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Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year, New Rules

It’s no secret that I am ruled by the rules in my life. The rules I follow cause me much grief, the rules I don’t follow cause me much guilt. Yet, I continue to proclaim my rules loud and proud and denounce their demise with my tail between my legs. I have lived long enough to know that many people have rules. But not many people are as vocal about them as I am.

I have one rule that my fellow mother friends can’t wrap their heads around. It’s contrary to anything that makes sense, which of course, makes it a typical Betsy Rule. It’s the one that prohibits phones in the bedroom.

Perhaps my most stringent rule (next to the extra-cup-of-ice-on-the-side rule) is getting eight hours of sleep a night. And because that is a non-negotiable, I have to create other rules to insure that it is not violated.

And nothing ruins a good night sleep faster than a phone.

I have a landline phone next to my bed but I turned off the ringer when my kids started staying out later than I stayed up. Of course, I had to first break the I-never-go-to-sleep-until-everyone’s-home rule. And though the older I got, the easier that rule was to break, there was no sense rescinding a rule if I couldn’t enjoy the newfound freedom. I found myself tossing and turning waiting for the phone to ring to tell me that someone had gotten arrested, gotten in an accident, gotten a flat tire, wasn’t coming home or was coming home with three strangers who would be sleeping in the basement.

But alas, it's the anticipation of the call, not the call itself, that wreaks havoc on my brain. In actuality, I've been pretty lucky. I’m not sure I have ever gotten a phone call after I’ve gone to bed. But then again, how would I know?

My friends are shocked that I, who am never more than three inches away from my cell phone, leave it downstairs at night. But, if it’s within reach, it might ring. If I don’t know about it, it never happened.

Recently I’ve broken my rule. I started taking my cell phone to bed with me. I play a half hour of Word Streak with my second favorite husband, Tony Hargraves, our way of kissing each other goodnight. I spend another half hour reading my Book of the Month selection on my Kindle for book club, check my e-mails for updates from my friend Laura and then turn the phone face down, ringer off on my bedside table.

When I wake up in the morning, I read The Skimm, play a game or two of Word Streak, check my e-mail for work assignments and head to the gym.

Unless of course, I happen to turn my phone over in the middle of the night.

My spouse woke up at 4 this morning to take the train to our nation’s capital for a breakfast meeting. Usually he is up and out and I don’t even stir. But today I did. As he stumbled down our creaky stairs, Marmaduke on his heels, I made the fatal mistake of checking my phone.

And there was a message from the daughter at 12:33 am, who after landing in New Orleans, learned that her luggage was lost. I imagined her cursing my insensitivity for not responding to her late-night text and harbored that guilt until my mind started racing around the implications of the missing bag. I thought about everything that was crammed in that 49-pound suitcase and wondered again why she needed so many clothes for a ten-day visit home. I thought about the books she pilfered from our living room shelves and tossed in her suitcase before zipping it up. I thought about the three loads of laundry I had kindly folded for her the night before. I thought of the overpriced make-up she had to purchase because mine was hidden, and the shoes she wouldn’t be able to wear on New Year’s Eve. I thought about which electronic devices she may have stashed between her brother’s stolen sweat pants and wondered whether she had an extra toothbrush back at home. I started adding up costs in my head and made mental notes of what to claim and how to price the priceless items that would never be seen again.

A half-hour later I convinced myself that it was not my problem. It was not my suitcase. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing I should do. There was nothing I was going to do. Except worry and feel sorry for my poor, dear almost 24 year-old grown daughter.

But first, I googled Southern Cal to find out the score of the Holiday Bowl game that started after I went to bed. My middle child had flown to San Diego at 6 am on his birthday three days earlier because his job at school is filming and editing football tapes. I really don’t follow college football, but when I heard his team lost by two points, I started fretting about that. Poor boy. It would have been oh, so nice to win the final game of his senior year. And now would his final New Year's as a college student be ruined by the agony of defeat? My mind whirled and swirled as the sky began to brighten.

And so, I played a game of Word Streak to stop the chatter, but started thinking about the dishes I had prepared for New Year's Eve with Gary and Michelle and Tom and Jean. I started googling recipes fearing I hadn't made enough. I started worrying about my lack of sleep because I never, ever lie awake in the middle of the night. And then I started worrying that waking in the middle of the night was going to be my new thing. But then I relaxed, realizing it was only because I had broken the no phone in the bedroom rule.

I fell back into a deep sleep, waking at 9 am in a panic -- the precise hour that my water aerobics class began. So, instead, I doggedly donned my sneakers and went to the gym, lifting iron and doing squats to make up for the copious amount of calories I was planning to ingest today.

Before my new 1,250 calorie-a-day rule takes effect tonight at midnight.

Happy New Year! And may all your resolutions be reasonable!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kids... they'll drive you to drink!

Of all the many sacrifices I’ve made for my children, (stop rolling your eyes, you three) perhaps the most pointless was raising them alcohol-free. Me, not them.

I was a party girl in my youth, a clear-cut fact to which many who know me can clearly attest. I drank my fair share of bourbon and beer (and vodka and tequila and wine and grain alcohol punch…)  But I drank for fun and fun only. I didn’t drink when I was sad or lonely or afraid or unhappy. I didn’t drink during the day (unless of course it was on the beach in Brigantine or at the Fall Ball in Shippensburg) or ever when I was alone. I drank with friends – at parties, in bars, at concerts. But never, ever alone.  To me, alcohol was an enhancer. A booster. A bonus.

The day my oldest child was born, I decided I wasn’t going to drink anymore. Actually, I quit drinking as soon as I knew the seed had taken, but that was a mandate, not a choice. No good mother of my generation drank while gestating. (Unlike the good mothers of the previous generation whose nightly gin and tonics were didn’t seem to do any of us any harm.)

The reasoning (if you could call it that), behind my self-imposed prohibition was that with a tongue as sharp as mine, my children were surely going to suffer enough embarrassment through the years. If I added alcohol to the mix, the things that would come spewing out of my mouth and into their psyche would certainly damage them beyond repair.

And then it just became a rule. For thirteen years I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol. I wish I could say that for thirteen years I didn’t wake up a single morning regretting a single word I had said. Or that for thirteen years I was calm, cool and collected and never, ever flipped out over anything. But, alas, the lesson I learned was that alcohol, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with my averse reaction to raising children.

When I turned 40, I left my family and went to an all-inclusive resort with twelve girlfriends. While they gulped their Bahama Mamas, I stayed true to my own Mama rule and sipped diet cokes. But six years later when we planned a melee in Mexico, I thought long and hard about my rule. As I tend to do, I talked to everyone and their uncle asking if they thought I should start drinking again. I went through my whole history, assuring new friends who had never known me as a drinker, that I did not have a problem. At least not an alcohol problem. And the overwhelming response was along the lines of, “Forget your stupid rule and start drinking again!”

And so I did.

For the rest of the child-rearing years I imbibed only when the kids were not around. I didn't drink often. I never drank at home. I never drank during the day or alone or for any other reason but to have fun.

And then they got old. And so did I.

Yesterday, the third child returned home for Christmas vacation. They came in shifts this year, but still with a frightening force. My quiet and  peaceful home has turned into a war zone. There are shoes and jackets and backpacks and suitcases and unwrapped Christmas presents and dirty dishes and hair in the sink and puppy dog eyes begging for bagels. And maybe just a twenty for gas. I’ll pay you back. I’ll venmo you.

I promised myself I’d be ready for the onslaught of the offspring. All the gifts would be purchased and placed under the tree. The refrigerator would be stocked with all their favorite foods. The dog would be bathed to circumvent choruses of, “Get off! You smell!” and the house would be clean, oh so clean so it wouldn’t look so messy when they descended upon it. I wouldn't flip out about anything. For any reason. Because there should be nothing but happiness surrounding the holiday season.

Of course none of that happened. I had freelance work to do, gifts to buy, a tree to decorate, spinach lasagna to make, a trip to Philadelphia to take and a father-in-law with a broken hip.

As I sat at my desk pecking out some fairly mundane headlines for a brochure, I heard the back door slam. And then again. And again. And then the dog barked and the front doorbell rang and the spouse came home and then the spouse left to go Christmas shopping and then bags rustled and bottles clanked and the basement filled with the scents and sounds of friends home from college.

The daughter emerged with a bottle of wine, a full glass, an empty one and a raised eyebrow.

"What?" I barked.

“Drink?” she smiled.

“NO!” I bellowed. “I have way too much to do. And besides. It's a Tuesday night.”

“Relax, Mom,” the daughter said.

Any mother out there can tell you that any child that says “Relax, Mom,” when Mom is stressed to the max, is looking for a punch in the face. Even if it is Christmas season.

But of course, I didn’t punch her in the face. Instead I ranted and raved and reiterated Every.Single.Thing I had to do before Christmas, the holiday I profess to hate like no other.

To which the daughter replied, “Have you ever thought of getting yourself a prescription for Xanax?”

I spun my desk chair around in fury and barreled into the kitchen where I could hear the escalating joy in the basement. I grabbed two Chocolate Calling Santa Clauses, one meringue cookie and a chocolate chip brownie and shoved them all down my throat at once. I looked over my shoulder to see the daughter dangling the wine glass.

“You sure, Mom?”

Three glasses later, giggling with the daughter, I didn't care how many kids were in the basement. I didn't cringe when I heard the kitchen cabinets open and shut. I didn't care that Leo had one less gift than Max. And I didn't care that the undecorated tree was tilting precariously toward the window. 

But I did care enough to consider what their childhood would have been like had I not waited until they were grown to have my first "take the edge off" drink. No wonder so many of my friends have a glass of wine every night before dinner. No wonder they look at me strangely when I confess to my nonsensical flip-outs and rages. No wonder they don't feel their insides shaking when their kids re-descend upon them.

Thanks be to wine. 

And a side of Xanax.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Teach Your Children Well

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you. 
-Graham Nash

The daughter calls me Every. Single. Day. Those who know me, know I’d much rather text than talk on the phone. Those who love me would rather hear my voice than receive a message. And so I graciously answer the phone and talk. At least until it’s time to chop my spouse’s dinner or clean a toilet or write a blog.

The oldest child, who is no longer a child, but doesn’t want me to find out, is in the tail end of a two-year stint with a program called Teach for America. College graduates, who are not necessarily looking for careers in education, are placed in schools in low-income communities around the country in hopes of making a difference somewhere. Somehow. The daughter, who majored in Peace, War and Defense is working in the educationally-challenged but culturally-charged and fun-filled city of New Orleans. Not a bad place for a 23 year-old who loves good food, cheap drinks and live music. Oh, and kids, too. On a good day, that is.

Our daily conversations have run the gamut from, “This is what I was born to do!” to “This is what I imagine Hell to be.”

As her friends in the program are deciding which law schools they are going to attend, which high-paying jobs they’re going to apply for and which boys are worth following to new cities, the daughter’s brain has been banging against the bones in her head as she deliberates over what to do, where to live and how to afford the rest of her life.

And every day I get to hear her rapidly-changing mind at work.

“Definitely taking the LSATs,” she mused on Monday.

“Goa, India. I’m going there,” she said on Tuesday.

“I’m thinking of a job in corporate America where I can make a lot of money but still do good for people,” she cogitated on Wednesday.

“I’m going to teach in Malaysia for a year,” she threatened on Thursday.

“I’m definitely, 100 percent moving home,” she finalized on Friday.

That night I tossed and turned, ruminating about the daughter’s future. And my place in it. I could feel the stairs shake as I imagined her barreling up to her attic bedroom at 3 am on a work night, after an evening of watching just-one-more episode of The Affair. I envisioned the jockeying of cars in front of the house and the inevitable, “Would you take my car for an oil change?” I saw her puppy dog eyes as she begged for a cash advance, or better yet, an interest-free, forgivable loan. I heard her sighs as the refrigerator door slammed shut. I thought of new hiding places for my make-up remover and Jo Malone perfume. I devised a plan for containing her shoes and scarves and coats and books and more books that never make it past the ground floor. I made up consequences for hair left in the drain, clothes left in the dryer and dishes left in the sink. And knew that I’d never enforce them.

Meanwhile, the monologue marching through the daughter's head 1313 miles away was undoubtedly a bit different. Can I possibly move back home after six years of independence? Would sleeping in my lumpy twin-sized childhood bed be worth the $30,000 I think I will, but know I won’t be able to save? Could I really subject myself to my mother’s grousing and complaining and butting in – not to mention the way she flings her arms and makes all that noise with those awful, clanging, silver bangle bracelets that she never, ever takes off? Would it be worth having to extend common courtesies like checking in, cleaning my room, saying ‘Good Morning,’ and God forbid, shoveling snow?

But the daughter, unlike her mother, is a very adaptable soul. So, I’m sure that dizzying dialogue dissipated and was rapidly replaced with a more socially conscious debate. Can I really spend another year getting so little out of giving so much? Does what I do even matter? Will making millions guarantee happiness? Am I sacrificing my own life trying to make someone else’s better? Is changing the course of one child’s destiny in the course of a lifetime enough? Will I regret not applying to law school or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to not working on Wall Street or on Hillary’s campaign? Am I good enough, strong enough, brave enough…stupid enough to continue on in this profession?

And every afternoon when that familiar phone number showed up on my caller ID, I'd brace myself for whatever the day would bring. I have encouraged, lamented, advised and debated. I have absolutely agreed with the very idea I strongly negated 24 hours later. All because that’s what the daughter needed to hear.

I finally learned, with the “I’m 100 percent moving home,” declaration that the best thing to do is to grin and bear it.

Because tomorrow is always another day.

“Mom!” the daughter shrieked the following evening. “You’re never going to believe it! I’ve been hoping and praying for a sign -- something to just tell me what to do. And I got it! I GOT MY SIGN! I was walking home and there was this piece of paper and I picked it up and I uncrumpled it and it said…YOU ARE A TEACHER.”

I didn’t bother to ask if she was on her way to or from Happy Hour. I thought I’d save those kind of questions for when she’s living under my roof. And working in human relations, or public policy, or as a nanny on the Upper East Side.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Going Postal

“They’re GONE!”  I texted to my spouse from the living room.

“Let heaven and nature sing!” he texted back from the basement he had just reclaimed. He was working on a spread sheet for a church budget committee meeting, hence the hymnatic response.

Now let me preface my impending rant with the disclaimer that I do indeed love my children. I am proud of the people they have become. I enjoy the conversations we have. And I like the friends they bring around. My kids are clean (not neat, but clean; they do bathe). They are attractive. And they are somewhat law-abiding.

But, sometimes, they make me Go Postal.

And apparently I’m not the only one.

Five minutes after I picked up the last soggy towel off the bathroom floor, I got a text.

“Did I leave my purple folder on the kitchen table?”

Yes. And your scarf. And your hat. And your lesson plans that you worked so hard on while chortling through The Office and Parks and Rec and a Kardashian episode or three or four.  

The funny thing was I consciously bit my tongue. I thought, but did not say, “Do you have everything?” as she left for her home-away-from home. I knew that after spending a week together, I was six days too late to make an impact. All she would hear was blah, blah, blah, so I kept my blahs to myself.  And really, how would she have responded anyway? “Oh, Mom! Thanks for reminding me to make one last loop through the house to collect my forgotten goods.”

No, it just doesn’t work that way.

So I said nothing.

Today I took the workbook, the notebook, the scarf and the hat to the post office. There are two post offices within a mile of my house. I almost always go to the one to the left. But the one to the right is closer and I would pass it on the way to the Stop and Shop where I was going anyway to replenish the bottle of Sierra Mist that was apparently taken for cocktail hour and the English muffins that were pilfered from the pack in the freezer.

I’ve had postal problems before. (See Malaria: The least of my Worries).

The line was long. I picked up one of those all-you-can-pack-into-it-for-one-low-price boxes and stuffed the workbook, the notebook, the scarf and the hat inside. It would cost $17.90. I was okay with the price, but then saw a large padded envelope and thought that would be better because the notebook didn’t quite fit and I didn’t want to crumple the corners.  So, I ditched the box and put everything neatly into the padded envelope.

Twenty-three minutes later I got to the front of the line. Meanwhile a sweet grandmotherly woman conversed with the postal clerk who I truly believe must say one-Mississippi-two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi in her mind between every single word, thought and deed. The grandmotherly woman chatted about the sixteen people she had hosted for Thanksgiving dinner and she chuckled as she  placed a perfectly posted box on the scale.

“Just sending back the things the kids forgot!” she said sweetly.

Then along came Pam. I had sat on the bleachers for many a game with Pam. She was packing up a forgotten phone charger and though she wasn’t cursing her kid, assured me she had been down this road before. We small talked about our offspring and she laughed as I rolled my eyes over the lack of urgency of the postal clerks.

When it was finally my turn I decided not to make any nasty comments about why it has to take 25 minutes to serve seven people. I simply put my padded envelope on the scale, punched the little circle that said, NO I am not sending alcohol or firearms and was told, “That’s 53.00 for overnight mail.”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I really don’t care that much about my daughter’s third-graders.”

“OK, then it’s 17 dollars to get there by Thursday. Or maybe she said 18.13.” Whatever it was, it was under $20 and I didn’t care. I had been there for 25 minutes.

“Oh,” Postal Clerk said in her oh-so-slow monotone. “The envelope is oversized (not overweight, oversized) so it will cost $33.00.”

“But, it’s an envelope you sell here.”

She smiled smugly.

I steamed.

“Well, can I put this stuff in one of those $17.90 boxes then?”

“Sure,” she said, slowly. “Just step over to the counter and fill out a packing label. But don’t seal the box because you haven’t paid for the envelope.”

It took me a minute to comprehend what she was talking about, but then I realized that I had to pay the $2.29 for the padded envelope that I was no longer going to use. I seethed, but I kept it to myself. I emptied the contents of the envelope into the box, filled out the Priority Mail address label and got back in line. There were just five people in front of me now so it only took 18 minutes to get back to my Postal Clerk.

“You’re going to have to pay for tape,” Pam warned me.

“I better not!” I warned her back.

I got to the counter and Postal Clerk said in her even tone, “This is the wrong address label. This label is for overnight mail.”

“But you told me to fill out a label.”

She smiled. “Just write the address on the box.”

“Well, I’m not giving up my place in line again,” I said. “I’m addressing it right here.”

She grimaced but then grinned in assent.

I filled out the address that I now had memorized since it was the third time I had done it.

“You need tape,” she said evenly.

“You told me not to seal the box,” I countered.

“I just need the bar code on the padded envelope,” she said.

I thrust it at her.

“I can’t believe I have to pay for it. Why isn’t there a sign there that says, ‘If you choose to use one of these USPS-approved envelopes, be aware that they are oversized and will cost you twice the going rate to mail?”

She smiled.

Now, this to me is like my daughter holding up the hand in the midst of a kid-induced flip out and saying, “Chill, Mom.”

It makes my blood boil.

“You need to tape up the box,” Postal Clerk said in response to my envelope rant.

“Where’s the tape?” I said, knowing what was coming next.

“You can purchase a roll for $3.39 over there,” she said.

“You’re %&&&# kidding me!” I spewed. “So, it’s not $17.90 to mail the box. It’s $17.90 PLUS the cost of the tape, plus the cost of the envelope that I’m not even using.”

She smiled her postal smile.

“And you couldn’t have told me I needed to BUY tape when I was over there? You just want me stand in line for another 20 minutes? I don’t get it. Do you guys do this on purpose? You really don’t care that people are giving up their ENTIRE lunch hours because you’re so slow?”

At least I think that’s what I said. Something like that.

“Would you like to purchase the tape?” she asked, not acknowledging a single word I said.

“NO!” I roared. “Here’s my credit card. Go ahead and charge me the $2.29 for the USPS approved padded envelope that I can’t use because it is too big. But I’m not waiting another 20 minutes to buy tape. This is absolutely ridiculous.”

She smiled a tight-lipped smile.

I swiped my card.

“You know,” I screamed. “I NEVER come to this post office. And now I remember why. I’m going back to the OTHER post office where they are kind and efficient and they tell you when something is oversized or if you need to write the address on the box or a label.”

My insides were shaking and my face was red with rage. I grabbed the unsealed box (because the box is indeed free until you seal it) and stormed out.

“Ma’am, Ma’am,” I heard Postal Clerk calling me in her monotone. “Your envelope.”

I walked out without the padded envelope because it was useless. It was not only oversized, but now it was torn open.

And there was no way I was going to diminish my exit by skulking back in for the envelope.

I left, went home, taped up the box and went to the OTHER post office which took about seven minutes round trip.

But then I realized, the padded envelope has my name and address on it.

So, if you send me a Christmas card this year and I don’t acknowledge it, perhaps it's because the Postal Clerk retaliated and tossed it in the “address unknown” bin along with the oversized USPS-approved padded envelope that I left on the counter.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Oh, God! Now What?

My friend Angela feels Jesus in her fingertips. When she worships she lifts her hands to the heavens and raises the rafters with praise. Her whole church does. I’ve been there. There’s singing and swaying and tearful Amens as the Spirit surges from soul to soul. I’ve been a church-goer my entire life and I’ve never come remotely close to what those passionate parishioners profess to feel.

But, maybe it’s because I joined the church for all the wrong reasons.

I grew up in the front pew of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church next to whichever one of my three sisters I wanted to poke that week. We squirmed and giggled and sang irreverently off-key, drawing daggers from my mortified mother’s eyes.

Sometime in my teens we switched churches for reasons unbeknownst to me. All Hallows was smaller and less liberal and we were welcomed warmly. My sisters and I joined the youth group on Sunday nights and befriended the likes of Tish Ayton, who looked and sang like an angel, and harbored huge crushes on her hunky twin brother, Henry.  

I went off to college and took a hiatus from church. After all, it was much more prudent for me to be out looking for love on Saturday nights and sleeping till noon on Sundays. Once it looked like things were heading in the right direction, I slunk shrewdly back to church so I’d have a place to have a wedding.

After we got married, I reverted back to my heathenly ways. But then I had kids and started prescribing to the “better safe than sorry” philosophy for baptism. It was time to find a church again.

We joined the Presbyterian Church in Leonia without much fuss from me. I didn’t care where we went as long as there was free childcare during the service. My ever-loving spouse was a born-and-raised Presbyterian and I kind of liked not having to kneel for prayers and having communion delivered to my pew. Plus, the potlucks were always good. We became regulars.

Our pastor was a very smart and well-loved man who preached serious sermons that went right over my head. I was never aware enough of the world, nor well-versed enough in the ways of the Lord to catch on, so I didn’t even try. I made grocery lists instead. But I loved our pastor. And couldn’t imagine our church without him.

Until, of course, he was abruptly ousted for sexual misconduct. As a congregation we were shocked and scared and hurt and horrified. We had no idea how to heal. 

And then they sent us Debra.

Though our former pastor left in less than happy circumstances, it was still going to take someone pretty special to fill his robes. I was skeptical. Every pastor in every pulpit I had ever known was a guy. And Debra Given was a full-fledged female.

The first time I met Debra, she was wearing a flowered frock and sensible shoes. She had blond hair that hung untamed to her shoulders and wire-rimmed glasses that magnified her striking blue eyes. She was young and slim with a down-to-earth manner and a big, beautiful, genuine smile. To top it off, she had a dashing journalist husband. three beautiful teenage daughters and  three older stepchildren. She lived in Manhattan, near Columbia University and had attended Yale Divinity School. She drove a bashed-in Toyota mini-van and admitted that she prayed for parking spaces. She didn’t think she was particularly pretty. She didn’t think she was anyone special. And she didn’t come in all ablaze with new ideas or with the intent of fixing us. She just came in as herself and let the rest happen.

On paper, Debra was the kind of person I’d absolutely idolize. But her reality was so relatable I never put her on a pedestal.

Instead, she made me feel like I was on one.

In her subtly persuasive way, Debra pulled me out of the pews and into the bosom of the church. She scoffed at my self-declared unholiness and was convincing in her convictions that even I had something to offer. I did a stint as a Deacon where I was supposed to be kind and loving to a flock of fellow congregants. I taught impressionable adolescent girls unconventional lessons in Sunday school. I served on all kinds of committees and somehow she even persuaded me to come to Bible Study.

I went kicking and screaming, but I went. And still go. For the past ten years, I’ve spent every Wednesday morning with some of my very favorite people in the world. Debra leads the group which we consider a  therapy session as much as a Bible lesson.  We share our thoughts, our doubts and our knowledge, as limited as it might be. And as we relate the stories to our daily lives, we question their validity, we laugh at their stupidity and we honor their value. We're encouraged to question. And question we do. Was Mary indeed a virgin? Did Jesus really walk on water? Are divine coincidences proof or propaganda? But most of all, we respect each others' beliefs or non-beliefs and do so with open minds.

Last week, Debra announced that she is retiring after 15 years at the helm of The Presbyterian Church in Leonia. And while it came as a surprise, we all knew in the back of our hearts that one day it would happen. 

But it doesn't make it any easier.

I still may have to think twice about whether the book of Acts is in the New Testament or Old, but I now have a better sense of my spiritual self.  Through Debra's unwavering faith, understated wisdom and unassuming manner, I found my way. I now know that if you take a hiatus, it doesn't mean you're going to Hell. If you join the church for self-serving reasons, well at least you joined the church. If you let your boys play baseball instead of getting confirmed, you haven't necessarily condemned them to a Godless life. If you pray for wealth or worldly goods or for the demise of your mother-in-law, hey, at least you're praying. If you say no to serving on a governing committee, you shouldn't feel bad, rather be proud that someone felt you were worthy of being asked in the first place.

And, perhaps, most importantly, if you don't feel Jesus in your fingertips, it's really okay. Just as long as you feel him in your heart.