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.

 

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.

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