bloom in it.” ― Sanober Khan
Just when it seemed the heat was becoming unbearable, it broke. On Friday my sister and I walked outside and simultaneously burst into exclamations of delight at the wonderfully cool air. When I arrived back in York County, the temperature was even more refreshing. Everything was green and growing, but with my eyes closed, I would have thought it was spring or fall.
I had another surprise waiting for me. I don’t remember planting a lily at the base of one of our trees, but I noticed the green stem shooting up the last time I was at our York home. It was getting tall, but still had no flowers on it. I tried to figure out whether it was something I had planted. I couldn’t even remember exactly what it was. It looked a bit out of place but I resisted the urge to pull it up.
When I came back ten days later, I was rewarded for having left it undisturbed. The flowers were so vibrant that they splashed instant cheer on my anxious, sad spirit.
I’m starting to understand why it became traditional to send flowers to those who are ill or grieving. No matter what one is enduring, flowers have a mystical power to conjure up instant joy. It’s especially fun to find surprise blooms in an everyday setting, seemingly popping up out of nowhere.
What’s blooming in your life today?
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, I find myself sorely in need of both patience and perseverance. This week has been filled with endless paperwork, logistical tangles and other oppressive tasks, and it feels increasingly difficult to muster the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Here I am, once again re-blogging a previous post because it’s too late to do anything else, but I don’t want to be totally absent here. So much has changed in our country since I wrote this four years ago, but I think Adams’ words are more relevant than ever. I hope you will find them inspiring as our country continues to navigate itself through tumultuous seas. May your holiday be safe, happy and full of grateful reflection.
“I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.”
— Abigail Adams
One year ago today, in honor of America’s birthday, I featured a quote from my personal favorite of the “founding fathers,” John Adams, along with a video clip from the HBO series about him. Today’s quote is from his eloquent and formidable wife Abigail, arguably as influential in her own way, if only because of the vital role she played in the development of her husband’s career, intellect and philosophy.
The letter to her husband from which this quote is drawn (the text and image of which is linked above) was written near the end of November, 1775, less than a year before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. In her letter, Adams raises valid questions and concerns about the enormous implications of the steps toward self-government that the colonies were taking. While there seems little doubt that she shared her husband’s enthusiasm for independence, one cannot read her letter without realizing she was keenly aware that their ongoing efforts were fraught with danger, even after they succeeded in their goals.
The most interesting thing to me about Adams’ letter is how timeless her concerns are. So many of the perils of power she mentions are with us to this day, and “a labyrinth of perplexities” is an excellent description of the current dilemmas our country faces regarding health care, foreign policy, immigration law, economic and environmental issues, and almost anything subject to government legislation.
Of course, it’s not only governments that face such complicated problems. On a much smaller scale, our individual daily lives can be pretty challenging too. Most of us frequently deal with complex and difficult decision-making. No wonder we are often too overwhelmed with our own concerns to be very involved in politics, even when we care deeply about the outcome of governmental actions.
Ever practical as well as stubbornly optimistic, Adams pinpoints four vital keys to overcoming difficulties large and small: justice, righteousness, patience and perseverance. Looking closely at the history of the United States, one can see these four traits have been the foundation of whatever good has been achieved by our country, even when such achievements took decades or centuries to fully realize, or are yet imperfect. Though I’m less familiar with the history of other countries, I would not be surprised if a similar dynamic appeared to be at work everywhere in the world.
Happy 238th Birthday to the U.S.A! May the wise words of our first citizens remind us that there are some principles that never change, regardless of what circumstances we face. With patience and perseverance, we can keep moving forward.
One year ago today:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
Let’s just say it had been one of those days. Following one of those weeks. And one of those lifetimes.
Matt and I were driving through a drizzle that was the tail end of a huge thunderstorm. Traffic seemed even ruder than usual, probably because I was already in a bad mood, and feeling sad and kind of hopeless.
I was taking Matt to get a haircut that he badly needed. As I turned right onto the access road into the parking lot, the sun broke through the clouds and our windshield was filled with the most dazzling rainbow I’ve seen since leaving Hawaii over 20 years ago. I quickly parked and got out my cell phone. I have a cheap phone with a lousy camera that I’ve never really learned to use, but even with inferior equipment, it was hard to totally miss the beauty of the scene. Perhaps a bit of it comes through in the photo above
The photo doesn’t do it justice, but maybe you can imagine how it felt to be hit smack in the face with something so breathtaking, just when it was most needed. As Tolkien said, there is still much that is fair. Maybe he is right about love growing even more when it is mingled with grief, just as beauty is more remarkable when contrasted with dreariness.
It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s wonderful video clip about being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud, which I linked in this post. I wish you a rainbow today…see one, or BE one!
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” ― Fred Rogers
“Mister Rogers wasn’t a relic of a simpler time; he was a warrior in one of the most turbulent periods in American history. And he shows us, more than ever, how to cultivate our own heroism in the midst of chaos.” — Mary Elizabeth Williams
“…to think of Fred as a saintly person is to somehow absolve the rest of us from having to have a responsibility to live up to it. He worked hard at it, he struggled with it.”
— Morgan Neville
As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for very long, Fred Rogers is one of my great heroes. My nephew emailed me yesterday about the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which I knew was coming, but didn’t realize had already been released to a limited number of theaters. Now I’m searching for: 1. a cinema where it is showing, and 2. the time to go see it as soon as possible. I can’t wait to take Matt with me to see it. He’s as big a fan of Mr. Rogers as I am.
It’s hard to believe that over 15 years have passed since Mr. Rogers died, but I remember having my brief letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after his death. (My letter appeared in the print edition, but it’s available online too; if you scroll down this archived page about halfway, you’ll see it.) So much has happened during that 15 years, but the essential message Mr. Rogers brought to the world is more needed than ever.
The trailer to the film is linked above at Mr. Rogers’ name. If you watch it, you might understand why I’m so eager to see the film. The other two quotes, from a film reviewer and the film’s director, offer additional perspective in the linked articles. The film was produced by Nicholas Ma, son of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was a close friend of Mr. Rogers.
Given the many times I’ve mentioned Mr. Rogers on this blog (including here, in one of my favorite posts), and the abundance of current publicity surrounding the film, I really don’t feel the need to add anything more.
Except maybe one thought. As Mr. Rogers said, you leave something of yourself at every meeting with another person. Many, many of you have participated in this blog to the extent that we feel we know each other. In coming here and joining the conversation, you have left us with a part of yourself. Something you’ve said may be important to people you never even dream of. And I know how important you have been to me. Mr. Rogers understood that all sorts of people can and should be neighbors. I think he’d agree that this blog, too, is a neighborhood…and I’m so glad you are my neighbor!
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” —Charles Kingsley
I’m sitting here in the wee hours of the morning after a very active week of packing, closing on the new home, organizing things before the packers came on Thursday, moving some preliminary items into the home this weekend, shopping for window shades, ceiling fans and other additions, and now getting ready for phase one of the move, with today (a few hours hence) being the day all the furniture will be moved from our Alexandria town home to the new home in Potomac Shores. My arms are covered with bruises from bumping into things while carrying too-heavy boxes full of books and other treasures. I’m excited but exhausted. So I haven’t written a blog post this week. Instead of not showing up at all, I decided to re-blog whatever it was I wrote and posted five years ago today, not having the least idea what it might be. Luckily, WordPress never forgets, so here it is.
I was interested to note the common threads between this post and the one I wrote last week. Kingsley was clearly recognizing the “beautiful lessons” Oliver spoke of in the quote from last week’s post. I hope you enjoy this re-blogged post today, again or for the first time. Thanks for your patience with me during yet another major transition. This one, hopefully, will be a happier one than most of the ones I’ve endured since I first wrote this post.
Travel is one of my favorite ways of searching for lovely sights, but it’s not necessary to be in a gorgeous town such as Bar Harbor to catch glimpses of beauty. As Kingsley’s quote implies, it’s all around us if we welcome it.
Two practices have helped me feed my soul with beauty: walking, and taking photos. With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures is practically as inexpensive as walking. I hope you will welcome beauty wherever you find it, but today I especially encourage you to wander outdoors in search of “wayside sacraments” that are easy to miss in the rush of everyday life.
If you have a digital camera, try taking a few photos of what you find. You might be surprised how good a photographer you can be! But if you’d rather not take photos with a camera, take them with your eyes and memory. May we all cherish this “cup of blessing” that will lift our spirits, spark our creativity and energize our minds.
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. – Mary Oliver
During the course on C. S. Lewis I attended at Oxford last summer, our class would spend late afternoons and evenings walking through the countryside to tiny villages or other noteworthy sites. On these lengthy strolls we were guided by our professors, who had walked these paths with their students for many years. Without a doubt, the best lessons of my short time in England took place outside the classroom, even though these informal sessions involved no tests, no memorization, no presentations or papers to write.
I think I could say the same of my life. Like Oliver, I see beautifully divine lessons all around me, yet I am persistently slow to learn all I need to know from them. How to be still and refuse to feed the agitation of stressful circumstances– how to see the ultimate insignificance of most of what bothers me– how to rest in the many consolations that provide balm for sorrows that no earthly power can heal– these messages and more are beamed to me continually, and I treasure them. Yet how quickly they fade in the face of urgent distress or refractory grief.
I suppose all that I really have going for me is this thirst Oliver mentions, for the goodness I do not have. Happily, that otherworldly goodness is visible in this world, and all we have to do is look for it. It’s hiding in plain sight, one beautiful lesson after another. As long as we have the mercy of a little more time, we surely will find it.
“The brave die never, though they sleep in dust:
Their courage nerves a thousand living men.” — Minot J. Savage
Dear readers, though I don’t typically re-blog earlier posts, today I wanted to share this one again. Arlington National Cemetery is very much on my mind for so many reasons. May this Memorial Day bring you somber reflection and grateful hope. This post was originally published five years ago, on May 27, 2013.
In April 2012, I planned to take some visiting relatives to Washington DC, where they would spend the day sightseeing. I decided that, after dropping them off in town, I would stop by Arlington National Cemetery, where a good friend of ours was interred in 2011. I also wanted to visit the grave of Earl Glenn Cobeil, whose POW bracelet I had worn while I was in high school.
In the decades since I first wept over the news that Colonel Cobeil had died in captivity, I had often sought information about him but still knew very little. On one of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known as “The Wall”) I had learned a few facts, including the notation that he was buried at Arlington, so I wanted to find out where his grave would be. Before leaving home that day, I made what I thought would be a brief search online to find his grave’s location.
In searching for this information, I came across the devastating truth about the savage and unrelenting torture that had led to his death. A long-buried grief stabbed at my heart again as I realized that my worst fears for this man had been less horrible than what actually happened to him. The one bright spot amid this sorrow was the discovery of contact information for his family. I resolved to write to them, and after visiting Arlington that day, walked across the bridge and into DC to The Wall.
Before taking a photo of his name there, I pulled out a tissue and polished the surface surrounding the engraved letters. A photographer with an SLR and a tripod approached me, telling me he had made “some really good photos” of me, apparently for a newspaper. I asked him if he would take a photo with my camera, and he agreed. “Touch the wall again,” he said, and I reached up and put my fingers under the name.
After taking the photo, he asked me why I was there; whether this was a family member or friend who was lost in the war. I explained to him about the POW bracelet I had worn, as had so many others in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and briefly described what I had just learned that day about how Colonel Cobeil died. I thanked him for his interest and for the photo. Later, I left this tribute at the Virtual Wall, one among many others for a man I never knew, but will never forget.
I did contact his wife Patricia, now remarried, and she called me. We had a wonderful conversation, as well as further written correspondence. In talking with her I mused that, during the years I wore the bracelet, I could never have imagined that I myself would someday be married to an Air Force Colonel. What I also never imagined was the heartbreaking news Jeff and I would soon receive about his stage IV cancer. During the very difficult early days of coming to terms with his grim prognosis and the hard battle that lay ahead for him, the courage of Colonel and Mrs. Cobeil was an inspiration and source of strength to me.
Today, I hope we all will take time to remember the brave sacrifices of countless people whose names and faces we will never know, as well as those we have loved who are no longer here with us on earth. May their legacy live on in those of us who have been blessed by their example.
May 28, 2018, a short postscript: I now have a lovely silver bracelet with a message of hope, sent to me by Colonel Cobeil’s family after I wrote them of Jeff’s diagnosis. The grave that Matt and I will one day share with Jeff is not far from that of Colonel Cobeil, an easy and lovely walk when the weather is favorable.
“No matter how uncertain our world sometimes seems, we can count on flowers to appear each spring.” – Barbara Milo Ohrbach
Longtime members of the Defeat Despair community will be familiar with Susan, whom I first met here and whose previous visits have inspired earlier posts. She spent some time with Matt and me this past week, and though I’ve now met many of you face to face, Susan is the first person I met on the blog who has visited our Yorktown home.
Staying several days in the “Historic Triangle” meant we spent a lot of time in the early history of our country, at least in our imaginations. We learned that those 18th century fashions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they look (at least, not according to those who were wearing and creating them); we served on the jury at the piracy trial of Blackbeard’s first mate (the unanimous verdict was GUILTY!) and we spent a delightful afternoon listening to the incomparable Thomas Jefferson, whose hair has gone completely white since the last time I saw him in person over a dozen years ago, but who can still captivate an audience with wit, style and eloquence.
But with all the dramatic appeal of the “living history” presentations, one of my favorite pastimes during the days at Colonial Williamsburg was strolling through the gardens, swapping information or sharing questions about various plants, playing “name that flower” (and initially confusing foxglove with larkspur), and taking endless photographs.
One of the earliest posts on this blog featured a 2009 snapshot of the lovely home and garden pictured above, and as you will see if you compare the photos, it has held up well. If you look closely, you will see the tips of the foxgloves that dominate the 2009 photo, peeking over the picket fence in the background of the photo above. I don’t remember whether there were poppies and violas behind me in 2009 when I took the closer shot of the cottage, but they were impossible to miss this time, so I went for the long view.
Even a re-created tableau of colonial American history does not remain static. There were many new activities and sights to see on this visit, and also quite a few attractions that are no longer available, which I really missed. But the flowers did not disappoint me. Ohrbach is right; we can count on them to appear each spring, reminding us of beauty that has been bringing people joy for centuries. Despite competing with patriots, pirates and petticoats, flowers hold their own, inspiring every bit as much curiosity, and triggering more photographs. I hope your springtime is full of their colorful company.
‘Tis fitting in these days of noise,
Here in these thunder years of steam,
The soul should keep its equipoise
And think its thoughts and dream its dream.
We scar the placid vales with mills,
We scoop the seas and shear the hills:
‘Tis well that to these temples of the mind
The jangled soul can flee and leave the noise behind.
— Sam Walter Foss, librarian and poet
(Lines from the 1904 dedication of the Carnegie Library in Melrose, Massachusetts)
When was the last time you visited your public library? It’s a great place to defeat despair. To adapt a phrase from Dante, every library should have a sign posted above the door that says “Rediscover hope all ye who enter here.” The best public libraries are places of sheer delight, and even the worst have something to offer.
Reading the quote above, it’s interesting to think that 1904 was described as an era of noise and jangled souls. This was before television, traffic and technology became ubiquitous. Some things, apparently, never change, including the soul’s need for a place of respite from the chaotic demands of daily life.
As a librarian I’m more than a little biased, so it’s not unusual that the library would be one of my favorite places to take refuge from confusion and despair. Just walking through the door lifts my spirits. I’m sure to find books, videos and audiobooks to entertain me, as well as practical help for everyday problems. Whether I need to repair a light switch, nurse a plant back to health, or give myself a pep talk, I know I can find the information I need at the library.
Of course, most of us go to the internet with such questions, and that’s a great convenience for which I’m thankful on a daily basis. But there is something about wandering the stacks of a library that offers a different sort of solution. If you haven’t done that lately, give it a try. What begins as a nice relaxing browse can lead to the opening of all kinds of mental doors, and a sense of freedom and possibility that clicking on hyperlinks can’t capture.
If your soul feels jangled, flee the noise and spend a few moments– or hours– at a nearby library. It won’t cost you a cent, and you’ll leave with something money can’t buy.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
— Henri Nouwen
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.” — Paul Simon
The past six years, and really the past 32 years, have left me with far more questions than answers, but observation has firmly established the truth of some generalizations about humans. Among them is the unmistakable tendency for people to shy away from anything that can’t be easily fixed. We live in a throwaway culture where objects, animals and even other people are discarded or disregarded when they lose their practical value or don’t perform as expected.
Because of this I spend almost all of my days and hours alone, seeing nobody who isn’t paid directly or indirectly to be in either Matt’s life or mine. Matt is the only person who is reliably present face-to-face in my life, and of course, his ability to communicate well enough to share my pain (or his own) is sadly limited. I miss countless things about Jeff, but losing the gift of his presence in daily life is the greatest sorrow of all. His devotion to us manifested itself on many levels, but the most profoundly beneficial was his steadfast proximity to all the details of our lives. He never needed a reason or an occasion to be there; he chose to be with us, as we did him, over and over again.
If you have known the prolonged isolation that too often accompanies chronic or catastrophic suffering, you will understand what I am talking about. Most people my age or younger don’t know yet what that particular form of alienation is like, but I believe almost everyone will experience it if they live long enough.
Meanwhile, even if you have no clue what it’s like– even if you feel impatient when your well-intended suggestions aren’t adopted, and you just want to shake that despondent individual and tell her to SNAP OUT OF IT– realize that nobody expects or even needs you to solve an unsolvable problem. Sometimes, all that’s needed is someone to be there.
Chances are there is a person in your life right now who might like to hear your voice or see your face, and it wouldn’t have to be more than a brief visit. It won’t pay your bills or raise your social status or get your to-do list checked off. It’s almost certainly not a priority with you. But it might change someone’s life. Maybe even your own.
“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” ― Hilary Mantel
“…life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight.” — Carly Simon
During the past week my friend Kathy was visiting me from Texas. We went out to Arlington National Cemetery and from there into DC on a lovely spring day. The cherry blossoms were just past full bloom, still beautiful, and it was the kind of afternoon that is a balm for the sorrows of a cold and dreary winter.
I don’t have many words today, but I do wish you lovely April afternoons to fill you with peace and reassurance that cannot be fully described or understood.
“There are things money can’t buy. I don’t think standard of living equates with cost of living beyond a certain point. Good housing, good health, good food, good transport. There’s a point you start getting inverse correlation between wealth and quality of life…
I have everything I need to have, and I don’t need any more because it doesn’t make a difference after a point.”— Warren Buffett
That quote might make way more sense if it wasn’t being said by one of the all-time richest men in the entire world. But there’s a strange way in which it’s more credible coming from Buffet, who is famously
cheap frugal in the way that he lives, especially when one considers his literally unimaginable wealth.
Buffet knows first hand that no amount of money can purchase what isn’t for sale at any price. Beyond obtaining the basic necessities of a healthy life, money is never going to be the route to happiness, because more is never enough.
Most of us who read this blog will know this to be true because of the joy we experience when we work in the garden, or savor a cup of tea, or laugh with a loved one. If you are reading this post, chances are good that you are rich! Maybe not financially, but in all the ways that really count, the blessings among us are abundant.
You may be thinking something along the lines of what my friend Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote: “All I ask is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Most of us will never get that chance, but we need look no further than the headline stories in the news to see the “inverse correlation” Buffet mentions, creating all sorts of havoc in countless lives. We don’t need to find out first hand about that inverse correlation. It’s all around us.
Instead, let’s focus on the positive truth of his claim. What will you be doing today that might inspire Buffet to point to you and say “See what I mean about quality of life that can’t be bought?” You are invited to meet Sheila and me on the Virtual Verandah for an imaginary tea party, and share some of your own
cheap frugal comforts with us there, or in the comments below. While you are at it, enjoy that clever “Foolish dragon” haiku at the Motley Fool article linked above. It makes me smile every time I see it.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
― René Daumal
Daumal’s words are likely to ring true for most of us, I think. Whether we glimpse that “higher up” view through our religious experiences, through the satisfaction of attaining a long-sought goal, or through supreme moments of joy with friends and loved ones, our souls will feed on the memory long after the exaltation has passed.
When I read the quote above, I was reminded of a song my friend Ellis used to play on her guitar and sing to me during our college years. It was called “John Henry Bosworth” and it was written by Paul Stookey. As with many of the songs with which Ellis could always sing my blues away, the entire thing has stuck with me all these years and I’ve sung it often. This despite my never having heard the original version by Peter, Paul & Mary until I looked it up on YouTube to hear it while writing this post. (I must admit, I liked it better when Ellis sang it, even though I generally enjoy Peter, Paul & Mary. Their version is a bit more “twangy” which is not my favorite style. But I digress.)
The song has a very appealing message of a family whose happiness transcends the turbulent circumstances in the world around them. The story of Bosworth and his family is summed up in this final verse:
And I was wondering if you had been to the mountain
To look at the valley below?
Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?
Did you know which way to go?
Oh the mountain stream runs pure and clear
And I wish to my soul I could always be here
But there’s a reason for living way down in the valley
That only the mountain knows
Most of us are blessed with at least a few of these mountaintop experiences that give us the ability to see beyond our immediate situation. While some have many more such happy memories than others, the opportunity is there for each of us to climb higher up and get the unique perspective that will inform our conduct as we live in the valleys. Of course, in this life we cannot remain at these lofty heights. But as Daumal reminds us, what we cannot see, once glimpsed, becomes something we can still know.
“Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen
Sometimes when I cannot imagine any path to a happy future for myself, it helps to remember that most of life’s changes are gradual, and are as inevitable as the abrupt, more devastating crises. Whether positive or negative, change is happening even when we are scarcely aware of it. And change is not always about loss.
Looking at the photos above, I am startled to see the bare look of that back right corner of the fenced portion of our yard. I honestly don’t remember it ever looking like that, and I’m grateful that this photo I snapped of Drew practicing baseball happened to include it in the background. Otherwise it would have been lost to memory forever, as the azaleas we planted over the next few years grew and bloomed, and the camellias that were barely visible became full and taller than we are.
Though outwardly my life is still encumbered with seemingly as many responsibilities as ever, on a personal level my landscape feels as bare as the corner ground in that first photo. I have no way of knowing whether I will live long enough to see the desert of my loneliness become a garden of solitude; whether I will ever discover any unknown earthly beauty that might be hiding in the future.
One thing is certain: I’m not trying to run away from being alone. I want whatever years I have left to be fruitful ones, and as the author Jan Karon once wrote to me,”Talents are best nurtured in solitude.” She included this quote from Goethe in her inscription of an unexpected gift she mailed me, one of her books of quotations, along with a handwritten letter of encouragement. This timely gift, which felt and still feels like a small miracle, arrived in my mailbox near the end of 2005, the year that first photo was taken. Perhaps Karon’s love of quotations fed mine, and helped to inspire this blog when Jeff was diagnosed with cancer seven years later. The seeds of kindness she planted carried unpredictable possibilities within.
Do you ever feel lonely? Have aging, health challenges, the loss of loved ones, or distance from family members (geographical or emotional) isolated you, leaving bare ground in your life just waiting to be cultivated? As hard as it might be to imagine the results, I invite you to join me in the gentle and persistent effort that, with time and patience, might grace the years to come with blossoms yet unseen.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished. — Mary Oliver
Bereavement, grief and aging are slicing through much of what once seemed inviolable to me. Not only has my life changed; I’ve changed as well. And I find that other people in my life have changed, too, whether from circumstances in their own lives, a discomfort with proximity to the magnitude of what I’ve endured, or some combination of both.
It’s painful to realize that most of what once lent meaning to my daily effort is now gone, rendered irrelevant or exposed as illusory. The blessing in the falling away of so many distractions is the increased time for standing still and learning to see larger, more impressive vistas that may have been obscured by busyness or trivial worries. And very little, it turns out, is about me at all. What a relief!
For those of us granted a long life, so much abides through the seemingly endless losses. How breathtakingly enormous a universe, that even our limited portion of it is filled with wonder and delight! What astonishes you today? Start with the view outside your window right now, and let your mind wander into infinity briefly before you return to your less important work.
“Today is mine. Tomorrow is none of my business. If I peer anxiously into the fog of the future, I will strain my spiritual eyes so that I will not see clearly what is required of me now.” – Elisabeth Elliot
I’ve heard it said that anger is really fear in disguise, and I’ve seen a good bit of evidence that this must be true most of the time. Our greatest animosity tends to focus on people or things we perceive, accurately or not, as a threat to our lives, our loved ones, or even more trivial things such as our time, space or convenience.
For most who will be reading this blog, the truly urgent or immediate threats are relatively rare. Yet we still find ourselves anxious about the future, even if what we fear is vague and undefined. I’ve noticed, for example, that I tend to get most frustrated on days when I can’t seem to get as much done as I hope to do. I usually can’t pin this down to a looming deadline, since I long ago retired from work outside the home. I have the luxury of structuring my time according to the daily changes and fluctuating requirements of my own life rather than those of a corporation or a demanding boss. Why, then, do I feel such fear (which almost always manifests itself as frustration, impatience and finally anger) when I am unable to meet some self-imposed goal usually based on generalized worries about the future, whether “the future” is later this week or years from now?
As I work through the layers of grief over the losses of the past few years, one of the most important survival tools is granting myself permission, again and again, to go as slowly as I need to go, and to rest as much as I can, whether or not there are tasks awaiting (as there always are, for all of us). Staying focused on the present allows me to pay more attention to what am doing right now than to what I haven’t yet done. It’s surprising how therapeutic most tasks can be, if I don’t allow my mind to wander and ruminate about how many other things I have left to do.
For some people, the skill of staying in the present seems to come more easily than it does to those of us who are anxious types. If the task at hand is a fairly mindless one, I’ve found that listening to lively music, an interesting podcast or an engaging audiobook can reign in my tendency to let my mind wander into stressful territory. So does making a list of what I want to get done, which somehow seems to transfer the good intentions to a confined space on paper rather than letting them stroll around my psyche calling attention to themselves when I’m busy with something else.
How about you? A few minutes ago, when you read the words “tomorrow is none of my business,” did you find yourself reflexively arguing with that claim, as I did? Do you fear the future, or look forward to it, or some combination of both? How do you avoid spiritual eyestrain so that you can see clearly what most needs your attention now?
For those who read last week’s blog, here’s a photo of how they looked when I pulled them out of the refrigerator one week later. As I write this, they look every bit as perky as when I picked them. Now the doubles are blooming out front, and tomorrow I plan to make another bouquet.
“I have wandered far upon the desert plain, but in my heart a bird keeps singing, and the daffodils beckon and blow, — and one day I shall wander back.” — Muriel Strode
Last week was a good one for me, but it began on a gloomy note. I spent most of the week at our York home, where I had hoped to get some yard work done in the unseasonably warm weather. But the first day I was there it was rainy and overcast, and there was little I could do outdoors. The rain exacerbated my sad and lonely mood.
I decided that I would at least begin to prioritize what to do if it turned sunny. Taking advantage of the 60-degree temperature that made the soggy ground more bearable, I strolled around the wooded area behind our back yard, which comprises about a third of our lot. This area lies outside the fence, and I jokingly dubbed it the Lower 40 when we first moved there almost 14 years ago. It was only the second time I had been back there since Jeff died. As with so much else, it is still redolent of dashed dreams and lingering loss.
The setting was fraught with that peculiar melancholy common in late winter, when much is dead and bare, left messy and moldering by the weeks of cold. Jeff’s long illness meant that the woodland we had once tended so lovingly was neglected for several years, and I silently resigned myself to the very real possibility that it would remain so as long as I own the property.
As I neared the creek that forms the back boundary of our lot, I was flooded with joy at the unexpected sight of daffodils blooming in mid-February. There is a tiny patch of them on the creek bank that have been growing wild there for as long as we’ve lived nearby. For some reason, though they are growing in full shade, they always bloom earlier than the larger daffodil bulbs I planted in various sunnier spots in the front and back yard.
I love to see them each year, and I’m always tempted to pick them or dig them up and transplant them, since the only eyes likely to see them are mine and those of the deer and other creatures who come to the stream to drink. Usually I decide to leave them where they are, gracing an otherwise drab scene. If I’d had my camera with me, I probably would have taken a photo or two, and left them alone.
But that day, it seemed they had appeared just for me, almost calling out my name. I picked several of them and brought them inside where I enjoyed them all week. They were still blooming when I left, so I changed out the water in the little vase and put them in the fridge to see if they would keep while I was gone. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
I think I’ve mentioned here before that daffodils have always been my favorite flowers. I still have a dried one from the bunch Jeff brought to me at the hospital on the morning Drew was born. They seem irrepressibly cheerful to me, their yellow color and unique form putting a smile on my face no matter how I might feel before I first spot them.
More than any other flower, they beckon me to believe in the springtime to come, literally and figuratively.
I hope that your week will hold everyday surprises that brighten your days as my little flowers have brightened mine.
“Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly-arranged and well-provisioned breakfast-table.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne
I certainly agree with Hawthorne. Perhaps the beautifully bountiful breakfast was as special in his age as it is in ours; likely even more so. I’m sure the time to enjoy a leisurely morning meal was a luxury for his generation, and fresh food was far more scarce and dependent on seasonal vagaries during his era. In any case, sheer delight at the chance to begin the day with a savory selection of tasty fare is a pleasure we have in common with countless people throughout the centuries and all over the world.
My favorite vacation destinations– bed and breakfast inns, cruise ships, and the homes of dear friends– all feature memorable moments lingering over coffee or tea along with an assortment of items such as fresh fruit, eggs, cereals, sides and baked goods. Though it starts rather than ends the day, I’ve always found that a full breakfast feels more relaxed, even when the table is graced with fine linens, crystal and china. I can’t recall ever worrying about which fork to use, or wondering whether anybody noticed that I spilled a few drops of tea every time I poured more into my cup.
Maybe a nice breakfast feels more special because most of us rarely take time for it. Regardless of the age-old (and largely disregarded) advice that it’s the most important meal of the day, I’m guessing that time constraints, less appetite, or force of habit usually mean that many of us eat less in the morning than we do at noon or evening meals. If that’s true for you, I hope that you find the time on weekends or days off to make breakfast a special occasion.
You may have read here that Jeff loved to cook a full breakfast every Saturday, a habit he formed nearly 20 years ago. I’m thankful for each and every weekend he insisted on taking the time for it, right up to the morning he entered the hospital for the last time. It would have been easy for him to say “someday when I retire I’d like to cook breakfast every day.” Instead, he made it a point to enjoy the ritual on the one day each week when he did not have to be up and out too early to allow cooking.
These are now fond memories, and I hope someday to return to cooking breakfast, for friends, family or just myself, complete with a pretty table setting and maybe a fresh flower in a bud vase. I don’t need to tell you the tea kettle would be on, with coffee at the ready. Who knows– maybe some of us now reading this blog together will find ourselves face to face at breakfast someday, again or for the first time. Until then, Sheila and I have the Virtual Verandah Special ready when you are, complete with eggs any style, biscuits, country ham, grits and all the southern favorites, along with the croissants, whole wheat toast, fresh fruit, quiche, crepes and other delights that some of y’all might be more used to. Pull up a chair and get ready to start the day with a smile.
Our sweetest hopes rise blooming
And then again are gone,
They bloom and fade alternate,
And so it goes rolling on.
I know it, and it troubles
My life, my love, my rest,
My heart is wise and witty,
And it bleeds within my breast.
— Heinrich Heine
Recently, several of you asked me to update you on Matt. I asked him whether he had anything to say to you, or something he would like me to write about, but he was noncommittal. Unlike Jeff used to do, however, Matt did not specifically ask me not to write about himself.
I haven’t written a great deal in this blog about his teenage years, but going through some recently scanned photos, I found several that I want to share with you. Looking at the photos below, all of which were made before his first manic episode changed our lives, I realize that everyone, each one of us, leaves behind so much of our youth when we enter adulthood. The dreams and goals change, tempered by hard realities, and enthusiastic hope gradually matures into acceptance of life’s limitations.
Matt is no different from anyone else in this regard. His teen years were full of activity, effort, achievement and fun, despite the painful surgeries he endured, and the frustrating disabilities that made goals more difficult to reach. It is a bittersweet experience to look back at the happy photos of those years, whether I am recalling Matt’s youth or Drew’s. Yet, where Matt is concerned, I now wonder how I found the energy to spend hours with him every single day on homework, piano practice, OT, PT and speech therapy exercises, church youth projects, and most of all, daily working to help him overcome his motor skills deficits to become independent with basic living skills that others had mastered with little to no effort during early childhood.
Here’s a side of Matt that many of you have not seen before. I hope you will like these photos.
Drew is 16 months older than Matt, but Matt hit puberty first, and for a time he was taller than Drew. That’s hard to imagine now that Drew is over six feet tall, and Matt is only 5’5″– but this photo was made during those years.
When Matt was in middle school, his teacher immediately noticed his ear for music, and put us in touch with a gifted woman who taught students with disabilities to play piano and other instruments. Though previous school staff and therapists had told us Matt would never learn to move his fingers separately, this amazing music teacher proved them all wrong, and soon Matt was playing fairly well.
He loved being able to make music, and his teacher had high expectations, scheduling performances three to four times every year for all her students, and insisting that they compete in juried guild auditions alongside their non-disabled peers. At these auditions, Matt had to play scales, chords and arpeggios, along with several memorized pieces, and he always passed with high marks. I don’t even want to think about how many hours it took, though.
For the most part, Matt never complained about the hours every day we had to practice for him to get the fingering and timing right. Best of all, this endless exercise for his fingers opened the door for him to be able to use computer keyboards– another thing school IEP teams had formerly told us he could never do. He ended up being able to keyboard all his school assignments at the rate of about 17 words per minute, which was useful since his handwriting has always been illegible.
Matt and Drew each wore braces for nearly three years. Sometimes I got really sick of driving back and forth to the orthodontist weekly in heavy afternoon traffic. Since I was working full time for much of that time, life was pretty stressful. I certainly don’t miss that aspect of having teenagers!
Our years in San Antonio were filled with social activities for Matt. During that time I once remarked that our entire calendar was built around his many scheduled and unscheduled outings with friends. Luckily, I really enjoyed being with all the other Moms, since we ended up playing chaperones. I had the blessing of friendships with some of the strongest and liveliest women I had ever known, and Matt loved his friends’ mothers almost as much as he loved me. It was wonderful, a golden time that I missed so much when we moved to California in 1999.
Despite having to leave his friends and spend his final year of middle school at a new campus in northern California, Matt continued to bloom, staying very active in a music conservatory with another gifted piano teacher, singing in the school chorus (even singing a solo at one performance) and making friends everywhere he went. Jeff and I both noticed that after only a few weeks in California, we could hardly go to any store or fast food place in our little town without someone excitedly calling “Hi Matthew!” I will always be grateful for what an easy transition he had from a fantastic situation in Texas to a very different but equally rewarding time in California. Things were far from ideal in either location, but both times were filled with blessings for him despite the hard work and continual challenges.
Matt has long been a favorite topic of mine, so I could go on and on, but perhaps this is more than enough. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know him just a little bit better. Whenever my heart is bleeding inside, I have to remind myself that even the happiest times were far from easy, and though we bloom in different ways as we grow older, yet still we bloom. I really believe that.
I, singularly moved
To love the lovely that are not beloved,
Of all the seasons most
– Coventry Patmore
If you read the comments section, you may recall that I mentioned this verse to Marlene when she said she loved winter. This is the post I told her I would write for her.
I can’t say I most love winter, but I do enjoy many aspects of it. However, the line of Patmore’s verse that captured my imagination was “the lovely that are not beloved.” There are all sorts of things that can fit that category, winter among them, and I wonder what else he might have had in mind when he described himself as having an affinity for what is disregarded by others.
Have you ever found yourself protesting, “Oh, but I love _____” (fill in something everyone else is criticizing). In that category, I think first of certain animals– crickets, or lizards, or mice, or squirrels– creatures others might see as pests, but ones I see as more cute than irritating. Or it could be dandelions, or radishes, or other plants nobody seems to appreciate. Maybe you actually like to eat liver or zucchini. You might like a book or movie others found boring. Maybe you secretly appreciated a school teacher that everyone else hated, or thought that oddball classmate was interesting because he was different. Did you feel strange because you liked something others denigrated? Or were you happy that you found joy where others could not?
I think if we keep an eye out for beauty with the awareness that it may be hidden, we will find it in unlikely places. And we might discover that others share our enjoyment of something most people miss completely. Do you have any tips for us about where you’ve found examples of “the lovely that are not beloved?”
Ray Stevens is known mostly for his funny songs, but if you’re old enough, you might remember his 1970 Grammy-winning song that wasn’t joking when it declared “everything is beautiful in its own way.” Despite the arguments against this philosophy, if you’re feeling irritable enough to make Grumpy Cat look like an optimist, zoom back to the groovy year of 1970 and enjoy a much-younger Ray Stevens singing his song. I bet it will make you smile.