Snow helps

Hirzel, Switzerland by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

“I believe that snow helps strip away the things that don’t matter. It leaves us thinking of little else but the greatness of nature, the place of our souls within it, and the dazzling whiteness that lies ahead.”  Charlie English

If English is right about snow, it may help to explain why the final years of life are often compared to winter. No matter how long I might live, most of my life is unquestionably behind me now. Time, like snow, acts as a great filter that separates the trivial from the substantive. The years reveal aspects of our lives that were only masquerading as important, eating up time and giving us the illusion of permanence and security. It can be a very difficult lesson to learn; sometimes even heartbreaking.

Yet there is an unquestionable beauty to a snowy landscape, which paradoxically conveys the impression of freshness and purity layered over dead vegetation and nature in hibernation, awaiting rebirth. It’s a fitting milieu in which to close our eyes, breathe deeply, and rest. It’s a time for sleeping soundly and dreaming sweet dreams. Get ready to awaken rejuvenated and restored.

 

A poet in January

January bliss: a comfy chair, poetry, and tea in a lovely cup given by a dear friend.
You’re invited to drop in and tell us your favorites– poets, teas, or both!

“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.

Perceptibly nearer

Jeff’s mother, Johnnie Ruth Denton, at the celebration of her son’s life.
With Matt and Drew at Arlington National Cemetery, March 2017

“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!

Of reflection

I photographed this ornament at the Gaylord Hotel at National Harbor, 2011

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.

A little at a time

Look closely– we’re still festive, and still in the picture!
Matt, Susan and me (with cameras in hand) are reflected in the ornament.
Springfield Mall, Virginia, November 2017

“I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year.” Ray Stannard Baker (David Grayson) 

Even more than last year, this has been and will be a very different Christmas season for us. I realized this year will be the first time in all my 61 years that I will be spending the holiday with only one other family member.

Before I married, I spent every single Christmas with a large and loud family for whom the holiday was a major event. After marriage, and until we had children, Jeff and I spent every Christmas visiting both his family and mine, often traveling the five hours between their homes on Christmas Day itself, so that we could spend Christmas morning with one set of parents, and Christmas evening with the other. Then after we had kids, we were our own family of three and then four, still traveling often to see our extended family. Last year, Matt and I spent Christmas Day at Drew’s home, and I spent the days leading up to it with my sister and my “other Mama and Daddy” about whom I wrote a post on this blog.

This year, it will be just Matt and me. We will be joining close friends at various points in the season, as we have already done, but there will be no family with us at any point in the season. We considered traveling to my sister’s home, and to see Jeff’s mother, but Matt requested that he and I spend Christmas at York this year rather than traveling. I understood his need to be at home where the memories are warm and there are none of the stresses associated with travel to distant points. I also knew that we are living a different reality now, one to which we must grow accustomed.

So far, it has not been as dismal an experience as it may sound. To be sure, there is sorrow that so many things are forever changed, and both Matt and I are definitely “sadder but wiser.” Yet there have been unexpected joys and loyal friends to stand beside us, many of whom will be reading these words– you know who you are!

And it has been, thus far, the most stress-free holiday of my adult life. Not a bad trade-off. Christmas, after all, is the underlying reason for the merriment, not the other way around. In fact, Christmas stands alone quite nicely. As the Grinch found, “He didn’t stop Christmas from coming – it came! Somehow or other, it came just the same.”

At this stage of my life, coming off of the incalculable stress of the past six years, it seems an appropriate time to step back from the cooking, decorating, gift-wrapping and party-hosting that have been woven into Christmas for as long as I can remember. Much of that festivity has been pictured and celebrated on this blog, and you can find those posts simply by entering the word “Christmas” in the search box. If you’re unfamiliar with my deep love of the season, or just want to re-visit those years, you’ll find no shortage of holiday posts to explore.

I look back on my years of celebrating Christmas with equal parts happiness for all the memories we made, and wonder that I was somehow able to accomplish as much of it as I did. I couldn’t have done it, of course, without Jeff there to help me. Even though he tended to leave all the planning in my hands, he funded all of it, and was there with his reliable eye for detail and his much better sense of time, making sure I didn’t forget this or run too late for that.

I don’t expect much from Christmas now, and that’s OK. It begins with expecting less from myself, especially at this time of year, and that’s not only OK; it’s vital. The heartfelt card sent out later than I meant to get it into the mail; the leisurely cup of tea by a friend’s Christmas tree; the wrapping of half the number of gifts with as much or more sentiment as went into the 100+ I used to wrap each year (yes, over a hundred every year, most of them small)– all these alterations are creating for Matt and me, in the words of a dear old song, “a Christmas far more glorious than grand.”

Whether your holiday season this year is an extravaganza, or a quiet, contemplative respite from everyday life, or somewhere in between, I offer you my deepest gratitude for being with us all year long, taking Christmas a little at a time. I toast you all with a cup of good cheer (which for me means tea) and wish you bountiful year-end blessings. I didn’t decorate a Christmas tree this year, but do join me in a virtual Alpine village where Jacquie Lawson will do the honors.
Joy to the world!

Such an honest thing

Another photo for my collection of pictures of people taking pictures:
Susan on the Mount Vernon Trail, November 2017

“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.

Knowing how to be

Solitude, but not too much: I walk to Herrenchiemsee, November 1972.

“…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!

 

A tree in a story

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash

“Victor Frankl whispered in my ear all the same. He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree…I asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it means to be a tree in that story.”
Donald Miller

Today we have more ways to stay connected with others than ever before, but I continue to see headlines and read stories about how isolated many of us feel. Not so long ago, survival demanded that we be in face-to-face contact with other people on a daily basis, but technology has made it possible to do almost anything without speaking to another human. It is undeniably quicker and easier, in many cases, to choose interaction with a device over dealing with an unpredictable person– someone who, like ourselves, will rightly expect a level of courtesy from us that we need not offer a machine.

Little wonder, then, that our sense of life becomes distorted, seen through the fish-eye lens of individual experience that magnifies what is closest to us and confines the wider world to compressed edges at the circular border of our vision. Our view of the world is dominated by the disproportionate appearance of our own immediate circumstances. Meanwhile, what looms large to us may appear to others, if they see it at all, as only constricted details at the periphery of their individual worlds.

This solipsistic existence can work very well for us as long as things are going our way. We relegate and delegate much of what seems unappealing, constructing custom-built lives for ourselves that place us in command and in control– or so it seems until something goes wrong. Then we may find that crucial traits such as patience, humility and compassion have atrophied for lack of use, leaving us frustrated and floundering.

The trials of the past five years, and especially of the past 12 months, have reminded me again and again that the surest cure for despair is to step away from the stage of my own life and get a more accurate sense of the larger reality within which every life is situated. It’s not that my problems are unimportant, and my challenges do not become easier simply because I break their stranglehold on my consciousness. But just as Miller says, the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree. All of us are blessed to be part of that story.

 

We’re a parade

Susan, Amy, Matt and me, warm and cozy at Cracker Barrel, November 2017

“Friends: we’re a parade – even by ourselves!”Mary Anne Radmacher

Pictured above are three people whose presence in my life is a tremendous blessing. Without going into the details, let’s just say that without friends and loved ones, life is unbearable. But with them, it can be a celebration, even in the midst of unceasing woes.

Many of you who read this, whether you realize it or not, are part of our parade. When I started down this road just over five years ago, the path ahead was dark and thorny, and my trepidation of what might lie ahead was well justified. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” as Dorothy said. Only in our case, it was illness, surgeries, and death. And the end of this path, as far as what is in store for Matt and me, is far from clear to me even now.

What is clear to me is perhaps the most important truth I can grasp right now: we are not alone. So many of you walk with us, march with us, run with us, even dance with us at times. If you believe life can be beautiful despite the hardships and sorrows– if you understand that we are blessed just to awaken each day– if you are determined to leave the world better off than you found it– you belong in our parade! Look at the photo above and imagine yourself there. It’s a bit blurry, as it was taken by a lovely staff person at a restaurant in low-light conditions, but you can see the warmth of the cozy fire and feel the joy. Come with us! The road ahead is uncertain, but what an adventure it will be.

 

The dog does

Chico, California – Photo by Jordan Koons via Unsplash

“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as much as the dog does.”Christopher Morley

I really miss having a dog, and I hope to adopt one as soon as we are adjusted enough to have the time and energy for one. For a chatterbox such as I tend to be, it would be nice to have a friend to talk to– one to whom I could say absolutely anything knowing that it would not be misconstrued or repeated.

Since Pasha died in 2013, and especially in the past year, I pass most of my hours in silence now. That’s probably good for me, but I loved all those years of having Pasha to talk to when Jeff and the boys were off at work and school. Like most dogs, he was an attentive listener and seemed to “talk” with his eyes, appearing interested (“Really? tell me more”) or bored (sigh/yawn “There you go again”) or occasionally concerned (“What’s up with you now? You’re acting pretty strange today”). One thing he never, ever did was walk away while I was talking. He didn’t interrupt or give advice, either.

Those of us who have spent time talking to dogs know how they do that cute thing where they turn their heads to one side and then the other as if to say “You don’t say!” or “What? What do you mean by that?” Our companion animals can be so expressive, it’s no wonder some writers end up acting as scribes for their furry friends, translating their wisdom to the extent that our human words will allow.

If you have a dog, cat, bird, or other animal(s) at home with you right now, tell them I said hello, and thank them for helping humanity to defeat despair.

Linger in the beautiful

Untitled photo by Carli Jeen via Unsplash

Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
Okakura Kakuzō

Exactly five years ago tomorrow, I published the very first post of this blog. For the past few weeks I’ve wondered whether I should do anything to celebrate this milestone, and then I looked back at last year’s post on the exact four-year anniversary– I wasn’t even sure if I was back to writing blogs so soon after Jeff’s death– but I was here, writing about an everyday topic. However, there was no mention of it being the four-year mark. Probably I didn’t even think about it. I was still pretty numb then.

I decided Okakura’s quote was fitting for this five-year mark, because it captures so much of what I hoped to establish here from the very beginning. I wanted this blog to be a place where I, and hopefully others, would slow down and linger over whatever beauty or joy or solace we might be able to share here. The steam rising from that hot cup is a visual reminder of life’s evanescence and a source of warm, healing vapors to inhale in the midst of rapidly-chilling weather (or the remaining cool days of spring, if you live in the southern hemisphere).

Five years ago I didn’t envision I would still be here at this blog at all, let alone being here while missing some of the most important people of my life, and yet also giving thanks for so many others newly arrived, bringing me consolation and joy. Then, as now, I have no idea how much longer I will be here online, or here on this earth, but that’s okay. When we come close to understanding how very brief life is, even for those of us who may live a long time, it’s true that most of the things that seem important to us start to appear at least a little bit foolish. But how beautiful much of that foolishness is, while it is ours!

 

Always flowers

Even on an overcast autumn afternoon, I find plenty to love in our backyard. November, 2017

“There are always flowers for those that want to see them.”Henri Matisse

This quote appeared on the November page of a calendar. When I saw it I knew I wanted to feature it in a post sometime, because it captures the spirit of this blog. In the calendar photo, there was a picture of green flower-shaped succulents. They are beautiful, and I’ve always wanted to have some of them, even if they aren’t actually flowers.  However, there are other autumn and winter blooms available to see– genuine flowers that show up just when others are disappearing.

I wrote awhile back how this part of our yard had managed to keep blooming despite years of benign neglect. Not long ago I finally made the time to get outside and do some serious pruning to clear out some of the overgrown areas. Just yesterday, I took a photo of our camellias in bloom, along with a few lingering flowers from our fall-blooming azaleas, and the dogwood foliage beginning to show its autumn crimson. Some of our azaleas bloom three times per year (spring, summer and fall) but it’s the camellias that really dazzle in the fall and winter. We liked them so much that we had some planted in the front yard too. Here’s a closeup of the ones in the first photo, in the back yard.

Just over the fence is our even more neglected woodland.

What’s blooming in your neck of the woods this November? Even if you don’t have any fresh flowers or lookalike succulents growing, you might have some silk flowers indoors, or a painting or photo of a lovely garden to cheer you up. Fresh flower bouquets are available at most grocery stores year-round now, something I don’t remember ever seeing when I was a child. But if you don’t have the time or money to get fresh flowers, simply grab a bulb catalog or a book about blooming annuals and perennials, and feast your eyes on nature’s artwork. To borrow a (slightly altered) phrase from Winnie-the-Pooh, “nobody can be uncheered with a flower.”

Now, write

Detail of The Difficult Reply by Guy Rose, public domain via The Athenaeum

“Gather your most beautiful paper, your most flowing pen, your thoughts. Sit by a window flooded with sunlight, or sit in a garden; tuck yourself into a cozy nook. Remember. Feel. Yearn. And now, write.”Sarah Ban Breathnach

Read that quote again, and try to imagine someone sitting in that cozy nook with a computer, mindfully typing out a mean-spirited or outright obscene insult to post in the comments section of a news story. It’s hard to put those two pictures together, isn’t it? Wouldn’t our world be a more civil place if we took more time and thought when we express ourselves?

Even though I’m composing this message on a computer keyboard, I think today’s quote captures part of what separates a handwritten note or letter from an email or online posting. Writing by hand takes time and thought. For those of us who still find it rewarding enough to make time for it, the whole scenario– stationery, pens, stamps, envelopes, stickers, a photo or poem or clipping to tuck inside the letter, and even the journey the mail will travel– all are part of the peculiar pleasure of sending and receiving letters.

Of course, Ban Breathach’s comments apply to almost any sort of writing, whether or not it relates to correspondence. But there is something enchanting about communicating via postal mail. In recent years, the popularity of keeping journals, whether paper or online, along with the skyrocketing numbers of people who blog, however infrequently or temporarily, give ample evidence of our need to find more thoughtful ways of communicating.

Talking is quicker and easier for most of us, and tweeting asks very little of us. But writing a note or card is an entirely different experience. In most cases, our message is offered freely and not dependent upon reciprocation, instant or otherwise. With a postal letter, there is an inevitable and inescapable pause between sending and receiving. No cross-talk, interruptions or distracted tuning out impede the communication, because we typically must set aside time to read a letter, or write one.

And when writing or reading a letter, if we are interrupted, we simply take up where we left off, having missed nothing in the pauses. I had a friend who used to carry her letters to me in her purse, writing bits and pieces here or there as she had time.  Though she did not intend the letter to stretch out over days, it was delightful to receive it when she finally did mail it; almost like getting a mini-journal that put me right into her daily life.

Some of these traits are at least partially carried over to blogging, so it’s no accident that many bloggers also use postal mail, and almost all bloggers have met readers with whom they now correspond at least occasionally via cards and letters.

Many who will read this post have sent me handwritten cards and letters, all of which I have appreciated and kept, and most of which are still sitting in the stack of mail to which I intend to reply. I’m torn between wanting to answer quickly and wanting to take my time over each and every item I pop into the outgoing mail. If you know me, you know that I always seem to err toward the latter preference, so I appreciate your patience!

I’ve learned to be very understanding of those whose replies to me are delayed as well. Life seems to grow more demanding every day, and I seem to become slower and slower at almost everything. Despite this, I believe I will keep sending mail for as long as I’m able to pick up a pen and write well enough to put a legible address on the envelope. And I’ll always be pleased to find personal, handwritten mail in my postal box.

If you like to send and receive mail, I hope you’ll make some time today to indulge in sending a card to a friend or loved one. On the other hand, if you are a person who goes to the dentist more often than to the post office, or who can’t remember how much it costs to send a first-class letter nowadays, I challenge you to try something different, and send a letter to someone who least expects it. Forty-nine cents, by the way, if you and your addressee both live in the USA– and it will be worth every penny– to you, and almost certainly to your lucky recipient.

For the whole day

Teresa and I enjoyed a lovely walk from Bourton-on-Water to Lower Slaughter, June 2017.

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”Henry David Thoreau

OK, I can just hear some of you thinking “Great quote – but how would YOU know about early-morning anything?” Good point. However, I’m quoting Thoreau, who supposedly knew it quite well. Still, I think there have been a few times when I’ve found myself outside walking in the very early daylight hours, and, against all odds, I found it delightful. So I can wholeheartedly agree with Thoreau despite the very limited experience I’ve had with venturing outdoors at daybreak.

But afternoon and evening walks are delightful, too. They might not have the advantage of jump-starting the day the way a morning walk can do, but they are great for untangling the stresses that tie one’s mind into knots during the busier hours. Birdsong in the morning, crickets chirping in the evening, afternoon sunshine on a chilly day– all gifts there for the taking when we make the time for them.

Exercise gurus have written a great deal about the advantages of walking as a means of keeping fit. For me, the mental health benefits are even more important than the physical ones. Since Jeff’s death I have all but dropped my once-steady habit of walking two to five miles per day. It’s a practice I am gradually trying to adopt again. I fell out of the habit, but I need to get back into it, if only to help me beat back depression.

The weather has been unusually warm, but the leaves are finally beginning to show some dazzling colors here and there. For those of you north of me where foliage is already at peak, or those south of the equator enjoying the glories of springtime, it’s a perfect time to get outside and bless our days with some invigorating strolls.

Grab a portable device that holds some of your favorite tunes, or an interesting audiobook or podcast, or just use the time for quiet meditation. If you take a camera with you, feel free to send me a photo of something you see on your walk this week. You can email a photo as an attachment to defeatdespair@verizon.net. Let’s channel our inner Thoreau and get moving!

Eric sends us this lovely sight from one of his favorite walks:

If you’ve tasted those North Georgia apples, you know why the deer loves them!

And Susan reminds us that one can enjoy a stroll indoors or outdoors:

Airports can be great places to walk, even when you have no choice but to do so.

 

Permanence and change

I took this photo less than a block from our front door in Alexandria, October 2015.

“October is a symphony of permanence and change.” ― B. W. Overstreet

It’s comforting that some things remain the same. As the seasons remind us, there is a reassuring pattern in nature that helps us stay on track when everything around us seems to be in meltdown.

The changes in my personal world, and in the world at large, have been beyond anything I could have predicted even a few short years ago. Sometimes it seems as if things cannot possibly go on, and yet they do. The news broadcasts are full of malice and mayhem, disaster and desolation, and yet somehow the sun continues to rise and people everywhere press on through devastating challenges and everyday frustrations.

It’s often said that anniversaries of great sorrows are difficult, and I have found that to be true. Yet we have managed to survive this past year, and this realization consoles us as we recall the strength and stability that were the hallmarks of Jeff’s legacy to us.

The splendor of nature’s passage into winter is a visual tribute to the bittersweet beauty of life’s transitions. I wish for you a glorious symphony to accompany you as you survive and celebrate the permanence and change in your own life.

 

A good calling

Here’s one of the better stories to remember from October 2016.

“We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.” 
Donald Miller

Each of us could tell all sorts of stories about our lives, or about the world around us. Depending on where we direct our focus, we can make of this life a comedy or a tragedy; a grand adventure or an exercise in absurd futility.

If you’ve read Yann Martel’s wonderful book Life of Pi (or seen the film which is a worthy screen adaptation of the literary masterpiece) you know that the entire message of the tale is captured in the words of the protagonist at the end, when he asks the skeptics which is the better story to believe. Those of us who have always chosen hope over despair will feel vindicated by the book’s conclusion. No wonder President Obama called the book (in an unsolicited and largely unknown word of personal praise to the author) “an elegant proof of God.”

Truth is still truth, of course, whether we like it or not. Much of reality is harsh, and not all stories have happy endings. Yet, as in Martel’s book, victory can ultimately shine through defeat, and some of us will always believe that all earthly sorrows will be redeemed and made right in the end. My fondest hope, for every person reading this, is that each of us will discover the source of this invincible hope, and hold to our faith no matter what life may bring.

My sentiments

And just like that, we knew why our hibiscus was disappearing…September, 2016

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze —
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Perhaps a squirrel may remain —
My sentiments to share —
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind —
Thy windy will to bear!

Emily Dickinson

What a perfect prayer for this October. I can’t think of anything to add, except to thank you for being here.

Leisured coziness

Tea and coffee await you at the Hearthside Inn, Bar Harbor, Maine. June 2012

“The cup of tea on arrival at a country house is a thing which, as a rule, I particularly enjoy. I like the crackling logs, the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured coziness.”P.G. Wodehouse

Autumn is a wonderful season for tea lovers, and “leisured coziness” is a perfect description of what makes the bed-and-breakfast tea time so appealing. For those of us who are die-hard tea addicts, tea is a treat almost any time or anywhere. But an elegant, comfortably furnished inn on a crisp morning is hard to beat as a setting for the pleasant ritual of making and sipping tea.

Perhaps the only place that is better for such a simple indulgence is home– ours, or a friend’s . Pop a few fresh flowers into a bud vase and some bread into the toaster, and we can re-create the guest house feel in our own kitchens. The essential ingredient, of course, is taking the time to enjoy it properly. Maybe the allure of charming inns lies mostly in the fact that we take more time to relax in such settings. But why wait for a special occasion or a faraway place?

Today or sometime soon, make a date with yourself to spend a bit longer than usual on your tea or coffee break. Grab the novel you’re enjoying, or a colorful magazine, or re-read a recent letter or card from a friend. Sip as slowly as you like, with unlimited refills. If weather allows, open the windows to catch a bit of birdsong and a whiff of fresh air.

The combination of a little caffeine and some quiet, unhurried moments might jump start a droopy mood and energize the day. In any case, if you’re like me, you could use a bit more leisured coziness in your life. October is a perfect time to make it a priority!

 

Vast and awesome

Schoolchildren at Kew Gardens, looking even smaller from the Treetop Walkway, July 2017

“Once we lose our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe…”Carl Sagan

It’s easy to forget how tiny we are in the great scheme of things, until something reminds us. Often, these reminders– disaster, illness, aging, death, or simply being treated rudely or with disrespect– are not pleasant. Maybe what Sagan calls our “fear of being tiny” is mostly our longing for significance; the reasonable desire to achieve something lasting.

But when we turn our eyes outward, away from ourselves, the view really is incredible. Whether one is fascinated by astronomy, botany, people, animals, ideas, or imaginary tales– or all of the above and more– the scope of wonder is astoundingly broad. I find it to be a reliable defense against loneliness and despair.

Next time you are feeling blue, worried or forgotten, try stopping in your tracks and thinking of something totally unrelated to whatever is bothering you. Pull out a reference book you haven’t looked at in awhile, and flip through the pages until something catches your eye. Take a walk outside and look up at the sky, or open an old photo album and focus on the faces of friends and loved ones you haven’t seen lately. Spend an hour or two just being nosy curious at a local library, shopping mall or museum.

None of this is likely to solve our problems, of course. But they will almost certainly appear smaller to us after we’ve broken free of their grasp long enough to get some perspective. What vast and awesome things can you see from your threshold today?

A mosaic

Autumn decorates our neighbor’s home, York County, September 2011.

Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.” —Stanley Horowitz

This quote captures the appeal of the year-end visual landscape, as dark lines edge and define the deepening colors, and the waning sunlight washes over everything with the impressionism of a watercolor. Autumn is a mosaic of the seasons in other ways, too. The first chilly days evoke the coziness of winter; the energizing beginnings of a new school year mimic the freshness of springtime, and the remaining days of warm sunlight lure us outdoors to enjoy a final taste of summer before freezing temperatures set in.

This blog was begun nearly five years ago in a fog of sorrow that hit during the fall, and each successive autumn since then has brought loss and worry and sadness. Yet despite the grief, nothing can taint the beauty of this season for me. The natural world passes into death or hibernation in splendid fashion, hinting of glory to come. Perhaps in the loveliness of autumn, our souls overhear a promise spoken in language our minds cannot fully comprehend. May we rejoice in the music even when the words lie just outside our grasp.

Just before you

Some of the prettiest flowers I saw in England were not in gardens, but on the streets.
Burford, Oxfordshire, June 2017

“The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.”Robert Louis Stevenson

One year ago today, Jeff said his final goodbyes to us, and we to him, and he closed his eyes and drifted into the sleep that would end in his death less than 30 hours later. As I think of him today, this quote seems a fitting remembrance of how he lived his life. He understood the wisdom that Stevenson expresses in these words. Like all of us, he sometimes grew weary of the demands that never seemed to stop coming, but I never doubted his devotion to the “daily duties and daily bread that are the sweetest things in life.”

What daily blessings will we give and take today? What sweetness might go unnoticed because we have grown accustomed to it? May we begin and end our waking hours with the understanding that this time is a gift, however ordinary the wrappings may be.

 

Sealed inside

As usual, Pasha stood hanging on Jeff’s every word, November 2008.

“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.” Brian Jacques

People often laugh at my habit of taking photographs for seemingly no reason at all, but from where I sit now, I am so glad that I did. So many memories are preserved in sharper detail than my mind could hang onto without help.

The other day I got out the digital photo frame that Jeff used to keep on his desk at work. It had been packed up with the many framed photos and other items that he brought home after retirement, and we never got around to unpacking it during the few months he had left.

Jeff was a notoriously difficult person for whom to choose a gift, because he didn’t really want much. This was one of the gifts I gave him that he most appreciated and enjoyed. The nearly 700 photos I had loaded onto it in the beginning were meant to be supplemented with others, which turned out to be just another good intention. But those 700 photos featured a lot of variety.

Going through such memorabilia is slow work for me, as I can only handle it for short periods of time. I was a little afraid to plug the frame in, and indeed, watching it did bring waves of sadness. However, as the lovely photos of our family, friends and travels scrolled on, the sadness was alleviated somewhat by the wonder of all those years together, all those memories. I heard my voice saying aloud “What a life we had!” and it was more an expression of thanks than a lamentation.

I have the digital frame sitting nearby as I write this. I don’t plan to unplug it anytime soon. It brings both water and sunlight into my life.

 

Since I started

I wish I could tell you my desk looks like this, but only in my dreams!
From the Mint & Gold Styled Stock collection at Pixels & Design

“I’m a writer by profession and it’s totally clear to me that since I started blogging, the amount I write has increased exponentially, my daily interactions with the views of others have never been so frequent, the diversity of voices I engage with is far higher than in the pre-Internet age—and all this has helped me become more modest as a thinker, more open to error, less fixated on what I do know, and more respectful of what I don’t. If this is a deterioration in my brain, then more, please.

“The problem is finding the space and time when this engagement stops, and calm, quiet, thinking and reading of longer-form arguments, novels, essays can begin. Worse, this also needs time for the mind to transition out of an instant gratification mode to a more long-term, thoughtful calm. I find this takes at least a day of detox. Getting weekends back has helped. But if there were a way to channel the amazing insights of blogging into the longer, calmer modes of thinking … we’d be getting somewhere. I’m working on it.”Andrew Sullivan

This is published post #1000 for me at this blog. That’s a lot of words, and that’s not even counting my chatty responses to the comments that many of you have been generous to leave here. As I thought about what to say and how to mark this milestone, I kept thinking that it’s time for someone besides me to speak. I choose you!

The quotes, of course, are my attempt to bring other voices into every post, as are the comments and even the photos from others that I began to feature here. Today’s quote is maybe the longest one I’ve published, but it captures so perfectly how I feel about blogging, though I can’t claim to be a professional writer. All of us who enjoy reading and writing face the same dilemma Sullivan describes here, the same need for balance between our online lives and our non-digital existence, the one that does not depend upon any video screen.

But for now, here we are online, and in celebration of this milestone, I thank you for making it possible. I would not have continued this blog if not for the amazing community of friends I discovered here. If you are so inclined, please leave a brief comment — or a long one, I like those even better! — and let me know you are out there. The other day in a store as I was chatting with someone standing in line with me, I realized that I really, truly have always believed (in most cases, anyway) that a stranger is only a friend I haven’t met yet. If I haven’t met you yet, I’d love to! And for those of you whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet here, once or many times, welcome back to our virtual Verandah. The weather is lovely; it’s a perfect day for an iced tea, or hot tea, or coffee or lemonade. Bring whatever snacks you like, and let’s chat. And thanks for being here!

An enduring savor

Jackie and Virginia Costen and I enjoy a dinner that can’t be bought, Thanksgiving 2015

“If I summon up those memories that have left me with an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me.”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Most likely, today will seem like just another day in your life. But look again. There is something quite beautiful hidden in today, something you will one day long to have again.

Thanksgiving 2015 seemed fairly uneventful to us at the time, especially when compared with other holidays we had spent celebrating with extended family. Drew and Megan had bought a new home, and their move-in was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend that year. Also, Daddy’s recent death was still fresh in our minds, and we didn’t feel like planning a big celebration. Jeff, Matt and I would have spent the holiday alone, except that our church family has a tradition of always holding a Thanksgiving meal at the building for anyone who has no big gathering to attend elsewhere.

One year, Thanksgiving happened to fall on our church’s turn in the rotation to work at the local homeless shelter, so we had a festive Thanksgiving there with a huge crowd of people we mostly had never seen before, but it was a wonderful and quite memorable holiday for us. The sincere gratitude shown by people who literally had nowhere else to sleep at night, or even come in from the cold for a few hours, was a humbling experience. It gave new meaning to the holiday.

But in 2015, it was just a typical group who gathered at the aging fellowship hall of our church to enjoy one another’s company while sharing a pot luck Thanksgiving meal. To quote from Arlo Guthrie’s famous song about another church-building Thanksgiving dinner, it was a meal “that couldn’t be beat.”

Many hands made light work with plenty to eat for all.

See if you can spot anyone you recognize.

We didn’t know it, but this would be our last Thanksgiving photo together.

None of us dreamed it would be Jeff’s last Thanksgiving. Looking back, my gratitude for having a church family to share with us that day becomes deeper and more luminous.  What a beautiful day that was– and what would I not give now, to have another Thanksgiving exactly like that one? There was nothing flashy or expensive about the day, but no amount of wealth could have bought it for us.

I can pretty much guarantee you that there is something special about where you are today– maybe it’s your health, or the presence of loved ones, or just the contentment that goes along with a day when nothing much seems to happen– but there is almost certainly something that one day will reveal itself to you as a treasure you didn’t fully realize. Today I invite you to join me as we seek to open our eyes, insofar as we can, to the hidden gifts today will bring.

 

Whoever you are

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on…

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.    Mary Oliver

I’ve said it here many times before, but I don’t think life is easy for anyone. Some people have it much harder than others, but all of us have times when we feel loneliness and despair. Oliver’s poem, of which only an excerpt appears above, speaks to me because of the immense and inexplicable solace I find in the natural world. The earth and skies and seas, and all the creatures who are at home in these various spaces, are at once humbling and reassuring. Each of us plays a unique part in a much, much larger story, and all of us belong.

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