“These trees are yours because you once looked at them.
These streets are yours because you once traversed them…
You once spoke to Him, and then God became yours.
He sits with us in darkness now…” ― Kamand Kojouri
We talked here recently about how, in a sense, experiences in our past belong to us for always. What happens does not un-happen simply because of loss and change. Albert Einstein is widely quoted as saying “the dividing line between past, present, and future is an illusion.” Whether or not the quote is an accurate repetition of his words, his work seems to point to that conclusion.
This idea becomes sharply relevant to those of us who have endured great deprivation. It’s one reason why people blessed with long years of life will often seem, to younger generations, to live mostly in the past. When the entire landscape of one’s life is swept away as if in a natural disaster, the foundation established in earlier years becomes terra firma to unsteady feet and a disoriented mind.
Likewise, as Kojouri points out, the foundation of faith remains with us even when all contact with God seems to go silent. Many of us have had the startling experience of emerging from a period of long, lonely darkness and finding God still there, bringing the absolute conviction that we were never alone even when we felt ourselves most deserted.
Truly God sits with us in the darkness, knowing that dazzling benevolent light will eventually return to bless our silent waiting with reassurance and rebirth. I believe this because it has happened before in my life. I trust it will happen again, for me and for whomever sits in the shadows alongside me. Together we trust, and hope, and wait.
“But when fall comes, kicking summer out…as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed…”
— Stephen King
As I write this, Hurricane Florence is forecast to strike the Virginia and North Carolina coasts in a few days, and our beloved York home is pretty much in the center of the expected path. Between the memories of mid-September two years ago and this new threat, it’s a bit hard to think of September as an old friend. Still, though, I’m always happy to see fall roll around.
I spent yesterday afternoon stashing away pretty much everything in our back yard that might blow into a window and smash it, but the real threat will be all those lovely tall trees that surround our lot. The year before we moved here, Hurricane Isabel, “only” a category 1 storm, sent trees into the roof of the home we later bought, as well as those of many of our neighbors.
Isabel turned out to be the costliest disaster in Virginia history. According to the weather site linked above, “Our top intensity models unanimously predict strengthening of Florence into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane by Tuesday, and the storm is also expected to increase in size.” Wow.
Beyond reasonable preparations, I’m not going to worry about it too much. Most of us who read this blog have been riding out all sorts of storms for many years, and have learned to survive by taking one day at a time.
Meanwhile, life goes on. We had some pretty intense heat this summer so the cooling weather will be appreciated. I’ve enjoyed seeing the beautiful chrysanthemums appear at the hardware stores, groceries and plant nurseries. Have you put any flowering fall color out yet?
Here’s wishing you weather that is sunny rather than stormy, and temperate instead of tempestuous. If you are in the path of the hurricane, my prayers are with you and all who are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. Hope is a better way to live. I STILL really believe that.
“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.” ― Shannon L. Alder
The online world is full of contradictions, and none more obvious than its tendency to create feelings of isolation even as it facilitates digital connection. Still, the anonymity and freedom from scheduling conflicts that the internet offers are, in certain circumstances, essential to forming connections with others who understand some of the most sensitive problems people face.
All of us have situations in our lives that are not easy to talk about. Maybe we are private people who just don’t like sharing deeply personal information, especially if it involves violating the privacy of someone else by talking about their involvement. Or maybe we’ve found that there are some things even the closest friends and family can’t seem to understand. Fear of being misunderstood or judged harshly can cause us to withdraw, thus creating a vicious cycle of alienation and defensive withdrawal.
This separation from others often happens even in common or fairly universal circumstances such as illness, disability or death. Imagine how the problem is magnified when the challenges are attached to some form of stigma, creating feelings of shame, embarrassment or vulnerability.
In such situations, an online source of support can be helpful. While every resource (including the ones linked below) must be evaluated carefully to determine whether it will provide support consistent with one’s own beliefs and values, the very existence of such sites can affirm that, in the words of Fred Rogers, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Below are just a few samples of blogs that address deeply personal, difficult life challenges that affect more people than we might guess. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Life is hard and full of struggles. If you or anyone you know could use these resources, spread the word and help others know that none of us needs to feel alone in this big and frightening world.
Are you, or is anyone you love, struggling with suicidal thoughts and emotions? You are not alone. This site offers understanding from professionals and lay people who have been there.
Has your adolescent child been snared in the dangers of online pornography? You are not alone. Visit with a hopeful mom who is navigating that particular minefield with courage and determination.
Have you been rejected and forsaken by one or more of your adult children? You are not alone. Other parents who have faced that particular heartbreak have words of support for estranged mothers and fathers.
Do you have a loved one who is incarcerated? You are not alone. Individuals and organizations can help you weather the storm of being separated from a family member who needs your love.
Has your life been affected by hoarding? You are not alone. Share the perspective of adult children who are coping with the fallout of growing up in a home where normal life was crowded out by stuff.
This short list is far from exhaustive. There are online support groups for pretty much any difficulty out there. The caveat is that there is a great deal of online “information” that is untrustworthy, deceptive and damaging, so discernment is of paramount importance. But with due diligence and caution, it’s possible to find helpful, potentially life saving or sanity saving guidance as well.
We humans are often overwhelmed and floundering, but we remain capable of remarkable things when we reach out to each other in faith and understanding. Whoever you are, whatever you are facing…remember you are not alone!
“…you’re not the only one who feels like you don’t belong, or that it’s better somewhere else. But there ARE things worth living for. And the best part is you never know what’s going to happen next.” ― O.R. Melling
Recently I was flying out of DCA to attend the memorial service for Tuffy, about whom I recently wrote. I got to the airport early and strolled into the USO, hoping to grab a cup of coffee and relax for a few minutes before heading to the gate. But I ended up with much more than a snack.
I’ve been to airport USOs all over the country, so many times that I lost count of how often. But this was the first time ever that I was greeted just inside the door by a beautiful therapy dog who was there to reassure nervous or exhausted travelers. Though I was not jittery or tired, I was feeling the usual chronic sadness that goes with being a widow who lost her beloved spouse much too soon. As always, the sight of a canine companion lifted my spirits immediately.
“She’ll sit on your lap,” her handler warned me, as I sat down on the floor beside the Keeshond named Nikita. “I hope so,” I told him, and of course she did. She clearly was accustomed to being greeted warmly by delighted new friends. She was like a super-soft stuffed toy that came to life. I lost track of how long I sat there with her, chatting with USO staff and snapping photos, but I think it was around 15 or 20 minutes. I left the USO that morning in a considerably happier mood than when I arrived.
I thought of that unexpected encounter when I read the quote from Melling. So many of the things that make life worth living are small things that arrive at unexpected times, just when we most need them. That has been true of the gifts, cards and other expressions of concern that have come from so many who meet me here in cyberspace, and it was true of the comforting visit I enjoyed with Nikita.
We never know what’s going to happen next. While not everything that surprises us is good or even neutral, if we keep hope alive, there are joys to brighten our path, and new friends just around the corner, waiting to greet us. Some of them may even be humans.
“They outgrow us so much faster than we outgrow them.” – Jodi Picoult
Drew and Grady flew in to see us on Matt’s birthday. I had not seen Grady in nine months, and during that time he went from a somewhat precocious four year old to a very mature five year old. His birthday is a few days before Matt’s, so we had a joint party for the two of them.
Grady already has been in public school full time for an entire year, having been selected at random for a pilot program enrolling preschoolers in full time classes at the local elementary school. Although he recently started kindergarten for the first time, he’s accustomed to being at school all day.
He is not shy, but like his father and grandfather, he’s not particularly chatty. He did tell me proudly that he knows how to take pictures “with any kind of camera.” Thus I was able to indulge in one of my favorite activities, taking pictures of other people taking pictures. This one, of course, is extra-special. This was the first time Drew or Grady had ever been at Jeff’s grave with Matt or me.
Grady also enjoyed working a jigsaw puzzle of the USA that belonged to Matt many years ago. He liked it so well that he chose to work it again the next day, preferring that activity to going back to the swimming pool. When I asked him questions, rather than blurting out an answer quickly, he usually thought a moment before responding, often qualifying his response with a parallel reflection.
I really enjoyed having the chance to spend some time with him, and though I would have loved to see Owen too, I was more able to focus on Grady instead of dividing my time between the two of them. Since they spent only two nights with us, it was a short visit to begin with, and each moment with him was precious.
In that regard, as with so much else in my life (really everything, it seems to me now), I am consciously choosing to see whatever blessings and advantages I can find in what remains a pretty dismal picture. I might be determined to defeat despair, but I’m also a fundamentally honest person and I can’t lie about how hard it still is to get through each and every day.
But as the old saying goes, time flies whether you’re having fun or not. So I’m determined to keep having as much fun as I can– or the closest thing that passes for fun in this harsh, still-new existence– and no matter what else is going on, a grandson is certainly a magnificent gift. Sons are pretty special, too.
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart…
— Stephen Schwartz
Many of you will remember my earlier post about going to visit my “other Mama and Daddy” on the first Christmas after Jeff died. My siblings and I were blessed to have a second set of parents who provided us with another home where we felt loved, safe and happy. The fact that this additional home was in the same neighborhood, just a short stroll away, was an added benefit, but the bond had never depended on geographic proximity. “Tuffy” and Betty Jo had been close friends of our parents since before we were born. I cannot remember a time when their presence was not a significant part of our lives, even during the relatively brief time they lived far away from us.
On Friday I got word that Tuffy was very ill and near death, and on Saturday came the phone call I was dreading, letting me know that Tuffy had died. Echoes of other losses resonated with this new sorrow. One by one, the adults who shaped and shielded my early life have left this earth, leaving a landscape that often feels desolate and bare. It’s a continual reminder to me that we, as adults, seldom realize the deep impressions we can leave on young lives.
It seems increasingly rare in today’s world to find lifelong friends whose connection begins in childhood and lasts more than eight decades. This was a great gift in my Daddy’s life, and therefore in that of his entire family. Friendships are blessings in so many ways, but one that I don’t hear mentioned very often is how important adult friendships are to children, who learn everything by watching. Trust is understood on a deep and unspoken level by seeing friendship demonstrated over long periods of time, affirming that loved ones are with us through rejoicing and sorrow, holidays and weekdays, good times and bad.
If your dear friends have children or grandchildren, know that your presence in their family’s life is a blessing to them as well as to the older generations. You may well be leaving handprints on their hearts; a seal of affection that will stay with them.
“Friends can make you feel that the world is smaller and less sneaky than it really is.”
― Lemony Snicket
Sometimes, especially lately, it’s pretty hard to see the world as a friendly place. From the nefarious newsmakers who hack away at others figuratively, digitally and sometimes even literally, to the rude strangers who cut in front of us in traffic or checkout lines, the seeming prevalence of ill will is enough to make the boldest of us want to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed.
But that’s only part of the story.
Every now and then it takes a slightly zany plan to open our eyes to just how many people out there are friends that we simply haven’t met yet. This weekend was a perfect example. Susan, whom I knew through this blog and the one at Upper Room, and then later through several face-to-face visits, did NOT think I was crazy–no crazier than her, anyway– when I suggested she fly in from Minnesota to ride up to Pennsylvania with Matt and me to celebrate Raynard’s birthday at the Shady Maple. This is a trip I had been
threatening planning to make for several years now, and this year seemed like the right time. So I was excited when Susan turned out to be thinking the same thing I was. Soon, she had plane tickets and we both had hotel reservations. Pennsylvania, here we come!
We decided to head to Amish Country on Friday as soon as she got into DCA, hoping to do some exploring when we got there. As it turned out, we arrived to one of those torrential downpours that turns umbrellas inside out and soaks you sideways no matter how close you park or how fast you run. Then at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, we ended up stuck in the sort of parking-lot traffic snarl that somehow seemed out of place in a location so obviously removed from New York or L.A. No worries, though; we had quite a unique evening despite the setbacks, and we knew the real reason for the trip was yet to come.
The next day, we arrived at the Shady Maple where Raynard, Mary, and a large gathering of their friends, family and church family had assembled to share a birthday feast. I didn’t get a head count but my guess is there were at least 30 people of all ages at several long tables full. Though the smorgasbord lived up to its reputation, the food took a backseat to the fellowship as people drifted from table to table chatting and joking and generally having fun. Susan, Matt and I had never seen any of these people before, except for Raynard and Mary. But everyone felt like a friend, and it had the jovial atmosphere of a family reunion.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, must surely be the most wholesome place on earth, even without factoring in the appealing sights of Amish horse-drawn buggies and women in print frocks with white caps and aprons. The greens of the landscape, decorated with farmhouses and barns and silos, are a soothing balm for agitated nerves. If I was asked to write a long list of adjectives describing that locale, “sneaky” is a word that would never make it even to the bottom of the 376th page of the list. But I digress. (Did you really think I could write about Raynard’s birthday without working that phrase in somewhere?)
If the world feels like a big, scary, rude and ugly place, I highly recommend you plan a trip to Lancaster County. Or maybe just pop on over to Delaware and drop in on Raynard and Mary. Or call up a friend who lives thousands of miles away and propose a last-minute trip to someplace where there are abundant green spaces and smiling faces. The world is a big and sneaky place, but it shrinks and brightens considerably if you choose the right company.
“Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out in me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom…possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.” ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The past few weeks have been so hectic with the details of moving that I’ve scarcely noticed the summer, except as an occasional annoyance when the heat became intense. There have been a few magical evenings in the York back yard, tending plants and generally soaking up the greenery, but they have been all too rare this year.
Just a little over one year ago, when the grief of losing Jeff was raw and fresh, I kept a long-planned commitment to travel to Oxford, England to study C. S. Lewis. I remember being wracked with anxiety about going overseas, wondering whether I could handle so much travel alone (I was only with classmates for part of my two weeks away) and doubtful of whether I could manage the work load of my summer courses.
As it turned out, the trip to England was a jewel that glimmered in the darkness of a very dark night. The coursework was a fascinating and absorbing distraction, and by sheer coincidence (or maybe not?) two of my fellow students in the class of about 20 were recent widows very close to the same age as me. I will always treasure the memories of our walks and talks, finding understanding with each other that was all too rare in our everyday worlds. Even the subject of our study, C. S. Lewis, was famously bereaved, writing words that have become classics of comfort for people blindsided by the loss of someone very dear.
But above and beyond all of these consolations, the legendary beauty of the English countryside in summer was as therapeutic for me as any remedy could possibly have been. Indeed, I came home with starry-eyed plans of leasing a cottage in the Cotswolds for a few months in the not-too-distant future. Buying a new home has postponed that dream, but I’m still hanging onto it. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I am determined to find some time to get out and enjoy the flowering beauty of midsummer evenings, just before dark, or mornings before the heat has a chance to take hold. If you’ve been able to garden, or travel, or otherwise appreciate the summer, send me some inspiration! The past few years have given me a bit of a love/hate relationship with hope, but like Sáenz, I still want to believe. I’ll keep reading that book of hope, and I’ll welcome your comments on the chapters that mean the most to you.
bloom in it.” ― Sanober Khan
Just when it seemed the heat was becoming unbearable, it broke. On Friday my sister and I walked outside and simultaneously burst into exclamations of delight at the wonderfully cool air. When I arrived back in York County, the temperature was even more refreshing. Everything was green and growing, but with my eyes closed, I would have thought it was spring or fall.
I had another surprise waiting for me. I don’t remember planting a lily at the base of one of our trees, but I noticed the green stem shooting up the last time I was at our York home. It was getting tall, but still had no flowers on it. I tried to figure out whether it was something I had planted. I couldn’t even remember exactly what it was. It looked a bit out of place but I resisted the urge to pull it up.
When I came back ten days later, I was rewarded for having left it undisturbed. The flowers were so vibrant that they splashed instant cheer on my anxious, sad spirit.
I’m starting to understand why it became traditional to send flowers to those who are ill or grieving. No matter what one is enduring, flowers have a mystical power to conjure up instant joy. It’s especially fun to find surprise blooms in an everyday setting, seemingly popping up out of nowhere.
What’s blooming in your life today?
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, I find myself sorely in need of both patience and perseverance. This week has been filled with endless paperwork, logistical tangles and other oppressive tasks, and it feels increasingly difficult to muster the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Here I am, once again re-blogging a previous post because it’s too late to do anything else, but I don’t want to be totally absent here. So much has changed in our country since I wrote this four years ago, but I think Adams’ words are more relevant than ever. I hope you will find them inspiring as our country continues to navigate itself through tumultuous seas. May your holiday be safe, happy and full of grateful reflection.
“I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.”
— Abigail Adams
One year ago today, in honor of America’s birthday, I featured a quote from my personal favorite of the “founding fathers,” John Adams, along with a video clip from the HBO series about him. Today’s quote is from his eloquent and formidable wife Abigail, arguably as influential in her own way, if only because of the vital role she played in the development of her husband’s career, intellect and philosophy.
The letter to her husband from which this quote is drawn (the text and image of which is linked above) was written near the end of November, 1775, less than a year before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. In her letter, Adams raises valid questions and concerns about the enormous implications of the steps toward self-government that the colonies were taking. While there seems little doubt that she shared her husband’s enthusiasm for independence, one cannot read her letter without realizing she was keenly aware that their ongoing efforts were fraught with danger, even after they succeeded in their goals.
The most interesting thing to me about Adams’ letter is how timeless her concerns are. So many of the perils of power she mentions are with us to this day, and “a labyrinth of perplexities” is an excellent description of the current dilemmas our country faces regarding health care, foreign policy, immigration law, economic and environmental issues, and almost anything subject to government legislation.
Of course, it’s not only governments that face such complicated problems. On a much smaller scale, our individual daily lives can be pretty challenging too. Most of us frequently deal with complex and difficult decision-making. No wonder we are often too overwhelmed with our own concerns to be very involved in politics, even when we care deeply about the outcome of governmental actions.
Ever practical as well as stubbornly optimistic, Adams pinpoints four vital keys to overcoming difficulties large and small: justice, righteousness, patience and perseverance. Looking closely at the history of the United States, one can see these four traits have been the foundation of whatever good has been achieved by our country, even when such achievements took decades or centuries to fully realize, or are yet imperfect. Though I’m less familiar with the history of other countries, I would not be surprised if a similar dynamic appeared to be at work everywhere in the world.
Happy 238th Birthday to the U.S.A! May the wise words of our first citizens remind us that there are some principles that never change, regardless of what circumstances we face. With patience and perseverance, we can keep moving forward.
One year ago today:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
Let’s just say it had been one of those days. Following one of those weeks. And one of those lifetimes.
Matt and I were driving through a drizzle that was the tail end of a huge thunderstorm. Traffic seemed even ruder than usual, probably because I was already in a bad mood, and feeling sad and kind of hopeless.
I was taking Matt to get a haircut that he badly needed. As I turned right onto the access road into the parking lot, the sun broke through the clouds and our windshield was filled with the most dazzling rainbow I’ve seen since leaving Hawaii over 20 years ago. I quickly parked and got out my cell phone. I have a cheap phone with a lousy camera that I’ve never really learned to use, but even with inferior equipment, it was hard to totally miss the beauty of the scene. Perhaps a bit of it comes through in the photo above
The photo doesn’t do it justice, but maybe you can imagine how it felt to be hit smack in the face with something so breathtaking, just when it was most needed. As Tolkien said, there is still much that is fair. Maybe he is right about love growing even more when it is mingled with grief, just as beauty is more remarkable when contrasted with dreariness.
It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s wonderful video clip about being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud, which I linked in this post. I wish you a rainbow today…see one, or BE one!
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” ― Fred Rogers
“Mister Rogers wasn’t a relic of a simpler time; he was a warrior in one of the most turbulent periods in American history. And he shows us, more than ever, how to cultivate our own heroism in the midst of chaos.” — Mary Elizabeth Williams
“…to think of Fred as a saintly person is to somehow absolve the rest of us from having to have a responsibility to live up to it. He worked hard at it, he struggled with it.”
— Morgan Neville
As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for very long, Fred Rogers is one of my great heroes. My nephew emailed me yesterday about the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which I knew was coming, but didn’t realize had already been released to a limited number of theaters. Now I’m searching for: 1. a cinema where it is showing, and 2. the time to go see it as soon as possible. I can’t wait to take Matt with me to see it. He’s as big a fan of Mr. Rogers as I am.
It’s hard to believe that over 15 years have passed since Mr. Rogers died, but I remember having my brief letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after his death. (My letter appeared in the print edition, but it’s available online too; if you scroll down this archived page about halfway, you’ll see it.) So much has happened during that 15 years, but the essential message Mr. Rogers brought to the world is more needed than ever.
The trailer to the film is linked above at Mr. Rogers’ name. If you watch it, you might understand why I’m so eager to see the film. The other two quotes, from a film reviewer and the film’s director, offer additional perspective in the linked articles. The film was produced by Nicholas Ma, son of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was a close friend of Mr. Rogers.
Given the many times I’ve mentioned Mr. Rogers on this blog (including here, in one of my favorite posts), and the abundance of current publicity surrounding the film, I really don’t feel the need to add anything more.
Except maybe one thought. As Mr. Rogers said, you leave something of yourself at every meeting with another person. Many, many of you have participated in this blog to the extent that we feel we know each other. In coming here and joining the conversation, you have left us with a part of yourself. Something you’ve said may be important to people you never even dream of. And I know how important you have been to me. Mr. Rogers understood that all sorts of people can and should be neighbors. I think he’d agree that this blog, too, is a neighborhood…and I’m so glad you are my neighbor!
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” —Charles Kingsley
I’m sitting here in the wee hours of the morning after a very active week of packing, closing on the new home, organizing things before the packers came on Thursday, moving some preliminary items into the home this weekend, shopping for window shades, ceiling fans and other additions, and now getting ready for phase one of the move, with today (a few hours hence) being the day all the furniture will be moved from our Alexandria town home to the new home in Potomac Shores. My arms are covered with bruises from bumping into things while carrying too-heavy boxes full of books and other treasures. I’m excited but exhausted. So I haven’t written a blog post this week. Instead of not showing up at all, I decided to re-blog whatever it was I wrote and posted five years ago today, not having the least idea what it might be. Luckily, WordPress never forgets, so here it is.
I was interested to note the common threads between this post and the one I wrote last week. Kingsley was clearly recognizing the “beautiful lessons” Oliver spoke of in the quote from last week’s post. I hope you enjoy this re-blogged post today, again or for the first time. Thanks for your patience with me during yet another major transition. This one, hopefully, will be a happier one than most of the ones I’ve endured since I first wrote this post.
Travel is one of my favorite ways of searching for lovely sights, but it’s not necessary to be in a gorgeous town such as Bar Harbor to catch glimpses of beauty. As Kingsley’s quote implies, it’s all around us if we welcome it.
Two practices have helped me feed my soul with beauty: walking, and taking photos. With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures is practically as inexpensive as walking. I hope you will welcome beauty wherever you find it, but today I especially encourage you to wander outdoors in search of “wayside sacraments” that are easy to miss in the rush of everyday life.
If you have a digital camera, try taking a few photos of what you find. You might be surprised how good a photographer you can be! But if you’d rather not take photos with a camera, take them with your eyes and memory. May we all cherish this “cup of blessing” that will lift our spirits, spark our creativity and energize our minds.
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. – Mary Oliver
During the course on C. S. Lewis I attended at Oxford last summer, our class would spend late afternoons and evenings walking through the countryside to tiny villages or other noteworthy sites. On these lengthy strolls we were guided by our professors, who had walked these paths with their students for many years. Without a doubt, the best lessons of my short time in England took place outside the classroom, even though these informal sessions involved no tests, no memorization, no presentations or papers to write.
I think I could say the same of my life. Like Oliver, I see beautifully divine lessons all around me, yet I am persistently slow to learn all I need to know from them. How to be still and refuse to feed the agitation of stressful circumstances– how to see the ultimate insignificance of most of what bothers me– how to rest in the many consolations that provide balm for sorrows that no earthly power can heal– these messages and more are beamed to me continually, and I treasure them. Yet how quickly they fade in the face of urgent distress or refractory grief.
I suppose all that I really have going for me is this thirst Oliver mentions, for the goodness I do not have. Happily, that otherworldly goodness is visible in this world, and all we have to do is look for it. It’s hiding in plain sight, one beautiful lesson after another. As long as we have the mercy of a little more time, we surely will find it.
“The brave die never, though they sleep in dust:
Their courage nerves a thousand living men.” — Minot J. Savage
Dear readers, though I don’t typically re-blog earlier posts, today I wanted to share this one again. Arlington National Cemetery is very much on my mind for so many reasons. May this Memorial Day bring you somber reflection and grateful hope. This post was originally published five years ago, on May 27, 2013.
In April 2012, I planned to take some visiting relatives to Washington DC, where they would spend the day sightseeing. I decided that, after dropping them off in town, I would stop by Arlington National Cemetery, where a good friend of ours was interred in 2011. I also wanted to visit the grave of Earl Glenn Cobeil, whose POW bracelet I had worn while I was in high school.
In the decades since I first wept over the news that Colonel Cobeil had died in captivity, I had often sought information about him but still knew very little. On one of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known as “The Wall”) I had learned a few facts, including the notation that he was buried at Arlington, so I wanted to find out where his grave would be. Before leaving home that day, I made what I thought would be a brief search online to find his grave’s location.
In searching for this information, I came across the devastating truth about the savage and unrelenting torture that had led to his death. A long-buried grief stabbed at my heart again as I realized that my worst fears for this man had been less horrible than what actually happened to him. The one bright spot amid this sorrow was the discovery of contact information for his family. I resolved to write to them, and after visiting Arlington that day, walked across the bridge and into DC to The Wall.
Before taking a photo of his name there, I pulled out a tissue and polished the surface surrounding the engraved letters. A photographer with an SLR and a tripod approached me, telling me he had made “some really good photos” of me, apparently for a newspaper. I asked him if he would take a photo with my camera, and he agreed. “Touch the wall again,” he said, and I reached up and put my fingers under the name.
After taking the photo, he asked me why I was there; whether this was a family member or friend who was lost in the war. I explained to him about the POW bracelet I had worn, as had so many others in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and briefly described what I had just learned that day about how Colonel Cobeil died. I thanked him for his interest and for the photo. Later, I left this tribute at the Virtual Wall, one among many others for a man I never knew, but will never forget.
I did contact his wife Patricia, now remarried, and she called me. We had a wonderful conversation, as well as further written correspondence. In talking with her I mused that, during the years I wore the bracelet, I could never have imagined that I myself would someday be married to an Air Force Colonel. What I also never imagined was the heartbreaking news Jeff and I would soon receive about his stage IV cancer. During the very difficult early days of coming to terms with his grim prognosis and the hard battle that lay ahead for him, the courage of Colonel and Mrs. Cobeil was an inspiration and source of strength to me.
Today, I hope we all will take time to remember the brave sacrifices of countless people whose names and faces we will never know, as well as those we have loved who are no longer here with us on earth. May their legacy live on in those of us who have been blessed by their example.
May 28, 2018, a short postscript: I now have a lovely silver bracelet with a message of hope, sent to me by Colonel Cobeil’s family after I wrote them of Jeff’s diagnosis. The grave that Matt and I will one day share with Jeff is not far from that of Colonel Cobeil, an easy and lovely walk when the weather is favorable.
“No matter how uncertain our world sometimes seems, we can count on flowers to appear each spring.” – Barbara Milo Ohrbach
Longtime members of the Defeat Despair community will be familiar with Susan, whom I first met here and whose previous visits have inspired earlier posts. She spent some time with Matt and me this past week, and though I’ve now met many of you face to face, Susan is the first person I met on the blog who has visited our Yorktown home.
Staying several days in the “Historic Triangle” meant we spent a lot of time in the early history of our country, at least in our imaginations. We learned that those 18th century fashions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they look (at least, not according to those who were wearing and creating them); we served on the jury at the piracy trial of Blackbeard’s first mate (the unanimous verdict was GUILTY!) and we spent a delightful afternoon listening to the incomparable Thomas Jefferson, whose hair has gone completely white since the last time I saw him in person over a dozen years ago, but who can still captivate an audience with wit, style and eloquence.
But with all the dramatic appeal of the “living history” presentations, one of my favorite pastimes during the days at Colonial Williamsburg was strolling through the gardens, swapping information or sharing questions about various plants, playing “name that flower” (and initially confusing foxglove with larkspur), and taking endless photographs.
One of the earliest posts on this blog featured a 2009 snapshot of the lovely home and garden pictured above, and as you will see if you compare the photos, it has held up well. If you look closely, you will see the tips of the foxgloves that dominate the 2009 photo, peeking over the picket fence in the background of the photo above. I don’t remember whether there were poppies and violas behind me in 2009 when I took the closer shot of the cottage, but they were impossible to miss this time, so I went for the long view.
Even a re-created tableau of colonial American history does not remain static. There were many new activities and sights to see on this visit, and also quite a few attractions that are no longer available, which I really missed. But the flowers did not disappoint me. Ohrbach is right; we can count on them to appear each spring, reminding us of beauty that has been bringing people joy for centuries. Despite competing with patriots, pirates and petticoats, flowers hold their own, inspiring every bit as much curiosity, and triggering more photographs. I hope your springtime is full of their colorful company.
‘Tis fitting in these days of noise,
Here in these thunder years of steam,
The soul should keep its equipoise
And think its thoughts and dream its dream.
We scar the placid vales with mills,
We scoop the seas and shear the hills:
‘Tis well that to these temples of the mind
The jangled soul can flee and leave the noise behind.
— Sam Walter Foss, librarian and poet
(Lines from the 1904 dedication of the Carnegie Library in Melrose, Massachusetts)
When was the last time you visited your public library? It’s a great place to defeat despair. To adapt a phrase from Dante, every library should have a sign posted above the door that says “Rediscover hope all ye who enter here.” The best public libraries are places of sheer delight, and even the worst have something to offer.
Reading the quote above, it’s interesting to think that 1904 was described as an era of noise and jangled souls. This was before television, traffic and technology became ubiquitous. Some things, apparently, never change, including the soul’s need for a place of respite from the chaotic demands of daily life.
As a librarian I’m more than a little biased, so it’s not unusual that the library would be one of my favorite places to take refuge from confusion and despair. Just walking through the door lifts my spirits. I’m sure to find books, videos and audiobooks to entertain me, as well as practical help for everyday problems. Whether I need to repair a light switch, nurse a plant back to health, or give myself a pep talk, I know I can find the information I need at the library.
Of course, most of us go to the internet with such questions, and that’s a great convenience for which I’m thankful on a daily basis. But there is something about wandering the stacks of a library that offers a different sort of solution. If you haven’t done that lately, give it a try. What begins as a nice relaxing browse can lead to the opening of all kinds of mental doors, and a sense of freedom and possibility that clicking on hyperlinks can’t capture.
If your soul feels jangled, flee the noise and spend a few moments– or hours– at a nearby library. It won’t cost you a cent, and you’ll leave with something money can’t buy.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
— Henri Nouwen
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.” — Paul Simon
The past six years, and really the past 32 years, have left me with far more questions than answers, but observation has firmly established the truth of some generalizations about humans. Among them is the unmistakable tendency for people to shy away from anything that can’t be easily fixed. We live in a throwaway culture where objects, animals and even other people are discarded or disregarded when they lose their practical value or don’t perform as expected.
Because of this I spend almost all of my days and hours alone, seeing nobody who isn’t paid directly or indirectly to be in either Matt’s life or mine. Matt is the only person who is reliably present face-to-face in my life, and of course, his ability to communicate well enough to share my pain (or his own) is sadly limited. I miss countless things about Jeff, but losing the gift of his presence in daily life is the greatest sorrow of all. His devotion to us manifested itself on many levels, but the most profoundly beneficial was his steadfast proximity to all the details of our lives. He never needed a reason or an occasion to be there; he chose to be with us, as we did him, over and over again.
If you have known the prolonged isolation that too often accompanies chronic or catastrophic suffering, you will understand what I am talking about. Most people my age or younger don’t know yet what that particular form of alienation is like, but I believe almost everyone will experience it if they live long enough.
Meanwhile, even if you have no clue what it’s like– even if you feel impatient when your well-intended suggestions aren’t adopted, and you just want to shake that despondent individual and tell her to SNAP OUT OF IT– realize that nobody expects or even needs you to solve an unsolvable problem. Sometimes, all that’s needed is someone to be there.
Chances are there is a person in your life right now who might like to hear your voice or see your face, and it wouldn’t have to be more than a brief visit. It won’t pay your bills or raise your social status or get your to-do list checked off. It’s almost certainly not a priority with you. But it might change someone’s life. Maybe even your own.
“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” ― Hilary Mantel
“…life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight.” — Carly Simon
During the past week my friend Kathy was visiting me from Texas. We went out to Arlington National Cemetery and from there into DC on a lovely spring day. The cherry blossoms were just past full bloom, still beautiful, and it was the kind of afternoon that is a balm for the sorrows of a cold and dreary winter.
I don’t have many words today, but I do wish you lovely April afternoons to fill you with peace and reassurance that cannot be fully described or understood.
“There are things money can’t buy. I don’t think standard of living equates with cost of living beyond a certain point. Good housing, good health, good food, good transport. There’s a point you start getting inverse correlation between wealth and quality of life…
I have everything I need to have, and I don’t need any more because it doesn’t make a difference after a point.”— Warren Buffett
That quote might make way more sense if it wasn’t being said by one of the all-time richest men in the entire world. But there’s a strange way in which it’s more credible coming from Buffet, who is famously
cheap frugal in the way that he lives, especially when one considers his literally unimaginable wealth.
Buffet knows first hand that no amount of money can purchase what isn’t for sale at any price. Beyond obtaining the basic necessities of a healthy life, money is never going to be the route to happiness, because more is never enough.
Most of us who read this blog will know this to be true because of the joy we experience when we work in the garden, or savor a cup of tea, or laugh with a loved one. If you are reading this post, chances are good that you are rich! Maybe not financially, but in all the ways that really count, the blessings among us are abundant.
You may be thinking something along the lines of what my friend Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote: “All I ask is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Most of us will never get that chance, but we need look no further than the headline stories in the news to see the “inverse correlation” Buffet mentions, creating all sorts of havoc in countless lives. We don’t need to find out first hand about that inverse correlation. It’s all around us.
Instead, let’s focus on the positive truth of his claim. What will you be doing today that might inspire Buffet to point to you and say “See what I mean about quality of life that can’t be bought?” You are invited to meet Sheila and me on the Virtual Verandah for an imaginary tea party, and share some of your own
cheap frugal comforts with us there, or in the comments below. While you are at it, enjoy that clever “Foolish dragon” haiku at the Motley Fool article linked above. It makes me smile every time I see it.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
― René Daumal
Daumal’s words are likely to ring true for most of us, I think. Whether we glimpse that “higher up” view through our religious experiences, through the satisfaction of attaining a long-sought goal, or through supreme moments of joy with friends and loved ones, our souls will feed on the memory long after the exaltation has passed.
When I read the quote above, I was reminded of a song my friend Ellis used to play on her guitar and sing to me during our college years. It was called “John Henry Bosworth” and it was written by Paul Stookey. As with many of the songs with which Ellis could always sing my blues away, the entire thing has stuck with me all these years and I’ve sung it often. This despite my never having heard the original version by Peter, Paul & Mary until I looked it up on YouTube to hear it while writing this post. (I must admit, I liked it better when Ellis sang it, even though I generally enjoy Peter, Paul & Mary. Their version is a bit more “twangy” which is not my favorite style. But I digress.)
The song has a very appealing message of a family whose happiness transcends the turbulent circumstances in the world around them. The story of Bosworth and his family is summed up in this final verse:
And I was wondering if you had been to the mountain
To look at the valley below?
Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?
Did you know which way to go?
Oh the mountain stream runs pure and clear
And I wish to my soul I could always be here
But there’s a reason for living way down in the valley
That only the mountain knows
Most of us are blessed with at least a few of these mountaintop experiences that give us the ability to see beyond our immediate situation. While some have many more such happy memories than others, the opportunity is there for each of us to climb higher up and get the unique perspective that will inform our conduct as we live in the valleys. Of course, in this life we cannot remain at these lofty heights. But as Daumal reminds us, what we cannot see, once glimpsed, becomes something we can still know.