Friday, July 31, 2015

What is it really like to live in Florida?

Moving from the Midwest to Florida, I had certain expectations. Some good. Others bad.

I looked forward to throwing away my down coat and my plastic ice scraper. I worried about humidity and hurricanes. Well, I've been here for six months now - January through July - and I have a much better idea of what there is to love (and maybe not love as much) about my new home.

What you give up...

1) Grass Lawns. The grass in our Florida front yard is crab grass. They have all sorts of fancy names for it here, but it is definitely the stuff we tried hard to kill in the Midwest. This is weedy, finnicky grass. The ground is sandy. Even after what seemed like a drenching downpour, the sand appears untouched and parched. Yes, we do have green lawns - but if you look closely you can see the difference.

2) Seasons. Perhaps my biggest shock was to give up any semblance of seasons. I remember stopping at a restaurant in December and hearing a Christmas carol. Why are they playing Christmas music now? I wondered. Then I was Christmastime. Every month feels like June or July. There are seasons but they they are much more subtle. Leaves fall off trees, flowers bloom, but they seem completely random. My internal clock is messed up. I miss family birthdays and holidays surprise me. What month is this anyway?

3) Boots and Wool Jackets. Being from Chicago, I have a huge assortment of winter clothing. I love my tall leather boots and my fuzzy sweaters. I adore scarves and hats. But now, I have very limited time to wear them. They are still in my closet, but shoved to the very back. I sorted through a giant tub of socks and tights and threw most of them out. I had ten pairs of black knee highs. I had a fleece lined pair of tights - fleece lined!!! That's how cold it got during my Chicago commute. Now I wear shorts. Shorts. All the time.

4) Pizza. They will tell you they have pizza here. There are neon "pizza" signs that beckon you as you drive up and down the coast. But they lie. This is not pizza. This is soggy, floppy cheese pie. My husband is in serious Chicago pizza withdrawal - not for the deep dish kind (which I do love on occasion), but for the crisp, thin crust, cut in squares with Italian sausage type. Sigh.

What you gain . . .

1) Sunshine. I always experienced a bit of seasonal depression from January until March. It was not just the freezing snow and ice, but the gloom. I'd look at the grey cloudy sky and long for just one peek of sun. Now I've gotten my wish. Every day. It is sunny in Florida. Really sunny. It is also lush and green. For some reason I thought too much sunshine would result in parched lawns. In Chicago, my August lawn looked dead and brown. Here, everything grows like wild - all the time. It is like we live in a tropical forest. We chop things down, and they resurrect.

2) Beach. Perhaps I should say nature, but the beach is one of the main reasons that this is a very outdoorsy place. People are active. They kayak. They bike. They fish. They surf. They walk up and down the beach. They run. They have racks and racks of sporty clothing in the stores. Maybe it's the overabundance of serotonin from so much sunlight, or maybe it's the natural beauty that surrounds. I can walk to the Halifax River (one block to the west of my house) or the Atlantic Ocean (one and half blocks to the East). There is a huge state park just one mile north. Nature beckons me. The beach calms me. If I'm ever feeling stressed, just sitting on the great expanse of the beach and staring at the ocean waves calms me. I did not have this in my Chicago suburb.

3) Calm. I am used to a frantic pace of life. I had 49 years in Chicago where we "go, go, go." I commuted to my job - one and a half hours each way - by car, then train, then walking. And suddenly I reached Florida, and life slowed to a halt. It is quieter here. People don't hurry. That has its upside and its downside. Contractors are not in a hurry to get their jobs done. But people also stop to talk and smile and relax. I am gradually adjusting to this pace of life. It is small towny and quaint. There are two traffic lights and one train crossing. There is not much crime. Maybe everyone is sedated by the lapping sound of waves.

There are pros and cons of living in Florida. I was warned about cost of living and unemployment. I was warned about living in a land of retirees. But overall my worst fears were misplaced. This is a town like any other. It has its downside. It has its perks.

I'm quite happy with our move - six months in. And I'm all in. I've thrown out my gigantic, floor-length, grey, poofy down coat. I've purchased six pairs of shorts and am now sporting a persistent tan.

Do I miss Chicago? Yes. I always will.

But I am enjoying our new coastal Florida home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Legacy of Swedish Pancakes

On one of my last visits to my grandparent’s home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, they decided to lead my husband, daughter, and I out of town, so we followed their rambling Buick toward the expressway on-ramp. 

When we stopped to buy gas, my grandma – “Honey” as I always called her – pressed a 3 X 5 inch piece of paper into my hand. On it, in her large looped cursive writing, was the recipe for her Swedish pancakes.

The thin, crepe-like pancakes were my favorite, and I had helped her make them many times. If I close my eyes right now, I can remember how she’d lift my hand to show how the batter should be just right, coating the spoon.

The oil, she’d explain, should be spitting a bit. Then the batter was poured and the pan tilted – this way and that – to make a thin pancake with sprawling crisped edges.

Honey’s Swedish Pancakes.

That day, I tucked the paper safely into my purse, and later set it on the kitchen shelf right underneath my spices. That recipe is my legacy, my inheritance, a tangible reminder of our relationship.

I wonder what it is I’ll leave behind to my daughter and my daughter’s daughter. Will it be a recipe, my wedding ring, my Bible with the cracked leather binding? Maybe it’s not a “thing” at all.

Psalm 37:18 says our inheritance from God endures “forever.”

As a child of our Heavenly Father, you might think I would be most excited about inheriting my mansion in the sky. But my God-given legacy is more like Honey’s recipe. It is the knowledge that His hand is directing mine, giving me hope and comfort, leading me through good days and bad. It is love poured out in ordinary moments. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In Praise of Facebook Friendships

My husband looks at the number of "friends" listed on my Facebook page and laughs. "Those aren't all your friends," he quips. "How come I've never met most of them?"

And, he's right. He hasn't.

I have 955 friends on my Facebook feed, many who I have not seen face-to-face in years, even decades. Some were friends who I grew up with in the little south suburban, quarry town of Thornton, Illinois, where I was born. We were classmates together at Parkside Elementary and Wolcott Junior High. I rode my bike to school with Amy and went to birthday parties with Jill.

Still others are friends who I sat in Sunday School next to and ran the Awana circle with back at First Baptist Church in South Holland. We played four square in the church basement and had lock-in nights playing capture the flag in the church lot. We sat in the back row, left side of the church sanctuary, and went out after the service for pizza.

I have friends who went to college with me in Chicago and Normal, Illinois. They sat in class with me, took long walks along the Chicago River, and ate at Bagel Nosh. Amanda, my only lasting Columbia College friend, remembers evenings spent avoiding creepy men lurking in the south Loop while waiting for our ride home. My "Normal" friends remember our blinding fear of Dr. Tarr and his Intro to Research class intended to make us resign from grad school. Together, we survived late nights and final exams.

My work friends are sprinkled across the list as well. Carolyn was one of my first bosses - and I remember getting both of us our afternoon coffee as we rented out actual "films" - in the days before VCR technology. My other Caroline boss is now an installation artist - and I stand amazed at her creativity. My crazy friends from our creative team at Moody. My professor friends.

Many of my friends have moved cross country. My friend Beth is on the other coast in California. Her work on behalf of women and charities continues to inspire me. I have international friends like Amy and Michael who live in Ireland, and Adelina in Romania.

Many of my former students are on that list... Because of Facebook, I get to see them marry, become parents. I have watched some walk away from the faith. I have seen their careers flourish. I have spoken into their lives during times of crisis. I have sent recommendations and advice.

I have new friends on my list. Some of them are in the fledgling stage where we have said hello in person or interacted only on social media. They are people who have common interests. They are people I would like to know better.

And there are so many others. I am friends with relatives - near and distant. I've gotten to see my cousin's daughter's children. I am friends with my parent's friends - people I knew as a child. I am friends with my childhood pastor's wife - Mrs. Shirley Rice - a woman who prayed with me to commit my life to God and continues to inspire me.

The variety of people connected to me on my Facebook page keep me honest and real. It is also challenging. One of my friends says that some days reading her fb feed makes her blood pressure spike. I can relate. When reactions to the legalization of gay marriage erupted on social media, I had friends speaking passionately to both sides of the issue. There are times I'm tempted to block or unfriend someone whose ideas I don't like. Most of the time I think better of it.

My Facebook friends challenge me. I am glad they aren't all like me. I have friends who are vegans. I have friends who love guns. I have friends who fight injustice. I have friends who post hilarious videos. I have rockabilly friends, feminist friends, literary friends, parenting friends...

They all matter.

Facebook friends are not fake friends to me. While I may not see all of them face-to-face, Facebook allows this parade of people I have known and loved to continue to speak into my life. It allows me to stay current with who they are and where they are going. It lets me hear them in a way I hadn't previously been able to do. I can know what they are thinking. I can watch how they change. I can weep with those who weep. I can rejoice with those who rejoice.

As I scan my Facebook list of faces and names, I see people who have meant something to me. And we are connected still.

I am grateful for my Facebook friends.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Slowing Down in Savannah, Georgia

Southern charm. I had heard about it, but I have never quite experienced it until I walked the gorgeous cobblestone streets of Savannah, Georgia.

Recently, I took an entire week of vacation time and traveled a short 3 1/2 hour trip to Savannah. What a gorgeous, historical, romantic city! Milt, Sabrina and I met up with our good friends, the Obermaiers and visited SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) a school that both our daughter and their daughter are considering.

In Savannah, we stayed at the B-Historic - a quaint hotel located right downtown. How great to be able to park our car for the entire visit and explore the city on foot.

The first thing you'll notice about Savannah are the historic town squares. There is not just one beautiful square/park - as you find in many small Southern towns -  but dozens of them, arranged like a grid throughout the historic section of the city. Central to each one is a monument honoring a person of significance. Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts). John Wesley (co-founder of Methodism). Casimir Pulaski (the Polish war hero who we also love in Chicago). There are trees dripping with moss and park benches and fountains.

My husband says Savannah reminds him a bit of New Orleans. It has lots of iron fretwork and mossy trees. The buildings are old and restored - and businesses (even McDonalds) find their homes in historic, repurposed structures. The streets are uneven with cobblestones. Pedicabs are one way to get around for those who don't want to walk.

You can easily make your way on foot from one end of the district to the other. On the far side is the River with restaurants and shops and flag-draped riverboats offering tours. Walk a bit back into town you will hit Market Street - a central area with plenty of restaurants and bus tours - haunted ghosts and history along with trolley rides. Our group stopped to tour the Colonial Cemetery - where one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is laid to rest.

Broad Street is filled with shops - plenty of high-end boutiques as well as the more artistic variety. I think that the art college has left its mark on the town. I also noted several cool restored movie theatres - one offered a James Bond film series. Milt was wishing he could stay and enjoy that one.

We ate our way through Savannah. We started each morning at the Gallery Espresso - an artsy little cafe offering teas, coffee, wine in the evenings, and freshly-made baked goods and salads. Sabrina and I also enjoyed peach lemonade with rosemary syrup at the Griffin - another SCAD coffee/tea house.

We visited the Scottish Pub for lunch which offered traditional pub fare plus Scotch eggs, Bangers-n-Mash, and Shepherd's Pie. My dinner order was the southern shrimp-n-grits. We tried to sneak in the back way to Mrs. Wilke's Dining Room - an establishment that was recently visited by President Obama. When the owner wouldn't let us in that way, we decided to skip the two-hour wait and visit another time.

On Market Street we visited a huge candy store and sampled pralines - still warm and sugary and packed with pecans. They offered us cookie tastings at Byrd's Famous Cookies - a Savannah staple since the 1920s. I brought home a bag of tiny, tangy peach cookies.

The food, the history, the architecture, the shopping. This is definitely the perfect city for a weekend destination. Beautiful, lovely Savannah. I plan to come back!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fiesty Flannery: A Visit to the Author's Childhood Home

In college, my friend Amy and I were shameless Flannery O'Connor groupies. 

We were fellow writers and students at a midwest Bible college. In our Creative Writing course, the professor introduced us to many authors we had never read - but Flannery quickly became our favorite.

Her characters were unexpected: disturbing, grotesque, and larger-than-life. Yet they were also ordinary - the type of people you might encounter at your local WalMart. They were overweight, loud-mouthed, some suffered deformities, others were drifters. They spoke crassly, and then (often in the same breath) they would speak about God.

As she said so well, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

We had never read faith stories like these. Flannery O'Connor's stories were not the sanctified, made-for-tv Christian-novels we had grown up on by authors like Grace Livingston Hill or Janette Oke. These were rough and tumble, edgy, almost obscene. Yet, they felt real because they pushed hard at the core center of our beliefs.

The other thing we noticed is that her stories were marked by violence. A gunshot stifles an old woman. A book is thrown across a crowded doctor's waiting room squarely knocking into the forehead of an obnoxious talker. Flannery doesn't just speak truth, she smacks you in the face with it.

I loved that then. I still do.

Before we went to Savannah, Georgia, I gave my book of Flannery's Collected Stories to my daughter. Read one of these, I urged her, bookmarking two of my favorites: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Revelation." And she did. 

"Interesting," she said when she was done, raising her eyebrows with a curious look on her face. I plopped on the edge of her bed, and we talked about that annoying grandmother, the disturbing Misfit and his memorable last line: "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

Sabrina went along with me to visit Flannery's childhood home. How wonderful it is to walk where one of your favorite author's walked. Her home is next door to her wealthy aunt's mansion in Savannah, Georgia. It is simple and period-correct...a front visitor's parlour where they have her baby buggy - complete with her initials MFO (I never knew before that Mary was her true first name).

They have a collection of her childhood books. In the front leaf of a book of fairytales, the young Mary Flannery offered her critique. "I did not like this book." Upstairs is a tiny bathroom. Our guide told us Mary would sit on the toilet, and make her young girlfriends get in the tub. Then she would read stories to her captive audience. One little girl left crying, asking her parents not to maker her return. 

She left this home in her early teens when her father accepted a job near Atlanta. At age 15, she lost her dad to complications of lupus, a disease that would later take her own life at age 39. She was so young when she died, 10 years younger than I am now.

She studied at the University of Iowa. She published two novels and many short stories. She inspired Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Flannery, as she was later called, never married. She was pigeon-toed and an only child. She was fiercely opinionated and darkly religious. 

Nothing about Flannery was easy or calm. She embodies sharp angles and unanswerable questions - I love that she challenges to think hard about our faith. As she said, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."

Her dark sense of humor sometimes makes me gulp with laughter: "She could never be a saint," quips Flannery, "but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick."

Thank you, fierce Flannery for sharing your view of the world with us. I will treasure this moment where our paths intersected - even though we were decades apart.

If you are in Savannah, take a few moments to visit her childhood home: