December 29, 2014

On Aging - Not So Gracefully

“Maybe it's true that life begins at fifty. But everything else starts to wear out, fall out, or spread out.”
― Phyllis Diller

AGING. There are so many advantages to growing older. Things I wouldn't trade to have my 20 something body back - such as: experience, wisdom, perspective. This post is about none of those. It's about the "other" part. The things we  face as we age that just aren't fun even though they can be pretty funny. (When they happens to our friend first!)

To quote a 100 year old woman of astounding wisdom:

 "If you live long enough, you're going to get old." -Gertrude Glace

The same Gertrude Glace pointed out that women can tell they're getting old when their bra size changes from a 36C to a 36 long. I USED to think that was hilarious! Not so much anymore.

Men, you don't get away unscathed either. A tell tale sign for you is when you go to bed with a forehead and wake up with a fivehead. Gravity is heartless to both sexes. It's just that women's losing battle with it is more obvious.

We live our entire youth believing that aging is for other people just like we believe death is a remote possibility instead of an absolute eventuality. Maybe it's because until it happens, we have no frame of reference for it. Besides if I knew in my youth what my body would do in my 50's, I might have run my car into a tree to get out of it before then. (Notice I'm blaming my body as if I've been just an innocent passenger without any control over any of it? It's just easier that way!)

At first we see a few "smile" lines. (Dumb name. Who's smiling about it?) Then maybe a couple of gray hairs. I started with the gray at 18. No biggie. That's why hair coloring was invented. It doesn't stop there though.

I remember (and that's not as easy as it sounds these days) a time when I could just paint my face and go. Now I have to Spackle and sand first. There are days when I wake up with bags under my eyes that even Southwest Airlines would charge for. WHAT is that about anyway?

I found a sign that cracked me up so I brought it home and hung it above my bathroom mirror. It read: MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL, WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED? I left it there for 6 months before I realized that waking up to that each morning was NOT helpful. I stuck it in the closet next to those skinny jeans that are also no longer helpful.

The good news is that as we grow older we're suddenly seen as sages (by people who aren't our children.) A lovely young mother came up to me after a meeting and said, "You're so wise." I told her "Yes, and it only cost me my youth and beauty. Want to trade?" Guess who's still wise and who's still young and lovely.

So - I've been thinking a lot about it and I've come up with a list of 5 things that are NOT our friends as we age. I thought I'd share with you. If you're still young, you'll understand as you become "wiser." If you're my age or older, you'll know exactly what I mean!

1.  Unexpected hilarity. (Particularly for women who have birthed children. Enough said.)
2.  Bright lights (Unless we're home alone reading with our thick spectacles.)
3.  Dermatologists (They only see what's wrong...unless they're a personal friend and are willing to fix it at a deep discount.)
4.  Class Reunions (Personal appearances can't be Photo Shopped - yet!)
5. Not enough sleep. (Wrinkles have children on sleepless nights.)

I'm sure the list will grow exponentially as time goes on.

My husband and I have decided that when we become seniors, we're going to be grocery store geezers. We're going to get up early (as if our bladders will leave us a choice) and head over to the grocery store coffee shop and read the free papers, watch the free TV and make disgruntled noises at parents who's children are misbehaving as if we'd never seen anything like that in "our day."

Meantime I relish in the fact that senior citizens and children are the most free people on the planet. In both cases the need to impress anyone is completely absent. It's something that is undeveloped in children and completely abandoned by seniors. In some respects I can't wait to reach that tipping point of "It doesn't matter how much makeup I apply, it just doesn't get any better than this so the heck with it!"

December 24, 2014

On Gracious Receiving


 “Until we can receive with an open heart, we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”
― BrenĂ© Brown,

When my children were young, we used to get letters from the Chicago Post office that were addressed to Santa Claus. The letters from needy families were collected and offered to people in the community who wanted to be a part of helping someones Christmas wish come true. Acting as Santa surrogates was a wonderful experience for our whole family. The children receiving the gifts (who were told that they wouldn't fit on Santa's sleigh) were filled with delighted excitement. It took the joy of Christmas to a whole new level to be able to share it with complete strangers.

There was one difficult part about this tradition however. There was the discomfort that came from seeing the bewildered gratitude in the eyes of the parents who seemed to feel as ashamed of themselves as they were happy for their children. If you've ever been on the "receiving" end of service you understand what I mean. 

It's so much simpler to be a gracious giver. Receiving requires us to dig a lot deeper. It means admitting that maybe we're not the completely self reliant super humans we'd like to believe we are. It means accepting that sometimes - just sometimes we need other people to lend us a hand - like it or not, and usually it's "not." There's no shame in being on the down cycle of the wave of life. It's a rare person who never falls, even temporarily on financial difficulties, and even they will have some need of others from time to time.

I'm writing this as a terrible hypocrite. I say that because I was the absolutely worst acceptor on the planet. Being parents forces us (thankfully) into self sacrifice. Sometimes circumstances also force us into becoming - out of necessity - better acceptors. When that doesn't happen - and sometimes even when it does, we can still be horrible receivers.

I was fortunate to meet someone who taught me this skill. My friend Jim is a keen observer of people. He quickly became aware that "allowing and accepting" were not on my short list of highly developed character traits. He "forced" me not only to confront those facts about myself but to develop them as a result.

I can remember the day he decided to make dinner for me. (Uncomfortable from the get go.) I was sitting in his living room on his sofa squirming. I'd already asked what I could do to help. "Nothing." he said. "Not until you learn to allow and accept." WHAT? I'd never met anyone who was adamant about doing something for me just for the sake of making me confront how lousy I was at accepting. It was a painful process. At one point Jim called out from the kitchen "You are actually moaning from the discomfort. I just heard it." and he was absolutely right. "Receiving" was excruciating for me and I felt actual suffering  as a result.

I also refused to "accept" complements. I'd find some snide remark to follow them up with so to discount them immediately. Jim was quick to call me out on that as well. He was and still is a great mirror for me, shining back a perfect picture of my weaknesses and also of my strengths. When the rare chance comes to see ourselves through someone elses eyes, we should look deeply - and I did.

I came to realize the disservice I was doing others by not allowing them to serve me. In providing the opportunity for the "giver" to "receive" the joy that comes from sacrifice for the benefit of another, we also provide a service to them as well. I had in essence been denying others the blessings that come through service. I was a blessing hog! I was happy to feel the joy myself when I could be the cheerful giver but would deny others that same opportunity.

Being gracious acceptors requires us to open ourselves up - to let someone else in.  It's truly by serving others that we come to love them. A great example of this is a parent's love for their children. There is no more demanding "service" opportunity, and it's a long term proposition - but can you think of a stronger bond than that of a parent to their child? I can't.

So during this Christmas season, and from here on in, consider what a gift it is for you to allow someone to serve, or complement you. Swallow hard (in the beginning) and just accept the gift you've been given with gratitude - for both of your sakes. It does get easier. I promise!

Are you an uncomfortable acceptor? How does it affect you?

December 18, 2014

It Wouldn't Be Christmas Without The Donkey On The Roof

Family traditions counter alienation and confusion. They help us define who we are; they provide something steady, reliable and safe in a confusing world.
-Susan Lieberman 

I absolutely agree with the quote above by Susan Lieberman. As a matter of fact my first thought in the midst of the horror of 9-11 was "I need to make soup." I desperately needed to do something familiar - something so mundane that it let me feel things were going to be OK. Besides that, as a mother of 6, I also desperately needed for my kids to come home to something that made sense to them. It was all about taking comfort in the tradition of having dinner together as a family. It was predictable. Stable. The world may be going to pieces around us but something was still within our control.

The same is true of holiday traditions. There are as many and varied holiday traditions as there are families and even individuals who celebrate them. My husband David and his parents always spent their Christmases with family in Toronto Canada so decorating their house in Buchanan Michigan seemed senseless. Once he grew up and left home while single, Christmas decorating meant dragging out his Father Christmas (see Gandalf) decoration. When we married and I made a big fuss over a Christmas tree, it seemed "silly" to him I think. 

My Russian son in law is more used to New Years being the BIG celebration for his family. Christmas is something he's doing for my daughter and his daughter but he's being a good sport about it...this year. :)

My family celebrates Faux Christmas. (you'll have to click on the link to get the gist of that since it would take more time to explain it than I want to spend on it in this post given I've exhausted it in another.)

Not matter what else we do each year to celebrate, for me - It wouldn't be Christmas without the donkey on the roof. Now that may bring up some strange visuals if your mind works like mine, but I'm pretty sure that this is one tradition that we can call ours!

I LOVE my Willow Tree Nativity set. It's my favorite part of decorating for Christmas. I started with just the Holy Couple and then collected the new pieces as they became available for years. I have the creche, shepherds, trees, angels, goats, various livestock, and a lovely stand of stars at varying heights. Finally - I said enough is enough already. Pretty soon they'll be selling the entire heavenly hosts and every star in the night sky!

One year after the nativity was set up and waxing beautiful, I happened by it to find something amiss. The donkey, who usually finds his place in front of the creche had made his way up to the roof somehow. I double checked him to make sure and - no wings! So, I took him down and placed him back in his traditional setting. The next day as I again passed by, not only had the donkey reclaimed the roof, but he had been joined by several sheep!
What kind of livestock uprising was this? 

I questioned all the usual suspects and none would admit to moving the critters so the sleuthing was on. It became a cat and mouse or should I say a donkey and sheep game of trying to catch the culprit in the act. I'd replace that animals and try my best to keep an eye out for misadventure but without so much as a clue the next time I went past the creche the roof was again littered with farm animals.

I can't remember if I finally caught him or if my son Greg at last fessed up but what started as a joke has become a long standing tradition. I never see it happen but without fail - year after year the donkey lands on the roof of the creche - sometimes alone and sometimes with wooly friends. It's become an endearing part of the holiday season for me.

It doesn't matter what your traditions are. They can be deeply spiritual or just plain silly. I like to incorporate a bit of each. The important thing is that traditions matter. They are the simple things that create long lasting memories. It's what people talk about from generation to generation and in that way connects us all to who we are, and what we are a part of. They let us predict our future by relying on the things that matter from the past. They give us something to look forward to and act as an anchor when the seas become restless.

If you don't have traditions of your own I'd encourage you to start some. If you do have some I invite you to reflect on them to see what a special part of your life they are. Journal them. Leave traces of them for future generations to find. It could be as simple as a special recipe for a certain holiday dinner or the sharing of a story each year. Take the time to make your occasions memorable and then cherish those memories. There is so little of life that has lasting meaning, but our traditions can create a lasting legacy that binds us through the generations.

This year as I was setting up the nativity, I automatically put the donkey on the roof of the creche. It was just a reflex! I'll haul him down before my son gets here however because JUST FOR ONCE I want to catch him in the act! 

What's your favorite nontraditional tradition?

December 15, 2014

Twas Days Before Christmas...

Twas days before Christmas,
Not a Christmas card out!
I'm starting to feel like a
Christmastime lout!

So I took to my keypad,
with time quickly fleeting,
To send you good cheer
via chintzy e-greeting.

Forgone is the letter,
With all the yule-chatter.
I've had good days and bad days,
So what does it matter?

My blessing are greater
Than any complaint
I've tried to do better...
But still...I'm no saint.

Another year older,
A pound or two fatter,
Yet I step on the scale,
And it still doesn't shatter!?

A few more the wrinkles,
Some grays sprout anew,
If your blessed to live long enough,
You'll get old too.

To be happy and healthy,
Is my wish for you.
And the best in the New Year
In all that you do.

I'm blessed by our friendship
With memories so rare 
So I needed to tell you
How dearly I care.

Next year I'll do better,
Easy said - but still hard,
With any good luck -
You'll at least get a card! 


-Anita Stout 2014
All Rights Reserved 
Picture credit: Shoebox Greetings

The First Faux Christmas

"The last of human freedoms - the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances."

-Viktor E. Frankl


Faux Christmas came about in 2013 but was in the making for years before that. I guess to understand, you have to hear at least a condensed version of the whole saga.

It really all started with a divorce.  After being a “unified” body for 29 years, our family became a fractured fairy tale at Thanksgiving time 2007.  I won’t bore you with all the details as at this point, none of them much matter - but that wasn’t the case in 2007 because the details had left me a wreck. I was a wreck’s wreck!  Knowing a wreck when I see one, I sought help.  I was not going to live a bitter life. (At least not forever!)  More than that, I wasn’t going to be a bitter mother. I had six wonderful children who deserved so much more from me.

For all of those 29 years, wonderful Christmases were a huge part of our family tradition. They were the pinnacle of togetherness.  Everyone, even those grown and married with children of their own, tried hard to be home for Christmas. Now home didn't seem like a place that even existed anymore, much less a place anyone would want to try hard to be. I pained over how to make our first splintered Christmas a joyful time. It seemed hopeless and just sad. Any attempt to pull it off seemed akin to rearranging the furniture and living like nothing had happened in a home where a tornado had ripped off the whole back side of the house. How on earth could I possibly create "the magic" with the pain still so thick it was hard for us to see even each other through it?

When I brought this up with my counselor, she insisted that it couldn’t be done. Even trying, she said, would be an emotional disaster for everyone involved.  She suggested doing something completely different - something that bore no resemblance to what everyone had come to expect - something so radical that it wouldn't feel like the old Christmases (with something missing) but instead would be a fresh event all its own.

A plot was hatched. It was so far removed from the traditional “family dinner” at home on Christmas day, that no one could possible mistake it for the same thing only very sadly different.  We were heading for the casino buffet!

Just the idea seemed so wrong that it had to be perfect - and it was.  It was so great in fact that those who attended voted to keep it as a permanent tradition.  So, from 2007-2011 those who could make it home for Christmas Day stuffed themselves silly on a fantastic feast that included a myriad of ethnic features blended beautifully with all the traditional offerings they’d come to expect AND included all you can eat crab legs

The only time any casino ever loses, is when my family shows up for all you can eat crab legs. Tray after tray of empty shells are carried away from our table and watching them pile up again and again was sheer joy.

Then the unthinkable happened!  In 2012, we (including my new husband David,) arrived at the casino on Christmas Day, fully expecting to put crabs on the endangered species list, only to be sadly let down.The casino had decided (probably in part because of my family) to remove crab legs  from the Christmas buffet and only to offer them on Saturday nights. We still had a great time that year, but it was not the same.

2013 another year of evolution.  Our daughter in law is a pharmacist. As such, she works long and hard hours that often include holidays. She gets left out of a lot of fun as a result. Pair that with crab leg denial and something had to be done to right the wrongs that were again threatening to ruin our Christmas celebration.

Talking to my son about the previous year’s crab-indignity, we came up with a new plan - that if adopted could make everything right with the world again. What if we celebrate Christmas the SATURDAY before Christmas?  Not only would that allow our daughter-in-law to join us but it would also give everyone a breather from all the obligatory madness that comes from jockeying schedules around a divorce and new in-laws. Just as importantly, it would put crab legs back on the table - literally! All concerned parties were contacted and the proposal was ratified without dissension.  Enter FAUX CHRISTMAS.

Faux Christmas turned out to be one of my favorite Christmases yet.  We were able to enjoy a relaxed weekend without the stress of needing to rush somewhere else. The casino buffet was nearly empty as others were saving up for the Christmas Day feast - and I didn’t have to feel sheepish for being the cause of others working and not spending time with their own families on what to me is a sacred holiday just so that my family could gorge.

A new tradition was born.  Faux Christmas is the new order of things. Anyone who can make it the Saturday before Christmas joins in for the festivities. Unconventional? Yes, but after all, joy is where, when, and what you make it or observe it to be.  I celebrate everyday the events that are the cause for the Christmas season. The observance is just a technicality.

Another benefit afforded us from our new tradition is that by the time "actual" Christmas day rolls around, the frenzy of activity has settled into a wonderful peacefulness with plenty of time for reflection on the day's true meaning and the implications of those events in my own life.
So every year on Sunday, the week before Christmas, the sea is a bit roomier for lack of crab and my heart is full to over flowing with the love and joy that is Christmas and family.

I also learned a powerful lesson along the way. Circumstances do not create happiness and can only create temporary sadness. Our determination to overcome our circumstances makes us not only more creative but ultimately more resilient. It's my Christmas prayer that you too will find ways to "survive and thrive" this holiday season and all through the coming year - regardless of what circumstances may bring.

December 8, 2014

On Blooming Where You're Planted

Walking through a crowded outdoor mall on an intolerably hot August day my eyes caught hold of an unlikely sight. In the middle of the concrete jungle, snuggled up to a white post was a lovely, boldly pink Petunia. (see pic above) It was hard to imagine how a Petunia seed could have even found it's way to this inhospitable site, much less how or why it had taken root and thrived despite the deplorable growing conditions that surrounded it.

Immediately upon seeing this, the phrase I've heard repeated nearly to death came popping back into my mind. "Bloom you're planted." Ever notice when you hear something repeatedly it seems to lose it's initial impact? Maybe it's me. But here it was again in front of me - not in written or verbal form this time but in a stunning visual. Do you think there's a lesson in here somewhere?

I'm a firm believer that every day should be filled with rainbows and flying ponies - that all stories should have happy endings and that suffering should be voluntary and rewarded immediately. To my great disappointment, things just don't always seem to go that way.

In reality there are trials. Some days are hard and others are just plain brutal. People can be hurtful. Our dreams can be dashed to pieces in front of our eyes and even our own bodies can betray us and not act as we expect them to. If trials come - wait- did I just say IF trials come like it's a remote possibility? I meant WHEN trials come, it can feel to us like others are planted in a nice sunny corner of the world with their roots firmly planted in the perfect mix of Miracle-Gro soil and watered to perfection while we have somehow landed in the rocky cinders along the roadside in a drought stricken region.

During challenging times, blooming is not on the short list of things on our minds. How then can we bloom where we're planted when that spot wasn't one of our own choosing? Is it even possible for us to find a silver lining to the clouds we didn't ask for and certainly didn't want? I believe it is.

If it weren't possible, that would mean that no one who found themselves thrust into unpleasant circumstances would ever be able to do much more than wallow in self pity and whine. That however is not the case. There are heroes all around us who rise from the ashes, and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to become successful and deeply inspirational to others. They're the ones that somehow manage to turn the tide to their advantage. Are they special? Do they have super powers that we aren't blessed with? No. I don't believe that's true.

What they have is the ability to put circumstances into a different perspective. They opt out of victimology. They don't let their circumstances become their identity. They understand that obstacles are opportunities to learn to do something differently than originally planned, not as a sign to give up and go home.

I'd like to share a story with you about Aaron. Aaron was someone I accidentally fell into a friendship with. By the time I met him, he was already confined to a wheelchair by M.S. and had lost all mobility except that of his right arm and hand. With that right arm and hand however, he was living the fullest live possible.

Aaron wasn't a complainer. He didn't whine and bemoan his situation. He lived by the mantra that "It is what it is," and was thrilled with whatever "it" was even as he was losing more of "it" slowly as time went by.

Far from being needy Aaron was a giver - not a taker. During one of the darkest periods of my life, I visited Aaron regularly. We watched movies, listened to music, had long and deeply probing conversations about life, the world, religion, politics and any other topic that happened by. I wasn't the only one who sought out Aaron's company. He was a counselor to many -  handing out advice when he thought it was warranted and just listening when he sensed that was more appropriate. Aaron's quick wit made me laugh when crying would have made a lot more sense.

One day Aaron said, "I appreciate your visits." I told him "I don't come out of pity or because I think of you as a charity case. I thoroughly enjoyed your company." to which he replied, smiling broadly, "Oh I know! You're the charity case." (and he was right!)

Aaron was released from his infirmities on Halloween of last year, and I've felt the emptiness of that lost companionship, but his life - as limited as it became toward the end, had great meaning. The impact of it will ripple on through the lives of those fortunate enough to have known him.

My point of the story is that Aaron was not potted in Miracle-Gro and placed in a sunny windowsill. The cinders at the side of the road might have looked good to him from where he was many times, but he not only found a way to grow where he was planted, but also found a way to help others around him grow as well - and we can do the same. It means checking our self pity at the door and being willing to accept "what is." I didn't say LIKING what is, but accepting "what is" is a necessary launching pad for "what more can be."

I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again in case you're visiting my blog for the first time. I believe there are messages - guide posts - directions put before us all the time when we're willing to pay attention and look for them. Maybe for you it won't be a maverick Petunia growing in the midst of chaos but lessons are there for you, waiting to catch the corner of your eye and give you hope and direction just when you feel like giving up. Keep looking for them!

December 1, 2014

SPARKS: Moments Of Creation Vol. 8

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
― Wilhelm Stekel

It's the Christmas Season. Time to feel warm and tingly right? But sometimes with the "to do" list stretching from your head to your knees it's hard to fit in warm and tingly. Well this is your lucky day. I'm bringing warm and tingly right to your inbox!

This month's SPARKS interview has been on my planner since August when I stumbled upon this heartwarming story completely by accident. Long story short, you probably all know a few gym rats and exercise geeks that live for their fitness routines right? Well, I'm not one of them. As a matter of fact I have to trick myself into exercising - when it happens, and it was in the midst of just such a scheme that I found this month's featured guest. I was tapping away on my computer trying to find something to keep me stationary on my stationary bike for at least 30 minutes when I came across a show on the BYU  TV channel called Turning Point. Turning Point showcases short feature stories about people who have been involved in a life changing experience. I scrolled through the episode titles and came across a segment called "The Car Santa". "Huh?" I thought. My curiosity got the best of me and I hit play.

Not only did my metabolism get a spike but I found my soul elevated as well. I was so touched by what I saw that I was determined to track down this man  and tell you his story. It didn't take long (thank you Google) before I'd found a contact number for this gentleman and was dialing the number to see if he'd be willing to do this interview. I figured I'd have to wrangle through a lot of people to find someone who would be willing to put me in touch with him, but to my utter astonishment, he answered the phone himself. (It was meant to be.)

He was so gracious and sweet, and as it goes with most real life heroes, absolutely humble and down to earth. So...without further delay, I'd LOVE to introduce you to

Car Santa

Terry Franz A.K.A The Car Santa is the founder and the soul of Cars 4 Christmas and Cars 4 Heroes. Each of these organizations is dedicated to helping people who are in desperate need of transportation but, for any number of reasons, are unable to afford reliable vehicles. Terry and his merry band of helpers take donated cars, fix them up and and then present them - free of charge, to people in need. From a woman who needed a way to get to dialysis 3 times a week to a woman who needed a handicapped fitted vehicle for her daughter born with Cerebral Palsy, Terry, along with his two assistants and a host of volunteers who fix up the cars, have been there since 1996 to provide hope and help. They give away 300 cars a year and have given away over 6000 vehicles.

Terry sees a vehicle just like any other tool. It's a means that when used correctly can bring about remarkable results. He's quick to point out that his organization is not called "Fixing Life's Problems" and makes sure that all the recipients understand that the keys he hands them are just the first step in making a better life for themselves.

Cars 4 Christmas and Cars 4 Heroes didn't start out to become what they are. As a matter of fact the whole thing started as a marketing strategy. I'll let Terry tell you more about that in his interview questions:

 What sparked the idea for Cars 4 Christmas? 

I owned a car lot and I had a thought about how to attract media and tell people about the lot. I thought I would give basic transportation to individuals and families that could not obtain a vehicle but still had a big need. I called a local radio station to help. We read the stories on why they needed a car and then called the people to tell they would receive one on Christmas. That first year we gave away 6 cars on Christmas Eve morning with a live remote from the radio station.  Every TV news station also showed up to cover the event. We got a lot of exposure but after seeing the looks on the recipients' faces we knew we were doing something more than a business promotion.

Were you apprehensive? 
I knew it would attract the media but not to the extent that it did. I gave 10 cars away the next year and the third year I sold the car lot. I would convince the dealerships that I went to work for to do the same thing. I changed dealerships year after year and continued on.

I decided to apply for 501 c 3 status so people could donate cars and receive a tax deduction. We still read the stories on the radio and when listeners hear them we get more cars donated. This grew year after year and still to this day all the TV stations come out to see us help the families and in Omaha, Wichita and KC.
The year of hurricane Katrina, I gave 50 cars away at Christmas and with all the TV stations going live all morning, I could only give about 25 cars away before the stations had to go off the air so I thought maybe I would give cars away all year. The radio stations would call me "The Car Santa" - and it stuck.
One July we were giving cars away and "Cars 4 Christmas" just didn't sound right. At the same time, I was getting a lot of requests for cars from returning veterans so I thought I would start a summer program called "Cars 4 Heroes." That was about 9 years ago.

We give about 300 cars away every year and are still growing. In 2015 we will head to Chicago with radio station 97.9 The Loop. We also have a car dealer in Indy that wants us to come there.

We plan on going national. Last we year gave cars away in Little Rock AR, Birmingham AL, Dallas, TX  and at the Daytona 500, Sen. Rick Santorum handed the keys to a veteran. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that 2 weeks later he donated his wife's car!

We have been featured on CBS Assignment America with Steve Hartman, NBC Making A Difference, and ESPN Sports giving away a car with Michael Waltrip to a vet at the track. 

Larry the Cable guy had a show on the History Channel called Only In America and we gave a veteran a van with a wheelchair lift. 
Mike Ballard and Jess James Dupree from the Full Throttle Saloon called me to help them get a motorcycle for a veteran who had lost his legs and one arm. (We got him a BMW that he could put a wheelchair on a trike.) We had equipped the hand control all on one bar so he could drive it.

 How does it feel to do something you're passionate about? 
You ask me how it makes me feel...I feel like Santa but more importantly how does it make them feel. Is what we are doing important? Ask this veteran from last Tuesday! (See the reaction for yourself here)

What advice do you have for someone who has a dream or idea simmering but hasn't taken action on it yet?

If you can help someone in need it is more rewarding than any amount of money you could ever acquire. 
You've given away SO many cars to so many people. Which story touched you the most.
There are thousands of stories that have all touched me.

And Terry - you've touched the hearts of so many already and you have no plans to stop. You've said "As long as I'm alive, people will get cars!" What a legacy of love and compassion you've created. 

Thank you Terry - not only for agreeing to share your story with us, but also for your selfless service to so many. You are the spirit of Christmas personified!
You can watch the entire Turning Point episode featuring Terry Franz The Car Santa HERE. It'll restore your belief in humanity and may just SPARK an idea for you as well! 

For more information about Cars 4 Christmas or Cars 4 Heroes you can visit Car Santa or Cars 4 Heroes on Facebook. 

You can also reach Terry to donate a car or submit your story of need at their websites at: 

November 24, 2014

The Peril Of Snap Judgements

I met a man, who I did not care for.
And then one day, this man gave me a call.
We sat and talked about things on our minds.
And now this man, he is a friend of mine.
-Friends and Lovers 
Reach Out Of The Darkness lyrics

Hearing this song being played on the radio the other day was such a flash back - not only to the flower-power era, (groovy man!) but also to a time when this exact scenario was played out in my own life.

There was a woman I had occasion to meet through association with other friends. In the first 5 minutes of our introduction, I'd already packaged her up, tied her with a bow, and and tagged her as "annoying." Each time after, when I had cause to be in her company, I paid no real attention to what she said because she'd already been categorized and filed so why engage?

Then, as fate would have it, I was forced by circumstances to have to deal with her one on one. What an eyeopener that turned out to be. Not only was she NOT annoying, but as it turned out she was intelligent, articulate, considerate, and kind. A long and enduring friendship developed and to this day I count this woman as one of my most cherished friends.

How unfortunate it would have been if I'd never been given another chance to reevaluate my abrupt judgment. How many wonderful conversations and associations I would have missed out on! She's been a confidante, cheerleader, and coach to me for all of these many years. The things I've learned by her example are priceless treasures.

Why, you might ask did I judge her so harshly at first? What was it about her that caused me to label her as annoying? I could answer those questions, but only from the standpoint of the things I told myself to make it OK for me to judge and label her. The truth is, it wouldn't have mattered what she said or did that first day. My labeling and judging had more to do with how I showed up to our introduction than anything she said or did.

The right question to ask would be: "What was it about YOU that caused YOU to judge her so harshly at your first meeting?"

Looking back on it, I think I instantly resented that she was the new kid on the block and she was getting attention from people that I was already familiar with and comfortable being around. (Those are few and far between for my introverted self.) She was an interloper from the get go. I think I was determined not to like her for those reasons alone. All I needed from that point on was to gather evidence to support that decision.

"Seek and ye shall find." It works for everything. Once I decided to look for reasons not to like her they lined up like obedient little soldiers. It's always that way. We can find evidence to support any position we choose to take on any subject at all. We just rational-lies it till it feels cozy. Yes, I said rational-lies. Maybe you've never seen it written like that before but I'm spelling it like it is. We tell ourselves rational sounding lies to make ourselves feel good about doing all sorts of lousy things. Maybe if we just changed the spelling we might not be so inclined to do it.

Why do we ever instantly judge anyone? Ever noticed how if we get distracted and make a traffic blunder we just "made a mistake" and are totallly bewildered at the angry rebukes from our fellow drivers - but if someone else does it -  they're an idiot? It all comes down to extending the same mercy to others that we hope to be shown ourselves. 

How much kinder of a world would it be if we would only start by assuming the best intentions instead of the worst? Can you imagine the ripple effect that would be set in motion if we worried less about sizing each other up and more about building each other up?

My hope in sharing this story with you is that it might cause you hit "pause" before passing sentence on someone who wanders into your life. Consider how you are showing up. What baggage are you dragging with you that might cloud the lenses your looking through? What if the person that you wrap up, tie with a bow and label with some unsavory title then heap on the discard pile is the one person that was put in your life to change it forever?

I'm thankful for the opportunity to have had a do-over in this situation. This one association has blessed my life in countless ways. I can't help wondering how many more I might have missed...and that is NOT groovy!

November 19, 2014

The Last Cricket

 “ is impossible to fully and fairly understand introversion without looking inside. We aren’t just going away, we’re going toward something.” -Laurie Helgoe

Several weeks ago, I was out in the backyard with my dog Tempe when I heard something that caught my attention. It was the sound of a single cricket making it's lonely song into the night.  It was late in the season, we'd already had several hard frosts so I suppose it shouldn't be  surprising that at some point the crickets songs would stop. Still - the sound of just one single cricket, sending out it's song unanswered sent my mind wandering. (Admittedly, it doesn't take much for that to happen!)

It made me think of how I often feel being an introvert. Being an introvert surely wasn't my choice. It's just the way I am and have always been. It makes some situations difficult and more often than not I feel like that lone cricket - regardless of how many other voices are sending out their songs around me.

There is something about being an introvert that makes me feel "different" or "not a part of" the things that go on around me. I feel like I'm on the outside, looking through the window. It's not that people seem unfriendly - usually the opposite is true. It just feels like everyone else seems more comfortable in their skin than I am. 

Over the years, I've learned to adapt. Most people would never believe for a minute that I really am an introvert. I've actually had people argue with me over the subject. I think that's because I've managed to master the art of "appearing" comfortable. I can carry on conversations with anyone on just about any topic even if we've only just met -  but that's all happening on the surface while inside I'm anxious and willing myself not to run away.

This aversion I have to being social is such a paradox for me because I LOVE people. I find them fascinating. I enjoy conversation on a broad variety of topics and love hearing other points of view, and in small groups I completely enjoy the interaction. It's when the size of the group rises above 3 that my skin gets crawly and I find myself wishing to be somewhere else. (Anywhere else actually.)

I admire people who are like fish in perfect water in a  crowd and even seek out situations to be around lots of people. My youngest daughter is one of them. She draws energy from engagement. I on the other hand am exhausted just thinking about large scale interaction.

That's the bad news. The good news about being an introvert is that I am happy being in my own company. I don't need a lot of outside interaction to be entertained and I seldom feel actual loneliness. I do miss those I love who I don't see as often as I'd like, but even at that, close is much more of a feeling for me than a location, so as long as my relationships are intact, they always feel close.

Being an introvert also makes me more observant of things around me. I notice all the little things - like a single cricket.  I notice social nuance. I'm a keen observer of peoples emotional states. I may never remember who was wearing what but I can tell you for sure who was mad at who and who was having a bad day. I also see - by body language when someone has lost the attention of the group and has gone on about something way too long, and I become uneasy for them - even when they don't notice it of feel uneasy themselves. I find myself constantly monitoring the states of anyone around me. In a restaurant I know what's happening with the people within a four booth radius.

Introversion not only makes me sensitive to other people's feelings - even the ones they don't express,  It also makes me want to nurture everything. That's why I beg people not to give me plants - especially poinsettias. I'll still be watering the leggy, mostly leafless things well into August because I can't bear to let anything die or suffer neglect. When I had to have a tree cut down because it was dropping limbs on my roof, I cried and it felt like all of nature was mourning. My husband thinks I'm nuts because I'll catch flies and spiders and put them back outside instead of dispatching them on to another plane of existence. 

I've often wondered if its the extreme sensitivity to other people's feelings that is the source of why it's exhausting instead of energizing to be in crowds. All of that unintended motoring and feeling for others wears me out!

My purpose for writing this today is to send a lone song out to other introverts. It's to say we're not "odd." We just feel odd. It takes all kinds of people to make up a world. We all have something to offer and something to overcome. For my fellow introverts I say embrace all that's wonderfully different about you. Be OK with who you are. You add value to the world around you even when you're uncomfortable doing so.

To my extroverted friends - thanks for being the life of the party so we don't have to! 

Photo Credit: Sarah Kopp collage

November 12, 2014

There's Always Room To Grow

A few weeks ago at church, during a wonderful message being shared by a member of the congregation, my eyes were attracted to a wordless sermon being preached seemingly just for my benefit in the pew directly in front of me. A lovely little girl, decked head to toe in purple had slipped out of her shoes. So had her mother. What happened next is pictured above.

As I sat quietly watching the tiny feet moving around in the much too big shoes, several things struck me. The first was that no matter how far we've come in life, there's always room to grow. The shoes in the picture illustrate the size our lives could be if we're willing to allow the growing process to become an integral part of our journey.

Growing doesn't happen passively and it's not a spectator sport. It means knowing ourselves well enough to evaluate where we can use some expansion. It requires that we hold up a mirror and then have the courage to face what reflects back at us -  honestly. (I don't suggest doing this first thing in the morning! :)

If that isn't possible (and often it isn't) we need to ask others for a second opinion and then be willing to weigh what we hear with a mind open to discovery. Growing isn't always a pleasant process but it's brings unimagined rewards. 

The scene also brought another thought to mind. It reminded me of how stunted we can show up in our own lives. We sometimes stumble around awkwardly drinking shallowly from an endless supply of possibility. We play small. We play safe. We rattle around in the expanse of our potential without knowing the size of it and often being afraid to find out. I think we sometimes forget that with a little belief and some grit, we could grow to fill the full measure of ourselves.

Being in church as I was, I saw the spiritual implications as well. I thought of how I sometimes feel like those tiny feet, trying to navigate a life that often feels much too big for me. What a comfort it is for me to know that I'm never stumbling alone. Help is always just a prayer away.

It also reminded me that while I continue to work on growing, Christ makes up the difference between where I am and where I need to be as I move forward in faith - believing. I think I'll keep this picture handy to remind me.

I don't believe for a minute that I'm the only one who receives messages from unlikely sources just when I need them. I think they're around us all the time just waiting for us to notice. Have you noticed any recently? 

November 7, 2014

SPARKS: Moments Of Creation Vol. 7

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
-Albert Einstein

What does success mean to you?

What are the perimeters you set for defining how successful you or someone else is? Are they financial? Do you factor in personal character, integrity? What personal and professional marks have to be reached before you can make that call?

When my plans changed as to who my 7th SPARKS Volume would feature my husband said kindly, "If I were successful, I'd do an interview for you sweetie."

My first thought was of his constant willingness to support me in whatever crazy adventure I may cook up. He believes in me. (A lot more than I do most of the time.)

What struck me next and even more powerfully is that he didn't believe that he is a success - a fact that I intend to dispel here and now. My husband is a brilliant man. I often joke that I married him so I could give up thinking and am quick to tell people that when he retires, he's going to become a search engine.

It was obvious to me that he defines (or possibly believes I define) success in terms of dollars and cents. That is not at all the case for me, and I hope it's not for you.

Because November is the season of Thanksgiving, it seems a wonderful time to dedicate my November SPARKS edition to one of the blessings in my life I'm most grateful for. I'd like to introduce you to my husband:


David has spent his life in the ministry as a pastor of several different churches. While he will probably never get rich in this pursuit, I can attest to the wealth of blessings he is and has brought into the lives of so many others.

He's earned quite the reputation - especially for his handling  of weddings and funerals - two crucial crossroads of the human experience. I'm not easily impressed, but the first time I had the opportunity to attend a wedding and funeral that he was officiating, I was blown away at how remarkably different they were from others I'd attended and how much forethought and effort had gone in to making those special moments - well, special.

Enough of my completely unbiased chatter already. I'll let the answers to David's interview tell you the rest.

 What made you decide to become a pastor? 

When I was a teenager I went to a church that really encouraged its teenagers to consider the ministry as a career. We were given the opportunity to preach, lead Bible studies, and take a look at Bible colleges. The minister also always made time to talk to me.
The turning point came when I attended a youth rally and an invitation was given to come forward and make a commitment to the ordained ministry. I had been thinking about it for some time but decided to try something I normally wouldn’t recommend as a way of determining God’s will. I said a prayer and then opened my Bible randomly and put my finger on the page. When I looked I saw that my finger had landed on a passage from Matthew where Jesus is saying, “The fields are white unto harvest, but the laborers are few. Pray, therefore, that the lord of the harvest would send laborers into the field.” I took that as a pretty clear sign and went forward.
So the combination of encouragement, opportunity, and a sense of being called led me into the ministry. That same combination could work for anyone in any profession. Hold something up as a worthy goal, tell people they might be good at it, give them some opportunities to try it out, and then ask for a commitment and you never know what might happen.

You're considered to be an awesome "marrying and burying" pastor. What do you do that makes that true...and why? 

I don’t think what I do at weddings is all that different from other pastors, at least good ones. I try to make it as personal and relaxed as possible and allow the couple to be as creative as they want to be within reason. Having a pretty good sense of humor comes in handy in that regard.

The one thing I do that is distinctive is to go down into the congregation and talk to the family and guests about how they’re not here for a free dinner and drinks. They are a part of this marriage. Their love and support helped get the bride and groom to where they are and that same love and support will help get the couple to where they need to be.

In particular I tell the parents they will have to learn to give the couple some space to make their own decisions and mistakes and yet be willing to step in if and when they see
their son or daughter about to make some truly terrible decision. The analogy I use is when their little one was learning to ride a bike. Good parents let their kids take some falls but they don’t let junior ride out on a busy highway.

I find this little touch gets people’s attention and turns a spectator sport into something a bit more participatory. I actually got the idea decades ago from another pastor but I’ve never seen anyone else do it. The principle here is to make people realize they have a part to play and that relationships are always dependent on more than just two people.

When it comes to funerals I actually do things a bit differently than most other clergy. (A fact that has been brought to my attention by more than one funeral director.)

First, I sit down with the family (and close friends) and have them tell me about the deceased. I start by getting a rough chronological sketch of his or her life. I make sure to get any meaningful names and dates: relatives, schools, places of employment, birthday, anniversary, etc. Then I go back and ask each person to tell me something they remember: a quality, an event, or especially a good story. As they speak, I take notes. This process gives the family the opportunity to gather and really focus on their loved one, which is an aid to healing in itself.

I then take time to read and study the notes until I have what has been said memorized. When it comes time to conduct the funeral service I do the eulogy (sermon) without notes or script, telling the story of the one who has passed and including the names, the dates, and the places that were significant, being as specific as possible. Bob didn’t just get married; he married Betty on June, 24, 1968 at Central Christian Church in Wooster, Ohio. By the time this portion of the eulogy is over everybody there has a pretty good idea of what “Bob” was like and what he did.

I then take a few moments to talk about the “What now?” questions. Where can I find comfort? What can I do to honor his or her memory? I try to give three general suggestions. First there is the comfort found in the gospel. I don’t shove it down people’s throats (I consider such tactics to be the religious equivalent of blackmail: “Accept Christ or you’ll never see grandpa again.”) but I do make it clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ has some obvious relevance at this particular moment.

Second, I tell them to stick together. Share your hurts and your stories. Be there for each other. Don’t be afraid to open up and above all don’t be afraid to cry.  Don’t think you’re ever going to get over this loss. Given a lot of time and love you’ll get through it, but you won’t get over it. Grief is the price we pay for loving deeply.

Lastly, I ask the people to take whatever they found to be the best quality of the deceased and make it their own. Don’t try to ape the individual. Rather express that quality in your own way. A better or more lasting memorial cannot be given.

This process of focusing on the departed and the gathered loved ones actually goes against the grain of what many preachers are taught in school. There the emphasis is all about how this is your chance to preach the gospel, not go over someone’s life. The congregation can get that info from the obituary.

I think this is appallingly bad advice. A human being has died, an individual with a specific name and friends and accomplishments. That life deserves to be remembered, encapsulated, and put before the mourners in such a way as to help them heal. Only in that context does the gospel become relevant. Otherwise it’s just one more sales pitch that nobody asked to hear.

 How has this impacted you over the years? How has it impacted others?

In almost 30 years of ministry I have received countless comments saying that the funeral I had conducted was the most meaningful, best, etc. one that the person speaking to me had ever been to. What they were really saying is that someone had paid attention. Ultimately, I think that is the thing that has had the greatest impact upon others. Somebody listened, somebody took the time to write things down and memorize them. Somebody truly honored my loved one and thereby honored me.

As for me, what better thing to do than to acknowledge in a unique way the passing of a unique life and thereby provide some measure of healing and comfort to those who mourn this loss?

Once again, there are principles at work that go beyond a funeral. Taking the time to be with people, really listening to their stories, showing that you are paying attention, making it clear that the other person matters. When those things are in place then you have earned the right to present whatever ideas you have. Also, give people some space and let them make their own way in life. No person, product, or program can give the answers to all of life’s questions. Unfortunately, religion, politics, and commerce all too often think they can. Big mistake.

One last touch I add at funerals is that towards the end of the service I go and give an individual blessing to each member of the immediate family, something along the lines of know that your dad was and is proud of you or that your wife’s love will always be with you. As I do so, I lay hands on their head and speak in a voice that is loud enough for them to hear but not the rest of the congregation. In other words, it is their blessing.
I got this idea from growing up with a Pentecostal best friend but I have never seen anyone, Pentecostal or otherwise, do it at a funeral. The point here is simply the power of appropriate human contact and a soft, reassuring word.

If you could give advice to someone starting out in the ministry, what would it be and why? 

Four things come to mind:

First, be as sure as you can that is what you feel called to be and do. Ministry can be extremely difficult and there will be times when you will be wondering what you got yourself into. If, however, you can maintain your sense of call then you can most likely find the strength to get through the tough times.

Second, try and get as good a “fit” as you can with your congregation. You can be a tremendously gifted individual with great ideas but if you’re in a church that doesn’t or can’t appreciate and make use of what you have to offer it’s not going to be a happy or fruitful time for either you or the congregation.

Third, learn quickly who the real power brokers in a congregation are. Just because someone is the board chair doesn’t mean they’re in charge. If the true leaders are good ones and you can work with them, you’re in good shape. If they’re not good folks and/or you can’t work with them, then eventually one or the other of you will have to go. Lest this sound too “unministerly” keep in mind that every human organization has a power structure. When that power is used positively, good things happen. When used negatively, bad things happen. When not uses at all, nothing happens. Knowing who has the most influence is important in a church just as it is in a corporation or even your family.

Fourth, pay attention to your finances. I think if I had to do it all over again I would have another profession from which to earn a living. So many problems and bottlenecks arise in churches because the church has to raise the funds to pay its minister and/or because the pastor is dependent upon the congregation for his or her livelihood. What’s more, in today’s world it’s becoming harder and harder for small churches to pay a full-time pastor. By being able to support yourself you will have freedoms and opportunities that more traditional pastors can only dream of having.

Thank you David for sharing your journey with us. I'll leave it to each person to determine their own definition of success, but in my book, you're extremely successful, not only in your profession but in your relationships as well.

David Stout has won numerous academic awards, writes a column for the religion section of the local newspaper and is a sought after presenter. He is currently the pastor at Riverview Park Christian Church in St. Joseph  Michigan and can be reached at: or 269-429-0700