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 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.


A wise passage

Praise be for blessings great and small, present and remembered. Jeff enjoys the beauty of Pigeon Point, Tobago, March 2010.

Praise be for blessings great and small, such as the memory of this day,
when we watched dogs frolic in the ocean at Pigeon Point, Tobago, March 2010.

“Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted, than when we read it in the original author?” — Philip Gilbert Hamerton

I never thought about it, but perhaps Hamerton is right. For one thing, it’s easier to notice a quote when it is set apart from the paragraphs that precede and follow it. Quotes are often used in new contexts to enhance a point that may vary significantly from the one the original author was making. And sometimes, an author’s words take on added meaning because they borrow from the appeal or authority of those who choose to quote them.

Obviously, I believe quotations are worthwhile, or I would not have featured over 900 of them thus far in this blog. I’d like to believe they are as effective when quoted as they were when originally spoken or written; perhaps, in some cases, they can even take on new life or expanded meaning for us as individuals. Context can add to the power of a quotation. In that spirit, I will feature a poem Jeff introduced to me last month.

Since his retirement, Jeff and Matt have continued their longstanding habit of reading together. They have added some additional daily routines, among which is listening to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, which has been a favorite of Matt’s for many years. Jeff rarely talks about what they have heard, but this poem was one that he specifically chose to play for me first thing one morning. It was a wonderful way to open the day, and I decided right then and there that I would share it with you in an upcoming blog.

So here it is. Perhaps for you, as for me, the words will be more meaningful knowing Jeff chose to share them. The imagery evokes many happy memories, but beyond that, I am filled with admiration for a person who affirms the spirit of this poem after all he has been through, and all that lies ahead.

Gratitude List

by Laura Foley

Praise be this morning for sleeping late,
the sandy sheets, the ocean air,
the midnight storm that blew its waters in.
Praise be the morning swim, mid-tide,
the clear sands underneath our feet,
the dogs who leap into the waves,
their fur, sticky with salt,
the ball we throw again and again.
Praise be the green tea with honey,
the bread we dip in finest olive oil,
the eggs we fry. Praise be the reeds,
gold and pink in the summer light,
the sand between our toes,
our swimsuits, flapping in the breeze.

An obscure comfort

The incomparable Valley of the Temples, Oahu, Hawaii, 1994

The Byodo-In, Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, Oahu, 1994

“It comforted her, in the confused unhappy welter of her emotions, to see the mountains always tranquil, remote, in their lonely splendour; untouchable, serenely inviolate. It was an obscure comfort to her to know that man’s hectic world wasn’t the only one — that there were others, where agitation and passion and bewilderment had no place.”Anna Kavan

The history of Hawaii is filled with conflict and sorrow that contrasts sharply with the stunning beauty of its islands. Perhaps it is appropriate that one of the most peaceful and enchanting places on Oahu is a large cemetery called the Valley of the Temples. Of all the scenic places we visited repeatedly while we lived there, this landscape remains my favorite.

Our time in Hawaii was rich with unforgettable experiences, among which were more than a few that brought deep anxiety or lonely sadness. Regardless of whether my mood was lighthearted or heavy when I visited the Valley of the Temples, I never left without feeling better. By island standards, it was a relatively long drive from our home on Pearl Harbor to beautiful Kaneohe; this was before the H-3 was finished, so we had to take the LikeLike Highway or the Pali Highway to get there. But I enjoyed the drive, in part because I knew of the calm beauty that awaited us.

Once while we were there, a caretaker showed Drew how to ring the large bell, and let him feed the birds who would swoop down and take food directly from a person’s hand. Once I saw two of the many peacocks get into a fight and, in the blink of an eye, unfurl their magnificent feathers. Sometimes the black swans would swim by. Always, when we crossed the bridge, the huge Koi fish would clamor to the surface and pile on each other’s backs hoping to catch any food that might be tossed. Their greedy desperation was both fascinating and repulsive.

Even when the animal residents were not particularly peaceful, the setting always seemed filled with an otherworldly tranquility.  By the time we left Oahu, that had begun to change somewhat, as the island’s best-kept secret became more widely known, and the number of visitors increased. The last time we went there, they had begun to charge admission to visitors who did not have a loved one buried there. I felt fortunate to have enjoyed it so often before costs and crowds changed the experience.

When I saw the quote from Kavan, I thought about how often my sadness or fear had been eased by the majesty of this scene, and by many other wonders in this astonishing world. Each fills me with deep reassurance of a benevolent Creator’s love, and an unshakable knowledge that a serenely inviolate realm is there for us when we stand still long enough to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

The patient seamstress

Detail of "Seamstress" by Manuel Gómez-Moreno González. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of “Seamstress” by Manuel Gómez-Moreno González
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Faith is the patient seamstress
  who mends our torn belief,
  who sews the hem of childhood trust
  and clips the threads of grief.”
               — Joan Walsh Anglund

I think this poem captures the essence of how faith operates in most lives. Some claim to have had dramatic revelations or sudden moments of truth, but for most of us, faith is a less flashy force.  All of us have times when our beliefs are torn, our childhood dreams unravel and our thoughts seem a messy tangle of confusion. Faith works to hold things together, patiently reinforcing what remains of the thinning fabric of our existence.

And speaking of childhood, I wrote a post awhile back in which I quoted a different poem by Anglund from memory, having first read it in my youth. Since I wrote that post, there have been a few postscripts to add. As it turns out, I quoted it fairly accurately, although the volume in which I remembered seeing the poem, A Cup of Sun, (copyright 1967) was not the actual source.

JWA poem posted July 30 2015

Instead, I found that it came from a companion book published three years afterward, A Slice of Snow, (copyright 1970) which– this is the funniest part– I actually had sitting on my own bookshelf in York County, all along. I didn’t need to quote it from memory after all, but as this photo shows, I did get pretty close to remembering the text without knowing where to look for it. I had looked online, unsuccessfully, for quite a long time, hoping to verify what I was writing. I had totally forgotten that A Slice of Snow, which I knew I had, was the book from which the poem I remembered had come.

The most fun part was how I discovered this mistake. A blog reader in a distant state, who read the original post linked above, was kind enough to locate a copy of A Cup of Sun and send it to me. What a joy! I re-discovered many other poems that will probably end up being posted here eventually, along the one quoted above. I don’t know whether the person who sent me the book noticed that it was NOT the source of the poem I quoted; if so, it was tactfully not mentioned.

Now both books sit side-by-side on one of my bookshelves in Alexandria, since this is where I write most of the posts.

My Joan Walsh Anglund books

So here is a case of old meeting new. On a blog that appears in a format I could scarcely have dreamed of when I first read the poem, I shared it and then received back another forgotten bit of my own past.  It came from someone many miles away, with whom I am in touch through the present wonders of technology, shining brightly on a past interwoven tightly with the present to create a unique gift for me here and now.

I think that’s magical. It makes me believe that the increasingly tattered, faded cloth of my life, mended slowly and patiently by faith again and again, still has a place in the vast gallery of the shiny new turbo-charged world where almost everyone is younger and stronger than I am, and much of what I value is deemed useless by the cold-blooded calculation of modernity.

If you have needed a good bit of mending in your own life from time to time, you probably will understand. And if you have yet to reach that stage, know that when you do, the patient seamstress will be awaiting you.



Owen tries hard to say hello, July 2, 2016.

Owen tries hard to say hello, July 2, 2016.

“A certain group of geniuses can easily learn even the world’s most difficult languages: they’re called babies.”Ashleigh Brilliant

Are you bilingual, or (even more impressive) do you speak several languages fluently? If so, I envy you. I’ve always wished that I could communicate in many different languages. I suppose it’s because I like to talk, and I like to travel, and I like to learn more about other countries and cultures. Learning a language is great for all three.

I remember being fascinated with the language skills of some of the kids who came to the programs we hosted at the small town library in California, where I was the youth services librarian. These students grew up speaking Spanish at home, but spoke mostly English at school and in other settings. They had not a trace of an accent in English, and I’m guessing they didn’t have one in Spanish either. They were quite helpful in translating for me when an adult who spoke only Spanish needed to ask me something. They were polite and never laughed at me or acted superior, despite leaving me with the idea that, in at least one respect, they certainly were.

I’ve heard people suggest that babies and children can learn language so easily because their brains are not “cluttered up” with other superfluous content. Others have said maybe young brains are just wired to learn more quickly, as they simply must. In any case, I find language acquisition fascinating to watch and contemplate.

When we met Owen for the first time ever, early in July, he was almost six weeks old. I loved looking into his face and watching him watch me talk. It often seemed he was attempting to mimic my actions, moving his lips and tongue around, and cooing in response as if he was trying to tell me something. Of course, I can be written off as a silly grandmother, but still, I think those face-to-face contacts are the beginning of learning to speak for most babies. Isn’t it wonderful to think about the way children typically learn such complex skills in such a natural way– almost teaching themselves?

When you get the chance to spend time with infants, try looking right into their eyes and speaking to them so they can watch you. Don’t feel silly if you instinctively use a high-pitched voice; apparently, babies respond to that. In any case, whether the baby picks up any new skills or not, I imagine it will put a smile on your face and brighten your day. Though these little geniuses can be noisy and inconvenient at times, they definitely make the world a much happier place.

Just outside the gate

Anonymous drawing based on an oil painting by Henri Motte, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anonymous drawing based on an oil painting by Henri Motte,
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Trojan Horse sits just outside the gate of your heart. Its name is bitterness. It is a monument to every attack you have endured from your fellow human beings. It is a gift left by the people who have wronged you…It is rightfully yours. But to accept the gift is to invite ruin into your life.”Andy Stanley

Whoa. I don’t know about you, but that hits me hard. What jumps out most at me is the sentence “It is rightfully yours.” How often do we hang onto hurts and resentment simply because they are understandable, even justified?

If you think Stanley is wrong in warning that bitterness leads to ruin, I challenge you to watch the news and ask yourself how many of the stories of mayhem and violence have their roots in bitterness. Then think of some of the most inspiring, uplifting tales you have heard. Chances are, many of them feature a huge dose of forgiveness, understanding or willingness to move beyond hurt.

In today’s world, the Trojan Horse evokes thoughts of computer viruses that sneak onto hard drives and work widespread damage. It’s not a bad metaphor for the malevolent influence of resentment in our hearts. It sneaks into areas where it has no relevance, tainting what once was helpful, destroying any chance of happiness, new friendships and future success.

We cannot afford to accept this treacherous gift, no matter how appealing it may seem. It may have a sinister, seductive beauty about it. It may be large, and hard to get rid of. We may need outside help to deal with it safely. But we cannot afford to keep it.

Is there a Trojan Horse outside your gate? I’m working on dismantling mine. If you have one, I hope you’ll join me in neutralizing the evil influence of bitterness. It’s not easy, but the alternative is ultimately much worse.

A clover, any time

One of many clover bouquets I've picked while strolling.  May 2016

One of many clover bouquets I’ve picked while strolling. May 2016

The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.      
— Emily Dickinson

I am a person of simple tastes. During our lean years, I supposed this was because we couldn’t afford grand things. But the passing decades have taught me that it’s a deep-down unchanging part of who I am. It simply doesn’t take very much to impress or delight me.

A lot of people might think that’s mildly pathetic, and maybe they feel sorry for me. I don’t mind. I think it’s an incredibly lucky trait to have; it makes life fun and relatively inexpensive.

On my evening walks in Alexandria, I sometimes stroll past neglected medians and roadside fields of grass sprinkled with clover. I find the flowers so beautiful that I can hardly resist picking them and bringing them home to display in a pretty Limonata bottle. See what I mean? I honestly prefer a recycled bottle to a vase.

The great thing is, I need never worry that someone will get mad at me for picking clover blooms. I just have to be careful not to anger a bee who was there first. The blooms last a long time, and bring me joy every time I see them.

Are there any simple, humble things that you enjoy? If so, count yourself fortunate. I wish you a summer full of easily-quenched thirsts, modest treats and unpretentious pleasures.

A thin stream of fear

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica, March 2010

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica, March 2010

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” — Arthur Somers Roche

Waterfalls start out a lot smaller and more quiet than they end up. If you’ve ever stood at the foot of a fairly large waterfall, you know the kind of power it can generate as the water flows along, accumulating volume before taking that steep downward plunge.

You’ve probably noticed that I love metaphors. I think Roche came up with a vivid image that illustrates what anxiety can do to us. It’s impossible to keep worrisome thoughts totally out of our minds, but if we allow them to meander here and there, they will pick up momentum and strength as they go along. Soon the objects of our worry multiply. We can even end up worrying too much about worrying too much. Then, if we’re not careful, the cumulative anxiety can take on a force of its own, destructive and impossible to stop.

A bit of anxiety can be useful, if we transform it into a healthy degree of caution. But reining it in can be a real challenge. I’ve been dealing with all kinds of anxiety lately, much of it justified, and I’ve had to evolve ever-increasing coping strategies for keeping it at bay. Reading, prayer, music, singing, writing, walking and working outdoors are all formidable defenses for me. What works best for you?

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