When everything is perfect

"Van der Neer - Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" by Aert van der Neer  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Aert van der Neer
Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Every summer there are a number of nights, not many, but a number, when everything is perfect. The light, the warmth, the smells, the mist, the birdsong – the moths. Who can sleep? Who wants to?”Fredrik Sjöberg

During summer, my tendency to be a night owl kicks into overdrive.  The longer daylight hours fool me into thinking it’s much earlier than it actually is, and the delights of summer make the prospect of going to sleep less tempting than it is during the colder, darker months.

I’ve often wondered why someone who loves to sleep as much as I do seems to have such trouble getting enough of it.  It’s not just because I’m a restless sleeper; it’s also because I’m eager to spend more time enjoying all the things there are in this world to enjoy.  I suppose this can be a form of greed at times, but it’s hard not to savor bliss when it is available, knowing how hard to come by it might be later.

Even if you’re an early-to-bed type, I hope you will be able to stay up and enjoy at least an hour or two of a perfect summer night.  According to online sources I checked, we have another full moon coming up on August 10.  Maybe you can schedule yourself a couple of hours for stargazing or just sitting outside after the temperatures have cooled.  Those of you south of the equator, check back here in about six months!  I wish you a starry, starry night full of enchantment!

One year ago today:

Our ordinary days

To be the caretaker

Life is short! How will you choose to spend it? Photo at left by Aaron Logan,  Creative Commons Attribution 2.5; Photo at right by mattbuck, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Life is short! How will you choose to spend it?
Photo at left by Aaron Logan, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5;
Photo at right by mattbuck, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

“Life is too short to be the caretaker of the wrong details.”Alexandra Stoddard

I don’t have too many regrets in life, but one thing I know for sure I’d do less of, if I had it to do over: FILING.  For years, I compulsively kept neatly tabbed file folders with everything from medical records, to school papers, to warranties for all sorts of major and minor purchases, to financial statements and paid bills. Even craft ideas and recipes were tucked away under appropriate subject headings.

Once in awhile I was able to find something I really needed, but most of the files were never touched, so I have to wonder about the value returned for time invested.  I don’t think our lives would have much worse without those files.  Now, decades later, I have spent time shredding much of what was in them.  It strikes me as a waste of hours that could have been better spent, and I’m so thankful for the advent of electronic records that can be located with a quick word search (assuming my computer doesn’t crash and destroy them all).

The older I get, the more I can see the difference between the details that are worth my time, and the ones that aren’t.  I am not arguing that we should be irresponsible.  I’m only saying that some of the biggest responsibilities are somehow harder to grasp and quantify; they can’t be neatly stacked in a “to-do” bin and filed away one piece at a time.

Over the years, whenever I’ve let the mundane household tasks go undone in favor of things that seemed more important and/or fun, I’ve been known to declare “On my death bed, I don’t want to be saying ‘Well, at least my house was always clean’ ” — to which Jeff always replies, “Don’t worry, no chance of that!”  :D

Do you ever have the feeling that you are taking care of the wrong details?  What urgent-seeming but ultimately unimportant tasks can you choose NOT to do today?  What would be better ways to spend that time?

One year ago today:

You will flow

 

Like poignant land mines

The sweet scent of these plumeria brought back happy Hawaiian memories. Barbados, March 2010

The sweet scent of these plumeria brought back happy Hawaiian memories.
Barbados, March 2010

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell…Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years.  Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once.  A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”Diane Ackerman

Tangerines smell like Christmas to me, just as onions sauteed in butter with sage smell like Thanksgiving.  A whiff of a cologne I wore only in my youth can bring back memories of people, incidents and even dresses I thought I had completely forgotten.  And is there anything more delicious than the smell of wood smoke from someone’s chimney that first crisp autumn night?

It’s not just the lovely smells we remember.  In the unlikely event I were ever near a “Skunk Tree” I would surely be flooded with sensations of being back in graduate school, with tests to study for and papers to write, as I had to stroll past that rare and pungent Sterculia foetida every day when I walked to class at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.  Yet the disagreeable odor would be bittersweet to me now, as my years at UH were full of happy times.

Of all our five senses, smell is perhaps the one we tend to notice the least, but our unconscious mind is keeping records for us.  Though we will never have the olfactory prowess of our animal friends, our brains can make some lightning-fast connections between what must be a complex calculus of factors that make each smell unique and identifiable even after many years without experiencing it.

Have you ever had a scent detonate an explosion of memories in the way Ackerman describes?  What smells evoke the most treasured memories for you?

One year ago today:

A vision that stays

What is left

Mike, Al and Don, before they swapped radio-controlled planes for bigger ones. Sometime in the early 1970's, somewhere in the Atlanta area.

Mike, Al and Don, before they swapped radio-controlled planes for bigger ones.
Sometime in the early 1970’s, somewhere in the Atlanta area.

“A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.”Edward de Bono

I’ve written very little here about my younger brother Al.  I guess there are a lot of reasons why.  As he is my only younger sibling, I’ve always felt a stronger need to protect him, however illogical that impulse has been.  Al’s life has been difficult, for him and for those who love him.  But in our teenage years, I never would have dreamed it.

Tall, athletic, talented, good-looking and witty, Al seemed to have everything going for him.  People used to say he had the world by the tail.  I never knew anyone with a brighter future ahead of him than Al appeared to have in his youth, and looking back at those days, I cannot laugh over the happy memories without feeling at least a trace of sadness.

Al was only five when he and my older brother were injured in the car crash that nearly killed my mother and sister, and it surely must have traumatized him as much or more than it did the rest of us.  For all of his studied bravado as a young man, I now realize that much more must have been going on inside him.  It’s ironic that it was a drunken driver who hit my family’s car and left lasting scars on us all, most of which cannot be seen with the eyes.

In recent years, I’m happy to say, Al has been doing well, and has been an invaluable help and companion to our aging parents. Maybe that’s why I can finally talk about him and the huge role he played in my childhood and young adulthood, without being overcome by sorrow.  He was the sibling closest to me in age, and when our older brother and sister left home, Al and I ended up spending a good bit of time together.  While there were all the usual squabbles, there also was a lot of joy as we shared music, jokes and serious conversations.

I couldn’t talk about Al without talking about his lifelong friend Don.  Long before Wayne and Garth, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, there was a zany planet inhabited by Al and Don, where they spoke their own hip (though esoteric) language, and kept me in stitches with their hilarious parodies of everything imaginable. During a time in my life that was full of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, I could always count on Al and Don to make me laugh no matter what else was going on. Though they have seen each other relatively seldom in adulthood, Don’s friendship, which has remained steadfast and unconditional, has been a point of stability in Al’s life, and I will always be grateful for that.

I’m also grateful for Al’s wonderful sons, and many other gifts that remain with him, as my siblings and I grow ever-closer to what is known as “old age.”  Al can still make me laugh until I cry, and while our adult years may have held more tears than laughter, de Bono is right about all of those youthful fun times.  They will never unhappen, and the memories are a blessing.

What memories will never unhappen for you?  What lovely mental snapshots do you linger over when you turn through the pages of the scrapbook in your imagination?

One year ago today:

Carry your childhood with you

What we must give

There are all sorts of ways to give the gift of attention.  Photos taken 1996-2014

There are all sorts of ways to give the gift of attention.
Photos taken 1996-2014

“Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”  — Marge Piercy

When I first created my little garret retreat ten years ago, I papered the unfinished walls with images and words that meant something to me.  One of the first things to go on that wall was this verse from Piercy.

Attention, it seems, is one of the most endangered gifts in today’s world.  When I read Piercy’s assertion that “attention is love,” it had the ring of truth.  Why else do we all crave attention, in one form or another, and go to such lengths, in such a variety of ways, to obtain it?

I’d like to be wise enough to see my attention as the finite resource that it is, and guard closely how it is spent.  Yet it seems so easy to squander, like a dripping faucet that will quietly waste untold gallons if left to itself.   What I fritter mindlessly away, someone else needs.  Their need for someone’s attention — possibly my attention —  may even be crucial.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t feel they have much to give others.  Sometimes when we feel helpless in the face of suffering or sadness, we say “I wish I knew what to do.”  Perhaps one place to start is by offering the gift of attention, through a few kinds words, a note, a prayer, or a visit.

As Piercy’s words suggest, attention is a starting point, not a destination.  But every good thing that happens has a beginning, and often, it begins with someone noticing what others were too busy to see.

What can you bless today?  What needs your touch to make it new?  Pay attention. Then pick  up a tool.

One year ago today:

Pay attention

Why we travel

The forecast was off, but only the camera noticed.  London, August 2005

The forecast was off, but only the camera noticed. London, August 2005

“Travel tends to make us hyper-aware of details…when we are away from the distractions of our lives, we come awake to the small moments. That’s why we travel, and why we take pictures. The trick is to bring that hyper-awareness home with you, and keep it alive.”  George Lange

Until I read this quote from Lange, I had never thought about it, but I think he’s right.  When I’m traveling in a place that is unfamiliar, I tend to see far more than I do during everyday life.  It’s a bit like when you put that photo or note on your refrigerator door, and after awhile you tend to stop seeing it, simply because your eyes grow too accustomed to the sameness.

For me, using my camera daily (or nearly so) is one way to bring that hyper-awareness home.  The lens can frame a scene and shut out competing distractions.  Especially with the long telephotos that are increasingly common even in inexpensive cameras, we can “zoom in” and see things we might otherwise miss.

You don’t have to have a camera, of course.  To see your world in a new way, try being hyper-aware of the details.  Remember the game “I Spy?”  See what you can spy in your world, and report back to us.  Did you notice anything you had forgotten about, or maybe never knew was there?

One year ago today:

A full expression

Our conscious choice

Whoever tended this garden brightened my day, and probably their own, too. Mission San Juan Capistrano, California, July 2004

Whoever tended this garden made a choice that brightened the day for me and many others.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, California, July 2004

“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we shall tend.”
Sarah Ban Breathnach

Every day I wake up with a mixture of thoughts, some pleasant and some not.  There are always things I look forward to doing that day, and things I dread.  It’s much easier to get up and go about my day cheerfully — or at least without complaining to myself — when I focus on the good things.  Ruminating over unhappy thoughts does not start my day well.  Every day, I get to choose which way I start out.

I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to learn this simple lesson, but it is.

How did you feel when you woke up this morning?  Were you grateful to have been granted another day?  Or did you get up with a sigh (as I do, too often) thinking of all the tasks still undone that were awaiting you?

Here’s a challenge: let’s tend our mental gardens, those secret places where we spend time when no one is looking.  If we don’t make sure to water the flowers and pull up the weeds, it’s likely to become a place that isn’t so cheerful.

So take care of the garden of your mind — where Mr. Rogers reminds us that we can grow all kinds of ideas — and let me know what’s looking good today!  Maybe we can even send each other some virtual seeds.

One year ago today:

Hope is at the root

 

Imagine a time

Pick yourself a porch, sit a spell and pour a cup of coffee or tea. Welcome to Club Verandah!

Pick yourself a porch, bring your favorite friends, sit a spell and pour a cup of coffee or tea.
Welcome to Club Verandah!

“…I like to close my eyes and imagine a time when life was simpler. I like to think about a time when no one would choose text messaging over good, live conversation. I think about sweet tea or perhaps an after dinner cup of coffee enjoyed in time to the rocking of an old cane chair. Children play in the front yard imagining themselves a ship captain or the Lone Ranger out on the mesa.”
Andrew Odom

If y’all read the comments, you know that Sheila and I have started an imaginary association called CLUB VERANDAH.  You don’t have to be southern to join, although you’ll meet lots of us here who speak with that unmistakable drawl that goes so well with porch-sitting.

All you have to do to join, is travel in your imagination to a time you remember in the past, or hope for in the future, when you can sit in a rocking chair among congenial people and enjoy sipping your beverage of choice (for me it’s tea, iced or hot) while chatting about things that tend to lower the blood pressure and bring on the smiles.

As the darkness falls, you’ll see some fireflies lighting up the night and you’ll hear the laughter of the kids playing hide and seek, or Red Rover, or some other game you remember playing long ago.  If you tell them it’s time to go home, they’ll beg for just a few more minutes to play, and you’ll agree.

There’s a pitcher of icy lemonade over there on the side table, and plenty of herbal tea and fruit juice in the kitchen.  I think I saw some freshly-baked cookies in there too, and there’s sliced watermelon in the icebox — I mean, the fridge — along with a Key Lime pie made with the juice Maybelle brought back for me from Key West yesterday.

Y’all feel free to stay as long as you want.  We’ll leave the light on for you.

One year ago today:

An enchanted hour

The enemy of the people

This ginormous eraser is a great reminder that mistakes don't mean failure. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, June 2014

This giant eraser is a great reminder that mistakes don’t have to mean failure.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, June 2014

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…”Anne Lamott

“I make mistakes; I’ll be the second to admit it.”Jean Kerr

Because I’ve known so many world-class perfectionists, it took me longer than it should have to realize I am one myself.  I was somehow confused by the fact that I have so many obvious deficits.  I couldn’t imagine that a person so admittedly clumsy and hopeless at sports, with so many bad hair days and nervous habits, could possibly be a perfectionist for very long without totally freaking out.

But as anyone who looks closely at perfectionism knows, it has nothing whatsoever to do with perfection, and everything to do with anxiety.  And one can be a perfectionist in some areas while comfortably lethargic in others.  Even when it’s fairly contained and limited, I agree with Lamott that perfectionism is an ingredient in a lot of disasters, especially when it comes to relationships.

Perfectionism is an insidious tendency, because it can masquerade as so many good and desirable traits: competence, diligence, high standards, ambition, self-esteem and excellence.  But it’s really about none of those things.  Instead, it ends up feeding traits such as self-hatred, envy, jealousy, snobbery, disdain, despair, cynicism, scorn, cruelty and maybe even violence.

For me, accepting that mistakes and missteps are sometimes inevitable, no matter how hard I try, has enabled me to be less fearful of the condemnation of others.  It has also undermined the low self esteem that paradoxically causes me to look down on others in a desperate attempt to feel better about myself.

Accepting my own imperfection opens my heart up to others who, like me, don’t always live up to their own good intentions.  It helps me feel a bond with them, a kinship that comes of being human and therefore subject to lots of errors.  You don’t have to condone the faults to look past them, in yourself or in anyone else.

Life is so much happier when I start out liking each person I come in contact with.  If somebody gives me good reason to feel otherwise, I certainly will.  But to a great extent, I’ve found that we can see what we are willing to see, and forgive what we are willing to forgive.  When we look for common ground, we can almost always find it, and it doesn’t have to mean compromising any of our values.  I really believe that.

Have you been sending yourself silent thoughts of criticism today?  If so, talk back to them.  Not by saying “so what?” or “nobody’s perfect” or “I don’t care.” But maybe try saying “This problem is not bigger than I am” or “I’m going to keep trying anyway” or “Little by little, I will get there” or “Thank God I don’t have to get every detail just right to do something well.”

Pay no attention to The Enemy of the People!  Especially not when you’re looking in the mirror.  You don’t have to be perfect to be better.  You know you can be all that you need to be.  You really can.

One year ago today:

Everyone belongs

 

 

In the yard

Drew and Kevin make the most of a beautiful July evening. O'Fallon, Illinois, 2004

Drew and Kevin make the most of a beautiful August evening in O’Fallon, Illinois, 2004

“My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’ “Harmon Killebrew

This is a perfect time of year for this quote.  The All-Star break is coming up, and many lawns in warmer regions are getting a bit of heat fatigue.  A lot of parents may be out in the yard playing fungo or catch with their kids who are aspiring athletes.  Now that the spring enthusiasm for having a nice-looking lawn has died down somewhat, maybe we can worry a bit less about tearing up the grass.

But no matter what time of year it is, I think Killebrew’s quote is worth taking to heart for all of us, even if we have no children living at home.  It’s great to garden and work outside, but if it becomes more important than letting people and pets enjoy our yard, it’s time to adjust priorities.

This year, I hope to convince Jeff that it’s just as important to spend time outside sipping tea and relaxing, as it is to mow the grass and edge the lawn and trim the shrubbery.  He simply doesn’t love sitting in a swing and reading as much as I do, but I’d like to have his company out there sometimes.  So I’m going to try to convince him to bring his Kiplinger magazine outside and sit with me some cool evenings before the weather turns cold again.

Killebrew probably grew up seeing the yard as a playing field, a place to have fun. That attitude apparently served him well.  I’m afraid Jeff sees our lawn mostly as something to take care of.  For me, it’s mostly something to sit and enjoy (although I admit that enjoyment is made possible by Jeff’s diligent custodial attitude).  Somewhere between Jeff’s conscientious care-taking and my lazy recreational temperament, there must be a happy medium.

How do you see your lawn and/or garden– as a chore, or a place to enjoy?  Do you spend as much time relaxing outdoors as you do working?  This week or sometime soon, if you are blessed with a cool evening, I hope you will make time to enjoy your home from the outside.

One year ago today:

You wouldn’t be ashamed

 

Constantly and visibly

These beautiful lillies are part of a reading garden at the public library.   Poquoson, Virginia, 2014

These beautiful lilies are part of a reading garden at the public library.
Poquoson, Virginia, June 2014

“Life, now, was unfolding before me, constantly and visibly, like the flowers of summer that drop fanlike petals on eternal soil.”Roman Payne

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m less than three years from 60, or because of all the life-and-death issues my family has faced in the past 18 months, but I feel as if my awareness of life’s paradoxically vast brevity is more focused.  I’m astounded by how much goes on, and how quickly it all goes!  It amazes me that so much life can be packed into such short lifespans, for each of us, no matter how long we live.

People in my age group are in an enviable position today.  Many of us have enjoyed the privilege of close relationships with people two generations older than us, and now two generations younger than us, plus all those ages and stages that lie in between.  It’s an excellent vantage point from which to take in the panorama of life.

When I walk outside in the spring and summer, I am enchanted by the flowers.  My appreciation of their beauty is sharpened by knowing that even the hardiest of them won’t be there very long.  That’s how I feel about life right now.  Incredibly beautiful, so full and so brief.

One year ago today:

In a garden

 

 

I travel somewhat differently

Jeff enjoys an evening stroll in Charlottesville, Virginia, July 2014

Jeff enjoys an evening stroll in Charlottesville, Virginia, July 2014

“Some people walk with both eyes focused on their goal: the highest mountain peak in the range, the fifty-mile marker, the finish line. They stay motivated by anticipating the end of the journey. Since I tend to be easily distracted, I travel somewhat differently–one step at a time, with many pauses in between.”Hannah Nyala

Jeff is definitely in the former group, which explains why he prefers to skip walking altogether if a car is available.  In contrast, I am definitely in the latter group, and were I to take a walk with a team of like-minded people, I probably would drive even them crazy with my frequent stops, especially if I had my camera with me.

It doesn’t really matter where I’m walking.  I find much to absorb my attention whether I’m in a wooded setting, a country road or a city street.  Oddly, listening to book on tape actually helps me keep moving, since it travels with me and gives me mobile competition for attention to keep my eyes from wandering.  Otherwise I might never finish the first mile, let alone the 2-4 miles I tend to walk each day.

Which type of walker are you?  Do you stay focused on the destination, or is the journey the real objective?  If you are a goal-minded traveler, I wish you speedy and uninterrupted progress to your destinations whenever you travel.  If you are like me, and find the world full of interesting detours,  I wish you abundant colorful discoveries every day, and the time to enjoy them.  Have fun — and send photos!

One year ago today:

Walk and be happy

Museums, formed from the heart

A moment frozen in time at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, June 2014

A moment frozen in time at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, June 2014

“In poetically well built museums, formed from the heart’s compulsions, we are consoled not by finding in them old objects that we love, but by losing all sense of Time.”Orhan Pamuk

On a recent day while Matt was at camp, Jeff took a day off from work and we went to the National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian.  Since we intended to spend the day, we thought we might be able to work in a quick trip to the Freer and Sackler galleries as well.  I had forgotten how magnificently endless the National Gallery feels when one is inside.

Daddy recently sent me an interesting article about the Wyeth exhibit, which I was anxious to see, and there was a special exhibit about Degas and Cassatt, along with a celebration of new acquisitions from the works of Van Gogh.  So I knew we would be there awhile, but I had not recalled the enormity of the permanent collection, and the sheer beauty of the building itself.

We did not even make it to the newer East Building of the National Gallery, let alone to the Freer or Sackler.  In fact, we could have spent hours more in the main building where we started.  Pamuk is right when he says we lose all sense of time at a museum, and that can be a great consolation, especially when the past months have found us frequently engulfed in pain or sorrow.

If you are within driving distance of a good art museum, or plan to be near one during your upcoming travels, you might enjoy making time to visit there for at least a couple of hours.  Even if you’re like Jeff and me, and have no particular knowledge of art, you are sure to enjoy the feeling of losing yourself in a place where beauty and universal significance are celebrated.

“Poetically well built” is an excellent description for almost all of the art museums I’ve ever been in, so you might begin feeling rejuvenated even before you glimpse the first painting.  As you visit a museum or gallery, I wish you the singular consolation Pamuk describes.  In a museum, we are reminded of so much that unites us at heart, despite the differences that separate us.

One year ago today:

Stand quietly before them

Compensating

Grady thinks his PaPa is a barrel of fun!  March 2014

Grady and his PaPa always have a barrel of fun! March 2014

“Grandchildren are God’s way of compensating us for growing old.”Mary H. Waldrip

It seemed rather cruel to me that we learned we would be grandparents at about the same time we learned of Jeff’s devastating diagnosis.  We prayed for this moment, hoped for it, dreamed of it.  We are so thankful that it did arrive.  Thanks for being with us on the journey from then until now.

I hope you have memories of such moments, as a grandparent, as a grandchild, or both!  If so, enjoy some thoughts of them today.

One year ago today:

To become a grandparent

A kind of artist

A summer day in the gardens at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, June 2014

A summer day in the gardens at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, June 2014

“We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.”Wendell Berry

History tells us much about the wide-ranging though conflicted brilliance of Thomas Jefferson.  Aside from his celebrated love of books, farming may have been his greatest passion. He and his trusted gardener Wormley Hughes left a legacy of agricultural artistry at Monticello that still can be seen and felt today.

The five thousand acres of Monticello were home to an entire community of free and enslaved workers, and his gardens were “a kind of laboratory where Jefferson experimented with 330 varieties of more than seventy species of vegetables from around the world.”  Jefferson’s analytical skills and compulsive record-keeping documented years of success, failure and persistence that yielded food for the tables at Monticello and inspiration for generations of family farms and gardens.

Perhaps the unusually long life span of Jefferson and many of his enslaved collaborators are a testament to the benefits of a locally grown plant-based diet.  Most of the individuals we think of as “founding fathers” were also farmers, and probably we have as much to learn from their agrarian achievements as we have from their political deeds.

Whether or not you have space for a home vegetable garden, I encourage you to learn more about locally grown food.  The widespread rediscovery of family farms and gardens may ameliorate much of the emotional, environmental and physical damage done by our over-processed, mass-produced food supply that has largely separated us from the contact with nature that is healing on many different levels .

I’ve seen (and tasted) the benefits of home gardening, and I’m convinced Berry is right about the importance of small local farms to the overall good of society.  Like so many other urban and suburban people who get their fruits and veggies from the supermarket, I have a long way to go in putting this philosophy into practice, but I hope you will join me in moving in that direction.  Maybe we can start by planning a visit to an orchard or garden where we can pick our own food and experience firsthand the connection between its source and our table.

Do you grow anything edible?  If so, do you agree that there are benefits that go beyond the superior taste of home-grown food?  Feel free to inspire us with your experiences and advice!

 

One year ago today:

Designed by nature

 

The meaning of immortality

Scenes such as this put our troubles into perspective.  Bavaria, Germany, August 2005

Scenes such as this put our troubles into perspective. Bavaria, Germany, August 2005

“The wise understand the meaning of immortality, and do not seek the never-changing in the transient.”Upanishads

No small part of my sorrow in life comes from my abiding difficulty in accepting that nothing on this earth will last forever.  This reluctance to let go encompasses the entire spectrum of my life, from a treasured trinket to a useful appliance to more expensive investments such as houses and cars, and ultimately on to intangible blessings such as relationships with animals and other people, as individuals (such as friends and loved ones) and as groups (such as church congregations, schools, and neighborhoods or community circles).

I think this longing for something that lasts, even when we look for it in all the wrong places, is one of the surest evidences we have of immortality.  Descartes, among others, asserted that a finite being could not, on its own, conceive of an infinite one.  (See item 2 under the summary section on Meditation III).  As much as humans tend to crave novelty, we also seek endlessly for that which is unchanging and reliable.  So in one sense, it’s logical that we want unlimited warranties for our material goods, and undying commitment from the people in our lives.

Growing up in a family that embraced Christianity as the source of eternal truth, I have been taught from my earliest memory that eternity is real, and what we think of as our earthly lives are only a relatively small piece of the overall picture, however central a role these perceptions play in our everyday existence.  Why, then, do I have so much trouble throwing away a magazine I have not read, or a memento of a long-ago vacation?  This may sound like the ultimate leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I know some of you will understand.  :D

I think I need to repeat this quote from Upanishads as a sort of mantra next time I undertake another of my seemingly unlimited series of efforts to clear out my belongings and bring order to my home  — or to my mind.  Fortunately, there are some handy symbols of eternity to which I can cling in my anxiety over loss.  The sky, the mountains, the seas, and even the reliable life cycles of nature all hint of the reality that life is everlasting.  These beautiful visual aids put my Goodwill donations and full recycling bins into perspective, don’t they?

Today, when you find yourself stressed, frustrated or annoyed, try asking yourself the ultimate question.  It’s not “Will this matter in 100 years?” though that is indeed a worthwhile inquiry.  But how much more powerful is the question “Is this a matter of eternal significance?” Relatively few of our troubles will merit a “yes” to that question, but for the few that do, that’s a clear indication we need to go straight to the source, so to speak, and leave the matter in the hands of God.  Easy to say, hard to do.  But infinitely comforting.

One year ago today:

Connected to something bigger

A curious fact

I can relate to this guy's hours, can't you?  From Wikimedia Commons

I can relate to this guy’s hours, can’t you? From Wikimedia Commons

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”Oscar Wilde

When I think of the celebrities who annoy me most, I almost always think of the ones who appear to take themselves too seriously, as if they were the center of the universe, or had some sort of exclusive key to wisdom and significance.  I won’t get tacky and list names, but I’m sure you can think of a few of these types yourself.

On the other hand, I find it hard not to like someone who is laughing.  Even actors or politicians or pundits who don’t usually appeal to me at all become instantly charming when they are laughing, especially if they are laughing at themselves.

Laughter that is without meanness or hostility is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and each other.  Best of all, it’s free and fairly easy to come by.  If you don’t believe me, just watch these videos.  No matter how many times I watch them, I literally cannot get through them without laughing myself, because this kind of uncontrolled hysteria is very contagious.

Give one (or all) of these a try, and let me know: did you laugh too?  And if so, didn’t you feel a bit happier afterwards?  I hope so!

One year ago today:

When I am laughing

For almost everything

You can find creative new uses for almost anything online!  Even if you plan to donate the old rather than design the new, it's great inspiration.

You can find creative new uses for almost anything online!
Even if you plan to donate the old rather than design the new, it’s great inspiration.

“There is a use for almost everything.”George Washington Carver

“A great master can find a use for everything…he is good at salvage. He wastes nothing; therefore, he always has enough. He values everyone; therefore everyone values him.”Chris Prentiss

One year ago today I wrote about my problems with clutter, and having way too much stuff, as well as my determination to clean up and clear out. Since then I’ve had some success, though I still have a long way to go.  A large part of the battle has been trying to figure out why I ended up with the stuff in the first place, and how to change the thought patterns that result in continual accumulation.

I think a lot of us have a fear of wasting resources, and an aversion to tossing out what is still useable.  This is not a bad trait, especially with landfills overflowing and budgets stretched to the limit.  While I keep reminding myself it’s actually just as wasteful to keep and store more than I can ever use, I admire those who are able to transform something unwanted into a new and needed object.

Repurposing is one of the most practical forms of creativity we can develop.  And it’s more popular than ever, with online tips and ideas so numerous that it would be impossible to explore all of them.  The next time you find yourself undecided about whether to throw something out, try doing a Google or Pinterest search  with the words “repurpose” and a description of the object you are reluctant to trash.  You might be amazed at some of the ingenious uses for everything from small utensils to large pieces of furniture.

If you can’t find an idea for upcycling whatever you vaguely dread wasting, you can throw it out in good conscience.  Believe me, if anything could be done with it, someone would have discovered it, created it, and posted it online.  Give yourself points for effort, and pitch it.

If you do find lots of ideas for it, here’s where you have to exercise wisdom and willpower.  Will you actually make and use this new creation anytime soon?  If so, go for it! If not, your time online still has not been wasted.  You’re in the best position of all; you can donate the item knowing others can find a use for it, with the immediate reward of a cleaner, more spacious drawer, closet or room.

Have you found any clever ways to re-use something broken or unneeded? If so, we’d love to have you share them with us.  Meanwhile, spend a few minutes online marveling at all the ways people can get clever with their clutter. Transforming trash to treasure is a great hobby to enjoy, whether as an observer or a creator, and you might pick up some inspiration for a project of your own.

One year ago today:

A physical manifestation

 

Flowers that fly

Peacock butterfly (inachis io) by Charlesjsharp  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Peacock butterfly (inachis io) by Charlesjsharp (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“But these are flowers that fly and all but sing…”Robert Frost

Of all the symbols of summer, perhaps butterflies come the closest to capturing the season.  The brevity of their time here, coupled with their freedom of movement and dazzling visual appeal, seem well matched to the warmer months when we tend to see them most often.

I agree with Frost that the butterflies appear so carefree and joyous as to seem ready to burst into song.  But I think silence is part of their mystique.  They appear as light as petals in the wind, and make no more noise than flowers do.  It’s rare to see anything that moves so rapidly yet soundlessly, flitting nimbly around in endlessly varying flight patterns.

Watching a butterfly can be mesmerizing, almost a form of meditation in itself.  Grace, silence, agility, energy, beauty…all admirable traits I’d like to have more of.  Maybe if I watch enough of them, I can soak up some of these characteristics by osmosis.  In any case, I appreciate their charms and look forward to seeing lots of them before the cold overtakes us again.  I hope you will too!

One year ago today:

Graceful, varied and enchanting

 

No faster or firmer friendships

Amy and me with a teeny-tiny section of her family's BOOKS!  February 2012

Amy and me with a teeny-tiny section of her family’s BOOKS! February 2012

“There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”Irving Stone

OK, think of how to describe the friend of your dreams.  The best friend you can imagine.

First, and this is a big one – someone who lives close enough that you can get to her home in less than an hour (in good traffic).  Hmmmm, that leaves almost all of my friends out.  Well, we’re just imagining right now, so we can come up with anything we want.  That one is not a requirement for being a friend, but in an ideal fantasy world, it counts.

OK, next, someone who has the same value system as you do, and understands your life’s priorities.  Someone who is there the minute you need her.  Someone who totally gets it when life is horrible and you just need to cry.  Someone who doesn’t expect perfection and knows how to laugh often and heartily.  Someone who loves to travel and is fun to be with when it’s time to go places.

So far, so good.  Now let’s add some icing on that cake.  Someone who has a super cool animal living at her home — and for me, extra points if it’s a dog.  Someone who has lots of tea and likes to chat over a cup.  Or two.  Or three.  Someone with lots of ice cream…no, make that an ice cream parlor! In her basement! With toppings and everything! (Hey, this is a fantasy, remember?)

And here’s a really big one: someone who LOVES BOOKS, all kinds of books, including some of the same ones you love!

Wait a minute…I just described my real-life friend Amy!  So some dreams come true, and not everything in my life is difficult right now.  If some of you are wondering how we manage to keep going through all that has happened recently, now you know one reason why we can.

Not every friend will fill all these qualifications, but most of us have some very dear friends with whom we share at least a few of them.  Aren’t you glad?  Whoever came to your mind when you read this, send her (or him) a quick note to say “thanks.”  While you are at it, find out if there are any good books you can talk about together.   Ice cream optional!

One year ago today:

The best kind of friend

The task of the educator

We should have known he'd pull something.  Grady, just minutes before his Houdini-like escape, Virginia Beach, June 2014

We should have known he was about to pull something.
Grady, just minutes before his Houdini-like escape, Virginia Beach, June 2014

“The first idea that the child must acquire, in order to be actively disciplined, is that of the difference between good and evil; and the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confuse good with immobility and evil with activity…”
Maria Montessouri

Any adult who interacts with a young child is an educator, whether or not we realize it.  Since children tend to be active, uninhibited and curious, we often end up saying mostly “no” or “stop that” or “don’t do that.” There’s nothing wrong with helping a child learn what is unacceptable or dangerous.  But Montessouri wisely points out that there is a hidden risk to such council.  We don’t want to unintentionally encourage the child to be passive or to fear action.

Though my parents were not overprotective, I was a nervous child as far back as I can remember.  My own hypervigilance created a self-imposed inhibition on my activities as far back as I can remember. This may be why I became such a bookworm (not a bad thing), but it also may explain why I was reluctant to venture farther than my own comfortable world until I was in my late teens.

When our children were infants, Jeff and I felt our shared tendency toward anxiety kick into overdrive, and I’m afraid we were a bit too restrictive of their early attempts at activity.  It’s an easy mistake to make, when your baby starts crawling at four months and promptly gets into the bathroom cabinet and drinks a bottle of perfume (as Drew did) or shows absolutely no fear of the ocean, and runs into sweeping waves before anyone can catch him (as Matt did).  Nothing like a couple of close calls to set the mental alarm systems on permanent “high alert” status.  But that may have made life less enjoyable for all of us than it could have been.

I’m happy to say that our grandson’s parents don’t seem to be making this mistake.  As a grandmother, I’m a bit more laid back and philosophical about what babies do, so I’ve been delighted to see that Drew and Megan don’t freak out when Grady crawls around on less-than-pristine surfaces, or puts “dirty” (not sterilized) objects into his mouth, or plays with objects not manufactured by Fisher-Price or approved by some pediatrician with an official-looking seal.

It’s true that Grady gets the occasional “ding” in the form of a little bruise on his forehead, or a similar badge of exploration. But he’s probably at least as safe, if not safer, than my children were.  And I think he’s having as much fun.  In fact, I think he may be having even more fun!  Besides, even being very cautious is no guarantee of safety.

For example: Grady recently gave Megan and me panic attacks while we were shopping for groceries, when he somehow escaped his snugly-fastened seat belt and stood up in the grocery cart seat during the sixty seconds our backs were turned while we read baby food labels.  Thank goodness we saw him standing there before he fell out.  His fastened seat belt lay around his ankles, but how he got out of it we will never know. Parents, be aware that grocery cart seat belts are not escape-proof!

I’m not advising people to stop saying “no” to children.  I am advising an awareness of all the safe and reasonable ways to say “yes” or “try this instead” or “UH-OH! Need some help with that?” Admittedly, this takes more time and close attention than simply saying “stop that.” But it’s time well invested.

Even as an adult, I tend to err on the side of caution. It has taken me years to realize that inaction can be as costly — indeed, more costly — than taking a calculated risk now and then.

If you have active, busy children, grandchildren or neighbors in your life, enjoy them!  Don’t hesitate to help them learn behaviors that are safe, considerate AND actively curious.  If you’re like me, you’ll find there is a lot of truth to the old saying that children keep us young.

For a demonstration, I invite you to enjoy one of our recent Grady videos, which puts a smile on my face every time I watch it.  Or just have a few quiet chuckles at the Silly Old Grandmother and her home movies, and take a pass.  No one will ever know.  :D   An early Happy Birthday wish to Grady AND his Mom, Megan, both born in July!

One year ago today:

A big journey

That’s why I recommend it

I photographed Alfred Stevens' Le Bain at the Louvre in August 2005. (Artwork is in the common domain.)

I photographed Alfred Stevens’ “Le Bain” at the Louvre in August 2005.
(Artwork is in the common domain.)

“People often tell me that motivation doesn’t last, and I tell them that bathing doesn’t either.  That’s why I recommend it daily.”Zig Ziglar

I hope it’s obvious why I like this quote.  As I’ve often said, this blog is my own way of forcing myself to focus on the positive things and be grateful for blessings that are always there even in times of great sorrow.  But I could do that in a private journal; why a blog?

For the answer to that question, just read the comments; it’s YOU!  Through blogging I have “met” more people all over the world than I ever dreamed possible, and have been the happy recipient of so many kind words, deep thoughts, interesting exchanges and pure fun.  As with so many valuable experiences, motivation is always more powerful when shared.

In sharing my thoughts and photos, I hope to help others and I always feel happy when someone tells me a post has been beneficial for them.  But one thing is certain; I have gotten back far more than I have given.

So thanks for being here, and being part of my day!  I hope you will find some motivation here, but if not, I just know you can find it elsewhere in the blogosphere, where optimism, big hearts, and sympathetic understanding are available in abundance.  And if you don’t care for blogging, just visit with a friend in person.  People make life worthwhile, and taking a few minutes to check in with people we care about can lift our own spirits as well as theirs.

Motivation is easy to find if you look for it.  And I recommend looking for it daily!

One year ago today:

Unless we share

More enjoyable

Cameron + Whitney + Momba + Matt = INSTANT PARTY! Fairfield, California, August 2003

Cameron + Whitney + Momba + Matt = INSTANT PARTY! (Momba + anyone = instant party)
Fairfield, California, August 2003

“You seldom come across anything more enjoyable than a happy person.”
Frank A. Clark

When I told Jeff I wanted to use this quote in a post, I asked him if he could think of any photos that would go with it.  He immediately responded, “Have you got one of Momba?”

“Yes, I have a whole bunch of photos of Momba — and actually, I have been intending to feature one of her for a long time.”  Well, that was easy!

“Momba” is the affectionate nickname the kids at our church in California called our friend Mary Ann.  Those who read the blog comments regularly have seen her sunny, generous and supportive contributions here often.  You may recall that she is the one who explained to me what a “street machine” is.  Yes, this grandmother is a biker — no wonder she enjoys life!

But Mary Ann is so much more. She’s a woman of great faith who always finds the positive side of any situation.  It’s no wonder Jeff thought of her first when I read the quote about “happy,” even though we have not seen her in nearly ten years!

I’m sure there are people you know who come to mind when you read this quote.  Chances are, you may be smiling just thinking about them.  See how much a happy person blesses the world?

I wish I could claim to be such a person, but I’m afraid “happy” is not the first word that comes to people’s minds when they think of me.  Still, I appreciate happiness in others, and I try to imitate them.  I want to smile as much as I am able, particularly when I see someone who obviously needs to see a smiling face.

As with other virtues, happiness is really more a decision than an emotion.  It’s almost like a habit, one I want to cultivate.  One of the best ways to do it is to surround myself with people who understand that life is a blessing, and joy is there for the taking if we know how to find it. I’m grateful to know people like Mary Ann, and I wish you many such people in your life!

One year ago today:

A light from within

Press forward

At Monticello, as elsewhere, Jefferson never ran out of ideas for improvement. Photographed in June 2014

At Monticello, as elsewhere, Jefferson never realized all his ideals for improvement.
Photographed in June 2014

“The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches. We must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.”
Thomas Jefferson

A quote attributed to Yogi Berra is “I never said most of the things I said.”  Thomas Jefferson might say the same thing if he were alive today, so I looked this one up and this is straight out of his published writings.  Which assumes, of course, that the publisher’s historical sources can be trusted!  In any case, the point remains a valid one today, well over two hundred years later.

If the ground of liberty is gained by inches, it also can be lost by inches.  But as Jefferson admits, attaining a desirable state is an ongoing effort that will never reach perfection.  Thus he wisely counsels patience and contentment, coupled with diligent and unrelenting attention.  I think that’s an interesting and difficult combination to sustain for very long.

Of course, Jefferson was not always good at taking his own advice.  How else could a man who argued against slavery be a slaveholder, or one who pontificated on the importance of honesty and integrity nonetheless father unacknowledged children by one of those slaves?  How could a man who warned repeatedly against debt die so insolvent as to leave his heirs unable to keep his estate?

Apparently, he is a prime example of how often we fail to live up to what we know to be right.  This underscores the need for a combination of patience and diligence.  Whether it’s our country, our family or ourselves, we will be happier if we continue to hope and work for improvement, while recognizing our own fallibility and bearing with each other when we give it our best and still fall short.

As this Independence Day weekend draws to a close, I wish you a renewed awareness of our collective accomplishments AND responsibilities, whether your citizenship is in the U.S.A. or elsewhere.  Celebrate the large and small victories, and press forward!

One year ago today:

Achieved, not bestowed

This realm of freedom

The Battle of Cowpens as depicted by William Ranney, along with a profile of formerly enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley. (Images in the public domain)

(Left) The Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney;
(Right) Formerly enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley.
(Images in the public domain)

“Perish that Thirst of boundless Power, that drew
On Albion’s Head the Curse to Tyrants Due.
But thou appeas’d submit to Heaven’s decree,
That bids this Realm of Freedom rival thee!
Now sheathe the Sword that bade the Brave attone
With guiltless Blood for Madness not their own.”

Phillis Wheatley, from the poem “Liberty and Peace”

As do many others, I tend to think mostly of New England and Virginia when I think about the American Revolution. Yet a lesser-known battle in South Carolina has been described as the psychological turning point of the war, laying the groundwork for the siege at Yorktown.  In describing the Battle of Cowpens, John Marshall wrote, “Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.”

Life is full of unheralded people and less-famous events that nonetheless exert a powerful influence on how history unfolds.  Ranney’s painting of the engagement at Cowpens depicts an unnamed bugler, believed to have been African-American, saving the life of Colonel William Washington by shooting his British attacker near the end of the battle.  For every historic deed of bravery or moment of victory that we remember and celebrate, there are thousands of unknown moments and unnamed heroes, fragments of human drama that are never recorded.

Whenever you next find yourself at one of the many town square monuments that honor local people who died in wars, take a few minutes to reflect on the centuries that led up to where we are today.  Almost all of us can say “I have it much easier now, than they had it then.” During this weekend of fireworks, picnics, holidays and recreation, let’s honor the everyday people who made it all possible.

One year ago today:

The torch of freedom

 

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