No pessimist, 2016

Hello friends, I miss you, and I miss my time here. I hope your week has been better than mine. Even though I tried to prepare myself for this grief for nearly four years, it’s the sort of thing for which one cannot prepare. Matt and I are both in the midst of a difficult phase; the adrenaline is gone, and the reality of daily life without Jeff is cold and hard to bear. Somehow I didn’t realize it would get worse before it gets better. But I’m determined to cheer myself up (and hopefully some of you, as well) so I’m re-blogging one of my favorite photos ever, of a view that holds a very special place in my heart. That sight never failed to inspire me with hope and joy.

If you are feeling discouraged, or lonely, or sad for any reason, perhaps Keller’s words and the courage of her life will lift your spirits. I’m praying we all have a wonderful weekend– or at least a quiet, comforting one. Thanks for being here, and for helping me to keep looking up. I hope you all realize what a blessing you are to me.

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, 2003

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” — Helen Keller

Few sights are more breathtaking to me than the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding lands and sea.  Such a vivid reminder of the creativity of people, and especially of the God in whose image they are made, never failed to lift my spirits no matter how many times I stood on the shore and looked out on this scene.  I am deeply grateful for the daring, hard work and optimism that made such wonders a reality for us to enjoy.  What wonders, large or small, are you thankful for today?

Love at the board, 2016

Dear readers, this post from Thanksgiving last year still says it better than I could say it today. It’s a sort of visit from the Posts of Thanksgiving Past, to borrow a phrase from Dickens. At the time I wrote this, I honestly never expected that it would be our last Thanksgiving with Jeff. Despite the deep sorrow of missing him, I cannot look at this photo of three people I love dearly without feeling a heart full of gratitude and joy. For those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving  Day today, may your holiday be blessed with awareness of riches no money could buy. I am very, very grateful for all of you, and for your presence here!

P.S. — Ann, Pasha stars in that third link!

Our last Thanksgiving BC (before cancer), Alexandria, November 2011.

With Carla on our last Thanksgiving BC (before cancer), Alexandria, November 2011.

For hearts that are kindly, with virtue and peace,
and not seeking blindly a hoard to increase;
for those who are grieving o’er life’s sordid plan;
for souls still believing in heaven and man;
for homes that are lowly with love at the board;
for things that are holy, I thank thee, O Lord!

— Walt Mason

For many of us, this Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet time as we observe the holiday without loved ones.  This year, our family feels the absence of our Daddy who worked so hard for 87 years to ensure that we would celebrate this and all days with bounty, gratitude and reverence. We honor him today with the thankfulness he instilled in each one of us, bolstered by faith and renewed by deep joy in all that is beautiful and right in our world.

One year ago (2014), our family had experienced another sudden loss shortly before Thanksgiving.  Even so, we were able to come together as a family and reflect upon those blessings that remained, and encourage one another with hope for the future.

The year before that (2013), we had a most unconventional Thanksgiving day, exhausted yet filled with thankfulness and hope.

The year before that (2012), we were reeling in the shock of Jeff’s stage IV cancer diagnosis, having received bad news followed by worse news followed by even worse news. Yet even that year, there were reasons to be thankful.  Among them were the readers of the newly-begun Defeat Despair.

I didn’t know then that a blog I started as a personal effort to stay focused on blessings amid the trials was to introduce me to wonderful people all over the world.  Though I could not know it in those early days, I would find myself three years hence with dear friends whose existence was then unknown to me, and my dear husband, my rock and surest support, would still be with us, still working full time, still defying the odds.

Thus we face another Thanksgiving Day with full hearts and a deep sense of gratitude for mercies that truly are new every morning.  May each and every one who reads these words experience love, joy, peace and many reasons to be glad.  Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Absolutely, positively, certainly 2016

I’m still here. Hope you’re still there! Another reblog; this one was originally posted on November 27, 2012:

Fresh flowers bought for a few dollars at the Kroger markdown bin give us days of enjoyment, and lift my spirits every time I come into the kitchen.  Here’s to inexpensive joys!

“In our rush for newer, quicker, better, we seem to be missing out on what we fundamentally crave, a calmer, gentler, sweeter and more gracious life.  Is it easy to achieve such a life?  Definitely not.  Is it possible?  Absolutely, positively, certainly, yes.  (Don’t look for impossible from me; I’ve never found a solution in cynicism.)”  — Alexandra Stoddard

I’ve always loved Alexandra Stoddard’s writing.  Her words are calm, measured, and unfailingly optimistic, and she understands that life is a gift to be treasured in all circumstances.  As we struggle with the toughest challenges, we find renewal in seeking for good wherever it can be found.  May your day be blessed with eyes, heart and mind sharply focused on the abundance all around us.

Open to the day, 2016

I took this photo just 48 hours before Jeff told me he needed to go to the hospital. From our Alexandria patio, September 21, 2016

I took this photo just 48 hours before Jeff told me he needed to go to the hospital.
From our Alexandria patio, September 21, 2016

Hello friends, I’m still treading water, but thinking of you. Please keep those thoughts, prayers and comments coming. They truly brighten my day, and I look forward to responding to each of you when I get a bit of a break – hopefully soon, as fall semester ends a couple of weeks before Christmas. Meanwhile, for now, another re-blog from what now seems a lifetime ago.

That’s Mama in the photo below. As most of you know, she became a widow just a little over a year before I did. The past year without Daddy has been especially tough for her. Knowing how hard it is to be without Jeff after “only” 38 years together, I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a husband after 66 years of marriage.

Mama, who has survived much medical trauma during her 86 years, now has stage IV cancer (lung, metastasized to the spine) and has moved to long term care. I hope to be seeing her again soon. Meanwhile, I wanted to re-blog this post that features her photo. It’s another of my favorites, mostly because I so love the last two lines in the poem excerpt quoted below. I can’t say I feel the meaning as deeply as I did when I first published this post nearly four years ago, but I still love it, and it’s something to strive for. Thanks for being here, and for caring.

Originally posted on 11-26-2012:

My mother on my parents’ 50th anniversary, in Banff

That more and more a Providence
Of love is understood,
Making the springs of time and sense
Sweet with eternal good;

That death seems but a covered way
Which opens into light,
Wherein no blinded child can stray
Beyond the Father’s sight…

That all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.

And so the shadows fall apart,
And so the west-winds play;
And all the windows of my heart
I open to the day.

— John Greenleaf Whittier, from “My Psalm

Live faithfully a hidden life

Dear friends, thanks for visiting us today. We are still struggling with our loss, but surviving. Right now I am completely consumed with various tasks — catching up on school work, with three major papers, much reading, and several smaller assignments yet to complete; dealing with the seemingly endless paperwork that goes with my new life circumstances; taking care of Matt without the nurturing help and loving presence of Jeff; managing (as well as I can) two homes; and just generally trying to get through the grief. I ask your patience as I re-blog a post that has been on my mind a lot lately, that features one of my all-time favorite quotes. Since it’s almost four years old, perhaps there will be many of you who never saw it, and many others who have forgotten it. Meanwhile, please know that I appreciate your comments, thoughts, prayers and warm wishes, and will answer each and every comment as soon as I can! As Marlene says, Giant Hugs!

Calligraphy artist, Chinatown, San Francisco 2004

Calligraphy artist, Chinatown, San Francisco 2004

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
George Eliot, from the closing lines of Middlemarch

Look around you today.  You are surrounded by saints, cleverly disguised as fallible human beings.  Indeed, you may be one yourself.

A luxury

Decorative sinks at the Mt. Zion Hotel in Jerusalem. Photo by By Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Decorative bathroom sinks at the Mt. Zion Hotel in Jerusalem.
Photo by By Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Today we enjoy a luxury kings and queens throughout history had to suffer without: water is available to us just by turning on a tap.”Alexandra Stoddard

I don’t stop to think about it often, but running water is among the blessings for which I’m most grateful. Imagine what it must be like to have to walk miles to a well for clean water to haul home, then have to use it sparingly for washing, cooking and cleaning before the next trip.

Whenever I dread scrubbing sinks or toilets or floors, it helps to remind myself that all the clean water I need to accomplish the task thoroughly is right at hand. People without running water in their home might laugh at my notion that these chores are hard work.

When family members are home recovering from illness or surgery, the gift of having clean running water is even more obvious, as it tends to be needed more often during each day. Can you imagine how difficult it is to care for medical needs without this convenience?

A couple of months ago, my brother Al and I were chatting during a visit with Mama at her new home in long term care. It’s located on a pleasant, well-run campus of various levels of assisted living for seniors. We were counting our blessings and feeling grateful that Mama had such a place available to her in the heat of the summer, or the cold winter, when many elderly or disabled people might find themselves without power or water due to a storm, a maintenance issue or a forgotten, unpaid bill. As with so many things we take for granted, we don’t tend to appreciate daily blessings enough until we find ourselves without them.

Today, I’m sure most if not all of us will turn on a faucet many times, scarcely thinking about what we are doing. Let’s pause at least once to feel happy about this incredible luxury; to enjoy the refreshment of cool water running over our hands, or chilled, pure water to drink, or a nice warm tub of water to relax us after a long day. It’s a privilege fit for royalty.

 

Through the rain

I photographed this rainbow on the evening of April 4, 2016.

I photographed this rainbow on the evening of April 4, 2016.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
George Matheson

Sometimes a poem, song, quote or Bible verse stored in my memory will become more relevant, and therefore more appreciated, many years after I first encounter it. The quote above is from a hymn I learned in childhood and have sung many times since, but I don’t remember it having been a favorite. Lately, though, I have come to love it. The words have played in my head often since Jeff died, and the lyrics bring true consolation.

The photo above was taken on what should have been a wonderful evening for me, but I was beset by worries. Jeff and I had an unprecedented three-week vacation planned, to celebrate his retirement and continued survival. We had never, ever had that long a break before. All was ready and our dream trip was less than two weeks away. But Jeff had been having problems with his balance, and I wondered whether it was wise to leave on a transatlantic cruise if there were any risks we might not anticipate.

That evening, as I was finishing up my walk following an earlier rainstorm, I was startled to see a bright rainbow at the very end of our street. We rarely have rainbows here, and certainly not one arching over the entrance to our neighborhood. I ran inside to get my camera, and called Jeff to walk out and look at it with me. He agreed it was unusual and beautiful. “Maybe that’s meant to be a sign for us,” I said.

But that night, he could not walk upstairs easily. I convinced him to go to the Walter Reed ER the next day, and when I pulled up to let him out at the entrance, he got out of the car and immediately collapsed to the ground. I screamed for help, and staffers inside who had seen Jeff fall were already running out with a wheelchair. “I’m afraid he’s had a stroke,” I told them.

Of course, as most who read this blog already know, it was a metastatic brain tumor. The surgery to remove it went quite well, and Jeff recuperated with his usual astounding strength. In fact, the surgeons and I had to laugh when Jeff first said he did not intend to cancel our trip, but wanted to go on despite having just had neurosurgery. For once, I was on the doctors’ side when they told Jeff this would really, really not be possible. But they expressed great optimism that we would get to go later.

To his doctors’ amazement, Jeff was even able to ride the metro alone to Bethesda for radiation during the weeks that followed, as his post-op visual disturbance gradually healed. Taking the metro involved a significant uphill climb to the hospital, but Jeff was accustomed to such challenges, literally and figuratively. His resilience and stamina were such a blessing that I almost forgot about the crushing disappointment we both felt at not being able to take our long-planned celebratory trip.

We didn’t yet know that during the weeks following his surgery and radiation, when he was unable to take chemotherapy, the cancer so long held at bay would come back with a vengeance. The next set of scans showed a worse spread than ever. Jeff started to lose weight and could not seem to keep it on. Still, he went about life as usual despite his waning strength, and was able to see and hold our newborn second grandson when Drew’s family came to visit us in July. Jeff even took them to see the Independence Day fireworks over DC.  He worked with me on various home improvement projects, and a month before he died, made a trip to Atlanta to see his grandsons again, and to see Mama one last time. Given her recent stage IV cancer diagnosis, we had no idea she would survive him.

Since then, I have thought often about that rainbow. What had seemed a promising delight at the time had taken on a cruel irony the following day in the face of Jeff’s brain tumor diagnosis. I suppose I am glad that, once he survived the surgery, we never dreamed he would not live to see even another November.

Still, I do have a happy memory of two of us standing outside in the warm sunset of a springtime evening, enjoying a beautiful and unexpected gift, just as we had enjoyed countless natural wonders over our 38 years together.  Perhaps the rainbow’s meaning (if there was one at all) was different than what I first thought it was, but in any case, it was a joy that I captured with my camera. I can now look at the photo with mixed emotions, and somewhere amid the resentment and anger and sadness and grief there are traces of gratitude and hope.

If you are in the midst of sorrow or stress, I hope you can believe with me in the beautiful rainbow that often comes after a storm. We may not see it, or even if we do see it, we may not recognize its timeless meaning. But it’s there, and as it was from the beginning, it’s the symbol of a promise.

The strength

Lights glow amid the darkened branches of a real live Christmas tree. Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008

Lights glow amid the darkened branches of a real live Christmas tree.
Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
Helen Keller

I’m not exactly sure how we’ve gotten through the past three weeks, but somehow we have. Some days are much worse than others, but all of them bring small reasons to be grateful. I can acknowledge that in my mind without feeling it in my heart, and that’s often what I end up doing.  There are days when it’s all I can do to get out of bed, but it must be faith that enables me to keep going.

It’s not just my own faith that gives me strength, of course. That would, no doubt, be inadequate. There’s also the faith of so many who believe in us, pray for us and remember us with countless small kindnesses. There’s the faith by which Jeff lived his entire life, an enduring legacy that gives me something to strive for, and to cherish in memory. There’s the faith that eventually, somehow, the sorrow will be eased and the happy memories will eclipse the pain and anger and exhaustion and grief.

One of the many things I’m grateful for is the amazing community that has come together on this blog over the past four years. I see all of you out there, shining like points of light in the tangled darkness that so often surrounds me. As Misifusa says, Shine On! And thank you, so much, for being here.

The wise will know

Jeff at Niagara Falls, a place he loved. May 2009

Jeff at Niagara Falls, a place he loved. May 2009

If we call for the proof and we question the answers
Only the doubt will grow
Are we blind to the truth or a sign to believe in?
Only the wise will know

And word by word they handed down the light that shines today
And those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray

Yes those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray

Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson

Jeff was the classic left-brain thinker, disciplined and methodical. He tended toward skepticism in most areas, from alternative medicine, to charismatic politicians, to the good intentions of people who often promised more than they delivered.

About his faith, though, he never wavered. He lived his last hours with the same stoic acceptance he demonstrated throughout our 38 years together, secure in his belief that death was a passage to another life and not merely the end of this one.

He had no profound parting words or emotional scenes during those last few days. He knew, as we did, that his life had spoken more eloquently and consistently than any words could express. His steadfast faith, hope and love are an enduring example, a light in our lives that will never be extinguished.

The arabesques

Drew had these roses waiting for me when I returned from Bethesda. October 2016

Drew had these roses waiting for me when I returned from Bethesda. October 2016

The arabesques a hope can do… 
     the dances dreams can make…
the patterned pain a mind may shape…
     before a heart will break

Joan Walsh Anglund

Despite the risk of heartbreak, hope is a better way to live. I really believe that.

I am so thankful you are with us here. Your presence is a solace for which I’m deeply grateful.

Memory of the heart

A memory of my heart for which I'll always be grateful. Jeff waves from our stateroom balcony, Mexico, January 2015.

A memory for which I’ll always be grateful.
Jeff waves from our stateroom balcony, Mexico, January 2015.

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart; therefore forget not to say often, I have all I ever enjoyed.”Lydia Child

It’s not good to live in the past or long for bygone times. Ecclesiastes 7:10 reminds us “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Still, as one grows older, and beloved friends and family members face illness or death, it can be all too easy to feel deep sorrow when we are reminded of how things once were.

Child gives us one secret of how to avoid this difficulty. If we are mindful of our blessings in the present, and enjoy life to the fullest, we will never really lose what we once had. All the beauty and humor and fun and joy that have gone before are now an abiding part of us, and will remain with us to fill our hearts with gratitude as our days continue to bring new reasons to rejoice.

When I was a teenager I once told Mama and Daddy that I would never lose them, because I would always know what they would be saying if they were still here. I felt certain I would be able to hear their voices in my mind and know the kinds of wisdom they used to share with me, so they would never really be gone. Daddy replied that everybody gets a little clue of eternity in this life, and he thought that particular idea must be my personal glimpse into infinity, and he hoped I would hang onto it.

Though I still believe the things I said so glibly in my youth, it turns out to be harder than I imagined to hold that confidence during sad or scary times. When change comes, whether through loss or retirement or other life transitions, we are never completely ready for it. There will always be at least a little sadness and fear for most of us when it’s time to move into uncharted territory. But gratitude is the surest protection I have found when I feel lost and alone in the face of a strange new situation.

If you should find yourself feeling a bit sad when you hear a song that reminds you of a loved one, or see a photo of your young family having fun on some long-ago vacation, or come across a special gift once given to you by someone you wish you could somehow see just one more time, remember that what you have cherished is yours forever. I wish you an enduring awareness that you still have all you ever enjoyed, a secure bank of memories stored deep in your heart.

To all my readers, and especially those who share with me via the comments section, I send my sincere apologies for not being able to answer comments lately. Because these posts are written in advance, the posts sometimes continue even when I am not available to respond immediately. If you have followed this blog for very long, you can guess why I’m not available right now. Many of you are in touch with me by email. For those who want personal updates, please send your email address to defeatdespair@verizon.net and I will include you on the personal updates I send, though these too have been rare lately. Please know that I do read and cherish your comments, emails, cards and other expressions of concern. I feel and deeply appreciate your caring support now more than ever. You are in my heart always. I will be back as soon as I can and will answer each and every comment when time allows.

 

Whimsy and change

This display of flamingos caught my eye in Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015.

This fanciful display of flamingos caught my eye in Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015.

“Pretension and trendiness are pesky intruders. I try to swat them out of my studio while making tea for whimsy and change.”Ellis Anderson

My friend Ellis wrote those words years ago referring to her work in jewelry design. But I copied and saved them, even though I’m not an artist, because I think they apply to almost every aspect of life.

There’s something in me that resists anything trendy. It’s partly because trendy seems so fake on me. What might be appealing in somebody else just doesn’t work when I try it. I’m sort of an oddball and always have been, so I can’t escape feeling a bit pathetic when I try to follow the crowd. As a result, I tend to get stuck in comfortable ruts, happily staying where I am and wearing the same clothes, using the same linens, doing things the same way for years on end.

Being content with life is mostly a great asset, but I am discovering how refreshing even small changes can be. And whimsy can perk up a day as nothing else can. So a bit of whimsical variety here and there can be a great way to defeat despair.

What are some of your favorite ways to add a little flair to the everyday routine? Do you have a colorful scarf or interesting strands of beads or a striking hat that you pull out when you are feeling blue? Or maybe some colorful linens or a special plate or mug to use now and then?

I enjoy keeping all sorts of stationery and decorative postage stamps available to brighten my spirits when I write old-fashioned cards and letters. I also like saving colorful tins to store things, although I tend to get a bit carried away when I start to collect anything, so I have to be careful about that. When I’m in need of a dose of whimsy, I try to focus on things I will consume or use up, such as interesting flavors of tea, bright office supplies, or a fresh flower or two.

Seasonal changes give us a wealth of ideas for incorporating whimsy into our lives. I delight in seeing the smiling pumpkin faces and scarecrows that pop up around our neighbors’ doors at this time of year. Kids in their trick-or-treat costumes add to the fun, and winter will bring its own motifs to enjoy– snow people and Santas and wreaths and light displays.

As the days grow shorter and the sunlight fades, I wish you the best of whimsy and change to brighten your life.

 

Sufficient proof

The inscription at the base of this statue at Dachau reads: "To honor the dead, to warn the living." Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany, August 2005

The inscription at the base of this statue at Dachau reads:
“To honor the dead, to warn the living.”
Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany, August 2005

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl spent three years of his life in various concentration camps, including Dachau. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like in a Nazi death camp, but it does seem that witnessing what Frankl describes would have been stunning. We all long to believe that we could be heroic if called upon to be so; that we would be one of the few who would have been giving what little comfort we could to our fellow prisoners.

Fortunately, those of us reading this blog likely will never face circumstances as catastrophic as those the Holocaust victims endured. What might escape our notice is that we can be heroic in far more mundane circumstances. The same impulse that would lead a starving person to sacrifice his last bit of food is manifest in countless unremarkable ways, every day.

When someone gives you a few minutes of precious time by attending to your story, sending you a note or small gift, cooking a meal for you, helping with a small task, or any other of a number of personal kindnesses, they are enacting the same spirit Frankl witnessed in the camps. When someone lets you into traffic instead of honking at you, waves you ahead in a line at the grocery, or gives you a smile or a friendly word just when you need it most, they are exercising the freedom to choose a caring attitude.

This, Frankl reminds us, is a freedom that can never be taken away. It belongs to all of us, today, this very moment. How will we use it?

Anything valuable

It's a good thing we didn't have to wait for these trees to grow. Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, 2013, by Tuxyso, CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to wait for these trees to grow.
Sequoia National Park, 2013, by Tuxyso, CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Anything valuable is going to take time. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and others.”Alexandra Stoddard

I think technology is training us to be impatient. Recently I turned on an old computer so I could use it while the one I typically use was in the midst of a lengthy maintenance procedure. At first, I thought something was wrong with the old one, because it was taking so long to do everything. Then I realized that it was just a bit slower because of its age, and what seemed like a long time was actually less than a minute.

Saving time has climbed to the top of our priority lists, and for good reason. There are many wonderful things we can be doing with that time, so it is natural for us to be greedy with it. The problem is that impatience actually robs us of the enjoyment we seek. I can’t think of any difficulty that is not made worse by impatience, nor any joy that is not made better by taking the time to savor it.

I might attempt to rationalize my own impatience by telling myself it’s useful; that those of us who are impatient somehow manage to hurry things along. On reflection, though, this idea is mostly a delusion. Ever caught yourself hitting an elevator button or a walk signal button repeatedly because you got tired of waiting? I know I have, many times, even though I know it doesn’t help anything.

No matter what you are doing today, it’s likely that there will be something that takes longer than you want it to. If a robot answers your phone call and puts you on hold, or if someone you are waiting for is late, or if you are standing in a long line, try to find ways to turn your attention elsewhere. Keep a small book or magazine with you and read for a few minutes, or turn your held call on speaker while you attend to something different. Check your email, load the dishwasher, file your nails. I guarantee you that the time will go faster if you do something else while you wait.

But if you’re not able to do any of those things, just close your eyes and visualize those gorgeous giant redwoods, and think about how long it took them to grow. Aren’t we lucky they were waiting for us when we arrived on this earth?

More often

It was the best of times, soon to be the worst of times. Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Septemer 6, 2012

It was the best of times, very soon to be the worst of times.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, September 6, 2012

“Certainly there are good and bad times, but our mood changes more often than our fortune.”Jules Renard

Not only that, but we can have bad moods during good times, and good moods during bad times. Have you ever wondered how this could be? I know I do.

There are similar mysteries in life. I remember, after we had two young children, I wondered how I could have ever thought myself busy before– but I know that I often did. I sometimes used to wonder why I ever thought I had any burdens in life before we dealt with the worries and sorrows related to Matt’s disabilities– but I did. I used to think I needed to lose weight when I weighed fifteen pounds less than I do now. On and on it goes.

For all the ups and downs of my life, my moods have remained remarkably the same; good sometimes, and bad sometimes.  I’m grateful and joyful and blessed. I also feel sorry for myself more often than I care to admit.

It seems too simple to be true, but joy isn’t primarily about the external situation. You can choose to be happy in any circumstances, or for that matter, unhappy in any circumstances. I’m not saying that we don’t ever get hit with great loss, or even tragedy. I know that we sometimes need to grieve, or feel lonely or worried or sad. It’s part of being human.

I don’t live in la-la land, and though my glasses may be a bit rose colored, I can see 20/20 through them. But a joyful heart is a choice, and I choose it as often as I am able. If you are reading this blog, chances are you do too.

So if today is a good day for you, send me some happy! What is putting a smile on your face today?

If it’s not a good day, imagine yourself in the photo above, enjoying a gorgeous autumn day in New England. Or imagine your own idea of a fabulous afternoon, and then come as close as you can to creating it right where you are.

Our moods are going to change. That’s a fact. But we can spend way more of our lives in a good mood if we learn to exit quickly when end up in a bad one. What are your most reliable exit strategies?

September Days

Have a seat and enjoy a perfect September day in Virginia Beach! 2013

Have a seat and enjoy a perfect September day in Virginia Beach! 2013

…September days are here,
    With summer’s best of weather,
    And autumn’s best of cheer.  

— Helen Hunt Jackson

Don’t you just love this time of year, when the weather begins to cool down just enough to be refreshing, and that crisp hint of autumn is in the air? Jeff and I were talking recently about how the fall weather arrives earlier in Virginia than it does in Georgia or Tennessee. It seems almost exactly timed to coincide with Labor Day each year. There may be a few hot days after that, but they are much easier to bear when they are tucked in between the milder days.

Jackson described it quite well; September often brings ideal weather made even more pleasant by the pending excitement of a new school year and upcoming holidays. I love every season, but spring and fall are especially appealing because they offer relief from more extreme temperatures, along with the beauty of colorful flowers or leaves to dazzle the eyes.

I hope today finds you enjoying glorious weather that will energize and inspire you.

Where everything is free

This New England candy store looks almost as enticing as a library. September 2012

This New England candy store looks almost as enticing as a library. September 2012

“The library is like a candy store where everything is free.” ― Jamie Ford

Only it’s better than that, because books won’t rot your teeth, cause blood sugar problems, spoil your appetite for healthy food or make you gain weight you don’t want to gain.

Not that candy will necessarily do any of those things, unless you love it as much as I do, in which case it’s hard to avoid eating too much. So I don’t buy a lot of it. But even when I don’t buy anything at all, I love candy stores. They are bright and colorful and full of interesting possibilities and undiscovered treats.

So are libraries. I almost always feel happier instantly just by walking into one. The fiction section is full of intriguing stories I’ve never read. The nonfiction section is full of helpful hints and good advice and travel tips and countless opportunities for learning, just waiting to be discovered. Whether I’m looking for the magic of make-believe or the inspiration to improve a skill or increase my understanding of something, the library makes me believe almost anything is possible.

If you don’t like traditional books, no worries. There are DVD movies and music CDs and downloadable audio books and magazines and sometimes even things such as garden tools or Kindles or toys to check out. And yes, it’s all free (not counting the local taxes you already have to pay anyway).

So drop into your local library and indulge! I wish you sweet discoveries and fabulous finds.

Wonderful, magical and more

The sunlight sparkles on the water off Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015

The sunlight sparkles on the water off Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015

“This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.”Thomas Carlyle

One of the surest ways to defeat despair is to stop and experience something totally amazing. A star-studded sky at night or a sparkling sunlit ocean are obvious choices, but there are hundreds more within easy reach.

There’s just one catch. You have to contribute two things that are increasingly scarce: time, and attention. You need not invest much of either for a quick attitude adjustment, but you have to shut everything else out and really be there for the show. It will be worth it.

In case you are short on ideas of what to choose, here are a few possibilities. You can look very closely at a handmade gift that you treasure, and wonder at the talent and love that created it. Listen to a stirring symphony or an inspiring vocalist, and notice what emotions come to the surface.

If you are out and about, step into a bakery or coffee shop and scent-surf. Listen to the birds, or the sound of vehicles driving by, or the voices of people communicating with each other.

Watch a toddler explore. Enjoy the antics of a squirrel or a puppy. Find a place to sit still outdoors and watch the wind, faint or strong, making itself seen by the way it touches everything else.

Write a note to someone you care about, and tell them why they are wonderful.

Look at your hands or feet, and think of all the ways they make your life possible every day. Throw the circuit breaker on your electrical panel, and go without electricity for awhile so you will know what an incredible gift it is. Don’t want to do that? Me neither.

Thomas Carlyle didn’t have half of the things that we think of as necessities, but he did have the eyes to see wonder, and the heart to appreciate it. Isn’t that all any of us really needs?

It harbors beauty

An artist captures a bit of the beauty hidden away in the past. Mission San Juan Capistrano, California, July 2004

An artist captures a bit of the beauty hidden away in the past.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, California, July 2004

“History should be studied because it is essential to society, and because it harbors beauty.”Peter N. Stearns

Leaving aside for a moment the arguments that might arise from Stearns’ assertion that history is essential to society (I’m one who agrees that it is), I think most everyone will admit that history indeed harbors great beauty. Cynics might point out that it also contains vast areas of ugliness, perhaps far more pervasive than the beauty, at least in some eras. But is loveliness not more remarkable and arresting when it springs up amid great squalor?

The word “history” often conjures up a high school image of the topic, fraught with memorized dates and wars and disasters and genocide. But there is so much more to it, tucked away in between the markers on whatever timeline we happen to be studying. We are fortunate that the internet makes so many documents accessible to us. It’s a gold mine of diaries, letters, speeches and photographs that reveal details as rich, complex and countless as would be expected of the composite story of millions of unique individuals unfolding over hundreds and thousands of years.

If you seek beauty and inspiration in history, you will not have to look far. Along the way, you are also likely to discover humor and intrigue. You can begin at Storycorps, or at literally thousands of other websites and blogs filled with fascinating glimpses into lives from almost any era. Are there any time periods to which you are especially drawn?

It isn’t only global history that harbors beauty. Your own history also contains a labyrinth of remembered and forgotten moments of joy, wisdom and delight. Have you visited your own past lately? If not, perhaps you may find it fun or therapeutic to set aside a short time– perhaps 30 minutes or even less– to sort through old photos, read saved correspondence, or just daydream about a very pleasant or memorable stop on your journey through life. Feel free to share a special memory here.

In the woods

Our own little wonderland, right behind our back fence, as seen in May 2013

Our own little wonderland, right behind our back fence, as seen in May 2013

The bee is not afraid of me,
I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
Receive me cordially.

The brooks laugh louder when I come,
The breezes madder play.
Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists?
Wherefore, O summer’s day?

Emily Dickinson

I wasn’t all that fond of Emily Dickinson’s poems when I was younger. I much preferred Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Robert Frost. As I’ve grown older, though, I like her work more and more. I suppose it’s partly because my own life much more closely resembles hers than it did in my younger years.

After we moved to York County, I settled into a lifestyle of spending most of every day in the company of only my beloved “critters,” whether our dog, or the turtles, birds, rabbits, squirrels and deer in our wooded lot behind our back yard. It was during these years that I began to identify with many of the things Dickinson wrote about. Solitude was rich and full for me, a sort of luxury. I never felt lonely in nature’s company, and from the sound of her poems, it seems that she didn’t either.

I’m guessing many of you also can identify with the solace Dickinson found outdoors. If so, I wish you an abundance of such delight during these waning summer days.

P.S. — If you follow the Writer’s Almanac, you know that this is another recent selection from the program that Jeff plucked for me.

To arrest motion

We are surrounded by arrested motion, and we hold the keys to unlock it. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC,  June 2014

We are surrounded by arrested motion, and we hold the keys to unlock it.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, June 2014

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”  — William Faulkner

I could really identify with this quote, because even without being an artist, I’m always trying to arrest motion with my camera. When I take the time to look back over photographs from years past, it amazes me how much I would have completely forgotten without the pictures that help me remember.

When I read Faulkner’s quote, I realized that is why I so love art galleries. Viewing art is a chance to peek through the windows into other worlds. The really good artists, whether they use paint or photography or sculpture or words, capture the motion in the subjects of their creativity, and bring it to life again and again within the mind of every person who experiences it. Since each of us will see or read a work through the lens of a life that is also unique, the art really does move again, growing and changing from one beholder to another, never quite the same.

If your life feels unsatisfactory or downright sad, try getting some perspective by visiting other lives available to you through the arrested motion of art. If you are reading this blog, you have the means to access the world’s greatest museums right at your fingertips. Or re-visit your own life, through photographs, letters and other mementos. If you are feeling happy or contented or frustrated, try arresting that joyful or angry motion through creative work of your own, whether it be a photograph, a craft project or a letter or journal entry.

Those of us who believe life is eternal can readily appreciate that this immortality is evident in many ways, including the lingering fragrance left behind by souls long ago passed from this life. Thanks to art, we can see as they saw, and join them in appreciating and understanding the wondrous as well as the deceptively ordinary. Have you unlocked any arrested motion lately? If so, what did you see? Where did it take you?

The day will arrive

Salvador Dalí's house - photo by y Szoltys, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Salvador Dalí’s house – photo by Szoltys, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s quiet. It’s early. My coffee is hot…In a few moments the day will arrive…For the next twelve hours I will be exposed to the day’s demands.  It is now that I must make a choice.”Max Lucado

Many years ago my friend Gloria, who has been a psychotherapist for more than 40 years, told me that people with depression often have the hardest time in the morning. At first that surprised me, since sunlight has always lifted my moods so effectively. But when I stopped to think about it, it made sense that morning would be a big obstacle to anyone who feels despondent.

As far back as I can remember, mornings have been quite difficult for me, and never more than now. The bed is such a quiet, restful retreat. The business and busyness of the day loom, intimidating me with the challenges of complex tasks and the drudgery of simple but unappealing ones. If I awaken early (which happens often) I have a bad tendency to start ruminating on all the things that are worrying me. Almost every day, right before I get out of bed, I begin the day with a simple prayer: God, please help me.

Usually I am able to get myself going and shake off the doom-and-gloom apprehension, but some mornings my crankiness carries right into the daily routing, affecting not only me, but Matt and now, Jeff. (Before retirement, Jeff left for work so early that Matt and I were still in bed. I bet there are some days he wishes he still did that.)  😀

It’s a curious fact– or maybe not so curious– that the first few minutes of the day seem to exert a powerful influence on the remaining 16-18 waking hours. It could be my imagination, but those frustrating days when everything seems to go wrong almost always begin with my “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” as the old saying used to go.

I’ve developed some coping mechanisms which seem to help, beginning with my brief but heartfelt prayer. Tea has been a wonderful thing to look forward to each day. I also give myself a head start by preparing as many things in advance as I can the night before, laying out clothes and checking Matt’s daily log and packing most of his lunch. If I have to check his Coumadin level in the morning, I set the meter out so I won’t forget.

Instead of turning the alarm clock off, I might leave the classical music playing as I make the beds. Some mornings I will step outside on the deck and listen to the birds. In the summer it often feels deliciously cool before the heat of the day has set in, and it’s almost impossible to feel dejected when one is surrounded by green trees and singing birds.

Lucado is right; each morning we have a choice to make. However good or bad things may be, we can make them better or worse by the choices we make about how we approach the coming hours. Getting off on the wrong foot won’t necessarily derail the entire day, but it almost always goes better if we resolve early to recognize the day as the blessing it truly is.

Are mornings ever hard for you? If so, do you have any secrets for getting through those first few minutes with a good attitude?

 

A friend knows

The mandevilla is blooming profusely again, outgrowing the tomato cage propping it up. August 2016

The mandevilla is blooming profusely again. August, 2016

“A friend knows the song in my heart and sings it to me when my memory fails.” — Donna Roberts

In April, during the weeks Jeff was recovering from the surgery to remove his brain tumor, we were unable to travel to our York home. I started to worry about various things I needed to take care of there, especially our plants, but I was afraid to leave Jeff for very long. So Amy agreed to go with me for a day trip to get some things done.

When we got there, the hibiscus and mandevilla plants I had bought at markdown prices the previous summer were looking nearly dead. They had bloomed so fabulously for several months last year in Alexandria that I brought them down to our sun room at our York home for the winter, determined to have them blooming for us to enjoy again when the weather got warmer. I was crushed to see how bad they looked, after Jeff and I had watched over them so lovingly through the winter months.

Amy watered and tended all our plants for me while I did other tasks, and she reassured me about those and some other plants that were looking almost as desperate. I had been afraid they had died from not being watered, but Amy told me she thought that they had been damaged by the cold snap that had happened shortly after I had moved them outside thinking the danger of frost was past.  She told me that they probably would come back again. I wanted to believe her, so despite the hopeless appearance of the plants, I did.

I don’t remember much else about that day. I was still pretty numb with grief, shock and exhaustion from the trauma of the preceding weeks. I know I talked a lot and must have said quite a few things that sounded gloomy or reactive or bitter. Amy never scolds me or tells me to snap out of it or urges me to look on the bright side or changes the subject. She simply listens, and sometimes cries with me, and I always feel better if she is around.

Amy was there for me, just as she has been so many times over the years, especially since the beginning of our cancer nightmare in 2012. Again this spring, she was there to take care of Matt while Jeff was in the hospital for yet another surgery, and she was there at the hospital with us, and she was there in York County with me when going there alone would have been more than I could bear.

She was right about the plants. They are looking more beautiful than ever. They just needed someone to have the faith not to give up on them; to tend them and care for them until they could get over the cold and neglect that had nearly killed them. The mandevilla is pictured above and the hibiscus below, both photos taken in recent days. Now every time I see them I am reminded of Amy’s rescue.

Just one of a half-dozen blooms on the hisbiscus, late July 2016.

Just one of a half-dozen blooms on the hibiscus, late July 2016.

Sometimes in life we are simply treading water, trying to survive day to day, rarely thinking about the broken dreams and dashed hopes, but knowing on some level that a huge part of us has gone inert and desolate. If we are lucky, we will have friends who hold onto that part of us and tend it faithfully, helping us go through the motions, trusting that in time we will be whole again, or at least better able to cope with the sorrow. Then one day we might hear a familiar melody in the notes our friends are singing to us, and realize that the strange song we’ve been hearing from them is one we knew by heart all along, even though we forgot it for awhile.

The quickening pollen

This artwork was copied from an old book catalog leftover from my days as a librarian.  I was unable to find out who the owner of the image might be.

This artwork was copied from an old book catalog leftover from my days as a librarian.
I was unable to find out who the owner of the image might be.

“Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.”
James Russell Lowell

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, the term “quickening pollen” might not sound like a good thing. But in the sense that Lowell intended it, the concept is quite exciting.

Suppose you could somehow time travel to have tea with Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen, or C. S. Lewis (my three personal favorites) or, for that matter, with an unknown diarist of a bygone era who could tell you what life was REALLY like back then? Would you pass up the chance? You are in luck. You can have tea anytime with any of the great or ordinary minds throughout history who left a bit of themselves behind for us in their words.

From Euripides to Einstein, from Sophocles to Steinbeck, countless fascinating people are available, with stories to tell and lessons to impart. And in the here and now, our opportunities to tap into other worlds through reading have never been more abundant. Books come in several formats, and everyday people all over the world now share their experiences via blogging and online publishing.

Wherever you are, the air is swarming with the excitement of minds connecting with each other over vast geographical distances and centuries of time. Head to a nearby hive via your local or online bookstore or library for some intellectual cross-pollination. Then buzz back over here and share what you’ve picked up.  As always, thanks for BEEing here!

In these fraught times

Many USA voters from all parties might need one of these on election day, 2016.

Many voters from all parties in the USA might need one of these on election day, 2016.

“In these fraught times, our rhetoric must be toned down, our words more carefully weighed, even while we expose and correct the evils of the day. We cannot allow divisiveness and anger to replace e pluribus unum as America’s national theme.” 
Mortimer Zuckerman

Zuckerman’s words sound as if he was writing yesterday, don’t they? But actually, he published the article ending with that quote over two decades ago. This was an era we can hardly imagine now, before 9/11 changed the way Americans see the world, before there was a President George W. Bush, or a President Barack Obama, when many of the political controversies that currently divide us were scarcely a blip on the radar screen. Yet anger at politicians and the government and (sadly) at some of our fellow human beings was a problem then, too. It isn’t anything new.

Zuckerman’s words of warning against anger and division were timely and prophetic, but apparently little heeded. The media continue to feed upon every controversy, producing what Zuckerman refers to as “trash books, trash TV, trash newspapers, trash magazines, trash talk.” With Americans spending more and more time with various media, glued to one screen or another, perhaps it’s no coincidence that angry dissent and disagreement seem to be at an all-time high. Garbage in, garbage out? Are we becoming what we claim to despise?

On election day in November 2012, Jeff and I were told his liver tumors were almost certainly metastatic cancer, probably originating from a different site than the appendix cancer that had been removed. On that day I decided to go politically inactive permanently. In the face of devastating, life-changing news, I had a clear sense of personal priorities that left no room for what now seemed a mere diversion I had once found relevant and absorbing and important.

I could hardly have picked a better time to drop out of monitoring the political radar. This election cycle has been a great time NOT to watch or be upset by what is going on. I have paid enough attention to know there has been much in recent months to disturb anyone, on any part of the political spectrum, no matter the individual beliefs or affiliation. I certainly don’t want to add to the umbrage, so I want everyone to know that any comments here that are obviously an argument for, or against, one particular candidate, party or cause will be edited to remove apparent bias. I don’t want this to become a political forum. Everyone is welcome here, and how you vote– or don’t vote– is your business, no one else’s.

What I do want is for each of us to remind ourselves, and one another, of a few truths.  For all the world’s problems, we are living in a time of unprecedented blessing and progress on many fronts. No matter what needs to be changed– and there is unquestionably much that does, and we may disagree vehemently about the answers– surely we can agree that anger and hatred are not the way forward. The worse things become, the more we need each other.

I hope you will join me in resolving to defeat despair through the turmoil of this American election cycle. This will mean less hand-wringing, less finger-pointing, less dogmatism. It will mean more gratitude, more compassion, more reason, more patience. It will also mean a happier life, at least for me. Despite my proclivity to rant against this or that (to which my close friends and family can attest) I don’t enjoy being angry, and I intend to choose joy, no matter how much I may disagree with what happens around me.

So help yourself to a clothespin on election day, if you need one, or sit home and sip tea and give thanks for all the blessings that continue despite our human failings and frenzy. If you need to speak up, take Zuckerman’s advice and tone down the rhetoric, weighing your words carefully. Let’s get through this together. We’ve been through worse.

 

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