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!

To you today

Like the sun in the coldest winter, the dream shines on. Karula National Park, Estonia by Amadvr via Wikimedia Commons

Like the sun in the coldest winter, Dr. King’s dream shines on.
Karula National Park, Estonia by Amadvr via Wikimedia Commons

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.  I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words continue to inspire us because his message was timeless.  In the face of centuries of oppression and injustice, he urged his listeners toward the higher ground of perseverance, nonviolence, determination, faith and hope.

Though his speech will forever be linked to that August day in 1963, the principles he describes transcend the immediate context to resonate today in countless ways.  May his resolve bring you renewed belief in your own ability to defeat despair.

Role models

Jack Russell Terrier by Steve-65 via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Russell Terrier by Steve-65 via Wikimedia Commons

“Dogs are my favorite role models. I want to work like a dog, doing what I was born to do with joy and purpose. I want to play like a dog, with total, jolly abandon. I want to love like a dog, with unabashed devotion and complete lack of concern about what people do for a living, how much money they have, or how much they weigh. The fact that we still live with dogs, even when we don’t have to herd or hunt our dinner, gives me hope for humans and canines alike.”Oprah Winfrey

I loved this quote from Oprah, so I went hunting on Wikimedia Commons, looking for some good images of dogs.  WOW, what a fun way to spend a few minutes.  Advance warning: you will probably be seeing lots more photos of dogs in upcoming weeks, because there were so many good ones it was hard to choose which to use here.

This one made the cut, though, partly because I just love Jack Russell Terriers, and partly because it seemed to capture many of the things mentioned in the quote.  I have learned much from animals, and dogs head my personal list of favorites.  It would be hard to overestimate the therapeutic benefit dogs have added to my life.

Whether you favor dogs, cats, birds, all of the above, or some other furry, feathered or scaled companion, I wish for you the joy, contentment, laughter and reassurance that friendship with animals can give us.  If you are blessed to have an animal living in your home, give him or her (or them) a friendly greeting from me, along with thanks for making life more fun.

Thanks to Ann for sharing this photo of Bentley and Solomon!

Thanks to Ann for sharing this photo of Bentley and Solomon!

Thanks also to Sheila for sharing a photo of Jack...

Thanks also to Sheila for sharing a photo of Jack…

...and also Mr. and Mrs. Clownfish (and their eggs)

…and also Mr. and Mrs. Clownfish (and their eggs)

Reality, freed

Welcome to winter on Captiva Island! I took this photo in January, 2012, but we're going there NOW.

Welcome to winter on Captiva Island!
I took this photo in January, 2012, but we’re going there NOW.

“Trapped by reality, freed by imagination.” — Nicolas Manetta*

Okay, the holidays are history now.  The winter has set in, and it has been pretty COLD lately for most of us.  Time for a quick getaway.  Come with me a lovely little spot on Captiva Island, Florida.  I’ll set the scene for you.

Everyone is invited.  Bring your seashore wardrobe and towels.  We’re all enjoying a day at the beach this sunny, warm afternoon. What beach, you ask?  This one:

Captiva beach scene Jan 2014

It’s fairly deserted as usual, except for us, of course.  We’ve been diligent with the sunscreen, so we can spend several hours out here, chatting and beach combing and dozing and reading some great novels.  If you get thirsty, head back up to the house just over the dunes. I’ve got iced tea waiting.  Plus lemonade and fruit punch, if you don’t like tea.

Captiva neighbors

No, not THAT house!  Go a few doors down…

Our beach house, Captiva Jan 2014

Yes! THIS one.

You can spread the seashells you collected out to dry on the table on the screened porch.

Seashells on table

Then we can stroll into town and pick a spot to eat.

Captiva street

After dinner, we can go outside and watch the sunset.  Bring a jacket…it’s cool on January nights, even here!

Sunset on Captiva Jan 2014

Time to head back home now.  Thank you for flying with us on Imaginary Airlines, where we go anywhere you want to go, for free, and there are never any delays!  See you again soon.

*I was unable to find any information about Nicholas Manetta, only several places that attributed this quote to him.  Maybe he is a figment of someone’s imagination.

Nonetheless

Our wooded lot feels enchanted in winter.  February 2010

Our wooded lot feels enchanted in winter. February 2010

Welcome, winter. Your late dawns and chilled breath make me lazy, but I love you nonetheless.Terri Guillemets

Even in summer, I love sleeping late.  My aversion to getting up in the morning is much greater in the winter, when the cold weather makes a snug warm bed all the more appealing.

Despite this, I’m learning to appreciate rising early, even when I don’t enjoy it.  While winter brings a lazy streak, it also sparks my inner drive to get organized, set goals and form good habits.  Those winter resolutions, along with the beauty of the snowfalls such as the one I’m seeing right now, are reasons why I love winter despite the discomfort and inconvenience of inclement weather.

I hope you are enjoying January too, whatever kinds of weather it brings to where you are.  If you are in the midst of your summer, or live in a tropical climate, enjoy it!  Sip an iced tea for me, and go barefoot in the sand of a seashore whenever you have the chance.

If you, like me, are in “cozy hibernation” mode, keep that kettle on and lots of tea, coffee or cocoa handy.  Check out some of the many self-improvement articles that proliferate in January via magazines and websites, and dream of springtime.  As I keep reminding myself, it will be here before we know it!

 

Of the soul

A lovely day at Arlington National Cemetery, December 2014

A lovely day at Arlington National Cemetery, December 2014

“Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Oddly enough, it’s my belief in the sentiment expressed here by Longfellow that underlies my enjoyment of visiting graveyards and cemeteries.  When one believes in the immortality of the soul, the sadness or fear often associated with burial grounds is lifted, and the wonder of each human life is seen with sharpened focus.

Nowhere is this more true than at Arlington National Cemetery.  I did my walking there one beautiful sunny day last week, because I wanted to see the wreaths on display.  Over 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, and beautiful fresh evergreen wreaths with large red bows adorn most of the graves.  This yearly practice is quite an accomplishment.  I walked several miles inside Arlington that day and did not see a single headstone without a wreath.

Something about the sight of so much evergreen amid the winter landscape is a fitting reminder that death is a universal threshold we all must approach, and we need not fear it.  Faith and hope are well represented by the bright red and green amid the subdued winter landscape.

The headstones at Arlington recall the lives of citizens of all ages and stations; those who were born two hundred years ago, and infants who died in recent years; supreme court justices and statesmen, two U. S. Presidents, soldiers of every rank, and their families.  Some tell poignant stories, and some give us only the name and life span of the person buried there, leaving the details to our imaginations.

The beauty of the hills, trees and quiet pathways, and the monuments stretching as far as the eye can see are a reassuring sight for grieving families, as well as a refreshing break from the clamor of the city for tourists visiting from all over the world.  Walking through the well-kept grounds, I was happy that Jeff has decided he wants to be buried there, which will mean that Matt and I, too, will be laid to rest beside him.

I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd meditation with which to begin the year.  Remembering the brevity of earthly life is a great way to strengthen our resolve to live fully and well for whatever time remains for us.  As the old quote says, today is the first day of the rest of our lives.  Let’s recognize each day as a real and earnest gift, one we receive with gratitude and celebration.

Soldier who died in Iraq  Cobeil grave  Family headstone
Civil War veteran  Doubleday grave  IMG_8049

Join in our chime

May 2015 bring you clearing skies and warming weather. Photo by Daniel Schwen via Magdeleine

May 2015 bring you clearing skies and warming weather.
Photo by Daniel Schwen via Magdeleine

And ye, who have met with Adversity’s blast,
And been bow’d to the earth by its fury;
To whom the Twelve Months, that have recently pass’d
Were as harsh as a prejudiced jury -
Still, fill to the Future! and join in our chime,
The regrets of remembrance to cozen,
And having obtained a New Trial of Time,
Shout in hopes of a kindlier dozen.

                                                                             —   Thomas Hood

If anyone who reads this readily identifies with the poet’s words, my heart is with you.  Adversity’s blast has hit our family hard each year since 2012, and sometimes we wonder whether harsh news will ever stop coming.

Still, we continue to rejoice in all that is good, right, holy and beautiful, and we are ever hopeful that the year to come will bring lighter hearts and soothing respite from sorrow.

Though 2014 brought seemingly more than its share of trials, we are able to look back and see moments that sparkle and joys that glow even in the dark.  We hope you are able to do the same.  May 2015 bring showers of blessings to you and your loved ones!

Here’s a New Year’s card for you; read the details at the end to learn about the “first footing” custom.

This place is full

I snapped this photo from our table at the Carrot Tree, December 2014.  Join us!

I snapped this photo from our table at the Carrot Tree, December 2014. Join us!

“This place is full of absent friends.” Ashleigh Brilliant

The Saturday after Christmas, I met my friend Darla for lunch at the Carrot Tree on Riverwalk Landing in Yorktown. Darla lives in the historic district of Yorktown, and I can’t visit her without thinking: 1. how lucky she is to live in this enchanted little village, and 2. how lucky I am to have a friend who actually lives right here, not just nearby.

We had a lovely meal — tomato basil soup and Quiche Lorraine for me — and then prowled around in the shops until the clock forced us to leave for other obligations.  Darla knows pretty much everyone who runs every business, so there was lots of friendly chatting going on as we browsed among more cute and pretty things than anybody could possibly take home.

Even though “downtown” Yorktown is a tiny (very tiny) place, it has more charm per square inch than any other place I can think of, and we had more than enough to keep us busy during what seemed like a very short afternoon.  It was wonderful!  The only thing missing was you.

Every time I go to the historic part of Yorktown, I think how I should go there more often, and how many people I wish I could bring with me.  During our short time there on Saturday, I thought of so many of you; how you probably would enjoy the brief afternoon stroll as much as Darla and I did.

So, just as I invited you to visit me on Christmas, so I invite you to visit our home town.  How many places this small can boast a location smack in the middle of a national historic park, a beach, gorgeous hilltop views, a downtown that can be easily walked, free shuttle service to Colonial Williamsburg, and being the place where the future USA won their war for independence?

If you were among the many, many friends who were absent on Saturday, come join us in your imagination.  Read up on the interesting story of the British surrender at the Yorktown Victory Center; chat with the friendly shopkeepers on Riverwalk Landing, and stroll quiet streets where people still live in many of the historic homes.

If you overhear two women talking, laughing and exclaiming over how adorable some craft is, or how beautiful some quilt or floral arrangement is, that might be Darla and me.   Be sure to come over and say hi!  We’ll be happy to see you.

Images of Riverwalk Landing (above) and the historic village (below)

Images of Riverwalk Landing (above) and the historic village (below)

Yorktown historic district

The genial flame

Jeff snapped this photo of me just before guests arrived at our York home, December 2010.

Jeff snapped this photo of me just before guests arrived at our York home, December 2010.

“Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”Washington Irving

Those who have been following this blog for over two years now will know that our family has so much for which to feel grateful this Christmas.  But there also have been many changes and losses; people and things that we miss more keenly at this season.

One thing I have missed most in the past two years is the way we used to have dinner parties and company during the Christmas holidays.  While Jeff’s cancer diagnosis and ongoing treatment have meant this is not feasible for now, perhaps we will someday again have lots of people to our home for festive merry-making.

Until then, I invite you over for a virtual visit with us.  Grab a plate, fill a mug, pull up a chair and chat while you sip and snack.  Afterwards, gather around the tree with other fun-loving folks for some hilarious surprises and maybe some fun singing.  Stay as long as you want.  The beauty of a virtual visit is that it can happen anytime, and be as short or long as you want.

Merry Christmas to everyone who is reading these words.  Whatever brought you to our online home, we’re glad you are here!  We wish you a lovely finish to 2014, and a year bright with promise in 2015.

Grady greets you from our Alexandria home, December 23, 2014.

Grady greets you from our Alexandria home, December 23, 2014.

Saving graces

Christmas at Rockefeller Plaza by Rob Young By Rob Young from United Kingdom (Christmas @ Rockefeller Plaza) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas at Rockefeller Plaza by Rob Young, United Kingdom
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“I can understand people simply fleeing the mountainous effort Christmas has become. But there are always a few saving graces and finally they make up for all the bother and distress.”May Sarton

If you’ve ever been to Rockefeller Center at Christmas, you know how magical it can be. Even if you don’t catch the truly spectacular Christmas extravaganza at the Radio City Music Hall, just seeing the dazzling tree and ice skaters is unforgettable.  For me, there’s a paradoxical feeling of peace there amid the frenetic pace of the city, as if the sheer beauty creates a world apart.

The great thing is that we need not travel to Manhattan to experience this sort of bliss.  Our home towns and living rooms and back yards also hold moments of enchantment.  For me, these have included hearing the excited voices of neighborhood children outside our windows, the glow of Christmas lights at night after all is quiet, and the cards, crossing the miles from faraway friends, that connect us to people we will always hold dear.

Whether this finds you rushing about finishing up last minute details, or basking in the delight of having nothing more to do but enjoy the holidays, I hope your day will be filled with these moments of grace that provide a fitting benediction to a year we have been blessed to survive.  May your days this week be merry and bright!

Softer and more beautiful

Our Christmas tree, December 2006

Our Christmas tree, December 2006

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ”Norman Vincent Peale

When you think of the holiday season, what words come to mind?  I’m afraid that too often, we think of words such as busy, excited, rushed, tired, pressured.  But no matter how many activities and events we jam into our December schedules, there are usually at least a few moments of quiet beauty that refresh our spirits and feed our souls.

I wish you many such moments this year!  Feel free to share your thoughts about the softer, more beautiful gifts you are enjoying this season.

 

 

So much happiness

This is the 1938 edition that started it all for us, photographed December 14, 2014.

This is the 1938 edition that started it all for us, photographed December 14, 2014.

“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk– that anything– could give him so much happiness.”Charles Dickens

Everywhere we have lived, in big cities and small coastal towns, there has been at least one (and sometimes more than one) annual theatrical production of Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol.  My delight at the widespread and enduring popularity of this story has been surpassed only by my amazement at the near-impossibility of getting good tickets anytime close to Christmas.  This year, I made the mistake of waiting until late November to get tickets to the Ford’s Theater production.  I’ll know better next year.

My siblings and I were raised on this story, learning it alongside the Bible stories we were taught from earliest memory.  We gleefully saw every version of the Scrooge story that was filmed over the years, and enjoyed almost every one; several are among those we watch again and again.  Some of us favor the Alistair Sim version, others the Albert Finney version or the Muppet version or the Magoo version, not to mention the unforgettable Dr. Seuss version (aka the Grinch).  All end with the ebullient joy of a miser who discovers, in the nick of time (no pun intended) that it’s never to late to have a good and happy life.

Among the artifacts I treasure most are my father’s childhood copy of the book (which I believe was given to him by his Aunt Henrietta, whence came most of the books in that family) and a very old reel-to-reel tape of him reading the entire novella aloud, for us to have available if he had to be out flying on Christmas Eve.  I’m thankful to remember only one such occasion when he was absent; Daddy was the heart and soul of Christmas in our home, and his love of A Christmas Carol is one of the finest gifts he gave his children.  All four of us adore the tale, as do our children and presumably, in years to come, their children.

What is it about this story that appeals to generation after generation of readers?  It’s partly due to the venerated skill of the author, whose ability to create characters is unsurpassed.  The ghostly aspects of the story add an exciting shiver of suspense, and the plot moves quickly while encompassing an amazing amount of detail in a relatively few words.

But I think it’s the central theme of the story that strikes a chord within so many of us.  Who among us has not felt alone, misunderstood or unwanted at some time or other?  Which of us does not fear poverty, or hesitate to share whatever possessions we claim?  How many of us are thoughtless about what our friends and fellow workers may be enduring?  Scrooge lives in each of us, for better or worse.

Little wonder, then, that his jubilant reclamation draws us to his story again and again.  For all of us, I wish the sort of Christmas old Scrooge was finally able to have.  May it bring us the multitude of pleasures he discovered; joys that had lain dormant within his reach for far too many years.

My love of this season is no secret to anyone who has ever been within five feet of me at this time of year.  In fact, I once joked that I wanted this quote from the end of Dickens’ story to be read at my funeral: “…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

So today I finish with the rest of that quote: “May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Book Cover Copyright page

Better throughout the year

Our friends' children under the Christmas tree at Tammy and JJ's home, December 2009.

Our friends’ children under the Christmas tree at Tammy and JJ’s home, December 2009.

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”Laura Ingalls Wilder

Do you have any favorite childhood memories of Christmas that bring you joy to this day?  I do, and I hope you do too.  Part of the appeal of the holiday season is the chance to put away our older, wiser and grouchier personae for at least a short time, and embrace our inner children.  We eat too much, stay up too late, and “deck the halls” in a variety of ways that make life a bit cheerier, even in the face of oncoming winter months.

Today, I hope you will take a few minutes to do something that you are normally too busy to do.  Write seasonal cards to friends, listen to a favorite Christmas song or two, hang an ornament on your tree or wherever you can find a place to hang it, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, coffee or tea (or if you’re like me, maybe one of each?) and enjoy the gifts of December.

Charity that returned

Do you like holiday cards? If so, I'll send you one!

Do you like holiday cards? If so, I’ll send you one!

“All my life I have written letters – to our mother, our relatives, a wide circle of friends and acquaintance, to my husband, to you. Correspondence has always been as necessary to my happiness as a well-cooked dinner, and I’ve found it more sustaining for its generosity: an act of charity that returned to me a hundredfold…”Delia Sherman

I’ve always loved sending and receiving personal cards and letters.  I knew things had really changed when I started to dread the mail.  Initially I wrote it off as a sign of advanced adulthood; no more childlike delight at the surprise and connection that came with a letter or card.  I came to realize, though, that my increasing distaste for the mail is really because it has been largely hijacked by the junk, advertising and bills that so outnumber the pleasant things we like to receive.

Since I love sending mail, and because this is the time of year when we have a good excuse to send holiday wishes, I am offering to do my part to increase the amount of wanted versus unwanted mail.  Do you like to get holiday cards?  If so, I’ll be glad to send you one.

Between now and December 18, anyone who leaves me a card request with an address to which I should send it, I will send a holiday card to you.  If you’d rather send your address via email, you can send it to defeatdespair@verizon.net and I’ll get it.  If you know someone who is deployed military, shut in due to illness or aging, incarcerated, or simply lonely and in need of encouragement, I will send them a card too, and say that you told me they might like one (unless you’d rather be anonymous).

Please send an address ONLY for someone you feel certain would not mind having their name and addresses shared.  As always, I will guard the privacy of these addresses as I guard my own.  I will redact your personal info from any comments, and will pledge NOT to use any address for any purpose other than sending a requested card.

And for those of you who prefer the less expensive, earth-friendly, paper-and-privacy saving, anonymous digital variety of greeting, this one is just for you!

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