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.

Someone’s home

I enjoyed the sunroom of the Gables Guest House in Oxford, where there was plenty of tea
and an abundance of helpful guide books to browse. June, 2017

“Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.” Vera Nazarian

I love staying in bed and breakfast inns, especially if the hosts live in or very near the home where the guests stay. I don’t go for the pricey or frilly ones, just the type that seem clean and comfy and friendly. I tend to be more mindful of my own presence in such places; quieter, less wasteful of resources and more deferential than I am in the impersonal setting of a large hotel.

I think it takes a special sort of person to be a successful innkeeper. The ones Jeff and I met over the years have been professional yet friendly, offering travel hints that only locals tend to know about. Something about sitting at the table of the person who has cooked a delicious breakfast helps me feel a bit more at home, wherever I happen to be.

My hostess at the B&B where I spent my first two nights at Oxford told me of a lovely village, Burford, in the Cotswolds. I hadn’t read about it in any tour books or heard it discussed as a “must-see” destination, but she told me how easy it was to catch a bus there from right outside her door. It was a wonderful place to spend the day, and I enjoyed every minute. I likely would never have seen it without her helpful instructions. I’m sure I’ll eventually share some of the photos I took there on this blog.

On that same trip to England I had my first experience with an AirBnB home just outside London, and am now eager to try it again sometime. Just as the internet has enabled other kinds of online connections, new travel opportunities are possible for us, offering a different window through which to see a famous or lesser-known destination. It’s true that one usually saves money traveling this way, but the real attraction for me is the chance to have a one-of-a-kind introduction to a place that is, first and foremost, someone else’s home.

Have you visited any lovely bed and breakfast inns lately? Feel free to tell us all about it. We might just show up there sometime, and we’ll tell them you sent us!

The garden of the spirit

Roses at Kew Gardens, July, 2017

“The ground I tend sustains me in early summer, but the garden of the spirit is the place I go when the wind howls…Raised in the mind’s eye, nurtured by the faithful composting of orange rinds and tea leaves and ideas, it is finally the wintergarden that produces the true flowering, the saving vision.” — Louise Erdrich 

Thank you, Louise Erdrich, for pointing out the beauty of our gardens of the spirit. I need the occasional reminder that this unseen garden requires tending, so that its blooms will be there to lift my heart when the wind howls. I was delighted to read that Erdrich uses the same compost materials I do. Sometimes I run low on orange rinds when they are out of season, but I’m never short on tea leaves or ideas. I also rely on the gifts of friends who bring me their coffee grounds, veggie peels and reassuring words to sprinkle over the soil after a hard rain.

If we were to take a quick tour through your garden of the spirit, what might we find there? Do you favor lots of annual color, or does the landscape feature mostly sturdy evergreens and hardy perennials? What are your favorite composting materials? Is yours a formal garden, with statuary and fountains and topiary? Or is it a beautifully overgrown cottage garden with a cute bistro table and chairs for casual chats over a cup or two? Maybe you are a practical type whose garden puts wholesome fruits and vegetables on the table, or maybe your own garden of the spirit is a combination of many types.

The wonderful thing about gardens, whether of the earth or of the spirit, is that no two are exactly alike. But they all require diligent care. If you run short on composting materials or need some help with the weeding, let me know. Cooperation and community are the most productive and fun ways to cultivate thriving gardens of the spirit. Iced tea (or hot coffee) and comfy chairs will be waiting for us on the Verandah when we finish working for the day. Sun hat optional.

 

The metaphor holds

Photo by Darrell Cassell via Unsplash

“It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey, and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive.” — Rachel Held Evans

The metaphor does hold, on so many levels. I could talk about how the bends in the road may be hiding something wonderful, or something awful, but mostly they just reveal more road that looks quite ordinary to us, until we are somewhere different.

I could talk about the people we meet along the way, how some of them walk quite a long while with us, and others just refresh us with a cup of cold water, then wave briefly and wish us well. I could talk about the people who leave, or take a different turn, or die, and don’t make it with us all the way to whatever we hope to find in this life on earth.

But when I read this quote tonight, I had a much more comical and mundane image in my mind– equally clichéd– that of a little kid asking again and again, “Are we there yet?” Usually that phrase goes with an image of kids in the back seat of a car, but imagine how much more often they might be asking that question if it were a really, really long walk.

It might be a hot day, or there might be a rainstorm, or even both. As the hours stretch on, they might have to sit down in the road awhile from sheer fatigue, and maybe even cry a little before getting up again. The parent keeps reminding the child of the dry, safe, climate-controlled rest at the end of the journey, the refreshing drinks and delicious food, but somehow all that can seem so far off as to be not quite real.

Evans was far too young when she wrote this quote to know what one feels like, say, sixty years into the journey, after protracted sorrow and too many heart-rending goodbyes. I’m guessing (though I could be wrong) that her energy level was such that the “keep-moving” uncertainty sounded a bit less daunting; that maybe she had no idea how long it can feel when we “never exactly arrive” for decades on end.

I’m sure, though, that she remembers what Hebrews 11 tells us, listing example after example of real people who walked this road before us:  “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…the world was not worthy of them.”

If life is a long series of letting go of one idea, thing or person after another, perhaps the last thing we loosen our grip on is this notion that someday we will arrive; that we will find (or make) a perfect world.  Not on this earth, we won’t. But that same passage reminds us that these people were hoping for a better place, and God has prepared one for them — and us. I really believe that. So as long as I can, I ‘ll keep walking.

 

 

See from a bike

Fences double as bike racks all over Oxford, June 2017.

“It is curious that with the advent of the automobile and the airplane, the bicycle is still with us. Perhaps people like the world they can see from a bike…without leaving behind clouds of choking exhaust, without leaving behind so much as a footstep.”
— Gurdon S. Leete

While I was in Oxford, I found myself snapping photo after photo of the bicycles that were parked all over the city. They added spots of color to the stone walls, injecting a whimsical element into what could have been an intimidating fortress of hard work, tradition, decorum and regulation. Each one looked prettier to me than the one before.

I haven’t ridden a bicycle for years, but I did have one that I rode frequently between 1990 and 1996, while we lived on the central coast of California and in Hawaii. I never learned to ride a ten speed or even a three speed, and when I requested a bike for Christmas, I told Mama it would have to be the old-fashioned kind like the one I rode as a child. It took her a long time to find one that could be delivered to our home in California, but she managed to do it, and soon I was riding through the gentle hills of our lovely neighborhood.

People often asked me why I would want to ride a bike like that, but I was afraid of a faster one, and I didn’t mind that it took more work. Riding more slowly was fine with me; the views were better that way. The only thing I didn’t love about it was wearing the helmet that nobody had realized was a necessary precaution when I was a kid.

Once in awhile, in Hawaii, I would ride the three miles or so to the beach on base, just to see the ocean and spend a few minutes there before heading back home. The way home often seemed quite long, and many years later I would have vague dreams about riding home from the beach for an impossibly long distance (maybe twenty miles or more, in the crazy illogical landscape of sleep). Sometimes in the dreams it would be getting dark, and I would be asking myself “why on earth did I ride so far on this bike?” and feeling fearful that I would not make it back.

I don’t remember ever feeling that way in real life, and even in the dreams, my distress at the distance I was traveling felt more like the sorrow of moving farther and farther away from a past I had loved, without quite knowing what might lie ahead. Now, of course, I remember those dreams with a confirming sadness that my anxiety about the future– if that is what haunted my sleep– turned out to be quite reasonable.

Yet bikes are still happy things to me. I don’t plan to ride one ever again, but I love the sight of them. Maybe I should get an old brightly-colored bike that nobody wants to ride anymore, and use it for a garden decoration. Or maybe I’ll just make a photo collage of all the Oxford bikes I captured in digital and mental pictures.

Did you (or do you) ever ride a bike? Please tell us what you love about it.

 

Sometimes we do

Photo by Jordan McQueen via Unsplash

Sometimes

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you. 

— name withheld at the poet’s request*

This post is for everybody who is heartbroken– over the news, over the strife in this country and around the world, or over personal sorrows, or sheer exhaustion and despair not directly related to the chaotic world outside the doorstep.

My wish for you, and for all of us, is that we take a few moments to find a still, silent place to breathe deeply and realize that even the air we take in, and the ability to breathe unaided by machinery, is a gift we did not earn.

I wish you gratitude and sanity and calm, a peace that passes understanding. I can tell you this sort of peace is possible, even for one who lacks that breath, one who is dying and knows it. It must be possible for us, too. May it happen for us.

*no, the poet is not me or anybody you know from this blog.
If you want to know why the name is withheld, read the last bullet point here.

How ordinary

Just a typical home on a quiet residential street in Richmond, near London, July 2017

“You know that the eyes of love aren’t blind, they are wide open…you realize how ordinary it is to love the beautiful, and how beautiful it is to love the ordinary.” 
Marius Vieth

When I travel, I find that I enjoy the everyday neighborhoods and local groceries, libraries and post offices almost as much as I do the world famous tourist spots. It’s a habit I picked up from my parents; no matter where we would travel, we usually took the public transportation and avoided pricey tours. Jeff and I continued that tradition, because he too preferred independent exploring over group itineraries.

When I was planning my trip to Oxford, I scheduled a couple of extra days following the end of classes. I wanted to have plenty of time to get from Oxford to Heathrow, and had always wanted to see the Royal Botanic Gardens (also known as Kew Gardens) just outside London.  Feeling a bit adventurous, I booked an Airbnb lodging on a residential street within an easy walk of the Gardens and the Underground station. I was hoping I wouldn’t regret my first-ever experience with the intriguing service, which promised to offer something more than a typical hotel could sell at any price.

It was a lovely way to end my trip. I stayed at the home of a congenial Italian family who had been living in Britain for seven years or so, and built a cozy one-room studio near the back wall of their garden. It was a quiet neighborhood where I felt safe walking around in the evenings, enjoying the famed English gardening skills on full display at almost every home I passed.

I suppose that living so near to Kew Gardens might provide an extra incentive to indulge one’s love of flowers, but I saw such displays everywhere I went in England. I don’t know how much I might have noticed them if I were driving past in a car. There was nothing spectacular about the modest neighborhood where I stayed; it certainly didn’t compete with the charming cottages of the Cotswolds, or the stately buildings of Oxford, or the gorgeous mansions of Belgravia. But if someone asked me which I enjoyed most, my day at Kew Gardens or my quiet evening walks in the Richmond neighborhood just outside its gates, I would have to think about it for a long time to answer accurately. In fact, I thought about it before writing this post, and I’m still not sure of the answer. I think it must be “both.”

Things can be beautiful without being uniformly so, of course. I probably could have taken many photographs that made the area look ugly. Appreciating the beauty does not require being blind to the unsightliness that is usually present right alongside the beauty (though the camera is good at focusing in on what is best and cutting the rest).

No matter where you or I might live, if we were strolling through one of our neighborhoods together this evening during the last of the fading sunlight, I bet we could find many beautiful things to photograph. We could even take a few of those now-obligatory selfies to remember how much fun we had.

Isn’t it extraordinary to live in a world where the ordinary can be so beautiful?

Something you have to learn

Never too young to learn: Owen cheers for the Gwinnett Braves, April 2017

“Nobody is born smiling – being happy in this world is something you have to learn.” — Ashleigh Brilliant

How true! And as with all kinds of education, some people seem naturally better at learning happiness than others. A few are exceptionally gifted in this way, and others are what we might call “learning disabled” when it comes to enjoying life. Even so, I think anyone can learn to be happy at least some of the time. For many of us, being happy is something we will have to re-learn several times during a lifetime, but the payoff is worth it.

I’m in one of those stages where I’m re-learning how to be happy. I am fortunate to be blessed with many great teachers who excel at this subject, and quite a few of them are people who visit us right here on this blog. I am also thankful to report that, despite tremendous sorrows, there are still abundant resources to help us build this skill. And most of them are free!

Today I invite you to join us for class. It’s being held everywhere, including wherever you happen to be right now. Bonus points for bringing your camera, and extra bonus points for sharing with the class.  Suggestions for the location of next week’s class are now being accepted. So far, the list includes: baseball parks, libraries, picnics, tea rooms, church, your friend’s house, and that perennial favorite, your own back yard. Got any other ideas?

A thousand tongues

From the tower, Radcliffe Camera and the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, June 2017

“There is an air about it, resonant of joy and hope: it speaks with a thousand tongues to the heart: it waves its mighty shadow over the imagination…and points with prophetic fingers to the sky.” — William Hazlitt, describing Oxford

This was my third visit to Oxford, but the first time I stayed more than three days. The weather was as close to perfect as I could have wished, and I walked to my heart’s content and more, averaging 8 miles a day. Much of that walking was part of class sessions or group activities, but a fair amount of it was my own exploration. There were some great class outings, and none more memorable than climbing the narrow spiral staircase in the 13th century tower of the University Church.

The tower was so cramped that a few visitors who were there that day felt, on seeing inside it, too claustrophobic to even try to climb it. Those of us who did had no regrets; the view from the top was breathtaking, and extended almost 360° to give an unparalleled view of the city. Reading Hazlitt’s description of Oxford, I immediately thought of that panorama.

I can’t think of any thriving city of such relatively small size where so many of the buildings have been in use for so long. Yet there is nothing that feels antiquated about Oxford, at least not to me. Perhaps the presence of so many colleges with their youthful population explains part of the animated atmosphere, but I think that is only a part of the appeal.

As is my travel habit, I spent much time exploring the residential areas just outside the city center, riding the buses with the locals and roaming around the grocery stores hunting for snacks and teas I can’t get at home. Like the city center, these places were modern, yet set in charming historic neighborhoods where I was tempted to stop and take photos so often that always ran out of time before I saw as much as I wanted to see.

I’m a great believer, though, that we don’t need to go someplace far-off and exotic to find fascinating things. Most places will speak to us with a thousand tongues, if we stop to listen. Here’s wishing us all a week of tuning in to the resonance of joy and hope wherever we find ourselves.

To transform

The garden at the Kilns, where lovely weather and lawn chairs awaited us.

“He had a way of using all that he read and experienced to transform the way that he lived. There was no such thing as purely academic knowledge for him…”John Bremer

As it happens, I’m taking a break from working hard on a “purely academic” paper on C. S. Lewis that’s due in a couple of days, but I remembered it was time to post. So it seemed appropriate to share one of the photos I took on our visit to his Oxford home, the Kilns, where one of our class sessions was held.

Lewis lived most of his life in this modest but lovely little home, sharing it first with his adopted family (and for a time, some British children evacuated from London during World War II, who were said to have inspired his Narnia books), then with his brother and later, his wife Joy. The house is now maintained by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, and scholars-in-residence make it their home for months or even years at a time.

My ten days in Oxford were a rare privilege that now feels more like a dream than reality. As time goes by I’ll tell you more about it, but for now, suffice it to say that if one must write an academic paper, which is definitely my least favorite kind of writing, there is no more appealing topic. Despite his fame and popularity, Lewis predicted shortly before he died that he would be forgotten by five years after his death. But he remains as influential as ever, and he is one of a very few authors of his generation whose works have never gone out of print. Apparently, in transforming his own life, he was able to help others transform theirs as well. Isn’t that an encouraging thought?

 

The bigger, more beautiful picture

Pat and me at their family reunion in northern Virginia, July 2017.

“When we do the hard, intimate work of friendship, we bring a little more of the divine into daily life.  We get to remind one another about the bigger, more beautiful picture that we can’t always see from where we are.”Shauna Niequist

Okay, so imagine you are traveling across several states to northern Virginia, to attend a family reunion of 110 people– that’s right, one hundred and ten— coming together from all over the country, as far away as California. Let’s say you only have a couple of days there. What would you do? Visit with family? Go tour the monuments? See a bit of the Smithsonian? Help your friend with her research paper? Hmmm, how did that one get on the list?

You might want to ask Pat. She’s your neighbor here at Defeat Despair, and she shows up on a regular basis, though you will seldom see evidence of that unless you look for the little green and white quilted square that became her Gravatar the first time she clicked “Like.” Pat is not one to comment much online, as she has mentioned before, but she’s very faithful to read the blog and let me know she’s been there by clicking “like” to leave her little quilt emblem, like a friendly secret handshake.

She’s also wonderful at keeping in touch the good old-fashioned way…postal mail, and sometimes its closer cousin, email complete with digital photos now and then.  Pat and I have been in touch for somewhere between four and five years now, and if you’ve been in my home, you’ve seen bits and pieces of her gifts to me. Cute postcards, a cheery fridge magnet, a book of inspiring quotes with a personal history behind it, a CD of songs composed by her late mother, who was a gifted musician…Pat often senses that I’m in need of uplifting thoughts or an encouraging word or two, and she’s filled that gap for me more often than I can remember.

And now you get to see her in person! Well, almost. After years of knowing her only through her words, gifts and occasional photos, I was overjoyed that she chose to spend one of her precious two full days in the DC area with me. I was able to meet many of her family (and to congratulate the people who put that amazing gathering together) before whisking her away to my favorite little cafe, La Madeleine, where we celebrated Bastille Day with a tasty brunch and little blueberry/strawberry tarts made for the holiday. Pat’s multilingual and speaks fluent French, so that made it even more fun.

Pat and me, just before we said goodbye after meeting face to face for the first time, July 2017.

Then she went back to our townhouse and let me interview her for my research project on letter writing. Although it was a fun topic, it’s not what a lot of people might define as a preferred way to spend a rare vacation day. But she somehow made me feel she enjoyed it almost as much as I did, not to mention giving me some great ideas to incorporate into my paper. That’s the sort of thing that Niequist might include in her reference to “the hard, intimate work of friendship:” answering a lot of questions about your personal habits and opinions, knowing that there’s absolutely nothing in it for you. There was plenty in it for me, though, on so many levels.

The highlight of the day for me was when I was dropping her back off at the hotel and we had to say goodbye. We prayed together and as she walked me to my car, she spontaneously burst into a beautiful gospel song we sing at church sometimes. I knew then that she had inherited her mother’s gift for music. That song of praise rang in my mind for days, a gift that kept on giving, a reminder of the bigger and more beautiful picture. I still can’t see it very clearly, but Pat helps me keep believing it is there.

The tightrope

I never argue with Yoda. Right he almost always is.

“A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” — William Arthur Ward

Hello everyone (those of you who are still with us). I have missed you immeasurably, and just couldn’t go another day without posting. Or maybe it’s partly that I need some escape, however momentary, from getting my papers done. (OK Amy, I hear you, I am getting back to work now! You need not tell them about the other momentary escapes that somehow added up to hours.)

Seriously, I’m worn out with being serious, so I just headed over to the trusty Yoda Meme Generator and made a photo the easy way. Besides, I could hear his wise little growl in my ear, telling me that wait I should not. I can always count on the old Jedi master to remind me of serious things in the funniest way possible.  We used to say (only half-jokingly) that Daddy reminded us of Yoda.

I’m going to try my best to be back here regularly, and I’ll update you little by little, as I hope you will do too, in the comments. The short version is that Matt and I are OK, we are surviving, and some days are better than others. Thanks so much for all of you who have continued to keep in touch, sending me warm thoughts, little remembrances and much-needed prayers. Though Matt’s situation (and therefore mine) is still in limbo, I have a few happy things to report, so stay tuned. Note to Pat: now is your last chance to tell me if you don’t want to see your smiling face coming soon to a blog post near you!

The whole world, 2017

As far as I know, this is the only photo of Mama with me as a baby, taken early 1957.

As far as I know, this is the only photo of Mama with me as a baby, taken early 1957.

“If the whole world were put into one scale, and my mother in the other, the whole world would kick the beam.” Henry Bickersteth, Lord Langdale

Hello friends,

Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comments. I have appreciated each one, and will respond as soon as I am able.

I wrote the post below for Mother’s Day four years ago, and I now re-post it in memory of my amazing Mama, who died yesterday. She lived only 20 months without Daddy, the love of her life, her husband of 66 years, and (during his final years) her constant caretaker. The relatively short time she lived without him was filled with suffering and heartbreak for her, but she held fast to her determined faith and indomitable spirit. Again and again, she expressed gratitude for the abundant blessings of her life, and reminded me continually that even in loss, we have reasons to give thanks. Up to the evening before Jeff’s passing, and well beyond that, she filled my life with her strength, courage, and refusal to give in to despair.

Seth, Mama, Jeff, Matt and me on September 13, 2016.
Ten days later, Jeff entered the hospital, never to return home again.

Jeff and my mother were so alike that losing her so soon after Jeff’s death resonates with the deep sadness that an abandoned child must feel. Now I carry on without the three steadfast and stalwart pillars of my life: Daddy, Mama, Jeff. No other person will ever love me as they did. None can equal their devotion, faith and diligence. No light will shine more brightly than that of their shared legacy, which marks the way ahead for me. Thanks for being with me through all this, and for caring!

The following post was first published on May 12, 2013:

Even after I became a mother, I have never liked Mother’s Day.  It seems to me an artificially contrived and ultimately inadequate invention designed primarily to sell cards and flowers, and in some cases, to assuage an adult child’s guilty conscience.  Nonetheless, I do find myself thinking of my own mother each year on this day, and feeling at a loss for words to describe what her presence has meant in my life.

Perhaps I dislike Mother’s Day mostly because none of the sentimental, flowery tributes commonly sold at this time of year ever seemed an appropriate homage to my mother, who was and is a formidable woman.  Her blunt practicality and unfailing generosity are equal to her iron will and undaunted courage in the face of adversity.  She has never been the longsuffering, quiet, kind and gentle saint portrayed by so many of the maudlin descriptions of motherhood. More than anyone I know, she embodies the truth that tough love is, in many cases, the most beneficial sort.

Yet just when she seems most intimidating, a whimsical humor will break through and leave us laughing.  She is still the one I run to when hit with unexpected sorrow or hardship.  Somehow, nothing seems quite as impossible after I’ve talked to Mom about it.  She’s been through more than most of us can imagine, but always managed to outpace almost anyone I knew.

She survived poverty and polio as a very young child, and has lived almost her entire life with only one “good” leg, but she never allowed that to slow her down. She had four children in four different states within a period of ten years, my father’s career having demanded frequent moves.  When she was nearly killed by a drunk driver going 70 mph who rammed into the driver’s door of her car, no one knew if she could ever fully recover, but she soon was back to her unrelentingly busy schedule, caring for her children and working on various church and community efforts.

Years later, when she faced brain surgery for a hemorrhaging aneurysm shortly before our wedding in 1980, she stayed true to form, stoic in the knowledge that she might not survive.  Showing no fear and little emotion of any kind, she reminded us that no matter what happened, we all should feel grateful that she had lived through the car crash and was able to care for us until we were all grown.  For as long as I can remember, she has given us a nearly flawless example of what it means to live in faith and trust that God will do what is best.  I know that example will be with me always.

So, with all due respect to those who celebrate this day, to the preachers who will preach their yearly sermon about mothers, and the restaurants that will be filled to overflowing, and the many fitting tributes of love and appreciation that will be shown today, let’s all admit that no day could ever be long enough, no tribute strong enough, to capture the gratitude so many of us feel for the amazing gifts our mothers have given us.  Happy Mother’s Day to all!

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