One of those

A perfect September day in Rockport, Maine, 2012

A perfect September day in Rockport, Maine, 2012

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”P.D. James

Perfect autumn days might be more numerous in our memory than in reality, but they can happen anywhere, and they aren’t just about foliage or pumpkins.  The photo above was taken on a beautiful September day in New England when the cool weather, sunshine, water and boats were a wonderful change of pace from the heat of the summer we had just endured.

In the southern hemisphere, September heralds the coming of warmer weather, and in tropical climates, fall might mean less heat and humidity, but not falling leaves or fading flowers.

Wherever you are, whatever this time of year looks like in your world, I wish you one of those perfect days you’ll remember often!

One year ago today:

Such a beautiful day

Outdoors in

I brought Mama this Pineapple Lilly as an early birthday gift, August 2014.

I brought Mama this Pineapple Lilly as an early birthday gift, August 2014.

“Bring the outdoors in. Plants make for a happy home.”Mr Jason Grant

There were a lot of ways my mother created a happy home for us, and one of them was the way she loved plants, indoors and out.  She was often joked about spoken of in regard to her composting and organic vegetable gardening, but she always liked plants of all kinds.  The longest words in her vocabulary that I can remember were those that were the names of plants.

I grew up hearing about (and enjoying the beauty of) azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias, to name just a few, but the names for the indoor plants were even more exotic: dieffenbachia, schefflera, caladiums, and others I can’t quite remember.  She sent me off to college with coleus and philodendron to adorn my dorm room and keep the air fresh.  While I was never as good at tending plants as she was, I did find that the plants added a note of cheer to brighten my days.

Recently we were able to make a quick trip to Atlanta, so I took the opportunity to give Mama an early birthday present I can’t usually manage because of the distance: a nice new houseplant that has the potential to live outdoors, if she decides to transplant it.  I chose one I had never seen before, but instantly liked: the pineapple lily pictured above.  I thought the purple color and unusual blooms would be a novelty among her other growing things.

Do you keep houseplants?  If so, what are your favorites?  If not, adding a plant to your life might be a great way to brighten your home and improve your health.  It may sound wacky, but a number of studies suggest there are measurable benefits in spending time with greenery, including happier moods and enhanced creativity.

Happy Birthday today to my mother, who taught me a lot about how to help all kinds of living things grow!

One year ago today:

A combination

To find the beautiful

Gludgey joins Drew, Matt and Jeff looking out from the Coast Starlight. Santa Barbara County, California, April 1993

Gludgey joins Drew, Matt and Jeff looking out the window of the Coast Starlight.
Santa Barbara County, California, April 1993

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”Ralph Waldo Emerson

A year ago today I wrote about Drew’s beloved toy raccoon Gludgey, who went along with our family everywhere we traveled.  Books, favorite snacks, and comfortable shoes are other things we carried with us wherever we went.

Of course, that’s not what Emerson meant when he talked about carrying the beautiful with us.  He wasn’t talking about objects, but the attitude he describes can make these everyday items beautiful to us, even when they are ordinary and worn.  When we look past the surface to the substance, we will indeed find beauty wherever we go.

What are some of the tangible and intangible things you carry with you when you travel?  How do these things help you find what is beautiful in other landscapes and circumstances?

One year ago today:

Things that look used

 

I sit and watch

Trust me: he's really happy to see you!  Jeff in Sint Maarten, March 2010

Trust me: he’s really happy to see you! Jeff in Sint Maarten, March 2010

Oh! ’twas very sad and lonely
When I found myself the only
Population on this cultivated shore;
But I’ve made a little tavern
In a rocky little cavern,
And I sit and watch for people at the door…

Then we gather as we travel,
Bits of moss and dirty gravel,
And we chip off little specimens of stone;
And we carry home as prizes
Funny bugs, of handy sizes,
Just to give the day a scientific tone.

Charles Edward Carryl (verses from the poem “Robinson Crusoe’s Story“)

I first encountered this delightful poem when I read a brief reference to it in a journal entry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  When I looked up the poem and read the verse cited first above, I immediately thought of myself and this blog.  In a whimsical way that I could never fully explain, it just seemed to fit perfectly.

When I looked for a photo to go with it, though, the one posted above jumped out at me.  We came across this interesting little walled enclosure on the island of Sint Maarten (the Dutch side, if I remember correctly), and I begged Jeff to pose there for me, because the structure reminded me so much of him.  Mostly private, but occasionally accessible, especially through the eyes.  As you can see in the photo, he wasn’t enthusiastic about letting me snap his picture.  He never is, but sometimes he humors me.

Whether we are labeled as introverts or extroverts, all of us must sometimes feel the sting of loneliness, countered by the self-protective impulses that cause us to retreat to our “rocky little cavern(s).”  But to mix metaphors here, no person is an island, even if (as Ashleigh Brilliant has so aptly said) “some of us are long peninsulas.”  I know I watch for people at the door, and I bet you do too.

So now that you are here, come on in!  We’d love to know more about you.  If you’ve brought any bits of moss or specimens of stone, or funny bugs or whatever you have gathered over the years, please share them with us!  Try not to worry too much about wasting a few minutes here today.  As Robinson Crusoe learned, anything that can’t be done by Friday probably isn’t all that urgent to begin with.  :D

One year ago today:

If you look closely

Those moments

The kindness of hospital staff made post-op pain more bearable for Matt and others. Children's National Medical Center, Washington, DC, April 2014

The kindness of hospital staff made post-op pain more bearable for Matt and others.
Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC, April 2014

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”   –  George Saunders

There’s nothing at all wrong with acting in ways that are sensible, reserved, and mild.  But there are times when such demeanor is the result of fear.  Fear of getting involved, fear of engendering expectations of future solicitude, fear of being harmed in real or imaginary ways by people of whom we feel unsure.

I’ll bet there are none of us who cannot remember seeing, or being, a school-age child who was treated unkindly by peers.  When I look back on the times that persecuted person was me, I remember with tremendous respect those who stood apart from the crowd by refusing to capitulate to mob psychology; the ones who were kind to me for no reason at all, perhaps even catching a bit of jeering themselves in doing so.

When I remember standing by and saying nothing while others were being mistreated, I agree with Saunders; those are among the moments in my past that I most regret.  But the fear of being kind extends far past the school years.  In a world where stranger danger is not just a phrase we teach our kids, it can be a dilemma to know when and how to show kindness to a suffering person in a way that is not harmful to them or us.

But as the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law.”  For every situation where we may feel legitimate reservations about reaching out in kindness, there are dozens more where safety is not the issue; where we are just too tired or preoccupied to concern ourselves with people who may require time and energy we’d rather save for our own interests.  It’s true that one can be easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of need around us, and we could easily wear ourselves out (as some do) trying to help everyone but ourselves.

However, looking at my own life and many around me, I think most of us tend to err in the other direction.  Sad, really, since thoughtful kindness is a self-sustaining practice that almost always yields high returns on investment, for ourselves and everyone around us.

As we face daily situations at work, home and elsewhere, may we hope and pray for the wisdom to know when it’s time to go beyond sensible, mild reserve, and take a risk — even a small one — to make a difference in the life of a person who is hurting.

One year ago today:

The most effective technique

There is nothing lacking

This beautiful library is filled with symbols of our abundant gifts. "Strahov Theological Hall, Prague - 7573" by Jorge Royan - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Strahov_Theological_Hall,_Prague_-_7573.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Strahov_Theological_Hall,_Prague_-_7573.jpg

This beautiful library is filled with symbols of our abundant gifts.
Strahov Theological Hall, Prague, by Jorge Royan,  CCA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”Lao-tzu

It’s a curious paradox that some of the people who have the most possessions never seem to have enough, and some with the least are the most content.  It’s too simplistic to say that wealth creates unhappiness (though it often seems to do just that).  It might have more to do with the sort of mindset that prioritizes wealth above more important goals.

Chasing after wealth seems to be getting the cart before the horse, though.  I really think it starts inside.  No matter my circumstances, I find that the more thankful I am, the more I have for which to be thankful.  It’s the sort of thing that one has to experience to understand, and the longer one sees this dynamic at work, the stronger its influence on the course of life.

Today, I hope we all are able to start, or continue, a quest to understand that true wealth — which often has nothing to do with money — is within our grasp.  I find it a great challenge sometimes to rejoice in the way things are.  But I believe it’s the best way to live.

One year ago today:

The world’s largest collection

Participate relentlessly

Jeff participates in the traditional ritual of "ringing out" on his last day of radiation at Walter Reed, September 2013.

Jeff participates in the traditional ritual of “ringing out” on the last day of treatment
in Radiation Oncology at Walter Reed Medical Center, Bethesda MD, September 2013.

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.”
Elizabeth Gilbert

Two years ago today we got the devastatingly bad news nobody ever wants to get, and despite some initial hope that it might not be as fearful as it seemed at first, the prognosis only got worse and worse in the weeks that followed.  Yet life went on, and blessings abounded.

Some of them were decidedly mixed blessings, as Jeff endured grueling chemotherapy, side effects, and harrowing surgeries.  The toughest one was less than a year ago, in November, a multi-stage resection that lasted 14 hours, after which he was kept asleep until the next morning, and then spent another two hours in the operating room to address complications.  As traumatic as these procedures were, they gave him a considerably improved prognosis, and we feel thankful he had the options available.

Every step of the way, we have been mindful of the tremendous advantage we enjoyed in having top-notch health care provided through the military medical system, without fears of catastrophic debt or threatened job security.

We also appreciate the physical strength that Jeff had built through years of a healthy diet and daily exercise.  While these did not prevent him from getting a highly malignant cancer, I have no doubt the foundation of generally sound health helped him endure and survive extremely aggressive treatments.

I have been so grateful to Jeff for his understanding of the need to “participate relentlessly” in the blessings that were there for us at a very dark time.  Because he has been willing to face the ordeals of treatment, he is now at the 2-year average survival time originally predicted for patients with his diagnosis who started the chemotherapy protocol he began shortly after his stage IV cancer was discovered, and he’s doing much better than originally expected.

Amazingly, he still works full time on days when not in the hospital or receiving outpatient treatments. In this way, too, he participates relentlessly in the life he has lived in faith for so many years.  The future remains far from assured, but we take each day as a gift and live in hope for more years together.

If you’re like most people, some of your richest blessings may have been, or still may be, not easily endured.  Others will be hidden for years, until you look back and realize that things you were unaware of, or even worried about, were bright threads weaving a beautiful pattern in the tapestry of your life.  We may be unable to see the finished designs of our lives for a long time; we’ll see mostly the knots and loose threads.

I hope you won’t let that sidetrack you.  Some days will be more difficult than others, but relentless participation does not require our best every day.  It just requires faith and commitment.  If we keep showing up, the blessings will continue to flow.  I really believe that.

One year ago today:

Other springs

Dressing herself

September flowers, Bar Harbor, 2007

Marigolds, zinnias and other showy fall colors bloom in Bar Harbor, Maine, September 2007.

“September is dressing herself in showy dahlias and splendid marigolds and starry zinnias. October, the extravagant sister, has ordered an immense amount of the most gorgeous forest tapestry for her grand reception.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

I agree with Holmes that the beauty of October is usually more extravagant than the showy displays of September. But this month is a fitting prelude to the grand symphony of colors we look forward to seeing in a few weeks.  He didn’t even mention the chrysanthemums that are as much a part of fall as pumpkins and football in most of the USA.  I’m already beginning to see them adorn the porches and front steps of homes in our neighborhoods.

Everyone is invited and welcome to attend “the grand reception” that will be taking place all over the northern hemisphere in the next few weeks.  Meanwhile, enjoy the colors of September, whatever they may be where you are.  What vibrant warmup acts are playing before the weather changes in your part of the country?

One year ago today:

A harmony in autumn

People together

Australian volunteer Kylie Hinde at the Center for Disability in Development, Bangladesh, 2011. Photo by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0

Australian volunteer Kylie Hinde at the Center for Disability in Development,
Bangladesh, 2011. Photo by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0

“Adversity not only draws people together, but brings forth that beautiful inward friendship.”Soren Kierkegaard

Working together under difficult circumstances tends to strip away the vacuous and trivial concerns that we are too often preoccupied with, especially in affluent societies.  None of us want adversity or crisis, nor do most of us wish it on others.  Still, we find there are rewards for perseverance and cooperation when we team up with others to make the best of a challenging situation.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing many people who have donated countless hours of volunteer time working in a variety of demanding contexts, both in their own countries and abroad.  There’s a common expression that almost all of them say after such efforts: “I am so glad I had this experience – I will never be the same.”  Many return again and again to the people and places that capture their hearts.  Relationships forged while working together for a common goal transcend distance, and often last well beyond the initial encounter.

I have great admiration for those who travel far away, spend weeks on end, and often risk health or safety to help those who need them.  But we don’t have to take such big steps to find the bonds of fellowship that form when we work together to overcome obstacles.  No matter where we live, there are organizations working to address problems local to our town or region.  Most all of the groups are in need of volunteers, and would welcome your contributions.

Better still, you might be able to offer assistance on your own to individuals you know who are hurting or lonely.  Organizations cannot reach out to others without people, but people will always be able to reach out without an organization, just by caring and being a friend.  Depending on your personality type, schedule and circle of acquaintances, you may find one or the other of these methods of outreach to be more suited to you. Both are always in demand.

Whatever method you choose, getting past the initial discomfort you feel will be worth it.  The other phrase I hear from volunteers is one I’ve often been able to say myself with great sincerity: “I get back far more than I give.”

One year ago today:

The gift of crisis

 

 

Another turned page

Even for those who aren't in school, fall is full of promise.  York County, Virginia, November 2008

Even for those who aren’t in school, fall is full of promise.
York County, Virginia, November 2008

“…that old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”
Wallace Stegner

Though it has been many years since I last went to school, or even had children who did, I still feel the excitement in September.  Something about the cooling autumn air carries with it the sense of new beginnings, people to meet and things to learn; the chance, as Stegner so vividly describes, to start over with a clean slate.

Many of you are teachers, students or both; others have children or grandchildren starting a new school year.  But even those of us who don’t fit into any of those categories can get into the spirit of anticipation, as we bid the last of the summer weather farewell and settle in for the bustle of upcoming holidays and cozy evenings filled with friends, books and a mug of hot tea, coffee or cocoa.

May you have a lovely day, filled with the best of “that old September feeling.”

One year ago today:

In the fall

When we came together

 I photographed this memorial wall at FDNY Engine 10 Ladder 10,  directly across from Ground Zero, May 2007.

I photographed this memorial wall at FDNY Engine 10 Ladder 10,
directly across from Ground Zero.  New York City,  May 2007

“Remember the hours after September 11th when we came together as one to answer the attack against our homeland. We drew strength when our firefighters ran upstairs and risked their lives so that others might live; when rescuers rushed into smoke and fire at the Pentagon; when the men and women of Flight 93 sacrificed themselves to save our nation’s Capitol; when flags were hanging from front porches all across America, and strangers became friends. It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.”  —  John Kerry

On September 11, 2001, we were living in northern California.  My clock radio came on as usual at 6:00 a.m., and the first words I heard were “an airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”  I immediately began praying for the airline pilots I knew, but even in my still-sleepy brain fog, I knew that this was no typical accident.

Jeff came in a few minutes later (he always rose an hour earlier than I did) and told me there had been two plane crashes, one into each tower. “It’s terrorists,” I said.

“It surely sounds like it,” he agreed.  We speculated briefly as to what this might mean, and how his day would unfold if some sort of attack were in progress.  “I might not be home at the usual time tonight,” he predicted.

A few minutes later I was in the bathroom helping Matt clean his orthodontic retainers when Drew came to tell me Eric had called.  “He said to tell you he’s safe, and to advise you not to go into the city today,  especially not the Golden Gate Bridge.  He said they might be going after all the big targets.”

A short time later Jeff called to confirm what we had suspected; he would not be home at the usual time that night, and in fact, he didn’t know when he would be home.  From past military exercises, I knew I might not be told where he was or when to expect him to come back home.

A short while later, Gloria called.  “I just wanted to hear your voice,” she said.

While the details may differ, I suppose similar communications were taking place all over America.  People calling to let others know they were safe, to worry about what might come next, and to seek reassurance by sharing the shock with someone we trusted.

Many people of my age or older almost invariably felt a haunting memory of November 22, 1963, the only other date when we remembered anything as shocking and frightening.  For our parents’ generation, many remembered December  7, 1941.  But absolutely none of us could remember anything on this scale.  It’s not an overstatement to say that we were all changed in some way by that day, some of us more than others.

If John Kerry was right about the day bringing out the best in us, I’d like to think that “best” is still there, though dormant; that we could come together as one if anything so catastrophic should ever happen again.  But why does it take catastrophe to bring out the best in us?

Today is a grim anniversary,  but rather than re-living the horror and sadness, perhaps we can try to reenact the compassion and urgency we felt to reach out to others and let them know that we cared.  Is it possible to remember the lessons of that day’s trauma and heartbreak even in the relative normalcy that we may (or may not) experience today?

Today I wish you a gloriously typical day in which nothing unexpected happens.  But even if that wish comes true, I hope you will reach out to a loved one or neighbor with the understanding that was so forcefully thrust upon us thirteen years ago: life is short, unpredictable and sometimes very difficult.  Let’s be there for each other.

One year ago today:

The people weeping

Rest now

Jeff takes a rare nap on the beach in Grenada, March 2010.

Jeff takes a rare nap on the beach in Grenada, March 2010.

“…rest now. Rest for longer than you are used to resting. Make a stillness around you, a field of peace. Your best work, the best time of your life will grow out of this peace.”Peter Heller

Jeff is really good about prioritizing sleep, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy resting.  I sometimes joke that if there is no work to do, he will make some.  One of the things I miss most about being able to go on vacations is that it usually forces him to rest a little more than usual.  Just a little, though.  I’ll happily spend an entire day lounging on the beach, but his limit is about an hour.

I think most of us feel a bit guilty about resting, as if it is unproductive time.  But I agree with Heller.  Rest recharges our batteries, helping us work better and smarter, with more energy.

If you have a lot to do, it may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps you need to schedule some rest breaks into your day.  Take a power nap or just close your eyes and zone out for a few minutes.  And work on carving out an entire afternoon or even a whole day to give yourself time to do nothing at all.  Chances are, you will accomplish just as much — and  maybe more — than if you stayed on high alert for hours on end.

One year ago today:

When action grows unprofitable

 

If we only knew

Late afternoon visitors enjoy a park in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, September 2007.

Late afternoon visitors enjoy a park in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, September 2007.

“Good heavens, of what uncostly material is our earthly happiness composedif we only knew it!  What incomes have we not had from a flower, and how unfailing are the dividends of the seasons!”  —  James Russell Lowell

It’s hard to choose a favorite season, but this time of year I’m especially aware of the untold wealth we enjoy, simply in being able to take a walk outdoors.  The harsh heat of summer is normally gone by now, but greenery and flowers still decorate the landscape and bring color to life.   Even those who don’t typically walk daily are lured outside by the gorgeous weather.

The price for almost everything bought with money continues to rise, but since Lowell’s day, one thing hasn’t changed; from a financial standpoint, our earthly happiness is composed of “uncostly material.” I hope you’ll find time this week to earn some income from the flowers, and take profit from the rich dividends of the season.

One year ago today:

Inconceivable antiquity

Nowhere else to go

Lincoln consults with McClellan after Antietam, October 3, 1862. Photo by Alexander Gardner via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Lincoln consults with McClellan after Antietam, October 3, 1862.
Photo by Alexander Gardner via Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

“I have been many times driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”Abraham Lincoln

Not quite 152 years ago, the United States endured “the single bloodiest day in American military history” at the battle of Antietam.  Despite having a two-to-one advantage in troop numbers, the federal forces were unable to achieve more than a draw, though Lincoln claimed victory in driving Lee’s forces from Maryland.

The quote above, documented in Scribner’s Monthly, must have been referring to the events of 1862.  It would be hard to imagine a more difficult year for anyone to endure.  Lincoln’s beloved son Willie had died in February, and the outcome of the war was far from certain at the end of that year.

Lincoln’s struggles with depression have been a topic of much conjecture, but I am far more amazed at his resilience and ability to press on in the face of relentlessly daunting opposition, both political and military.  Who wouldn’t have been depressed, given his circumstances?  Yet he led our nation through its most desperate era, and I’m convinced he could not have accomplished all that he did, had he not sought divine help.

I feel fairly certain that nobody who is reading this post will ever face trials of the magnitude that Lincoln withstood.  Yet all of us must sometimes share his feeling that our own wisdom and everyone else’s combined is not sufficient for the complexity of challenges we navigate.

The next time you feel you have nowhere to go, remember Lincoln and the responsibilities he bore.  His actions continue to reverberate to this day, and more than one historian believes he was the greatest president in our nation’s history.  May his words and example provide us with inspiration to defeat despair.

One year ago today:

Persistent prayer

No matter how close

Indian Running with Dog by Paul Manship Exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, July 2013

Indian Running with Dog by Paul Manship
Exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, July 2013

“No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration as is the relationship you have with a good dog.”Dean Koontz

Those of us who have adopted an animal will immediately connect with what Koontz is saying here.  Our non-human family members are sometimes the only ones we want to be near at the end of a tiring and discouraging day.   It’s not that we love them more than we love our spouse or children or friends.  It’s just that things are so much more simple with them.

The very things that make humans different from animals — verbal communication, abstract reasoning, ambition and a long view of the future or past — can also make them less than ideal company when we need nothing more than quiet companionship and unspoken but steady affection.  Being with an animal is like solitude, only better.   It has the best assets of privacy and seclusion, brightened by a touch of joy, understanding and fun.

People are wonderful and irreplaceable, but relationships can be terribly complicated at times.  When your life feels overwhelming, I wish you the simple therapy of spending some time with a friendly creature whose mere presence says all that needs to be said.

One year ago today:

I’ve tried

At the mere sight

Does this photo make you smile?  I hope so! I snapped it inside a bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, in June 2014.

Does this photo make you smile? I hope so!
I snapped it inside a bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, in June 2014.

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
Jane Smiley

I was quite a few years into adulthood before I realized that the mere presence of books was a comfort to me, even if I didn’t reach out and take one from the shelf.  This seemed a bit illogical at first.  I wondered whether it had to do with my early memories of my mother, a frugal woman with little money to spare in my preschool years, who nonetheless bought me a Little Golden Book on each trip to the grocery store.  Perhaps I equate books with love, I thought.

But that’s only part of the equation.  I have to factor in the human presence that I find in books; when I pick one up, I know I will be encountering at least one other person, and often many, who will dull the edge of loneliness I sometimes feel even among crowds. The voice of a book is almost invariably more personal and direct than a lot of what passes for conversation in casual gatherings.

And of course, there’s the matter of distraction from the woes of my immediate surroundings.  No matter what is troubling me, I know that a book will take me away for however long a time I choose to spend with it.  It may open my eyes to things I hadn’t noticed before, or my mind to ideas I’d never encountered.  It may introduce me to worlds so delightfully similar to my own that I feel an instant sense of belonging, or so astoundingly different that I am stunned by the novelty.

Books are more than books.  They are promises of discovery, consolation, excitement or enchantment.  They are, contrary to the stereotype of the solitary and introverted bookworm, one of the surest ways we have of getting outside ourselves and into a realm where we realize that we are not the center of the universe.

What to you see when you see a book?  How do you feel when you enter a roomful of them?

One year ago today:

What really knocks me out

Due gratitude and respect

I photographed this statue of Mercy Otis Warren at the Barnstable County Courthouse Cape Cod, Massachusetts, May 2009

I photographed this statue of Mercy Otis Warren at the Barnstable County Courthouse.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, May 2009

“Thus the hurry of spirits, that ever attends the eager pursuit of fortune and a passion for splendid enjoyment, leads to forgetfulness; and thus the inhabitants of America cease to look back with due gratitude and respect on the fortitude and virtue of their ancestors, who, through difficulties almost insurmountable, planted them in a happy soil.”Mercy Otis Warren

One year ago today, my post featured a favorite quote from Martha Washington.  Only recently did I discover that quote was taken from a personal letter she wrote to one of the women I most admire in American history, Mercy Otis Warren.

Those of us who are fond of history have a sort of private “honor roll” of well-known figures we admire, and among these, there are a few for whom we feel an instant, almost mystical affinity.  Mercy Otis Warren is such a person for me.

She has been called “perhaps the most formidable female intellectual in eighteenth-century America” and “mother of the Bill of Rights.”  This effusive praise may be a bit overblown, but it is beyond question that her influence was extraordinary for any female born into such a male-dominated society as existed in colonial America.  Wife, mother, sister, writer and patriot, she was a friend and confidante to many men and women whose names are far more widely known and recognized.

It’s always amusing to discover words that sound startlingly current despite being written hundreds of years ago.  I have to wonder at what sort of “hurry of spirits” could have been at play in a time when the fastest travel was by horseback, and distant communication was confined to written correspondence that might take months (or even years) to reach its destination.  Yet Warren expresses regret at the haste and forgetfulness that attends the pursuit of “splendid enjoyment.”  She pays tribute to the fortitude and virtue of ancestors whose lot in life was more difficult than her own, grateful for their role in planting her generation “in a happy soil.”

Perhaps this is one more indication that some things never change.  Always there are people who choose gratitude for present circumstances over despair at current difficulties; those who take bold action in uncertain times, rather than cower in fear of what lies ahead.

It’s wise to look at history from many angles, and not to see the past through the rose-colored glasses of uninformed admiration.  Still, I think we tend to underestimate the inspiring character of those who persevered to overcome obstacles that were removed from our paths long ago.  The human story is rich with lessons in courage, strength and triumph.  Spending time with these lessons is a great way to defeat despair.

One year ago today:

The greater part

Sought and found

Matt with just a few of the many fabulous staffers at Camp Baker, June 2014.

Matt with just a few of the many fabulous staffers at Camp Baker, June 2014.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Albert Schweitzer

Matt was so happy to be able to return to Camp Baker this year, after missing last year due to breaking his arm and needing surgery to fix it.  As soon as we drove up and got out of the car to register for camp, we were greeted with enthusiastic camp staffers.  “Matthew, you’re back!” and  “We missed you SO MUCH last year!” and  “We were so sad last year when we got the news you wouldn’t be coming because you broke your arm!”

It was heartwarming that these young people (most of whom come from England each summer to work at the camp) not only remembered Matt, but also were mindful of what he had been through in the past year.  I wish everyone who worries about young people nowadays could come to Camp Baker with us each year.  It’s a great way to feel optimistic about the future.  These staffers bear no resemblance to the sullen, gadget-addicted stereotypes one often sees portrayed in the media.

No matter what age a person is, I’ve found Schweitzer’s observation to be true.  The people I meet who are focused on loving and serving others are the happiest I know.  Those who are focused on their own problems, deficits and challenges are distracted, frustrated and unpleasant.  For the record, I fall into the latter category far more often than I wish I did.  The ones in the former group are my inspiration to keep looking upward and outward.

Next time you’re feeling sad and overwhelmed, or pessimistic about the state of the world, seek out places where people are busy with outreach to those who need them.  They aren’t hard to find.  Community groups, places of worship, schools, neighborhood associations and service organizations are full of volunteers for whom helping others is a labor of love.  If you spend some time with these folks — or better yet, join them — you will soon find what you are seeking.

When we serve, we usually are too busy to worry about our own happiness, but somehow it manages to sneak in the back door and prepare quite a feast to greet us when we return, tired and satisfied, from a day spent with others.   Whatever our destiny may be, the secret to real joy is surprisingly consistent.

One year ago today:

Sowing a seed

The ordinary things

Milne and Shepard are remembered at Ashdown Forest, where animals and children still play. Photo by David Brooker via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Milne and Shepard are remembered at Ashdown Forest, where animals and children still play.
Photo by David Brooker via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ]

“If I seem to write to write most happily about the ordinary things that boys do who live in the country it is because this is the part of my childhood that I look back upon with the greatest affection.”Christopher Milne

Look closely at the name of the person who wrote today’s quote.  I’ll give you a hint: his middle name was Robin.  Yesterday I quoted from Winnie the Pooh. Today I quote from the boy who loved the original “Edward Bear,” and inspired the timeless stories.

Christopher Robin Milne was not pleased with the fame imposed on him by his father’s literary success.  In fact, he was persecuted by his classmates at boarding school, who would taunt him with verses about him they took from Milne’s writing.  The probability that these bullying classmates were teasing him out of jealousy or envy did not lessen the sting.

The magical moments in Ashdown Forest that his father preserved for future generations to enjoy as the “Hundred Acre Wood” were to be Christopher Robin’s happiest times.  There is a lesson and a gift for all of us in this truth.  You may never become famous as a character in a beloved semi-imaginary world, but rest assured: there are moments in your most normal days that literally are the stuff that dreams are made of.

What ordinary things will you encounter today, that will be looked back upon “with the greatest affection?”

One year ago today:

Enter this wild wood

Photo by Nigel Freeman [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Nigel Freeman  via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ]

 

A moment just before

Just thinking about "hunny" makes Pooh happy! Disneyland, Anaheim, CA, April 2003

Just thinking about “hunny” makes Pooh happy! Disneyland, Anaheim, CA, April 2003

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”A.A. Milne

I can totally sympathize with Pooh here. I’ve always found Christmas Eve a bit better than Christmas morning, and planning for an exciting trip is at least half the fun of going.  While this preliminary excitement may set us up for anticlimax or disappointment with the actual event, it can also enhance our pleasure, extending special times by giving us an early start on the fun.

The joy of anticipation is strong evidence that mental imagery can exert as much or more power over our moods as our external circumstances do.  A number of studies suggest that visualization can improve athletic or competitive performance, and generating positive mental stimuli can improve mood and task response.

Of course, we don’t need to know all the scientific details to connect with what Pooh is thinking of here.  The most important thing to remember is that we can schedule happiness for ourselves, even in a day that holds no particular treat in store, by focusing on the things that make us happiest.

We all enjoy displays in museums and stores without needing to buy them or take them home.  We can enjoy the presence of a friend through reading or remembering a letter or a funny moment shared in the past.  In the same way, we tap into the happiness we feel when we see fresh flowers, take a sip of an ice-cold drink on a hot day, or relax in a hammock or easy chair when we feel tired, without actually doing any of those things, except in anticipation or memory.

Pooh didn’t know what to call this kind of bliss, and I don’t either.  But I agree with  him; it’s “what I like best.”  I hope that each day will bring you many moments of this unique felicity.

One year ago today:

It all depends

 

 

Where you’re meant to be

Only one doorway, but its beauty blesses all who see it. Mykonos, Greece, May 2008

Only one doorway, but its beauty blesses all who see it. Mykonos, Greece, May 2008

“A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”Daisaku Ikeda

“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”John Lennon

When I was a young person struggling to make sense of the concept of free will in a world that often left me feeling powerless, I asked my father to explain the seeming discrepancy between God’s foreknowledge and our own individual choices.  The entire discussion was too long to duplicate here (and involved some of Daddy’s tendency to illustrate abstract ideas with simple drawings on the back of envelopes or dinner napkins :D ) but the gist of it was this: no matter how we choose, God can use our choice to work for good.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, and those mistakes can cost dearly, in pain and sorrow for us or the people who suffer the consequences of our actions.  But no matter how many errors and bad decisions we make, we can never arrive at a place where there is not a best way out, no matter how dark it seems.  As long as we live, it is never too late to exercise our free will to go in the right direction.

Sadly, some people will make these choices, if at all, from jail cells or deathbeds.  Yet the choice does remain, up until the end of life, and even decisions that seem so delayed as to be inconsequential still can affect the future.  Nonetheless, it’s best for everyone if we make the right choices early, and often.

Wherever you are today, you are the only person in your exact circumstances; the only one with precisely the same group of acquaintances, influences, and sphere of potential actions.  You have more power than you imagine.  How will you choose to use it?

One year ago today:

For this I was born

 

Now that I am fifty

London at night, as seen while flying with my favorite storybook hero, Peter Pan. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, August 2003

London at night, as seen while flying with my favorite storybook hero, Peter Pan.
Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, August 2003

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”C. S. Lewis

All of my life people have told me that I looked or seemed much younger than I am.  While I started enjoying this after I was thirty or so, it was absolutely mortifying to hear it as a child, or even worse, as a teenager.  I loved turning 40, and 50 was even better, because I no longer felt threatened by being thought childish or immature.  Plus I can get my senior discount now without anyone questioning it!  In fact, they usually give it to me without my asking for it.

It was great to be a children’s librarian and read picture books without anyone thinking me odd.  But I recommend them to everyone, at any age.  I used to tell library visitors that the “E” on the spine stood for “everyone,” not “easy.”

Publishers of picture books know that their products must be as appealing to adults as they are to children, because they are designed to be read aloud by adults, and children are notorious for wanting to hear the same stories again and again.  This repetition builds early reading skills as toddlers learn to match the appearance of certain words with how they sound.  So everyone benefits if the adults enjoy the story enough to keep re-reading it.  (As Raynard would say, “I digress”).

However old you are, I hope you are at least old enough to value the youthful spirit inside you, and don’t feel the need to hide it.  As a wise person pointed out to me years ago, one can be childlike without being childish.

If you have lost touch with all that is wonderful about being a child, try spending some time with children and notice what they say, how they think and what they pay attention to.  Read aloud to them from a book you loved when you were young.  Or rent the Disney version of Mary Poppins and be refreshed by its timeless message.

Today I wish you freedom from the fear of being childish!

One year ago today:

Do not cease to play

The symbol of communication

This beautiful garden is in the historic district of Yorktown, Virginia.  May 2013

This beautiful garden is in the historic district of Yorktown, Virginia. May 2013

“Since Iris is the Greek goddess for the Messenger of Love, her sacred flower is considered the symbol of communication and messages.”
Hana no Monogatari

One year ago today I sent a special birthday wish to one of the most faithful readers of this blog.  You don’t see her name in the comments or hear much about her, because she is a private person who prefers (as many do) to communicate with me individually about the blog.  But she is one of the people I think of often as I write these posts, because her continual encouragement has meant a lot to me.

Last year I wrote about butterflies as a tribute to her, because I know she enjoys them.  This year I am posting a photo of irises, another gem of nature that she loves.  I hope they will be a beautiful “Happy Birthday” message of love to her!

What is your favorite flower?  Do you know the myths and stories about what it represents in the “language of flowers?”

One year ago today:

The perturbing mystery of metamorphosis

 

More power than will

Engineers said it couldn't be done, but that didn't stop Henry Ford. Photo by IFCAR, public doman via Wikimedia Commons

Engineers said it couldn’t be done, but that didn’t stop Henry Ford.
Photo by IFCAR, public doman via Wikimedia Commons

“We have more power than will; and it is often by way of excuse to ourselves that we fancy things are impossible.” – Francois VI, Duc De la Rochefoucauld

“I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”Henry Ford

“Ford decided to produce his now famous V-8 motor. He chose to build an engine with the entire eight cylinders cast in one block, and instructed his engineers to produce a design for the engine. The design was placed on paper, but the engineers agreed, to a man, that it was simply impossible to cast an eight-cylinder engine-block in one piece.  Ford replied,”Produce it anyway.”Napoleon Hill

Years ago, one of many doctors who evaluated Matt chose a dynamic assessment tool intended to measure not only what he was able to do, but what his potential for learning might be if given mediated instruction.  When she met to discus the results with us, she gave us some wise advice.  “Remove the word ‘can’t’ from your vocabulary and replace it with the phrase ‘has not yet learned to,’ especially when you are speaking where Matt can hear you.”

I think that’s good advice for almost any of us.  While there are things that are truly impossible for us, we are seldom asked or expected to do them. Far more often, we limit our own accomplishments by underestimating our capabilities, or being unwilling to do what it takes to surpass what we are currently able to achieve.  More than one historian has portrayed Ford’s legendary determination as sometimes crossing the line into ruthlessness.  Nevertheless, he changed history because of his refusal to believe conventional wisdom regarding what was possible.

It’s often hard to know where to focus our efforts for optimal results, but I agree with Rochefoucauld that we tend to excuse ourselves from doing what is difficult by using the word “can’t” instead of “won’t.”  Is there anything you need and want to do that you are dodging by saying “I can’t?”  Are there things you’d like to do that you haven’t tried, for fear of failure?

One year ago today:

Estimating our limits

Finished and complete

I photographed this yoked ox at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in October 2005,

I photographed this yoked ox at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in October 2005.

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Henry Beston

Years ago Daddy showed me this quote, and I liked it instantly.  It captures perfectly the mysterious appeal that draws so many animal lovers to all sorts of creatures.  We watch in fascination as each species moves in its own unique sphere, possessed of capabilities that enable survival and usefulness to the environment.

Anyone who watches National Geographic specials about animals soon learns that nature can be harsh and even cruel.  This is why Beston’s description of animals as “fellow prisoners” seems so apt.  Whether small and agile or large and mighty, each is subject to forces beyond its control, part of a large and magnificent living tapestry.

We may be captivated by their tremendous strength, exotic beauty or astonishing grace, but perhaps it is this common bond of earthly travail that binds us most to the animals.  I find it difficult to watch any creature for very long without feeling some degree of sympathy for it.   “Caught…in the net of life and time,” we are in good company, surrounded by more varieties of life than any human mind could imagine.  Today I hope you will enjoy sharing a few minutes of your attention with at least one or two of these delightful companions.

One year ago today:

The greatness of a nation

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