Its own measure

The brick path to the river was inviting in the warm October sunshine.

“A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way. There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.”  – Thomas A. Clark

On the last Sunday of October, it was an amazing 80 degrees outside at the warmest part of the day. The morning had brought hard and steady rain, but by noon the sun emerged and the landscape was quickly transformed. It was the perfect excuse to get out and walk.

At the end of that day, my Fitbit told me I had walked about five and a half miles. Since I typically walk the equivalent of two miles even on days when I don’t take walks, I estimate that my strolling amounted to about three miles. I wasn’t really paying attention. My walk, as Clark says, was its own measure.

I’ll let the photos do the talking from here on in. All these were taken on my walk that day, in my northern Virginia neighborhood on the Potomac River.  Join me for a quick virtual tour!

The moment’s impermanence

Seventy degrees on our deck– the flowers linger, and the leaves begin to add festive color.
It won’t last, but while it’s here, it’s beautiful. October 2019

“What solidity of sentiment it takes not to let an awareness of the moment’s impermanence dilute its richness, its sweetness, but purify it and saturate it with the utmost ‘fullness of being’.”Maria Popova

There’s a brief interval each year when many of the flowers, though fading, are still in bloom, and the weather is deliciously cool, turning the foliage into dazzling colors. Each year I long for these days to last. I want the temperatures to stay comfortably above freezing, and the flowers to find a second wind after the heat of summer dissipates. But golden moments never last long enough.

Popova is right: the knowledge of impermanence can distract us with premature grief at the inevitable passing of what we cherish. I can remember noticing this about Christmas when I was very young. My favorite day was always Christmas Eve, not Christmas itself. On Christmas Day the high point passed all too quickly, giving way to what seemed to a child an unbearably long time before it would come again.

When Jeff and I were mired in the numb anger, shock and devastation of a diagnosis that gave him only two years to live, I begged him to hold onto hope that he would beat the odds and be in the 5% who survived for at least five years. Though I really believed he would make that milestone, I knew he was a realist who would have difficulty buying into hope as I did. So I argued another approach, one that turned out to be more valid than the idea that he would survive the cancer. “Even if you only have two years to live,” I told him through tears, “these can be the best two years of our lives.” I wanted to believe that, too, but mostly I was just trying to be brave. I was determined to make the best of whatever time was left to us.

They weren’t our best years, of course, but they were full of sweetness nonetheless. During the nearly four years he did survive, his tremendous suffering through surgeries and chemotherapy were set firmly aside during times he wasn’t actually at the hospital. We took lovely, brief vacations and made happy memories that are among my most cherished. We welcomed two grandsons. And though I didn’t think it possible to be more bound up in each other than we already were, the intimacy of such an ordeal fused us ever more tightly together, even as it separated us from others to whom we once felt close.

In the realm of earthly joys, everything is impermanent. I know this, and I don’t want to let grief over all the painful losses of the past seven years blind me to the blessings that I still have, and still take for granted. Popova refers to “solidity of sentiment” as the remedy, and it’s an interesting concept, because sentiment is too often ephemeral and fragile. The very word “sentimental” often hints of disdain for shallow and fleeting emotions, but it need not be so.

Awareness of impermanence may sting, but in the long run it can nurture more joy in simple, daily graces, and deepen our appreciation for the goodness of life. May we all grow up enough to find contentment in what lies within our reach, right now, today.

 

Reading opened the world

Books can create a closed space where our minds can roam openly.
Province of Pesaro and Urbino, Italy. Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

“Books were once my refuge…To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it. In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.”Michael Harris

Solitude is rarely a preference, though it may seem to be one because people sometimes choose literal isolation over the dismay of feeling unwanted or misunderstood, lonely even in a crowd. For many of us who have felt the sting of ridicule or censure, our anxiety and fear of rejection draw us into the world of reading, which offers both safety and discovery.

In the old world of printed books, authors who were good enough to be traditionally published and widely read seemed to understand that writing speaks most directly to a reader when there is a bond of mutual trust. By refusing to spell out every detail in condescending dictation, the author allowed her reader to create and follow the details of his own imaginative trail, moving at his own pace. By allowing room for each imagination to re-create its own narrative, the best authors lead readers into a wider world where mindful discovery, understanding and acceptance become possible.

Does digital content accomplish the same thing? I wonder. Digitization encourages a kind of racing through, leapfrogging as one link after another beckons us on in rapid-fire sequence that leaves us little time for reflection. It also creates separate but conflicting echo chambers to accommodate various dogmas and preferences, where anger can fester and feed on itself, and ultimately spill over into off-screen life.

I find the closing sentences of Harris’ quote chilling because I do believe the screens that open the world to us can ironically shut us off from others, even as they create the illusion of being present in human discussion and activity. In the video format, it’s all laid out for us in full color. In online text, messages may be spelled out emphatically, in repetitive ranting. In either format, we can accept or reject content without really being involved at all. It’s easy not to participate by exercising our own judgment or imagination, which is allowed a free ride as all the gaps are filled in with whatever conclusions the content creators want us to see and hear.

When we do interact with the screen, it’s usually in the form of impulsive clicking, jumping from one author to another as we skim furiously and cherry-pick the parts we most want to read– which often means reading only those things with which we already agree. Does this form of open access, this ability to make quantum leaps from one topic to another, paradoxically leave us with narrower ideas and understandings? Does it allow our minds to close off whatever is less flashy and compelling as we dart after the sensational or self-affirming?

Harris observes that screens seem to close the world to him by opening it. I suspect this is an intuition that will resonate with many of us. If so, perhaps it’s partly because, aside from the anxiety and anger, the screen-oriented world simply overwhelms us with link after link, leaving us apt to shut down or gravitate to what is useful and functional and familiar.

When I read the article (linked to Harris’ name above) from which this quote and last week’s quote were drawn, I realized that there is a significant difference in how I feel after I’ve spent a half-hour or more online, and how I feel after I’ve been absorbed in an old fashioned print book. I’m noticeably less calm, sometimes even a bit agitated, after screen time. Yet a book slows me down, psychologically and physically, even when it engages my imagination.

The reasons for the contrast are many, not least of which is that it’s much more difficult to curl up in an easy chair with a computer. I suspect it also has to do with the random nature of online content, where I am forced to encounter (through ads, pop up windows and “helpful” suggested articles) offerings I never intended to buy with even a few seconds of my valuable time and attention.

There’s no easy answer to all this. I have no intention of shutting myself off from cyberspace; in fact, I’m participating in the cacophony by writing this post, as I have done for nearly seven years now. But I believe, with increasing certitude, that one way to defeat the ever-increasing despair of today’s world is to step away from it all as often as possible, and to build– one book, one activity, one friendship or one project at a time– a sanctuary from the dominion of mechanical mind control.

Time-machine powers

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

“Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind.”Michael Harris

It’s really a bit frightening how quickly the widespread use of the internet, for everything from business to education to socializing, has taken over almost everybody’s life. Even those who were reluctant to embrace it have been sucked into the vortex by more and more businesses and social contacts who expect everyone to be digitally available if we want to maintain any sort of professional or personal relationship.

I have a few friends who didn’t use the internet, or even texting, until recent months. I confess it was often difficult to stay in touch with them until they finally did cave, because it meant scheduling a phone time, or writing and mailing– imagine!– postal letters. I’m sure I must have communicated the same subtle pressure to them that I once sensed from others who wanted me to have an always-on cell phone back in the late 1990’s.

The funny thing is, I don’t feel any closer to those friends now that they finally are available digitally. It’s a bit less frustrating to reach them sometimes, but whatever time I might save in being able to reach them instantly via text or email is lost to other (usually digital) tasks. Immediacy, I’ve found, does not automatically make for a tighter bond. In fact, I would argue that in some cases it weakens it.

Here we all are, in this brave new world, and more than a few of us are starting to question how we got here and whether we took a wrong turn somewhere. Michael Harris, who is quoted above, refers in his work to our current state of “continuous partial attention,” and that phrase certainly describes the way many of my hours are spent.

But as Harris points out, books belong to an earlier era. It’s not easy to give a book only partial attention, unless it’s an audio book. Even then, unless I’m doing something truly mindless with my hands, I find myself replaying the last couple of minutes more often than I care to admit, having lost the thread amid distractions. Somewhere awhile back I started spending more time with print books, and I found it a curious combination of relaxing, absorbing, calming and stimulating all at the same time. Perhaps what I am experiencing is the (now) sadly rare occurrence of directing my full attention to one silent pursuit, not pulling myself in several directions.

Distractions have always been with us– just ask any school teacher, stay-at-home parent or busy executive. But then as now, the good old-fashioned book can whisk us away from everything, if only briefly, to another time and place– and a totally different state of mind.

Do you remember the pre-internet days? When, if you wanted to know something, you pulled out an encyclopedia or dictionary, or went to the library, or asked your father or mother? When, if you ran out of something after the stores were closed, and needed it soon, you borrowed it from a friend or neighbor instead of ordering it from Amazon? When you played board games, cards or croquet with friends, instead of online gaming with people you’ve never met face to face? When you gave to others through school, church and community groups instead of a Go Fund Me page? When your friends were people you hung around with on a regular basis in real life, and your conversations consisted of text-free spoken exchanges?

It’s a mistake, of course, to romanticize the past. The options described above were not without problems, and most of us appreciate the improved efficiency that we have learned to expect from computerized systems. Convenience and independence are valuable assets. But is it possible that we lost something valuable along the way?

The common denominator in most non-digital activity is real world contact with at least one other human. Robots, in the long run, leave much to be desired.

It’s interesting that reading, which we think of as a solitary pursuit, can re-set our brains to the not-so-long-ago world before there were microchips, when direct connection to others was woven into the fabric of daily activities. Next week’s post will be a follow up quote from Harris about that very paradox. This two-part post on the same topic, with consecutive quotes from the same author, is a first for this blog. After 1118 separate posts, I sometimes think there are very few “firsts” left here. But the two quotes from Harris seem designed to be considered together, so I decided to break my usual pattern.

Meanwhile, I invite you to join me in taking a break. Put aside the distractions and enter the time machine. Punch in any past, present or future dates you like — an author has been there before you, and will be your expert guide. If we end up in the same century, maybe I’ll see you there.

Any wonderful unexpected thing

I took this photo from my front porch during my first autum in Potomac Shores, 2019.

“After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.” 
― Elizabeth George Speare

Finally we are experiencing the first true autumn weather, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, I hope you are too. Something about that cool fall air does seem to be filled with endless possibilities for joy. So many activities of October anticipate delights soon to come, whether choosing Halloween costumes for kids, or wrapping the first gifts for Christmas, or planting bulbs for spring blooms.

I wish you all the usual enjoyment of October, plus a few wonderful and unexpected surprises. Don’t forget to make time for walking, now that the temperatures are so pleasant. As Speare observed, the colors are shouting and singing for us over the next few weeks. All we have to do is watch and listen.

Practices that sustain life

Laundry in Venice. Photo by Marco Secchi via Unsplash

“After a day of too much information about almost everything, there is such a blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes, causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it out to the clothesline.  Every time I bend down to shake loose a piece of laundry, I smell the grass. I smell the sun. Above all, I smell clean laundry. This is something concrete that I have accomplished, a rarity in my brainy life of largely abstract accomplishments…So is digging in the garden, cleaning the chicken pens, washing the potatoes, doing the dishes. I know there are people who would give anything to do these things, people whose bodies have become so numb, too busy, too old or painful to do them. These are the practices that sustain life – not only my life and the lives entwined with mine, but the lives of all human beings.”Barbara Brown Taylor

One recent morning I began by doing a load of laundry. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it was a perfect way to start the day. As I went about the task, I thought about how fortunate I was, to be able to go as slowly as I wanted to go while doing it. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy doing the dishes, and for the same reason.

Somewhere around 20 years ago, Jeff grew impatient with how infrequently I did the laundry (he couldn’t stand letting it pile up too much) and rather than nag me about it, he took over that particular chore by his own choice. There were times when I offered to take back the responsibility for getting the clothes washed, but he always refused, and now I believe he probably enjoyed it. So, apparently, does Taylor.

How mindful of her to point out that many people would give anything to have the time, resources, or physical ability to go about these simple but necessary tasks. In a world where humans are increasingly fragmented into special interest groups and adversarial factions, it’s refreshing to engage in an activity that unites us with others all over the world, through our common necessary chores.

Next time you are feeling blue, perhaps a movie or shopping trip or similar escape might be less fulfilling than giving yourself the gift of as much time as you want to accomplish a seemingly mundane household duty. With awareness, it can become an act of meditation, a chance to sing your heart out with only yourself to hear, or a time to ponder and pray. What humble assignments await your creative transformation today?

But you knew

The Highlights conference center at Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania, October 2018–a nice mix of
coziness amidst gloomy weather, and challenges faced with camaraderie and hope.

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know whether this quote was always true for me, but it certainly has been so in recent years. I lost both my beloved Daddy and my one-and-only love Jeff in the early autumn, just a little over a year passing between their deaths. And my Mama’s September birthday reminds me of her death seven months after Jeff’s. Yet, even now, autumn probably is my favorite season. It is at least tied with springtime as the time of year closest to my heart.

Hemingway touches on why this may be. Despite the sadness of death and decay in the natural world, we know that this passage marks only a transition, not an ending. It is as if nature itself is reminding us that death never bats last. Even as we prune our shrubbery and rake up our fallen leaves, we imagine the blooms of April and the greening of the landscape that seems to return all the more quickly as the passage of time speeds up in our distracted, overly-busy era. Fall creates a respite, a time for clearing away and preparing for an unknown but inevitable renewal.

Meanwhile, the season’s sadness, which is no less acute for being predictable, does carry other consolations. The cooling temperatures remind us of mercy, and the abundance of harvest crops promises that our needs will be met. The rich hues of autumn dazzle before gradually fading, and the cold months beckon with holiday festivity and the coziness of hot beverages and home-baked goodies. We look forward to the weeks of lessened daylight as a trade-off that will give us extended hours for reading, crafts, sleep, or guilt-free time spent daydreaming of plans for the year to come.

Perhaps you, too, expect to be sad in the fall. If so, you have lots of company. May the solace of comforts tucked away in the coming months bring you the bittersweet but persistent joy of knowing there always will be a spring.

Like fragments of heaven

Fall is approaching, but nature is still putting on a show.
I photographed these flowers at home or nearby, September 2019

“It is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one, like scent…They look like fragments of heaven.”George Eliot

I’ve always marveled at how some scents can bypass the conscious mind and go straight to memories we didn’t even know were there. Until I read this quote (from one of my all-time most admired fictional characters, Dorthea Brooke of Middlemarch) I had never thought about how colors do the same thing, but I agree that they do.

The varied greens of woodland settings are always a balm to my spirit, restful and calming. The jewel tones of fall are rich and evocative, and the subdued colors of winter, especially with snowfall, speak of silence and temporary repose. When springtime bursts forth in a seeming riot of new blossoms, my spirit awakens and feels hopeful. And the summer colors, both natural and man-made, seem full of lighthearted fun, with sun umbrellas and beach towels and Popsicles in a rainbow of vivid hues.

I think color can be therapeutic, especially for a tired or discouraged spirit. Yet I seldom deliberately seek out its palliative benefits, other than as a perk of pastimes that incorporate color, such as gardening, crafts or other creative pursuits. Perhaps when I’m feeling blue and it’s too stormy for gardening or too late in the day to start a craft project, I should make it a point to sit down with a book of beautiful artwork, or travel photographs, or perhaps a few of the old calendars I can never quite bear to throw away because their pictures are so gorgeous.

Do you ever seek out color for the purpose of lifting your mood? What are some of your favorite ways to enjoy the endless hues that light up our days? I wish you a colorful week this week, with many visual surprises to brighten up your world.

The dew of little things

Matt and I enjoyed the refreshment of being with friends on a hot summer day.
With Jena and her brother Andy at the Michie Tavern, Monticello, July 2019

“In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”― Kahlil Gibran

I have always appreciated this particular passage from Gibran’s work, because it has proven true in my own life for as long as I can remember. Whether one is navigating a particularly difficult phase of life, or enjoying relatively happy years, no grand event or special occasion can surpass the simple pleasure of a heart-to-heart chat with a trusted and reliable friend. During times of grief and stress, such everyday sharing is an anchor for the soul.

Jena and I first connected through this blog. We quickly found that we shared much in common, including our faith, our love of writing in general and poetry in particular, and a special fondness for all things related to tea. Jena also is a gifted visual artist who takes the time to share some of her work with me via our digital correspondence, and we occasionally swap videos via Marco Polo, along with corresponding by postal mail.

Despite her exceptionally busy life as a teacher, writer, artist, wife, sister, daughter, and various leadership roles related to her professional talents, she manages to stay in close touch, encouraging me in countless thoughtful ways. She makes the effort to initiate contact with me at least as often as I reach out to her, so I don’t feel as if I’m the only one who has anything to gain from the friendship.  There’s a nice reciprocity to our exchanges, and that’s a trait that has been especially important to me in the years since Jeff’s death, when I’ve sometimes grown resentful of having to be the one doing all the asking of others.

Remarkably, though Jena lives in faraway Alaska, we have managed to be together in person once every year for the past three years, and even took a trip together. As others who connected by blogging have observed, when we get together face-to-face it is as if we have always known each other, because the foundation of the friendship is already in place. I guess that love of writing pays unexpected dividends sometimes!

I am so grateful that, whenever Jena is planning to come to the eastern USA for business reasons, she gives me plenty of notice so that we can plan times and places to get together. Our first such meeting came during a particularly difficult time after Jeff’s death, when it appeared that Matt was going to lose all of his disability services and supports, and I had no idea how we would cope.

“Refreshed” is a perfect description for how I felt after being able to meet Jena face to face for the first time, to chat and laugh and drink tea together in person after years of corresponding. The simple joy of sitting in a cafe together was a balm for all the trials and worries and grief. Sometimes, a little bit of lighthearted fun can go a long way to defeating despair.

Do you have friends who share their lives with you on a regular basis, adding to your joy and pulling you away from whatever might be troubling you? If so, I hope that you will stay close to them over the years. The investment of time in friendship involves the discipline of being there for another person, even when you might be busy or simply not in the mood. But whatever you sow in the garden of friendship, you will reap tenfold as your enduring affection will be repaid abundantly in ways you cannot now foresee.

Wonders of everyday life

I have no memory of taking this photo, but obviously, I did. Owen Ramon, December 2016

“Remember, looking at bad news doesn’t mean good news isn’t happening. It’s happening everywhere. It’s happening right now. Around the world. In hospitals, at weddings, in schools and offices and maternity wards, at airport arrival gates, in bedrooms, in inboxes, out in the street, in the kind smile of a stranger. A billion unseen wonders of everyday life.”Matt Haig

The first few months after Jeff’s death– and really, most of the weeks and months during the years since his diagnosis in 2012– are something of a blur to me. Specific recall will come back only with some concrete reminder, such as a letter or photograph. Deep in my inner core I remember mostly the pain, and it often comes on me in unexpected waves that send me reeling, both physically and emotionally. My heart tells me only of the sadness and trauma, even though my mind knows there was far more going on, and not all of it was bad.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was cleaning off an old flash drive so I could use it to back up some folders. On it, I discovered a cache of photos I had forgotten about. They were taken that first Christmas after Jeff died, when the weeks had been filled with the raw, numb instincts that enable us to go through the motions without much knowing what we are doing. The photos are happy ones. A person viewing them would never guess that the photographer could scarcely see what was in the camera’s viewfinder due to the blindness of deep grief.

Of course I knew that Matt and I had spent that Christmas in Atlanta, and that Mama was still alive, and that my sister and I had gone to see our “second parents,” Betty Jo and Tuffy. That visit was about the only happy memory I had been able to summon from that time, perhaps in part because I had blogged about it.  But other good things happened too. It’s just that I don’t remember them because they are obscured by the fog of sorrow that still persists to some degree, but has its epicenter in those first weeks and months after Jeff left us.

Have you ever noticed how events can reach back and color the past without our even being aware of it? A person loses a battle with cancer, and when the ending is not happy, the years of hopeful struggle and the joys of temporary remissions and victories seem to vanish. A family member or friend betrays or forgets us, and their many years of happy association take on a different hue, coloring all our recollections of them. A job, or a marriage, or a place we were once excited to live can somehow go from being a rewarding stage of life we welcomed and celebrated, to something we must put behind us for our own peace of mind. Then, too often, the memories of the good years are seen only through the disfiguring lens of what happened later.

But as Haig says, despite everything else, there always is good news, and much of it goes unremarked. Not just now, but in the years past. To name just one example: seventy years ago today, my Mama and Daddy got married. I’m so glad they did! According to the Los Angeles Times front page published on that day, the news was a mix of good and bad, but my personal history took a definite turn for the better on September 2, 1949, since I wouldn’t be here if not for the marriage of two obscure but remarkable people in rural Alabama.

I think Haig’s quote speaks not only about the present, but also about the past. Whether the heartbreak and dismay are part of today’s news or distant years gone by, either way we are all too prone to let the noise of our pain drown out all that is good, right, and worth celebrating. When that happens, we are being twice robbed of joy. We are watering the weeds of bitterness and resentment instead of cultivating those gorgeous blooms that keep breaking through the neglected soil.

Are there unpleasant places in your past or present that could use a second and third look, seeking something good that you may have overlooked or forgotten? If so, I’ll go on that emotional scavenger hunt with you. I need lots of practice at spotting joy, and I’m going to see it as an adventure. Over time, who knows what we may find?

As often as not

Carson McCullers’ childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, as seen in 2009

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
Carson McCullers

The older I get, the harder travel seems to become. I don’t know if that’s due to changes in the industry itself– when did air travel become so stressful?– or because I’m more easily tired and discouraged now that I’m older, often without another adult to help when the going gets tough.

Yet I still long to travel, and dream of going back to places I loved on first visit, and also to places I’ve never been. I wouldn’t describe this feeling as homesickness, but maybe McCullers is right. After all, isn’t homesickness often a longing for something that may not still be there when we return? And isn’t nostalgia a hazy, rose-colored view of the past that filters out the very real struggles we endured during a now idealized period of our lives?

When I travel, I’m typically so caught up in the sights and sounds that surround me that I don’t consciously experience homesickness, other than missing loved ones who aren’t with me. Yet returning home to what is familiar is always a balm to a weary body and an overstimulated soul. For a brief time, the longing for what McCullers refers to as “the foreign and strange” will subside. But eventually, I know the wanderlust will return and I’ll start planning future trips again, dreaming of faraway places or nearby towns I’ve yet to see.

Some people seem to be content with returning to the same place year after year, where they spend their vacation in a place that is comfortably familiar yet different from everyday life. I can sympathize with this preference too, because it’s how I feel about going back to our York home. For over nine years now, it has been only a part-time home. I was recently surprised to realize that’s three years longer than it was our full time home.

Nostalgia is unquestionably part of the appeal of going back so frequently. But I doubt I will ever feel nostalgia for the times I’ve spent there since Jeff died. Still, I find it hard to think of parting with the home. When I do, I imagine it will be partly because the longing to travel to places I’ve never seen will outweigh the pull of returning to the familiar.

What about you? Do you every feel homesick for places you’ve never been? Or are you happier to return to what is familiar and well loved? And has this changed as you grow older?

Tiny, beautiful surprises

The paint is peeling, but the flowers are stunning. Sorrento, Italy, May 2008

“For me, the first part of celebration is noticing.  I find that it’s easy for me to get stuck in what’s broken or wrong with a situation, instead of seeing the beautiful parts of it, too, or that I move so fast I don’t see anything at all.  These days I’m trying to notice everything, to live slowly enough to see what’s unfolding around me, and especially to look for the tiny, beautiful surprises even in the midst of wreckage and ugliness.”  — Shauna Niequist

Last week I wrote about celebration, inspired by Lucille Clifton’s poetic invitation to rejoice in survival. Adding to that theme, I return to one of my own favorite topics: finding bits of beauty to celebrate in everyday life.

One of the great things about travel is seeing what is universal and shared all over the world. I can’t remember ever visiting a town or country that did not show evidence of people deliberately seeking to add loveliness to their surroundings, no matter whether the backdrop was gorgeous or sorely in need of a makeover. It seems human nature that most of us strive for improvement– in ourselves, in our homes, in our workplaces and our communities. Watching for signs of such charming benevolence is a sure way to beat back the bad news blues.

Before the flowers of summer start to fade (or as your winter slowly warms into springtime), I hope you will go on a scavenger hunt in your neighborhood, or anywhere else you may happen to be. Look for the tiny, beautiful surprises Niequist is talking about– whimsical banners adorning lawns or mailboxes, pots of flowers blooming on doorsteps, children playing or people strolling or jogging by, adding signs of life to the landscape.

It’s so easy to focus on what is ugly or broken. There are times when it takes effort to find something worth celebrating, but it’s an effort that will pay dividends and train the mind to defend itself against the never-ending onslaught of negativity. Though I’ve been training my mind to do that for years now, with varying degrees of success, it’s like any other sort of exercise; it requires constant diligence. But it can be fun, too.

I invite you to join me! What surprises are brightening your world today?

Come celebrate

The Pacific Ocean at Waikiki, beautiful but risky. Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

…come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.                  Lucille Clifton

Some weeks it’s easier than others to write a post appropriate for a blog titled Defeat Despair. This has been one of the more difficult weeks. I had Clifton’s brief but stunning poem— which ends with the quote above– tucked away in my memory for just such a time.

Over thirty years ago, not long before I lost the first of my friends I would lose to cancer, I asked this particular friend– a young mother with three children, including a toddler Drew’s age– what the latest doctor’s visit had told her. “He said that the bus is still behind me, but it’s not catching me yet,” she told me in a matter-of-fact tone. “But when you think about it, the bus is behind everybody, whether they know it or not.”

Life is a fragile, unpredictable gift. Some battles are harder than others, and while some fight literally for their lives, others of us are blessed to fight only for our sanity, or our self-esteem, or our financial stability, or our ability to make some sense of where our lives have led us. But it’s only a question of degrees. The old adage about everyone you meet fighting a hard battle is really true, I think.

However, some fight not only for themselves, but for others whom they may not even know. Some truly do face life-threatening circumstances, yet continue on because they are called to higher priorities. Their stories inspire those of us who are struggling with lesser burdens. In that spirit, I wanted to share a recent news story with you, in case you have not already heard it.

Remember Dr. Kent Brantly, the devout young physician who made international headlines when he contracted the Ebola virus while treating patients in Liberia? Now well and fit, Dr. Brantly and his family (including his wife, who is a nurse, and their two young children) are leaving their Texas home to return to Africa to offer health care services in a region where they are urgently needed. The Brantly family is sacrificing more than the comfortable life and relatively high income of a physician’s family in the United States, but when you read of his determination to overcome his own fears in favor of compassion, I hope it lifts your spirits as it did mine.

So today, I repeat Clifton’s words inviting us to celebrate survival– our own, and everyone else’s. It’s not a lighthearted party, to be sure, but those who choose to join us will find themselves in very good company indeed.

Our due as humans

Too much? Or not enough? Time Square, photo by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

“Whereas 19th-century Americans perceived limits on how many people they could know, how much they should self-promote, how much excitement they should expect, 21st-century Americans are coming to expect that endless affirmation, unfettered anger, infinite cognitive power, unending entertainment, and constant companionship are our due as humans.”Susan J. Matt

This is one of those quotes that really hit home with me. Sometimes when I feel sorry for myself I have to stop and think how absurd I am being, to think there should be no limits on my life. Who do I think I am, that my little corner of the world should be so much easier or better than anyone else’s? Why do I expect to be free of sorrow, frustration and all the other emotions that are inseparable from being human?

For all of our advanced opportunity and education, there are things that previous generations knew better than we do. Limits are poorly understood in our ever-expanding culture. Any sort of constraint or restraint becomes something we are less and less willing to accept, because so much has been freely available to us. We have forgotten how to settle for less, and indeed, we often are taught not to see “settling for less” as a desirable goal.

If you are reading this, chances are that you have been blessed in ways that many people living today, to say nothing of generations throughout history, could not imagine. Is it enough? If you’re like me, the head will say “yes” but the heart adds “but if only I had…”

We often hear the advice “don’t postpone happiness.” Typically when I hear this, I think it means something along the lines of “buy the shoes” or “eat that dessert” or “splurge on that vacation.” But what if it means just the opposite? What if the best way to stop postponing happiness is to quit chasing after it, and look around at where we are now?

I’m going to try to stop postponing happiness, right now, by enjoying what is already mine. I’m going to savor a cup of tea, read a good book and think about how grateful I am to have a nice warm shower and clean, comfortable bed to sleep in tonight. I’m going to count my blessings. You are one of them! Please share some of your reasons to be grateful.  Let’s open each other’s eyes to all the ways we have more than our due as humans.

Even more beautiful

Pretty even without a lid, my antique Brown Betty in July 2019

“The point is that things can be repaired. That they are even more beautiful for having been repaired.”Sonali Dev

I’ve read a few articles in recent years about “wabi sabi,” a term applied to a variety of philosophical contexts. The aspect of wabi sabi that first captured attention is the idea that flaws and imperfections can be viewed as contributing to the beauty of an object. For example, a vase that had been chipped or cracked might be considered more attractive than a brand new version of the same, because the older one has a history.

I thought of this recently while engaged in the seemingly endless task of sorting through a lifetime of accumulations. Often I will find myself setting an object aside because it’s just too hard to decide what to do with it. One such object I came across a couple of weeks ago is an antique “Brown Betty” teapot given to me as a wedding gift. The woman who gave it to me was an elderly retired teacher and school principal for whom I had great affection and respect. It had been part of her own teapot collection, one item of which she lovingly passed on to me.

Though I would not become a tea drinker for many years, that teapot traveled with us through all the many moves associated with marriage, school and the career of a military officer’s family. It made the journey safely through every move except the final one to Virginia, during which the packers failed to wrap the lid separately and simply left it in place on the (inadequately) wrapped teapot, which was stuffed into a box. On arrival I discovered the lid inside the pot, shattered into a zillion pieces, of which 21 were large enough to see and count. Some of those 21 were tiny:

I remember being very sad about the breakage, but instead of doing anything immediate about it, I left the broken shards inside the pot and packed it away. Within a year or two of coming to Virginia, I started drinking tea regularly, but the pot was packed away and all but forgotten.

Fast forward 15 years to the present. I had unpacked the teapot almost a year ago, but set it aside, debating whether to keep the undamaged pot without its lid, or get rid of the entire thing. I searched on eBay and at other china replacement sites, hoping to find a lid I could purchase, but I came up empty. I did find several similar teapots without lids, but no lids without pots.

A couple of weeks ago, with the growing “now or never” determination to make some progress on clearing away the bittersweet relics of my past, I started to pitch the broken pieces and get rid of the pot. But something stopped me.  I decided to bring it to my northern Virginia home where I took the time to examine the pieces with the wabi sabi intention of reassembling them. I knew the glue would never endure repeatedly being steamed by hot tea, but I reasoned that the pot was primarily a decorative object anyway, being smaller than the practical pots I use regularly.

I started by giving myself permission to pitch the project if it became too frustrating. I had done something like this only once before, when I re-assembled a Christmas ornament I had bought in Amsterdam, and I remember that I found the process absorbing and satisfying, with the result better than I had expected. The ornament has hung on my tree every year since, and I thought of it when I first read about wabi sabi some years ago.

It was much the same experience when I began to reassemble the lid. I found it to be a relaxing pastime not unlike working a jigsaw puzzle, as it required much of that same skill. In the process, the slow nature of the work turned it into a sort of meditative path, as the limitations of what could be done caused me to adjust and re-adjust what I planned to do. How like life, I thought.

I worked on it a few minutes and one or two pieces at a time. This was not just a way of forestalling frustration; it was necessary to be patient and allow each step of the repair to dry and hold strong before proceeding. It could not be rushed or everything I had accomplished might be undone. How like life, I thought.

When I got a little more than halfway through, I met an unforeseen problem. I had started with the largest pieces, which seemed logical. The outer ring of the lid had remained fairly intact though in 5 pieces, so I reassembled that first, then built from one edge to the center where the undamaged round ball created a place to hold the lid. So far, so good. But as I proceeded on, I found that I had failed to consider what should have been obvious: no matter how closely the pieces were reassembled, there would be just a tiny bit more space between them…which left not enough room to fit the smaller pieces into the newly glued repair.

I didn’t know what to do at first, and thought of giving up and just leaving the remaining holes in the lid. But then, with a bit of practice, I found a way to hold the lid tightly in one hand to support the mended places enough to keep them intact, yet allow them to move slightly outward to make room for more. I gradually worked the new pieces in, one at a time. I could hear the grinding of tiny bits of ceramic powder being sanded off between the pieces as I wedged them in. When I was done, the cracks in the previously mended parts were much more pronounced due to the necessary expansion. Every other piece, especially the largest ones, had to “give” a little to allow the smaller bits to become part of the whole again.

How like life.

So here is the completed whole, including the original hole that was not breakage, but a steam vent. Better than the first photo, cracks notwithstanding? You be the judge.

Even if I am blessed to live to advanced age, the time is coming in the not-too-distant future when someone will be going through my possessions, deciding what to do with them. Perhaps they will chuckle when they see the glued-together teapot lid. “Was she a cheapskate or what?” they might laugh. “She had at least half a dozen other teapots, yet she chose to glue this back together. Why on earth waste all that time?”

Or maybe they won’t even look at it closely enough to see the cracks. Maybe it will just be set aside with the 95% of everything else that will go to some thrift store or Goodwill donation center. Nobody will remember Ms. Violet Gilman, who owned the teapot before I did and made it so special for me, nor will anyone know why I repaired the lid, if they know me at all. But none of that matters. I have the teapot today, right now, and in my eyes, it’s even more beautiful than it was before.

Today, I hope you will find many things in your life that are more deeply valued for the history that only you can remember and understand.

Note: In a purely unintentional instance of wabi sabi, I accidentally dated this post incorrectly, so it published before I was finished writing. To those who saw it…this is the repaired version! 😀

To see inside

Susan and me, seeing through and back, July 2019

Seeing through, and seeing ourselves staring back: Susan and I in a glass house, Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, July 2019

“Writers aren’t alchemists who transmute words into the aurous essence of the human experience. No, they are glassmakers. They create a work of art that enables us to see inside to help us understand. And if they are really good, we can see our own reflections staring back at us.” ― Kamand Kojouri

Whether virtues, faults or neutral traits, most of us are able to see such characteristics more easily in others than we can see them in ourselves. Perhaps the clarity afforded by physical, psychological or emotional distance is one reason why fiction is so good at communicating truth. Storytelling can break through the defensive walls we build within, where it’s all too easy to rationalize our own behaviors and deceive ourselves about who we really are. King David is among many in history who learned this firsthand.

Think of some of your favorite stories. Don’t you identify, at least a little, with one or more of the characters? Do you find yourself rooting for a protagonist in difficult circumstances, no matter that person’s flaws or mistakes? Have you ever finished a novel feeling as if you understand your own family member or friend better, because the author was able to help you get inside the mind of an imaginary person?

The more polarized and conflicted the world becomes, the more important it is that we find effective ways to cut through misunderstanding and prejudice. Luckily, the world of literature knows no borders or boundaries. Through reading about all sorts of people– people in different eras or countries, people who are much older or much younger than we are, people of different backgrounds, whose attitudes and beliefs are not the same as ours– we can look through the walls rendered transparent by a skilled author. And best of all, when we see ourselves staring back, we realize maybe the differences aren’t as great as we though they were.

Punctual surprise

One of my favorite bouquets, not least because it returns yearly. York County, July 2019

“Let a thing be but a sort of punctual surprise…let it be delicate, painted and gratuitous, hinting that the Creator is solely occupied with aesthetic considerations…”
Hope Mirrlees

Mirrlees has captured one of the things I so love about flowers. “Punctual surprise” is the perfect way to describe them. They come back every year at around the same time, and yet the first sight of them each season is somehow an unexpected delight, like fireworks going off in my heart, lighting things up with color and pizzazz.

When I read this quote, I also realized why it’s so hard for me to let go of our York home, and why I love to return there. It’s partly because we have planted so much around the home and yard over the years that we have some sort of botanical color in every month and season. Although I generally spend a few days out of every two weeks there, I almost always find a punctual surprise waiting for me.

As if that were not enough, the York neighborhood is full of people who obviously love flowers as much as I do, so the neighbors’ homes offer their own regular seasonal shows. No matter my mood, it’s enough to lift my heart and bring a smile to my face. The children on bikes and dogs being walked and runners jogging by add to the festivity.

Recently, one of my favorite surprises waiting for me in York County was the lily plant that I wrote about during July of last year. This year, the number of flowers had more than doubled, with a dozen gorgeous blossoms on that one stem. Despite the weight of so many brightly-colored posies, the stem did not bend at all, displaying the bouquet with a flourish of greenery that enhanced the floral beauty.

What punctual surprises do you most enjoy at this time of year?

My way out

Girl reading (detail) by Peter Ilsted, public domain via The Athenaeum

“One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.”Matt Haig

One of the hardest things about losing Jeff is that, until he came along, I had lived pretty much my whole life feeling lonely. I had a lot of friends over the years, male and female, some of whom were very close. And I had supportive family members and two parents I could count on to be there whenever I needed them. But it was Jeff who rescued me from that sense of isolation that I often feel even in a crowd.

Haig’s quote struck a chord deep within me. I have often felt as if I was on a totally different wavelength than everyone else, and since Jeff’s death, that feeling of estrangement has only grown harder and more cruel. It’s not that Jeff was perpetually on the same wavelength as I was; we were different in many ways. Still, we were alike enough that we felt an intimate understanding of each other. With Jeff, I knew that there was at least one person to whom I mattered a great deal, who would always be there for me.

Two harsh facts now set me apart from the friends of our generation who were our peers over the years: having a disabled adult son, and becoming the first (and so far, only one) of all those friends and acquaintances to be widowed. Besides this, unlike many of my friends who dote on their daughters or grandchildren and stay in almost constant contact with them, I rarely see my grandsons, and seldom hear from them or get photos or videos of them, despite how easy it has become to share such things digitally.

Yet even before my life circumstances isolated me, I often felt that inner loneliness. Then as now, books were and are indeed a way through (if not out of) that sad place. Printed pages can never take the place of being with people face to face. But when connecting with others who have reached out to humanity through their writing, I realize that most if not all of what I face is a fairly universal part of the mixed bag of being human.

Reading the experiences and emotions of others gives perspective, and makes it possible to survive the pain of feeling forgotten or disregarded. It’s different from movies or television because with a book, it’s always one-on-one. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, a writer is talking directly to a reader, sharing from the depths of the heart that can’t be accessed in casual conversation. Because reading is active, not passive, it’s impossible to feel like a bystander; one is part of the process, completing the transaction begun by the writer.

It’s like movies and television are a cocktail party, but books are the heart-to-heart talk with a friend at the kitchen table or by the fireside, lingering over a cup of tea or coffee. Never much of a party person, I prefer the friendly chat.

You may be one of those lucky people who are surrounded by loving friends and family who maintain an active, meaningful presence in your life. If so, be grateful! In your gratitude, try to remain sensitive to the needs and feelings of others who lack that blessing.

If you are one who does feel alone and forgotten, you have lots of company– an irony, isn’t it? According to many recent news stories based on peer-reviewed research, loneliness is becoming an epidemic in this switched-on, tuned-out world. And even if you do not experience it now, chances are you will become acquainted with loneliness at some point in the future, if you are blessed to live long enough to out-live those who are near and dear.

For that reason among many others, I heartily recommend that you stay friendly with books and reading, no matter which format best suits you. It’s one of the best and most lasting gifts you can give yourself.

A certain free margin

Maybe it’s my imagination, but this cardinal appears to be deep in thought. June 2019

“You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness – perhaps ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things…”Walt Whitman

I think Whitman just explained why I get such a kick out of nature. My ignorance of the scientific details in the natural world is so vast as to allow me an enormous free margin to have lots of fun with my own credulity.

The Ligustrum shrubs at our York home used to be a condo for my beloved robins, but a few years ago the cardinals moved in and drove them away. Last week I was sitting at the kitchen table when I noticed the redbirds flying in and out of the bushes, landing on the deck rail for a few minutes before launching again.

I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. It seemed too late for them to be building nests or tending hatchlings, and I didn’t think there were any berries or other edible parts of the plant they might be after. It wasn’t until I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures that the telephoto lens gave me a better idea what those birds were after. Eeewww. Suddenly they seemed less like colorful state mascots and more like vultures eating road kill.

Yuk! Is that insect’s wing still beating?

Not only that, but there was what I could only describe as an annoyed expression on the face of one bird who noticed me watching her. I could almost hear Robert DeNiro saying “You talkin’ to me?” Maybe she was just upset at having an obviously bad hair day. I didn’t realize a bird could have those until I saw this one. Does anybody know why her head looks so mangy?

Obviously would have preferred to eat lunch in private.

I have no doubt that an ornithologist would laugh at my decidedly unscientific observations, but no matter. I can’t imagine that I would feel more delight in watching those birds– or anything else– if my head was full of facts rather than fancy. I bet Walt Whitman would agree.

So this week, I hope you will go out and enjoy nature, whatever the range of your personal free margin might be.  Whether your focus is the fantastic firmament, comical creatures, or just a calming walk on a mild, breezy day, you’re sure to be richer for the experience. Feel free to share with us your adventures, scientific or otherwise.

 

The best people

The young soldier Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I.
This public domain photo was taken in 1918, available via Wikimedia Commons.

“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway saw more than his share of wounds and destruction. As a young ambulance driver he was seriously injured in Italy during World War I, and was present as a journalist at the Normandy landings in World War II. These experiences are branded into his great literary achievements. His biography suggests they also influenced him in hidden, less laudable ways.

This is one of those quotes I want to talk back to, no matter how true I know it to be. I want somehow to bring Hemingway back from the dead. I want to tell him to put that gun down and not willingly, intentionally join the destroyed, not let his greatest story end in tragedy.

I want to block out of my mind so many others, the noble people described by Hemingway– people famous or unknown, who despite (or maybe because of) their great virtues, have been chewed up and spit out by life, gravely or fatally injured by the cruelty of the world. It’s unbearable, heartbreaking, when real life stories don’t have happy endings. Like a child figuratively closing my eyes and covering my ears to shut out the chaos, humming to myself and rocking, I try to distract myself when life gets too sad. Look over there! Another hawk!

This, of course, is denial, as any number of cynics will insist.

But there’s another way to talk back to what Hemingway said. Because even when the best people are wounded or destroyed, the story doesn’t end there. Their sensitivity, courage, diligence and sacrifice live on, a legacy to all who were blessed to know them. Some of us believe that their souls live on, too, and can never be destroyed.

Which brings me around to the question that may lurk underneath the urge to deny harsh truth: where does that leave us? Don’t we want to appreciate beauty, take risks, be honest, and sacrifice for others when circumstances demand it? It sounds great, but as Hemingway says, it will leave us vulnerable. And vulnerability is not something the world honors or celebrates.

But is the alternative really any better? It’s not like being cowardly or dishonest or selfish will necessarily work out very well in the long run.

Sometimes I think the virtues Hemingway describes here have atrophied in our modern world, where it is so easy to be preoccupied with our possessions and interests and unending sources of stimulation. We lead comfortable lives, most of us, carefully constructed to shield our vulnerabilities and minimize the sacrifices required of us.

In my more optimistic moments, I hope that these qualities are not atrophied, but merely dormant; that if and when circumstances demand them, they will awaken in us and we will be equal to the situation, just as Emily Dickinson described in her inspiring, hopeful poem.

In any case, it seems worthwhile to aspire to such virtues, and take small steps to prepare for the possibility that greater steps may eventually be required of us. We can make time to appreciate something beautiful each day. We can reach out to others even knowing they may reject us. We can be honest even when it’s difficult, and we can, at least some of the time, put someone else’s needs before our own, whether that person is a thoughtless family member or an obviously tired, less-than-cordial customer service representative.

We may never make it into the history books or do anything that will be remembered for very long, but we can still be among those who are, Hemingway describes, “the best people.”
I really believe that.

Never done with looking

This fountain graces Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. June 2019

“There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.
…I look; morning to night I am never done with looking…”  — Mary Oliver

What do you see in the photo above? A fountain, of course, and if you’ve ever been to Savannah, Georgia, you probably recognize it as the oft-photographed focal point of Forsyth Park. But look more closely; do you notice anything else in the photo?

The color is what caught my eye. What was that part at the top of the statue, and why was it not white like the rest? As I drew closer, I realized that this was indeed something separate, something more fascinating than the statue atop the fountain: a live hawk, perched there almost completely still. Now and then it turned its head, looking around to one side and then the other, taking in a wider view.

I wonder whether the sculptor intended the statue’s hand to become a roost. June 2019

My camera telephoto enabled me to zoom in and watch the hawk, who did not need such a device to see, in great detail, each and every person standing on the ground. I fancy that’s what it was doing: looking at the people, curious about us as we were about it. But perhaps it also was mesmerized by the motion of the water at the top of the fountain, which seemed the primary focus of its attention. I didn’t see it move to drink any of the water; it just perched there on the statue’s motionless hand, alert and majestic.

I lost track of how long I stood there watching the hawk and taking photos of it, the lovely fountain all but forgotten. Though I wasn’t looking at the humans around me, I’m sure that others were watching the hawk too, reaching out to what we could not reach. Perhaps the hawk was reaching out to us in return, its head pivoting with sharp-eyed focus. It did not move from its roost the entire time I watched, and it was still there when I left.

By that time, I had concluded that statue was where this bird spent most of its time, all day long, never done with looking. I imagine it was there again today, and will be there tomorrow. It now inhabits my brain as surely as it does Forsyth Park, one of an endless stream of adornments guarding against the despair that sits on the edges of my consciousness ready to devour my peace of mind. My mind’s eye needs only to look away from the melancholy and turn toward the magnificent, among which is now this one particular bird. It seems a formidable ally.

One of the surest defenses against sadness or any number of challenging emotions is to reach out for what we cannot reach. And Oliver is right; we can do this by looking, all day long, morning to night. We may lack the hawk’s visual acuity but we can make up for it in the sheer variety and delight of what we are able to enjoy.

Today, I invite you to look, and never be done with looking. Gather up the bright and beautiful, the funny and fabulous. Tuck these treasures away like a jackdaw hiding pilfered jewels, and look again at them when you most need the inspiration. There are many wonders that we cannot fully reach in this life, but my wish for us is that we never stop reaching out for them.

Change the world

The moment I stepped through the door, Rebecca’s megawatt smile made my day. June 2019

“I would not change you for the world, but I will change the world for you.”Amy Wright, to her two younger children watching her on television

My sister and I just got back from a road trip to Savannah, St. Simon’s Island, and Jekyll Island, Georgia. We had agreed that there would be no timetables or constraints on this trip; it was strictly relaxation-oriented. However, there was one spot my sister insisted we MUST SEE, and I was happy to prioritize it, because I felt the same. That place was Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Shop.

Bitty and Beau’s is cool, literally and figuratively.

I’m not particularly a coffee hound, and though my sister drinks more coffee than I do, neither one of us would ordinarily put a coffee shop at the top of our list. But Bitty & Beau’s is no ordinary coffee shop. Its founder, who is quoted above, is the mother of four children, the youngest two of whom have Down Syndrome. Though Bitty and Beau are still too young for employment, Wright was concerned that over 80% of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are unemployed, and she set out to change that. In the process, she created a remarkable place for everyone to enjoy.

I had read about Bitty & Beau’s a few weeks ago when it was linked in one of the many disability-oriented resource lists I read from time to time, and I immediately wrote their headquarters to request that they open a shop near me. I got back a response that they plan to open another store in Annapolis, Maryland, in the near future, so I plan to visit there soon.

Meanwhile, I was planning the trip to Savannah, where they already had opened their third shop. I couldn’t wait to go. Although I hadn’t seen the clips of the shop when it was featured on broadcasts such as The Today Show, Rachael Ray, CNN, Harry, Good Morning America, Dr. Oz, HLN, People Magazine and Southern Living Magazine, even without knowing about the televised fanfare, I knew it must be something remarkable.

Bitty and Beau’s was all that I hoped it would be, and more. The interior was classy and appealing. The traffic was steady and the atmosphere a perfect refuge from the 90-degree heat outside. All that plus tea and coffee too? Count me in!

There were two baristas working when we went in. An assistant manager was behind the counter too, overseeing their work, but during the hour (or more) that we spent there, I did not see a single time when she told them what to do or corrected their work. She was simply another smiling face, chatting with us about the area and the store’s products.

Here’s a close up of that photo hanging on the wall, visible in the shot above.
The Wrights pose with the staff of the Savannah shop, probably on opening day.

My sister noted that, in between customers, the baristas stayed busy polishing up the bar stools, stocking supplies and going about their business in a variety of ways. Clearly, they had mastered the job and enjoyed doing it. But they didn’t mind stopping briefly to pose with me.

Andrew was reluctant to pose until he saw how much fun we were having and joined in.

I sipped my chai while enjoying the shop displays and marveling at the pin map, where customers could place a pin to indicate their home. For a shop that has been open less than a year, their global influence was quite impressive. There wasn’t room to put a pin into the DC area, so I managed to wedge one into southeastern Virginia, representing York County.

It’s hard to see unless you enlarge the photo, but the pins are from everywhere.

We had to tear ourselves away. I had never been to Savannah, so I knew I should get out and do some exploring. I got a delicious frozen lemonade to go, and reluctantly said farewell. But this stop was the highlight of my trip. Watch the clip linked above at Amy Wright’s name, and see if it does’t put a smile on your face. I’m pretty sure it will brighten your day.

The shop’s hashtag says it all.

Remember, we really can change the world. We might be unable to do something as grand and award-worthy as Wright has done, but we can capture the same spirit as we interact with others, one person at a time. We can do this in small ways, through donations, through supporting local businesses that aim for more than money, and through getting to know those we may have unintentionally disregarded. The biggest difference will happen in our own hearts. Try it!

Like someone running

Off she goes! What (and who) will she find in the forest of stories, and on the other side?
New Forest National Park, U.K., photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

“I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.”Rebecca Solnit

Unlike Solnit, I would say that my childhood was a happy one, but like her, I too disappeared into books from the time I learned to read– or even before then, when others read to me. When I ran into the woods, it was out of curiosity and an eagerness to explore, not to escape anything. As I grew older (and some of my classmates grew crueler, inclined to bully those who were different) reading did become an escape from a world where I often felt unwanted or misunderstood. But the enchantment with discovery was still the primary appeal of books.

From that time to this, I’ve depended on books, reading, and writing. In the sorrow and unending solitude since Jeff died, I have relied more than ever on written communication (increasingly translated to audio books or digital formats such as this). And yes, the other side of that solitary immersion into text is the connection to others who, for whatever reason, also wander through the “forest of stories.”

I know I’m not alone in this. Just look at the countless book groups that have sprung up like mushrooms, seemingly everywhere. Most of these gatherings are face-to-face meetings in neighborhood and community settings, where people go to meet others who share their favorite pastime. For the record, I’ve never been to one of these meetings, though I keep intending to go. My neighborhood, my churches and my local libraries all host such groups. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) the day and time will be right for me to attend one of them.

And of course, there’s this blog, which introduced me to more people than I’d ever dreamed of meeting, and also enabled me to re-connect with people I’ve known for years. There are countless other blogs, too, each with its own unique community of people connecting through the “forest of stories” found in the posts and comments.

How about you? Do you ever run away into the forest of stories? Who have you met in real life, as a result of your literary discoveries? Do you belong to a book club, blog community or other group drawn together from shared adventures in reading? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

For years I had a magnet on my refrigerator that said “Libraries change lives.” One of the most important ways they do this is connecting us to others. Reading tells us we are not alone, and once we find that reassurance, we can indeed come out of the forest and find people just waiting to be friends.

For your mind

This was the first sight that greeted me when I drove into town.
How could I not stay? May, 2019

“Sometimes the best thing you can do for your mind is take it for a walk.”
—  Ashleigh Brilliant

Ashleigh can speak with authority on this topic. He’s lived over eight decades without using a car very much.* In fact, I don’t know whether he even owns one. I’ve only ever seen his bicycles, parked on his front porch, and I know that he walks (or bikes) almost everywhere he goes. Of course, that’s easy for someone who lives in the heart of a lovely place called Santa Barbara. But the rest of us are without excuse, no matter where we live.

Everywhere I’ve ever been, there are nearby charming little towns (or charming areas within not-so-charming towns) or at least very interesting places, to explore on foot. And I totally agree that often, the thing my mind needs most of all is to go for a walk.

After a few of you exhorting me (via the comments section) to get back to my long-neglected habit of walking at least 2 miles a day, I walked that distance three different days in my neighborhood this past week. But on Friday, I was returning from a yearly planning meeting with Matt and the various agencies involved in his life. The weather was gorgeous– not too hot, sunny, and just a faint breeze. So I decided to do something I’ve intended to do for nearly ten years now: spend some time exploring the nearby little town of Occoquan. This marker gives a bit of its history. By the way, it’s pronounced “Ah’ ko-kwan” (I think).

I’ve been there for errands and appointments just outside the historic district, so I knew it is a picturesque waterside village that would be perfect for a walk. I only had a couple of hours to spare, but I decided that would be better than nothing. And it was a great way to spend that two hours, better than any therapeutic intervention I could have asked my insurance company to provide. I decided to invite you to go along with me, virtually, and see if you agree.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a great day for a stroll.

One of my favorite shops was formerly a stately home, now filled with delightful furnishings and accessories. I could easily have spent my entire time in this one shop alone, but I had to tell myself I’d save it for another time.

I was happy this was no longer a private residence so I could go in; it looked so inviting!

Along with the charming shops, tea rooms and restaurants typical of such places, there’s a unique new town house development called Gaslight Landing. Need a place to dock your boat, or wishing for your own elevator inside your home? Those things and more can be yours for “only” $899,900 or so. But enjoying the sight of them as you stroll through town is free, and much easier than owning and maintaining one.

It felt almost like being in San Francisco again.

I guess the residents are accustomed to having people park in front of their homes.
(They have private parking behind the homes, in case you’re thinking of living there.)

One of the things I enjoy most about wandering through these little towns is that I always see things here and there that remind me of some of my favorite people. Whenever I see red, white and blue (and there is plenty of it on display the week before Memorial Day) I think of my patriotic friend Mary Ann. When I see anything with a seashore motif I think of Sheila and her lovely oceanfront home. And when I saw one particular shop, it may as well have had a sign outside saying “bring Alys here next time she comes.”

First of all, there was a Little Free Library outside. Many of you know Alys or someone else who has generously provided such a “book stop” for the community. Each Little Free Library is unique, which makes them special, but all share the wealth of reading and encourage others to do the same. As if that wasn’t enough, this particular Little Free Library also offered seed packets for flowers that benefit local wildlife while beautifying the landscape. Of course I picked up a packet, snapping a photo to show Alys, whose blog is rightly named “Gardening Nirvana.”

Look closely and you’ll see the seed packets at the bottom of the photo.

When I tore myself away from the Little Free Library and actually entered the shop, I noticed another reminder of Alys. As a professional organizer, she introduced me to Marie Kondo’s books and their wonderful advice to “Spark joy.” How could I not take this photo to share with her, and with you?

Anyplace that sparks joy is my kind of place.

Even the little “nooks and crannies” had colorful photo-worthy sights. I snapped this little alley just as my time was running out and I had to leave.

Too bad I didn’t have time to sit down. What color chair would you choose?

So this is the closest I could come to having you with me that day. But I’m pretty sure that you have lots of fun, cute or interesting places near wherever you are, that you can enjoy exploring. It’s good exercise, for body, mind and spirit. Next time you feel a little bit crazy, remember Ashleigh’s advice, and take your mind out for a walk!

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*despite– or maybe because of– his PhD dissertation at Berkeley being about the effects of the automobile industry on Southern California in the 1920’s.

From hand to hand

The cards are beautiful, but the handwritten notes inside are what matter most.

“I’ve always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.” ― Robert Michael Pyle

During the third semester of my PhD program in Communications (from which I withdrew at the end of that semester, due to uncertainty about Matt’s schedule and whether I would have anyone available to help with his care), I did a qualitative research project about sending traditional handwritten cards, notes and letters through postal mail. The research involved hours of interviews with people from all over the USA and at least two other countries. It was fun and fascinating to talk to others who felt, as I do, that there’s something special about getting personal communication delivered by the post office.

One theme that emerged in several interviews, one that I don’t remember ever having thought of myself, was the special bond the receiver felt in holding a letter that had been in the hands of the sender. It was almost as if the letter served as a link joining the touch of hands across the miles. When I read Pyle’s quote, I thought of those interviews and the many people who voiced the same thought.

Interestingly, that research paper reinforced my decision to quit school. I realized that I’d much rather spend time writing actual letters, than reading and writing ABOUT writing letters. That one paper was a great experience, but the best part about it was that it fed my enthusiasm for sending postal mail.

Laura Vandekam’s podcast “Before Breakfast” recently featured a program encouraging listeners to send handwritten notes. Since her program is often career-focused, prioritizing efficiency, this episode jumped out at me. The emphasis on handwritten notes was not something I typically associate with time management strategies. But as she explains, “I bet a handwritten note creates at least ten times the impression of an email. But it doesn’t take ten times as long to write.” She goes on to give hints on how to incorporate the habit of writing handwritten notes into one’s schedule without consuming too much time. “I promise it will be worth your time,” she says, “because guess what? People are a good use of time. And handwriting notes is a good way to show people that they matter.”

I agree with her completely, but I confess I don’t do nearly as well at this as I would like. Still, I’m inspired by others who do. Despite this being an online community, many of you have made the effort to contact me via postal mail with cards and letters I treasure, some of which have come from faraway places I dream of visiting, such as Wales. As Vandekam describes in her podcast, when I see handwritten correspondence in my stack of mail, it’s an instant day-brightener and I often want to open it first (though sometimes I save it as a reward for slogging through the boring stuff). So it’s extra-fun for me to post notes to others, hoping to share at least a bit of the joy I feel when I receive one.

I find that writing notes and letters is an amazingly calming, mood-lifting experience. I like to use pretty stationery (or make some cards myself) and I have a lot of fun with stickers and pretty postal stamps, but none of these things are necessary. As Winnie the Pooh supposedly said, “It doesn’t take a lot of pencil to show a friend you care.”

Today, or this week, I hope you will make time to send a note in the mail to someone who would love to hear from you. And I’ll make an offer I’ve made here before: If you, or anyone you know, would like a handwritten note from me, just send your postal address to me at defeatdespair@verizon.net, and I’ll be happy to send you one! I’ll guard your address and I promise not to post it here or give it to anyone else. I’ll even enclose a tea bag if you tell me what kind you like! I’ll have fun sending it, so if you want me to send it, it will be a win-win.

Whether from me or from someone else, I hope this week will bring you a special piece of mail that has traveled the earth from someone else’s hands, head and heart, to end up in yours!

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