“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 “the future 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!
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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 email@example.com. Let’s channel our inner Thoreau and get moving!
Eric sends us this lovely sight from one of his favorite walks:
And Susan reminds us that one can enjoy a stroll indoors or outdoors:
“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.
“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.
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!
What a perfect prayer for this October. I can’t think of anything to add, except to thank you for being here.