

Friends, I’ve found, bear one another’s burdens. While you’re laid up, they plow your fields and take care of your family. They bring you flowers from their gardens, food from their kitchens and books and music from their personal collections…along with prayers from their hearts.

I’ve been in the hospital on several occasions lately, and each time, my friends have sat with me, making jokes and exchanging small talk while we waited for the doctors to come back with test results. They’ve acted as advocates for me, telling the medical team things I’d forgotten about my history, asking questions I hadn’t thought of, calling family and friends on my behalf.

They’ve visited with my cat to make sure she is fed and doesn’t get lonely. While there, they even cleaned the place up! Now that’s friendship.

Friends treat you with respect—they wouldn’t say behind your back what they shouldn’t say when you’re face to face. They know when to be on your side and when to tactfully tell you you’re wrong. And you know they’re right.

As friends we make impromptu ‘play dates’ with one another; care for one another’s spirits; allow the other to be truly unique, truly genuine. We give one another a voice. We cry together, laugh together, and sit in silence together.

That, to me, is what true friendship is. Not the fluff and junk of television. Of course, we all know this to be true—don’t we? I hope so. I hope we recognize reality TV for what it is—ratings-grabbing, shock-producing, hate-mongering, muck-raking TV…not to mention mind-numbing.

But, alas, reality shows are cheap to make, and they continue to be oh, so popular. Ratings sell, you know. Conversely, logic would dictate that if we stop watching them, they’ll likely go away.

With that in mind, I recommit myself to questioning why I watch, to keep adding to my ‘no watch’ list and to trying harder to adhere to it. And perhaps you can join me in making this pledge:

“I sincerely pledge to help decrease the popularity of reality shows by not following them, discussing them, betting on them, imitating them or supporting them in any way.”

Maybe one day, the era of reality TV will be over and real life can once again thrive.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Eureka: Not Your Ordinary Community

As published in the Woodford County Journal June 17, 2010
Frankly Speaking
Eureka: Not your ordinary community
By Arlene Franks

Let me introduce you to some remarkable young women—Jean, Rebecca, April and Shalon. But, then again, you may already know them. They all grew up here in Eureka.

On Saturday, May 8, I attended Eureka College’s graduation and Don Littlejohn’s memorial service.

I was privileged to observe them at some of life’s pivotal moments and was struck by just how extraordinary these young women are—poised, accomplished, kind, generous, creative, talented, gracious and appreciative.

As I sat misty-eyed, remembering their childhoods, I watched in awe and wonder as they participated in the events of the day.

• Shalon Woolridge graduated with honors from EC.

• April McClure-Stewart spoke at the graduation as the president of the alumni association and gave a solo vocal performance at the funeral.

• Jean and Rebecca Littlejohn participated in their grandfather’s service. Jean played the piano and talked of Don’s love of music. Rebecca talked about Don’s devotion to peace and justice issues and served as a worship leader.

I mention these young women, not to single them out as unique in this community, but rather to express just how ordinary their extraordinariness is for people brought up in Eureka, Illinois.

All these young woman—and many young men and women much like them—grew up in our midst. They blossomed under the influence of great parents, a nurturing church and a supportive community. They had lots of opportunities for involvement and achievement, in academics, sports, art, music, plus plenty of opportunities to give back to the community themselves.

Young people from grade school through college get their pictures and write-ups in the Woodford County Journal. They are the stars of local parades, sporting events and local productions. They organize mission trips and local outreach.

They get to see early on that their lives make a difference. They get to feel good about themselves. Even the ordinary becomes extraordinary when surrounded by positive encouragement and celebration.

And a lot of that is on us, folks. Each one of us has an impact on our children—all the young ones in our community—whether we intend to or not.

It’s up to us to develop and maintain an encouraging environment, not just for children and youth, but for parents, grandparents, teachers, school administrators, counselors, those in positions of advocacy, and ministers—all of those directly involved with children and youth.

We do this not just for those who reach beyond the ordinary to grasp the extraordinary, but those who fall short, too. Some, a few, seem to have everything going for them, but for no apparent reason, just stop reaching.

There are kids who don’t have a good family, or whose families are doing the best they can, but are limited by financial, spiritual, or other issues. There are those who don’t have a religious community or something that feeds their spirit. Then there are those who are different, who don’t fit in, who are isolated and don’t feel the love of this community.

I know some of these young people, too. I’ll bet you do, as well.

Eureka needs to be a place where ordinariness, even failure, is OK. There should be an atmosphere where mistakes are allowed. It must be the land of second chances, third chances…a million new chances if necessary.

Think of it this way: As a child is learning to walk, she falls down often. Don’t you encourage her to get back up and try again every time she falls? You don’t just throw up your hands and walk away, do you? Or worse, do you berate her for her clumsiness? It’s no different for growing and grown children.

I invite all of us to be more thoughtful about our place in their lives, to be appreciative of their presence here, and to look for ways to encourage them as they grow into the adults they are to be. Through our involvement, we share the honor of watching our children bloom into teenagers and teens to young adults…and beyond. It’s our gift to the young ones; it’s their gift to us.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Crime Shows Can Kill You

As published in the Woodford County Journal, May 6, 2010

Frankly Speaking
Crime shows can kill you
By Arlene Franks

I never realized how addicted I was to crime shows until I gave them up for Lent this year. I’d be sitting on the couch, flipping through the channels, and stop on something that caught my interest. I’d watch it for a few seconds before I noticed, “oh, this is a crime show,” and flip the channel.

It had become such a habit to tune in to a crime show—any crime show, any time of day or night—that I had to continually remind myself of my pledge to give them up for 40 days…and nights. It didn’t help that every other show was crime-related.

Between the ones in current production and those in syndication, they are everywhere! They’re on the major networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS; the so-called ‘women’s’ networks, Lifetime, LMN, and WE; the ‘character’ and ‘drama’ networks, USA, TNT, and BET; and the quirky ones, Bravo, FX and SPIKE. They are even on the ‘family-friendly’ stations like TBS, ABC Family and PBS!

And they come in a plethora of genres, many of them overlapping:

•Family-oriented: The Good Wife and Medium.
•Court-centered: Law and Order and The Good Wife.
•Quirky character-focused: CSI and Law and Order Criminal Intent.
•Comedic bent: Psych and The Closer.
•Paranormal: Medium and Saving Grace.
•Pseudo Paranormal: Psych and The Mentalist.
•Military-oriented: NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles.

The crimes are usually the big ones—murder, kidnapping, rape, torture. The officers of the court and police solve the cases in myriad ways:

•By profiling the perpetrator: Criminal Minds, and Numbers.
•With forensics: CSI, Bones. and Law and Order SVU.
•By eliciting a confession: The Closer and Law and Order Criminal Intent.
•As a puzzle to be solved: Without a Trace, NCIS and Cold Case.

Then there are the reality-based shows that investigate or reenact real crimes. With titles like Most Shocking…, Worlds Dumbest…, Caught on Tape, and Haunted Evidence, they show examples of kooky and bizarre crime; horrific and brutal crime, or insidious and mysterious crime.

These real-crime-as-entertainment shows are covered by channels like Discovery, The History Channel, E!, TruTV, MTV and VH1. I’m sure if they could link crime to food, there would be a show on the Food Network with a title like Recipe for Murder.

Whether they are character-driven, plot-twisting, or story-weaving so many of them fascinate me, intrigue me and, well, suck me in to their alternate universes. And I don’t think I’m alone, judging by the sheer number and variety of crime-related programs.

I’m not sure why I am attracted to crime shows. Maybe it’s like a train wreck—I don’t want to look, but I just can’t avert my eyes. And for that matter, I don’t know why society is so caught up in the vicarious crime wave.

Maybe we like crime shows so much because we can watch from a distance. We can watch without being a victim of crime; we can watch without being hurt. But I’m not so sure that’s a legitimate assumption.

For one thing, the constant bombardment of depictions of graphic and grisly crimes creates a numbing effect that keeps us coming back for more. The more we return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, the more empty we become. It takes more and more horrific images to stimulate emotion, empathy, compassion, from us.

When we look around at the world, through the lenses of our own experiences; media coverage of violence and threats of violence, wars and rumors of wars; realty shows focusing on every kind of crime imaginable; and finally, fictional programs centered on violent crimes, we get a view of the world that’s murky, ugly, cold and dangerous.

It’s the very antithesis of hope. We’re looking at the world as a place of scarcity—lacking in love, compassion, even safety. This is harmful to human beings and other living things.

I was pondering all this about two weeks into my crime show fast for Lent. It had taken me that long to remember that when a familiar crime scenario came up on the screen, I was to just keep flipping until I found something more uplifting. I even, on occasion, turned off the TV and enjoyed the silence for a change.

Then, I had an epiphany. It was February 28, to be exact. I was at church, listening to our guest speaker, Brandon Gilven, associate director of Week of Compassion, the disaster relief agency of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) talk about outreach.

Referring to the people of the early Christian movement, he said, they “chose to say ‘yes there is so much violence, destruction, and fear in the world. But we can look again and see…new life.’”

The treatment for this addiction is to cultivate hope. It’s about seeing the world as a place of abundance, not scarcity. It’s witnessing new life spring from death and destruction and then telling the world about it. It’s about looking at the world as it is and seeing what it has the potential to become.

Brandon recommends we “practice resurrection,” “Because a life of faith—a life of practicing resurrection is one in which one imagines a world filled with so much generosity, hope, and healing,

and then makes it so. All the while proclaiming destruction, loss, death, as heartbreaking as they are, are not the final words.”

That’s the answer I was looking for—how to reconcile my two very disparate images of the world. On the one hand, the world is a violent place, a place of sadness and fear. On the other, it is a place of incredible depth of spirit, compassion, and love. It’s about faith, belief that love is more powerful than fear; abundance is greater than scarcity; hope overcomes sadness.

I’m not going to tell you that I am now ‘over’ my addiction—that I have completely rid my life of crime shows. No addict is ever cured. The best I can say is that “I’m in recovery.” A big part of that recovery is cultivating hope.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Haiku featuring Juju Cat: Or how I broke free of writer's block

Since my series of hospital stays ended last year, I haven't written much. Distracted by the amount of work it takes just to recover and maintain my health, I developed a severe case of writer's block. I had a lot to say, but the fear of saying it--putting it down in writing--crippled me.

I just couldn't sit down in front of the computer.

So, I went back to basics--pen and paper. And I used one of tools of my craft--Haiku. Nothing breaks the chains of writer's block like a good dose of Haiku. The Japanese poetic form forces the writer to convey in a few words and syllables a complete idea, a description of one moment in time or a visual image.

Haiku is a tool used in the craft of wordsmithing. It has rules and structure. Each of the three lines has a specific number of syllables--5, 7, and 5. It takes wordsmithing to select the precise word that conveys the meaning you want and the right number of syllables for the line.

Wordsmithing is a craft, much like welding or carving. It must be honed regularly through practice. But if you use the craft with thought, imagination ad creativity, you can create somethig profound or intriguing, provocative or evocative, something that clarifies or confuses.

In the coming days and weeks, I hope to an artist with my words. I have a lot to say, and fear no longer grips me, cripples or confines me. But fr now enjoy the following Haiku featuring my amazing cat, Juju, who never fails to inspire and amuse me. ..she is my muse.

Wonder Cat Juju
Targets, pounces and attacks
Another foe foiled

Green-eyed cat Juju
Her stare bores through my blue eyes
Piercing my reserve

Loving Cat Juju
Drapes my chest with her body
Purring in my ear

Sneaky Cat Juju
Climbs up cabinets and drawers
Seeking adventure

Napping Cat Juju
Curled up, face tucked under paws
Dozing and dreaming

Content Cat Juju
Stretches and yawns sleepily
Across laptop keys

Goddess Cat Juju
Peers regally out window
Claiming her domain

Agile Cat Juju
Springs up my shoulder with ease
Perching and posing

Leaping Cat Juju
Falls short of goal, shrugs and says
“I meant to do that”

Silly Cat Juju
Bats at me from hiding places
Keeping me amused