Such an honest thing

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

“What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings, but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”C. S. Lewis

Lewis ought to know, if anyone does. His life had more than the usual share of twists and turns. Losing his mother to death when he was a young child, he suffered a nightmarish experience of boarding schools that he later declared to be worse than the trenches of World War I, where he was gravely injured. His military service granted him an exemption from testing requirements that would likely have kept him out of Oxford due to his well-documented struggles to learn basic mathematics. He went on to achieve fame, fortune (almost all of which he gave away), and a lifetime of scholarship at Oxford and Cambridge.

Though he had been a nominal Christian during childhood, he spent years as an atheist before converting in earnest to Christianity, unintentionally establishing himself as one of the most influential apologists of his century. And he lived most of his life as a bachelor until being surprised, near the end of his life, with a brief but joy-filled marriage to a woman who was believed to be literally on her deathbed as the wedding ceremony was performed. Through it all, he had the honesty to keep his eyes wide open to the evidence around him when his own firmly held convictions were tested and found wanting.

I think Lewis is right that we often deceive ourselves. When the photo above was taken, Susan and I were walking the Mount Vernon Trail on a lovely November day. It was chilly, but not so much that we didn’t enjoy being out. However, I somehow got it into my head that it would be an easy walk from the Belle Haven Marina, the parking lot near my home where we left the car, to Fort Hunt Park. I based my impression not on experience, but from the rough estimate of comparing a straight-line scale of miles to the winding trail pictured on the map. Mostly, however, I think I just wanted to believe it would be an easy walk.

Even though we kept stopping to make photos, I started thinking that it was taking us far too long to get through the marshlands to the park, which was, ahem, the first place there would be a ladies’ room available. (I shouldn’t have been drinking so much tea.) We asked a few hikers coming from the other direction how far it was to the park, and I confess I was a bit dismayed that the first ones we asked didn’t seem to know.  Finally, Susan got out her cell phone–  why didn’t I think of that before?– and announced that we were still about 1.5 miles to the park. Yikes, not even half way there! And then there would be the “easy” walk all the way back to the car.  A quick change of plans took us back up the trail down which we had just come. Luckily it looked a bit different coming from the opposite direction.

Well, at least Susan had her cell phone with her, or no telling when we would have either gotten to Fort Hunt, or given up and gone back. Let that be a warning to anybody who ever decides to let me plan an itinerary. I am hoping that Kelly will tactfully refrain from describing in detail our similarly unpredictable and much crazier afternoon AND evening in DC. Hint: it was supposed to be just an afternoon.

I’m not sure I like the honesty of experience as much as Lewis does, but I suppose it’s at least a little comforting that reality checks are always out there waiting for us when we lead ourselves astray. No doubt about it, experience will eventually offer some much-needed course correction if we allow it.  Just remember to keep your eyes open. Especially if you’re with me.

Knowing how to be

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

“…many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”bell hooks

The photo above was taken in 1972, during one of the most otherworldly experiences of my life. My family and the couple we were visiting had traveled in late November to the tiny Bavarian island of Herreninsel, to visit the unfinished palace of mad King Ludwig. Our hosts had told us that during the summer, thousands visited this spot where Ludwig’s intention to build a full replica of Versailles ended tragically.

That day, however, it was hard to imagine anyone but ourselves in that remote location. We reached the island on a small ferry boat accompanied only by the skipper and an elderly nun traveling back to the convent on another island, Frauenchiemsee.

The walk from the dock to the palace was about a mile, through a snowy woodland that felt like a Currier and Ives lithograph come to life.  Savoring the haunting seclusion and beauty of the most snow I had ever seen, I strolled ahead of our group to feel more fully immersed in the fascinating history about which we’d all been reading.

It would not have been nearly so enchanting if I had truly been alone. I probably would have been too frightened to even take the boat. Who would have been there to help me if I had needed it? And if I had been by myself, how I would have longed for someone with whom to share the the outing! Our day combined the best of both worlds; a fabulous but deserted palace that we toured in complete privacy, with only a caretaker present rather than the thousands there in summertime, and the reassurance of sharing that isolation with trusted loved ones.

My bookish childhood and my years as a military spouse have strengthened the already strong tendency I have to enjoy being alone. I didn’t realize how important that skill would be for me one day. Learning to be alone has been absolutely crucial to my survival this past year. I’m very grateful to be able to endure and even enjoy long periods of solitude.

Yet the presence of friends and loved ones is just as important, if not more so. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment here to share a short video tribute to three remarkable women who, for the second year in a row, made sure I was not alone on the birthday Jeff and I had shared for 38 years (yes, we had the same birthday, though he was two years younger). Some of you may recognize Renee, Mitzie and Myra as the friends who sat at my side during Jeff’s funeral and stood by me (literally and figuratively) at his graveside. You may remember Robert (Mitzie’s husband) as the friend who read the touching letter to Jeff and gave the benediction at his funeral. On my birthday this year, they continued the unwavering support that has enabled our family to keep going since Jeff’s cancer diagnosis over 5 years ago.

In what was the closest thing to a birthday party I’ve had since I was eight years old (when my Mama gave me the one and only birthday party I had during childhood), these wonderful friends fixed my favorite foods to share at dinner, showering me with cards, gifts, a cake, and a touch of Hawaii in the music. I’ve never liked the song “Happy Birthday to You” when it was being sung to me. But this occasion was the exception.

Far from being a means of escaping solitude, these friends have granted me my space for the past year while recognizing there are some times when we neither need nor want to be alone. I am forever grateful!

 

A tree in a story

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

 

We’re a parade

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

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

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

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

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

 

The dog does

Chico, California – Photo by Jordan Koons via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Linger in the beautiful

Untitled photo by Carli Jeen via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

Always flowers

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

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

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

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

Just over the fence is our even more neglected woodland.

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

Now, write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the whole day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Permanence and change

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A good calling

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

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

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

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

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

My sentiments

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

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

Emily Dickinson

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

Leisured coziness

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vast and awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mosaic

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

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

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

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

Just before you

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

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

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

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

 

Sealed inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Since I started

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

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

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

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

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

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

An enduring savor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See if you can spot anyone you recognize.

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

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

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

 

Whoever you are

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

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

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

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

Go beyond

Book lovers tend to be nice people, and this bookstore owner was no exception.
At Evergreen Livres, an antiquarian bookstore in Stow-on-the-Wold, England, July 2017

“…novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings..Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined”Annie Murphy Paul

Even if you’re not lonely or isolated, books can add so much to life. I’m a big fan of all sorts of nonfiction, and I love the practical information of home and garden references, or the fascinating insight into history that biographies and memoirs offer. But fiction can be even more true to life than nonfiction.

Whether the story is written in first or third person, the characters in a good novel will come to life for us even if they exist in a distant place or time, with a much different story than ours. In fact, novels that introduce us to new worlds and different ways of thinking are often the most spellbinding. Lisa See, Junot Diaz, Maeve Binchy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Orhan Pamuk have seemingly nothing in common, except their ability to take readers where many of us have not gone before, and show us familiar or exotic things as seen through someone else’s eyes. And if you’ve read Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful series about Mma. Ramotswe (seventeen books and counting so far) you may feel almost as if you have relatives in Botswana.

Have novels taken you to any faraway destinations lately? Do you have fictional acquaintances who seem almost as real to you as people you have known face-to-face? Do you know any books that are a great place to go when feeling sad, disappointed or afraid? Share your fictional friends with us– we may like them as much as you do!

Thoughts into words

Mary Pickford writes a letter, 1918.
Photo by Hartsook, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.” ― Haruki Murakami

A short time ago I was answering Patsy’s comment and ended up writing her something more like a long chatty letter. I’ve always loved writing letters, so maybe that’s why I ended up blogging. When I wrote for publication in various journals, there was very little interactivity, even when people would tell me they had seen my articles. Blogging, especially the comments section, is much more like letter-writing because I am writing to people I know (or may come to know), and it’s easy to respond to them on a personal level.

Still, there is nothing like a good old-fashioned letter, and I hope we never completely lose the practice of postal correspondence. When I did a qualitative research project on letter-writing during what I decided would be my final semester in the Communications program, I learned there are many people out there who share my conviction that postal mail is a unique form of connecting that cannot really be duplicated by any of the faster and more efficient ways of staying in touch.

Interviewing people, and reading their questionnaire answers, I came across many aspects of letter-writing that I had never considered before despite my lifelong interest in the topic. And I became fascinated with the mail art culture, and all the websites dedicated to establishing and maintaining postal friendships. I felt enthusiastic about these groups, and wanted to join in. Part of why I decided to quit school is that I realized I’d much rather spend the time actually sending postal mail to people than writing long, dry papers about people who send postal mail– papers that almost nobody will really read anyway, unless they are assigned to do it (academics, sorry if I just insulted you– by “nobody” I really mean “nobody I know”).

Recently I received a lovely handwritten letter from a blogger whom I’ve never met in person, who lives in faraway Wales and has a gorgeous cursive style (if you’ve ever seen my handwriting you know I still print because my cursive penmanship is irregular and unsightly, so I admire attractive script). Her letter was a remarkable gift that is all too rare nowadays. It was full of everyday life, yet the settings and destinations were exotic to me. Her news and descriptions were a wonderful combination of familiar experiences and fanciful travel daydreams.  Reading and re-reading the letter is like a mini-vacation; a refreshing break from daily tasks.

I don’t write cards and letters nearly as much as I would like, but whenever I do, it’s a rewarding process. The pleasant rituals of postal mail– choosing a pen and paper, putting thoughts into words, choosing a pretty stamp and sealing the envelope, then strolling to the mailbox or post office– are a distinct pleasure for me, whether or not I ever get a response. I usually do get one, and it’s icing on the cake, but the writing of letters is a hobby that I would likely indulge even without the special delight of a reply in my mailbox.

Do you enjoy sending letters? How about receiving them? Do you prefer getting an email or phone call, or do you like to use different forms for different types of messages? Have you ever had a pen pal? Feel free to send us all a letter in the comments!

 

Regular phases

Jeff and me in 1996, a little more than 20 years before his death.
This was taken before my graduation banquet at the University of Hawaii.

 “…bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases– like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase…We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don’t want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will be still married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache.” — C. S. Lewis  

While the world remembers this day as the dark anniversary of permanent change, and as recent news has been rocked with other tragedies and natural disasters, I find myself still coping with deep sorrow in my private world. My inner landscape is oddly consonant with the outer world, which remains a distant reality in my heart compared to what I am living on a personal level, day to day.

The Labor Day weekend was part of an extended low period for me. Matt and I spent the holiday alone, and I felt that he and I are unwanted and forgotten. It took awhile for me to realize that it was the second anniversary of Daddy’s death, which was the beginning of many months filled with much devastating turmoil and grief. I’ve always heard that such anniversaries are felt on a subconscious level, even if one is unaware of it. I believe that now.

Of course, as an even more heartbreaking anniversary approaches, I am forced to accept that the healing I had hoped would be at least beginning by now has shown no permanent signs of taking root. There are all sorts of practical reasons for this, including the ongoing uncertainties of life for both Matt and me in the wake of unexpected consequences of Jeff’s death, most notably the impending loss of Matt’s disability services.

But the real reason I’m still hurting is that I’m still without Jeff after 38 years of being with him. Everything was easier to bear when he was with me; without him, every pain is sharper and slower to heal. In a strange way, accepting that the sorrow of his loss may well and truly never end has given me a bit of clarity that I hope will prove helpful as I try to piece together some sort of life for Matt and me.

My sister has been my saving grace. She and I have talked on the phone several times during this time of sad remembrance, and one night we just cried together as we talked about missing Mama and Daddy. Though she has never experienced losing a spouse (and I pray that she never does) she knows as much about Jeff and me, as a couple, as anyone else does; perhaps more, in some ways. I know that she understands the complex and overwhelming force of the waves of grief that keep hitting me again and again.

So how does one live this phase “well and faithfully?” Jeff himself talked with me in the months before Daddy’s death, trying to prepare me for the likelihood that I would lose the three most reliable people in my life within an unbearably short period of time. I knew he worried about me, yet I felt from him a confidence that I lacked. He realized full well how hard each of these three losses would hit me, but I know that he believed (despite his innate pessimism about most other things) that I would somehow survive it all. The memory of Jeff’s absolute confidence in me, which never wavered through the formidable challenges of all the years we were together, was one of his greatest gifts to me. It continues to give me motivation, if not always tangible strength, to keep going.

On my very worst days, which seem far more numerous than I ever expected, I remind myself that this is a regular phase of marriage, however irregular the complications that magnify my particular experience of it. I think, again and again, how fortunate I have been to have had two remarkable parents and one of the most singularly exceptional husbands I can imagine. That is quite a lot for one lifetime, and though I may not always feel it in my heart, I know in my soul that “God’s grace is sufficient for me.” Thanks for being with me in this strangely overabundant life.

 

 

To look forward

Hank Aaron in 2015. Photo by Lauren Gerson, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“I didn’t have particular baseball heroes in those days…I didn’t relate to baseball players, even though I played the game myself, because I knew I had nothing to look forward to. There was no hope for me to play in the big leagues back then because I was black.” Hank Aaron

Wow. Talk about defeating despair! The young Henry Aaron must have loved the game enough to go on playing despite being, as far as anyone knew at the time, shut out of the chance for a professional career. If he was a different sort of person, he might be sitting around today telling his grandchildren how he could have been a star if not for the racism he lived with every day of his youth. He could be complaining of how he had to start his professional career playing on a team called the Clowns, or about all the times he had to play in segregated stadiums, or had to eat his meals while sitting in the team bus because he wasn’t allowed to go into a restaurant with his white teammates.

For that matter, he could have been consumed with fear and resentment at the death threats he received decades later as he neared Babe Ruth’s longstanding home run record. But from his youth onward, Aaron just went on doing what he did best, and he was impossible to stop. For many of us, he is still, and will always be, the greatest home run hitter who ever lived.  If you’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and seen the Barry Bonds home run ball with the large asterisk carved into the leather, you know how many fans (who voted for such an alteration in the ball before it was donated to the museum) agree with me on that.

Hank Aaron is larger than life to me because I grew up in Atlanta, and remember hearing Milo Hamilton’s exited voice on the radio, shouting with glee whenever Hammerin’ Hank knocked the ball out of the park. I remember when a high school classmate of mine, secretly listening to his transistor during Algebra, blew his own cover by shouting aloud that Hank Aaron had just tied the home run record with #714. Instead of reprimanding him, the teacher allowed him to go tell the front office, and the normally straight-laced principal went on the school PA system to announce it to the entire school, after which much cheering erupted throughout the building.

It’s hard now for us to imagine a little league player who has no big-league heroes, but Hank Aaron apparently didn’t need any. He became the hero himself. It would be impossible to count how many of us are grateful he had what it took to go the distance, blessing the world with his extraordinary talent.

Something possible

Teresa took this photo of me at our table at Small Talk Tea Rooms, July 2017.

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order…a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”Kakuzō Okakura

It seems to me that there is no day so dismal, nor any day so happy, that it cannot be improved by taking time for a cup of tea.

One of the most enchanting days I’ve experienced in a long time was the Saturday I spent walking and riding through several villages in the Cotswolds, not far from Oxford. After getting off the train at Moreton-in-Marsh, I met a delightful new friend, Teresa Fong, who introduced herself to me and asked whether we might spend the day together. She was a young mother from Hong Kong who was traveling alone for the day, as I was. The friends she was visiting in London had to work for the day, so she ventured out with the same idea I had, to see the legendary beauty of the English countryside.

I love taking pictures of other people taking pictures!

We had a marvelous time– it would have been nearly impossible not to, with the lovely weather and the charming villages– and I soon discovered that I had found someone whose enthusiasm for photography surpassed my own; that may have been a first for me. For every photo I took, she took at least two or three, using both a regular camera and the one on her cell phone. I never needed to apologize for stopping to take a photo, nor felt too rushed to take a shot from more than one vantage point. It was great fun.

After several hours of strolling and snapping away, we had lunch at the Small Talk Tea Rooms in Bourton-on-Water. It was so pretty inside that we both took several photos from almost every possible angle, and I still somehow managed to consume quite a bit of tea along with our lunches. If there’s anything more fun than taking photos, it has to be drinking tea.

When I read Okakura’s quote, I thought of that magical day in the Cotswolds. The qualities Okakura mentions here in reference to tea– beauty, purity, harmony, romanticism– all are perfect descriptions of the picturesque villages we visited, and of our leisurely enjoyment of tea at lunch. In the midst of what had long felt (and still sometimes feels) like an impossible life, here was a dream-like experience that turned out to be not only possible, but real.

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