“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In the centuries since Goethe penned this sound advice, it has become infinitely easier to do the things he suggests. In fact, one can do all of them in a short session at the computer. The problem we face today is sorting through all the wholesome and unwholesome distractions that threaten to derail our attention to the beautiful. Besides which, though the computer is definitely the most convenient way to enjoy great works, it can never replace the joy of physically strolling through a gallery, sitting in the audience at an orchestra or theater performance, or relaxing with a book of poetry in bed or in an outdoor setting.
In an age where people are given to neglecting the health of the body, it’s not surprising that nourishment of the mind and soul also languish. Just as our stomach sends us unmistakable messages that tell us when it’s time to eat, so the agitation and conflict we often feel tell us that we need to take time to feed our minds and our souls. I hope you will make time, today and every day, to heed your sense of the beautiful calling you to a higher awareness.
“Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.” — Alice Walker
It may seem contradictory for a self-proclaimed optimist to quote Walker’s counsel to expect nothing, but there is very real difference between expectation and optimism. Admittedly, optimism involves some expectation, but it is mostly of a general sort. We expect that joy lies ahead if we are willing to cooperate by actively seeking for good. We expect that our faith will eventually be proven as well-founded. Beyond that, though, it’s a bit fuzzy.
If we expect a new car, a palatial home or always a little bit more than we currently have, optimism is crowded out by a feeling of entitlement. If we give our love with expectation of commensurate return, that’s a risky proposition at best. If we serve with the expectation of gratitude, our service will be more likely to taint our relationships with selfishness.
I’ve found that the most delightful gifts are those that are wholly unexpected. The snapdragons pictured above have become one of my favorite plants, primarily because they have come back again every year without my expecting it. When I bought that particular plant years ago, I was told it was an annual. I planted one or two six packs of tiny seedlings and figured I would enjoy them for a year at most.
The next year, two of them came back, a yellow one and this pink one. The yellow plant has barely hung on, flowering sparsely in recent years, but the pink one gets bigger, blooms earlier and lasts longer each year. Every year they come back, I count it an unexpected gift. There’s no more frugal surprise than a volunteer plant that returns to decorate our lives without added expense or effort.
Living frugally is its own reward, and as Walker affirms in her lovely poem linked above, the frugal life is full of charming surprises.
“Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Several miles from the palaces of knowledge found at the Smithsonian Institution, the Washington National Cathedral stands in a quiet residential area seldom congested with the throngs that crowd the monuments and museums. Its lovely architecture, stained glass and surrounding gardens offer a setting conducive to quiet contemplation, set apart from the hectic schedules and political battles of our nation’s capital.
Reverence is a quality that often seems in short supply. In contemporary movies and on television, God’s name is spoken primarily as a conversational byword, an exclamation of surprise or emphasis. But this disregard of spiritual sanctity does not bode well for our world. While it’s true that many evils have been perpetrated under the banner of false or misguided religion, human progress throughout history has been inextricably and undeniably bound up with deeds of courage and compassion enacted by people who lived by faith in a God of wisdom, justice and love.
I believe it’s a mistake to see faith and reason as mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of the greatest minds in history have described how their knowledge served only to deepen their faith. I am grateful today for the knowledge and reverence of those whose sacrificial devotion has made the world a better place for all of us. May we have the wisdom to rejoice that truth lives, despite all efforts to silence or destroy it.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo Da Vinci
Though I’ve confessed to my love of ornamentation, I also admire artists who can produce memorable works with clean lines and few details. Often this type of art has to grow on me over time, as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly known as “The Wall.” But sometimes, the simplicity of a design is so perfect as to command instant admiration. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is high on my list of such works. It looks beautiful from any angle, striking from a distance and remarkable up close.
Simplicity of design or function is all around us, but is inherently easy to miss. When I pay enough attention to notice it, I am usually inspired to work a little harder on my continual battle to de-clutter my life. Whether it’s a building, a room, a functional object or someone’s outfit, simplicity can turn down the noise in my mind and increase my productivity by helping me focus. I hope you will be able to enjoy and appreciate at least a few such designs today.
“We are here to change the world with small acts of thoughtfulness done daily rather than with one great dramatic leap in results.” — Rabbi Harold Kushner
Everyone loves to see results. There’s nothing more satisfying than completing a major project or putting the final touches on something we’ve labored over for weeks. But in reality, our most important jobs will never be done. Living daily with faith, reverence and humility will always be a challenge, and treating others as we want to be treated will often require patience and stamina.
We aren’t likely to get much honor or applause for the details involved in being thoughtful to others. We all want to change the world for the better, but we aren’t likely to see dramatic improvement when we make the time to care, up close and personally, about one individual at a time.
The good news is that small acts of kindness create synergy that comes back to us, making joyful occasions even happier, and easing the tension in frustrating situations. Thoughtfulness becomes its own reward as we travel through life surrounded with our own portable atmosphere of good will.
We may never see the effect of our actions on the world at large, but that’s not where we live anyway; we’re needed elsewhere. Fortunately, our power to make a difference is located right where we happen to be today; in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities. Whose paths will cross yours today? Whose world can you change?
“There is no security on this earth. Only opportunity.” — General Douglas MacArthur
“Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity; they seem more afraid of life than of death.” — James F. Byrnes
There’s nothing like watching or reading the news to create feelings of insecurity. Violence erupts all over the globe, and some stories will be endlessly repeated, as if to milk every bit of air time possible out of the chapters and verses of the unfolding tales of evil. But there is really no place to go that is completely secure, and even if you’re locked up tight in the self-imposed prison of your home, illness and injury can strike you there as well.
I’m one of those people who gets defiant when threatened. The more dangerous the outside world sounds, the more determined I am not to shrink from it in fear. The interesting thing is, I think this attitude makes me safer than if I was always running from my own shadow. And even if boldness does not make my life safer, at least it’s way more interesting to be out there exploring than hiding in a closet someplace. I take plenty of common-sense precautions, but I don’t cancel trips or avoid going downtown because of scary things I hear on the news.
Whether your worst fears are of physical danger or psychological intimidation, I wish for you the boldness to face squarely whatever it is that terrifies you. You may need courage to make travel plans, make a speech or make a new friend, but the rewards of overcoming the paralysis of anxiety are many and self-sustaining. And you’ll be bolstered by the discovery that there are plenty more friendly people than unfriendly ones. We’re out here, waiting to meet you!
“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’” — Robin Williams
Surely by now, warm spring weather has started to arrive in even the chilliest parts of the northern hemisphere. Better late than never! What can we do to celebrate springtime this week? Take a walk, plan a picnic, visit a park. Make some lemonade, bake some cookies (before it gets too hot to turn on the oven), call friends and invite them for a cookout. Or just sit outside and bask in the return of warmer weather. Whatever you do, I wish you joy. May the springtime weather lift our spirits and bring hope to our hearts!
“Look how often the unexpected happens – and yet we still never expect it!”
– Ashleigh Brilliant
There’s never a shortage of surprises in California, and that’s part of why it was so much fun to live there. One sunny day in Santa Cruz, we were waiting in line at a four-way intersection, assuming the traffic backup was just the normal beach crowds. But then we saw something we’d never seen before, and haven’t seen since: a freight train coming right down the center of the city street, which trains apparently share with cars whenever they pass through.
Nobody around us seemed fazed by it, so it was obviously business as usual around there. But we got a real kick out of having a long freight train pass by our car windows so closely that we could have almost reached out and touched it. I image that the fun of it wears off pretty quickly for those who live there, but for us, it was a delightful surprise.
Today, I wish you something fun, friendly or at least interesting– and unexpected!
“A nation that forgets its past can function no better than an individual with amnesia.”
– David McCullough
“History is a vast early warning system.” — Norman Cousins
Living in the “historic triangle” of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown has only sharpened my already considerable interest in history. I’ve never understood how anyone could find history boring. Its stories, so full of drama in the condensed versions we are able to piece together, answer some questions and raise others. With the benefit of centuries of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to see a lot of mistakes that led to tragedy, and we can always hope that least some of them won’t be unnecessarily repeated. At the same time, it’s hard not to be grateful that our ancestors were tough, strong and courageous enough to blaze many trails that made things easier for us today.
Few stories from history are more fraught with warnings than the settlement of Jamestown. Without going into the details, let’s just say that it was far from an unqualified success, and the failures, suffering and death are well documented. Yet six years ago, on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, contemporary Virginians and visiting dignitaries (including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England) attended many commemorative events in a year-long schedule of celebration.
Perhaps the mere presence of descendants who are around to honor such dubious and painful beginnings is a tribute to the determination that humanity still displays when faced with opportunity and peril. What will future generations remember about us? Let’s do what we can to leave a legacy befitting people who learned some of history’s hardest lessons, and created happier examples for our great-great-great grandchildren’s benefit.
“If the whole world were put into one scale, and my mother in the other, the whole world would kick the beam.” — Henry Bickersteth, Lord Langdale
Even after I became a mother, I have never liked Mother’s Day. It seems to me an artificially contrived and ultimately inadequate invention designed primarily to sell cards and flowers, and in some cases, to assuage an adult child’s guilty conscience. Nonetheless, I do find myself thinking of my own mother each year on this day, and feeling at a loss for words to describe what her presence has meant in my life.
Perhaps I dislike Mother’s Day mostly because none of the sentimental, flowery tributes commonly sold at this time of year ever seemed an appropriate homage to my mother, who was and is a formidable woman. Her blunt practicality and unfailing generosity are equal to her iron will and undaunted courage in the face of adversity. She has never been the longsuffering, quiet, kind and gentle saint portrayed by so many of the maudlin descriptions of motherhood. More than anyone I know, she embodies the truth that tough love is, in many cases, the most beneficial sort.
Yet just when she seems most intimidating, a whimsical humor will break through and leave us laughing. She is still the one I run to when hit with unexpected sorrow or hardship. Somehow, nothing seems quite as impossible after I’ve talked to Mom about it. She’s been through more than most of us can imagine, but always managed to outpace almost anyone I knew.
She survived poverty and polio as a very young child, and has lived almost her entire life with only one “good” leg, but she never allowed that to slow her down. She had four children in four different states within a period of ten years, my father’s career having demanded frequent moves. When she was nearly killed by a drunk driver going 70 mph who rammed into the driver’s door of her car, no one knew if she could ever fully recover, but she soon was back to her unrelentingly busy schedule, caring for her children and working on various church and community efforts.
Years later, when she faced brain surgery for a hemorrhaging aneurysm shortly before our wedding in 1980, she stayed true to form, stoic in the knowledge that she might not survive. Showing no fear and little emotion of any kind, she reminded us that no matter what happened, we all should feel grateful that she had lived through the car crash and was able to care for us until we were all grown. For as long as I can remember, she has given us a nearly flawless example of what it means to live in faith and trust that God will do what is best. I know that example will be with me always.
So, with all due respect to those who celebrate this day, to the preachers who will preach their yearly sermon about mothers, and the restaurants that will be filled to overflowing, and the many fitting tributes of love and appreciation that will be shown today, let’s all admit that no day could ever be long enough, no tribute strong enough, to capture the gratitude so many of us feel for the amazing gifts our mothers have given us. Happy Mother’s Day to all!
“To enjoy scenery you should ramble amidst it; let the feelings to which it gives rise mingle with other thoughts; look round upon it in intervals of reading; and not go to it as one goes to see the lions fed at a fair. The beautiful is not to be stared at, but to be lived with.” — Thomas Babington Macaulay
What little I have read about Macaulay does not particularly impress me, but I think he’s given us an appealing description. It sounds like a fine way to enjoy a beautiful Saturday in May. I wish you lovely weather today, and at least a little time to ramble amidst the beauty of your particular part of the world. If you see something you want to share, feel free to post links to a blog post or share a description in the comments below. If you have a photo you’d like to share, send it to me at email@example.com and I’ll post it here. Maybe beauty is not to be stared at, but I think it’s always appropriate to capture and share it with paintings and photos! Happy rambling!
“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.” – Dave Barry
I’ve always found it interesting that some of the most marvelous sights in our universe were unknown to humans for many centuries. I’m not talking primarily about outer space. I’m talking about the undersea world, which is every bit as fascinating and terrifying to me. Because I have a healthy fear of spending much time underwater depending on SCUBA gear to breathe, probably the closest I’ll get to seeing the wonders of ocean life is visiting a good aquarium.
There are many wonderful museums that feature marine biology, but the best one we’ve visited is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the stunning Pacific coast just north of Big Sur in California. I could easily spend an entire day just admiring the views of the water’s surface there, but as Dave Barry says, the real show is underneath. Large, clear and well-lit tanks will give you views of all the dolphins, sharks, jellyfish, rays, fish and turtles you could ask for, and if you get tired of deep sea life, you can always enjoy the delightful antics of the scene-stealing sea otters.
The undersea creatures are so unique in their many colors, forms, and patterns of movement that watching them never fails to underscore my belief that our planet is the work of an amazing Creator of unfathomable (no pun intended) power, love, enthusiasm and passion for life. I hope you can make some time to visit an aquarium near you, and enjoy getting to know a small part of the vast drama that unfolds daily, largely unobserved and unexplored, over 71% of the Earth’s surface.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” — attributed to Albert Einstein
I could not verify that the quote above actually came from Einstein, but countless sources verify his more famous statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Although it’s often a difficult line to walk, with some of us leaning too far toward creativity and fantasy, and some too far toward empirical data and scientific methodology, we all need to recognize the value of both.
Since we can’t learn anything without paying attention, stories that engage and delight can painlessly teach vital lessons. It’s tempting to see reading for fun as an optional activity that is all too easily put on the back burner. Today, I hope you will think about allocating some time for imaginative reading, even if there are no children in your home to entertain with fun stories. Reading for fun can be serious business.
NOTE: if this post looks familiar, that’s because the WordPress gremlins sent out a sneak peek at it via email, when I was writing it on April 25. But I left it scheduled for May 9 as originally planned; sorry for those of you who are seeing it twice! This happened to me once before and I still don’t know how it happens. Hit one wrong key and there’s no turning back, apparently.
“…day and night meet fleetingly at twilight and dawn…their merging sometimes affords the beholder the most enchanted moments of all the twenty-four hours.” — Mary Balogh
I have always thought there’s something enchanting about dusk, when the light is waning and paints everything in muted but clearly visible colors. Dawn is just as magical, although I don’t watch it nearly as often. I always welcome the time of year when the days lengthen, and I shift my walks to the evening hours, savoring the calm that seems to settle over everything. Even the sounds I often hear as I walk the familiar streets of my neighborhood– the birds, crickets, a lawn mower running somewhere– seem to announce that all will soon be at rest.
As the porch lights begin to come on and windows are lit from within, the heat of the day subsides and the warmth radiating from the asphalt is a pleasant sensation, not punishing as it would be in the afternoon sun. Neighbors come out to walk their dogs, water their flowers or just sit on decks and patios, taking in the peace. We greet each other in passing, and the sharing of the day’s end creates a sense of community; we all belong here. The prospect of a quiet hour or two of reading, a warm bath and a night of slumber draws me home as I end my walk, but often I will stop and pull a weed or two in my flower bed before going inside, reluctant to leave the enchantment until night pulls the shade completely down.
Such evenings communicate the meaning of the word “respite” in sensory details that a verbal definition could never capture. I wish you many days that end with serenity and gratitude!
“I hereby proclaim that I love turrets and dormers, and massive wooden staircases and fireplace mantels, and curvy old antiques and Oriental carpets and crystal chandeliers and even velvet curtains. And yes, I love tchotchkes. I have a house full of them.” — Zofia Smardz
One of the things I most enjoy about the blogosphere, or the online site Pinterest, is finding out how many others share my enthusiasm for many things that aren’t favorites of my all-male-but-me household. I’ve written a good bit here about simplicity, and the calming effects of quiet, uncluttered environments. But I have to come clean about my love for romantic French country, ”shabby chic” or Victorian decorating, especially when I’m not the one who has to do the housekeeping.
That’s why I love bed and breakfast inns. My husband, who would much prefer a good large-screen television with ESPN to an antique four poster bed, is nonetheless occasionally willing to indulge my love of discovering quaint lodgings when we travel. He usually enjoys the breakfasts enough to make it an agreeable option for him, provided I don’t overdo it.
But thanks to the wonders of the internet, I don’t have to wait for a vacation to get my frilly fix. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of talented ladies who visit Pinterest have compiled an abundance of engaging and delightful visual treats for anyone who admires art applied to everyday life. Fair warning: visiting Pinterest is like following Alice down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass. It’s a wonderland out there, and you might not get back to reality as quickly as you think you will!
Feel free to post links to, or photos of, your favorite B & B, fun online shop or Pinterest site in the comments below. Even for those of us who keep decidedly plainer homes, it’s always fun to make a virtual visit to more florid abodes. Today I invite everyone to savor a cup of tea or coffee while making a quick imaginary trip to a lovely, equally imaginary online parlor where we can chat about our next craft project. In moderation, daydreams are sometimes almost as good as reality, and infinitely more practical as a quick getaway.
“I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.” — Golda Meir
As strange as it seems, much of what we think of as “time management” is just one more way of being governed by the clock. While some principles of time management are useful, such as setting goals and priorities, other advice may end up being counterproductive. For example, this whole idea of multitasking is taken too far when we get so greedy about packing so much into our lives that we give nothing our full attention. Rather than having a few very enjoyable projects and hobbies, we take on too much and end up with a vague feeling of stress, pressure, and lack of fulfillment when things go undone. Rather than enjoying time with one special friend or family member, we feel an illogical urgency to make ourselves available every waking hour to anyone with our cell or text number.
Whether we are managing money or time, if we lose sight of them as means to an end, we wind up with the tail wagging the dog. Zealously plotting to squeeze 25 hours into every day often means that we push too hard to relax or enjoy anything, defeating the whole purpose of planning our time. I plead guilty to being one of the worst offenders when it comes to wanting to do too much. It goes with the territory of loving many things. But age does confer certain benefits, one of which is the absolute necessity of slowing down; achieving less but savoring more.
“Time for Living” is a favorite old song from the 60′s by a group called The Association. I’ve sung this song to myself often over the many years since I used to play it on my record player with my brother’s LP. One of my favorite lines from the song says “I took off my watch, and found I had all the time in the world.” Though no one would ever accuse me of being a workaholic, I do get stressed about time far more than I should.
Today, I hope we can all use the clock as a tool to help us enjoy life more, rather than allowing it to be a tyrant poking us in the backside with a stick, telling us to HURRY UP and keeping us from paying attention as our life ticks away. Whatever you are doing today, take five! or ten! or maybe even an hour or two — and just enjoy something. Feel free to tell us about it in the comments below.
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” – Anne Lamott
I don’t want to sound paranoid, but people are watching us. They watch us in grocery store checkout lines, in doctors’ waiting rooms, or sitting at the wheel at a stoplight in gridlock. They overhear our cell phone conversations on the subway and at ball games. And they see how we act and react, in big and small dramas, every day of our lives.
Some of these people are strangers, and some are our children, spouses or friends. Some of them are doing okay, but many of them are caught in heartaches and crises of their own. It’s sobering to realize that we have countless tiny chances every day to make life a bit brighter for almost everyone we meet. A smile, a kind word, patience with someone who’s obviously struggling, even if that person is our waitress or cashier or obnoxious co-worker.
One recent morning I went down to the hospital cafeteria to have breakfast. It was the day after Jeff’s portal vein embolization, and the doctors were pleased with how things went. We had begun to feel hopeful again. The woman who served my eggs greeted me with a beaming smile and asked how I was doing. “Better than I was yesterday,” I replied with obvious happiness. You would have thought I was her best friend as she broke into an even bigger smile and said, “I’m so glad you are feeling better! Praise God that you are better today!” I’m not sure exactly why, but that woman’s kindness and sincerity supercharged my already happy mood. And if my mood had been low, I feel certain she would have had something equally encouraging to say.
The troubles of the world can be overwhelming. Sometimes we get confused into thinking that fixing global problems requires the authority of the President or the Pope or a greedy CEO somewhere. We may feel that we are insignificant and powerless, unable to make anything better. When we feel that way, we are normal and typical, but incorrect. The positive changes we make may never be featured on the evening news, or even in somebody’s yearly holiday letter. But that makes them no less real. I know this is so because of all the times when people who had no idea they were changing my mood, my thinking or my life have given me encouragement, compassion or simple courtesy just when I needed it most, when I was on some undefined edge, about to snap or lose heart.
Today, I hope you will celebrate the opportunity to spread cheer and good will on an ordinary day. You don’t have to go out searching for ways to make the world better. Just stand where you are, shining.
“Baseball is a harbor, a seclusion from failure that really matters, a playful utopia in which virtuosity can be savored to the third decimal place of a batting average.”
– Mark Kramer
“Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.”
– Sharon Olds
To borrow the phrasing of Tolstoy’s famous quote about families, it’s my impression that football fans are all alike, but each baseball fan loves baseball in his or her own way. Some, such as my older son, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, its history, and its endless statistics, coupled with cherished memories of years spent playing the game. Some, such as my husband, also have fond memories of years of playing, but are more focused on baseball in the present moment, watching when possible, checking scores daily when other priorities prevail.
Others such as my mother and I love the game for reasons we can’t quite define. We don’t completely understand it, or even know all that much about it, compared to the die-hard fans, and we don’t follow many teams. But loyalty to our home team (the Atlanta Braves) and the many human stories behind the amazing plays draw us in, and the cracking of the bats in springtime is music in our ears.
I divide my time between far too many interests and obligations, so most of my fascinations wax and wane, going dormant for long stretches of time, obscured by distractions that are more important or urgent. Baseball is no exception. But for me, there’s nothing quite like walking into a baseball stadium and seeing the field stretched out beneath me, promising an evening when the clock is strangely suspended in a contest that could theoretically go on forever. No matter how long I’ve been away from the game, the magic is always there.
Though I mostly forsake baseball nowadays for things that rightly take precedence in my life, my deep love for it never quite leaves me. As Olds so perfectly describes, baseball banishes my larger anxieties by taking me briefly to a parallel universe that feels as reliable as the sunset, as old as America and as young as every springtime.
“There are some shrubs that seem to scream, ‘Look at me!’ With their showy flowers…planting just one of these shrubs can light up the whole yard…azaleas are sure bets for a spectacular flower show…Their intensity makes one stop and take notice and perhaps feel compelled to give Mother Nature a round of applause for the fantastic show.”
– Duncan Brine
I grew up in the South, and during the twenty years I lived far away from there, I suppose azaleas are near the top of the list of things I missed most. The first springtime we spent in Virginia reminded me of just how much we’d been missing; I had forgotten how spectacular they can be. They grow quickly and bloom brilliantly, with vivid colors that really to light up the landscape.
If azaleas can grow where you live, I highly recommend adding one for a spot of color where you’d most like to see it. We have tried many varieties, including the “bloom again” types that will bloom in summer and fall as well as spring, but we find that these do not even come close to the flowers of springtime. If you can’t grow azaleas where you live, plan to visit one of the fabulous gardens that feature them, such as Callaway Gardens in Georgia. Thanks to the internet, you can see the azaleas online even if you are too far away to visit them in person.
What shrubs bloom most brilliantly where you live? Post a link in the comments below and we’ll all brighten the day today with splashes of color!
“Remember the past, and prepare for the future, but don’t forget: the present is where you live.” – Ashleigh Brilliant
The Hertford Bridge pictured above is part of Hertford College, of the University of Oxford in England. It connects the Old and New Quadrangles of that college, with administrative offices in the older building and student accommodations in the newer one. Normally we wouldn’t describe buildings that were constructed over 100 years ago as “new” but when some of the older ones go back to medieval times, new is a relative term.
If the college itself represents the past, its current students must certainly represent the future. At Oxford the two are even more obviously linked than at most universities, so the bridge is an apt symbol. It would be very easy for people affiliated with Oxford or similar places of learning to become over-focused on either the past or the future, but what is happening in the present remains the most crucial consideration for both students and faculty.
Most of us have strong ties to the past, whether they are linked to relatives, vocational experiences or personal memories. And even for those of us who are getting on in years, it’s tempting to spend much time planning for the future. Both past and future are worthy of our regard, but it’s all too easy to let the present slip away without much notice. For me, it happens in various ways; time “frittered away” on unimportant distractions I didn’t intend to prioritize; energy wasted on fretting about unforeseen glitches in my plans; relationships marred, temporarily or permanently, when I allow a bad mood to affect my interactions.
I’m not sure of the origin of the phrase “redeem the time,” but it seems more desirable a term than other verbs we use to describe what we do with time: spend it, pass it, or worst of all, kill it. “Redeem” carries with it a sense of obligation for how we use the ultimate gift of life. We are not all allowed the same quantity of time, but whether our years are long or short, we will probably use it best if we avoid excessive fixation on the past or future. The present is where we live. Let’s make the most of it!
“…if you have a place where you can go and have a picnic with your family, it doesn’t matter if it’s a recession or not…” — Jim Fowler
One of the best ways to make an ordinary day into a special occasion is to have a picnic. It can be elaborate or simple fare, and the spot you choose can be close by, or a few hours’ drive. You can find a secluded, quiet corner or settle in a nice shady area near a famous landmark. You can spread a blanket on the ground or use one of many picnic tables provided in parks, welcome centers and other public places. No matter what combination you choose, there is something refreshing and calming about sitting down to rest and eat in a lovely outdoor setting.
Jeff is not quite as fond of picnics as I am, but he is wonderful at packing for them. Sometimes when I plan a picnic with a friend, he will offer to pack for us, and it’s a great surprise to unpack it later and find what is waiting for us. He always errs on the side of too much food and too many choices, which is delightful. Fruits, cheeses, crackers, nuts, those delicious imported cookies dipped in chocolate, sparkling juices and several types of sandwiches (with lettuce and tomato packed separately to prevent soggy bread) are just some of the things I tend to find in any basket he’s packed.
Springtime is a great season for picnics, before it gets too hot and the insects are out in force. I hope you will have at least one festive picnic or cookout in the next few weeks. It’s a good way to have fun that doesn’t involve some sort of electronic screen, and doesn’t cost a lot of money. If you take along a camera and send us a photo, I’ll post it here. Bon appetit!
My dog lives freely
each moment an occasion
to cherish and leave
– Drew Denton (for Drew’s bio, scroll halfway down the page)
Years ago I found this haiku, along with several others, among some handwritten drafts and school papers saved from Drew’s 10th grade year. He was probably around 15 years old when he wrote this, and I doubt he even knows I saved it. I loved it immediately because it captured the very essence of what dogs and other animals have to teach their human friends.
Today, I hope each moment for us will be an occasion to appreciate, enjoy or maybe even cherish– one that we can pass through with gratitude and remember without regrets.
Happy 16th birthday today, to our aging but still lively Pasha!
“So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves…The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” – Elie Wiesel
On this day in 1945, the Dachau concentration camp was officially liberated. The eyewitness accounts of troops and survivors testify to the atrocities that were only beginning to be known to the world. Yet even out of these pits of despair came examples of faith, courage and hope that continue to inspire us.
When we visited Dachau in August 2005, it was a haunting reminder that there have always been those who “bear with unbearable sorrow” and somehow survive. May we remember those who suffer, and open our eyes to ways we can help. And may this brief remembrance enable us to see more clearly the many blessings of our lives today.
“When the fever-stricken patient is undermined with heat and craving with thirst, he dreams in his dozing of a fresh brook where he might bathe or a clear spring where he might drink in long drafts. In the same way, in the complex agitation of modern existence, our wearied souls yearn for simplicity.” — Charles Wagner
The most remarkable thing about today’s quote is that it was written in May 1895, as part of the author’s preface to his book A Simple Life which is now available for free downloads at Project Gutenberg. I found the quote in one of the original editions of the book, a lovely antique (published in 1905) which was a gift from my Aunt Peggy, to whom it belonged for many years.
I have to wonder what could have been complex about life before electricity, telephones or automobiles were widely available, not to mention smart phones, iPads, DVRs or other trappings of our times. Yet the term “complex agitation” was applied to life over 100 years ago. Could it be that this tendency toward over-stimulated frustration is more a function of human nature than of any particular era or location? If so, then its opposites, serenity and simplicity, would seem to be traits that require cultivation regardless of external circumstances.
Today, whatever our day is like, I hope we realize we can choose between serenity or agitation no matter what comes our way. Contented simplicity is probably no more easy or difficult than it has ever been. The good news is that it surely lies within our reach. Given the multitude of advantages we enjoy compared to the audience to whom Wagner was writing, we have the perfect opportunity to choose wisely.
“The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination.” — Marian Zimmer Bradley
I love the book Life of Pi, especially the ending where Pi asks the skeptics a valid but often overlooked question: which is the better story?
There are those who see optimism as just another form of delusion; who feel that faith is nothing more than wishful thinking. I think most of us who have suffered in any way can understand and sympathize to some degree with the disillusionment of the cynics, but perhaps their pessimism is actually more defensive than the determined forward motion of the hopeful. Perhaps it is just as delusional to put one’s trust in what appears to be objective reason; after all, how many times has “established fact” been proven erroneous?
I’ve struggled with depression more often than I care to admit, and while pain can teach us much, I think it’s a tragedy to be permanently chained to it. Contrary to what some people may believe, optimists are sometimes the most realistic of all. It’s not that they are blind to the sorrows of life; it’s simply that they refuse to be defined by them. That’s why the song “The Impossible Dream,” said to be the favorite song of Robert Kennedy, is a favorite of countless other people as well. Don Quixote does not sing of happy endings and certain victory. He celebrates the refusal to surrender to sorrow and despair. “And the world will be better for this.”
Whatever sorrows and troubles you may face in life, I hope that you will always find your way back to the road built in hope, where traveling mercies abound.
“There is a kind of beauty in imperfection.” — Conrad Hall
During our brief getaway to Captiva Island in January, I spent blissful hours walking along the shore searching for seashells. Sanibel and Captiva are duly famous as a shell-gatherer’s dream. I had never seen so many shells washed ashore anywhere. Initially, I was searching primarily for the elusive perfect seashells, the kind you pay for in stores. Scavenging for these was a fun challenge, and I found them just often enough to keep me searching.
After awhile, though, I began to notice that the imperfect shells were beautiful, too, and far more unique. Each had its own details and characteristics. The rough pounding of the waves had laid them open, exposing the amazing inner structures that are concealed by the perfect surfaces of the undamaged shells. In many shells, the sand and sea had smoothed the damaged edges, creating a polished appearance that could have been an intentional work of art.
Months earlier, my friend Kathy had written to me about a trip to Sanibel, and how she had learned to see imperfection in a different way as she gathered shells. I now know exactly what she meant.
Our imperfections, as much as our virtues and strengths, make us who we are. Perhaps this is the lesson inherent in the beautiful verse in 2 Corinthians 12:9, where God tells Paul ”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This does not mean that we should not work to improve our lives or ourselves. But even our less appealing traits can be smoothed and polished into a uniquely beautiful character.
We may be uncomfortable with our flaws, particularly those related to physical appearance, because we live in a world that projects mostly idealized images through advertisements and carefully edited media presentations. But each of us has something to offer the world that can come only from us, and our individual gifts are shaped by our struggles and imperfections. May we all value ourselves enough to see our own inadequacies as opportunities to grow, not barriers to hold us back.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
I can’t recall a single time when hearing the birds singing did not lift my spirits. Sometimes they sound cheerful and perky, sometimes insistent, almost alarmed, but they never sound depressing. Birdsong goes perfectly with the other delights that often accompany it: soft breezes, sunshine, or the cool dusk falling as late afternoon becomes evening. Sometimes it’s the trill of a single bird against the quiet, other times it’s an amazingly loud chorus creating a wonderful din, but always they communicate to me the wonderful persistence that confirms my optimism is not unfounded. As much as any other animal, birds defeat despair. Listen for their singing and be blessed!
“The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings.”
– Ralph Blum
If you’ve ever seen the arcade game called “Whack A Mole,” you may feel as I do: that it’s a pretty good visual representation of what life is like. Troubles keep popping up all over, and as soon as you deal with one, two more appear. I tend to think of myself as trying to clobber these little vermin with the big hammer, but maybe Blum’s analogy is a better one.
Some of our blessings come directly or indirectly from misfortune or unwanted change. But that’s often not obvious at the time, and maybe it will take years to look back and realize it. If we can keep taking steps in the right direction in faith that better things lie ahead, we will be more able to recognize the gateway that may lie within the obstacle.
“She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” — Mark Twain
There is nothing profound, instructive or inspirational about this quote. It made me laugh, so I wanted to share it. Twain’s whimsical description somehow hits just the right note, and I fancy it describes a woman who was rather like me in many ways. I’ve never had a parrot, but I wouldn’t rule it out if I live long enough to be even more eccentric than I am now.
I hope this will bring you one of many smiles you enjoy today. Comic relief is a blessing, and we all need more of it. Feel free to post links to funny photos, quotes or videos in the comments below. I didn’t get too many jokesters on April Fool’s Day, but it’s not too late! Laughter really is the best medicine.
SPECIAL NOTE to Sheila: I schedule these posts in advance and believe it or not, I had already scheduled this one before our humorous exchange about your sun conure! I assure you I was NOT thinking of you when I read Twain’s funny quote!
“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” ― Karl Lagerfeld
A couple of weeks ago I went into D.C. for the afternoon to see the cherry blossom trees at their peak. Not only was it indescribably beautiful, but I had perhaps the greatest opportunity ever to unobtrusively take photos of other people taking photos, which is one of my favorite subjects to catch on camera.
During my years as a photographer for my college newspaper, I learned that cameras add significantly to an already festive atmosphere. When people are happy and friendly, add a camera and you have an instant party. That’s how it felt that afternoon around the Tidal Basin. It was like being at a big party where no one knew everyone else, but none were strangers.
Although camera phones are everywhere now, it’s still easier to get good photos (particularly from a distance) with one of the many lightweight, full-featured digital cameras available for very reasonable prices. Try taking one along to your next happy gathering, and see how much fun you have capturing precious moments that will happen only once in a lifetime.
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” – Vincent Van Gogh
Fishermen are among many who labor at occupations fraught with potential hazards, but our lives and well being depend on workers who understand that benefits often outweigh risks. Where would we be without their courage?
Caution is helpful unless it causes us to be paralyzed with fear. Fishermen and other professionals use fear as motivation for preparation, wisely learning how to read the weather, evaluate the limitations of their craft, and recognize when they need to remain ashore temporarily to minimize the risks. Then they press on, and we are all better for their refusal to be intimidated.
It takes a different type of courage to respond thoughtfully to others, whether in person or online. To make one’s thoughts available to an unknown public, even in the relative anonymity of a blog site, can be intimidating. I want to thank those who blog or respond with thoughtful and positive comments here and elsewhere on the web. Those of us who put our thoughts online do so with full knowledge that we may encounter argument, disdain or disapproval. Readers who respond in conversation are extending a type of generosity that not everyone is willing to risk. Those of you who do take the time to read and post comments are deeply appreciated, by me and my fellow bloggers, and also by many others who read your comments.
Almost all of us face fearful circumstances from time to time. I hope we will use that fear as a motivator to learn and prepare, not an excuse to retreat or withdraw. There are risks in connecting with others, but these are insufficient reason to remain isolated. May we continue to draw strength and courage from each other as we share our diverse but strangely unifying struggles.
“…happiness is a species of talent, for which some people have superior aptitudes.”
– George Will
Our younger son Matt was born with a rare genetic disorder that would not be diagnosed for many years, at which time there were only about six known cases in the world. At birth, what we knew immediately was that he had a raggedy mess of a heart; four separate defects that would require repeated open heart surgeries for as long as he lives. The need for surgery in infancy was balanced against the risk of undergoing such an extensive procedure on so tiny a baby, and the cardiologists waited as long as they could. He had his first open heart surgery just before his first birthday.
Because of the limits on physical stamina his heart condition created (and also because of the developmental disability that goes along with the genetic disorder we did not yet know about) he was late with many of his milestones in infancy, but a few of them he reached quite early. In particular, he began smiling what all witnesses agreed were genuine smiles at just one week old, and has not stopped smiling since.
Those smiles decorated countless photos taken in childhood, and continue into photos taken in adulthood. The severe limitations of his physical heart were apparently compensated by heart of a different kind. I can say honestly that I have never known a person more forgiving, more ready to love people and life itself, more gifted at the rare talent of happiness. May we all value and imitate those who have this gift.
“…all of this time in the garden is stolen, snatched away from other priorities that clamor for attention before or after hours: family, meals, reading, household chores. This clamor is barely audible to the commuter gardener, though, for he has found his solace in the seedlings and flowers and fruits that come from the bits and pieces of time and trouble he spends on his garden.” – Conrad Aiken
Considering that Aiken was born in 1889, it’s interesting to read his comments about the conflicting schedule demands facing the commuter. Apparently our frustration at having too little time is nothing new. In most respects my life bears little resemblance to Aiken’s, but I certainly connect with his observation that time spent in the garden must be seized from other claimants. My excuse is that it’s more beneficial to my spirit than it is to the plants I tend. Whether you have a large garden, a small flower bed or just a potted plant or two, I highly recommend the therapeutic benefit of botanical pursuits. As Aiken attests, even small bits of time spent in the garden are wisely invested.
“By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly – but painlessly! – you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.”
– Robert Maurer
Often despair is the result of feeling totally overwhelmed by misfortune. Or, less dramatically, procrastination is the result of feeling overwhelmed by a task. I’ve found it helps tremendously to apply a process that Matt’s occupational therapists used to call “task analysis.” Basically, it means breaking a task or situation down into very small, almost unnoticeable steps and pinpointing where difficulties arise, working on them one by one.
When I was in graduate school full time, I had to juggle the meal preparation, housework and other demands of caring for two kids in grade school, along with all the medical and educational needs of our younger son. Every semester when I would attend the first day of classes and get the syllabus for each class, I would panic and think there was absolutely no way on earth I would get through this semester. Then I would come home, print out four month-at-a-glance calendar pages on my dot matrix printer (that’s how long ago this was) and take every assignment in each syllabus and break it down into tiny steps, penciling them in on each month’s page. I would then plan my menus for the next four months according to what I had to do that day for school, and then fit in Matt’s special education meetings, cardiology appointments and so on.
There was something reassuring about proving to myself on paper that it really wasn’t impossible to get through the coming weeks. In fact, it was fairly painless and I ended up enjoying school as much as I’ve ever enjoyed anything that demanding. I learned to anticipate the feeling of panic at the beginning of each semester and accept that some anxiety was an inevitable part of the process. Then I’d just print out my blank calendar pages and break it all down. Having the steps clearly plotted, I was able to relax and enjoy life in Hawaii despite all the challenges.
When we are not so overwhelmed, we can see the beauty of the staircase and even enjoy the climb. If you are feeling overwhelmed by life, I hope you will be able to take a deep breath and design your own steps, going at your own pace and enjoying as much as you can along the way.
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” — Martin Buber
On a highway near Skagway, Alaska, we noticed a few people stopped alongside the road and quickly found what attracted their attention: a baby bear had ambled right up to the guard rail, looking at everyone with friendly curiosity. It was raining lightly as I took several photos of one of the cutest animals I had ever seen in the wild (and only later realized that this might have been fatal if an angry Mama Bear had come after me).
Anyone whose household includes an animal (or two or three or more) is well aware of their ability to communicate without words. Those who aren’t familiar with animals may think us overly sentimental, or accuse us of anthropomorphism when we insist our animals talk to us with their eyes and mannerisms. But to ascribe the ability to communicate to an animal is not to equate it with a human. Indeed, some animals may achieve a higher rate of successful communication with each other than their human counterparts achieve among their peers!
In any case, I fail to understand how anyone could look into an animal’s eyes and not see a form of intelligence behind them. From the sophisticated, almost disdainful glances of gorillas or lions at the zoo, to the watchful awareness of a rabbit or deer deciding exactly how close it will let me come before it flees, animals say many things with their eyes. Whether or not we interpret them correctly is a different matter.
I wish for you many delightful (and safe) encounters with animals of all kinds!
“Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” — Anne Herbert
Whenever I am feeling grouchy about paying taxes, I try to think of the wonderful public libraries that have given so much to our family over the years. I can think of few places that have enriched our lives on so many levels, at no direct cost. Even before I became a librarian I was bewildered that many people never walk into a library. It’s unquestionably one of the best bargains around.
The public libraries of today have much, much more to offer than traditional books. You can now look up all sorts of full text publications, 24/7 from the convenience of home, via research databases that formerly cost hundreds of dollars to access (and unlike a Google search, these databases are pre-screened or peer-reviewed for accuracy and quality). You can download in seconds the newest audio or e-book bestsellers to play on your iPod or MP3 player. You can even download free hit music, yours to keep permanently, via an online service called Freegal that is now available in many public libraries. You can check out DVDs of countless movies. If the titles of your choice in books, music or movies are not available, you can get on a waitlist for them. For all these services and more, we’ve never paid a cent outside of the taxes we pay whether or not we use the library.
Even if you’re not into books, music or movies, there are other great possibilities at public libraries. Some are now lending all sorts of non-literary things: hand tools, cake pans, knitting needles, telescopes, fishing poles, home energy meters and other items that can be more practical to share than to own. There are even libraries that host seed exchanges, where gardeners can “recycle” seeds from their gardens. You can apply for passports, get documents notarized, hear free concerts and take free classes. And some larger libraries now have machines that will download from your flash drive a manuscript you’ve written, and turn it into a book! (This particular service, of course, is not free.)
If you are a library fan, thanks for visiting my blog – you are among many like-minded people here! If you are not taking advantage of the immense wealth offered in your local library, I hope you will check it out (no pun intended) and find out how much fun you can have for free.
“Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals. Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright…” — Henry Ward Beecher
On a recent visit to the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, I was delighted to see the beautiful flowers pictured above, growing just inside the front window. Unlike most flowers at the Smithsonian, these did not have any labels that named or described them. I asked around, and staff were not certain either, but the general consensus was that they were some form of bromilead.
When I came home I did a bit of research and found out some fascinating facts about this particular family of flowers. They are incredibly diverse in appearance, ranging from the pineapple (surprised? I was) to Spanish moss (which is neither Spanish, nor moss) to brilliant varieties similar to the one pictured above. I thought of Beecher’s quote when I saw these flowers, which certainly have an expression unlike most others. How would you describe them? Words that come to mind for me are cheerful, serene, elegant, and vivacious. I hope they will brighten your day as they did mine!
“As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.”
— Albert Einstein
Niagara Falls is one of those places that can’t be adequately described; one has to be there, hear the roar and feel the mist to fully appreciate the magnitude and power. This site is among several places that were much more impressive in real life than I had expected them to be. I first saw the falls in 1976, when my college roommate was competing in the Miss USA pageant held nearby. As exciting as it was to be there for the live telecast, the most wonderful part of my trip was seeing the spectacular show nature stages at the falls 24 hours every day regardless of how many people are in attendance.
What’s even more amazing is how many places all over the world are equally remarkable. It took me awhile (and some advice from Jeff) to decide which photo would go with this quote, since I’ve snapped so many photos of wondrous sights that took my breath away. Einstein said it well; even the most intelligent among us is duly humble in the face of creation. I wish for you many chances to thrill to such abundant natural magnificence, and vivid memories to treasure with awe and gratitude.
“Do not watch the petals fall from the rose with sadness; know that, like life, things sometimes must fade before they can bloom again.” — Author unknown
The cherry blossom trees of Washington DC are justly famous, but the ones I most enjoy are right outside the front door of our townhouse in Alexandria. Until we lived with them, I never realized how briefly the cherry blossoms are in bloom. We have less than a week to enjoy their beauty at peak bloom time when most of the petals are open. If it rains, the petals fall even more quickly, leaving the ground covered in what I call “pink snow.” The feather-light petals can be annoying as they stick to cars and windows, and get tracked into the house in clumps on the soles of our shoes. But they are also beautiful, carpeting the ground with a fluffy loveliness unlike any other.
Wednesday as I was admiring the amazing blossoms in DC, the petals were just beginning to fall. The past two days they’ve been fluttering through the air almost continually. I’ve been sweeping, vacuuming and cleaning up pink flower petals off my floors all day.
Though I feel a bit sad when the blooming period is over, I also rejoice in the unique reminder left behind by the petals. I take comfort in knowing the trees will bloom again next year. Meanwhile there will be other flowers to enjoy. It seems an apt metaphor for life; the glorious happy times that are over before we know it, leaving lovely memories that bless us even as they touch our hearts with sorrow. We wipe away the tears and look to the future, trusting that new blooms will spring up.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Tucked away in the chilly magnificence of the Yukon, there lies a true curiosity of nature: the Carcross Desert. At about one square mile, it is called the “world’s smallest desert” although it is actually a series of sand dunes left behind by a glacial lake. In this case, it could be said that it was the well that hid the desert!
It’s quite an experience to traverse the Alaska border where snow lies all around, into the Yukon where there is more of the same, only to come upon an expanse of warm, dry sand with scarcely any vegetation. It’s one of nature’s little surprises; a reminder that even the most foreboding of landscapes conceal delightful secrets. When you find yourself in the midst of a boring, unpleasent or difficult circumstance, remember that “somewhere it hides a well.”
“Make the familiar exotic; the exotic familiar.” – Bharati Mukherjee
I’m pretty good at making the exotic familiar, or at least trying. When Jeff and I travel, we tend to avoid the tourist routes and go to places where the locals are: public transportation, grocery stores, municipal libraries. The more intriguing a city is, the more I am determined to walk through it enough times to get a feel for the neighborhoods and the pulse of daily activity. It can be daunting at times, especially when one doesn’t know the language, but it’s also comforting to be where the people are, going about lives that are strikingly similar to our own despite the varied contexts.
I’m not quite as good at seeing the exotic in the familiar. Yet I know it’s there, hiding in plain sight. When Drew was in first grade, his teacher assigned the students to write to their grandmothers (and great-grandmothers, if they were lucky enough to have them) with questions about daily life when they were children. It was one of the most memorable school experiences I know of, because the letters we received in answer to Drew’s inquiries were fascinating to the point of seeming exotic.
These were women I thought I knew well, but I learned things about them I had never known. We also realized that their school experiences, so different from those of today’s children, were scarcely mentioned in the history texts. I came away with the understanding of how little of our past is ever documented, and how much it comes to life when told in everyday details that historians often leave out.
The popularity of scrapbooks, journals and blogs is adding exponentially to the everyday history that is being recorded, and I’m so glad! When I read posts from Bindu or Z or Sydney Fong, or look at the beautiful photos from Cindy Knoke, Michael Lai, or another Julia who loves to take photos, to name just a few of the many people all over the world whose work I enjoy, I feel a bit more familiar with the exotic. And I am inspired to discover the exotic in my own familiar life, things that are unique to my particular world that I am happy to share with others.
I invite you to join in the worldwide conversation by reading, commenting, or starting your own blog or online journal to introduce other people to your corner of the world. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the blogging community is a friendly and supportive group, where newcomers are always welcome. It’s a wonderful antidote to the news media stories about conflict, hostility and fear. There’s a lot of good news out here in the blogosphere – welcome to our world!
“Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle.” — Marcus Aurelius
If you’ve ever been to Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara or certain other well-known Mexican cities, you probably have seen the beautiful artwork created with tiny seed beads or yarn in the tradition of the Huichol people. With painstaking exactitude they create brilliantly colored items with complex designs that delight the eye and intrigue the mind. In many shops, tourists can watch the artists at work and marvel at the patience and care with which they produce unique treasures.
While I love the yarn paintings, I am most fascinated by the intricate beadwork. Those of us who have reached “a certain age” might find it difficult to even see the tiny beads, let alone place them one by one with delicate precision until a large work is finished. But the artists handle their miniscule materials with practiced expertise. They remain focused intently on their designs, apparently not distracted by the tourists streaming past to observe works in progress. The finished art collections display convincing evidence that cumulative tiny actions can achieve impressive results.
For the most part, our days are made up of small, seemingly insignificant actions that we scarcely note. With practiced habit we keep house, tend children or execute countless tasks that make up our paid or unpaid vocations. It can be easy to feel unimportant when most of what we do garners little notice or admiration, but we are building a lifetime of accomplishment, the ultimate results of which we likely will never see. As the words of Zechariah 4:10 asks, “Who dares despise the day of small things?”
“In the cherry blossom’s shade there’s no such thing as a stranger.” — Kobayashi Issa
Have you ever noticed how often people share their excitement at a beautiful landmark or stunning view? Tourists who have never met offer to take photos for each other, handing expensive cameras to total strangers. Except, as Issa says, there’s no such thing as a stranger when you are enjoying natural beauty or fascinating sights.
I lost count of how many times I visited the Golden Gate Bridge while we lived in northern California, but almost every time I went there, I ended up taking photos for people. I always enjoyed snapping photos of visitors who were obviously having a great time and delighted by the view. And people have kindly offered to take photos for Jeff and me everywhere from Spain to Honduras to Canada and many points in between, giving us unique souvenirs to preserve cherished memories.
It’s easy to complain about tourists and crowds, but I love to see travelers discovering places that are familiar to me. And when I’m traveling, I appreciate the hospitality of locals who take pride in the beauty of their hometowns and countries. In such circumstances, one can almost believe that a peaceful world is not an impossible dream.
I go out
to the pale dunes, to look over
the empty spaces
of the wilderness.
For something is there,
something is there when nothing is there but itself,
that is not there when anything else is.
There are places where vast emptiness stretches so far as to suggest infinity. The more deserted the landscape, the more absent any sounds except those of nature, the more haunting are the memories of visits to these sites. It’s awe-inspiring and a little frightening to stand amid such magnificent isolation. The terrain may vary– I’ve felt such spells cast by locations as distant from one another as the Cape Cod seashore, the Florida Everglades, the mountains of Colorado or the southernmost point of the United States, on the island of Hawaii– but the somber allure is similar regardless of where these lands are located. We will do well to preserve such sanctuaries of peace, these parcels of holy ground where we find again a sense of humility and perspective so often lost in the busyness of human endeavors.
“After ecstasy, the laundry.” – Zen saying
Perhaps no quote can so succinctly capture the experience of parenthood, especially in its early stages. The unsurpassed joy of holding a newborn baby is quickly tempered by the grinding realities of sleep deprivation, miscellaneous messes to clean up and a never-ending pile of laundry to be done. Yet there is joy even in these daily chores, though it may not appear as such without the benefit of years of hindsight.
Most of life is routine, and for the majority of people, there is no small amount of drudgery involved. But without the stability of sameness, we would have no canvas against which to appreciate the moments of brilliant color and exhilaration that tend to stand out in the foreground of our memories. Decades later, when we look back on what made us happiest, chances are we will remember primarily the subtle beauty of our everyday lives. As you go through your day today, tomorrow, this week, I hope you will listen for the unique rhythms of your particular world, and hear the poetry of the commonplace.
“When we are willing to be open-minded, art and beauty come flooding into us in a thousand small ways.” – Julia Cameron
I tend to think of open-mindedness as a trait useful primarily to our rational minds, vital to the examination of ideas, cultures and opposing viewpoints. Yet there are many ways our minds can be open rather than closed. Often we are convinced that we know almost everything about a person, a place, an animal, or even an inanimate object such as a machine. We fail to notice the full picture because our familiarity tells us our full attention is no longer required. Without realizing it, we can close our minds to full awareness.
But living things change; places change; even objects such as computers and electronic devices are likely to have yet-unexplored possibilities. If we can learn to see the familiar as if it were new, our minds would open up to all that is fresh, unexplored, unknown and intriguing.
Whenever I find myself wishing for a new camera, or vacation destination, or new activity or connection, I ask myself: do I have room for something new right now, or do I still need to fully discover what I already have? It’s wonderful to explore and try new things. However, it’s possible to run so quickly from one new thing to another, that we never fully appreciate what we are already doing.
Most days, my walks (whether 2 miles or 5) are along the same roads with exactly the same paths I’ve traveled dozens of times before. It’s easy to pay almost no attention to what I pass, especially while listening to a book on tape. But sometimes– especially when I take my camera– I see things I haven’t noticed before. No two walks are ever exactly the same. I pass different people, see different dogs walking their owners, and chat with different children who stop to pet Pasha. The vegetation changes; new flowers bloom; homeowners decorate their lawns and porches with seasonal touches that add color. All these are examples of easily overlooked beauty that is ours for the taking.
I hope today you will open your eyes, mind and heart to discover those things that are so small or familiar we might miss them. Remember that no two days are exactly alike. What unique joys will be yours today, and today alone?
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring…” – J.R.R. Tolkien
These lines are from a poem I have loved for many years. It appears in the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings, but its message has an enduring appeal whether or not one has read the story. The themes of hidden strength and eventual triumph are close to the heart of anyone who is surviving hardship while hoping for better times to come.
When I went to Oxford in December 2005, I went back to the Eagle and Child, the modest St. Giles pub I had first visited a few months earlier. I wanted to take some photographs (including the one above) of the place where Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and other writers met for years to discuss their writing. Tolkien and Lewis, the best known of the group referred to as ”the Inklings,” would go on to achieve a degree of fame and popularity they probably never dreamed of during their early Oxford years.
C. S. Lewis is my favorite author. I have a hard time ever choosing a favorite of anything, and when discussing books and writers, the list of worthy contenders is long indeed. But Lewis has earned the superlative through his remarkable ability to distill profound ideas into simple, friendly language that intrigues as it instructs, and comforts as it challenges. His works have been a bright spot in my life for which I’ll always be thankful, and I find myself returning to them again and again.
Who are your favorite writers? Have you any books that are so loved as to seem almost like old friends? Any that shine a light into the dark nights of your life? I wish you many hours, days and years of the unique joy that is found in exploring real and imaginary worlds through books.
“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” – E. E. Cummings
It’s a bit hard for me to imagine what it would be like living in a town such as Banff. One of the bloggers who visits regularly with us here lives very near Banff, and I wonder whether she ever gets used to the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. How does one manage to get any work done when it’s so beautiful outdoors? I remember feeling the same way the first time I stood atop the Malibu hill where Pepperdine University overlooks the Pacific Ocean. How on earth does anyone manage to graduate from a school where distracting magnificence lies outside every doorway?
I know how, of course. When we lived in Hawaii, some people on the mainland seemed to think we were on a 3-year extended vacation, with nothing to do but go to the beach every day. In reality we had to go to school, go to work, cook dinner and wash clothes, and do all the other chores of life, with relatively little time leftover to play.
Still, we tried to make as much time as possible to explore the islands and their varied landscapes that went far beyond gorgeous beaches. Whenever I would see one of the incredible rainbows that occur so frequently there, or string a lei from the fragrant plumeria that grew in abundance all around our home, I would remind myself to stop and savor the moments that would all too soon be unavailable on a daily basis.
Living in many different regions has taught me that no place is without beautiful features or interesting sights. But it’s easy to grow so accustomed to the familiar that we lose the wonder of it. Today, I hope you will take Cummings’ words with you and keep eyes open to “everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”
“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
I don’t consider myself a poet, but I do like to write poetry as well as read it. When writing poems I have to curtail the number of words I use so that every single one has an impact. Of course it’s a good idea to do this with all writing, but it’s especially important with poetry, wherein thoughts and emotions arrive in a reader’s mind in concentrated form leaving images that linger.
Rilke’s simile is an apt one, I think. Spring begins with a bare landscape and sparse visible assets. When it is ready, it bursts into blooms that decorate the landscape with vivid color, touching our spirits and renewing our hope. Spring knows its verses by heart, and speaks them (even sings them) to a delighted audience weary of winter and longing for youthful energy. May its winsome performance bring joy to your heart today!