Be a Noticer (It's my blog - I'll make up words if I want to)

I missed the month of November.  No, really, what happened to it?  By the time I realized I wasn't listing out my daily gratitude for all of social media to read, the month was half gone.  And I can't start something halfway.  That's not my style.

Anyway, gratitude isn't something that should be confined to November anymore than celebrating [the birth of] Jesus should be confined to the month of December.  This is exactly the reason I made the executive decision as the self-dubbed Christmas Party coordinator for our Sunday School class to postpone our Christmas party until January.  Because what better to wipe away some Winter Blues with a party celebrating the reason for our hope?  There isn't one.  Thank you.  Gratitude is a choice.  A lifestyle.  And to balance out my last post which, to be honest, started out a little drearily, I'm tipping the scales toward the positive.  You know, like a yin for a yan, except not, because the whole Baptist thing. 

I've called out some folks in posts before - the ones who work hard Whatever They Do - the ones who show kindness to strangers whether its convenient or 100 degrees outside (and I know about these people because the stranger was me).  These are my favorite kind of people.  The ones who do it without glory or accolades.  The ones who are simply serving others because it's who they are or maybe who they have inside of them.  The ones who do the thankless tasks. 

"Thankless tasks" was a term my high school journalism teacher used on a regular basis.  I'm so glad he did because it really stuck with me.  He always noticed when someone would tidy up the newspapers or clean out the supply cabinet or wipe down the tables and sweep up the x-acto knifed shreds of paper on the floor.  Now, I intend to notice when others do the thankless tasks.  They aren't "thankless" at all.  It's like laundry.  It really piles up quickly when no one does it.  But no one really notices until everyone's out of clean underwear.

I'm an observer by nature.  I think most introverts are.  I watch people.  (Whoa, creepy.)  But I like to think I am an notice of the people who do the thankless things.  I always want to make them brownies or write them a card.  If I were endlessly wealthy, I'd give them all a gift card for some pampering or fine cuisine (everyone likes Sonic, right?). 

The welcome team at church that gets there 45 minutes before everyone else to man the doors and make guests and members feel at home.

The sanitation workers who faithfully remove the trash from my curbside week after week so that I don't have to carry it off to a dumpster.

The young man who bags my groceries at Publix and insists on helping me out to the car with them (without promise or hope of a tip) just because its their store policy to do so.

Every Chick-Fil-A employee who responds to my thank you with "My pleasure" like they sincerely mean it.

The young men walking in front of me who look behind them before running off and hold the door like gentlemen.

The janitorial staff.  Everywhere.

The receptionist that takes the most flack in the office, but always wears a smile.

The hospice nurse whose job it is to help people die comfortably.

The labor and delivery nurse whose profession is usually so joy-filled, but who sometimes also has to walk through the very darkest of hours with their patients.

The behind-the-scenes decorators who make seasons come alive and patrons feel warm and welcome.

The UPS man who works relentlessly during the holidays.

The volunteer soccer and basketball coaches who give up at least three hours a week to devote to each of my kids.

The volunteer firefighters who sacrifice family time, holidays, and sleep in their own beds to keep my family safe if the need arises.

The librarians who greet my kids like they are genuinely happy to see them walk through the doors and provide programs above and beyond the duty of a library.

The bathroom attendants at Target who make it a not-so-icky public bathroom into which I can take my brood to relieve themselves.

The cashier who works retail during the holidays but does not once, ever, grumble about working retail during the holidays. 

The Sunday School teachers and nursery workers who faithfully show up every Sunday to pour into my kids and the other kids at our church.

The spouses who stay on the homefront and singlehandedly care for their families day after day after day because their other half is somewhere far away, safe or not, protecting all of our families.

Do you see what I'm getting at here?  Maybe I'll get them all a hug this Christmas.

This season, I challenge you to be a noticer.  Not because I told you to.  But because it's a life-changer to pour into someone who is tired or lonely or downcast or weary or none of those things at all.  It's nice to be thanked.  It's just right to notice the people who do the thankless things.  Who give of themselves and expect nothing in return.  Let's give them something.  Let's give them our gratitude. It's as simple as a few life-giving words. 

2

Others. All of them.

I hugged a homeless man the other day.  This isn't breaking news.  People do this all the time.  I'm just not usually one of them.  He and his sign caught my eye in the parking lot, and I did a full-on U-turn to get back to him.  I don't know what came over me - I'm guessing he really tugged at my heart that day because I had just finished reading the weather, and we were in the middle of a record-breaking cold snap here in Georgia.  He was an older gentleman with a sign that read "Family in Need" scrawled on a tiny piece of cardboard. 

I will be the first to admit that if they handed out scores for "social awkwardness" I'd score an A+ every time.  I fumbled over my words as I spoke with this man and offered him whatever I could find in my car at the time.  I said, "I'm so sorry.  It's so cold."  Then I said something which, in retrospect seems really stupid.  "Are you okay?"  He kept looking down at the ground and said, "I'll be okay."  I said to him, "I'm going to give you a hug."  And I hugged him and his jacket that was far too thin for the windy, cold conditions and said, "What else do you need?" 

He looked up for the first time and said, "That was it."

And right there, next to that homeless man, I cried.  We parted ways and his salutation was, "God bless you."  For all the things he lacked, what this man said he needed was a hug.  That was the simplest gift I have given in a very long time.

I wasn't going to tell this story.  I didn't even tell Sam that it happened.  I can't get this man off my mind.  And not just him, but all of the people who are in need and hurting.  Not just because it's Christmastime or cold, but because this world.  It's so broken. 

Right now without even straining I can think of people I know personally who have very recently lost a parent, who continue to endure unemployment, who have received devastating health news, who find themselves alone this holiday season because their cowardly husband opted to abandon his wife and children.

Can I tell you the one thing these people have in common that make their stories not-so-grim? 

They have Jesus. 

Every one of the people I cited above has every right to be hopeless and depressed by the world's standards.  But, each of them exemplifies a light in the dark that simply isn't possible without Him.  We aren't promised a life free from sorrow or pain or suffering, in fact, quite the opposite.  We are promised trials.  The good news is that whatever we are facing, no matter how painful, Jesus has been there first.  We aren't in this alone.  And that sheds a whole new light on dark times.

As a child of God, I endure this broken world and it rocks me to the core to see the hurt and the pain brought on by sin.  It's hard.  I cannot even imagine what it must look like without viewing it through the lens of the hope of Jesus.  But this world is not my home.  I have a hope that springs eternal. 

In the meantime, I plan to show a little of that hope to the people I encounter.  This Advent season, the herd of Sheps is taking it to the community - with a whole lot of random (and/or secret) acts of kindness.  We started a little early, in fact, because we were so excited.  We have been given much, and because we are entrusted with much, more is required of us.  We understand and we feel compelled to "pay it forward" of sorts.  But, it's not us.  It's all Jesus. 

We are stealing ideas from the following amazing resources:

Light 'Em Up! ~ from courtneydefeo.com
Random Acts of Christmas Kindness ~ from Coffee Cups and Crayons blog
100 Ways for Your Family to Make a Difference ~ from We Are THAT Family

I can already tell this is making a difference in our lives.

Others, Lord, yes others
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.
~from Others, by Charles D. Meigs

Wishing you and yours the very best this Christmas season. 

After All It's Just a Name - The Sequel

I am an unapologetic Aldi shopper.  If you don't have these stores in your area, let me explain.  It's a no-frills grocery store.  The food is stacked along the aisles in the same boxes in which it was shipped.  There is little to no variety.  Want salt?  You get the Aldi brand.  Want barbeque sauce?  You get the Aldi brand.  (Although, lately they do also carry Sweet Baby Rays.)  The prices are ridiculously cheap because you aren't paying for names.  The quality is excellent on most things, and even if it's not, you're only out a fraction of what you would have paid to try it at a "real" grocery store.  You also aren't paying for a bagger to bag up your groceries and help you out to the car, because they don't have them.  Or bags for that matter.  If you want those, you pay 5-10 cents each.  You also pay a quarter desposit on your cart that you only get back if you return it to the corral on the side of the store.  It might sound like this isn't a great place to shop, but I love it.  I can cover the entire store in under 30 minutes, with all the kids in tow.  I don't have to make decisions (like, "Ugh!  Which barbeque sauce is the best deal?").  I don't have to coupon because they don't take them and you don't need them anyway.  But best of all, I don't have to hand over my firstborn child as payment after I purchase a full cartload of groceries.  I went to the grand opening when our local store opened because I was so excited it had made it down here.  I grew up with my mom shopping at Aldi, so I was familiar and so grateful when I became a mom to five little mouths that I have this store nearby. 

You might need to know this about me - I am not a name dropper.  I'm an unapologetic bargain hunter, a trait I learned from my mother.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that I get a little pit in my stomach when I think about the amount of money people waste on names.  It's all perspective, I know.  People probably think the same thing about our travels.  At least, when we travel, we see things and experience things that broaden our world.  I might contend that placing a huge significance on branding ourselves with designer labels does the opposite.  (How to say that without sounding like a jerk, I'm not sure.)  I get wanting good quality, but good quality at a good value is very important to me.

Anyway, as a mother of five children, I am no stranger to the fact that kids these days place the utmost importance on brand names.  This is not a new phenomenon.  I've written about my seventh grade branding experience before.  It's a good one (in my not-so-humble opinion).  Maybe it's because it's Christmas, and I'm being inundated with advertisements for insanely expensive crap toys, clothes, and video games.  Maybe I'm just a grumpy person.  Maybe it's because I'm tired of my son getting grief because of where his mother grocery shops.  Or maybe because my perspective is slowly shifting to things eternal, but I'm just weary of the name dropping. 

Seriously.  Who cares?

Let me tell you about the people who shop at Aldi.  I have met and spoken with each of these people at the store.

The Mennonite families who drive an hour each way to do their shopping because the savings in groceries far outweighs the money spent on gas.

The immigrant who speaks broken English who paid in change and had to put back items because she went over what she had in her wallet.

The elderly couple who spends a fortune on prescription medications each month but was thrilled to find a way to save on groceries.

The man who paid for the groceries of the stressed out mom in front of him.  Because he could.

The Vietnam War Vet who gives his cart away to the next customer, every time, with a wink and a smile and insists that they don't give him a quarter in return.

Large families.

Small families.

Rich families.

Poor families.

Bachelors.

They shop there because it's smart to shop there.  And if some smart-mouthed tweenaged boy has a comment about my grocery shopping choices, he ought to come say it to my face.  Because apparently, that chaps my hiney.  My pragmatic eleven year old has no trouble listing out the benefits of practical spending choices, but geez.  Is this really what eleven year olds talk about these days?

Please, please, please, let's teach our kids about the things that matter.  And the things that don't.  I mean, really don't. 

Because we ALL have so much more than we deserve.
 
P.S. - I received no compensation from Aldi for this blog post.  I really, truly am grateful for this store.  That's it.

Death Valley and Lone Pine

The roads to Death Valley from Vegas were surface roads, no interstates.  We drove through what felt like an endless expanse of desert wasteland.  (Maybe wasteland isn't the right word, but that's what it feels like to an east-coast girl who is used to seeing green - pretty much everywhere.)  As we neared the entrance to the park, we watched the temperature rise on our dashboard thermometer.  95, 96, 97, 98.  That was the high on October 10th.  We continued through the park gates to our first destination, a drive through the one-way Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  It was other-worldy (a term I would come to use a lot on the trip) as we drove through mountains of parched rock that rippled like windblown sand dunes.

Ready to really feel the heat, we parked at Zabriskie Point and walked to the top of the panoramic apex overlooking the incredibly unique Amargosa Range.  The views and sights were unlike anything I'd ever seen before and unlike anything I imagined I'd see in Death Valley.  I honestly expected a big park full of sand.  I had no idea how much "beautiful" we would find there.

(Can I tell you that the reason I love this photo is that Ben lent Abby his sunglasses so her eyes wouldn't hurt from the glare?)


As it turns out, 98 does feel hot, but not Georgia 98 hot.  I did not even sweat on the 1/4 mile trek up the hill.  If I walk outside to get my mail on a Georgia 98 day, I sweat before I get halfway to the mailbox.  The good news about Death Valley is that the function of sweating actually works.  When you perspire, it evaporates and your body gets cooled off.  Unfortunately, it sucks the moisture right off and out of your body so there's the prone-to-dehydration thing.  Can't win them all.

I thought a lot about pioneers and explorers on this trip.  I was creeped out on some of those roads, driving with every provision I needed in my van, knowing exactly what was ahead of us.  I cannot even fathom the wild, adventurous spirit of a people so bold to explore uncharted territory like Death Valley, California.  Shoot, I get nervous to go to a new McDonald's because it might not be like the other ones I'm more familiar with.  I'm pretty sure I'd have been the first to die of typhoid or get bit by a rattlesnake on one of those excursions back then.
  
It was, indeed, a full day at Death Valley -



As the sun started to set, the temperature seemed to plummet.  The car thermometer still read 89 degrees.  We were shocked as it felt almost cool outside.  We found some actual sand dunes and played on them until the sun had long since set, and we headed on our trek towards Mammoth Lakes across yet another mountain range at the end of a long day.


I was unprepared for the treachery of the road that we would be traversing between Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes.  Thankfully, Sam was at the wheel, and he is completely unafraid of anything.  (Now I know where our fearless children get their courage.  Lord knows it's not me!)  The first sign of civilization and a place to stop for dinner was a little town called Lone Pine in the valley between two mountain ranges, just a few miles due east of Mt. Whitney, which we could see on the horizon as we drove north.  The choices were slim - and despite having eaten at a Burger King for lunch, we found ourselves at a Carl's Jr for dinner.

It was 9pm (12am EST) and the whole crew was tired and hungry.  Sam went ahead in to order, while I collected everyone's shoes out in the van, emptied them of sand, and put them back on.  They had sand everywhere on their bodies.  Leah went to use the restroom and actually left a pile of sand on the bathroom floor that she'd been carrying around in her undies.  Twenty minutes, a potty break for everyone, and a few laps around the restaurant later, we still hadn't ordered.  We just stood there, staring blankly at a fast food menu that looked all too much the same as what we'd just eaten earlier in the day.  The sweet manager offered up a few specials.  Those sounded perfect.  We finally put our order in, requested a few water cups, and had a seat.  Our food came up, and we watched as the manager filled up our giant fries container, eyed our family, and then poured another entire extra scoop full of fries on the tray before bringing it out to us.  It was a super sweet gesture.  About ten minutes later, a different employee brought out a bag full of six, giant, soft chocolate chip cookies.  She handed them to me and said, "These are on the house."  I didn't know what to say, but I am pretty sure I at least said, "Thank you."

We were blown away by their generosity.  Then it hit me.  I wonder if they thought we were poor.  It took us 20 minutes to make a menu choice, and we only ordered after she told us about the specials.  We all drank water.  I don't even want to know what my hair looked like (for the majority of the trip, actually).  We literally had dirt coming out of our underwear.  Sam surmised that they just liked our family.  That might be true.  We are pretty likeable.  But it might also be true that they thought we were poor.  Whatever the reason, we trucked some chocolate chip cookies.

Carl's Jr in Lone Pine is getting a thank you note.  The first of many memorable customer service encounters for the trip.

I said a few posts ago, you can find awesome all over the place.   We experienced that this trip, no doubt, both in Creation and in the Created.  North, south, east, and west.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight

On Day 9 of our epic westward adventure, we left Las Vegas, Nevada en route to Death Valley National Park.  This might be weird, but growing up on the east coast in the land of more than enough humidity (Maryland) and living now in the land of hot and definitely more than enough humidity (Georgia), I have always wondered what it really feels like when it's 120 degrees and dry.  Strange as it sounds, I was ready to leave Vegas and experience Death Valley.  (Also, news flash, I'm boring.)

The Southwest is an interesting place.  My world is small and having truly experienced living in only Maryland and Georgia, I don't have much to which I can compare.  That said, when I moved from Maryland to Georgia, I was awed by the amount of empty space in between cities and towns down here.  Miles and miles of pine trees and farmland fill in the expanse between "metro areas" (if you can call them that).

Then, I went west.

Doesn't even compare.

I have always complained about the boring drive between Macon and my in-law's exit on I-16 here in Georgia.  It's 77 interstate miles, along which we can stop about halfway for a bite if need be at Cracker Barrel, Longhorn Steakhouse, McDonald's, Zaxby's, Ruby Tuesday, Arby's, Wendy's, Burger King, Subway, and a number of other fine dining establishments.  We pass a rest stop and there is gas at just about every exit if we needed to stop for it.  We literally drove a stretch of legitimate interstate in Utah a few days prior, where for 110 miles there were two exits and not one single toilet or gas station.  You can forget grabbing a bite to eat.  Rocked my world.

So, as we headed out of Vegas, we considered somewhat correctly that the options for dining west of the city might not be plentiful.  We landed in the city of Pahrump, NV around lunchtime, and counted our blessings that we could at least grab some Burger King.  20 nuggets, a few burgers and fries, and thirty minutes on the playground later we loaded up the trusty van and noted that our windshield was totally caked with giant, desert bug guts. To my father's chagrin, I'm sure, we had neglected to top off that particular fluid before we left, and so our windshield washer fluid reservoir was empty.  No fear!  There was a brand new Dollar General on the way out of town.

I ran in and grabbed a gallon of fluid and a few other random roadtrip essentials, the collection of which was totally cart-worthy, but I didn't want to tempt myself into buying more items with cart space so I precariously toted my items in just my arms.  I walked up to the register and saw a line about five people deep.  The first customer was attempting some sort of extreme couponing feat, it appeared, and I imagined I'd be standing there for a while.  In true Jennie style, I started checking out the purchases of the guy in front of me - neon pink posterboard, can of spray paint, random snacks, garden hose nozzle.  I daydreamed that he was probably about to have a yard sale.  And Lord knows that garden hose nozzle was going to get a workout at his desert home where he was undoubtedly trying to grow flowers in a flower box.  I wondered if he noticed my random collection of Sunny D, granola bars, boxer briefs, and washer fluid and if he was imagining a scenario in which I might use all of those things.  (Does everyone make up stories about strangers?  Or just me?)  He was wearing shorts, a floral Hawaiian shirt, and one of those fishermans hats that ties under your chin.  His face was scruffy with salt and pepper whiskers and he had lots of wrinkles around his eyes, those lines I affectionately refer to as smile lines. 

As I was observing all of this, the song playing overhead ended and "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" came on.  It only took about 20 seconds for the guy to start all out getting down.  Eighteen inches in front of me, this dude was dancing like no one was watching right there in Dollar General.  I was rendered speechless.  It was awesome and awkward.  I was both inspired and embarrassed.  As I sat there not sure if it was rude to keep watching or more rude not to, it occurred to me that some day, some day, I want to be so carefree that if the mood strikes me to dance in the Dollar General checkout line, I want to be brave enough to do it. 

That courageous, carefree dude impacted me that day. I mean, really, what's stopping me?  What the people in line behind me that I'll likely never see again will think of me?  What if they walk away inspired to do the same?  What's the worst that could happen?  They laugh at me?  Big deal, right?  That man didn't care what I thought.  The only thing worrying about what other people think gets you is a big load of missed opportunities.  Not caring means you get more out of life.  He was living that moment to its fullest.

I left that place with a smile on my face.  This was just the beginning of one of my favorite days on the entire trip.  I like to think that smile-line streaked man who danced his tush off was a large part of that. 

If only I could find him and send him some brownies. 

More to come, like what Death Valley actually felt like - because when you get inspired, words flow.
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