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A Work in Progress

I’m going to just rip this band-aid off and tell you – when I started this weight-loss journey in October of last year I was a size 22. Today, I was walking around my office in a size 12 skirt. That picture is from today and I have to say, not half bad.

I’m not thrilled to tell you I recently used to be that big. Sometimes it can be so hard to tell the truth. I want to tell some of the cold, hard facts and keep some of the others to myself because I’d rather not leave an image of myself with you that’s too far off the scale of what’s acceptable, at least in my mind. However, a very wise woman once told me a really good factoid that has served me well over the years. ‘Set the truth free and it does its own work.’

In other words, the more transparent I can be all of the time, just be myself in all its glory, the more I can get out of the way and maybe even be of service to someone else. What a concept. Besides, who do you think I was fooling about my actual size back then, anyway?

I’m also more than a little surprised about how long I thought it was okay to be so much larger and feel so uncomfortable, out of place and physically miserable, all of the time. But I had thrown everything I had at weight loss and gained instead and was officially giving up. Then, last September I saw a friend of mine who was beaming with joy over the weight she’d lost. The difference in our efforts was that she had added a spiritual component. I can’t explain it any better than that (although if you want details, email me or leave a comment, and we’ll chat) but somehow I ended up talking to her and here we are almost 8 months later and 60 pounds lighter in that cute, size 12 skirt.

This time I did it without obsessing over food or exercise, without thinking about when I could eat next, or even about what the scale said on any given day. That’s not my previous behavior at all. I’m just taking it one day at a time and just for today, I’m doing okay. Talk to you later.

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Rev. Thelma Smith

There is a growing spiritual movement in America that has managed to find a way to encompass not only all kinds of people but all kinds of faith and is changing the way people view everything with a gentle persuasion that has found a way to let everyone be right. The movement has several names – Unity, Science of Mind, and Kabala are just a few – and it’s quietly attracting the most unlikely of followers, Middle America. The media talks about the famous followers, like Madonna or Travolta but has failed to notice the great influx of newcomers from across the rest of the country, including the so-called red states.

The way I was raised, an old-line Episcopalian, meant that with only the occasional exception all the faces in the crowd I saw on Sundays were white, wealthy, well-educated and shared agreeable political dispositions. Nothing wrong with that at all, however, as we say in the South, we were generally preaching to the choir. Not a lot of change was going to find us.

Going to church brought me the comfort of the familiar. I didn’t necessarily agree with the rules but I knew them in my bones and could put on a good face. It helped that I was the daughter of a popular retired Episcopal minister. I had been raised inside the church.

I rarely agreed wholeheartedly with anything I heard but I spoke the language effortlessly, knew the appropriate body language and could relax back into a mindless state of being and know I was welcomed.  However, I wanted more.

Along with a growing number of people in this country, I stumbled into the beginning of an answer that I eventually found I could blend with my old line faith, and I found it in the most unlikely of places. The Spiritual Mind Center was at the time in the back of a building anchored on a corner by a 7-11 store, and next door to a military recruiting station. The cars in the parking lot had plenty of stickers to save the world, treat everyone better and believe in everything. We had come to hear about a new way of seeing the world and interpreting religion. Any religion. I felt tolerant but skeptical. The tables were turned.

Inside was a nice version of a storefront church with chairs lined up in a circle, glow-in-the-dark green stars all over the back wall and a blow up beach ball of the earth hanging from the center of the room. A small well-dressed woman with stylish red hair, Reverend Thelma Smith, stood in the center of the chairs, an impish smile constantly on her face. [click to continue…]

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America is doing a better job at raising children than you may realize (Photo by Teddy-rised)

Let’s spread some good news around this week. Summer is just about over and we could all use a little something to cheer. There is actually something in America that we’re doing well these days and with less taxpayer money. However, very few voters are aware its still happening.

Imagine that in the age of the internet and Twitter and a desperate need for good news but its true.

Well, here it is. Our country is sending more children who grow up at U.S. orphanages to college than from the general population, significantly more children. Yes, orphanages still exist in the U.S. but are now known as residential education facilities or REF’s due to the myths surrounding the term orphanage.

As usual, we keep better track of our cars than we do the 600,000 children in need of a loving home but the individual homes see each child as a family member, of course, and 80 percent of the kids head off to higher learning.

Just so we can get past the images of Annie that just popped in your head let’s set the record straight right up front. A U.S. orphanage resembles an upscale boarding school with all the amenities. They have a staff that generally devotes their entire career and their life to the children who come through their doors. Lil’ Orphan Annie landed in a group home, which is vastly different and fictional by the way.

Now, here’s another statistic from the well respected Pew Report on the U.S. foster care system. If that same child were to end up in foster care in our country they’d have less than a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school and an increased likelihood of having periods of homelessness and unemployment in their lifetime. The factors surrounding the child’s background are the same so it’s not the child who is failing; it’s the system.

One more fun fact to really spell it out. The Pew Report also found that a child who ends up in an Illinois children’s home from social services has been on average through 9 foster care placements. That means that nine families said we can’t handle this kid and the child packed up everything they owned and headed off to yet another stranger’s house. In Virginia the average was found to be five. Talk about potential abandonment issues. There aren’t many adults who could handle that much change with any grace or without losing hope.  [click to continue…]

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Letting Go of the Outcome Lets Us Be Happy in the Moment

There’s an old saying, ‘carrying someone else’s water’ that used to mean doing someone else’s work. It was whipped out when a worker bee was wearing themselves out taking on things that didn’t belong to them.  It was also meant as a reminder to put down the water and let others take on their own consequences. Get back to your own life.

The same saying could be used as well to describe the burden that’s sometimes inadvertently carried when we keep secrets, particularly those that don’t belong to us in the first place. It can start in childhood when someone puts their face close to ours and admonishes us not to tell anyone because we could lose our home, lose a job, or lose standing in the community. There’s the lie, right there at the end of that sentence.

That young body hasn’t been in the world long enough to know that it’s not their responsibility to keep a house or a job or a good name just yet. But, children start out as trusting little beings and come to the conclusion that they somehow acquired the ability to harm or help adults, so they grow silent. Enough years pass and the secrets build on themselves till there’s a constant conversation inside the head, but nothing ever seeps out to the light of day. The silence has become so habitual it can be hard to notice and therefore change.

There are consequences, though for everything in life even if we are refusing to pay attention. The repercussions of silence are that we don’t notice how many decisions we make about everything else in what makes up a life that are being filtered through the original fears. Opportunities get left on the table and actions never occur because somewhere in the back of our minds we’re playing the game of ‘what if’ and standing still instead.

The thought underneath all of it is: if our actions can harm others then we need to control the outcome as much as possible. That, however, is an impossible task, which we also realize on some level. Everything we set out to do has a million possible outcomes, most of them we can’t even begin to foresee. [click to continue…]

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Row4Row coach, Jenn Gibbons talks about her upcoming quest to row Lake Michigan to raise awareness about cancer and exercise.

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Photo by Degilbo

Chris Rutledge, the young owner of Red Line Painting has been making monthly donations to different Chicago area charities from the inception of his business in January 2008. One receipient was All Saints Church Episcopal and Hunger Rocks. The church office reported that the offer to have any room painted was a hot item at the silent auction, which raised $60,000 to feed the hungry in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

It’s unusual to hear about any new business owner who feels that giving back is an integral part of the business plan. Imagine how rare that trait is for a business that started the exact moment as the current recession. But Rutledge stuck to his plan and faced down the economic tsunami that took out much older corporate giants and just took it one day at a time. It’s all working out, slowly but surely.

It’s said that integrity is defined by what we do when no one else is around. As the daughter of an Episcopal minister who was raised on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary, I’ve had the blessing of meeting quite a few people who did the right thing and then quietly went about their day. Every time I’ve seen such acts of generosity that weren’t timed to get the giver something in return, which is in reality barter and not a gift, it has been a witness for me to God’s everlasting grace.

One of the first recipients of Red Line Painting’s mission to give back was to a public school classroom for children with special needs through Donors Choose.org. “I teach kids with behavior disorders,” said Amy Jeffers, the teacher who received Red Line Painting’s help. “We really had no funding, no help and kids like that need more. Chris is the kind of person that if he has anything extra, he’s willing to give it.”

It turned out to be a very long winter for Red Line Painting but they kept on giving and the business survived and grew. The company now regularly employs 10 people and has painted over 150 homes, businesses and even architectural gems in Chicago, including places of worship. As an ingenious measure of how the economy is improving Rutledge can tell you that in 2008 Red Line Painting went through only 400 gallons of paint but through just September of this year they’ve already used up 700 gallons and are going strong. Rutledge says the company specialty is being able to take off any kind of old finish and adorn it with the latest technology. That brings up one last interesting testament about this company and reinforces another truth we often hear in sermons on Sunday. The idea of putting faith to work, which always requires us to go first and do the best we can with what we have. [click to continue…]

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Jenn Gibbons, founder of Row4Row on a practice run

My late father was fond of saying that my worst quality was also my best quality. He saw me as stubborn and with every passing year I see a deeper level of wisdom to what he was trying to get across. I don’t always know when to walk away and let something go because it’s been over for awhile. I may have in the past even at times managed to drag others into trying to resuscitate some threadbare project or a relationship to no avail.

However, my sales pitch was so good that a lot of time and effort was wasted going in directions that were over and kaput, if only I’d admit it.

The flip side of that though is that when the going gets tough I have an amazing ability to hang in there. Some have referred to it as endurance and that’s gotten me through training for a marathon, moving unexpectedly on my own from New York to Chicago, raising Louie on my own, persisting as a writer and a whole host of other things. That’s a useful trait to reach some of the bigger goals.

The tricky part in the equation is being able to recognize which of the two situations I’m in and then taking action. In the past I wanted to get to the action part so quickly and fix things that there was no time to figure out if I needed to go or keep moving forward, no matter how difficult. Pausing for a moment to let things unfolds would have taken some faith that most things work out and some of them take time.

But, as I’ve said before, I was more of a ‘who stole the other half of the glass kind of girl’ and was always staying alert trying to prevent any upcoming disasters. Somewhere in there I also thought that meant preventing the disasters of everyone in my immediate circle so I didn’t have to deal with the fall-out there, either.

That appears generous and soft-hearted at first but there’s a lot of selfishness in there mixed with a dollop of arrogance that I’m the best one to fix it or that I can even do anything about whatever it is.

I thought of myself as a team player but I was really thinking of myself most of the time.

Now, as most everyone who reads this column knows I’ve been trying to figure out how to get more exercise and lose weight for quite some time with stops and starts. It would seem that I’m often trying to accomplish that with the least amount of effort but I’m working on that part too.

One of the things I’ve had to also factor in after the cancer surgery on my leg is a new paradigm that says I can’t do everything the way I used to do it. A flexible leg brace is necessary for almost every kind of exercise now and I’ve stubbornly refused to wear it.

However, there’s one exception to the list and that’s rowing. I can row on an erg and get plenty of exercise and never put on the brace. I even found a great organization in Chicago, www.RecoveryOnWater.org that is made up of female breast cancer survivors and founded by Jenn Gibbons, a great coach and advocate. They practice and row as a team out on the water and cheer each other on in general. [click to continue…]

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Virginia Seminary chapel before the fire.

The historic 1881 chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia burned down last October, which left an obvious need that can’t be put off for very long. A school for ministers has to have a place for the students to learn how to lead a congregation and where faculty and families can come together to worship. They’ve all been making do with other facilities ever since.

It’s like beach lifeguards learning how to save lives by practicing in a pool. Sure, it works to a point but eventually everyone has to go jump in the surf and figure out how to handle the occasional rip tide or sandbar.

However, it’s almost impossible to change an iconic image without creating anxiety among the masses. It doesn’t matter if the new development is to update, upgrade or fix past mistakes. Once everyone is used to something they’d rather just leave it alone.

If the object in question has anything to do with a religion, triple that sentiment and stand back. But sometimes change is unavoidable and when the beloved chapel went up in a matter of hours everyone knew that a new building was inevitable.

The questions about where and what it’ll look like started right after that initial thought.

I have a little civilian experience as an observer in this area growing up as a former preacher’s kid on the grounds of VTS. My late father, Rev. Dabney Carr was on the faculty and we lived just a short stroll from his office. There were ministers of every size and description running around the place and they all came with opinions on the best way to do anything. I learned pretty quickly that finding God was a personal journey but there were plenty of people along the way who’d love to draw you a map.

It also gave me a different perspective on all the bad press lawyers can sometimes take and may explain why my brother, also named Dabney Carr, chose that profession instead. He can always make a winning argument and some of that has to be from listening to so many learned people trying to prove they had a better handle on how to experience God. They’re not the only ones, though. [click to continue…]

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Volunteers Planting a Tree (Photo by VA State Parks Staff)

At first, when talk shows were touting that women don’t know how to say no to new projects or doing favors for friends or volunteering at their child’s school the image of the over-burdened woman seemed just this side of virtuous. I’d like to clear up that misconception. It’s actually very selfish.

Imagine being on the other end of that deal particularly after plans have been set in motion with that person’s promises factored into the arrangements. Now, picture the day before or even a few hours before the event where the person you’re counting on is supposed to finally deliver. But, instead of the presentation or carpooling or even an extra pair of hands you have a voicemail or an email or even a short little text message that says they just won’t be able to make it. The most common reason being handed out is, well, they’re just too busy. Sometimes, to soften the blow they even add on a little smiley face icon just to let you know there’s no hard feelings.

Apparently, this is a special kind of busy that just popped up and is different from the busy that the rest of us are experiencing in our lives. It has special compensations and is so important that no other explanation is really necessary. Try getting any more details out of someone who is offering up this stale, limp little excuse. Try asking them why they bothered volunteering in the first place. They look as if their brain has seized up and no further information will be forthcoming.

A favorite sub-category of this is the volunteer who so enthusiastically insisted on taking that project and vigorously shook their head after you asked, just one more time to be sure, if they really had enough time to do this essential role. Then, when you’re finally convinced, their participation ebbs and flows till you start to understand that just maybe you can’t count on them. If you’re bold enough to ask, yet again, if they can handle the project they finally announce that their paying job has to come first and they’ll get to this when they can, whenever that mysterious moment happens to hit them. These delightful people still aren’t saying no and are now trying to hold your project hostage, presumably so they can still tell people they’re volunteering but without actually doing anything.

Frankly, this is worse than the people who say they want to volunteer but when they find out it requires showing up on the weekend or after a work day is over they make that little wince face and say they’re really just too tired. They’re so tired the idea of volunteering has just caused them pain. But they’d like you to know they really want to be there. They’ve figured out how to say no but not without a little dinner theater and yet that’s still better than the limelight grabbers who are going to say no, but when you least expect it. [click to continue…]

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Happy 4th of July! (Photo courtesy of Harold Neal)

It’s Independence Day again across America and it’s an interesting time for the idea of democracy. Perhaps more than at any other time in our relatively short history it’s become important how we talk about our grand American experiment and our collective experience.

There’s a school of thought that says whatever you give your attention to will grow and flourish. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a defunct system that you can’t abide or a germ of an idea that you hope will blossom.

Our constant berating or praise, tearing down or building up actually gives life to it no matter the intention.

That’s why I’m always mystified by those who spend so much time tearing down what their neighbors have built and then give so little attention toward recognizing what’s working so well.

It’s the idea that if you just nag all of us enough we’ll give in and do what you want just to shut you up. Actually if we have any self respect at all, we just move out of earshot. Nothing good is accomplished.

Just so you know, when you’re standing in front of me telling me how evil Corporate America is or how greedy and selfish any large group of Americans are, you’re slinging that arrow at me, as well. We all do business with Corporate America in big and small ways every time we buy clothing or shop for food or cash our paycheck.

I don’t play that parlor game where I draw up a list of labels, separate myself out from the ones I don’t like and then blame everyone else. I get it, we’re all in this together and it’d be nice if the constant naysayers would work with us sometimes rather than spewing insults about how we’re not doing it right, which means the way they see it.

Pointing fingers is its own unique form of arrogance and judgment swirled around with a hint of victimhood. It causes separation and a lack of cooperation and we aren’t actually walking away from the experience marveling at how pious and dedicated you are to your causes. We’re hoping some pin pops that pompous bubble sooner rather than later.

So, this Fourth of July let’s try a different kind of experiment and let’s do it in honor of our service men and women who have pledged to serve and protect whether we have an ounce of gratitude or understanding or not. That’s a grander form of democracy in action. [click to continue…]

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