The best people

The young soldier Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I.
This public domain photo was taken in 1918, available via Wikimedia Commons.

“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway saw more than his share of wounds and destruction. As a young ambulance driver he was seriously injured in Italy during World War I, and was present as a journalist at the Normandy landings in World War II. These experiences are branded into his great literary achievements. His biography suggests they also influenced him in hidden, less laudable ways.

This is one of those quotes I want to talk back to, no matter how true I know it to be. I want somehow to bring Hemingway back from the dead. I want to tell him to put that gun down and not willingly, intentionally join the destroyed, not let his greatest story end in tragedy.

I want to block out of my mind so many others, the noble people described by Hemingway– people famous or unknown, who despite (or maybe because of) their great virtues, have been chewed up and spit out by life, gravely or fatally injured by the cruelty of the world. It’s unbearable, heartbreaking, when real life stories don’t have happy endings. Like a child figuratively closing my eyes and covering my ears to shut out the chaos, humming to myself and rocking, I try to distract myself when life gets too sad. Look over there! Another hawk!

This, of course, is denial, as any number of cynics will insist.

But there’s another way to talk back to what Hemingway said. Because even when the best people are wounded or destroyed, the story doesn’t end there. Their sensitivity, courage, diligence and sacrifice live on, a legacy to all who were blessed to know them. Some of us believe that their souls live on, too, and can never be destroyed.

Which brings me around to the question that may lurk underneath the urge to deny harsh truth: where does that leave us? Don’t we want to appreciate beauty, take risks, be honest, and sacrifice for others when circumstances demand it? It sounds great, but as Hemingway says, it will leave us vulnerable. And vulnerability is not something the world honors or celebrates.

But is the alternative really any better? It’s not like being cowardly or dishonest or selfish will necessarily work out very well in the long run.

Sometimes I think the virtues Hemingway describes here have atrophied in our modern world, where it is so easy to be preoccupied with our possessions and interests and unending sources of stimulation. We lead comfortable lives, most of us, carefully constructed to shield our vulnerabilities and minimize the sacrifices required of us.

In my more optimistic moments, I hope that these qualities are not atrophied, but merely dormant; that if and when circumstances demand them, they will awaken in us and we will be equal to the situation, just as Emily Dickinson described in her inspiring, hopeful poem.

In any case, it seems worthwhile to aspire to such virtues, and take small steps to prepare for the possibility that greater steps may eventually be required of us. We can make time to appreciate something beautiful each day. We can reach out to others even knowing they may reject us. We can be honest even when it’s difficult, and we can, at least some of the time, put someone else’s needs before our own, whether that person is a thoughtless family member or an obviously tired, less-than-cordial customer service representative.

We may never make it into the history books or do anything that will be remembered for very long, but we can still be among those who are, Hemingway describes, “the best people.”
I really believe that.

Never done with looking

This fountain graces Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. June 2019

“There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.
…I look; morning to night I am never done with looking…”  — Mary Oliver

What do you see in the photo above? A fountain, of course, and if you’ve ever been to Savannah, Georgia, you probably recognize it as the oft-photographed focal point of Forsyth Park. But look more closely; do you notice anything else in the photo?

The color is what caught my eye. What was that part at the top of the statue, and why was it not white like the rest? As I drew closer, I realized that this was indeed something separate, something more fascinating than the statue atop the fountain: a live hawk, perched there almost completely still. Now and then it turned its head, looking around to one side and then the other, taking in a wider view.

I wonder whether the sculptor intended the statue’s hand to become a roost. June 2019

My camera telephoto enabled me to zoom in and watch the hawk, who did not need such a device to see, in great detail, each and every person standing on the ground. I fancy that’s what it was doing: looking at the people, curious about us as we were about it. But perhaps it also was mesmerized by the motion of the water at the top of the fountain, which seemed the primary focus of its attention. I didn’t see it move to drink any of the water; it just perched there on the statue’s motionless hand, alert and majestic.

I lost track of how long I stood there watching the hawk and taking photos of it, the lovely fountain all but forgotten. Though I wasn’t looking at the humans around me, I’m sure that others were watching the hawk too, reaching out to what we could not reach. Perhaps the hawk was reaching out to us in return, its head pivoting with sharp-eyed focus. It did not move from its roost the entire time I watched, and it was still there when I left.

By that time, I had concluded that statue was where this bird spent most of its time, all day long, never done with looking. I imagine it was there again today, and will be there tomorrow. It now inhabits my brain as surely as it does Forsyth Park, one of an endless stream of adornments guarding against the despair that sits on the edges of my consciousness ready to devour my peace of mind. My mind’s eye needs only to look away from the melancholy and turn toward the magnificent, among which is now this one particular bird. It seems a formidable ally.

One of the surest defenses against sadness or any number of challenging emotions is to reach out for what we cannot reach. And Oliver is right; we can do this by looking, all day long, morning to night. We may lack the hawk’s visual acuity but we can make up for it in the sheer variety and delight of what we are able to enjoy.

Today, I invite you to look, and never be done with looking. Gather up the bright and beautiful, the funny and fabulous. Tuck these treasures away like a jackdaw hiding pilfered jewels, and look again at them when you most need the inspiration. There are many wonders that we cannot fully reach in this life, but my wish for us is that we never stop reaching out for them.

Change the world

The moment I stepped through the door, Rebecca’s megawatt smile made my day. June 2019

“I would not change you for the world, but I will change the world for you.”Amy Wright, to her two younger children watching her on television

My sister and I just got back from a road trip to Savannah, St. Simon’s Island, and Jekyll Island, Georgia. We had agreed that there would be no timetables or constraints on this trip; it was strictly relaxation-oriented. However, there was one spot my sister insisted we MUST SEE, and I was happy to prioritize it, because I felt the same. That place was Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Shop.

Bitty and Beau’s is cool, literally and figuratively.

I’m not particularly a coffee hound, and though my sister drinks more coffee than I do, neither one of us would ordinarily put a coffee shop at the top of our list. But Bitty & Beau’s is no ordinary coffee shop. Its founder, who is quoted above, is the mother of four children, the youngest two of whom have Down Syndrome. Though Bitty and Beau are still too young for employment, Wright was concerned that over 80% of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are unemployed, and she set out to change that. In the process, she created a remarkable place for everyone to enjoy.

I had read about Bitty & Beau’s a few weeks ago when it was linked in one of the many disability-oriented resource lists I read from time to time, and I immediately wrote their headquarters to request that they open a shop near me. I got back a response that they plan to open another store in Annapolis, Maryland, in the near future, so I plan to visit there soon.

Meanwhile, I was planning the trip to Savannah, where they already had opened their third shop. I couldn’t wait to go. Although I hadn’t seen the clips of the shop when it was featured on broadcasts such as The Today Show, Rachael Ray, CNN, Harry, Good Morning America, Dr. Oz, HLN, People Magazine and Southern Living Magazine, even without knowing about the televised fanfare, I knew it must be something remarkable.

Bitty and Beau’s was all that I hoped it would be, and more. The interior was classy and appealing. The traffic was steady and the atmosphere a perfect refuge from the 90-degree heat outside. All that plus tea and coffee too? Count me in!

There were two baristas working when we went in. An assistant manager was behind the counter too, overseeing their work, but during the hour (or more) that we spent there, I did not see a single time when she told them what to do or corrected their work. She was simply another smiling face, chatting with us about the area and the store’s products.

Here’s a close up of that photo hanging on the wall, visible in the shot above.
The Wrights pose with the staff of the Savannah shop, probably on opening day.

My sister noted that, in between customers, the baristas stayed busy polishing up the bar stools, stocking supplies and going about their business in a variety of ways. Clearly, they had mastered the job and enjoyed doing it. But they didn’t mind stopping briefly to pose with me.

Andrew was reluctant to pose until he saw how much fun we were having and joined in.

I sipped my chai while enjoying the shop displays and marveling at the pin map, where customers could place a pin to indicate their home. For a shop that has been open less than a year, their global influence was quite impressive. There wasn’t room to put a pin into the DC area, so I managed to wedge one into southeastern Virginia, representing York County.

It’s hard to see unless you enlarge the photo, but the pins are from everywhere.

We had to tear ourselves away. I had never been to Savannah, so I knew I should get out and do some exploring. I got a delicious frozen lemonade to go, and reluctantly said farewell. But this stop was the highlight of my trip. Watch the clip linked above at Amy Wright’s name, and see if it does’t put a smile on your face. I’m pretty sure it will brighten your day.

The shop’s hashtag says it all.

Remember, we really can change the world. We might be unable to do something as grand and award-worthy as Wright has done, but we can capture the same spirit as we interact with others, one person at a time. We can do this in small ways, through donations, through supporting local businesses that aim for more than money, and through getting to know those we may have unintentionally disregarded. The biggest difference will happen in our own hearts. Try it!

Like someone running

Off she goes! What (and who) will she find in the forest of stories, and on the other side?
New Forest National Park, U.K., photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

“I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.”Rebecca Solnit

Unlike Solnit, I would say that my childhood was a happy one, but like her, I too disappeared into books from the time I learned to read– or even before then, when others read to me. When I ran into the woods, it was out of curiosity and an eagerness to explore, not to escape anything. As I grew older (and some of my classmates grew crueler, inclined to bully those who were different) reading did become an escape from a world where I often felt unwanted or misunderstood. But the enchantment with discovery was still the primary appeal of books.

From that time to this, I’ve depended on books, reading, and writing. In the sorrow and unending solitude since Jeff died, I have relied more than ever on written communication (increasingly translated to audio books or digital formats such as this). And yes, the other side of that solitary immersion into text is the connection to others who, for whatever reason, also wander through the “forest of stories.”

I know I’m not alone in this. Just look at the countless book groups that have sprung up like mushrooms, seemingly everywhere. Most of these gatherings are face-to-face meetings in neighborhood and community settings, where people go to meet others who share their favorite pastime. For the record, I’ve never been to one of these meetings, though I keep intending to go. My neighborhood, my churches and my local libraries all host such groups. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) the day and time will be right for me to attend one of them.

And of course, there’s this blog, which introduced me to more people than I’d ever dreamed of meeting, and also enabled me to re-connect with people I’ve known for years. There are countless other blogs, too, each with its own unique community of people connecting through the “forest of stories” found in the posts and comments.

How about you? Do you ever run away into the forest of stories? Who have you met in real life, as a result of your literary discoveries? Do you belong to a book club, blog community or other group drawn together from shared adventures in reading? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

For years I had a magnet on my refrigerator that said “Libraries change lives.” One of the most important ways they do this is connecting us to others. Reading tells us we are not alone, and once we find that reassurance, we can indeed come out of the forest and find people just waiting to be friends.

For your mind

This was the first sight that greeted me when I drove into town.
How could I not stay? May, 2019

“Sometimes the best thing you can do for your mind is take it for a walk.”
—  Ashleigh Brilliant

Ashleigh can speak with authority on this topic. He’s lived over eight decades without using a car very much.* In fact, I don’t know whether he even owns one. I’ve only ever seen his bicycles, parked on his front porch, and I know that he walks (or bikes) almost everywhere he goes. Of course, that’s easy for someone who lives in the heart of a lovely place called Santa Barbara. But the rest of us are without excuse, no matter where we live.

Everywhere I’ve ever been, there are nearby charming little towns (or charming areas within not-so-charming towns) or at least very interesting places, to explore on foot. And I totally agree that often, the thing my mind needs most of all is to go for a walk.

After a few of you exhorting me (via the comments section) to get back to my long-neglected habit of walking at least 2 miles a day, I walked that distance three different days in my neighborhood this past week. But on Friday, I was returning from a yearly planning meeting with Matt and the various agencies involved in his life. The weather was gorgeous– not too hot, sunny, and just a faint breeze. So I decided to do something I’ve intended to do for nearly ten years now: spend some time exploring the nearby little town of Occoquan. This marker gives a bit of its history. By the way, it’s pronounced “Ah’ ko-kwan” (I think).

I’ve been there for errands and appointments just outside the historic district, so I knew it is a picturesque waterside village that would be perfect for a walk. I only had a couple of hours to spare, but I decided that would be better than nothing. And it was a great way to spend that two hours, better than any therapeutic intervention I could have asked my insurance company to provide. I decided to invite you to go along with me, virtually, and see if you agree.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a great day for a stroll.

One of my favorite shops was formerly a stately home, now filled with delightful furnishings and accessories. I could easily have spent my entire time in this one shop alone, but I had to tell myself I’d save it for another time.

I was happy this was no longer a private residence so I could go in; it looked so inviting!

Along with the charming shops, tea rooms and restaurants typical of such places, there’s a unique new town house development called Gaslight Landing. Need a place to dock your boat, or wishing for your own elevator inside your home? Those things and more can be yours for “only” $899,900 or so. But enjoying the sight of them as you stroll through town is free, and much easier than owning and maintaining one.

It felt almost like being in San Francisco again.

I guess the residents are accustomed to having people park in front of their homes.
(They have private parking behind the homes, in case you’re thinking of living there.)

One of the things I enjoy most about wandering through these little towns is that I always see things here and there that remind me of some of my favorite people. Whenever I see red, white and blue (and there is plenty of it on display the week before Memorial Day) I think of my patriotic friend Mary Ann. When I see anything with a seashore motif I think of Sheila and her lovely oceanfront home. And when I saw one particular shop, it may as well have had a sign outside saying “bring Alys here next time she comes.”

First of all, there was a Little Free Library outside. Many of you know Alys or someone else who has generously provided such a “book stop” for the community. Each Little Free Library is unique, which makes them special, but all share the wealth of reading and encourage others to do the same. As if that wasn’t enough, this particular Little Free Library also offered seed packets for flowers that benefit local wildlife while beautifying the landscape. Of course I picked up a packet, snapping a photo to show Alys, whose blog is rightly named “Gardening Nirvana.”

Look closely and you’ll see the seed packets at the bottom of the photo.

When I tore myself away from the Little Free Library and actually entered the shop, I noticed another reminder of Alys. As a professional organizer, she introduced me to Marie Kondo’s books and their wonderful advice to “Spark joy.” How could I not take this photo to share with her, and with you?

Anyplace that sparks joy is my kind of place.

Even the little “nooks and crannies” had colorful photo-worthy sights. I snapped this little alley just as my time was running out and I had to leave.

Too bad I didn’t have time to sit down. What color chair would you choose?

So this is the closest I could come to having you with me that day. But I’m pretty sure that you have lots of fun, cute or interesting places near wherever you are, that you can enjoy exploring. It’s good exercise, for body, mind and spirit. Next time you feel a little bit crazy, remember Ashleigh’s advice, and take your mind out for a walk!

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*despite– or maybe because of– his PhD dissertation at Berkeley being about the effects of the automobile industry on Southern California in the 1920’s.

From hand to hand

The cards are beautiful, but the handwritten notes inside are what matter most.

“I’ve always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.” ― Robert Michael Pyle

During the third semester of my PhD program in Communications (from which I withdrew at the end of that semester, due to uncertainty about Matt’s schedule and whether I would have anyone available to help with his care), I did a qualitative research project about sending traditional handwritten cards, notes and letters through postal mail. The research involved hours of interviews with people from all over the USA and at least two other countries. It was fun and fascinating to talk to others who felt, as I do, that there’s something special about getting personal communication delivered by the post office.

One theme that emerged in several interviews, one that I don’t remember ever having thought of myself, was the special bond the receiver felt in holding a letter that had been in the hands of the sender. It was almost as if the letter served as a link joining the touch of hands across the miles. When I read Pyle’s quote, I thought of those interviews and the many people who voiced the same thought.

Interestingly, that research paper reinforced my decision to quit school. I realized that I’d much rather spend time writing actual letters, than reading and writing ABOUT writing letters. That one paper was a great experience, but the best part about it was that it fed my enthusiasm for sending postal mail.

Laura Vandekam’s podcast “Before Breakfast” recently featured a program encouraging listeners to send handwritten notes. Since her program is often career-focused, prioritizing efficiency, this episode jumped out at me. The emphasis on handwritten notes was not something I typically associate with time management strategies. But as she explains, “I bet a handwritten note creates at least ten times the impression of an email. But it doesn’t take ten times as long to write.” She goes on to give hints on how to incorporate the habit of writing handwritten notes into one’s schedule without consuming too much time. “I promise it will be worth your time,” she says, “because guess what? People are a good use of time. And handwriting notes is a good way to show people that they matter.”

I agree with her completely, but I confess I don’t do nearly as well at this as I would like. Still, I’m inspired by others who do. Despite this being an online community, many of you have made the effort to contact me via postal mail with cards and letters I treasure, some of which have come from faraway places I dream of visiting, such as Wales. As Vandekam describes in her podcast, when I see handwritten correspondence in my stack of mail, it’s an instant day-brightener and I often want to open it first (though sometimes I save it as a reward for slogging through the boring stuff). So it’s extra-fun for me to post notes to others, hoping to share at least a bit of the joy I feel when I receive one.

I find that writing notes and letters is an amazingly calming, mood-lifting experience. I like to use pretty stationery (or make some cards myself) and I have a lot of fun with stickers and pretty postal stamps, but none of these things are necessary. As Winnie the Pooh supposedly said, “It doesn’t take a lot of pencil to show a friend you care.”

Today, or this week, I hope you will make time to send a note in the mail to someone who would love to hear from you. And I’ll make an offer I’ve made here before: If you, or anyone you know, would like a handwritten note from me, just send your postal address to me at defeatdespair@verizon.net, and I’ll be happy to send you one! I’ll guard your address and I promise not to post it here or give it to anyone else. I’ll even enclose a tea bag if you tell me what kind you like! I’ll have fun sending it, so if you want me to send it, it will be a win-win.

Whether from me or from someone else, I hope this week will bring you a special piece of mail that has traveled the earth from someone else’s hands, head and heart, to end up in yours!

A powerful call

Aim high, and keep looking up!
Boys play ball in Jakarta, Indonesia – photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“…we’ve found that optimism can be a powerful call to action. And it has a multiplier effect: The more optimists there are working for a better future, the more reasons there are to be optimistic.”Bill and Melinda Gates

One of the most pernicious aspects of despair is that it snuffs out the motivation to do anything at all. Nothing seems worthwhile, meaningful or even fun when we are in the grip of despair. And just as optimism has a multiplier effect, so does negativity and despair. If we give up on life, we lose not only our own happiness, but also the exponential effect of whatever joys we could have inspired in others who, in turn will radiate that cheer outward so that it spreads indefinitely.

I’ve been guilty of gloom more times than I care to remember, knowing even as I am venting to a trusted friend or loving family member that my complaints are not doing anything to make anyone’s day better, least of all theirs or mine. I try to be forgiving of myself and others when we find ourselves caught by pessimism and frustration. Even so, I know this is not where I want to stay, or how I want to live my life.

Some people might say it’s easy for Bill and Melinda Gates to be optimists; look at their unimaginable fortune. But riches do not eliminate the human struggles that go along with each and every life. Many wealthy people have chosen to end their own lives, or to break faith with their life partners or families, or just generally to misbehave in countless ways, searching restlessly for more. Money is not the antidote to despair, as often as it may seem to be.

I admire the Gates and others like them, who use their means (whether small or great) to bless the world and leave it a better place. When I’m feeling low, I often find inspiration in learning more about the deeds of those who are ahead of me in this regard. Whether reading about the Gates Foundation and their many projects, or visiting with like-minded people in church or community settings, such optimists provide a virtual “shot in the arm” that inoculates me against the malignant spread of discouragement.

Billionaires tackling global diseases and water supply challenges have much in common with everyday heroes working in our hospitals, schools, communities and homes. All are doing what they can, with what they have at hand, united in the belief that whether or not they see the effects instantly, their work is not done in vain. These are people I look to for encouragement during dark times. Their light shines on the good that is always there, waiting to be recognized. Today and every day, I hope we will see them…and BE them!

Sparkling colors

These gorgeous flowers were a gift from…my grocery store? Yes! May 2019

“…let’s stay in the loop and pursue the momentous flow of daily little wonders, since life kindly tenders us gorgeous bouquets of sparkling colors, telling signs and rousing episodes.” —  Erik Pevernagie

So when I was putting this post together, I kept thinking maybe I should call this blog “Defeat Despair with Flowers.” But then I thought, couldn’t it just as well be called “Defeat Despair with Books?” Or “with Tea?” Or “with Animals?” Hmm, I guess I’d better stick with Defeat Despair. There are countless ways to do that, for which I’m deeply grateful.

But back to the flowers. One of the first things I had to do when I was released from the hospital was go to the grocery store to get some suitably bland food. Bland is not typically part of my life, and certainly not what I keep in my pantry. But I wasn’t hungry anyway. I just needed to eat, to heal and re-gain my strength.

Imagine my surprise then, when I got a wonderful (though non-edible) surprise as I was checking out with a few unexciting food items. Just as I reached the head of the line, the cashier at Lidl told us, her customers, “See all those flowers? They’re free if you want to take some.”

Those of us standing around looked at each other in disbelief before the cashier emphatically repeated that they were FREE. The bouquets didn’t look old or wilted, but maybe that was the point; perhaps they would be losing their fresh look soon, and a very smart store manager realized the soon-to-be-faded flowers could buy far more than their weight in good will if they were given to delighted customers. We didn’t need to be told more than twice. Several of us gladly scooped up a bouquet to take home.

Though I didn’t feel all that great, when I got home I made time to cut the flower tips off and arrange them, setting the arrangement beside the lovely one from Amy that I pictured last week, which was still beautiful. I can vouch for the healing power of the sight of those flowers. I took their loveliness in large doses through every day of the past week. It took the edge off the nasty antibiotics that make me feel nauseated, dizzy and miserable…though I’m thankful that the pain that made them necessary is gone.

I’m also thankful for each of you who have checked in with me in various ways, letting me know that your thoughts and prayers are with me. It truly means more than I can say.

Pevernagie is right; life hands out gorgeous bouquet to go along with the challenges and difficulties. For many of us, these “daily little wonders” provide the fuel that keeps us going through the tough times. May your most difficult hours be bursting with unexpected blooms and timely blessings.

There were even a few shorter blooms for this bud vase, seen here with a joyful sign sent to me years ago by a friend I met through the blog.

Precious document

Amy brightened my hospital room with these lovely flowers. April, 2019

“The most precious document in the world is a clean bill of health.”Ashleigh Brilliant

I just got out of the hospital, where I spent most of last week. It’s ironic that last week’s post was about not feeling sorry for oneself, because that pre-scheduled post published on a day when I was feeling quite sorry for myself, curled up in misery in a hospital bed wondering what was wrong with me.

It turns out that I had an abdominal abscess, secondary to diverticulitis. They gave me medication to control the pain as IV antibiotics addressed the abscess, but I was not allowed anything to eat or drink all week until the last day, when I was allowed clear fluids for 24 hours before they sent me home. I’m a person who drinks fluids all day long (water, or my precious tea) so going without anything at all was like torture. Sometimes a sympathetic nurse would bring me ice chips, and I cheated a good bit in that way, but it still was hard.

This was the first time ever that I have been a hospital patient, and I’m not very good at it. Other hospital procedures, even my appendectomy, saw me happily on my way home in a day. Not so this past week. I had been admitted from the ER, so I had not brought anything with me other than my phone and Kindle Fire. I didn’t have any of the cozy comforts I might have packed for a scheduled stay. I didn’t know any of the doctors and would not have chosen them myself, but an ER admission brings no choice about anything, as I discovered. The nurses were more agreeable and sympathetic, but they can only do so much.

Perhaps the most painful part was that the hospital setting triggered many sad and emotional memories of Jeff’s long battle with cancer and the weeks we spent together in a hospital room. I thought again and again of all he had suffered, and how bravely he endured it all. I was a total wimp in comparison. Being there alone, in pain and unable to eat or drink, was almost unbearable.

My friend Mary Ann had to cancel her planned trip to see me. This is the 20th year of our friendship, and we have not seen each other for 15 of those 20 years, so that cancellation was part of the crushing sadness of the week. I appreciate my friend Amy for coming by to see me several times and bringing the lovely flowers pictured above.

I’m doing much better now, but I have a lot to digest — or more accurately, NOT to digest —  as I face more appointments and a restricted diet. It seems I’ll be giving up many of my favorite foods. For all who have left comments, I apologize for my delay in responding and I hope you have not felt ignored or disregarded. I’ll get to the comments as soon as I can. I’m moving pretty slowly and trying to catch up with all that accumulated while I was out of commission. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

If you are facing illness of any kind, you have my sympathy and more understanding than I could have offered before. If you are in good health, treasure it! It’s a precious gift that we tend to take for granted until it vanishes.

To trade places

Us near our home in Hawaii,1994, around the time of Matt’s second open heart surgery.
It’s hard to imagine now, but even there, we faced hard times and low moods.

“Today you will be tempted to feel sorry for yourself. Don’t! Lots of people would love to trade places with you. Before you get down in the dumps over whatever is bothering you, read today’s obituaries to see how many people younger than you died yesterday, or visit the burn or stroke rehab center at a local hospital.”Rubel Shelly

We’ve heard similar sentiments before, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need to be reminded. No matter how blessed we are, it’s far too easy to indulge in self-pity sometimes.

For example, during our years in Hawaii, there were lots of people who said they envied our being able to live in what they thought of as paradise. Some may have thought they would have traded places with us. But those were very difficult years in many respects, and I know I felt sorry for myself occasionally. From where I sit now, though, I naturally wonder how I ever did.

In fact, most of us, if we were able to travel back in time and visit a younger version of ourselves at a time when we were feeling low, would say, “Don’t! Someday you will realize more fully what you have right now. You won’t always have it.” Yet even at this moment, some future self probably could be saying that same thing to us today. For better or worse, today might be as good as it gets, and I want to make the most of it and not to look back with regret.

The trouble with self-pity is the first part of the term: self. There are a number of research studies documenting the positive effects of volunteer work in forestalling or improving depression, particularly among older people. Among many seemingly obvious reasons for this, it surely must be beneficial to re-focus and turn our thoughts and efforts away from our individual cares.

When we are active in faith or community groups, we become involved in the lives of other people. We learn to realize that almost nobody has it easy in this life. Even when our personal challenges are more burdensome than average, those difficulties are often inextricably linked to blessings we would not choose to be without.

I hope today is a happy one for you, with no reasons at all to feel sorry about anything. But if you find yourself feeling low, remember how many people, all over the world and throughout the centuries, would love to be in your shoes.

Treasures everywhere

A picnic spot, a wildlife garden, and a Little Free Library, all in one place?
Not to mention the adjacent public library, full of discoveries. April 2019

“You don’t need to go to exotic places to find meaningful things. With a bit of curiosity, you can unearth treasures everywhere.”Mark Zeff

Zeff heads an architecture and design firm, so he’s referring here to collections that are featured as part of interior decoration. However, the principle applies to all sorts of treasures, and my favorite kinds are the ones you don’t have to buy or own to enjoy. Let your curiosity take you exploring right in your own home town, and you’ll see there really are treasures everywhere.

The photo above is taken at the garden of what surely must be one of the best small town libraries anywhere, but I’ve been to others just as full of unique treasures. There’s no telling how many more of them are out there, just waiting for us to discover them. Here’s another photo of a lovely memorial sculpture at that same library.

Even on an ordinary day, surprises are tucked away if we venture out a bit. Matt and I attended a benefit for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and along with more kinds of “free” food than I’ve ever seen in one place, there were other fun discoveries, such as this cautiously friendly fellow, a great horned owl:

I was amazed that, the minute I raised my cell phone to take a photo, he swiveled his head 180 degrees around. “He must be afraid of a flash,” I said to his handler. “But I’m not using a flash.” As soon as I said that, he turned his head back around and I snapped this photo. It was fun to pretend that he had understood what I said.

Finally, in the category of ordinary treasures, here’s a photo of my azaleas and dogwoods just starting to bloom. There’s nothing exotic about this everyday scene, but it’s one of the most meaningful aspects of home for me.

I never get tired of this sight, no matter how many times I see it. April 2019

Right where you are, there are treasures waiting to be discovered. Where will your curiosity take you today, and what will you find?

Can you imagine…?

Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal, photo by

Wherever there are books, you’ll find fascinating people, visible and invisible..
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal – photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

“My house is full of people escaped from literature. If this is the case in my home, can you imagine how it is in a library?”Isabel Allende

I know exactly what Allende means, because my house– or really wherever I find myself– is also crowded with literary escapees. Look over there in the kitchen– Mma. Ramotswe is having tea with Nancy Drew, and they are no doubt swapping stories of their brilliantly solved (and frustratingly unsolved) detective cases.

Out in the living room– she referred to it as the parlor– Elizabeth Bennett is having a lively conversation with Holden Caulfield, both of them full of witty observations about how people behave in public. You might think there would be a communication barrier, given their vastly different dialects, but not so. In fact, according to Holden himself, “the way she talks knocks me out. It really does.”

Up in the library, Alyosha Karamazov is debating ethics with Sidney Carton. What opposites they are! But each is quite noble in his own way, well suited to such a chat. Meanwhile, off in a corner somewhere, Francie Nolan is curled up with a book. She still reads one every day, just as she always has.

It’s a wonder anyone can hear themselves think, with all that noise Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are making down in the basement. I might have to send Viola Swamp down there if they don’t “hold it down to a low roar,” as my Daddy used to say.

I’m guessing that your house is also full of people who have entered your life through books. If so, remember Allende’s observation that the library has exponential numbers of such fascinating company. If you’re ever feeling lonely, a trip to the library is a sure remedy. But you might not have to go that far. Who is hiding in your own home, within the pages of your books?

 

From the insistence

The little frog seemed not to notice my camera just inside the window. July 2018

“Much of the bothersomeness of daily life arises not from circumstances themselves, but from the insistence that they ought to be other than they are.” Oliver Burkeman

When I read that quote, I was struck immediately with how truly it describes most of the stress I face each day. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a very strong sense of fairness versus unfairness, right versus wrong, justice versus injustice. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that I often forget I’m not the best arbiter of these distinctions, and they aren’t always an all-or-nothing, black and white proposition.

Not only am I inadequate as a judge of these opposing forces, but my sense of the relative importance of something often gets lost in the immediacy of the moment. To put it another way, I am too prone to “sweat the small stuff.” Having said that, I don’t always err on the side of being frustrated. I sometimes find joy in things that other people consider negative or downright irritating.

The little critter pictured above is a prime example. One night soon after I had moved into my new home, my sister noticed a tiny frog clinging to the glass of the door to my deck, catching flies and (in our fanciful imagination) watching what we were doing inside. We thought the frog was adorable, and we behaved in all the silly ways people sometimes do when they see a cute animal — talking to it in high pitched voices, wondering about where it lived, and whether it was as curious about us as we were about it.

For several nights in a row, this frog (or another one who looked just like it) reappeared in almost the same place. Apparently there was quite an insect buffet on offer there, due to the light coming from the windows into our kitchen which drew the bugs in abundance. One night when we didn’t see the frog, we actually felt sad at its absence, and wondered if it was OK. We were quite happy when it reappeared the next night.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read numerous complaints about frogs on our online neighborhood group. Apparently, not everyone finds the frogs cute or even useful. Anything that eats bugs is OK by me (except maybe spiders or snakes), but several people were griping about how many frogs we have in the woods behind our homes, and how they leave droppings and generally offend others by their mere presence in our human environments.

I agree that the droppings are mildly annoying, but they’re quite easy to remove with a broom or wet paper towel. I find the delight of these amphibious visitors far outweighs whatever drawbacks they might bring. Besides, did I mention that they eat bugs?

This all started me thinking about how much energy is wasted– by me and clearly, by many others– in choosing to be unhappy about things that are a natural and inescapable part of life. A simple re-framing can work wonders, for almost any frustration not life-threatening or catastrophic.

For instance, consider traffic, one of the chiefest offenders for anyone living near a city. If I allow sufficient travel time so as not to be in a hurry, and keep an interesting recorded book or some favorite music loaded into the car’s audio system, I find that the traffic does not infuriate me as it will when I’m in a hurry or simply BORED by the slow crawl of many vehicles.

Traffic can be viewed as a good sign, despite the pollution it generates and the nerves it frays. It means people are able to be out and about, conducting business, pursuing recreational activities, or visiting friends and relatives. It’s a sign of life. It’s also a sign of prosperity, as friends from countries where cars are considered a luxury have made me aware. Yes, it might be nice if the roads were adequate for the density of vehicles traveling them. But road construction, too, comes at a price; ask anyone who ever lost their home to eminent domain laws. To say nothing of taxes, disrupted travel while the work is being done, and then even more cars using the newly-opened road. Like work, traffic will always expand to fit the space allowed for it. It’s a problem that will never be totally solved, and fretting over it continually will profit us nothing.

Becoming aware of my tendency to engage in unproductive fuming over things I perceive “ought to be other than they are” was a useful tool in my quest to defeat despair. One recent day it seemed as if many (small) things had gone wrong, and I ended the day with a sense of general irritation. When a not-so-small problem reared its head that evening, I could feel myself spiraling into the cortisol-laden anger that tends to send me off tilting at digital windmills or banging my head against immovable walls. But somewhere in the midst of my reactive state, a better thought emerged. I reminded myself that, whatever happened, life is too short to spend it being unhappy.

I let go of the illusion that I could do anything at all about what had me worried and upset, and I totally changed mental channels. I don’t remember whether I picked up an enjoyable book, or turned through a magazine I like, or listened to favorite music. I only know that I made the decision that the hours remaining in the day would be spent in more agreeable pursuits. Right there, almost instantaneously, my day turned around.

Are there things in your world that “ought to be other than they are?” If you have done what you reasonably can do about them, or if nothing will alter the situation, try changing mental channels and enjoying activities that bring you joy and a sense of purpose. Some of you are naturally good at this and don’t need this advice, but if any of you are more like me, diligently (sometimes almost obsessively) trying to right all things you perceive as wrong, you have my sympathy, and my understanding. I invite you to sit down with a cup of tea and turn your thoughts to something pleasant. Maybe it’s a memory, or a fun project, or an exciting goal. But maybe it’s something as simple as– look!– that cute frog on the window again, catching bugs.

Always more mystery

A close-up of one of the flowers in the picture I posted last week.
No matter how often I see them, they fill me with wonder.

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”Anais Nin

One of my favorite people in this blog community frequently wishes me “a wonder-filled week.” I love it! The word wonderful is used so often that we tend to miss its root meaning, so I find her revision of the term an apposite way to wish someone the best. I think one of the nicest things we can wish each other is a wonder-filled week, or year, or life.

Nin is right; no matter how much we know, there are always more mysteries to wonder about. The daffodils that have been my lifelong favorite flower are a familiar sight, as I’ve planted so many of them over the years. But I never cease to be amazed at their delicate structure and sunny colors. Botanists can tell us all sorts of details of taxonomy, propagation and genetic modification, but those words never capture the pure delight of seeing these blooms appear every spring.

In a totally different corner of my world, I’m amazed by the advances in cardiology since Matt was born. Nearly 34 years ago, he was diagnosed with a complex heart defect that he likely would not have survived if he had been born a decade or so earlier. Through five open heart surgeries and counting, I’ve been stunned at what the doctors are able to do. Their procedures continue to evolve, rising to the challenge of Matt’s formidable cardiac anomalies in ways that are fascinating and encouraging.

This amazing wireless home monitor sends data from Matt’s pacemaker to his doctors, giving them a minute-by-minute account of how his heart has been doing.

Yet beyond all the scientific sophistication of their equipment and methodology, there is the abiding mystery of how they, and Matt himself, can remain so indefatigable and compassionate in the face of very difficult circumstances. In the midst of sorrow at all he has suffered, and the stress of wondering what lies ahead, there is the consoling experience of being filled with wonder at the divine blessings that come to us through the hands and hearts of people who know what to do, and more importantly, who genuinely care for him– and me.

All of us live in a wonder-filled world of manifold mystery. What are some of your favorite everyday wonders?

Spring emerges

I didn’t miss it! The plum tree in bloom at our York home, March 2019

“As a child I used to think that spring happened suddenly.  Now I know that spring emerges gradually, as new as dawn—and as old.”June Masters Bacher

We had some unseasonably warm weather a few weeks back, and because of that (and OK, maybe because of what the ground hog said) I was expecting an early spring. But it’s just now starting to arrive. In past years, I’ve seen daffodils as early as February, but not this year. However, I’m happy to say that there now are definite signs of spring at our York home.

In early March I had noticed the plum tree just starting to bud. I was dismayed because I knew I would be away for 12 days and was afraid I’d miss it. But I didn’t! As you can see in the photo above, it is just now blooming, with none of the petals having dropped to the ground yet. Like many fruit trees, it has a short bloom time so I felt lucky that I caught it looking so pretty. Here’s what the flowers look like close up.

The delicate structure of a flower never fails to fascinate me.

The daffodils are blooming, too! Here’s a shot of some in the front yard. the ones around the trees and mailbox are the bright yellow monochromatic kind, and they haven’t appeared yet. I love any kind of daffodil.

These are always the first to appear each year.

Since it’s still cool, the last of the camellia blooms are still visible here and there, but clearly fading..

A few camellia blooms overlap with spring flowers– the best of both seasons.

These were growing near the ground, so I cut them to bring inside.

Indoors, they add such cheer to my days!

As Bacher says, spring emerges gradually…especially when one is waiting for it as eagerly as I always do. How about you? Are you seeing signs of spring– or in the southern hemisphere, of fall? Send us a seasonal snapshot– in words or an actual digital photo, if you can figure out how to upload it–and let’s welcome these blessings that are “as new as dawn– and as old.”

 

 

Like a fire

The home in East Point, Georgia where I grew up, as seen in the mid 1960’s.

“A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.”Eudora Welty

The house pictured above is the place I will always think of as my childhood home. I’ve returned there, just to drive by it, several times since my parents first moved away more than twenty years after that photo was made, and I’ve been happy to see that the house and the neighborhood still look lovely to me.

This is not the first home I remember, though. That distinction belongs to this house in Hapeville, Georgia, where we moved when I was a toddler who had already lived briefly in two other states:

Daddy photographed our home after a rare snowfall, probably in 1958 or 1959.

Oddly, I don’t remember ever going back to see this home, though I had very fond (if vague) memories of the wonderful park across the street. Recently before a planned trip to Atlanta, Drew mentioned that we might take Grady and Owen to the Dwarf House, which Chick-Fil-A fans might know as the place where it all started.

I knew the Dwarf House was in Hapeville, and for the first time I can remember, I wondered whether it might be fun to go see that old home. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I spent over an hour on a google map search of the surrounding area neighborhoods to see if any of them looked familiar. When I saw photos of the park during one of the searches, I was hit with that startling “ping” of recognition not unlike the emotion one might feel at a chance meeting of a dearly loved person long absent from one’s life. I looked at the street name, and it too rang a distant bell somewhere in my memory. I called my sister, who would be meeting us in Atlanta, and we made excited plans to go back and visit the house, and the neighborhood.

So, after landing at ATL and filling our stomachs with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the Dwarf House (where Owen was fascinated with the tiny dwarf door that was just his size), we drove the short distance to what we believed was our old neighborhood. We were delighted to find that it was still a charming and well-kept community. We got out of the car and stepped into our past.

“Magical” is an overused word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind in describing the experience. “Nostalgia” doesn’t capture it at all, because it wasn’t connected to any specific conscious memories. It was more like being transported to a place of belonging, almost a state of being, that was unexpectedly familiar. I felt like a tiny child again, running excitedly through the park that I had remembered as being much more enormous than it appears to me now.

The wooden bridge over the creek had been replaced with a stone structure, and a playground area with newer equipment had been added. But otherwise it was unmistakable, and now I had the surreal feeling of watching my grandsons running through that same park, the younger of whom was about the same age I had been while we lived there.

The really funny thing was that we remembered the park with more certainty than we remembered the front of our home– neither Carla nor I could be sure which of two different houses across the street had been our own. Later we went back to Mama and Daddy’s last home in Fayetteville, where our younger brother now lives. He wasn’t even born during those years, but he pointed us to the old photos where we located the picture posted above. There was no doubt now which house had been ours, and it has held up well during the nearly 60 years since the first photo was taken:

Other than an awning and added masonry veneer, little has changed in 60 years.

But it was the park that will stay in my memory and in my heart. I somehow had forgotten to bring my camera (the photo above was taken by Carla’s husband George, who used his cell phone) but here’s a photo of my older brother, older sister and me, having fun there 60 years ago. You’ll have to trust me that, unlike us, the park looks almost exactly like this now. Our home is visible in this photo, too. It’s a photo of a photo– I didn’t have access to a scanner — so the quality is lacking, but perhaps the enchantment will come through:

Eric, Carla and me, in an enchanted world called childhood — probably 1959.

When I read Welty’s quote, I thought immediately of our visit back to our Hapeville home. “A fire that never goes out” is a very good way to describe it. Much depends on what kind of fire it is; for some, early memories of home can be dangerous and even destructive, and maybe best forgotten. But for most of us, despite less than perfect memories, home can be a life-sustaining force that warms the world until the end of our days.

Do you remember your childhood home(s)? Have you been back to visit? Feel free to share memories of your own “fire that never goes out.” Millions of homes all over the world are chock-full of stories just waiting to be told.

Too important

Teresa photographed me with our lovely waitress at the Small Talk Tea Shop in England.
For more on Teresa and this photo, taken in July, 2017, read this post.

“Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal process──which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.” Lytton Strachey

I had a rough week, interacting with various robotic systems that were creating errors related to banking, finance and other necessities of daily life. By jumping through various automated obstacles, I contacted actual human beings to try to correct such mundane problems as my checking and saving account statements being sent, for no apparent reason, to an outdated address that was changed nine months ago. I was chagrined to discover how powerless the employees are, to correct or even understand the computer-driven systems that have taken over most business tasks in today’s world.

Even though my problems were “escalated” (to use popular business lingo) to higher-level departments, the people at those levels were equally stymied in their attempts to figure out what was happening, and why. I was left mulling over the brave new world of artificial so-called intelligence that now controls and too often bungles so many aspects of daily life. My conclusion is that I am finished with robots; all is over between us, insofar as I can manage to disentangle myself from such systems. Of course, much is already beyond our ability to control it, but I will continue to seek out humans for as many interactions as I possibly can.

The first thing I did was take steps to sever a 31-year dependence on online banking, which served us well through many military moves, but which is no longer functioning efficiently or even adequately. (My recent problems were part of an ongoing pattern of similarly inexplicable errors.) I went to an actual, brick-and-mortar bank branch and opened several accounts to which I intend to transition all my business. While the bank is part of yet another gargantuan corporation that relies, as all do, on computers, at least I had contact with real people to whom I can turn when such problems surface in the future, as they undoubtedly will. This represents an improvement over calling an 800 number and getting a different person each time, telling the same story over and over.

There are other ways to step away from impersonal encounters with robots. Months ago, I began doing something many of you already are doing: making an effort to deal with local businesses insofar as I reasonably can. Other small steps include focusing on face-to-face interaction as often as possible, writing real, physical letters in my own unique handwriting, and reminding myself to make eye contact and smile at people I encounter, however briefly, in the course of a day. Interacting primarily with machines can make us lose our humanity– I really believe that– and I’m not going to give it up without a fight.

Another thing I realized is that technology allows us to stay home far too much, especially in cold weather. There’s nothing wrong with being happy to stay home. Feeling content in our own cozy nest is one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s a risk: it can lead to becoming increasingly isolated from our communities, robbing us of what other people have to offer us, and depriving them of our own contributions.

I think travel is so invigorating because it forces us out of our cocoons and puts us face to face with people who are friendly, often fascinating, and completely new to us. We have much to learn from people we have not yet met. All such encounters are helpful insofar as they allow us to practice courtesy, communication and congeniality, all of which atrophy when we deal mostly with robots.

I’m no Luddite. I love technology, and my presence here at this blog is exhibit A that demonstrates my enthusiasm for the gifts of digital progress. However, in addition to the reservations described above, there is a darker side to technology that became apparent to me as I dealt with the frustrations of the past week. I noticed how much easier I found it to become hostile and rude with people with whom I spoke over the phone, when they seemed unhelpful or dismissive of my difficulties.

When not face to face with another person, it’s far too easy to vent and even shout when I become irritated. This is especially true if I’m speaking with a nameless person I’m unlikely ever to reach again, at one of those branched-out call centers with locations in multiple cities, teeming with employees whose conversations one can overhear buzzing in the background. Such inadequate approaches to customer service underscore how minuscule any one person’s problems must seem to this mammoth corporation. Call center employees are normally powerless to do much, and rarely can they even return a phone call or pass the problem on to someone who might be able to help. No wonder it’s so infuriating to deal with them.

However understandable my anger might be in such situations, venting it accomplishes nothing good. Accordingly, I’m going to avoid such call centers as much as I can. That might not be possible in many cases, but there still do exist businesses that have local representatives one can consult in person. Even if it costs more to deal with them, I’ve decided it’s worth it.

Many of us have been raging against the machine for a long time, but I’m ready to do more than rage. One way I am choosing to defeat despair is to go retro with how I conduct my business. How about you? Do you have any happy encounters to relate, whether in your home town or on the road, that will inspire us with faith that the robots have not yet irrevocably taken over? Can you point us to companies that have made a commitment to put people over profits? As Strachey says, people have a value that transcends any temporal process. How can we live out our understanding of that eternal truth?

Life is there

Gloria sent Jeff these hydrangeas on his retirement ceremony, February 26, 2016.
I later planted them outside, and I hope they will soon be sprouting new spring foliage.

And still the earth is cold and white,
And mead and forest yet are bare;
But there’s a something in the light
That says the germ of life is there.           Jane Goodwin Austin, “February,” c.1886

I searched through all my February photos and couldn’t find any that showed pretty flowery landscapes, so I resorted to cheating (again) with a colorful potted plant for today’s post. We all need some color right now. While I was visiting my sister in north Alabama last week, I saw several flowering fruit trees, but so far nothing in bloom here at my Virginia homes.

We’re having those on-and-off, up-and-down weather days, which surely mean (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) that spring is on its way. Yesterday the afternoon was so warm that I went outside to prune my crape myrtles, and though I accidentally cut a deep “V” into the side of my thumb while I was at it, I couldn’t help but feel cheerful.

I’m dreaming of spring plantings, and can’t understand why the landscapers aren’t as impatient as I am to get going. What are your garden plans this year? Will you be setting your own seedlings out, or enjoying those of your neighbors? Are you as eager as I am to see some outdoor blooms?

There sat the world

The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library.
Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle via Unsplash

“I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.”Patrick Ness

When I was a child, we didn’t have nearly as many children’s books in our home as I would have liked. But we did have quite a few books of general interest, including some really magnificent items, and none of them were off limits to us. I remember spending hours with the books from our modest home library .

Whether I was at home or at the public library, I could spend as much time as I wanted browsing and poring over whatever caught my eye. I don’t remember my parents ever trying to censor or limit my reading. In fact, once when my older brother saw me reading a book called Expectant Motherhood, he felt duty-bound to report it to my mother, feeling certain she would not want me to be exposed to these biological details at an early age. But she just scoffed at his concern, telling him there was no harm in my reading it.

Thus I grew up sensing that information was nothing to fear, and wide-ranging opinions were not dangerous if tested by reason, logic and fact. I connected immediately with the quote by Ness, especially his description of himself as “a hugely unchaperoned reader.” For all the adventures I would later experience through travel, my earliest explorations were made possible by public and school libraries.

It’s never too late to set out on an unchaperoned voyage of discovery, and you need travel no farther than your public library, much of which you now can access directly via your home computer. Unlike the structured reading done in the context of classes and assignments, solo expeditions at the library allow you to follow your own pathways and timetables. There sits the world, waiting for you– send us a few postcards of your most interesting finds!

Happy Birthday to my sister, who read to me and taught me to read.

Generous beyond all reason

For only $2.99, I got hyacinths to feed my soul while buying groceries to feed the rest of me.
How’s that for a generous life?

“This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things that ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.”Augusten Burroughs

Perhaps the oft-repeated question should not be “why do bad things happen,” but rather, “where does all this beauty and abundance and joy and love and delight come from?” People of faith believe there is a divine wellspring of goodness that blesses our world even as it explains our existence and gives meaning to life. But surely even those who believe this planet evolved from a cosmic accident must agree that the bones of life, as Burroughs refers to them, are indeed generous in a way that defies easy description.

Did the sun break through your window this morning so brightly that waking up was a bit easier? Did your mailbox surprise you by containing a note from someone you love? Are the green shoots of daffodils beginning to pierce the frozen ground in your yard? Have you had a delicious cup of coffee or tea that jump-started your brain as it pleased your taste buds? Is a dog or cat lying nearby, exuding warmth and companionship?

Did you have the exquisite delight of buying a small gift that you know will be wanted or needed by someone dear to you? Are you wearing a comfortable sweater in your favorite color? Is beautiful music almost certain to be part of your day, playing on an amazingly inexpensive but sophisticated speaker that transmits the sound of a faraway orchestra? Can you imagine the faces of all those individual musicians, each of whom gave a lifetime of practice to bring you a symphony that never fails to bring tears of joy to your eyes?

I could go on and on, but really, I don’t need to. Chances are this post has you thinking spontaneously of the countless sentiments and supports and sensory surprises that color your day with happiness. Life really is, at its core, beautiful and generous beyond all reason. Even when things are at their worst, some part of me never doubts that primal truth. It is a rock-solid encouragement to continue.

Whether your day is wonderful, difficult or somewhere in between, I wish you many reminders of abiding beauty and the peace that passes understanding.

 

Small places in a large world

Both a garden and a story: San Juan Bautista, California, June 2003

“A story is a garden you carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But…we must never mistake the stories we tell for truth.”Alexandra  Curry

Over 30 years ago in a Bible class, the teacher spoke of how big the truth is. Afterward, Jeff and I had a discussion on that assertion. Jeff said he had always thought of the truth as something narrow and well-defined. He belonged to a profession based on hard science and peer-reviewed research involving lots of double-blind studies.  It was also his personality type; Jeff was much more skeptical than I am. I think he would have agreed with the caveat that, if we tell ourselves stories, we must not mistake them for the truth.

But I agree with that long-ago teacher. I think the truth is a big thing, so enormous that no human mind can fully grasp it. As such, I think stories, even totally imagined ones, contain grains of truth that may often be better illustrated by fiction than by bare facts. As Curry says, the stories we tell ourselves typically serve the function of adding joy to our lives and giving us refuge. They are not meant to be didactic, but they resonate with what we know of the truth, and they bring us humor and reassurance.

However, we also could tell ourselves stories that are not helpful. These tales might make people or events more evil or destructive than they actually are. We may re-invent the past to fit narratives that cast us in a better light, or make others the villains in a real-life drama that might be far more nuanced than we describe. Worse, we may convince ourselves that this self-serving version of events is the real one. So Curry’s point is well taken.

Having said that, I am immensely grateful for the power of stories, and I really like the analogy comparing them with portable gardens. Who among us does not enjoy escaping into a great novel, a well-produced film or an enthralling live theatrical production? The best of these stay with us, like a beautiful song or favorite memory, and shine brightly in the often drab reality of daily life. We may not have physical proximity to the sort of garden pictured above, but wherever we are, we can escape into a good story.

For those who have lived many decades, our memories are full of stories, like vast gardens with a wide variety of botanical rooms. Some are more colorful and verdant, some may be overgrown and ill-tended, and there will be those that bring more sorrow or regret than joy. But always we can find beautiful settings to enjoy, especially if we are willing to venture beyond our own story gardens, into those of our friends, and those that make up the great legacy left to us by authors, poets and artists of present and past centuries.

Today, let’s make it a point not to spend more time than necessary in desolate mental places. Let’s be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves, and choose hope. Our pockets are full of stories– gardens through which we can stroll for a soothing escape from whatever may be clouding our vision and worrying our minds. In the dreary days of late winter (or the parched, dry ground of late summer), these “pocket gardens” can transform our inner landscape. Feel free to share a favorite story with us here in the comments.

To see wonders

Thanks to Denise, I discovered these lovely flowers to bring home. January 2019

Upon a bank I sat, a child made seer
Of one small primrose flowering in my mind.
Better than wealth it is, I said, to find
One small page of Truth’s manuscript made clear…

…The years that pass
Like tired soldiers nevermore have given
Moments to see wonders in the grass.
— Patrick Kavanagh

This post is for Denise, who inspired me to challenge myself this past week. The goal was for each of us to buy fresh flowers for ourselves. Denise had achieved this almost immediately, but I took a few days longer. However, with her example to encourage me, I ended up with the lovely primroses pictured above.

Earlier, in a discussion in the comments section, I had written that cut flowers are a good investment despite their short lives. I mentioned that it was easier for me to buy myself a potted plant I could eventually transplant outdoors, hoping that it might last a bit longer, but almost never bought myself freshly cut flowers. Denise said she had a similar reluctance to treat herself to a bouquet, so we agreed we’d bring home some botanical joy as soon as possible.

So my original plan was to buy cut flowers, not something potted. The interesting thing was that, had I not gone into Kroger’s in search fresh cut flowers to follow Denise’s example, I would never have found these adorable primroses, which are among my all time favorite flowers. Like the beloved daffodils that always top my list, primroses bloom very early, before winter is past. Is there a pattern here, with my preferences? I think so!

Every year, I search (usually in vain) for potted primroses to enjoy. I love their vibrant colors and deep green foliage. But they are hard to find; maybe I just don’t know where to look. Even when I see them advertised, the stores are always sold out by the time I get there. The few I have bought over the years have transplanted beautifully, sometimes coming back again the following year. Our Alexandria townhome that I sold last year had a lovely yellow primrose I had planted beside the patio. It returned annually, blooming in the still-cold weather, reminding me that spring had almost arrived.

Anyway, after I read about Denise having bought herself some flowers, I went into my local Kroger’s, which boasts a wonderful floral department. Despite how beautiful their displays are, I almost never take time to wander and buy; I’m always in a rush to get the practical groceries and get home with them. But I was determined to find some cut flowers to live up to my own words.

Imagine my delight when I saw these lovely primroses! At only $1.50 per plant, I could afford all five of the colors on display. Now I will have the double pleasure of flowers to enjoy indoors, and flowers to plant in a few weeks in the new planting beds adjacent to my just-finished patio. I was so excited to bring them home.

The next morning, I was having my usual cold-weather reluctance to leave the snug and cozy cocoon of my bed. All the usual cares and worries came flooding into my mind, setting me up for the gloomy mood with which I begin far too many days. Then suddenly I remembered my new flowers, and immediately, it was as if a light was switched on inside my brain. Just the thought of seeing them when I went downstairs made starting the day an easier task for me.

Thank you, Denise, for helping me to see wonders! It does often seem that the years “pass like tired soldiers” but as the poet has written, there are wonders woven throughout, truths that are better than wealth.

A postscript: readers who enjoy Christian reflections might appreciate the full poem from which the quote above is drawn.

Hints of gladness

Jeff took this photo of me exultant amid the beauty of Muir Woods, May 2003.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.    Mary Oliver

I had already begun putting this post together when I looked for a link to include with Mary Oliver’s name. That was how I found out she had just died. I gasped aloud, feeling suddenly the deep sadness shared by countless others whose hearts were touched and reassured by Oliver’s work. I have already featured many quotes from her poems in this blog. When I chose this one for today, I had no idea she had so recently left this world.

There were all sorts of things I could have shared about trees in this post, but really, what more needs to be said than what Oliver put into words in this remarkable poem? May your life be filled with such hints of gladness, there for you when you need them most.

Excitement and peace

The woods behind our northern Virginia home, seen from my bedroom window, January 2019.

“It was the sort of storm that rarely happened…and the steady white flakes, the silence, filled him with a sense of excitement and peace. It was a moment when all the disparate shards of his life seemed to knit themselves together, every past sadness and disappointment, every anxious secret and uncertainty hidden now beneath the soft white layers. Tomorrow would be quiet, the world subdued and fragile…The world, for a few short hours, transformed.” ― Kim Edwards

When I read this quote I noticed right away the rare combination of those two concepts in a single phrase: “excitement and peace.” At first the two sound incompatible, but my reaction to snow proves otherwise. Like the character in Edwards’ memorable novel, when I look on freshly fallen snow I feel both emotions.

It’s a luxury, of course, that I don’t have to worry about getting out into the weather and negotiating the snow-covered streets. For a blissful few hours of respite I can put off shoveling the walkways and sweeping the snow from my deck and patio before it begins to melt. An overnight snowfall brings with it a rare moment in modern life, when everything stops briefly as we draw a collective breath and simply admire the incomparable artistry of nature.

Depending on whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere, you may be observing winter wonders or the warmth of summer’s charms. I hope you will have a few moments in which things stop, however temporarily, long enough for you to be blessed with the delicious sense of excitement tempered by peace.

Flowers, always

Jeff brought me these roses in January 2016, his last winter.

“I must have flowers, always, and always.”― Claude Monet

I was looking through my archives of January photos, and found this one from the first month of 2016. Jeff had brought me a dozen white roses for no particular reason, except that he knew I loved flowers, and I think he loved them nearly as much as I did. During the past dozen or so years, he had taken to bringing me fresh flowers on impulse when he saw a bouquet he liked. Thanks to photos the joy he gave me with those flowers lives on and warms my heart even now.

Flowers are such an important part of life, especially during the winter when we mostly dream of their return. We might tend to think of flowers as a luxury, but I think Monet was right in seeing them as indispensable. What a blessing it is for us today, that Monet loved flowers so. He left us dazzling beauty that will never fade, in his countless paintings of flowers in every form and setting. Here is just a sample of what you can see if you do a quick online image search under his name:

If you need an instant pick-me-up, try enjoying some flowers today. You need not purchase a bouquet for your home if you want to enjoy nature’s best mood therapy, although money spent on flowers is well invested. For virtually no expense at all, you can stroll through the fresh flower displays at a local grocery or garden center, or if you’d rather stay warm and cozy indoors, check out a nearby gallery or library, or just search online at the world’s most famous museums. Imagine how the artists of past centuries would envy our ability to view great works so easily!

Flowers feed the soul, as the poet has said. May they bring joy to your heart today, and always, and always.

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