“No matter how uncertain our world sometimes seems, we can count on flowers to appear each spring.” – Barbara Milo Ohrbach
Longtime members of the Defeat Despair community will be familiar with Susan, whom I first met here and whose previous visits have inspired earlier posts. She spent some time with Matt and me this past week, and though I’ve now met many of you face to face, Susan is the first person I met on the blog who has visited our Yorktown home.
Staying several days in the “Historic Triangle” meant we spent a lot of time in the early history of our country, at least in our imaginations. We learned that those 18th century fashions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they look (at least, not according to those who were wearing and creating them); we served on the jury at the piracy trial of Blackbeard’s first mate (the unanimous verdict was GUILTY!) and we spent a delightful afternoon listening to the incomparable Thomas Jefferson, whose hair has gone completely white since the last time I saw him in person over a dozen years ago, but who can still captivate an audience with wit, style and eloquence.
But with all the dramatic appeal of the “living history” presentations, one of my favorite pastimes during the days at Colonial Williamsburg was strolling through the gardens, swapping information or sharing questions about various plants, playing “name that flower” (and initially confusing foxglove with larkspur), and taking endless photographs.
One of the earliest posts on this blog featured a 2009 snapshot of the lovely home and garden pictured above, and as you will see if you compare the photos, it has held up well. If you look closely, you will see the tips of the foxgloves that dominate the 2009 photo, peeking over the picket fence in the background of the photo above. I don’t remember whether there were poppies and violas behind me in 2009 when I took the closer shot of the cottage, but they were impossible to miss this time, so I went for the long view.
Even a re-created tableau of colonial American history does not remain static. There were many new activities and sights to see on this visit, and also quite a few attractions that are no longer available, which I really missed. But the flowers did not disappoint me. Ohrbach is right; we can count on them to appear each spring, reminding us of beauty that has been bringing people joy for centuries. Despite competing with patriots, pirates and petticoats, flowers hold their own, inspiring every bit as much curiosity, and triggering more photographs. I hope your springtime is full of their colorful company.
‘Tis fitting in these days of noise,
Here in these thunder years of steam,
The soul should keep its equipoise
And think its thoughts and dream its dream.
We scar the placid vales with mills,
We scoop the seas and shear the hills:
‘Tis well that to these temples of the mind
The jangled soul can flee and leave the noise behind.
— Sam Walter Foss, librarian and poet
(Lines from the 1904 dedication of the Carnegie Library in Melrose, Massachusetts)
When was the last time you visited your public library? It’s a great place to defeat despair. To adapt a phrase from Dante, every library should have a sign posted above the door that says “Rediscover hope all ye who enter here.” The best public libraries are places of sheer delight, and even the worst have something to offer.
Reading the quote above, it’s interesting to think that 1904 was described as an era of noise and jangled souls. This was before television, traffic and technology became ubiquitous. Some things, apparently, never change, including the soul’s need for a place of respite from the chaotic demands of daily life.
As a librarian I’m more than a little biased, so it’s not unusual that the library would be one of my favorite places to take refuge from confusion and despair. Just walking through the door lifts my spirits. I’m sure to find books, videos and audiobooks to entertain me, as well as practical help for everyday problems. Whether I need to repair a light switch, nurse a plant back to health, or give myself a pep talk, I know I can find the information I need at the library.
Of course, most of us go to the internet with such questions, and that’s a great convenience for which I’m thankful on a daily basis. But there is something about wandering the stacks of a library that offers a different sort of solution. If you haven’t done that lately, give it a try. What begins as a nice relaxing browse can lead to the opening of all kinds of mental doors, and a sense of freedom and possibility that clicking on hyperlinks can’t capture.
If your soul feels jangled, flee the noise and spend a few moments– or hours– at a nearby library. It won’t cost you a cent, and you’ll leave with something money can’t buy.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
— Henri Nouwen
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.” — Paul Simon
The past six years, and really the past 32 years, have left me with far more questions than answers, but observation has firmly established the truth of some generalizations about humans. Among them is the unmistakable tendency for people to shy away from anything that can’t be easily fixed. We live in a throwaway culture where objects, animals and even other people are discarded or disregarded when they lose their practical value or don’t perform as expected.
Because of this I spend almost all of my days and hours alone, seeing nobody who isn’t paid directly or indirectly to be in either Matt’s life or mine. Matt is the only person who is reliably present face-to-face in my life, and of course, his ability to communicate well enough to share my pain (or his own) is sadly limited. I miss countless things about Jeff, but losing the gift of his presence in daily life is the greatest sorrow of all. His devotion to us manifested itself on many levels, but the most profoundly beneficial was his steadfast proximity to all the details of our lives. He never needed a reason or an occasion to be there; he chose to be with us, as we did him, over and over again.
If you have known the prolonged isolation that too often accompanies chronic or catastrophic suffering, you will understand what I am talking about. Most people my age or younger don’t know yet what that particular form of alienation is like, but I believe almost everyone will experience it if they live long enough.
Meanwhile, even if you have no clue what it’s like– even if you feel impatient when your well-intended suggestions aren’t adopted, and you just want to shake that despondent individual and tell her to SNAP OUT OF IT– realize that nobody expects or even needs you to solve an unsolvable problem. Sometimes, all that’s needed is someone to be there.
Chances are there is a person in your life right now who might like to hear your voice or see your face, and it wouldn’t have to be more than a brief visit. It won’t pay your bills or raise your social status or get your to-do list checked off. It’s almost certainly not a priority with you. But it might change someone’s life. Maybe even your own.
“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” ― Hilary Mantel
“…life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight.” — Carly Simon
During the past week my friend Kathy was visiting me from Texas. We went out to Arlington National Cemetery and from there into DC on a lovely spring day. The cherry blossoms were just past full bloom, still beautiful, and it was the kind of afternoon that is a balm for the sorrows of a cold and dreary winter.
I don’t have many words today, but I do wish you lovely April afternoons to fill you with peace and reassurance that cannot be fully described or understood.
“There are things money can’t buy. I don’t think standard of living equates with cost of living beyond a certain point. Good housing, good health, good food, good transport. There’s a point you start getting inverse correlation between wealth and quality of life…
I have everything I need to have, and I don’t need any more because it doesn’t make a difference after a point.”— Warren Buffett
That quote might make way more sense if it wasn’t being said by one of the all-time richest men in the entire world. But there’s a strange way in which it’s more credible coming from Buffet, who is famously
cheap frugal in the way that he lives, especially when one considers his literally unimaginable wealth.
Buffet knows first hand that no amount of money can purchase what isn’t for sale at any price. Beyond obtaining the basic necessities of a healthy life, money is never going to be the route to happiness, because more is never enough.
Most of us who read this blog will know this to be true because of the joy we experience when we work in the garden, or savor a cup of tea, or laugh with a loved one. If you are reading this post, chances are good that you are rich! Maybe not financially, but in all the ways that really count, the blessings among us are abundant.
You may be thinking something along the lines of what my friend Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote: “All I ask is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Most of us will never get that chance, but we need look no further than the headline stories in the news to see the “inverse correlation” Buffet mentions, creating all sorts of havoc in countless lives. We don’t need to find out first hand about that inverse correlation. It’s all around us.
Instead, let’s focus on the positive truth of his claim. What will you be doing today that might inspire Buffet to point to you and say “See what I mean about quality of life that can’t be bought?” You are invited to meet Sheila and me on the Virtual Verandah for an imaginary tea party, and share some of your own
cheap frugal comforts with us there, or in the comments below. While you are at it, enjoy that clever “Foolish dragon” haiku at the Motley Fool article linked above. It makes me smile every time I see it.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
― René Daumal
Daumal’s words are likely to ring true for most of us, I think. Whether we glimpse that “higher up” view through our religious experiences, through the satisfaction of attaining a long-sought goal, or through supreme moments of joy with friends and loved ones, our souls will feed on the memory long after the exaltation has passed.
When I read the quote above, I was reminded of a song my friend Ellis used to play on her guitar and sing to me during our college years. It was called “John Henry Bosworth” and it was written by Paul Stookey. As with many of the songs with which Ellis could always sing my blues away, the entire thing has stuck with me all these years and I’ve sung it often. This despite my never having heard the original version by Peter, Paul & Mary until I looked it up on YouTube to hear it while writing this post. (I must admit, I liked it better when Ellis sang it, even though I generally enjoy Peter, Paul & Mary. Their version is a bit more “twangy” which is not my favorite style. But I digress.)
The song has a very appealing message of a family whose happiness transcends the turbulent circumstances in the world around them. The story of Bosworth and his family is summed up in this final verse:
And I was wondering if you had been to the mountain
To look at the valley below?
Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?
Did you know which way to go?
Oh the mountain stream runs pure and clear
And I wish to my soul I could always be here
But there’s a reason for living way down in the valley
That only the mountain knows
Most of us are blessed with at least a few of these mountaintop experiences that give us the ability to see beyond our immediate situation. While some have many more such happy memories than others, the opportunity is there for each of us to climb higher up and get the unique perspective that will inform our conduct as we live in the valleys. Of course, in this life we cannot remain at these lofty heights. But as Daumal reminds us, what we cannot see, once glimpsed, becomes something we can still know.
“Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen
Sometimes when I cannot imagine any path to a happy future for myself, it helps to remember that most of life’s changes are gradual, and are as inevitable as the abrupt, more devastating crises. Whether positive or negative, change is happening even when we are scarcely aware of it. And change is not always about loss.
Looking at the photos above, I am startled to see the bare look of that back right corner of the fenced portion of our yard. I honestly don’t remember it ever looking like that, and I’m grateful that this photo I snapped of Drew practicing baseball happened to include it in the background. Otherwise it would have been lost to memory forever, as the azaleas we planted over the next few years grew and bloomed, and the camellias that were barely visible became full and taller than we are.
Though outwardly my life is still encumbered with seemingly as many responsibilities as ever, on a personal level my landscape feels as bare as the corner ground in that first photo. I have no way of knowing whether I will live long enough to see the desert of my loneliness become a garden of solitude; whether I will ever discover any unknown earthly beauty that might be hiding in the future.
One thing is certain: I’m not trying to run away from being alone. I want whatever years I have left to be fruitful ones, and as the author Jan Karon once wrote to me,”Talents are best nurtured in solitude.” She included this quote from Goethe in her inscription of an unexpected gift she mailed me, one of her books of quotations, along with a handwritten letter of encouragement. This timely gift, which felt and still feels like a small miracle, arrived in my mailbox near the end of 2005, the year that first photo was taken. Perhaps Karon’s love of quotations fed mine, and helped to inspire this blog when Jeff was diagnosed with cancer seven years later. The seeds of kindness she planted carried unpredictable possibilities within.
Do you ever feel lonely? Have aging, health challenges, the loss of loved ones, or distance from family members (geographical or emotional) isolated you, leaving bare ground in your life just waiting to be cultivated? As hard as it might be to imagine the results, I invite you to join me in the gentle and persistent effort that, with time and patience, might grace the years to come with blossoms yet unseen.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished. — Mary Oliver
Bereavement, grief and aging are slicing through much of what once seemed inviolable to me. Not only has my life changed; I’ve changed as well. And I find that other people in my life have changed, too, whether from circumstances in their own lives, a discomfort with proximity to the magnitude of what I’ve endured, or some combination of both.
It’s painful to realize that most of what once lent meaning to my daily effort is now gone, rendered irrelevant or exposed as illusory. The blessing in the falling away of so many distractions is the increased time for standing still and learning to see larger, more impressive vistas that may have been obscured by busyness or trivial worries. And very little, it turns out, is about me at all. What a relief!
For those of us granted a long life, so much abides through the seemingly endless losses. How breathtakingly enormous a universe, that even our limited portion of it is filled with wonder and delight! What astonishes you today? Start with the view outside your window right now, and let your mind wander into infinity briefly before you return to your less important work.
“Today is mine. Tomorrow is none of my business. If I peer anxiously into the fog of the future, I will strain my spiritual eyes so that I will not see clearly what is required of me now.” – Elisabeth Elliot
I’ve heard it said that anger is really fear in disguise, and I’ve seen a good bit of evidence that this must be true most of the time. Our greatest animosity tends to focus on people or things we perceive, accurately or not, as a threat to our lives, our loved ones, or even more trivial things such as our time, space or convenience.
For most who will be reading this blog, the truly urgent or immediate threats are relatively rare. Yet we still find ourselves anxious about the future, even if what we fear is vague and undefined. I’ve noticed, for example, that I tend to get most frustrated on days when I can’t seem to get as much done as I hope to do. I usually can’t pin this down to a looming deadline, since I long ago retired from work outside the home. I have the luxury of structuring my time according to the daily changes and fluctuating requirements of my own life rather than those of a corporation or a demanding boss. Why, then, do I feel such fear (which almost always manifests itself as frustration, impatience and finally anger) when I am unable to meet some self-imposed goal usually based on generalized worries about the future, whether “the future” is later this week or years from now?
As I work through the layers of grief over the losses of the past few years, one of the most important survival tools is granting myself permission, again and again, to go as slowly as I need to go, and to rest as much as I can, whether or not there are tasks awaiting (as there always are, for all of us). Staying focused on the present allows me to pay more attention to what am doing right now than to what I haven’t yet done. It’s surprising how therapeutic most tasks can be, if I don’t allow my mind to wander and ruminate about how many other things I have left to do.
For some people, the skill of staying in the present seems to come more easily than it does to those of us who are anxious types. If the task at hand is a fairly mindless one, I’ve found that listening to lively music, an interesting podcast or an engaging audiobook can reign in my tendency to let my mind wander into stressful territory. So does making a list of what I want to get done, which somehow seems to transfer the good intentions to a confined space on paper rather than letting them stroll around my psyche calling attention to themselves when I’m busy with something else.
How about you? A few minutes ago, when you read the words “tomorrow is none of my business,” did you find yourself reflexively arguing with that claim, as I did? Do you fear the future, or look forward to it, or some combination of both? How do you avoid spiritual eyestrain so that you can see clearly what most needs your attention now?
For those who read last week’s blog, here’s a photo of how they looked when I pulled them out of the refrigerator one week later. As I write this, they look every bit as perky as when I picked them. Now the doubles are blooming out front, and tomorrow I plan to make another bouquet.
“I have wandered far upon the desert plain, but in my heart a bird keeps singing, and the daffodils beckon and blow, — and one day I shall wander back.” — Muriel Strode
Last week was a good one for me, but it began on a gloomy note. I spent most of the week at our York home, where I had hoped to get some yard work done in the unseasonably warm weather. But the first day I was there it was rainy and overcast, and there was little I could do outdoors. The rain exacerbated my sad and lonely mood.
I decided that I would at least begin to prioritize what to do if it turned sunny. Taking advantage of the 60-degree temperature that made the soggy ground more bearable, I strolled around the wooded area behind our back yard, which comprises about a third of our lot. This area lies outside the fence, and I jokingly dubbed it the Lower 40 when we first moved there almost 14 years ago. It was only the second time I had been back there since Jeff died. As with so much else, it is still redolent of dashed dreams and lingering loss.
The setting was fraught with that peculiar melancholy common in late winter, when much is dead and bare, left messy and moldering by the weeks of cold. Jeff’s long illness meant that the woodland we had once tended so lovingly was neglected for several years, and I silently resigned myself to the very real possibility that it would remain so as long as I own the property.
As I neared the creek that forms the back boundary of our lot, I was flooded with joy at the unexpected sight of daffodils blooming in mid-February. There is a tiny patch of them on the creek bank that have been growing wild there for as long as we’ve lived nearby. For some reason, though they are growing in full shade, they always bloom earlier than the larger daffodil bulbs I planted in various sunnier spots in the front and back yard.
I love to see them each year, and I’m always tempted to pick them or dig them up and transplant them, since the only eyes likely to see them are mine and those of the deer and other creatures who come to the stream to drink. Usually I decide to leave them where they are, gracing an otherwise drab scene. If I’d had my camera with me, I probably would have taken a photo or two, and left them alone.
But that day, it seemed they had appeared just for me, almost calling out my name. I picked several of them and brought them inside where I enjoyed them all week. They were still blooming when I left, so I changed out the water in the little vase and put them in the fridge to see if they would keep while I was gone. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
I think I’ve mentioned here before that daffodils have always been my favorite flowers. I still have a dried one from the bunch Jeff brought to me at the hospital on the morning Drew was born. They seem irrepressibly cheerful to me, their yellow color and unique form putting a smile on my face no matter how I might feel before I first spot them.
More than any other flower, they beckon me to believe in the springtime to come, literally and figuratively.
I hope that your week will hold everyday surprises that brighten your days as my little flowers have brightened mine.
“Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly-arranged and well-provisioned breakfast-table.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne
I certainly agree with Hawthorne. Perhaps the beautifully bountiful breakfast was as special in his age as it is in ours; likely even more so. I’m sure the time to enjoy a leisurely morning meal was a luxury for his generation, and fresh food was far more scarce and dependent on seasonal vagaries during his era. In any case, sheer delight at the chance to begin the day with a savory selection of tasty fare is a pleasure we have in common with countless people throughout the centuries and all over the world.
My favorite vacation destinations– bed and breakfast inns, cruise ships, and the homes of dear friends– all feature memorable moments lingering over coffee or tea along with an assortment of items such as fresh fruit, eggs, cereals, sides and baked goods. Though it starts rather than ends the day, I’ve always found that a full breakfast feels more relaxed, even when the table is graced with fine linens, crystal and china. I can’t recall ever worrying about which fork to use, or wondering whether anybody noticed that I spilled a few drops of tea every time I poured more into my cup.
Maybe a nice breakfast feels more special because most of us rarely take time for it. Regardless of the age-old (and largely disregarded) advice that it’s the most important meal of the day, I’m guessing that time constraints, less appetite, or force of habit usually mean that many of us eat less in the morning than we do at noon or evening meals. If that’s true for you, I hope that you find the time on weekends or days off to make breakfast a special occasion.
You may have read here that Jeff loved to cook a full breakfast every Saturday, a habit he formed nearly 20 years ago. I’m thankful for each and every weekend he insisted on taking the time for it, right up to the morning he entered the hospital for the last time. It would have been easy for him to say “someday when I retire I’d like to cook breakfast every day.” Instead, he made it a point to enjoy the ritual on the one day each week when he did not have to be up and out too early to allow cooking.
These are now fond memories, and I hope someday to return to cooking breakfast, for friends, family or just myself, complete with a pretty table setting and maybe a fresh flower in a bud vase. I don’t need to tell you the tea kettle would be on, with coffee at the ready. Who knows– maybe some of us now reading this blog together will find ourselves face to face at breakfast someday, again or for the first time. Until then, Sheila and I have the Virtual Verandah Special ready when you are, complete with eggs any style, biscuits, country ham, grits and all the southern favorites, along with the croissants, whole wheat toast, fresh fruit, quiche, crepes and other delights that some of y’all might be more used to. Pull up a chair and get ready to start the day with a smile.
Our sweetest hopes rise blooming
And then again are gone,
They bloom and fade alternate,
And so it goes rolling on.
I know it, and it troubles
My life, my love, my rest,
My heart is wise and witty,
And it bleeds within my breast.
— Heinrich Heine
Recently, several of you asked me to update you on Matt. I asked him whether he had anything to say to you, or something he would like me to write about, but he was noncommittal. Unlike Jeff used to do, however, Matt did not specifically ask me not to write about himself.
I haven’t written a great deal in this blog about his teenage years, but going through some recently scanned photos, I found several that I want to share with you. Looking at the photos below, all of which were made before his first manic episode changed our lives, I realize that everyone, each one of us, leaves behind so much of our youth when we enter adulthood. The dreams and goals change, tempered by hard realities, and enthusiastic hope gradually matures into acceptance of life’s limitations.
Matt is no different from anyone else in this regard. His teen years were full of activity, effort, achievement and fun, despite the painful surgeries he endured, and the frustrating disabilities that made goals more difficult to reach. It is a bittersweet experience to look back at the happy photos of those years, whether I am recalling Matt’s youth or Drew’s. Yet, where Matt is concerned, I now wonder how I found the energy to spend hours with him every single day on homework, piano practice, OT, PT and speech therapy exercises, church youth projects, and most of all, daily working to help him overcome his motor skills deficits to become independent with basic living skills that others had mastered with little to no effort during early childhood.
Here’s a side of Matt that many of you have not seen before. I hope you will like these photos.
Drew is 16 months older than Matt, but Matt hit puberty first, and for a time he was taller than Drew. That’s hard to imagine now that Drew is over six feet tall, and Matt is only 5’5″– but this photo was made during those years.
When Matt was in middle school, his teacher immediately noticed his ear for music, and put us in touch with a gifted woman who taught students with disabilities to play piano and other instruments. Though previous school staff and therapists had told us Matt would never learn to move his fingers separately, this amazing music teacher proved them all wrong, and soon Matt was playing fairly well.
He loved being able to make music, and his teacher had high expectations, scheduling performances three to four times every year for all her students, and insisting that they compete in juried guild auditions alongside their non-disabled peers. At these auditions, Matt had to play scales, chords and arpeggios, along with several memorized pieces, and he always passed with high marks. I don’t even want to think about how many hours it took, though.
For the most part, Matt never complained about the hours every day we had to practice for him to get the fingering and timing right. Best of all, this endless exercise for his fingers opened the door for him to be able to use computer keyboards– another thing school IEP teams had formerly told us he could never do. He ended up being able to keyboard all his school assignments at the rate of about 17 words per minute, which was useful since his handwriting has always been illegible.
Matt and Drew each wore braces for nearly three years. Sometimes I got really sick of driving back and forth to the orthodontist weekly in heavy afternoon traffic. Since I was working full time for much of that time, life was pretty stressful. I certainly don’t miss that aspect of having teenagers!
Our years in San Antonio were filled with social activities for Matt. During that time I once remarked that our entire calendar was built around his many scheduled and unscheduled outings with friends. Luckily, I really enjoyed being with all the other Moms, since we ended up playing chaperones. I had the blessing of friendships with some of the strongest and liveliest women I had ever known, and Matt loved his friends’ mothers almost as much as he loved me. It was wonderful, a golden time that I missed so much when we moved to California in 1999.
Despite having to leave his friends and spend his final year of middle school at a new campus in northern California, Matt continued to bloom, staying very active in a music conservatory with another gifted piano teacher, singing in the school chorus (even singing a solo at one performance) and making friends everywhere he went. Jeff and I both noticed that after only a few weeks in California, we could hardly go to any store or fast food place in our little town without someone excitedly calling “Hi Matthew!” I will always be grateful for what an easy transition he had from a fantastic situation in Texas to a very different but equally rewarding time in California. Things were far from ideal in either location, but both times were filled with blessings for him despite the hard work and continual challenges.
Matt has long been a favorite topic of mine, so I could go on and on, but perhaps this is more than enough. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know him just a little bit better. Whenever my heart is bleeding inside, I have to remind myself that even the happiest times were far from easy, and though we bloom in different ways as we grow older, yet still we bloom. I really believe that.
I, singularly moved
To love the lovely that are not beloved,
Of all the seasons most
– Coventry Patmore
If you read the comments section, you may recall that I mentioned this verse to Marlene when she said she loved winter. This is the post I told her I would write for her.
I can’t say I most love winter, but I do enjoy many aspects of it. However, the line of Patmore’s verse that captured my imagination was “the lovely that are not beloved.” There are all sorts of things that can fit that category, winter among them, and I wonder what else he might have had in mind when he described himself as having an affinity for what is disregarded by others.
Have you ever found yourself protesting, “Oh, but I love _____” (fill in something everyone else is criticizing). In that category, I think first of certain animals– crickets, or lizards, or mice, or squirrels– creatures others might see as pests, but ones I see as more cute than irritating. Or it could be dandelions, or radishes, or other plants nobody seems to appreciate. Maybe you actually like to eat liver or zucchini. You might like a book or movie others found boring. Maybe you secretly appreciated a school teacher that everyone else hated, or thought that oddball classmate was interesting because he was different. Did you feel strange because you liked something others denigrated? Or were you happy that you found joy where others could not?
I think if we keep an eye out for beauty with the awareness that it may be hidden, we will find it in unlikely places. And we might discover that others share our enjoyment of something most people miss completely. Do you have any tips for us about where you’ve found examples of “the lovely that are not beloved?”
Ray Stevens is known mostly for his funny songs, but if you’re old enough, you might remember his 1970 Grammy-winning song that wasn’t joking when it declared “everything is beautiful in its own way.” Despite the arguments against this philosophy, if you’re feeling irritable enough to make Grumpy Cat look like an optimist, zoom back to the groovy year of 1970 and enjoy a much-younger Ray Stevens singing his song. I bet it will make you smile.
“Not until years later would I realize that my state of general wonder throughout this process, peppered though it was with fear and doubt, would help preserve my sanity through the events that followed.” — Hilary Tindle
Sometimes I will hear or read a sentence that rings so true in my own experience that I feel I could have written it myself. That was how I felt when I read Dr. Tindle’s words quoted above. She was describing the open heart surgery she underwent as a young woman, long before she became a physician herself. When she sought medical help for what she thought was a routine complaint about feeling tired, she was shocked to be told that she had lived all her life with an undiscovered, life-threatening congenital heart defect that required immediate correction.
What Tindle describes as a “state of general wonder” has been a powerful ally for me. In fact, at 61 years and counting, I think that one of the best metaphors for my life is an image of myself being perched on a three legged stool. One leg would be fear and doubt, one would be conviction and determination, and one would be pure wonder, the memories of which go back at least as far as any others I can remember. Though that three-legged stool sits on the firm foundation of faith and trust, each of those three legs are closely related to the foundation, and have been integral to my existence.
The fear and doubt have forced me to rely upon what meager courage and critical thinking I can muster. As with any skill, these traits grow stronger with use, even when they start in complete inadequacy. The conviction and determination have enabled me to keep going even when I thought I would never last. But the wonder is arguably the best of all: a source of refreshment and delight, making it all worthwhile. Even in the worst situations, some part of my mind is awed by the complexity of human survival, and inspired by glimpses of grace and courage that hardly anyone else will ever know about.
I first noticed wonder partially offsetting my fear when Matt, as a tiny infant, had his first echocardiogram. The doctor was able to see and describe his beating heart (with large atrial and ventricular defects, and two bad valves) in amazing detail. Despite the dread of my baby’s impending open heart surgery, and our very reasonable fears for his life, there was a fascination of what might be possible that transcended the panic I felt. In a similar way, Matt’s developmental challenges opened my eyes to the stunning intricacy of “typical” early child development, which I had taken for granted with our first son. The therapeutic exercises and tasks that might have felt like drudgery became an absorbing new world to explore, and ordinary milestones became delayed but usually victorious crossings of one marathon finish line after another.
Despite the devastating sorrow of Jeff’s terminal diagnosis, and as painful as it was to watch all that he suffered, I was often carried away with wonder at his physical, spiritual and mental stamina. My awe of his exceptional nature has only grown over time, as moments that were lost to conscious awareness during times of urgency and crisis come back to me now in vivid detail, often without warning. These “flashback” experiences, which I imagine are common among survivors of anyone who fought a hard battle over several years, continue to flood me with grief and panic. But tucked amid the anguish and anxiety, there sparkles the ever-growing wonder at how blessed I was to be married to such an extraordinary person for all those years.
Wonder is not limited to traumatic situations, of course– and how thankful I am for the everyday moments that surprise me with humor, joy, beauty or mystery. The ability to notice and marvel at magnificent details, cleverly disguised as normal aspects of ordinary life, is a skill that most of us are born with, I believe. Just watch any toddler closely and you’ll see what I mean. But sadly, we often fail to cultivate that trait as assiduously as we do the more prestigious or marketable talents, and it tends to atrophy as we age.
Dr. Tindle is right, though– wonder is a sanity-preserver in bad times, and multiplies our happiness in good times. I encourage you to incorporate into each day a few moments to exercise your “state of general wonder.” Besides being good for you, it’s fun and remarkably easy, once you get the hang of it. As Marlene says, I wish you a wonder-filled day! Feel free to share some of your wondrous observations here.
“When one reads a poet in January, it is as lovely as when one goes to walk in June.”
— Jean Paul Friedrich Richter
If you’ve been reading this blog very long, you know how much I love walking, especially in mild weather. But I think Jean Paul was right about poetry and January, which seem to go together like soup and snowy weather, or friendships and firesides.
Many of us who live north of the equator have been enduring record-cold temperatures. Some have been hit with a particularly nasty flu or other seasonal aches and pains. Power outages, weather delays and traffic snarls, along with wind chills below zero, can make wintertime something to dread. So let’s get cozy and enjoy what’s good about this season.
Brew a cup of your favorite cold-weather beverage. Pull up a comfy chair, light a crackling fire, or if you don’t have that kind of fireplace (alas, I don’t), try switching on your gas or electric fireplace, or just snuggle up with a warm fuzzy throw. Take out your favorite poetry book, or grab your laptop, tablet or phone and go on a poetry scavenger hunt for some wonderful undiscovered gems, or lifelong favorites you can’t fully remember.
If you find anything lovely, funny, thought-provoking or heartwarming, we’d love to have you share it with us here. For every comment that links us to a poem, I’ll answer with a favorite of my own for us to read. Our high school English teachers would be proud!
Let’s bring our virtual Verandah indoors while it’s too cold to be outside. What we lack in sunshine and warm breezes we can more than make up for in congenial online company and realtime hygge. Cookies, pastries and savory snacks optional.
“New Year’s eve is like every other night; there is no pause in the march of the universe, no breathless moment of silence…yet no man has quite the same thoughts this evening that come with the coming of darkness on other nights. The vast and shadowy stream of time sweeps on without break, but the traveler who has been journeying with it cannot be entirely unmindful that he is perceptibly nearer the end of his wanderings.”
— Hamilton Wright Mabie
As I write this post set to publish in just a few hours, I find myself once again taking part in a somber vigil, this time from a distance. Jeff’s mother, who was at his deathbed with us less than 15 months ago, is expected to pass from this life within hours. She is surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren who will stay with her, as she stayed with us during Jeff’s last two days of life.
Those who have been reading this blog for several years already know that our family’s losses have come with a regularity that inevitably deepens the comprehension of mortality hinted at in Mabie’s quote. In October 2014, we experienced the unexpected death of Larry, who was frequently with us here. In September 2015, we lost Daddy just as suddenly. In October 2016, Jeff died; his burial ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery in March 2017. Then, in May of this year, Mama died. The tearful farewells and graveside visits leave us unavoidably aware that each of us, whether we live a relatively long life or die young, are moving ever closer to the end of our own time on this earth.
If you are thinking that this is a gloomy way to begin a new year, I don’t blame you for wanting to shift focus a bit. Accordingly, I invite you to re-visit the post I published two years ago on this date. Reading over it tonight, I was struck by how scarcely I imagined the crises and ultimate heartbreak that would face me in 2016, and yet how relevant my thoughts about that year remain when seen in retrospect, however ignorant of forthcoming events I was at the time I wrote.
At this particular moment, I have little to offer in the way of sunny thoughts or bright resolutions. Instead, I pledge to you my steadfast appreciation for your presence, our shared gratitude for the abundance of life, and our determination to make this an online refuge where all are welcome, and where we can gather without fear, condemnation or anger, united in our common resolve to defeat despair.
I pray that all who read these words will be blessed with a year of growth, compassion, connection and deep joy. In that spirit, I wish you a Happy New Year!
“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” — Winston Churchill
Merry Christmas! Chances are, this will be a busy day for you, coming on the heels of a busy season. For most of my adult life, it was that way for me, anyway. I love the Christmas season, with all the festive activities and joyful sharing. But it can be exhausting, too.
As simple and quiet as this year’s Christmas has been for Matt and me, it has kept us busy enough that the unscheduled times of relaxing at home have been a welcome balm for the strange, ineffable pressure that seems so pervasive in today’s world. Having more than the usual amount of quiet time this season, I’ve come to realize that staying hyper busy on holidays can be a sort of mind-numbing drug or clever distraction that keeps us from paying attention to uncomfortable realities such as worry, sadness or conflict.
I’ve never believed that positive thinking consists of ignoring the difficulties and traumas of life. This blog is called “defeat despair,” not “deny despair” or “delay despair.” And it’s almost impossible to defeat despair by ignoring what is in need of resolution. But the urgent call of daily tasks and obligations often drowns out higher priorities.
For this reason, times of reflection are crucial to staying sane and healthy. Balancing the focus of our reflection to acknowledge both blessings and struggles can keep us from delusional optimism on the one hand, or self-perpetuating despondency on the other.
So, whatever is on your schedule for today, I hope you will set aside some time to reflect. No matter who or where you are, I’m pretty sure that the things on your mind will represent a very human mixture of happiness, sorrow, frustration, excitement and hope. May the final days of this year bring you gifts of both rejoicing and reflecting.
“What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings, but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.” – C. S. Lewis
Lewis ought to know, if anyone does. His life had more than the usual share of twists and turns. Losing his mother to death when he was a young child, he suffered a nightmarish experience of boarding schools that he later declared to be worse than the trenches of World War I, where he was gravely injured. His military service granted him an exemption from testing requirements that would likely have kept him out of Oxford due to his well-documented struggles to learn basic mathematics. He went on to achieve fame, fortune (almost all of which he gave away), and a lifetime of scholarship at Oxford and Cambridge.
Though he had been a nominal Christian during childhood, he spent years as an atheist before converting in earnest to Christianity, unintentionally establishing himself as one of the most influential apologists of his century. And he lived most of his life as a bachelor until being surprised, near the end of his life, with a brief but joy-filled marriage to a woman who was believed to be literally on her deathbed as the wedding ceremony was performed. Through it all, he had the honesty to keep his eyes wide open to the evidence around him when his own firmly held convictions were tested and found wanting.
I think Lewis is right that we often deceive ourselves. When the photo above was taken, Susan and I were walking the Mount Vernon Trail on a lovely November day. It was chilly, but not so much that we didn’t enjoy being out. However, I somehow got it into my head that it would be an easy walk from the Belle Haven Marina, the parking lot near my home where we left the car, to Fort Hunt Park. I based my impression not on experience, but from the rough estimate of comparing a straight-line scale of miles to the winding trail pictured on the map. Mostly, however, I think I just wanted to believe it would be an easy walk.
Even though we kept stopping to make photos, I started thinking that it was taking us far too long to get through the marshlands to the park, which was, ahem, the first place there would be a ladies’ room available. (I shouldn’t have been drinking so much tea.) We asked a few hikers coming from the other direction how far it was to the park, and I confess I was a bit dismayed that the first ones we asked didn’t seem to know. Finally, Susan got out her cell phone– why didn’t I think of that before?– and announced that we were still about 1.5 miles to the park. Yikes, not even half way there! And then there would be the “easy” walk all the way back to the car. A quick change of plans took us back up the trail down which we had just come. Luckily it looked a bit different coming from the opposite direction.
Well, at least Susan had her cell phone with her, or no telling when we would have either gotten to Fort Hunt, or given up and gone back. Let that be a warning to anybody who ever decides to let me plan an itinerary. I am hoping that Kelly will tactfully refrain from describing in detail our similarly unpredictable and much crazier afternoon AND evening in DC. Hint: it was supposed to be just an afternoon.
I’m not sure I like the honesty of experience as much as Lewis does, but I suppose it’s at least a little comforting that reality checks are always out there waiting for us when we lead ourselves astray. No doubt about it, experience will eventually offer some much-needed course correction if we allow it. Just remember to keep your eyes open. Especially if you’re with me.
“…many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” ― bell hooks
The photo above was taken in 1972, during one of the most otherworldly experiences of my life. My family and the couple we were visiting had traveled in late November to the tiny Bavarian island of Herreninsel, to visit the unfinished palace of mad King Ludwig. Our hosts had told us that during the summer, thousands visited this spot where Ludwig’s intention to build a full replica of Versailles ended tragically.
That day, however, it was hard to imagine anyone but ourselves in that remote location. We reached the island on a small ferry boat accompanied only by the skipper and an elderly nun traveling back to the convent on another island, Frauenchiemsee.
The walk from the dock to the palace was about a mile, through a snowy woodland that felt like a Currier and Ives lithograph come to life. Savoring the haunting seclusion and beauty of the most snow I had ever seen, I strolled ahead of our group to feel more fully immersed in the fascinating history about which we’d all been reading.
It would not have been nearly so enchanting if I had truly been alone. I probably would have been too frightened to even take the boat. Who would have been there to help me if I had needed it? And if I had been by myself, how I would have longed for someone with whom to share the the outing! Our day combined the best of both worlds; a fabulous but deserted palace that we toured in complete privacy, with only a caretaker present rather than the thousands there in summertime, and the reassurance of sharing that isolation with trusted loved ones.
My bookish childhood and my years as a military spouse have strengthened the already strong tendency I have to enjoy being alone. I didn’t realize how important that skill would be for me one day. Learning to be alone has been absolutely crucial to my survival this past year. I’m very grateful to be able to endure and even enjoy long periods of solitude.
Yet the presence of friends and loved ones is just as important, if not more so. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment here to share a short video tribute to three remarkable women who, for the second year in a row, made sure I was not alone on the birthday Jeff and I had shared for 38 years (yes, we had the same birthday, though he was two years younger). Some of you may recognize Renee, Mitzie and Myra as the friends who sat at my side during Jeff’s funeral and stood by me (literally and figuratively) at his graveside. You may remember Robert (Mitzie’s husband) as the friend who read the touching letter to Jeff and gave the benediction at his funeral. On my birthday this year, they continued the unwavering support that has enabled our family to keep going since Jeff’s cancer diagnosis over 5 years ago.
In what was the closest thing to a birthday party I’ve had since I was eight years old (when my Mama gave me the one and only birthday party I had during childhood), these wonderful friends fixed my favorite foods to share at dinner, showering me with cards, gifts, a cake, and a touch of Hawaii in the music. I’ve never liked the song “Happy Birthday to You” when it was being sung to me. But this occasion was the exception.
Far from being a means of escaping solitude, these friends have granted me my space for the past year while recognizing there are some times when we neither need nor want to be alone. I am forever grateful!