Monday, December 27, 2010

Advent Failure/Christmastide Success

So this year was going to be the year that our household went full throttle on Advent traditions. I planned the advent calendar. I planned the advent wreath. I planned the advent meals and fastings and weaving in all sorts of historic advent traditions.

And then we did none of that.

I was so busy and stressed (a good kind of stress) from getting used to new work hours, the commute and the job itself that I just couldn’t work up the energy to go gangbusters on Advent. The opportunities passed us by. We didn’t even have time to go to but one small Christmas party.

As far as Christmastide (i.e. the 12 days of Christmas which begin Christmas day and go through January 5th) and the Epiphany, we typically celebrate on Christmas day with the traditional presents and meal with family/friends and then hold an epiphany dinner on the 6th of January. The Epiphany Feast celebrates the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child.

This year I indulged in more research on the traditional celebrations of Advent & Christmastide in our Christian faith heritage and found out to my delight that celebrating over the *entire* Christmastide period is called for. As advent is traditionally a time for preparing for Christ with fasting, solemn prayers, etc, Christmastide is a time for celebrating Christ. You need more than just one day for such a glorious occasion, especially to balance out the quiet preparations of the heart over the advent weeks. Hence the TWELVE days of Christmas.

We are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas with a dinner party each evening in our home. On the second day of Christmas, we had two people at our table in total. Today is the third day of Christmas and we will have three people. And so it will continue through the 12th and final day of Christmas. Each meal will be fun and fabulous with a casual celebratory ambiance. We will still hold our traditional formal Epiphany feast on the 6th of January with the fine china, fancy food and high ceremony.

The older I get the more I find comfort and peace in Christian rituals such as these. Rituals should not substitute for faith but can add to our faith practice, pointing us toward God as we engage in them joyfully.

Yoga and the Christian Walk

I don’t subscribe to the common thinking surrounding the practice of yoga.

Some eastern religious traditions use yoga in an attempt to empty the mind and quiet the thoughts. There is nothing in our Christian tradition that validates this as a desirable goal. God created us as active thinkers, not passive vessels that need to be emptied. There is no model of mind emptying in our scriptures and attempting to empty the mind leaves one more susceptible to brainwashing.

In India, yoga is prescribed as a method to facilitate communication with the Hindu gods. As Christians we are explicitly  told to abandon the worship of false Gods and turn to the one true God only.

Many new age philosophy adherents claim that regardless of attempts to empty the mind or fix it on the supernatural during yoga, just by putting the body in certain postures and breathing in certain ways can open the physical body up to other dimensions/spiritual realms. This spiritual awakening is why they turn to yoga. A portion of conservative Christian leaders believe this to be true also and assert it is the reason why yoga should be shunned by Christians.  We know there is no other god but ours, but there are demons they remind us, waiting to pounce.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities here with yoga movements and the supernatural:

1. The poses and breathing do open up a spiritual door to the Hindu gods.

2. The poses and breathing do open up a spiritual door where demons can creep in and influence our mind.

3. The poses and breathing do not open up a spiritual door, this was a misinterpretation of the physiological response that Hindus experienced. The yoga movements and breathing affect our neurological system in a way that other exercise does not. They do not affect our spirituality directly. If anything perhaps they open one up to a slightly more suggestive mental state (much milder than transcendental meditation) due to nerve interactions in the brain that could be manipulated but highly unlikely unless you actively practice brainwashing alongside in the form of chanting, emptying the mind, etc.

Obviously as a Christian I can reject the first possibility immediately as there is no other God but Jehovah. Even though some Christians (incl some I respect) hold to possibility two (yoga as a spiritual door) as truth, I just can’t find any evidence to support this.  Therefore, with no facts to prescribe against it, I'm currently attending a weekly yoga class for the physical benefits (lower resting heart rate, increased flexibility,etc). I also use the yoga stretches before running to loosen up my muscles so that I don't pull something during running. I've never felt a spiritual door open and I've never tried to open one during yoga- to God or to anything else. I've tried to focus exclusively on the exercises themselves. Yeah my instructors sometimes spout out the typical new age nonsense during the class but I just ignore it the way you would when you hear undesirable advertising on the metro, on the tv, etc. No thank you, I don’t need your philosophy I have my own.

However, I’ve still been challenged on my yoga practice by other Christians who believe as I do: that yoga does not open any spiritual doors. They claim it still should be shunned. Why? They believe it could cause others to stumble on their Christian walk. Weaker Christians might not be able to shut out the spiritual claptrap the instructors typically try to impart (brainwash) during the session. One blogger said:

… the truth of the matter is that regardless of your intent, to the outside world you look like you are condoning yoga - all aspects of it. Your actions could very well be a stumbling block to others and causing others to fall into the trap of occultism, new-ageism and idolatry.

"For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ." - 1 Colossians 8:10-12

What do you think? As a Christian, have you ever practiced yoga? If so have you attended the classes and worked diligently to block out the spiritual nonsense the instructor speaks so that you could just focus on the exercises, or do you practice it independent of an instructor so that you don’t have to work so hard to block out the new age philosophy that comes along with it? And in either case have you ever felt anything akin to a spiritual door opening during yoga? To god, or to something more sinister?

2011: The Year of the Written Letter

I’ve decided that 2011 shall be the year of the written letter in my household. I used to write cards and letters frequently because I enjoyed crafting special correspondence reminding friends and family they are loved and thought of and also because I loved the art of writing itself. Somewhere along the way I abandoned this pursuit as email became widespread in the mid 90s and evite.com came on board to offer electronic invitations.

I think there is something of value in hand written letters. I lost this ‘something’ by turning my back on letter writing and I aim to pull it back into my life in 2011. What I look to gain:

1. A sort of quiet peace as the pace of conversation must ebb and flow with the postal schedule.

2. A sense of directed thoughtfulness as each letter represents time focused on specific friends and family.

3. A reconnection with the physical pleasures of writing: choosing beautiful papers and writing instruments (I collect Italian glass pens among others), decorating the envelope, etc.

4. The joyful anticipation of postal delivery, knowing that a letter may be waiting for me in return. Receiving mail might be pleasurable again instead of just the dreary work of sorting through ho-hum bills, netflix movies and advertising.

On Consulting

I promised more details on my new job and so here we are. I work for CSC as a Senior Consultant for their Federal Consulting Practice (FCP). In some instances, I may consult on projects the FCP has negotiated directly with the US government, but typically I am asked to step in on federal govt projects that CSC’s North American Public Sector (NPS) is already managing.  This means at a practical level that I consult to one division of CSC on behalf of another division of CSC.

CSC is a very large company (92,000+ employees) and it has fashioned itself into several divisions to handle different market segments. For example, it has a large division devoted to commercial work both domestic and abroad. It also has a major division devoted to US government work. This division or entity provides services to the US government under contract. The FCP division was created to maintain a pool of expertise to drop in to NPS projects as needed. This benefits the company to keep a supply of techie-geeks on hand at all times and benefits the consultants because our employment is not bound to any specific contract. Instead we are permanent CSC employees who don’t have to worry about finding a new job when a contract concludes. A win-win for everyone involved.

Currently I am consulting on a project CSC NPS manages for a government agency. They’re utilizing my SAS admin skills and I am learning a lot along the way. The implementation version on this project is SAS 9.2 whereas previously I’d learned and worked the ins and outs of 9.1.3. There have been a lot of changes to the application but nothing so far I cannot wrap my mind around or keep up with. My first few weeks on the job I’ve managed to resolve a pressing issues that was previously deemed “unsolvable” by SAS so I am feeling pretty confident.  And while it’s a bit tricky as a consultant to manage three circles of influence (the govt client and the CSC NPS employees I am consulting to along with my CSC FCP managers) I am enjoying the pace.

I live in a cube farm in DC during work hours.  While it was a rough transition in terms of managing my daily schedule after working from home for the past few years (see my previous blog post) it’s actually more enjoyable then having a big office all to myself (which I had when I first starting working for my last employer Orizon). The amazing office with a beautiful view was exciting for the first couple of weeks- look at me, I have an office!- but when the pride wore off it was just lonely. I am a social creature and cube farms are lovely. I enjoy the neighborly interaction and the quiet murmur (sometimes not so quiet) of work and conversation going on around me while I work.

One thing that has been vastly different about working at CSC versus any other previous employer: their attention to detail. There is a formal written policy for everything: even the fridge clean out schedule/rules is codified in policy. It’s not bad; it’s just very different and super organized.

CSC invests heavily in career planning for their employees. Every year there are two main career building activities. The first is KRA objective planning. This is sort of like your standard ‘work goals for the year’ section of your typical employee review, but on steroids. It took me a couple of hours to watch the instruction videos, learn all the lingo and understand the methodology CSC uses for the process. In the end, an employee ends up with approx 5 ‘Key Result Areas’ that they commit to accomplishing during the year on the job that should further their project, the company overall, and of course their own goals and interests as well.

Besides the KRA, CSC also requires all employees to complete an Individualized Development Plan (IDP). The IDP is designed to plot out your continuing education over the next year, keeping in mind your long range (greater than a year from now) career plans and goals. You have to conceive where you’d like to be in a few years (working the same job in the same division? working a different job in the same division? working the same type of job in another CSC division? working another type of job in another division?) and then plot out how you are going to work toward that this year. Deciding what I want to be doing in two years was the hardest part for me. I mean I freeze up when presented with 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins (so many choices! what to pick, what to pick?!). Imagine how hard it was for me to plot a course to set sail for the future in a company with nearly 100,000 job opportunities of all different kinds. As an employee, you also have to keep in mind (and work into the plan) skill development for any of your current job title competencies that you aren’t 100% developed on already. For example, one of my job title competencies relates to team management (even though I’m not currently managing a team on this consulting project) so I might elect to take some management courses. To complicate things just a bit, I have a job title description with competencies and I also have what equivalents to a seniority title description with competencies as well. For those familiar with the federal govt, think of a seniority title as GS levels. So you might be a programmer at GS10 or a lets say for illustration a programmer at GS11. You’d have the competencies expected of a programmer and also those expected of any GS11 employee, regardless of their job specialty.

As part of my blog audience you’re probably feeling a bit overwhelmed by now just reading about these complex processes, but just imagine how it feels to be the new employee having to work through them! The good news is that the story has a happy ending: I finished my KRA and IDP work before the deadlines and I was fortunate enough to still be on the bench (working for CSC FCP but not yet on a consulting assignment) during the tasks so that I could devote my full attention to them.

I’m getting along well with the govt client reps, the NPS staff and my FCP colleagues and it’s great to be back to work feeling useful and purposed again. If you happen to be job hunting (especially in IT) I encourage you to consider CSC as your next employer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Putting the Pieces Together

Prior to the start of my new job, I had a somewhat regular daily routine established. Mornings I’d wake up and after getting groomed and dressed, check email/facebook and then sit down with my bible to go over my morning devotional. Then breakfast, downstairs at the table. Work would follow punctuated with errands and projects. Afternoons meant lunch in front of the tv watching Law and Order reruns and then cleaning occasionally. After that I’d exercise, shower and start dinner. Sometimes I’d remember to do evening devotionals, sometimes not. Every 2 weeks I’d borrow a work afternoon to do finances and carve out time to grocery shop.

So I started working for CSC and all hell broke loose with my new schedule. The first week just the stress of getting up at O’dark o’clock (4:30AM!) was enough to exhaust me. Add in new trainings on the job, new people to meet, new tasks to do/learn and the general anxiety of wanting to make an excellent first impression and GAH. In the mornings I was to tired to open my bible, check email or even eat breakfast. I drove half asleep to the VRE station and slept on the train. This meant I was starting to feel hungry and awake just as we would pull into Union Station so I’d go out for breakfast every morning. Of course after work I was very tired and had no energy to clean, exercise or even make dinner. And forget about replying to emails or facebook posts. So now dinner was either out, leftovers from the freezer or something like pasta with jarred sauce (I hang my head in shame! shame!). Gone were the gourmet meals that led Jon to exclaim how proud he was to be married to me and to enjoy cooked meals at home when so many cheat and go out to eat all the time. And of course no energy to pack a lunch so I was wasting money on going out to lunch each day also.  In summary all I did that first week was work, sleep and eat at restaurants.

Week 2 of my commute (week before last) I worked back in facebook and email and stopped feeling like a zombie all day. Last week I worked back in cooking dinner most nights, breakfast, and a few nights of exercise. I went grocery shopping for the first time since starting the new job. This week I worked back in morning devotionals and packing a lunch to take to work. I have yet to push back in cleaning. The house is a disaster! My weekends have been no respite from the busy schedule as I’ve had activities scheduled every weekend of the month. First weekend: baking day/party at my house. Second weekend: mile run to SEA. Last weekend: Mile run to Orlando. Next weekend: Christmas. I haven’t had to work this hard in years. It’s kinda nice on one level to  feel a sense of purpose and pride in my work again. But  man it’s a bitch to adjust to a new busy schedule.

Books

With my new job comes a new daily commute to/from DC on the VRE train. One hour and ten minutes in each direction which approximates to three novels a week. This month the best things I’ve read include:

The Laments

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Laments told the story of a family continuously replanting themselves; always searching for something to satisfy. Along the way we come to know the characters in depth. Rich in plot and character development, I really enjoyed the text.

Year of Magical Thinking is a non-fiction account of writer Joan Didion’s grief experience after her husband (also a writer) unexpectedly died. I learned a lot about sadness and longing from her piece.

Guernsey is a fictionalized WW2 tale  centering on one of the Channel islands. It speaks to the impact of war and terror on a community and on strangers. I found it to be a moving story and learned a bit more about the war in the process.

Girl is the sequel to the much acclaimed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. It’s a most excellent crime suspense novel and I couldn’t put it down. Even better than the first book in the series, I’d say. I’m thirsty for the next installment in the series: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”.

Person Y

I can’t even give Person Y a gender descriptor such as Mr. or Ms. I can only report that Person Y was confirmed alive on Tuesday when I saw them last and is likely mentally ill based on the evidence laid out before me. Evidence: several wool blankets piled on top of Person Y as they slept on the sidewalk in DC. Our capital has an open door law which requires all shelters to take in every walk in when the temp dips below freezing. No one can be denied and if space runs out the district will open reserved emergency space in other public buildings. Shelter reps and other concerned residents do regular sweeps in the evenings and transport any homeless willing to go to the shelters. There is also a hypothermia hotline to report folks you see in the cold. Result: the only people remaining on the streets are those who actively refuse to go to the shelter or walk away from them. And in those cases the caring are left to only drape them with wool blankets and move on. Refusing shelter when it’s below freezing is a certain sign of mental illness to me. As to evidence of life in Person X I observed his/her rhythmic breathing under those blankets while he/she slept. I felt helpless. What are we to do God; tell me what to do! My tears do not fix anything.

Generations ago the public response to such illness was to let the suffering die. People were just too busy trying to survive themselves. Other periods in history the well intentioned do-gooders built huge fortresses of mental hospitals and locked the sick away, putting their dignity and freedom away just the same. When I worked for ARC in New York the directors tried to impress upon us that it was better for society to let the mentally ill remain integrated into daily society and to suffer the reckless deaths of some of them left to their own care in sacrifice to the principle of maintaining free will for the population as a whole as much as possible. Because when you strip freedom from individuals and give control to others abuse is the most common outcome. Even “good” people can fall into monster behavior when given total control over another human being. So we shut down most of these hospitals in the 80s and 90s and and let everyone out to wander “free”. Oh but what a burdensome “freedom” for those imprisoned in their own minds by illness. The whole situation reminds me a bit of our differing approach to animal welfare over South American countries: we lock up the unwanted animals who cannot care for themselves
(and usually euthanize most of them) while the South Americans let them wander free in the streets to “make it or break it” per the laws of survival of the fittest. Sad either way. I feel utterly helpless. I need God; I need God to fix this. It feels callous to go about my life in joy and peace with so much suffering around me but what good does my pity and tears do? There is so much misery in the world and in my own circle of influence even that I cannot fix. And I even call into suspect my own motivations. Do I want to fix it because I love these people like the Lord does? Or do I just want to fix it to spare myself the suffering of feeling guilt, pity and helplessness? I can’t untangle my feelings from what’s best for these people or what God might ultimately desire.

I just fall instead on my knees in prayer and ask God that his will be done.

Mr. X

“You can’t save the world Jenni”. This is what Jon said to me recently when I told him my offer to Mr. X was rebuffed. Mr. X is currently sleeping his nights at the Manassas VRE station, in the waiting lobby. A buffer from the cold, the lobby is perhaps 50-55 degrees. The outside temps are in the low to mid 20s this week. I met Mr. x last week while I lulled about waiting for the 5:50am train to DC for work. He sat on one of the benches staring straight ahead. We exchanged a friendly hello and a smile. I saw him again the next morning but he was slumped over sound asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him.

When I got to work that morning I called our church. “What can we do for him?”, I asked. “Is there a shelter I can take him to?” Answer: no. There is only one shelter in Manassas and it’s over capacity and not accepting new walk-ins. Our church used to put the homeless up in hotels but after a few got destructive the local hotels barred the practice. I was certainly hesitant to bring home a stranger into our home to sleep- he could be violent or prone to unpredictable behavior or morals. So what to do? I put out the word on facebook but none of my male friends were willing to take in a stranger either.

Seeing him again earlier this week I studied him while he slept. I tried to imagine his dirty capped hands cleaned from a hot shower. Tried to imagine his unruly hair trimmed and his face shaved clean and proper. Tried to imagine his clothes washed. He awoke and our eyes met. I said hello and he smiled. I asked him if there was anything I could bring him next time we met, perhaps a blanket? His brows furrowed and he snapped a sharp “no” at me. My attempt to help was clumsy and ineffective and I was sad. His eyes softened again and he offered me his seat on the bench- a true gentleman.

I think of Mr. X and I think of the thin line we walk between having and not having. Between mental illness and health. Between war and stability within our communities and between nations. Many of us are blessed not to know hunger, homelessness, mental illness or violence when its the default state for many peoples of the world. I don’t know Mr. X’s story. He was gone yesterday morning and I wonder where he is. I’d like to think a spot in the shelter opened or he found refuge in the home of a friends. But I don’t know.

Update: Mr. X reappeared this morning in the station. I wish there was something I could do for him without impugning his dignity. 

Ruining Children

(written on Sat 12/18/10)

Today I felt rude and stabby as I waited for my shuttle bus outside MCO (Orlando airport). 30 minute wait. Argh. Maybe it was the wait that was agitating me most, maybe it was the dreary rain or maybe it was just leftover bitterness from my brush with the older woman at DCA this morning who was extremely rude to me while we waited for our plane. I should have confronted her perhaps. In any case I was cranky. And then, as it typical, my inner voice reminds me it is my civic and spiritual duty to be kind to others even when I don’t feel like it. Manners are a simple expression of love for others.

Suddenly with this thought I am pulled back to the time I explained this concept of love-as-demonstrated-through-manners to a particularly unruly child at church once. A child with a difficult home life who had likely never seen good manners modeled for him at home. Now I panicked – had I, in that moment, been the stranger who confirmed for him with one casual sentence his deepest fear –that his parents didn’t love him (b/c they didn’t show good manners)? Did I ruin a child and give it no thought until a year later? Oh my goodness.

Shaping the minds and hearts of children is such a delicate task. One wrong word and you can probably break a child forever. This is why I don’t have children: I can’t be trusted to be delicate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas is Around the Corner

First there was the season of advent, and soon the season of Christmas will be here. Joy to the world!


Although the secular market is ready to put the holiday away after the capitalist consumption has culminated in unwrapped presents on the 25th, the holiday traditionally lasts for a much longer period of celebration. This year our household will celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas (begins on Christmas day and is capped with the epiphany). I encourage you and yours to do the same and keep the focus on Christ our savior. This will be a time of shared dinners with friends for me and little ways to make each of the 12 days memorable. Perhaps a party as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Swiss Chard and Parsnip Soup

Adapted from a recipe of the same name published in Oxygen Magazine in June 2010. My version adds white wine, spices and a bit of butter. Made this for dinner last night and it was fabulous. A really good way to sneak in greens for husbands/kids who are anti-veggie. Over 100% of vitamin A and over 600% of vitamin K. Fantastic!

2 T olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup white wine

2 T butter

3 parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced

4 cups chicken stock

1 bunch Swiss chard, rinsed, stems trimmed, chopped

2 T balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup skim milk

1 tsp caraway seed

1/2 tsp ground celery seed

sea salt and pepper to taste

1. Salt the onions and saute them in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Remember to heat the pan first, then add the oil, then add the onions once the oil is hot.

2. Add garlic and parsnips and saute for 5 minutes or until parsnips are golden. Add wine and cook until most of wine is evaporated. Add butter.

3. Add stock then bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes until parsnips are soft. If  soup has reduced from boiling, add more water to return to original quantity.

4. Add swiss chard and let wilt, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, milk, salt, pepper, caraway and celery.

5. Use and immersion blender to puree until smooth.

Serve with fresh bread. Approx 250 calories per bowl.