The experience of a great people

The flags were flying proudly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, June 2015

The flags were flying proudly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, June 2015

“The flag of the United States has not been created by rhetorical sentences in declarations of independence and in bills of rights.  It has been created by the experience of a great people, and nothing is written upon it that has not been written by their life.  It is the embodiment, not of a sentiment, but of a history.”
— Woodrow Wilson

As the number of stars on the U. S. flag increased over the years, so have our population, our industry and our government.  While not all of the changes and phases have been good or happy ones, few citizens of this country would wish to go back to former times.  Nostalgic fondness for childhood notwithstanding, most of us have an easier life than our parents or grandparents could have imagined.

With our nation’s birthday celebration approaching, I’m mindful that today we are at the midpoint of a much more somber anniversary, that of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg fought on July 1-3, 1863.  Wilson’s words about the flag having been created by the experience of a great people are true of the painful crucibles of our freedom, as well as the joyous moments of glory and unity.

Detail of a monument to a fallen soldier at Gettysburg

Detail of a monument to a fallen soldier at Gettysburg

There’s a pall of sadness that lingers over the fields of Gettysburg, where so many American lives were spent in the taking of other American lives.  In the polarized climate of political argument that dominates so much of the media, it’s easy to wonder whether we could ever be brought to such a state of affairs again.

I hope not, and I trust not.  Our flag has survived trial after trial, none more devastating than the Civil War that threatened to destroy our national unity.  Such hard-earned lessons are not easily forgotten by those who take the time to examine them.  While we celebrate the 4th with picnics, ball games and other fun events, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on the sacrifices of previous generations who gave us the freedom to live unencumbered by the burdens they bore.

Happy Birthday, USA!

 

Hopeful signs

Tracy Caldwell Dyson is looking in your direction, and so am I! Self-portrait by Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, International Space Station,  September 2010.  NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson is looking in your direction, and so am I!
Self-portrait by Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, International Space Station,
September 2010.  NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m looking for some hopeful signs — and something keeps telling me to look in your direction.” Ashleigh Brilliant

Today is my 800th published post, not counting the special posts linked above.  That number becomes more amazing to me the more I think about it.  Not only have I been writing that much, but many of you have been reading that much!

This blog contains enough of my words to constitute several full length novels, which is proof that writing a little bit every day can eventually make you an author.  Or not.  But at least it’s a substantial amount of practice.  And those of you who have read most of my posts have now read the equivalent of several full length books, in terms of quantity (no claims about quality implied).  At the very least, you have earned my respect for your stamina.

If each of these blog posts had been an annual Christmas newsletter, I would have been sending them out every year since 1215, when noteworthy happenings to report would have included King John signing the Magna Carta, Genghis Khan and the Mongols capturing Beijing, and the birth of Kublai Khan, an event that would have resounding consequences for American high school English students centuries later.

All that to say, I am deeply honored to realize that you have been willing to join me here read my rambling thoughts, and to exchange ideas, observations, jokes, joys and sorrows.  For those of you who have been with me steadfastly for over two years, I now have had more contact with you, more frequently, than with almost anyone else I know.  Considering that there are some of you whom I’ve still not met face to face, I think that’s a special kind of wonderful.

I got a letter yesterday from my British pen pal, Sue, and we had shared our amazement at having been writing to each other for 25 years now.  We have met face-to-face only once, in 2001.  Yet our friendship has outlasted many relationships that were largely based on geographic proximity.

Maybe this says something about the power of the written word.  Or maybe it means I’m easier to take in writing than in person. Either way, I’m humbled by the many ties I’ve formed through this blog.  On a continual basis, I see and hear things that remind me of you. And I have learned so much from you!

I smile so often to think of Sheila (and Bill and Walter and Jack) in their oceanfront home in South Carolina.  I think of Merry in Oklahoma and Susan in New Hampshire and Carolyn in Tennessee and Michael in Washington and Mary Ann in California and Bob in Oregon and Cherie in Florida, and I’m literally all over the USA map without taking a step outside my door.

When we visited Lancaster County recently, I thought of Judy when I saw the exquisite crafts, and of Raynard when we went to the Shady Maple. (We weren’t hungry enough for the Smorgasbord, Raynard, but we did enjoy shopping and snacking — and plan to go back one day with bigger appetites! It really is amazing.)  We had never been to that part of Pennsylvania, but it felt more familiar than it would have felt even three years ago.

Thanks to Sheila, I know what a Sun Conure is– in fact, I count one among my animal friends now (hello, Walter! :D ).  Thanks to Boomdee, I know that Canadian rabbits change colors with the seasons.  Thanks to Eric, I know those rabbits are called Snowshoe Hares.  Thanks to Alys, Michael and others, I know a lot more about the flowers and shrubs I love so much. Sometimes I’ll catch myself saying “I wonder why this plant isn’t blooming? I need to ask Alys” or “What kind of flower is that? Maybe Michael would know…”

I shouldn’t have started naming names, because now so many of you are coming to mind that there’s no way I can write about all of you. When I hear news from around the world, there are so many I’ve met via this blog whose faces come to mind, bringing to life countries where I’ve never had the privilege of traveling.  When I pray, I remember the struggles and trials you have shared with me, and ask for blessings in your lives.

Each of you, with your comments or your cheerful Gravatars left at the bottom of my posts, have been part of this online world that has been a source of comfort and joy since the earliest days of Defeat Despair, when our family was coming to terms with lives that had abruptly and unexpectedly and irrevocably changed.  Though I don’t post daily now, I still feel connected to all of you every day, and count my associations with you, whether brief or extensive, among the blessings of my life.

I hope you can keep looking here for encouragement.  And when I’m in need of reminders of goodness, I know I can look in your direction. As I’ve said so many times– thanks for being here!

 

For a moment

This sweet bird has been keeping me company this month.  Alexandria, June 2015

This sweet bird has been keeping me company this month. Alexandria, June 2015

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” — Henry David Thoreau

Not long ago Jeff called me to the front door to show me a robin’s nest in the cherry blossom branch that extends over our front walkway.  It was fairly low, only a few feet from where we pass back and forth underneath many times each day, but the bird nesting there seems unafraid of us or our activity.  I suppose suburban birds grow accustomed to human traffic.

I’ve been watching this nest for several days now.  It’s set where I can’t get a good photo of it, because the sunlight is always coming into the lens and putting the rest of the picture in the shade, and my little semi-automatic camera doesn’t have the range to compensate for it very well.  That’s okay, though, because the important thing is to enjoy seeing the nest with my eyes, while it’s still an active home.  I’ve learned from our York “bird condo” (which is what I call the privet hedge where the robins and cardinals like to nest) that these little ones go from egg to hatchling to fledgling surprisingly quickly.

I’ve seen the mama bird (and maybe the papa bird too) standing on the edge of this nest feeding worms to the babies, so I know they have hatched.  Since I can’t see inside the nest, I watch daily to see if it’s still attended, just so I’ll know if the babies are still there.  I like having the birds making their home so close to ours.  It feels friendly and, as Thoreau expressed, it’s also a bit flattering in some strange way.

If it wasn’t for Jeff, I probably would never have noticed the nest at all. Jeff has a sort of radar for the natural world, spotting deer and birds and other critters with an eagle’s eye, though he has a more benevolent interest in them than the raptors do.  It’s nice to live with someone who can point such things out to me, because I am always excited to see them, even though I’m not good at noticing on my own.

How about you?  Do you have an eye for the natural world? If not, are you lucky enough to have someone around who can act as a scout for you?  If you have this type of radar for nature, do you share your observations with others?  Some of us are better at seeing than others, but I think most of us do care for animals (and people) when we slow down enough to notice — or when someone else points the way for us.

And sometimes, as with Thoreau, we have the happy experience of having a creature notice us first, and seemingly ask outright for our attention.  Such encounters are doubly delightful, and I wish you many of them, along with the eyes and heart to enjoy them.

Update one week later: the babies are growing! Soon they will leave the nest.

Update one week later: the babies are growing!  Their eyes and beaks are open.
Soon they will leave the nest.  Alexandria, June 2015

Second update: the light was good the morning this post published (Thursday), and I was thrilled to get this wonderful photo of the parent with hungry babies!

Second update: the light was good the morning this post published (Thursday),
and I was thrilled to get this wonderful photo of the parent with hungry babies!

Third update, 8:35 am: WHOA! This one started fluffing feathers, and before I knew it, it was standing up, almost ready to fly away! I told you they grow up quickly! It sat when the worms arrived, though.

Third update, 8:35 am: WHOA! This one started fluffing feathers,
and before I knew it, it was standing up, almost ready to fly away!
I told you they grow up quickly! It sat back down when the worms arrived, though.

And speaking of robins…look what Alys gave me!  Enjoy their lovely song here:

Foundations of ease

After decades of wishing, it was the vacation of a lifetime. Jeff and I enjoy the Amalfi Coast of Italy, May 2008.

After decades of wishing, our Mediterranean cruise was the vacation of a lifetime.
Jeff and I enjoy the Amalfi Coast of Italy, May 2008.

“Burdens are the foundations of ease and bitter things the forerunners of pleasure.” Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi

I had to really think about this one for a few minutes; I wasn’t sure whether it was truth or wishful thinking.  Then I remembered the joke about the man who, when asked why he hit himself repeated on the head with a hammer, replied “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

Nobody I know really wishes for burdens or bitter things.  Yet some people seem more ready than others to take them on, especially if it means in doing so, they are helping someone else. We tend to label such people as “saints” or otherwise distance ourselves from the expectation that we should measure up to a bar that has been set so high.  But no matter how much we try to avoid it, we all end up with cares of our own to endure.

And really, all joking aside, we would not know the meaning of ease if that was all we had ever experienced. Jeff and I are grateful for the relative poverty of the early years of our marriage, when we literally could not afford to eat out even at McDonald’s.  Not only did we learn how to enjoy life without spending large sums of money; we also knew how to appreciate the comparative ease that would be ours in the decades to come.  When Jeff first finished dental school and got into the Air Force, what some would have viewed as a bare minimum of income felt like wealth to us, and we’ve felt wealthy ever since.

In the same way, the challenges we have faced as parents of a son with significant disabilities have created a unique appreciation for those rare moments we are able to get away together, just the two of us.  We don’t have to do anything special at such times for it to feel like a vacation.

I’m sure you have experienced similar levels of gratitude for things that others have always taken for granted.  A student who has labored for years toward a degree will someday know just how amazing it is to have evenings and weekends free for hobbies and relaxation.  A patient who has suffered through a broken leg or back surgery will have a sharpened understanding of the joy of pain-free movement.  A couple who endured the challenges of infertility treatments must have a heightened sense of excitement over a pregnancy or adoption.

Today, think of your own personal burdens and bitter things.  In what ways might they be the forerunners of pleasure?

On noticing

They're beautiful, but don't try to make soup with them.  May 2015

They’re beautiful, but don’t try to make soup with them. May 2015

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.” ― H.L. Mencken

Have you ever noticed that we have a tendency to idealize that which charms us?  Because we like the appearance of a product, we might conclude that it’s more functional.  If we fall in love with a house we see, we imagine that we’d live a happier life there. When we see actors we admire, we sometimes confuse them with the roles they are playing, forgetting that they might have real-life habits that would drive us crazy if we spent time with them.

It’s natural, of course, to be attracted to surface traits.  But a car can run well without being visually appealing, and food can be nutritious and even tasty without appearing particularly appetizing.  Somehow, that’s not typically enough for us; we want the whole package.  We want and expect things to be perfect, connecting with all our senses in a positive way.

Advertisers know this, of course, and exploit it to devastating effect. Tapping into the power of association, they use images of beautiful people and places to sell everything from beer to deodorant to gadgets to appliances. It’s doubly risky to swallow too many of these messages.   Not only can it leave us financially depleted and disappointed by having been sold on more than is actually delivered; it also can build in us an unrealistic level of expectation about pretty much everything, which renders us perpetually discontented with reality.

Next time you’re looking through a catalog or magazine, try to picture how that clothing or furniture or artwork might fit into the context of your own world. How would it look on your body, in your room or on your walls?  Have you noticed the gorgeous bathroom photos rarely depict toothpaste, shaving cream, hair care items or other necessities of daily life that will inevitably cluster on our counters?  Will everything stay so neatly folded and pressed as it appears in the article about household organization?  Or are we buying an illusion?

We come close to perfection surprisingly often in our everyday lives, even if only in a splendid meal now and then, or a well-brewed cup of coffee or tea.  As long as we don’t expect that level of delight to generalize to the rest our day, we can treasure such moments as ornaments alongside more mundane experiences.  We can enjoy the cabbage soup (or, OK, the tomato basil soup) without expecting it to be as beautiful as a perfect rose, or expecting the rose to give us more than the sheer joy of its fragrance and loveliness.

How can we keep a realistic level of expectation, yet still strive to add joy and beauty to our lives?  How can we experience idealism as an asset rather than a liability?

A tree has something to say

The trees greet us each morning.  Alexandria, June 2015

The trees greet us each morning. Alexandria, June 2015

“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent.”
Hermann Hesse

It would be difficult for me to quantify, or even accurately describe, how much solace I have gotten from trees, for as far back as I can remember.  As soon as Jeff and I reached a point where we were able to be a bit choosy about where we lived, we prioritized having as many trees as possible to look at from our kitchen and family rooms.  Even in California, where trees were far more scarce than they are here in Virginia, we enjoyed having beautiful eucalyptus or willow trees looking back at us from across our yard or just outside our windows.

Once many years ago, when Eric was on a quick layover in San Francisco, I met him in the city and we drove to Muir Woods for a walk. Of necessity, we discussed some heavy, urgent and sad topics related to illnesses among our family members.  At one point when we paused to look up into the green cathedral of redwoods overhead, he expressed regret that its beauty was the backdrop for our current preoccupation with worry over our loved ones.  “I hope all this talk isn’t messing this up,” he said.

“You can’t mess this up,” I said.  “This is way bigger than any of our problems.”

I meant it; the serenity of that timeless glade was a balm to my troubled emotions, more effective than any chemical remedy could have been.  And it’s not just the majestic redwoods that inspire me to such transcendent peace.  I’m equally comforted by the common trees that light up with the sun each morning, greeting me as I come downstairs to begin my day, whether in York or Alexandria.

As Jeff and I recently celebrated our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, symbolized by the traditional and modern gemstones of emerald and jade, I am grateful for green in my life, in all its many forms.  Whether you find yourself in the midst of summer or winter, I hope you will find some green in your world today, to bring you thoughts of stillness and peace.

In familiar surroundings

There's no place like home -- mine, or yours.  Alexandria, May 2015

There’s no place like home — mine, or yours. Alexandria, May 2015

“As much as I love to travel and see new things, I’m also a homebody.  No matter how far I wander, I’m always eager to get back to my own nest.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the little surprises that can pop up in familiar surroundings.  I find a great deal of pleasure right in my own backyard – literally!” —  Alison Eads

Summer is a time we usually associate with vacations, but lately I hear frequent references to the “staycation” — enjoying one’s own home by taking quick day trips, hosting festive meals, or simply celebrating the charms of daily life.

Some of us are unable to travel as much as we might like, due to physical or financial limitations.  Others of us are finding travel more tiring than it used to be, which enhances the joys of remaining home during the summer.

If you are among those who will be home for most or all of this summer, I invite you to give yourself permission to bring some of the “escape” of travel into your living room or kitchen. Allow yourself extra hours for the things that refresh your soul.  Perhaps you can schedule time for crafts, decorating, visiting with friends, writing letters, or quiet reflection. Then follow that schedule as you would a vacation itinerary.

And by all means — if you take some “staycation” photos, send us a virtual postcard to share here!

In the tiny corners

Sometimes the news is good -- let's celebrate! I photographed this window display in the tiny corner of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, May 2015.

Sometimes the news is good — let’s celebrate!
I photographed this window display in the tiny corner of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, May 2015.

“What God does in the tiny corners of our day-to-day lives is stunning and gorgeous and headline-making, but we have a bad habit of saving the headlines for the grotesque and scary.”Shauna Niequist

Today, let’s shine the light on the headline-making happenings in the tiny corners.  I’ll start with a few of my own, and then you can send me some from your own tiny corners of the world.

SNAPDRAGON JEFF PRONOUNCED DEAD COMES BACK TO LIFE AND BLOOMS!

BIRDS PROVIDE BETTER-THAN-USUAL BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR WRITING!

MORNING GOES SMOOTHLY; DAY STARTS WITHOUT ANYTHING BIG GOING WRONG!

WEATHER STILL COOL ENOUGH TO ENJOY BEING OUTSIDE UNTIL AT LEAST 10:00 AM!

TEA AND NECTARINES TASTING BETTER ALL THE TIME!

OK, your turn.  Send me some headlines.  Let’s use the tabloid approach to spin these beautiful, overlooked happenings into a din of celebration.  NO EXPERIENCE NEEDED! BAD CREDIT OK! LIMITED TIME — ACT NOW!

 

 

To number our days

More candles, more light by which to see. Blue candles on birthday cake by Joey Gannon, Pittsburgh, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More candles, more light by which to see.
Blue candles on birthday cake by Joey Gannon, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

Jeff’s days are numbered.  But so are mine, and yours, and everybody’s.

One of the benefits of slamming face-first into the reality of our own mortality is implied in the verse above.  I’ve found that many of the things that once bothered me seem laughably minor now.  Others, while still serious, have been put into perspective.

This is a lesson we began to experience in depth when Matt was born and struggled to survive his first week of life.  The passing years made it ever clearer.  Still, it wasn’t until Jeff’s diagnosis that we realized our insight never was as clear as we thought it was.

It’s an oft-repeated cliché: it takes a crisis to open our eyes to what really matters.  As with so many other platitudes (“you’ll understand when you’re older” or “just wait until you have children of your own” or “when you have your health, you have everything”) we eventually find out that these bromides are watered down from profound experiences.

The good news is that we don’t have to endure crisis firsthand to learn from it.  Long before illness and death touched us personally, I believed (though not completely understanding) that there is wisdom in acknowledging the uncertainty and brevity of life.  History, literature, and theology all carry powerful teaching to guide us in honoring the gift of life wisely.

Even for those of us who believe this life is a way station, a passage into eternity, the idea of death is not normally appealing.  I’ve found, though, that the older I get, the more I can feel the promised “peace that passes understanding” about the inevitability of physical decline and death.  As the years pass and the candles on our cakes grow more numerous, I hope the added light they give is a symbol of the spiritual illumination that comes from the wisdom of numbering our days.

 

 

 

After all

Angels home game, Edison Field, April 2003

Angels home game, Edison Field, April 2003

Though we know
everything is bounded
by time,
there is, after all,
baseball,
in which time has its function,
but does not rule.

— from the poem “National Pastime by Bill Mayer

Break free of time today, or sometime soon, even if only for a few minutes.  A baseball park is an ideal place to do that — little league, high school, AAA, even a deserted lot with aging wooden bleachers.  If you can’t go to a diamond in person, go there in your mind, perhaps via the poem linked above, ably read by Garrison Keillor.

“Time has its function, but does not rule.”  Among many other lessons it teaches us, this is perhaps baseball’s finest truth.

Changing so fast

NASA image, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

NASA image, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Things are changing so fast that what we once called ‘science fiction’ we now call ‘current events.’ “Ashleigh Brilliant

Ashleigh penned that thought in the late 60’s, before humans ever walked on the moon.  Yet now his words are more true than ever, which paradoxically demonstrates that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But really, have you ever stopped to wonder what your ten-year-old self would have thought if someone had come to visit you from the future, and told you all about now?  Could you have imagined the internet, digital photography, smart phones, or the availability of hundreds of TV channels, shows, and movies on demand, viewable on a variety of portable devices?  What about medical advances such as fully functional artificial limbs, or robotic heart surgery?  Dick Tracy’s radio watch and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone would have seemed unimpressive in comparison.

On the other hand, not all of the news from the future would have sounded appealing.  Drones. Terrorists. Environmental disasters. Ebola. Identity theft. The Kardashians.

The good old days weren’t always good for everyone, and not good at all for some of us.  But some of the trade-offs of progress seem dubious at best.  Those of us who remember reading 1984 or Brave New World in high school have lived to see some features of those dystopic nightmares coming true, or at least close enough to be worrisome.

Still, I wouldn’t go back, even if I could.  Would you?  What technology would you miss most if you were suddenly transported back to the world of your childhood?  What “current events” of today remind you of “science fiction” of years past?  And what futuristic notions that now seem impossible might be commonplace in our grandchildren’s world?  Beam us up!

Silence sings

March 2015: Kelly photographs the monument to Philip Kearney, who lost his arm, and later his life, in service to the Union Army.

March 2015: Kelly photographs the monument to Philip Kearney,
who lost his arm, and later his life, in the U.S. Army.

“The dead soldier’s silence sings our national anthem.”  — Aaron Kilbourn

Today, on Memorial Day, I hope you will join me in listening.

Flowerbeds with edibles

Locally grown produce for sale in Sonoma County, California, May 2003

Locally grown produce for sale in Sonoma County, California, May 2003

“Creating your own urban farm is as simple as planting your flowerbeds with edibles.” — Greg Peterson

Given my failures at trying to keep the squirrels out of our tomatoes, I tend to doubt that it’s as simple as Peterson makes it sound.  Still, I find the idea intriguing.  I don’t want to give up my flowerbeds, but maybe there is space for a few edibles alongside them.

This quote is more interesting to me after an experience I had last week at my parents’ home near Atlanta.  My brother Al was cooking dinner for Mama and Daddy, and he invited me to go out and pick kale with him.  To my surprise, he did not lead me down to the large garden area at the rear of their lot.  Instead, he pointed me to a square yard of ground beside the patio, just outside the back door, where his sons planted kale several years ago.  Apparently those plants have been growing, being harvested, and putting food on their table ever since.

I’m normally not a fan of kale, but I know it’s trendy now, and I got a kick out of picking it.  Al cooked it up with some pasta, herbs and Parmesan, and I have to admit I really enjoyed it.  It was one of the few times I have eaten anything (other than a tomato) that I literally picked myself less than an hour earlier.

This was not an urban setting by any stretch of the imagination, but that patch of kale could easily be fit into a tiny urban lawn or flowerbed.  Have you ever created a windowsill herb garden, or a tiny vegetable patch in a small urban or suburban yard?  Tell us your success stories!  We’ll all be healthier and happier if we can eat food that is more fresh, local and nutritious.  And you can’t get much fresher or more local than right outside your door.

 

We are all storytellers

At eleven months, Matt had no scar on his chest.  July 1986

At eleven months old, Matt had no scar on his chest. July 1986

“We are all storytellers, photojournalists of lives that are rich with tears, bruises, tenderness, strangeness and humor.  There’s nothing wrong with shooting smiles and holidays and rituals, but life isn’t a marketing campaign.  More interesting stuff is going on.  That’s your job as a photographer – to shoot the world as it is.  Remember that you have a story to tell and that the camera, honestly used, has a way of staring without being rude.” – George Lange

When I look at this photo, I don’t see a cute bathtub scene.  I see an 11-month old infant about to undergo a nightmarish surgical trauma necessary to save his life, and his 27-month-old brother who cannot fully grasp what will happen, but who will nonetheless be indelibly influenced by the fear, uncertainty, and disruption of everyday life that lies ahead in the coming months and years.

I remember going into the bathroom to take this photo because I wanted a shot of Matt’s chest before it was cut open.  I didn’t really care that he would have a scar running from just below his neck to the bottom of his rib cage, but I did want to capture a memory of the baby who had not yet known that kind of suffering; the tiny boy who was still untouched by the first of many wounds to come.  Of course, I also was keenly aware that this little one might not survive to have another bathtub photo taken.

I’m sure there are many who might wonder why I would even keep, let alone celebrate, a photo that brings back the memory of such fear and sorrow.  But the baby did survive, as did his brother and mother and father, and their story is “rich with tears, bruises, tenderness, strangeness and humor.”

I am certain that anyone who is reading this also has a story to tell, a story equally tender and strange and rich with joy and sorrow.  My wish for you is that you will remember your story, all of it, and use your camera or art or music or words to commemorate your journey.

Your story matters.

The years teach us

Comparing this photo to the one featured here, I think my folks have held up well.  April 2015

Comparing this photo to the one featured here, I think my folks have held up well. April 2015

“It is very strange that the years teach us patience – that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.” ― Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist)

One of the great blessings of having parents who live a long time is the ability to learn from them about how to handle what lies ahead.  As my siblings and I are all old enough to be AARP members,* we’ve moved through many of the stages we remember watching our parents negotiate, marveling at how young we feel now compared to how old we once thought adults in this phase of life must be.

The challenges of growing older are slightly different for each person, of course, and everyone differs as to which aspect of aging is most easily handled.  But there is little doubt in my mind that one of the most important qualities to have when we pass into the latter half of life is patience.  Fortunately, life itself ensures that we will have this quality, if we are blessed to reach our senior years.

I suppose those who can’t learn patience probably are more likely to succumb to accidents, disease, or strokes and heart attacks.  It’s as if patience is a sort of screening device.  We may as well learn it, because we will need it in ever-increasing measure.

Truthfully, my Daddy always seemed fairly patient to me.  My busy and accomplished Mama, not so much.  Yet Daddy has grown even more patient over the years, and Mama surprises me at how well she endures (often with a smile or a laugh) things that once would have driven her mad.  Looking at them now, I realize two things: one, a long life is a mixed blessing that requires great endurance, and two, I hope Jeff and I are able to find out what it’s like to enjoy that blessing for ourselves, mixed though it inevitably will be.

Those of us facing or enjoying retirement have been, often unconsciously, learning from our elders all of our lives.  Most of those lessons have been good ones.  I hope we all remember and honor the ones who have made this difficult journey a few years ahead of us, lighting our way with grace, a sense of humor, and the deep conviction that life is good.

—————

*not that any of us actually are AARP members, but just saying…

My garden of thoughts and dreams

Yorktown garden stroll gate April 2015

You’re just in time to come with me on the Yorktown Garden Stroll!

“In my garden there is a large place for sentiment. My garden of flowers is also my garden of thoughts and dreams. The thoughts grow as freely as the flowers, and the dreams are as beautiful.” — Abram L. Urban

This year, the Yorktown Garden Stroll was scheduled a month early, in April instead of May. There weren’t quite as many flowers to admire, but the lovely little historic village is charming any time of year, and the weather was absolutely perfect for a leisurely walk.  Hosts on the tour offered refreshments and friendly chat along with displays of their gardens, and naturally I ended up at my favorite of the homes on the program: the festive dwelling where my friend Darla lives with her family.

Every time I visit the historic district of Yorktown, I tell myself that I ought to spend one or two afternoons each week there.  I think our little hometown is one of the best-kept secrets in America.  What you won’t find there: noise, crowds, commercial hype or lavish, costly restaurants and nightspots.  What you will find there: flowers, trees and birdsong in abundance, lovingly restored homes, friendly people, a gorgeous riverfront view with a white sandy beach, and unparalleled historic significance.

The hours I spend in the historic district are filled with thoughts and dreams, as I wander its streets and gardens.  After nearly eleven years of calling this county my home, there is a large place for sentiment, just as Urban describes.  Come along with me and see a few glimpses of it through my eyes…

Yorktown garden stroll,April 2015

as we wander through the gardens…

Yorktown garden stroll 4 April 2015

Yorktown garden stroll 1 April 2015

…or in town, visiting historic buildings and galleries featuring local artists’ work.

Yorktown garden stroll Fifes and Drums HQ April 2015

Yorktown garden stroll art gallery April 2015

I never tire of walking here, but you can take a Segway if you prefer.

Yorktown garden stroll Segways April 2015

Wait!  We haven’t been down to the beach or the waterfront shops!

Yorktown garden stroll, pier April 2015

But I guess there’s no time for that today…maybe another day.  Let’s head back to Darla’s for a look at her herb garden.

Yorktown Garden Stroll, Darla's herb garden, April 2015

She’s taking a break at her next door neighbor’s home — let’s pop over and say hi!

Yorktown Garden Stroll, Darla April 2015

Just a few steps away from Darla’s front door is a staircase to the beach!  A great place to go before tea, or after tea, or both!

Yorktown garden stroll stairway to beach April 2015

Darla’s neighbors across the street have quite a view, don’t they?

Yorktown garden stroll, Darla's neighbor April 2015

WOW, where did the afternoon go?  Let’s come back sometime soon!

The best baby-sitters

Even toddlers seem more adept at computers than some   of the Baby Boomers.  April 2015

Even toddlers seem more adept at computers than some of the Baby Boomers. April 2015

“The best baby-sitters, of course, are the baby’s grandparents. You feel completely comfortable entrusting your baby to them for long periods, which is why most grandparents flee to Florida.”Dave Barry

OK, you can blame this post on Jeff.  I preempted the post I had originally scheduled for this date, because Jeff told me that I was creating too many posts about flowers.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “What on earth could be more interesting than flowers?”  The answer, not surprisingly, was “Grady!”  Now, of course I realize that Grady is way more interesting to me than to anyone who is likely to read this, but that’s just one of the perks of being the blogger, hee-hee.

As regards Dave Barry’s quote above: the first part is true.  The second is certainly not ALWAYS true, since I would never flee to Florida to escape our grandson.  In fact, it would more likely work the other way if we didn’t already live so far from them.  But I take every opportunity I can to go see them, and it just so happens that I have some recent photos of a night I actually was able to babysit for Grady for just a couple of hours.

The time flew by!  In fact, by the time I was able to pry Grady away from my new touch screen computer, which he promptly figured out how to work about as well as I know how to work it after having had it since Christmas, we barely had any time left for the usual grandparent-grandchild activities such as reading books, singing songs and trashing the house.

Grady strikes a favorite playtime pose.

Grady strikes a favorite playtime pose.

But we did manage to squeeze in some time for one of Grady’s new favorite activities, blocks. As you can see in this video clip,  Grady is not only attentive to the instructions I gave him (NOT!), but also finds novel ways to improve on my ideas.  I got even with him though, since he obviously thought I was setting up a Skype session with PaPa there at the end, when really I was just filming his cute little face for posterity.

At nearly 21 months old, Grady already is adept at convincing me to disregard his bedtime.  We were totally busted when Mom and Dad came home at 9:30 (bedtime was 9) and found us still reading bedtime stories.  Fortunately, the best people for whom to baby-sit are your own children.  They tend to be quite patient with a little rule-bending as long as everyone stays safe and happy, and they get a break from the stress that inevitably comes with even the most loving relationships.  They generally appreciate having a little time away from the baby, too.

By the seeds

From Alaska to faraway Virginia, the flowers I enjoy today came from seeds a friend sent to me months ago. Alexandria,  April 2015

From faraway Alaska to our Virginia home, the flowers we enjoy today
came from seeds a friend sent to us months ago. Alexandria, April 2015

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”Robert Louis Stevenson

Spring is a time of anticipation and reward, but it also can be a time of impatience, when the weather is moody and unpredictable, and some of our plants don’t bloom as quickly as we wish they would.  Spring is the perfect time to reflect on the truth of Stevenson’s words about the wisdom of focusing on planting instead of harvest.

All of us love to see quick results and successful finishes, but most of life just doesn’t go that way.  Things take time, and we are surrounded by media images that speed things up to the point that we may buy into an unreasonable degree of expectation about how long we should be kept waiting.

Moreover, results depend on many factors that are beyond our control.  Weather, soil condition, pests and the genetics of the seeds themselves all influence our harvest.  One of the first things gardening taught me is the realization that a large percentage of what I plant will not turn out the way I hope it will.  And, except for our years on the central coast of California, it has been rare for me to succeed at growing anything from seeds.

The photo above is a favorite exception.  Jena, who has been with us here at this blog for over two years now, has been especially thoughtful to send me little treats from her travels and from her fascinating home state of Alaska.  Back in mid-2014 she sent me some seeds for Alaskan plants, including the state flower, the Forget-Me-Not.  I promptly planted some and was surprised and excited when they quickly became healthy seedlings.

Because I feared the young plants would freeze, I brought some indoors in pots during the fall, and left three planted outdoors.  As they lay under several inches of snow two months ago, I doubted they would survive.  But when the snow melted away, they sprung back to life almost immediately.  In fact, they are doing much better than the ones I kept indoors and transplanted back outside a couple of weeks ago.  It reminded me of our discussion here about the benefits of snow for insulation and fertilization.

On a recent morning when I had returned from Atlanta the previous evening, I went out on the patio to check on them.  Wow! They had doubled in size and were covered with lovely blue flowers.  It made my day to see them, knowing they grew from tiny seeds that had been sent my way across many miles, literally from one corner of North America to the other.  What a fun surprise!

I don’t remember much about the day I planted those seeds.  It was likely a typical day, one in which I got a few things accomplished, but felt there was much more still to be done.  If I could go back in time several months and show myself the photo above, I might have gotten quite a boost out of knowing that some of what was accomplished that day wasn’t immediately obvious.

Likewise, the day Jena bought those seeds to send to me, she could not have known how, several months later, there would be a rainy spring morning when the sight of their rapid growth would provide me with a burst of joyful surprise on a day when I was in need of cheer.  Though she would not be present to see the harvest of her actions, she focused on the seeds, and I hope she felt at least a small sense of accomplishment on the day she packed them along with the other surprises in the package she sent my way.

When I was prowling around for a link to post for Stevenson with his quote, I discovered something I had forgotten; he died at the age of 44, which seems tragically young to me.  He never lived to see the continuing harvest of joy that his words have brought to people of all ages for over a century.  I am comforted to think that perhaps he realized his life’s work consisted of planting seeds in faith that they would bear a harvest beyond what he might have dared to imagine. I hope we can all be inspired to remember his vision and do likewise.

Seeds from Jena 2014back of seed packet from Jena 2014

Poetry and fine sentiment

What do these treats have in common, besides being healthy and tasty? All were given to me by friends who know how much I love a good cup of tea!

What do these treats have in common, besides being healthy and tasty?
All were  given to me recently by friends who know how much I love a good cup of tea!

“There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I agree with Emerson.  Beyond the delicious taste and health benefits, tea provides a pleasant daily ritual that requires pausing for at least a moment or two in preparation, and hopefully a few more minutes of pure enjoyment, even if one is sipping in the midst of other tasks.  Those little miniature breaks in the work day can provide a real mental boost that isn’t limited to whatever caffeine may kick in.

So many varieties of tea come in attractive packaging that complements its refined nature, and this adds to the delight I find in collecting different flavors. The artistry of the tins and boxes adds to the poetic appeal.  As to sentiment, I am fortunate to have a collection that has come from many different friends and loved ones, and each time I indulge in a cup of tea that was generously given to me by a person close to my heart, it’s as if they are paying me a quick visit, saying hello across the miles by providing me with a few minutes of joy in my everyday life.  My tea cupboard is chock-full of happy sentiment!

Tea has been around for centuries, and I think the traditions associated with it across so many cultures indicate that it must have been a favored gift for as long as people have been enjoying it.  I imagine that Emerson had his share of memories linked to tea shared among friends, whether it was given to him as leaves for brewing, or as a steaming cup of hospitality on a chilly New England day.

As I am writing this, the weather has gone gloomy and overcast, which sets the perfect tone for writing a post about my favorite beverage.  I invite you to join me in a few moments of fine sentiment as you sip a leisurely cup of whatever flavor suits you best.  Feel free to wax poetic — or simply chatty — in the comments below.  Santé!

Deep roots

Aren't they pretty, considering they spent days with their faces down on the ground?  The abundant petals that weighed them down also made their blooms stronger.

Aren’t they pretty, considering they spent days with their faces down on the ground?
The abundant petals that weighed them down also seem to make the blooms stronger.

“The old that is strong does not wither.  Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
J. R. R. Tolkien

I quoted from this poem in an earlier post, but recently its timeless words have been on my mind again.  I was reminded of these particular lines by the daffodils in my yard. Daffodils are my favorite flowers, toughing out the cold and blooming before the weather warms up enough to justify their bright optimism.  Year after year, they prove that the frost doesn’t kill everything.

The doubles I planted years ago have been disappointing outdoors, though.  They are so beautifully full that they have a hard time holding their heads up when they reach peak bloom. They generally nosedive to the ground just when they look prettiest.  (Does anyone have any hints how to solve this?  It would take a lot of stakes to hold them all up.)

The other day, I was so sad seeing them all lying face down in the foliage that I decided to do what some gardeners have told me not to do: cut them and bring them inside.  I figured they were nearly gone anyway, and I wanted to enjoy them.

I was surprised to find that not only had they retained their lush beauty, but with the support of a crystal bud vase, they kept their showy splendor for over a week indoors, far longer than my ordinary daffodils ever do.  I simply bound them together loosely to help support their weight, and they brought me joy every time I saw them.  They even traveled from York to Alexandria wrapped in a wet paper towel, and arrived none the worse for wear.

That got me thinking about how people often are like that.  Sometimes the very virtues that make us remarkable can also act as liabilities, holding us back or wearing us out unless we get the support we need.

This is especially true as we grow older.  While each of us experiences the loss of some of our physical or mental abilities, it seems that everyone has areas where they remain strong, and these traits do not wither.  In fact, many of them, such as wisdom, patience or compassion, grow stronger with age.  Like the gorgeous blooms of the drooping daffodils, that which is strong in us sometimes remains with us until we die, no matter how beset with illness or infirmity we grow.

I once knew a lovely lady who had the best manners of anyone I had ever seen.  Just being around her inspired me to want to be more gracious and polite.  Her kindness and courtesy remained with her to the end of her days, endearing her to the health care staff who attended to her needs through years of living with Alzheimer’s disease.

We all have known people who remained astoundingly strong in the face of grave illness, mentally sharp even when dealing with physical decline, or resolutely cheerful despite lacking abilities that most of us would consider necessary for happiness.  Often, their challenges and losses mean they require a bit of extra support, but the beauty of their unique gifts shines on, blessing all who are lucky enough to know them.

 

By the window

Spring in Gościeradz by Leon Wyczółkowski (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring in Gościeradz by Leon Wyczółkowski (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

What life can compare to this?
Sitting quietly by the window,
I watch the leaves fall and the flowers bloom,
As the seasons come and go.     — Hsueh-Tou

Don’t you love sitting quietly by a window?  I don’t make enough time for it.  I always find it calming; the combination of sunlight (or moonlight) and the sounds and colors of nature are soothing and stimulating at the same time.

For some of us, it’s now springtime; for others, it’s autumn.  Still others live near the equator, where the seasons are more subtle, but worth watching nonetheless.  What do you see outside your window today?  Feel free to send photos to share (email them as attachments to defeatdespair@verizon.net).  Here’s what I saw outside my window the day I wrote this post:

Cherry blossoms outside my window April 2015

Today, I wish you a deep understanding of how incomparably blessed we are by the ever-changing, endlessly unique sights we see through our own windows!

Blooming most recklessly

Wish me luck with this lovely dianthus! It's a perennial, so if I don't kill it, you may be seeing it again sometime.

Wish me luck with this lovely Oscar Pink dianthus!
It’s a perennial, so if I don’t kill it, you may be seeing it again sometime.

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.” Rainer Maria Rilke

I probably say this every year, but I can’t remember when I was more eager for spring. Because I was expecting visitors in late March and early April, I was disappointed that my hyacinths and tulips were delayed by the weather.  I combed the garden stores hoping to find some annuals I could plant for a spot of color, but alas! none of them had much on hand.

Because of this, when the flowering plants finally began to arrive, I couldn’t tear myself away from the colorful displays.  So far I’ve bought three or four blooming plants I’ve never tried before (ageratum, English daisy, and Oscar Pink dianthus) along with the usual favorites (snapdragons, portulaca, begonias), and I know I’ll be curbside-shopping (the flower equivalent of window-shopping) for some time to come.  I have no idea how well any of these will do under my less-than-expert care, but I had so much fun shopping for them, they are well worth the relatively small amounts I spent here and there.

What’s blooming in your neck of the woods?  Which flowers are shrieking in your neighborhood?  What are your favorites among their colorful voices?  Take some time to enjoy the gorgeous floral displays popping up everywhere, for sale or for show, and feast your eyes on their vivid hues.

The power of celebration

Blogger Trip April 2015

Celebration! That’s exactly what these four incredible women brought us, April 2015.

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”Abraham Joshua Heschel

“We marveled that while most of us had never met each other, we talked and laughed as if we’d known each other for years.  Which, of course, we had.” Laurie B

There really is power in celebration, and I’ve been blessed to experience it recently, in many episodes.  The most remarkable one lately is the visit I referred to in an earlier blog.  Four of my all-time favorite bloggers came to see us at our Alexandria home, and meeting them face to face was a dream come true!  It’s still hard to believe it really happened, considering all the logistics involved, the complexity of modern lives, and the multiple responsibilities we all undertake.

Each of these women is special to me in her own way, but all share the common trait of knowing what it means to celebrate.  That’s what brought us together in the beginning, and that’s what their trip here was all about.  From as far away as New Zealand (a 36 hour journey, ONE WAY) to as “close” as southwestern Virginia (still a 5 hour drive in good traffic), we met to celebrate the special friendships we had formed online via our blogs and Skype chats.

And what a celebration it was! Despite the usual travel glitches and mishaps, we shared laughter and talks and gifts and reflections, leaving memories that will last well beyond our brief time together.  Referring to Herschel’s quote, we were certainly entertained and amused by each other, but those were secondary to the celebration of what we had already shared in becoming part of each other’s lives through the magic of words and photographs.

One of the nicest gifts you can give yourself is taking time to celebrate your friends and loved ones. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular feat such as this get-together was, though it’s well worth the effort if you can manage to pull it off.  But in reality, such extraordinary times are relatively rare.

That’s not a problem.  Our big event started in small, everyday celebrations, moments that are within everyone’s reach. It can be as simple as a card, a handmade gift, a special photograph or a shared cup of tea.  As Herschel reminds us, our actions can and often do have transcendent meaning.  Let’s act in ways that celebrate the gifts of being alive, loving and sharing!

Contentment and aspiration

This adorable visitor was content to rest on our deck railing for a few minutes. Yorktown, April 2015

This adorable visitor was content to rest with us one recent sunny morning.
Our back yard in Yorktown, Virginia, April 2015

“We are not to make the ideas of contentment and aspiration quarrel, for God made them fast friends. A man may aspire, and yet be quite content until it is time to raise; and both flying and resting are but parts of one contentment.”Henry Ward Beecher

I think I understand what Beecher was getting at far more now than I would have twenty years ago.  Admittedly, there’s a fine line between contentment and passive acceptance of the status quo, but we all have known people who manage to walk that line gracefully.

Too often, high ideals and lofty goals are coupled with impatience, frustration, and egocentric pride.  It’s fine for us to want to make things better, but if we catch ourselves thinking we are the only ones who can do it right, that’s a warning flag.  If we expect instant results, or are continually criticizing or undermining other people’s efforts, we may be passing from aspiration to envy or blind ambition.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain,” Paul tells Timothy, and anyone who knows the balm of being truly contented will surely agree.  There was a time when I might have mistaken contentment for timidity, apathy or even a wee bit of laziness.  Now the word calls to mind more admirable traits: faith, patience, humility, self-control and joy.

Most people, it seems, tend toward one side or the other when it comes to ambition and contentment.  No matter which side of the fence you may find yourself occupying, I wish you a lifetime of the delights of both flying and resting — and the wisdom to know when to do which.

 

The most exciting play

Eight-year-old Drew, during his first year of playing baseball. He hit a lot more triples than homeruns -- no wonder I like triples!

Eight-year-old Drew, during his first year of playing baseball, Vandenberg AFB, CA, 1992.
He hit a lot more triples than home runs — no wonder I like triples!

“The triple is the most exciting play in baseball. Home runs win a lot of games, but I never understood why fans are so obsessed with them.”  — Hank Aaron

In typical fashion, Aaron turns the spotlight away from himself to voice an opinion I was relieved to read.  I thought I was the only one who loved triples better than home runs.

There’s something slightly anti-climactic about a home run, even when it cleans up the bases or ends the game.  With a home run, you’re there.  With a triple, it’s that sweet moment when victory is in your grasp, but not quite yours.

Singles put men on base and doubles bring them home, but triples are in a class by themselves; they are the epitome of achievement, where the hitter/runner delivers more than expected, pushing the tension to its very limit.  You’ll never see an arrogant batter jogging lazily around the bases in a triple.

As some of us celebrate the opening of another baseball season, remember that the greatest home run hitter of all time (STILL the greatest — Barry who?) understood the truth that getting there — especially when done with panache — is more than half of the fun.

 

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