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.

 

The right mental attitude

This photo was taken exactly one week before everything changed. Jeff and Drew were on their way to watch the Nats play the Marlins, 9-9-12.

This photo was taken exactly one week before everything changed.
Jeff and Drew were on their way to watch the Nats play the Marlins, 9-9-12.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” — author unknown, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson

Just the other day, Jeff sent me this quote because he knew I would like it; I knew, too, that he liked it.  What he did not know was that it would involve yet another instance of my featuring his photo on this blog, something he always complains about.  I try to keep it to a minimum, out of respect for his privacy, but sometimes I cannot help myself.

I can’t think of any other person whose photo more fits this quote.  It’s interesting because I’ve often accused Jeff of being a negative thinker, a pessimist who rains on my fantasy parades, whose blunt commentary cuts through the gauzy mists of my daydreams.

It has taken the past two and a half years for me to realize that what I think of as pessimism has another side.  No determination is stronger than that borne of grim realism coupled with firm resolve to overcome nearly impossible obstacles.

Note that the quote does not mention “a positive attitude,” but rather, “the right mental attitude.”  Sometimes, there is little that is positive about a situation other than our ability to choose how we respond to it.

For all of his taciturn skepticism, Jeff’s response to the disease that has ravaged his body has been astoundingly, almost unbelievably strong.  That he continues to work full time, not just on his job but also at home, defies all logic, given the medical trauma of the past 30 months, the harsh facts of his condition, and his acute awareness that the suffering likely will continue.

Despite every evidence to the contrary, his continuing strength makes it almost impossible for me to believe that he is not going to beat this and live for many more years.  But whatever happens, he has given me the invaluable gift of sustaining, for over two years, a more normal life than I would have thought possible when the nightmare first began.

Early in the diagnostic process, when we were delivered news that seemed to get progressively worse, one blow after another, we had returned from an all-day session at Walter Reed that included a very discouraging meeting with the oncology staff.  That night, while Jeff was out to pick up some takeout food for dinner, one of the residents called.  He reported that the tumor board had met to discuss Jeff’s case again after we left, and they wanted to do an additional scan; they suspected there might be yet more undetected tumors.

“Would this change the treatment plan?” I asked.  No, I was told, it would not. I asked him why another scan, given that the treatment plan was to go forward regardless of what it said.  Why did we need more bad news?

“Because it might help you to adjust your expectations; we don’t want you to be anticipating that we will do any surgery.”

I knew two things at that point: one, that they certainly had me pegged; and two, that I was so angry I couldn’t contain myself.

“I know something about my husband none of you know,” I was shouting now, but I didn’t care. “He is strong as an ox.  We don’t need our expectations adjusted any more than they already have been.  Go back and tell the tumor board that we aren’t doing any more scans until the treatments have had a chance to work.”

After I hung up, I felt scared to tell Jeff what I had just done.  I thought he would be angry because I had shouted at the doctor and voiced a decision that rightly belonged to him. When Jeff returned and I confessed, he laughed — LAUGHED! — and said he agreed with me.  No more scans until later.  I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know how the past two years have unfolded, and how Jeff has more than proven my assertions about his strength.  Those of you who know him well, also know that his faith has been the foundation of his remarkable stamina.  I am so thankful that the mercies of God are truly new every morning.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that Jeff has already won this battle regardless of the final outcome.

His attitude — the right attitude — is an inspiration to me, as I know it has been to many others.  Thanks for letting me pay tribute to him here.

Questions of faith and love

Foto tirada em Morro Gaúcho, Arroio do Meio-RS Brasil by Anderson Fleck CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Morro Gaúcho, Brasil by Anderson Fleck (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

“…although the historical arguments for Jesus’s bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas and Peter, the questions of faith and love. We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter.  To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen.”
N. T. Wright 

I imagine that Wright’s words will make sense to many of us who believe in the resurrection as the pivotal moment in history.  For others, they may be puzzling, even nonsensical.

Faith, hope, love; each is ultimately a decision that goes far beyond initial acceptance of the idea.  For skeptics, the decision to adopt a belief system that defies natural law and human tendency may appear as the most difficult step of becoming a disciple of Jesus.  Yet it’s only the first step in a lifetime of challenge and growth.

Experience will teach us that truth goes deeper than objective “fact” and encompasses far more than historical events and individual testimonies, however trustworthy and proven they may be.  If our journey is a long one by earthly standards, we likely will look back in astonishment at how much bigger, brighter and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring the truth has become; how little of it, we now realize, that we have known, and how much we long for the morning when the brilliance of sunrise will render our little candles obsolete.

Until then, we rejoice that we “know whom [we] have believed.”  Happy Easter!

 

Sweet remembrancers

Stroll with me down memory lane at Keukenhof, Netherlands, March 2007.

Stroll with me down memory lane at Keukenhof, Netherlands, March 2007.

…Thus in each flower and simple bell,
That in our path untrodden lie,
Are sweet remembrancers who tell
How fast the winged moments fly.
Time will steal on with ceaseless pace,
Yet lose we not the fleeting hours,
Who still their fairy footsteps trace,
As light they dance among the flowers.
Charlotte Turner Smith

It was eight years and two days ago that Amy and I enjoyed an early spring day at Keukenhof in the Netherlands.  The hours there passed all too quickly, but the memories have lingered on, enhanced by the hundreds of photos I took that day.  That day, as I was snapping away with my camera, I didn’t even really know what a blog was, and certainly never dreamed of the events that would lead to my sharing so many of the photos with all of you.

I couldn’t remember which snapshots I have already used here, so I did a quick check and found that I have already published at least a dozen posts featuring photos I took that wonderful day.  I hope they’re not getting boring.

How often thoughts of the dazzling colors and glorious greenery I saw that day have brought cheer to me in moments of sadness or exhaustion!  I couldn’t let springtime pass without featuring at least one more picture I took then, because Keukenhof captures for me the heart and soul of the season’s beauty.

“Time will steal on with ceaseless pace, Yet lose we not the fleeting hours…”  Wise words to keep in mind anytime, but especially so in spring, when nature brings us many reasons to rejoice.  I hope you will make some time to gather memories outdoors that will “dance among the flowers” whenever you most need them.

 

To serve the public

This 2007 photo gives a bird's-eye view of the National Mall and most of the Smithsonian. The museums lie along the corridor between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Public domain photo by the Architect of the Capitol's Office, via Wikimedia Commons

This 2007 photo gives a bird’s-eye view of the National Mall and most of the Smithsonian.
The museums lie along the corridor between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Public domain photo by the Architect of the Capitol’s Office, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Smithsonian is a great museum that annually attracts more than 20 million visitors, every single one of whom was there when we arrived…my suggestion for the Smithsonian is: If you really want to serve the public, you should put in an exhibit called: A Big Dark Room Filled With Mattresses.” Dave Barry

Even if you love the Smithsonian as much as I do, you probably smiled when you read Dave Barry’s quote.  Perhaps it’s no accident that Mr. Smithson himself never saw the museum he established, nor even visited the country where he had it built.

Seriously, the Smithsonian– actually not just one museum, but a whole collection of them– is enormous and amazing, with something for everyone.  But good luck finding it.  And be prepared to do a lot of walking.

I’ve often thought that one of the best things about living near DC is the chance to visit the Smithsonian for two or three hours at a time.  More than that, and my brain goes on overload. Plus, it’s good to be able to visit alone sometimes.  I’m the type of person who wants to stop and read all the signs and take pictures of almost everything, which drives some people crazy. (I’m not naming names here, but yours is likely one of them.)

If you live too far away to make short visits, I do recommend that you allocate at least one day to explore these museums, most of which are spread along a pedestrian-only expanse called the National Mall, conveniently located near all the most famous monuments.  “Near” being a relative term, since they too require a lot of walking.   Cars are obviously discouraged; the National Mall has no (that’s right, ZERO) parking facilities.

Luckily, although the Mattress exhibit is not yet open (nor even planned) there are a lot of lovely gardens and park benches for resting and taking in the beautiful spring weather.  So even if you only want to see the Moon Rock, or the Hope Diamond, or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, you can still have a good time.  Just wear comfortable shoes.

Today’s post is dedicated to all DC visitors, in anticipation of next week’s long-planned arrival of FOUR fellow bloggers, one of whom is coming all the way from New Zealand!  Stay tuned…

Showing off

The snow didn't fool these birds -- they know it's spring!  Alexandria, VA March 2015

The snow didn’t fool these birds — they know it’s spring! Alexandria, VA March 2015

“I’m lying in my room listening to the birds outside. I used to think they sang because they were happy. But then I learned on a nature show they’re really showing off.”
Jo Knowles

So much for our romantic anthropomorphism.  But for a bird, maybe showing off is a cheerful sort of thing to do.  It takes energy, and energy is not something that tends to go with being depressed.

A couple of days after our big 8-inch snowfall earlier this month, Jeff called me to the kitchen window to point out two birds sitting together on the branch of a tree in the woods behind our home.  Of course, I ran to get my camera.  As I watched them through the telephoto lens, I was curious about their repetitive motions.

“I think they’re preening,” Jeff said, but after a few moments he added, “or maybe that’s some sort of mating ritual.”

“I didn’t know birds engaged in mating rituals in the dead of winter.”

“It’s NOT the dead of winter, it’s SPRING!”

Ah, so it was — though it was an easy mistake to make, with the dirty snow at the end of our street piled in drifts almost as tall as me. But even if I had my doubts as to whether spring was here, you can bet the birds didn’t.  They were out there showing off, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show.

I did a bit of research, and this site about the Mourning Dove seems to indicate that what we saw may indeed have been some sort of bonding ritual.  But perhaps readers with more knowledge of birds can watch my (slightly shaky handheld) video and enlighten us:

Happy fourth day of spring!

Endless, incredible loot

Main reading room, the U. S. Library of Congress, Washington DC Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Main reading room, the U. S. Library of Congress, Washington DC
Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“The richest person in the world – in fact, all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library. You can measure the awareness, the breadth and the wisdom of a civilization, a nation, a people by the priority given to preserving these repositories…”  — Malcolm Forbes

I’ve read that the public library is “the poor man’s university,” and I think that’s an apt description.  However, it can also be a rich person’s playground, as Forbes attested.  Are you enjoying this wonderfully accessible wealth?  If not, I encourage you to check out your local library (no pun intended) and if it’s not to your liking, explore others within a reasonable drive until you find one that fits your idea of a fun place to browse, dream and relax.

Even if your closest library is somewhat lacking, most have resources that allow you to tap into online databases and inter-library loans to find whatever you most want to read or study. Many libraries offer free classes, music and movies, electronic readers for checkout, and other items. But the books are enough to draw many of us back again and again.

A rainy spring day is a great time to hunt for an absorbing book.  You’ll want to have one or two on hand for those nice warm days that will be calling you outside to spend a few minutes relaxing in a lawn chair or on a park bench.  Visit a library soon, and capture a bit of loot to treasure!

Much more the same

The differences are obvious, but so are the similarities. Mandarin Pair © Francis C. Franklin CC-BY-SA-3.

The differences are obvious, but so are the similarities.
Mandarin Pair © Francis C. Franklin CC-BY-SA-3.

“As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different.”Fred Rogers

Perhaps Mr. Rogers touched so many hearts because he understood this truth.  All of us have fears, sorrows, flaws and deficits.  Each of us has hopes, dreams, abilities and gifts.  When I remember this, it’s easier to care about people, and harder to be angry with them.

It has been more than twelve years now since Mr. Rogers left the neighborhood he created for us, but his legacy lives on.  A few months before he died, he recorded this beautiful message to us, which my nephew Ryan sent me recently when it was re-broadcast.  I wanted to share it with you, along with some of my favorite words of wisdom from a man whose gentle strength continues to influence my life.

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for our children (and for each other) is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

“Part of the problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of  disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” 

I wish you a beautiful day in your neighborhood!

 

Silent devoted companionship

Living Hand to Paw by Bruce from San Francisco, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Living Hand to Paw by Bruce from San Francisco, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.”
— Doris Day

If you’ve ever had a canine friend, you know what Day meant.  There is something about the friendship between humans and dogs that defies comparison to anything else.

I’ve found that many of my fellow dog lovers are also fond of animals in general, but most of us will admit that our dogs fill a gap that can’t be filled by any other animal, or even any human. Their instinctive awareness of our moods, their unconditional devotion and their (mostly) silent presence in good times and bad quickly become part of our lives to the point that we can scarcely remember what our days were like without them.

Unlike a lot of people, dogs seem to be even more drawn to us in times when we are sad or distressed. They don’t offer solutions or advice, but they do communicate understanding and concern.  They stay beside us, letting us know that whatever else is going on, their loyalty is unchanged and unchanging.

Many of you know that our beloved dog Pasha died less than a year after Jeff’s diagnosis.  He had been with us more than sixteen years, and we still miss him.  When our lives settle down enough to ensure that we will have the time and stamina required, we plan to adopt another puppy.  Meanwhile, I enjoy other people’s dogs, who brighten my walks and make our neighborhoods fun places to be.

If you are “between dogs” as we are, or can’t have a pup for other reasons, I hope you are able to experience some of their benefits through friends and family whose households include a canine or two.  To those of you whose homes are blessed with the cheerful chores that go with having a resident pooch, please accept my thanks for the vicarious joy I get from seeing and hearing about your furry friends.

 

Filling the dark trees

The woods behind our home were transformed by the snow.  March 5, 2015

The woods behind our home were transformed by the snow. March 5, 2015

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.    ― Mary Oliver

I saw more snow last week than I’ve seen any week since we lived in Ohio, and maybe more than any week ever in March.  It was hard to think of anything else.  Something about being stuck at home inspired me to relax more than usual and give myself time off from everything except enjoying the lazy mornings and disrupted schedule.

I hope you are, like me, still awed by its beauty no matter how ready we all are for spring.  I took these photos on a late afternoon walk after watching the snow fall all day.  I only walked around our building, but the same scenes I see every day were transformed into lacy enchantment.

Oliver is right about the prettiness, but snow’s reason for being goes far beyond that, of course.  Since Eric’s comments a couple of years back about the benefits of snow for the growth of plants, I’ve been experimenting with bringing snow inside to water my indoor plants, some of which I dug up to keep inside for the winter.  Maybe it’s my imagination, but I was impressed by how the plants responded.

I decided to upcycle my empty club soda bottle to make this handy snow catcher to water my plants.  All I had to do was open my door and scoop up some snow — no gloves or shoes or coats needed! — and then it would melt surprisingly slowly, gradually watering the plants.  I don’t know whether this will be any better for them than pouring tap water into them, but it was a lot of fun to find a reason to play with snow inside.

My houseplants seem to love snow, and this is an easy way to feed them.

My houseplants seem to love snow, and this is an easy way to feed them.

As pretty and useful as it is, I hope this is the LAST post about snow I will be writing this year!

For one last shot of the beautiful snow, here’s a wonderful photo sent to me by a reader, Susan, who photographed her church building one recent evening after choir practice.  Light shining in the darkness!

Susan took this after choir practice; I think it's in New Hampshire.  March 2015

Susan took this after choir practice; I think it’s in New Hampshire. March 2015

Fascinating to watch

This big lizard seemed to enjoy the sunshine of the Mexican coast.  Tulum, January 2015

This big lizard seemed to enjoy the sunshine of the Mexican coast. Tulum, January 2015

“The common animals, birds and insects that are found in a little yard in the city are as fascinating to watch, and as fruitful in affording the careful observer a glimpse into some of the mysteries of nature, as are the rare and uncommon creatures of some far-off land.”Leonard Dubkin

While our tour group was walking from the entrance of Mexico’s Parque Nacional Tulum along the path to the ruins, our guide said something that made me laugh: “Don’t stop to take photos of the iguanas.  You will see more iguanas than people when we get to the ruins.”

That turned out to be not much of an exaggeration.  As promised, the iguanas were everywhere.  I took almost as many photos of these beautifully ugly creatures as I did of the lovely excavated village perched on a cliff overlooking the sea.  I was not the only one; I saw as many people stopping to watch these over-sized lizards as I saw admiring the expansive landscape.  The guides, I’m sure, must have been fairly bored by the iguanas — and by our fascination with them.

I was reminded of a co-worker I knew many years ago, who was an immigrant from Egypt. She used to love watching the squirrels play in the park outside our office building.  I assumed she was unaccustomed to seeing them, since most of us scarcely noticed them as we paced quickly past, lost inside our thoughts.

It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but that may be an overstatement, unless one defines contempt as unintentional disregard.  When I stop to think about it, I’m quite fond of the familiar, as I think most of us are.  We are proud of our towns, happy with our homes and lawns, fond of our neighbors and friends.  The problem is, I don’t stop to think about it often enough.

One reason I love travel is that it helps me see the everyday through opened eyes.  Given a choice, I would prefer my endearing local critters to the iguanas, though I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see them up close.

When spring arrives, or maybe even before it does, I’m going to try seeing the birds and squirrels and butterflies as if I had never seen a single one of them before.  Can you imagine how exciting it would be to see a butterfly for the first time?  To hear the trilling of a cheerful bird in the morning and wonder where the sound came from?  To watch the astounding agility of a squirrel as it flits about among the trees?

As the weather warms and we are able to be outside more often, I wish you many fruitful observations of our common animals.  They always brighten my day, as I hope they do yours.

 

Dressed in snow

Nearly four days after the snowfall, our yard still looks like this. March 1, 2015, Yorktown Virginia

Nearly four days after the snowfall, our yard still looks like this.
March 1, 2015, Yorktown Virginia

“It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it has pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice..”Markus Zusak

Just when I thought we were in for a fairly mild winter, February happened.  And happened again, and again.  Not just in the DC area, but also near our York home, near your home (probably) and near the homes of seemingly most of the people I know.  Facebook was showered with “Winter Wonderland” collages, each more enchanting than the last.  Currier and Ives had a digital update.

One great thing about this late-winter snow, at least in southeastern Virginia, is that it lingered so long that the kids had a chance to really have fun with it.  Normally when we do get a snowfall, it’s gone in a day or two.  This one was deep (around 8 inches) and the weather was cold enough to ensure that the snow didn’t disappear before yielding to the creativity of our neighbors.

I’m sure we’re all ready for springtime, but I must admit it was rather fun to have March come in like a lion this year.  If the “out like a lamb” phase holds this much beauty, we have a real treat in store.

Whether King of the snow castle...

Along with the king of the snow castle…

...or traffic snow-cop...

…and a traffic snow-cop…

...there were fashionable ladies...

…there were fashionable snow-ladies…

...and dapper snow-gents.

…and dapper snow-gents.

Some were clearly dreaming of warmer days...

Some were clearly dreaming of warmer days…

...and summer pastimes.

…and summer pastimes.

Some were well-prepared...

Some were well-prepared…

...and some had "fallen and couldn't get up!!"

…and some had “fallen and couldn’t get up!!”

 

Plenty of us lost our heads and joined in the fun.

Plenty of us lost our heads and joined in the fun.

Eric & Sherry created this low-carb snow person...

Eric & Sherry created this low-carb snow person…

...at their mountain home in north Georgia.

…at their mountain home in north Georgia.

Meanwhile, Carla and George enjoyed the snow at their Alabama homes...

Meanwhile, Carla and George enjoyed the snow at their Alabama homes…

...and so did their grandchildren!

…and so did their grandchildren!

I guess we'd all better get back to work now... it was fun while it lasted!

I guess we’d all better get back to work now…
it was fun while it lasted!

An echo from the past

Al and me, enjoying what passed as a snowfall in Atlanta in the mid 1960's.

Al and me, enjoying what passed as a snowfall in Atlanta in the mid 1960’s

Nothing is Lost

by Noel Coward

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.

Complicated

Though the patterns are repetitive, lives remain complex, intricate and unique. This Orbit Trap-21 fractal is from the Fractal Generator at www.fractalsciencekit.com

Though the patterns are repetitive, each life remains complex, intricate and unique.
This Orbit Trap-21 fractal is from the Fractal Generator at www.fractalsciencekit.com

“Everything is complicated; if that were not so, life and poetry and everything else would be a bore.”Wallace Stevens

I’ve noticed that advertising and publishing increasingly use variations on the word “simple” to promote their content.  Everyone, it seems, yearns for simplicity amid the overwhelming density of challenges with which our brains must deal every day.  Neutral colors, sparse decoration, minimal sound and dim or shaded light become more appealing as our exhausted souls seek refuge.

While I am among those crying out for lower stimulation as a route to sanity, I must pause to say that I love the complexity of life.  I delight in the overabundance of choices, the dazzling array of affordable food and clothing, even the techno toys that grow more amazing each year.

I love it that people are so different from one another; that each friendship brings unique gifts and insights; that family members I have known for decades continue to grow and surprise me with the new dimensions to their personalities.

So, even as I fly to the calm of my solitary retreats from diverse forms of wealth I could scarcely have imagined in childhood, I remain thankful to have such a rich existence to necessitate the times of respite.  How very beautiful the world can be, and how blessed we are to be here!

This example of a Julia fractal is from exper.3drecursions.com

This example of a Julia fractal is from exper.3drecursions.com

With no mistakes

Young performers at Lunar New Year, Chinatown, San Francisco, January 2004.

Young performers at Lunar New Year, Chinatown, San Francisco, January 2004.

“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”
L.M. Montgomery

If you’ve already lapsed on your New Year’s resolutions (or never had any) you have another chance to start the New Year today, on Lunar New Year.  In fact, every day is a chance to start again.  I hope the optimism inherent in new beginnings will stay with you daily during the year.  Regardless of how you may hear it– Gong Xi Fa Cai (Mandarin) —  Gong Hey Fat Choy (Cantonese) — or Happy New Year — that’s your cue to say, “May I have the envelope, please?” And you thought that was a line from the Academy Awards!

Music, laughter, grief and imagination

More than just an arrangement of cells: orchids at the National Botanic Garden, Washington DC, April 2014

More than cells: orchids at the National Botanic Garden, Washington DC, April 2014

“It wouldn’t surprise me to know that there are science professors who mock all other types of knowledge as though they’re simply the fluffy, pretty, inconsequential bits around the edge, while (they say) the physical sciences are the solid, hard, no-nonsense things in the middle.  Of course, nobody really lives like that for a single day.  Music, laughter, grief, and imagination keep breaking in despite the best efforts of the left brain, just as the right-brain dreamers still have to do the laundry and pay their bills and catch the train to get to work on time.”N. T. Wright

A botanist could give us a flawless scientific description of these orchids, and maybe even put the more esoteric details in terms we could understand. But could she convey their beauty 
more effectively than a poet or musician or artist could?  Somehow I doubt it.

What we think of as objective knowledge is important, even essential.  Medicine, engineering, agriculture and other areas of study would collapse without respect for proven laws and peer-reviewed observations.

But our collective progress as humans will ultimately be impeded without appropriate humility. Science is an evolving discipline, and blind devotion to its accepted orthodoxy is no more desirable now than it was in the days of Galileo or Pasteur, among others who challenged the contemporary understanding of “facts” and were ultimately proven right.

Meanwhile, think twice when you hear people saying that math and science are more important subjects for our children to learn than art, history, theology, music or literature.  One need only look at a beautiful flower to realize that there is a mystery to our existence that goes beyond what can be reduced to facts, experiments and numbers.

 

Be the one

Oklahoma sharecroppers, 1914, by the father of Don O'Brien, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma sharecroppers 1914, from Don O’Brien, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“I met one woman in Georgia who has been married to her husband for over 60 years. After being asked for her best relationship advice, she paused and then said, ‘Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.’ ”  Nate Bagley

It seems to me this is the one piece of advice we don’t hear very much.  We are warned repeatedly, and with some justification, to beware of being taken for granted, taken advantage of, hurt or mistreated.  And all these things really do happen to people who love, far too often.

But the big truth is often overlooked: it is giving love, not receiving it, that makes us happiest.  It’s true that loving brings great risk, but not loving is also risky, and miserable.

Taught from birth to value equal rights and opportunities for all, we sometimes confuse this with thinking everything else should be equal, too.  We prize getting a good bargain for what we pay, and investing our time and money in ways that are likely to bring equal or greater return.  But that policy doesn’t work well for connecting with others.

In truth, it’s likely that very few relationships are completely reciprocal.  Just as people differ in the ways they tend to show their love, they also differ in their capacity to love others, and that’s really okay.  The important thing is that we all keep moving in the right direction– that of loving more, always more– and not stop to compare ourselves with others or keep some sort of emotional ledger that has to balance to the penny.

This Valentine’s Day, I invite you to celebrate the honor and privilege of loving more.  Join Jeff and me and a cast of millions as we all go on, “Dancing in the Minefields.”

Little oases

In January 2015, the sunny shore of Tulum, Mexico was an oasis in more ways than one.

In January 2015, the sunny coast of Tulum, Mexico was an oasis in more ways than one.

“All that the historians give us are little oases in the desert of time, and we linger fondly in these, forgetting the vast tracks between one and another that were trodden by the weary generations of men.”John Alfred Spender

One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) aspects of visiting historic sites, especially ancient ones, is the way time becomes telescoped into a deceptively small package.  There is no real way to grasp the magnitude of centuries, even when careful excavation reveals a wealth of solid clues.

Still, most of us do linger fondly at these little oases, as Spender has noted.  Why?  Aside from their frequently beautiful physical appearance and appealing climate, I think there’s something unseen there that draws us in.  As the guides spin their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tales of civilizations beset by warring neighbors, epidemic disease and grisly cultural practices such as human sacrifice, we feel a bit happier with the modern world than we were before.

It’s interesting to wonder how future centuries (assuming the world as we know it stands that long) will describe our societies, and how history will judge us.  From my admittedly limited perspective, though, I think Now has a lot going for it.  I hope that our weary generations will occasionally pause to dance as we tread the vast tracks.

With the reader’s eye

Dear reader January 2015

Ozeki’s quote inspired me to stop reading and start writing. January, 2015

“Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader’s eye.  Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.”Ruth Ozeki

When I read this quote, I was flooded with mental images of the handwriting of so many people who live in my heart.  I thought of the letters from my grandmothers, and how I cannot bear to part with them, a fragmented vision of them coming alive for me again at the sight of their words written to me many years ago.

Of all the items that accumulate in a life of nearly six decades, I find that letters and cards containing handwritten notes are the hardest for me to discard.  I suppose that’s why I have so many of them, packed away randomly in boxes scattered in various locations, their contents seen by chance when I am looking for something specific.

Some are from people who will always be part of my life, and some are from those I knew only briefly, but each is unique, the words formed in loops or swirls or scrawls as personal as a fingerprint.

All of us who are blessed to know how to write legibly with a pen or pencil are in possession of a skill that is increasingly vanishing from everyday life.  It’s understandable, of course; like many others, I prefer the keyboard to the pen because I can produce words much more quickly with it.   And perhaps my initial difficulty with handwriting has left me with residual resistance to it.  (I was traumatized to get the first “C” of my life in that subject in fifth grade, and to this day, I print rather than use cursive.)

Yet I love to write by hand.  I love using different ink colors, and choosing stationery, and addressing and stamping a card.  I love walking it to the mailbox or post office and dropping it into a slot from which it will take a journey I am unable to make, visiting on my behalf a home too far away for me to drop by casually in person.

Whether or not you share this love of correspondence, I encourage you to give the gift of a handwritten visit to someone who may be encouraged by having your presence in a tangible sense that the computer or telephone cannot quite duplicate.  You may find, as I do, that it’s a rewarding and relaxing experience, an oasis of calm in a sea of demands and challenges.

Worthy of note

I picked these clover and liriope blooms on my walk last September, and photographed them so you can see them too!

I saw these clover and liriope blooms on my walk last September, 2014,
and photographed them so you can see them too!

“Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. ‘Nothing in particular,’ she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.  How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch.”Helen Keller

The quote above is longer than the ones I usually feature here, but I wish I could have included the entire article from which the quote was taken.  When you have a few minutes, I suggest you read it and ponder what it says.

Today, I invite you to join me in giving thanks for the gift of sight.  As far as I am aware, all of those who read my blog can see.  In my entire life, I have had only a few friends who could not see at all.  This amazing gift of eyesight is shared by more than 99% of the people I know, yet I seldom hear any of us voicing gratitude for it.

Those of you who have shared photos with me through your blogs and emails have given me priceless glimpses into your lives, windows that allow me to know you better even if we have never met in person.  In seeing your homes, your dogs and cats and birds, your gardens and hometowns, the crafts you create and the cakes you bake, I am able to share the ways you have added joy and beauty to your own sphere of influence.

I’m grateful we are able to easily read each other’s words, and those of countless wise authors who have lived in years past, including the thought-provokingly candid words of Keller in the article linked above.  I’m thankful to have shared together reflections on the beauty of a sunset, or a snow-covered field, or an exquisite flower.  I’m happy that no matter where you live or what your personal circumstances, I can wish you a day of joy at seeing daybreak, or a sunny afternoon, or a cozy room filled with photos or plants or pets or people dear to your heart.

At times I complain about my eyeglasses or contact lenses.  How foolish of me, to complain of having something my ancestors would have been overjoyed to have!  When I stop to think about it, I so appreciate the gift of a relatively simple device that sharpens my vision and allows me extended years to fully enjoy the visual treats I have described.

Whatever mood you are in as you read these words, I hope you will feel happier just thinking about the amazing gift of eyesight.  Let’s take Keller’s challenge, and look at our worlds as if our sight would soon be gone.  We may never see things quite the same again.

 

 

Part of your life

Jeff and I spent Thanksgiving, our shared birthday, and most of December, 2014  at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.

Jeff and I spent Thanksgiving, our shared birthday, and most of December, 2013
at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.

“Trouble is part of your life, and if you don’t share it, you don’t give the person who loves you a chance to love you enough.”Dinah Shore

Jeff is a pretty tough guy.  In more than 25 years of Air Force service, I don’t recall him ever taking a single sick day until he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2012.  Sometimes I think that the physical suffering he has endured, as mind-boggling as it has been, is less burdensome to him than the psychological need to be well and working and taking care of everyone else.

As crazy as it will sound to people who haven’t been through something like this themselves, there have been many special moments in the past two years, even in the hardest of times.  I am thankful for every minute we have been able to be together through everything, thankful I could sleep in his hospital room and be with him at home as he recovered from surgery and sit through chemotherapy sessions and doctor’s appointments.  In many ways, I feel closer to him than ever before because of what he has shared with me.

Sometimes one of the best ways to defeat despair is to allow others to walk with us through pain or sorrow.  It doesn’t come naturally for most of us, in a world that is often shallow and uncomfortable with the less appealing truths about the universal human condition.  But masking grief and suffering only makes it worse.

If you are struggling with trouble of any sort, I hope you will be willing to talk openly about it with a kind and trustworthy loved one.  None of us wishes illness or grief on anyone, least of all those we love dearly, but it is a privilege to walk beside someone who needs our companionship and values our support.  May we all have the heart to give and receive this very special form of love.

 

Be with yourself

Grady enjoys a self-chosen respite from the Christmas chaos, December 2014

Grady enjoys a self-chosen respite from the Christmas chaos, December 2014

“Children especially need solitude.  Solitude is the precondition for having a conversation with yourself.  This capacity to be with yourself and discover yourself is the bedrock of development.” Sherry Turkle

Much has been written about the changes technology is bringing to the way we relate to each other.  Does it connect us more closely, or paradoxically isolate us by decreasing our experience of being physically present and face-to-face with another person?  It’s a difficult question to answer, but one aspect of the debate I have yet to see mentioned much is the effect technology has had on solitude.

Have you ever known anyone who had to have the radio or television playing when they were alone?  Do you know people who feel uneasy if they are not within easy reach of a cell phone?  Have we bought into the idea that it is our responsibility to be available to others every waking minute of every day?

During the brief time we spent with Grady recently, I was impressed that he seems to have an innate sense (as his father did) that quiet time alone is of utmost value.  Many of his waking hours were spent in rowdy play or curious exploration, but also, he seemed almost contemplative at times.

One afternoon Drew and Megan left to explore Mount Vernon while MeMe and PaPa happily stayed with Grady.  After the usual staged protests that vanished literally before they had gotten five feet from the front door, he quite happily returned to the living room with us, obviously not distressed.

Jeff had gone to retrieve several stuffed toys for him to play with.  To our surprise, he lined them up in a sort of circle and lay down in the middle of them, using one as a pillow.  Thinking he must be ready for a nap (though it was not yet time) I covered him with a soft throw.  But he did not sleep.

For at least an hour he lay there, eyes wide open, apparently content with the silence and inactivity.  Jeff was nearby reading, and that seemed enough for him.  From time to time I would come in and check on him, and he would smile, but wouldn’t budge.  He was right where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do.

How intelligent that seemed to me!  How I envied his ability to simply lie quietly, free of entertainment or amusement, happy to do nothing but enjoy a respite from the nonstop excitement of the Christmas holidays.  I started to wonder how many of us, especially young people, ever have such time to recharge and renew our souls.

Justifiably fearful of children’s safety, we increasingly guard them from exploring alone in the neighborhood, or outdoors, and equip them with cell phones so that we can feel connected to them at all times.  We may over-schedule them (not to mention ourselves) to the point that they never experience the rich atmosphere of time spent by oneself.  But I believe Turkle is right; solitude is the bedrock of development, and quiet time alone rightly deserves to be a priority not only for them, but for us too, no matter our age.

So, in keeping with the theme of today’s post, I am going unplug from my computer this week.  Please keep those comments coming in if you have anything to say — I love reading your comments, and will read and respond to each one on Saturday or maybe Sunday evening, depending on when I can get back to it.

I don’t want anyone to worry about us or how we are doing this week.  I assure you that “no news is good news.”  I will miss hearing from you and exchanging ideas, but that will make it all the more fun when I do plug back in.  Thursday’s post has been scheduled and will appear as usual, unless there is some sort of WordPress glitch.

If you feel increasingly stretched thin by the continual intrusion of ringing phones, pinging email, mock-urgent news broadcasts, and mind-numbing commercials everywhere we turn, don’t be afraid to just unplug everything for awhile and be with yourself.  If possible, take a walk in the park, or the woods, or a nearby garden or meadow.  Listen to the sound of the wind in the trees, or the birds calling to each other.  Tune in to the conversation in your mind.

Like father, like son -- Drew at about the same age, enjoying our back yard. Huber Heights, Ohio, sometime in 1985

Like father, like son — Drew at about the same age, enjoying our back yard.
Huber Heights, Ohio, sometime in 1985

 

Embracing winter

Snow to shovel?  Remember, it could be worse!  This is Drew at Crater Lake, Oregon, in June (yes, June) 2000.

Snow to shovel? Remember, it could be worse!
This is Drew at Crater Lake, Oregon, in June (yes, June) 2000.

“Enduring winter is only a start– embracing winter is what you should strive for.  Winter gives a sense of purpose and saves one from a life of hedonistic self-gratification, lying around on a palm-shaded patio nibbling ladyfingers and posting selfies on Facebook.  You have promises to keep.  Miles to go before you sleep.  Also, a sidewalk to shovel.”Garrison Keillor

Keillor speaks of winter with an authority that could come only from a native of someplace such as Minnesota.  I will gladly defer to his expertise, but take it from a southern girl: embracing winter is overrated.  Icy weather is totally optional for coziness. You can enjoy tea, coffee, hot cocoa and a toasty warm fire in forty-degree weather!

We all have our sidewalks to shovel, though, figuratively or literally.  I appreciate Keillor’s not-so-subtle reminder that life has seasons, and few of them are easy.  If you’re facing snowstorms, ice, gloomy drizzle or a to-do list that would overwhelm Martha Stewart, I wish you the fortitude and courage to embrace this January day.  I’ll close with another quote from Keillor:  “Most important, keep repeating the words: It could be worse.”

Pass me the ladyfingers!

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