A Birthday Request.


For my birthday, I want... (1)

So my birthday is Monday, and for two decades now, it’s a day I have dreaded. A day where all I seem to be able to focus on is how much of my life is a disappointment or a failure. A day where, one year, my sister literally had to force me out of bed and then she drove me around while I sulked about another year gone.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Option B,” which tackles grief and loss at various levels. The impetus for her book was the unexpected death of her husband. At one point in the book, she shares a conversation she had with a friend who was lamenting turning 50. And Sandberg quietly noted, “Dave won’t ever turn 50.”

I’d been thinking for some time that I needed to make peace with my birthday, much like I finally made peace with Christmas. And Sandberg’s anecdote was the final push. I should celebrate another year in this chaotic world, instead of shaking my fist at the skies that my life doesn’t look the way I thought it would when I was 18.

So here’s my birthday request. There are two parts. First, at some point between now and Monday, do something that you really and truly love, but you’ve either put off or denied yourself. Get two scoops of ice cream. Go on a hike. Read a book. Get a massage. See a movie. Write. Paint. Sing. Lay on the grass and look at clouds. Anything that reminds you how wonderful it is to be alive, do it. Maybe write about it, even, or take a photo of it, just so you can return to that reminder in darker times.

Second, give a genuine compliment to someone you’ve been meaning to praise. Send a thank you note for a comment made at church. Text a sibling how much you love him. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while and say, “Hey, been thinking about you.” Connect in a real way to remind you how wonderful humans can be.

I have a few things planned–Jazzercise, hair cut, Sephora, a movie, sushi, and I hope cake at some point. I’ll probably read a little and write a little and buy some flowers.

But most of all, I will relish that I am alive and that as messy and troubling as the world can be, it can also be beautiful and full of love.

Measuring 2016.

Regardless of my attempts to normalize New Year’s Eve and make it just like any other day, I still find myself reflecting on 2016, trying to figure out if it was a good year.

Despite Jonathan Larson’s wise words of how to really measure a year, we tend to measure our years in rather tangible ways. Marriage. Children. Home ownership. Promotions. Brushes with fame. Deaths. And if none of these more tangible markers of growth, loss, and happiness occur, we think to ourselves, “Heck, nothing really happened this year.”

I caught myself thinking that last night as I drove out to pick up a friend for a party. I took my favorite back-country road, just as the sun was setting. The sky was beautiful–pink and orange swirled clouds blended perfectly into a sky-blue backdrop. I listened to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I drove, and the words to “Someone in the Crowd” made me think about last year and the expectations I had for 2016.

I’m pretty much in the same place. Same career, same apartment, same friends, same family. On the surface, it might look like nothing changed in 2016. As the road curved and the sunset shifted from in front of me, I realized I was smiling, that I felt happy. By most metrics, I shouldn’t have felt such a surge of happiness, reflecting on 2016. But I did.

I won’t make you read a full laundry list of how I’m measuring 2016, but I will include the highlights:

I wrote.

I sang.

I made music.

I laughed.

I created.

I laughed more.

I cried.

I learned.

I traveled.

I loved.

And then I laughed even more.

I hope I can say the same for 2017.

Christmas Gifts.

This morning, I woke before my alarm went off. I looked at my phone to check the time, and saw three text messages from friends, all wishing me Merry Christmas. One friend thanked me for writing again about Advent, and I felt a tiny twinge of regret, because I didn’t set aside the time to write like I have the past two years.

It doesn’t feel much like Christmas to me this year, and I only blame myself for that–I let the stress of accompanying choirs get in the way of truly enjoying the season.

This morning at church, I played my final accompaniments of the season, and one in particular meant more to me than all the others I’ve played this year.

At the beginning of December, a young teenage boy was asked to sing a solo of “Guard Him Joseph,” a song I hadn’t played in years. He needed an accompanist and since I was already playing four other numbers, what was one more at this point? It’s not difficult music, and while Sally DeFord has a knack for complicated accompaniments, this one is simple (it’s not what you hear in the video, by the way–what I played was quite different).

I practiced a couple of times with the young singer, and this morning he performed it with confidence and innocence. There’s a different between playing for a choir and playing for a soloist. I feel a greater responsibility when playing for a soloist, because if I mess up, it’s much more apparent and can often rattle the singer. So I tend to be a bit more focused, a bit more tuned in to what the soloist is doing, and much more aware of how my playing adds to the overall production.

When I was in high school, my choir teacher once told me she had not taught a student that had my innate sense of musicality, and ever since, I’ve taken that compliment as a responsibility: it’s not enough to just play notes. I must make music out of those notes, and after teaching piano lessons for the past ten years, I can attest that it’s hard to teach that skill.

After the number was over, I looked at the congregation and the choir and saw tissues dabbing at eyes and heard sniffles throughout the chapel. He knocked it out of the park, and I was so proud of such a young kid taking that risk to sing a solo at a Christmas service. I knew both of us created a piece of music–he didn’t just sing notes, and I didn’t just play them.

After the service was over, I was on my way out, and I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was the young singer. “Thank you for playing,” he said, as he gave me a little hug.

“Thank you for singing,” I said. “Don’t ever stop sharing that gift.”

When I spend months preparing Christmas music and accompanying choirs at a most stressful time of year, it is so easy for me to forget that playing the piano is a gift. It’s not something that everyone can do–and I forget too often the words of my choir teacher and the responsibility I have to create music.

I’m glad a young teenage singer reminded me today of the power of creating music, especially at Christmas time. It was one of the best gifts I received this year.



Summer 2016

Today is June 3 and I’m already feeling panic and dread over how the days are slipping through my fingers, despite my attempts to grasp at moments in hopes of bending the space-time continuum to add more time to each day.

This was my first real week of summer break, and I broke it in quite nicely. Spent time with friends Monday and Tuesday, then took my nieces exploring in western Nebraska for a couple of days (that trip will get its own post). And just like that, a week is gone.

I have a list of things I want to do this summer, like I do every summer. Last summer, every day had to be planned out to finish grad classes, a fellowship, and a family reunion. This summer lacks that rigidity–a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it grants freedom to stay in bed reading until 10 or 11 a.m. A curse because it grants freedom to binge-watch all of the TV on Netflix and Hulu.

I’m taking tomorrow to unpack, clean, and plan at least the next two weeks. Because while I always want to relax and have a little fun during the summer, I also want to be able to quantify how I spent my time.

Fun, short video about how I will spend some of my time this summer. My list was so long that much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. 

Memorial Day

There’s been a lot of online chatter this year about the conflation of Memorial Day and Veterans Day. This is the kind of thing that keeps me on social media when I’m ready to rage-quit Facebook and Twitter: occasionally I learn something.

In the past week as I’ve read articles, status updates, and blogs about Memorial Day, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how straight-up lucky my family has been. We have a rich history of military service.

My 4th great-grandfather, John Finton, fought in the Revolutionary War. He did not die in that war.

My 2nd great-grandfather, Ernest A. Fenton, fought in the Civil War. He did not die in that war.

My grandfather, Lee Fenton, and my grandmother, Elaine Gindich, both fought in World War II. They did not die in that war.

My father fought in the Cold War. He did not die in that war.

I’ve done quite a bit of digging around the roots and branches of my family tree, and as far as I can tell, my people fight in wars but don’t die in them. It wasn’t until I read Eric Schlosser’s book “Command and Control,” that I even realized just how dangerous my dad’s career in the Air Force was.

I’ve spent this weekend confronting my family’s luck in military service as I’ve pondered why we observe Memorial Day. I am proud of my family’s military service, and grateful that they lived beyond the conflicts in which they were engaged. Too many were not as lucky–and that is what today is for.

I’ve read a little about how Israel celebrates their Memorial Day. It is somber. Places of entertainment are closed. Television and radio programming tells stories of those who died protecting Israel. Sirens blare twice during the day, at which point citizens observe moments of silence.

This Memorial Day, I took time to think about those who were not as lucky as my family members. Jake Tapper, a journalist for CNN, spends his Memorial Day weekend tweeting photos, gravestones, and stories of soldiers who have died fighting to protect America. It’s sobering to flip through my Twitter feed all weekend and go from NBA gifs, political acrimony, and flippant commentary about summer movies to a photo of a private, sergeant, lance corporal, captain, or colonel who died in combat.

My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones and friends to war. Today is for them, for us to help them through their grief by acknowledging their loss, by recognizing not only the sacrifice of those who died, but also the tangential sacrifice of those who have to find a way to live without their loved ones.

Take a moment of silence today to think on or pray for those who have died in military service. That is what Memorial Day is for.