“As a child I used to think that spring happened suddenly. Now I know that spring emerges gradually, as new as dawn—and as old.” – June Masters Bacher
We had some unseasonably warm weather a few weeks back, and because of that (and OK, maybe because of what the ground hog said) I was expecting an early spring. But it’s just now starting to arrive. In past years, I’ve seen daffodils as early as February, but not this year. However, I’m happy to say that there now are definite signs of spring at our York home.
In early March I had noticed the plum tree just starting to bud. I was dismayed because I knew I would be away for 12 days and was afraid I’d miss it. But I didn’t! As you can see in the photo above, it is just now blooming, with none of the petals having dropped to the ground yet. Like many fruit trees, it has a short bloom time so I felt lucky that I caught it looking so pretty. Here’s what the flowers look like close up.
The daffodils are blooming, too! Here’s a shot of some in the front yard. the ones around the trees and mailbox are the bright yellow monochromatic kind, and they haven’t appeared yet. I love any kind of daffodil.
Since it’s still cool, the last of the camellia blooms are still visible here and there, but clearly fading..
These were growing near the ground, so I cut them to bring inside.
As Bacher says, spring emerges gradually…especially when one is waiting for it as eagerly as I always do. How about you? Are you seeing signs of spring– or in the southern hemisphere, of fall? Send us a seasonal snapshot– in words or an actual digital photo, if you can figure out how to upload it–and let’s welcome these blessings that are “as new as dawn– and as old.”
“A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.” – Eudora Welty
The house pictured above is the place I will always think of as my childhood home. I’ve returned there, just to drive by it, several times since my parents first moved away more than twenty years after that photo was made, and I’ve been happy to see that the house and the neighborhood still look lovely to me.
This is not the first home I remember, though. That distinction belongs to this house in Hapeville, Georgia, where we moved when I was a toddler who had already lived briefly in two other states:
Oddly, I don’t remember ever going back to see this home, though I had very fond (if vague) memories of the wonderful park across the street. Recently before a planned trip to Atlanta, Drew mentioned that we might take Grady and Owen to the Dwarf House, which Chick-Fil-A fans might know as the place where it all started.
I knew the Dwarf House was in Hapeville, and for the first time I can remember, I wondered whether it might be fun to go see that old home. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I spent over an hour on a google map search of the surrounding area neighborhoods to see if any of them looked familiar. When I saw photos of the park during one of the searches, I was hit with that startling “ping” of recognition not unlike the emotion one might feel at a chance meeting of a dearly loved person long absent from one’s life. I looked at the street name, and it too rang a distant bell somewhere in my memory. I called my sister, who would be meeting us in Atlanta, and we made excited plans to go back and visit the house, and the neighborhood.
So, after landing at ATL and filling our stomachs with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the Dwarf House (where Owen was fascinated with the tiny dwarf door that was just his size), we drove the short distance to what we believed was our old neighborhood. We were delighted to find that it was still a charming and well-kept community. We got out of the car and stepped into our past.
“Magical” is an overused word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind in describing the experience. “Nostalgia” doesn’t capture it at all, because it wasn’t connected to any specific conscious memories. It was more like being transported to a place of belonging, almost a state of being, that was unexpectedly familiar. I felt like a tiny child again, running excitedly through the park that I had remembered as being much more enormous than it appears to me now.
The wooden bridge over the creek had been replaced with a stone structure, and a playground area with newer equipment had been added. But otherwise it was unmistakable, and now I had the surreal feeling of watching my grandsons running through that same park, the younger of whom was about the same age I had been while we lived there.
The really funny thing was that we remembered the park with more certainty than we remembered the front of our home– neither Carla nor I could be sure which of two different houses across the street had been our own. Later we went back to Mama and Daddy’s last home in Fayetteville, where our younger brother now lives. He wasn’t even born during those years, but he pointed us to the old photos where we located the picture posted above. There was no doubt now which house had been ours, and it has held up well during the nearly 60 years since the first photo was taken:
But it was the park that will stay in my memory and in my heart. I somehow had forgotten to bring my camera (the photo above was taken by Carla’s husband George, who used his cell phone) but here’s a photo of my older brother, older sister and me, having fun there 60 years ago. You’ll have to trust me that, unlike us, the park looks almost exactly like this now. Our home is visible in this photo, too. It’s a photo of a photo– I didn’t have access to a scanner — so the quality is lacking, but perhaps the enchantment will come through:
When I read Welty’s quote, I thought immediately of our visit back to our Hapeville home. “A fire that never goes out” is a very good way to describe it. Much depends on what kind of fire it is; for some, early memories of home can be dangerous and even destructive, and maybe best forgotten. But for most of us, despite less than perfect memories, home can be a life-sustaining force that warms the world until the end of our days.
Do you remember your childhood home(s)? Have you been back to visit? Feel free to share memories of your own “fire that never goes out.” Millions of homes all over the world are chock-full of stories just waiting to be told.
“Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal process──which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.” ― Lytton Strachey
I had a rough week, interacting with various robotic systems that were creating errors related to banking, finance and other necessities of daily life. By jumping through various automated obstacles, I contacted actual human beings to try to correct such mundane problems as my checking and saving account statements being sent, for no apparent reason, to an outdated address that was changed nine months ago. I was chagrined to discover how powerless the employees are, to correct or even understand the computer-driven systems that have taken over most business tasks in today’s world.
Even though my problems were “escalated” (to use popular business lingo) to higher-level departments, the people at those levels were equally stymied in their attempts to figure out what was happening, and why. I was left mulling over the brave new world of artificial so-called intelligence that now controls and too often bungles so many aspects of daily life. My conclusion is that I am finished with robots; all is over between us, insofar as I can manage to disentangle myself from such systems. Of course, much is already beyond our ability to control it, but I will continue to seek out humans for as many interactions as I possibly can.
The first thing I did was take steps to sever a 31-year dependence on online banking, which served us well through many military moves, but which is no longer functioning efficiently or even adequately. (My recent problems were part of an ongoing pattern of similarly inexplicable errors.) I went to an actual, brick-and-mortar bank branch and opened several accounts to which I intend to transition all my business. While the bank is part of yet another gargantuan corporation that relies, as all do, on computers, at least I had contact with real people to whom I can turn when such problems surface in the future, as they undoubtedly will. This represents an improvement over calling an 800 number and getting a different person each time, telling the same story over and over.
There are other ways to step away from impersonal encounters with robots. Months ago, I began doing something many of you already are doing: making an effort to deal with local businesses insofar as I reasonably can. Other small steps include focusing on face-to-face interaction as often as possible, writing real, physical letters in my own unique handwriting, and reminding myself to make eye contact and smile at people I encounter, however briefly, in the course of a day. Interacting primarily with machines can make us lose our humanity– I really believe that– and I’m not going to give it up without a fight.
Another thing I realized is that technology allows us to stay home far too much, especially in cold weather. There’s nothing wrong with being happy to stay home. Feeling content in our own cozy nest is one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s a risk: it can lead to becoming increasingly isolated from our communities, robbing us of what other people have to offer us, and depriving them of our own contributions.
I think travel is so invigorating because it forces us out of our cocoons and puts us face to face with people who are friendly, often fascinating, and completely new to us. We have much to learn from people we have not yet met. All such encounters are helpful insofar as they allow us to practice courtesy, communication and congeniality, all of which atrophy when we deal mostly with robots.
I’m no Luddite. I love technology, and my presence here at this blog is exhibit A that demonstrates my enthusiasm for the gifts of digital progress. However, in addition to the reservations described above, there is a darker side to technology that became apparent to me as I dealt with the frustrations of the past week. I noticed how much easier I found it to become hostile and rude with people with whom I spoke over the phone, when they seemed unhelpful or dismissive of my difficulties.
When not face to face with another person, it’s far too easy to vent and even shout when I become irritated. This is especially true if I’m speaking with a nameless person I’m unlikely ever to reach again, at one of those branched-out call centers with locations in multiple cities, teeming with employees whose conversations one can overhear buzzing in the background. Such inadequate approaches to customer service underscore how minuscule any one person’s problems must seem to this mammoth corporation. Call center employees are normally powerless to do much, and rarely can they even return a phone call or pass the problem on to someone who might be able to help. No wonder it’s so infuriating to deal with them.
However understandable my anger might be in such situations, venting it accomplishes nothing good. Accordingly, I’m going to avoid such call centers as much as I can. That might not be possible in many cases, but there still do exist businesses that have local representatives one can consult in person. Even if it costs more to deal with them, I’ve decided it’s worth it.
Many of us have been raging against the machine for a long time, but I’m ready to do more than rage. One way I am choosing to defeat despair is to go retro with how I conduct my business. How about you? Do you have any happy encounters to relate, whether in your home town or on the road, that will inspire us with faith that the robots have not yet irrevocably taken over? Can you point us to companies that have made a commitment to put people over profits? As Strachey says, people have a value that transcends any temporal process. How can we live out our understanding of that eternal truth?
And still the earth is cold and white,
And mead and forest yet are bare;
But there’s a something in the light
That says the germ of life is there. — Jane Goodwin Austin, “February,” c.1886
I searched through all my February photos and couldn’t find any that showed pretty flowery landscapes, so I resorted to cheating (again) with a colorful potted plant for today’s post. We all need some color right now. While I was visiting my sister in north Alabama last week, I saw several flowering fruit trees, but so far nothing in bloom here at my Virginia homes.
We’re having those on-and-off, up-and-down weather days, which surely mean (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) that spring is on its way. Yesterday the afternoon was so warm that I went outside to prune my crape myrtles, and though I accidentally cut a deep “V” into the side of my thumb while I was at it, I couldn’t help but feel cheerful.
I’m dreaming of spring plantings, and can’t understand why the landscapers aren’t as impatient as I am to get going. What are your garden plans this year? Will you be setting your own seedlings out, or enjoying those of your neighbors? Are you as eager as I am to see some outdoor blooms?
“I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.” – Patrick Ness
When I was a child, we didn’t have nearly as many children’s books in our home as I would have liked. But we did have quite a few books of general interest, including some really magnificent items, and none of them were off limits to us. I remember spending hours with the books from our modest home library .
Whether I was at home or at the public library, I could spend as much time as I wanted browsing and poring over whatever caught my eye. I don’t remember my parents ever trying to censor or limit my reading. In fact, once when my older brother saw me reading a book called Expectant Motherhood, he felt duty-bound to report it to my mother, feeling certain she would not want me to be exposed to these biological details at an early age. But she just scoffed at his concern, telling him there was no harm in my reading it.
Thus I grew up sensing that information was nothing to fear, and wide-ranging opinions were not dangerous if tested by reason, logic and fact. I connected immediately with the quote by Ness, especially his description of himself as “a hugely unchaperoned reader.” For all the adventures I would later experience through travel, my earliest explorations were made possible by public and school libraries.
It’s never too late to set out on an unchaperoned voyage of discovery, and you need travel no farther than your public library, much of which you now can access directly via your home computer. Unlike the structured reading done in the context of classes and assignments, solo expeditions at the library allow you to follow your own pathways and timetables. There sits the world, waiting for you– send us a few postcards of your most interesting finds!
Happy Birthday to my sister, who read to me and taught me to read.
“This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things that ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.” — Augusten Burroughs
Perhaps the oft-repeated question should not be “why do bad things happen,” but rather, “where does all this beauty and abundance and joy and love and delight come from?” People of faith believe there is a divine wellspring of goodness that blesses our world even as it explains our existence and gives meaning to life. But surely even those who believe this planet evolved from a cosmic accident must agree that the bones of life, as Burroughs refers to them, are indeed generous in a way that defies easy description.
Did the sun break through your window this morning so brightly that waking up was a bit easier? Did your mailbox surprise you by containing a note from someone you love? Are the green shoots of daffodils beginning to pierce the frozen ground in your yard? Have you had a delicious cup of coffee or tea that jump-started your brain as it pleased your taste buds? Is a dog or cat lying nearby, exuding warmth and companionship?
Did you have the exquisite delight of buying a small gift that you know will be wanted or needed by someone dear to you? Are you wearing a comfortable sweater in your favorite color? Is beautiful music almost certain to be part of your day, playing on an amazingly inexpensive but sophisticated speaker that transmits the sound of a faraway orchestra? Can you imagine the faces of all those individual musicians, each of whom gave a lifetime of practice to bring you a symphony that never fails to bring tears of joy to your eyes?
I could go on and on, but really, I don’t need to. Chances are this post has you thinking spontaneously of the countless sentiments and supports and sensory surprises that color your day with happiness. Life really is, at its core, beautiful and generous beyond all reason. Even when things are at their worst, some part of me never doubts that primal truth. It is a rock-solid encouragement to continue.
Whether your day is wonderful, difficult or somewhere in between, I wish you many reminders of abiding beauty and the peace that passes understanding.
“A story is a garden you carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But…we must never mistake the stories we tell for truth.” – Alexandra Curry
Over 30 years ago in a Bible class, the teacher spoke of how big the truth is. Afterward, Jeff and I had a discussion on that assertion. Jeff said he had always thought of the truth as something narrow and well-defined. He belonged to a profession based on hard science and peer-reviewed research involving lots of double-blind studies. It was also his personality type; Jeff was much more skeptical than I am. I think he would have agreed with the caveat that, if we tell ourselves stories, we must not mistake them for the truth.
But I agree with that long-ago teacher. I think the truth is a big thing, so enormous that no human mind can fully grasp it. As such, I think stories, even totally imagined ones, contain grains of truth that may often be better illustrated by fiction than by bare facts. As Curry says, the stories we tell ourselves typically serve the function of adding joy to our lives and giving us refuge. They are not meant to be didactic, but they resonate with what we know of the truth, and they bring us humor and reassurance.
However, we also could tell ourselves stories that are not helpful. These tales might make people or events more evil or destructive than they actually are. We may re-invent the past to fit narratives that cast us in a better light, or make others the villains in a real-life drama that might be far more nuanced than we describe. Worse, we may convince ourselves that this self-serving version of events is the real one. So Curry’s point is well taken.
Having said that, I am immensely grateful for the power of stories, and I really like the analogy comparing them with portable gardens. Who among us does not enjoy escaping into a great novel, a well-produced film or an enthralling live theatrical production? The best of these stay with us, like a beautiful song or favorite memory, and shine brightly in the often drab reality of daily life. We may not have physical proximity to the sort of garden pictured above, but wherever we are, we can escape into a good story.
For those who have lived many decades, our memories are full of stories, like vast gardens with a wide variety of botanical rooms. Some are more colorful and verdant, some may be overgrown and ill-tended, and there will be those that bring more sorrow or regret than joy. But always we can find beautiful settings to enjoy, especially if we are willing to venture beyond our own story gardens, into those of our friends, and those that make up the great legacy left to us by authors, poets and artists of present and past centuries.
Today, let’s make it a point not to spend more time than necessary in desolate mental places. Let’s be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves, and choose hope. Our pockets are full of stories– gardens through which we can stroll for a soothing escape from whatever may be clouding our vision and worrying our minds. In the dreary days of late winter (or the parched, dry ground of late summer), these “pocket gardens” can transform our inner landscape. Feel free to share a favorite story with us here in the comments.
Upon a bank I sat, a child made seer
Of one small primrose flowering in my mind.
Better than wealth it is, I said, to find
One small page of Truth’s manuscript made clear…
…The years that pass
Like tired soldiers nevermore have given
Moments to see wonders in the grass.
— Patrick Kavanagh
This post is for Denise, who inspired me to challenge myself this past week. The goal was for each of us to buy fresh flowers for ourselves. Denise had achieved this almost immediately, but I took a few days longer. However, with her example to encourage me, I ended up with the lovely primroses pictured above.
Earlier, in a discussion in the comments section, I had written that cut flowers are a good investment despite their short lives. I mentioned that it was easier for me to buy myself a potted plant I could eventually transplant outdoors, hoping that it might last a bit longer, but almost never bought myself freshly cut flowers. Denise said she had a similar reluctance to treat herself to a bouquet, so we agreed we’d bring home some botanical joy as soon as possible.
So my original plan was to buy cut flowers, not something potted. The interesting thing was that, had I not gone into Kroger’s in search fresh cut flowers to follow Denise’s example, I would never have found these adorable primroses, which are among my all time favorite flowers. Like the beloved daffodils that always top my list, primroses bloom very early, before winter is past. Is there a pattern here, with my preferences? I think so!
Every year, I search (usually in vain) for potted primroses to enjoy. I love their vibrant colors and deep green foliage. But they are hard to find; maybe I just don’t know where to look. Even when I see them advertised, the stores are always sold out by the time I get there. The few I have bought over the years have transplanted beautifully, sometimes coming back again the following year. Our Alexandria townhome that I sold last year had a lovely yellow primrose I had planted beside the patio. It returned annually, blooming in the still-cold weather, reminding me that spring had almost arrived.
Anyway, after I read about Denise having bought herself some flowers, I went into my local Kroger’s, which boasts a wonderful floral department. Despite how beautiful their displays are, I almost never take time to wander and buy; I’m always in a rush to get the practical groceries and get home with them. But I was determined to find some cut flowers to live up to my own words.
Imagine my delight when I saw these lovely primroses! At only $1.50 per plant, I could afford all five of the colors on display. Now I will have the double pleasure of flowers to enjoy indoors, and flowers to plant in a few weeks in the new planting beds adjacent to my just-finished patio. I was so excited to bring them home.
The next morning, I was having my usual cold-weather reluctance to leave the snug and cozy cocoon of my bed. All the usual cares and worries came flooding into my mind, setting me up for the gloomy mood with which I begin far too many days. Then suddenly I remembered my new flowers, and immediately, it was as if a light was switched on inside my brain. Just the thought of seeing them when I went downstairs made starting the day an easier task for me.
Thank you, Denise, for helping me to see wonders! It does often seem that the years “pass like tired soldiers” but as the poet has written, there are wonders woven throughout, truths that are better than wealth.
A postscript: readers who enjoy Christian reflections might appreciate the full poem from which the quote above is drawn.
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. – Mary Oliver
I had already begun putting this post together when I looked for a link to include with Mary Oliver’s name. That was how I found out she had just died. I gasped aloud, feeling suddenly the deep sadness shared by countless others whose hearts were touched and reassured by Oliver’s work. I have already featured many quotes from her poems in this blog. When I chose this one for today, I had no idea she had so recently left this world.
There were all sorts of things I could have shared about trees in this post, but really, what more needs to be said than what Oliver put into words in this remarkable poem? May your life be filled with such hints of gladness, there for you when you need them most.
When I read this quote I noticed right away the rare combination of those two concepts in a single phrase: “excitement and peace.” At first the two sound incompatible, but my reaction to snow proves otherwise. Like the character in Edwards’ memorable novel, when I look on freshly fallen snow I feel both emotions.
It’s a luxury, of course, that I don’t have to worry about getting out into the weather and negotiating the snow-covered streets. For a blissful few hours of respite I can put off shoveling the walkways and sweeping the snow from my deck and patio before it begins to melt. An overnight snowfall brings with it a rare moment in modern life, when everything stops briefly as we draw a collective breath and simply admire the incomparable artistry of nature.
Depending on whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere, you may be observing winter wonders or the warmth of summer’s charms. I hope you will have a few moments in which things stop, however temporarily, long enough for you to be blessed with the delicious sense of excitement tempered by peace.
I was looking through my archives of January photos, and found this one from the first month of 2016. Jeff had brought me a dozen white roses for no particular reason, except that he knew I loved flowers, and I think he loved them nearly as much as I did. During the past dozen or so years, he had taken to bringing me fresh flowers on impulse when he saw a bouquet he liked. Thanks to photos the joy he gave me with those flowers lives on and warms my heart even now.
Flowers are such an important part of life, especially during the winter when we mostly dream of their return. We might tend to think of flowers as a luxury, but I think Monet was right in seeing them as indispensable. What a blessing it is for us today, that Monet loved flowers so. He left us dazzling beauty that will never fade, in his countless paintings of flowers in every form and setting. Here is just a sample of what you can see if you do a quick online image search under his name:
If you need an instant pick-me-up, try enjoying some flowers today. You need not purchase a bouquet for your home if you want to enjoy nature’s best mood therapy, although money spent on flowers is well invested. For virtually no expense at all, you can stroll through the fresh flower displays at a local grocery or garden center, or if you’d rather stay warm and cozy indoors, check out a nearby gallery or library, or just search online at the world’s most famous museums. Imagine how the artists of past centuries would envy our ability to view great works so easily!
Flowers feed the soul, as the poet has said. May they bring joy to your heart today, and always, and always.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise… — Rudyard Kipling
If I had to name my top five favorite poems, “If” by Kipling would definitely make the cut. Every line is challenging and full of manifest wisdom. Though I have loved the poem since my youth, I find that different lines of it are most applicable to me at various times in my life. The verse above, however, has remained relevant for as long as I can remember.
Can you imagine how the world might be transformed if everyone– leaders, politicians, executives, family, clergy, entry-level clerks, students, even children– lived up to the principles contained in just these four lines? While each of these lines sets a high standard, the fourth is perhaps the most challenging of all. How difficult it is to remain humble while refusing to return evil for evil! How hard it is to remain ethical in a corrupt world, without inspiring resentment and jealousy in those who project their own manipulative tendencies onto the action of others.
According to almost anyone’s reckoning, time passes ever more swiftly, yet we grow increasingly impatient at even the slightest bit of waiting. Surely the waiting Kipling refers to here would be measured in weeks, months, maybe even years. Often, though, I don’t even want to wait a day for something I deem important or time-sensitive.
During the years since Jeff died, no small part of my sadness and agitation are the result of grief taking far longer to heal than I had expected it to take. Many days– maybe most of them– I have to remind myself that I must focus on just the day or hour right in front of me. My mind, though not what it once was, seems agile and demanding compared to my aging joints and exhausted limbs.
Growing older can bring with it a sense of urgency as the sun sinks gradually into the horizon of our long term picture, but the ability to wait gracefully becomes even more important than it was in our youth. As I look to my third full year of widowhood, my resolution (to the extent that I have one at all) can be captured in Kipling’s words above. I want to wait patiently, without agitation. I don’t want to give in to the liars and haters. I want to stay humble and grateful, short on advice and long on understanding. If I can manage all that, I won’t need to worry about much else.
As you look toward 2019, what aspirations fill your heart? Whatever they may be, I wish for all of us a year of greater peace, fewer distractions and abundant joy.
“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart… filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever. Even though you grew up and found you could never quite bring back the magic feeling of this night, the melody would stay in your heart always – a song for all the years.” — Bess Streeter Aldrich
When I was a child, Christmas Eve was the most magical day of the year, the anticipation sweeter than the gifts and feasting and holidays from school that would follow. Throughout my adult years I found, as so many do, that December 24 had increasingly become a day of mixed emotions at best, deep sorrow at worst. But Aldrich is right; the melody stayed in my heart.
Perhaps you are reading this amid the busy preparations for a festive time with family and friends. Your day may be filled with affection, connection, and the sweetness of shared laughter. If so, I rejoice with you. I have known the enchantment of such holiday happiness, and it is like nothing else on this earth.
But you may be facing Christmas with a broken heart, having recently been parted from dear ones through death, estrangement or geographic separation. You may be reeling from having just received a terminal diagnosis, or recovering from life-threatening surgery, or sitting, even as you read this, at the bedside of a family member who is hospitalized.
Perhaps you face financial difficulties due to a loss of employment or unexpected expenses. Or maybe your sadness has no immediate specific cause, yet you feel empty and alone at a time when it seems the entire world is merry.
If you are feeling wistful or forlorn today, I truly sympathize. But listen closely– can you hear the melody, however faint, that is still playing somewhere in your memory? Let’s turn up the volume on that celestial music. Just for today, let its otherworldly message of joy drown out the cacophony of strife, gloom and despair.
I wish you “tidings of comfort and joy” that will wrap in you warmth and wonder.
“It is, without doubt, the gifts we get from our excursions into differences—the people we come to know whom we could never have met otherwise, the wisdom we see in those we consider to be simpler than ourselves, the downright goodness of those we fear because we do not know them—that make us bigger of soul, greater of heart, than we could possibly ever have been otherwise.” — Joan Chittister
Typically at this time of year we wish each other happy times with family and close friends, and of course I wish that for all of you. But beyond that, I wish you a gift rarely chosen intentionally, but perhaps even more weighted with divine blessing: I wish you the gift of time with those whose company you did not seek out; who seem to serve no desired purpose in your life; those who have nothing much to give you that the world generally values.
We often hear stories about the unbelievable financial wealth we might have today if we had bought a few shares of this or that stock before anyone could have known how valuable it would become someday. If only we had known, we may tell ourselves. Yet we may be missing an even larger secret, one now invisible to mortal eyes. What we may never know fully– at least not in this life– is the value of everyday people with whom we are brought into contact through quirks of fate or circumstance.
In more than two years since Jeff’s death, my life often has been dependent on people totally outside my demographic group, as I found that many of those I had expected to depend upon were not around with any consistency. These new people who showed up in my life and Matt’s– whether they were black, white, Asian or Hispanic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Christian, younger or older than me, with or without significant disabilities, to name only the most obvious differences– gave me more than the reassurance that Matt and I were not alone. They taught me that having no choice about my own circumstances or Matt’s (which in our culture is surely one of the most feared and dreaded of conditions, as it means an almost total loss of control) can bring hidden gifts and unexpected transformations.
There’s no question that such encounters are not easy. And I hesitate to wish you anything difficult. Yet there is much of inestimable value that goes unrecognized and undiscovered. This Christmas season, I hope you strike an untapped lode of downright goodness in the hearts of friends you didn’t realize you had– goodness that will fill your life with spiritual dividends beyond anything you might have imagined.
“I love snow for the same reason I love Christmas: It brings people together while time stands still.” — Rachel Cohn
As I write this, snow is covering the ground for the second time in the past month. Two snows BEFORE Christmas? Unprecedented in the life of this southern woman. And very unusual for northern Virginia, according to the weather broadcasters. Come to think of it, I don’t remember it snowing twice this early in the year even during our four years in Ohio. I don’t remember it ever snowing weeks before Christmas at all, not even one time. I hope this doesn’t mean we are in for a particularly rough winter.
Still, it’s hard not to be enchanted at the sight of snow falling. Tonight it’s even more fun because my sister is here visiting, and we got home from running around here and there, just as the roads were getting slick and dangerous. Now we’re sitting peacefully by the fire, happy that there’s nowhere we must go and nothing urgent we have to get done.
Time never seems to stand still anymore, but I suppose snowy weather and Christmas are about as close as we are likely to come. Schools and many businesses close, and there’s a built-in, uncontested excuse for postponing errands and other activities that require leaving cozy indoor shelter.
Even tasks that can easily be done indoors often succumb to a languor that suddenly seems appropriate rather than slothful. Another cup of tea, anyone? Hot chocolate and decaf coffee are also available. Shall we watch a movie or dive into an engaging novel? Maybe we should sit and chat, or even better, sit in silence together, watching the flames dance in the fireplace, or the holiday lights twinkling on the tree or in the windows.
Snow (and Christmas) can bring stress as we cope with the inconvenience of a disrupted schedule, but the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks if we relax and enjoy it as an unexpected gift. Whether you are coping with winter storms, hectic holidays, or both, I wish you a child’s delight in December and its wondrous gifts.
“One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in times of despair.”
― Bertrand Russell
Those who have been reading this blog for at least a couple of years may recognize that quote, which I’ve used once before. It has been my practice never to use the same quote twice, but today I broke that rule because the quote is so perfect for what I wanted to describe.
You probably also will recognize the three women with me in the photo above. (The lone man is Myra’s son Troy, one of the most cheerful people you will ever meet.) For the third year in a row, Renee, Mitzie and Myra made sure I was not alone for my birthday, which was also Jeff’s birthday.
As always, they showered me with lovely gifts and even lovelier sentiments in the cards they brought me. This year, there was also a special treat in the form of the little birthday “fireworks display” that was brought to our table at the Asian restaurant where we had dinner. I had never seen such a thing before.
It appeared to be a closed lotus flower atop a piece of cake, but when the server lit it, it became sort of a volcano with a flame that shot upward. Then the lotus petals slowly opened outward, each bearing a tiny lit candle, with an embedded music box playing the Happy Birthday song. I wish I’d had my camera to take a video of the whole thing, but Myra caught a photo of how it looked at the end. It was so much fun!
There are many traits we value in our friends: humor, understanding, loyalty and a spirit of fun are among them. But as I grow older, the trait that seems most important of all is the willingness to maintain a steadfast presence in our lives. It’s not always easy to commit time to friends, particularly through years of trials and sorrows. But these women have stayed with me every step of the way.
Through darkest grief, across significant geographical distance, and despite their own full time careers, family demands and dedication to church and community service, my special sisters have gone the distance with me, both literally and figuratively, for many years now. The quote from Russell that appears above could have been written about them. They have given me all the gifts he describes, with the crowning one being “the pure joy of a never-tiring affection.”
My wish for each of us is that we learn to give, and receive, this precious gift.
“Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty.”
—James Norwood Pratt
It seems contradictory that a chatterbox such as I would love silence as much as I do, but there it is. Perhaps it comes of having lived with Jeff for so many years. Or perhaps, in equal measure, it comes from having grown up in a noisy, boisterous family until Jeff came along and rescued me from too much verbal stimulation, drawing me into a saner, more regular rhythm of life.
Habits die hard, so I still talk a lot, but I have learned to love silence. A good thing, too, since I now pass, by my own estimate, 80-90% of my waking hours in complete silence. After Alexa delivers my morning flash briefing (usually less than five minutes long), not even television or radio intrude. But wait, there are those endless unabridged recorded books…okay, maybe I should say “without speaking” instead of “in complete silence.”
Either way, Pratt’s quote struck a chord with me. Tea is quiet, if not totally silent. There is the gurgling of the kettle, the tinkling of the teaspoon against the cup as it stirs, and then the whisper-quiet sound of sipping. But the part of Pratt’s quote that rang out most strongly was the observation that thirst for tea is proximal to the craving for beauty. That’s certainly true for me, and I imagine it’s true for most other tea lovers as well.
Tea has an attainable, humble beauty, even when the blend is an expensive one. The ritual of preparation is simplicity in itself; all one needs is water and a means of heating it to a boil. Sugar and cream are optional, and many of us long ago dispensed with using them on a regular basis, savoring the nuanced flavor of one particular brew as compared to another without the distraction of sweetener.
Mornings are hard for me, and maybe for you too. It helps immensely to start each day with this reassuring promise that the sleepy, recalcitrant brain will come round right if given time and a bit of caffeine. This makes tea a perfect complement to the morning sunlight (or rainy daylight) that coaxes us from sleep into another active day.
If tea is a testament to our craving for beauty, that must explain the exquisite loveliness of the china cups and saucers that are almost always the prettiest part of any table setting. Linens, pastries, silver flatware and even the tins or boxes in which many varieties of tea are packed, all call to us: today is a gift of rare attraction, if we will open our eyes and pay attention.
Whether you’re reading this in the morning, afternoon or evening, I’m not far from a cup of tea. So I lift my cup to you, as I have so many times. May today bring you something refreshingly wonderful.
The sixth anniversary of this blog passed recently, without mention by me or anyone else. The giddy hope that inspired a feeling of celebration on the first and second anniversaries gave way to reality, although I did recognize the milestone in a small way for the third year. The fourth passed in an abyss of grief, and by the fifth, I suppose I didn’t see any reason to note the anniversary of a blog that had gone from seven posts per week to just one.
I look back at the videos from the first and second anniversaries with stunned silence at how much can change in a very short time. Yet there are those of you– you know who you are– who have been with me through all of it, for all six years. That in itself is worth celebrating; it is a thing of wonder. Through your steadfast encouragement, what is excellent in you has belonged to me, and has enabled me to survive.
To those who come and go, joining us as you are able, I appreciate your presence here whenever you are with us. I sadly recognize how absent I have been from my friends’ blogs, and I know how life gets in the way. Please know that I am happy to hear from you each and every time you make your visits known to me, and rejoice when our paths cross online.
To those who contact me privately to share your appreciation of a post or a photo, I enjoy hearing from you too, and I understand that making a public comment is not something everyone is willing to do. Having loved many people who are intensely private and averse to such open sharing, I understand that individual messages are more meaningful to many. Thank you for being with us and for letting me know you are reading.
And to those who visit silently, I appreciate you too. Though I may never know you are reading these posts, I am always surprised and delighted to hear for the first time from someone who has been following the blog for years without my realizing they were. Some are people who know me only through the blog, and others are friends from long ago, but each reader, known or unknown, has a special place in my heart.
For six years, this blog has been a connecting point for me, a family I did not know I had until I stumbled onto WordPress as a means of coping with crisis and devastating grief. I appreciate you!
“There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. And heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.” —Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Yesterday was Veteran’s Day, and some may have a holiday today in honor of those who have served in the military. Yudhoyono’s quote seemed appropriate for this day, because most troops will never be singled out for special honor or widespread acclaim. Yet the life of our nation depends on their faithfulness to duty, their willingness to show up day after day for whatever demands are placed upon them to secure the overall mission of the armed forces.
Through 30 years of Jeff’s military career, I came to have a deep respect for the discipline, humility and tenacity of the women and men who are willing to take on a way of life requiring sacrifices that are largely unseen and sometimes misunderstood. Our veterans are everyday people with families, obligations, interests, hopes and dreams, but they have made the commitment to set all of these aside at a moment’s notice and put themselves in harm’s way, if necessary, to protect all of us.
Even in peace time, or when not deployed to a war zone, soldiers, sailors and airmen participate in readiness exercises that sometimes require reporting to duty in the middle of the night, or being called without notice to undisclosed locations for unspecified lengths of time. Service members are on call 24/7, and even when they take leave (civilians call it a vacation) they have to furnish detailed information where they can be reached at any time. In a very real sense, they are always on duty, never far from their professional responsibilities and obligations.
Whether or not you have friends or family in the armed forces, our veterans have almost certainly made a difference in your life. I hope you will join me today in remembering them with gratitude and honor.
“Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.”— Lauren Destefano
The weather here is finally cooling off enough that we are getting some splendid fall color, though it was still over 70 degrees several days this week, with perfect sunshine for at least part of the day each day. The combination of sunny, short-sleeve weather and striking autumn foliage is an unbeatable remedy for the blues. Come for a virtual visit with me and let’s enjoy the glorious autumn sunshine as seen from my windows.
Our new home is surrounded with forest views on three sides, which is why I chose the lot I bought, and why I still have no window coverings on the main floor rear windows or doors. When it gets really cold I might have to give up and get some insulating shades, but for now I’m enjoying the fall colors even more than I loved the leafy greens of summer. Here are views from two of the family room windows, and from the main floor guest room. You can see a faint reflection of the bed in the lower half of the window:
Just as I hoped, there are some vivid shades surrounding our home, including the bright red leaves I so love to see in the landscape. If you never tire of seeing photos of autumn foliage, scroll on to see views from various windows. But if you have a “seen-one-seen-them-all” boredom with too many similar photos, you might want to exit now. Consider yourself warned! I can almost hear Jeff saying “Julia, how many photos of leaves do you think they want to see?”
My bedroom is just above the family room, so the views from my windows are upper level views of those above. Matt has a corner room, with good views in either direction. The golf course is visible in the first photo taken from his front window:
The views from the craft room, the library and the loft are pretty good too:
If you’re feeling energetic, we can walk the half mile to the gym and view the Potomac River from there. You can see the construction on the shopping center which will supposedly one day feature a riverfront area with restaurants, along with a VRE commuter rail station. In fact, we can walk right up to the riverfront now (just beyond those red trees in the distance), if you want a closer view. There’s a nice paved road lined with magnolia trees, leading past the clubhouse and ending in a circular viewing area. You’ll be able to see where the train station is supposed to be built. If you take the train to see me, I can walk down to the station to meet you!
I guess we should quit goofing off and get back to work– after one more virtual cup of hot tea or coffee before you go. Thanks for visiting me today!
“The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Surviving trauma and loss requires learning how to ride the waves of sorrow that threaten to turn exhaustion into despair and resignation. Despite the ever-increasing use of antidepressants, the efficacy of which has been called into question in several recent studies, most people will battle feelings of sadness or hopelessness at least once or twice in a lifetime. For some of us, it may be a continual struggle.
On the plus side, we have an arsenal full of tools to fight the blues– listening to music, yard work, gardening, crafting, writing, cooking, or visiting a friend who needs or wants to see us, to name only a few. Over the years I’ve found that nothing is a better antidote to depression than actually doing something.
For those who work a full time job, this may be automatic. But for those of us who are retired from regular employment, or who work from home with self-regulated hours, it may be more difficult. Some mornings when I awaken with dread at the thought of getting through another day, I will remind myself to avoid “ruination by rumination” by simply getting up and getting to work on something I want or need to do.
When the task involves strenuous labor, so much the better. But even light activity is remarkably beneficial. Whether or not anyone ever praises your work, it’s edifying to the spirit. Some jobs such as care-giving (or really any sort of ongoing maintenance) are by their very nature almost invisible to others. If we wait around to be noticed, we’ll likely be disappointed. The good news is that Emerson is right; just having done something well is satisfaction enough.
Do you have any nagging tasks hanging over your head, or projects you’re eager to get started on, but just haven’t made the time? Try carving out a bit of time today to begin. If you feel hesitant, promise yourself that you can stop after 30 minutes, or even 15. Chances are you won’t want to, once you get going.
Today, I wish you the reward of a thing well done.
“Each golden day was cherished to the full, for one had the feeling that each must be the last. Tomorrow it would be winter.” ― Elizabeth Enright
A great many of us have experienced an unusually warm autumn so far, though it seems the cold weather is creeping in. Eager for cooler temperatures, having had our fill of too-warm afternoons and turbulent weather, we feel a wistful longing for golden fall days that strike the perfect balance between summer and winter.
In Virginia, our trees are barely beginning to turn, and I’m hoping we will have at least a few weeks to enjoy foliage before the leaves fall. But I’ve enjoyed the lingering blooms of this warm October. At our York home the remnants of summer colors are overlapping with the beginning of the camellia flowers.
Early this year, in a rare burst of optimism, I decided to plant a blackberry bush in our back yard near the deck. The young K-Mart clerk who talked me into buying the inexpensive plant assured me that it would not be hard to grow. Her enthusiasm when describing her own blackberry plants was contagious, and I decided to take a chance, though I was already preparing for disappointment by telling myself that my own little blackberry bush was unlikely to do very well with only the sporadic care I would be able to give it.
But the K-Mart clerk was right; the plant did beautifully. I’ve even been able to eat a few berries from it. Here is one that I picked most recently, big and ripe and delicious as only a home-grown fruit can be. Now I will try to nurture the plant (which has grown almost as tall as I am) through the coming winter.
Are there traces of summer still lingering in the region you call home? Or, if you live south of the equator, has spring broken through the chill yet? Seasons bless us with the repeated reminder that life is fragile and subject to change. With the cycles of nature, our eyes are opened anew to the sobering truth that we almost never know when we are experiencing the last of anything precious– or at least a temporary parting from what we’ve grown to take for granted. Whatever this day brings you, cherish it to the full. For better or worse, it will soon be gone.
And we dance
to a whispered voice
overheard by the soul
undertook by the heart.
You may know it…
There’s an intriguing story in the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life, because the queen, Jezebel, had sworn to kill him. It was no idle threat; she had already put many of Elijah’s fellow prophets to death. At one point, Elijah became so exhausted and discouraged that he prayed to God that he might die, but that prayer was answered with an angelic delivery of food and water, and a command to eat and drink to replenish his strength for a long journey.
Forty days later, God told Elijah to go to the mountain where God would pass before him. At this point, it’s easier, and more poetic, just to quote directly from the story– in this case, the New International Version:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
I’m sure you know, or have guessed, that God came to Elijah not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the gentle whisper. In the King James Version of the story, the translators used the term “a still, small voice,” which is the origin of that popular phrase.
I’ve thought of that story many times in the past five years or so, through the storms of our lives, in which I could not hear the voice of God despite clinging to the promise that God would be there for us. To the extent that I have felt a sense of God’s presence, it has been in the form of the whispered voice; a still, small reassurance that my soul can only occasionally overhear in the quiet of solitude.
The whispers, of course, are not literal sounds. But sometimes they are remembered echoes. Sometimes they are the unexpected discovery of a startlingly relevant message in a note written many years ago. Sometimes they rise from a photograph, or from a sunlit morning seen through a familiar window, or from the bloom of a botanical gift lovingly planted by one who would not live to see its growth.
As Neil Diamond suggested in the beautiful song linked above (which I hope you will take the time to experience), overhearing the whispered voice is only part of the experience. It must be undertaken by the heart, if we are to understand what we are hearing. There’s quite a trick to dancing to a whispered voice, when you think about it. The beat doesn’t come from a musical instrument, but from the heart. But what a dance it is.
“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
— Eudora Welty
By most standards, I have lived a very sheltered life. I don’t regret it. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences, traveled widely and read extensively, but I also have had the luxury of being spared exposure to the sordid, violent or sleazy. I’ve known people who find such things fascinating (“I love squalor,” a college friend once explained to me earnestly, without a trace of irony) but I’ve never been one of them. I dislike horror films and graphic descriptions of sex or violence in fiction, and cringe at some of what I encounter in news headlines. Give me a clean, well-lighted place with uplifting books and salubrious beverages and lively, congenial company.
Yet I don’t think many would describe me as timid. As Welty says, a sheltered life does not preclude daring. It takes courage to face the uncertainty of encountering new ideas, people and possibilities. There is a comfort in sameness, and a (mostly false) security in sticking to the known and familiar. Breaking away, even in philosophical exploration, requires an adventurous spirit that may or may not lead to far-flung journeys into space or across continents.
Today, right where you are, you can instill some boldness into your otherwise typical day. In fact, a sheltered life can fortify you for fearless forays into yet-undiscovered paths. Try a new spice or ethnic cuisine, read an author whose work lies totally outside your usual literary taste, or write a forthright, unpretentious note of encouragement to someone you don’t know well– maybe even to someone you have never met. Visit a new (to you) neighborhood, place of worship, library or museum. Show up at an assisted care home, or an animal shelter, or a community group that could use your help. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper, or post a thoughtful, conciliatory comment online to combat the current hatefest.
Then, feel free to pop back over to our Virtual Verandah for a cup of pretend tea and tell us about your adventures. In the cozy world of our sheltered cyber-salon, you’ll almost certainly encounter some serious daring. Everyone is welcome here– especially you.
“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know…Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”
― John Adams
I can certainly identify with Adams’ observation about reading, thinking and anxious inquiry. In fact, I’ve noticed that my tendency to overthink everything is fairly common in today’s world.
I once believed that it was important to discuss ideas and share one’s personal beliefs and emotions, but I have come to doubt the practice. It seems to me that most everybody is talking and hardly anyone is listening. Talk seems to go in circles and accomplish nothing, or worse than nothing.
That reflection is hardly original, and I’m not the only one coming to that conclusion. In fact, thousands of years ago, the book of Proverbs stated: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NASB).
I guess some things never change.
Adams’ quote ends with a reference to another Bible verse that has long been a favorite of mine, Micah 6:8. This verse was read at Jeff’s graveside during his funeral. It’s a fitting description of how he lived his life, and a worthy standard to which I aspire.
Since I lately spend most of my hours in solitude, it may be convenient for me to decide that talking is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I do know that communication is not lacking in our world. I wish I could say the same for the virtues Adams mentions. Justice? It seems increasingly confused with “vengeance.” Mercy? It appears to be mostly outsourced to impersonal charities and government agencies. Humility? Definitely not a modern virtue.
So I find Adams’ words at once reassuring and challenging. I’m happy to be reminded I’m not the only one who “knows” far less than I did in my youth. One thing I have learned, however, is that a lifetime will not be enough to achieve the straightforward command to “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Not easy, but simple. And enough.