Excitement and peace

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers, always

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you can wait

Photos from Unsplash; photographers, clockwise from upper left:
Anaya Katlego, Mohammad Gh, Tom Morel, and Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…  — Rudyard Kipling

If I had to name my top five favorite poems, “If” by Kipling would definitely make the cut. Every line is challenging and full of manifest wisdom. Though I have loved the poem since my youth, I find that different lines of it are most applicable to me at various times in my life. The verse above, however, has remained relevant for as long as I can remember.

Can you imagine how the world might be transformed if everyone– leaders, politicians, executives, family, clergy, entry-level clerks, students, even children– lived up to the principles contained in just these four lines? While each of these lines sets a high standard, the fourth is perhaps the most challenging of all. How difficult it is to remain humble while refusing to return evil for evil! How hard it is to remain ethical in a corrupt world, without inspiring resentment and jealousy in those who project their own manipulative tendencies onto the action of others.

According to almost anyone’s reckoning, time passes ever more swiftly, yet we grow increasingly impatient at even the slightest bit of waiting. Surely the waiting Kipling refers to here would be measured in weeks, months, maybe even years. Often, though, I don’t even want to wait a day for something I deem important or time-sensitive.

During the years since Jeff died, no small part of my sadness and agitation are the result of grief taking far longer to heal than I had expected it to take. Many days– maybe most of them– I have to remind myself that I must focus on just the day or hour right in front of me. My mind, though not what it once was, seems agile and demanding compared to my aging joints and exhausted limbs.

Growing older can bring with it a sense of urgency as the sun sinks gradually into the horizon of our long term picture, but the ability to wait gracefully becomes even more important than it was in our youth. As I look to my third full year of widowhood, my resolution (to the extent that I have one at all) can be captured in Kipling’s words above. I want to wait patiently, without agitation. I don’t want to give in to the liars and haters. I want to stay humble and grateful, short on advice and long on understanding. If I can manage all that, I won’t need to worry about much else.

As you look toward 2019, what aspirations fill your heart? Whatever they may be, I wish for all of us a year of greater peace, fewer distractions and abundant joy.

A song for all the years

Wishing you a wonder-filled Christmas with a touch of childlike faith.
That’s Owen and Grady sitting in front of our Christmas tree, December 23, 2018.

“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart… filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever. Even though you grew up and found you could never quite bring back the magic feeling of this night, the melody would stay in your heart always – a song for all the years.”Bess Streeter Aldrich

When I was a child, Christmas Eve was the most magical day of the year, the anticipation sweeter than the gifts and feasting and holidays from school that would follow. Throughout my adult years I found, as so many do, that December 24 had increasingly become a day of mixed emotions at best, deep sorrow at worst. But Aldrich is right; the melody stayed in my heart.

Perhaps you are reading this amid the busy preparations for a festive time with family and friends. Your day may be filled with affection, connection, and the sweetness of shared laughter. If so, I rejoice with you. I have known the enchantment of such holiday happiness, and it is like nothing else on this earth.

But you may be facing Christmas with a broken heart, having recently been parted from dear ones through death, estrangement or geographic separation. You may be reeling from having just received a terminal diagnosis, or recovering from life-threatening surgery, or sitting, even as you read this, at the bedside of a family member who is hospitalized.

Perhaps you face financial difficulties due to a loss of employment or unexpected expenses. Or maybe your sadness has no immediate specific cause, yet you feel empty and alone at a time when it seems the entire world is merry.

If you are feeling wistful or forlorn today, I truly sympathize. But listen closely– can you hear the melody, however faint, that is still playing somewhere in your memory? Let’s turn up the volume on that celestial music. Just for today, let its otherworldly message of joy drown out the cacophony of strife, gloom and despair.

I wish you “tidings of comfort and joy” that will wrap in you warmth and wonder.

Please click here if you want to view this year’s electronic greeting!

 

Downright goodness

For years I’ve had a strange quirk of using a different design of wrapping paper for each and every gift under the tree; no two ever wrapped in the same paper.
Perhaps I was sending myself a sort of coded message that I would later need.
This photo of our Alexandria tree was taken in December 2010.

“It is, without doubt, the gifts we get from our excursions into differences—the people we come to know whom we could never have met otherwise, the wisdom we see in those we consider to be simpler than ourselves, the downright goodness of those we fear because we do not know them—that make us bigger of soul, greater of heart, than we could possibly ever have been otherwise.”Joan Chittister

Typically at this time of year we wish each other happy times with family and close friends, and of course I wish that for all of you. But beyond that, I wish you a gift rarely chosen intentionally, but perhaps even more weighted with divine blessing: I wish you the gift of time with those whose company you did not seek out; who seem to serve no desired purpose in your life; those who have nothing much to give you that the world generally values.

We often hear stories about the unbelievable financial wealth we might have today if we had bought a few shares of this or that stock before anyone could have known how valuable it would become someday. If only we had known, we may tell ourselves. Yet we may be missing an even larger secret, one now invisible to mortal eyes. What we may never know fully– at least not in this life– is the value of everyday people with whom we are brought into contact through quirks of fate or circumstance.

In more than two years since Jeff’s death, my life often has been dependent on people totally outside my demographic group, as I found that many of those I had expected to depend upon were not around with any consistency. These new people who showed up in my life and Matt’s– whether they were black, white, Asian or Hispanic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Christian, younger or older than me, with or without significant disabilities, to name only the most obvious differences– gave me more than the reassurance that Matt and I were not alone. They taught me that having no choice about my own circumstances or Matt’s (which in our culture is surely one of the most feared and dreaded of conditions, as it means an almost total loss of control) can bring hidden gifts and unexpected transformations.

There’s no question that such encounters are not easy. And I hesitate to wish you anything difficult. Yet there is much of inestimable value that goes unrecognized and undiscovered. This Christmas season, I hope you strike an untapped lode of downright goodness in the hearts of friends you didn’t realize you had– goodness that will fill your life with spiritual dividends beyond anything you might have imagined.

While time stands still

Snow falls in Cambridge, England. Photo by Craig Whitehead via Unsplash

“I love snow for the same reason I love Christmas: It brings people together while time stands still.”Rachel Cohn

As I write this, snow is covering the ground for the second time in the past month. Two snows BEFORE Christmas? Unprecedented in the life of this southern woman. And very unusual for northern Virginia, according to the weather broadcasters. Come to think of it, I don’t remember it snowing twice this early in the year even during our four years in Ohio. I don’t remember it ever snowing weeks before Christmas at all, not even one time. I hope this doesn’t mean we are in for a particularly rough winter.

Still, it’s hard not to be enchanted at the sight of snow falling. Tonight it’s even more fun because my sister is here visiting, and we got home from running around here and there, just as the roads were getting slick and dangerous. Now we’re sitting peacefully by the fire, happy that there’s nowhere we must go and nothing urgent we have to get done.

Time never seems to stand still anymore, but I suppose snowy weather and Christmas are about as close as we are likely to come. Schools and many businesses close, and there’s a built-in, uncontested excuse for postponing errands and other activities that require leaving cozy indoor shelter.

Even tasks that can easily be done indoors often succumb to a languor that suddenly seems appropriate rather than slothful. Another cup of tea, anyone? Hot chocolate and decaf coffee are also available. Shall we watch a movie or dive into an engaging novel? Maybe we should sit and chat, or even better, sit in silence together, watching the flames dance in the fireplace, or the holiday lights twinkling on the tree or in the windows.

Snow (and Christmas) can bring stress as we cope with the inconvenience of a disrupted schedule, but the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks if we relax and enjoy it as an unexpected gift. Whether you are coping with winter storms, hectic holidays, or both, I wish you a child’s delight in December and its wondrous gifts.

A never-tiring affection

Renee, Mitzie, Troy and Myra at my birthday celebration, 2018

“One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in times of despair.”
Bertrand Russell

Those who have been reading this blog for at least a couple of years may recognize that quote, which I’ve used once before. It has been my practice never to use the same quote twice, but today I broke that rule because the quote is so perfect for what I wanted to describe.

You probably also will recognize the three women with me in the photo above. (The lone man is Myra’s son Troy, one of the most cheerful people you will ever meet.) For the third year in a row, Renee, Mitzie and Myra made sure I was not alone for my birthday, which was also Jeff’s birthday.

As always, they showered me with lovely gifts and even lovelier sentiments in the cards they brought me. This year, there was also a special treat in the form of the little birthday “fireworks display” that was brought to our table at the Asian restaurant where we had dinner. I had never seen such a thing before.

It appeared to be a closed lotus flower atop a piece of cake, but when the server lit it, it became sort of a volcano with a flame that shot upward. Then the lotus petals slowly opened outward, each bearing a tiny lit candle, with an embedded music box playing the Happy Birthday song. I wish I’d had my camera to take a video of the whole thing, but Myra caught a photo of how it looked at the end. It was so much fun!

There are many traits we value in our friends: humor, understanding, loyalty and a spirit of fun are among them. But as I grow older, the trait that seems most important of all is the willingness to maintain a steadfast presence in our lives. It’s not always easy to commit time to friends, particularly through years of trials and sorrows. But these women have stayed with me every step of the way.

Through darkest grief, across significant geographical distance, and despite their own full time careers, family demands and dedication to church and community service, my special sisters have gone the distance with me, both literally and figuratively, for many years now. The quote from Russell that appears above could have been written about them. They have given me all the gifts he describes, with the crowning one being “the pure joy of a never-tiring affection.”

My wish for each of us is that we learn to give, and receive, this precious gift.

That’s us on my birthday at the Puakea home in 2017.
Don’t you love their funny Christmas sign?

Never far

I photographed this tea table in a Monticello shop, June 2014

“Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty.”
James Norwood Pratt

It seems contradictory that a chatterbox such as I would love silence as much as I do, but there it is. Perhaps it comes of having lived with Jeff for so many years. Or perhaps, in equal measure, it comes from having grown up in a noisy, boisterous family until Jeff came along and rescued me from too much verbal stimulation, drawing me into a saner, more regular rhythm of life.

Habits die hard, so I still talk a lot, but I have learned to love silence. A good thing, too, since I now pass, by my own estimate, 80-90% of my waking hours in complete silence. After Alexa delivers my morning flash briefing (usually less than five minutes long), not even television or radio intrude. But wait, there are those endless unabridged recorded books…okay, maybe I should say “without speaking” instead of “in complete silence.”

Either way, Pratt’s quote struck a chord with me. Tea is quiet, if not totally silent. There is the gurgling of the kettle, the tinkling of the teaspoon against the cup as it stirs, and then the whisper-quiet sound of sipping. But the part of Pratt’s quote that rang out most strongly was the observation that thirst for tea is proximal to the craving for beauty. That’s certainly true for me, and I imagine it’s true for most other tea lovers as well.

Tea has an attainable, humble beauty, even when the blend is an expensive one. The ritual of preparation is simplicity in itself; all one needs is water and a means of heating it to a boil. Sugar and cream are optional, and many of us long ago dispensed with using them on a regular basis, savoring the nuanced flavor of one particular brew as compared to another without the distraction of sweetener.

Mornings are hard for me, and maybe for you too. It helps immensely to start each day with this reassuring promise that the sleepy, recalcitrant brain will come round right if given time and a bit of caffeine. This makes tea a perfect complement to the morning sunlight (or rainy daylight) that coaxes us from sleep into another active day.

If tea is a testament to our craving for beauty, that must explain the exquisite loveliness of the china cups and saucers that are almost always the prettiest part of any table setting. Linens, pastries, silver flatware and even the tins or boxes in which many varieties of tea are packed, all call to us: today is a gift of rare attraction, if we will open our eyes and pay attention.

Whether you’re reading this in the morning, afternoon or evening, I’m not far from a cup of tea. So I lift my cup to you, as I have so many times. May today bring you something refreshingly wonderful.

A wonderful thing

For all who pass this way, a bouquet of appreciation.

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” ― Voltaire

The sixth anniversary of this blog passed recently, without mention by me or anyone else. The giddy hope that inspired a feeling of celebration on the first and second anniversaries gave way to reality, although I did recognize the milestone in a small way for the third year. The fourth passed in an abyss of grief, and by the fifth, I suppose I didn’t see any reason to note the anniversary of a blog that had gone from seven posts per week to just one.

I look back at the videos from the first and second anniversaries with stunned silence at how much can change in a very short time. Yet there are those of you– you know who you are– who have been with me through all of it, for all six years. That in itself is worth celebrating; it is a thing of wonder. Through your steadfast encouragement, what is excellent in you has belonged to me, and has enabled me to survive.

To those who come and go, joining us as you are able, I appreciate your presence here whenever you are with us. I sadly recognize how absent I have been from my friends’ blogs, and I know how life gets in the way. Please know that I am happy to hear from you each and every time you make your visits known to me, and rejoice when our paths cross online.

To those who contact me privately to share your appreciation of a post or a photo, I enjoy hearing from you too, and I understand that making a public comment is not something everyone is willing to do. Having loved many people who are intensely private and averse to such open sharing, I understand that individual messages are more meaningful to many. Thank you for being with us and for letting me know you are reading.

And to those who visit silently, I appreciate you too. Though I may never know you are reading these posts, I am always surprised and delighted to hear for the first time from someone who has been following the blog for years without my realizing they were. Some are people who know me only through the blog, and others are friends from long ago, but each reader, known or unknown, has a special place in my heart.

For six years, this blog has been a connecting point for me, a family I did not know I had until I stumbled onto WordPress as a means of coping with crisis and devastating grief. I appreciate you!

Heroes who live among us

Then and now: Drew and Matt with Jeff, early 1986, and at Jeff’s grave, August 2018.

“There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. And heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.”Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day, and some may have a holiday today in honor of those who have served in the military. Yudhoyono’s quote seemed appropriate for this day, because most troops will never be singled out for special honor or widespread acclaim. Yet the life of our nation depends on their faithfulness to duty, their willingness to show up day after day for whatever demands are placed upon them to secure the overall mission of the armed forces.

Through 30 years of Jeff’s military career, I came to have a deep respect for the discipline, humility and tenacity of the women and men who are willing to take on a way of life requiring sacrifices that are largely unseen and sometimes misunderstood. Our veterans are everyday people with families, obligations, interests, hopes and dreams, but they have made the commitment to set all of these aside at a moment’s notice and put themselves in harm’s way, if necessary, to protect all of us.

Even in peace time, or when not deployed to a war zone, soldiers, sailors and airmen participate in readiness exercises that sometimes require reporting to duty in the middle of the night, or being called without notice to undisclosed locations for unspecified lengths of time. Service members are on call 24/7, and even when they take leave (civilians call it a vacation) they have to furnish detailed information where they can be reached at any time. In a very real sense, they are always on duty, never far from their professional responsibilities and obligations.

Whether or not you have friends or family in the armed forces, our veterans have almost certainly made a difference in your life. I hope you will join me today in remembering them with gratitude and honor.

The grand finale

I took this photo from the deck in back of our new home, November 2018.

“Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.”Lauren Destefano

The weather here is finally cooling off enough that we are getting some splendid fall color, though it was still over 70 degrees several days this week, with perfect sunshine for at least part of the day each day. The combination of sunny, short-sleeve weather and striking autumn foliage is an unbeatable remedy for the blues. Come for a virtual visit with me and let’s enjoy the glorious autumn sunshine as seen from my windows.

Our new home is surrounded with forest views on three sides, which is why I chose the lot I bought, and why I still have no window coverings on the main floor rear windows or doors. When it gets really cold I might have to give up and get some insulating shades, but for now I’m enjoying the fall colors even more than I loved the leafy greens of summer. Here are views from two of the family room windows, and from the main floor guest room. You can see a faint reflection of the bed in the lower half of the window:

   

Just as I hoped, there are some vivid shades surrounding our home, including the bright red leaves I so love to see in the landscape. If you never tire of seeing photos of autumn foliage, scroll on to see views from various windows. But if you have a “seen-one-seen-them-all” boredom with too many similar photos, you might want to exit now. Consider yourself warned! I can almost hear Jeff saying “Julia, how many photos of leaves do you think they want to see?”

My bedroom is just above the family room, so the views from my windows are upper level views of those above. Matt has a corner room, with good views in either direction. The golf course is visible in the first photo taken from his front window:

The views from the craft room, the library and the loft are pretty good too:

If you’re feeling energetic, we can walk the half mile to the gym and view the Potomac River from there. You can see the construction on the shopping center which will supposedly one day feature a riverfront area with restaurants, along with a VRE commuter rail station. In fact, we can walk right up to the riverfront now (just beyond those red trees in the distance), if you want a closer view. There’s a nice paved road lined with magnolia trees, leading past the clubhouse and ending in a circular viewing area. You’ll be able to see where the train station is supposed to be built. If you take the train to see me, I can walk down to the station to meet you!

I snapped this photo on the walk back from the riverfront to our home, November 2018,

I guess we should quit goofing off and get back to work– after one more virtual cup of hot tea or coffee before you go. Thanks for visiting me today!

A thing well done

Drew labors in the August heat making bricks for Colonial Williamsburg, 2005.
All buildings constructed there use bricks made on site by 18th century methods.

“The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.”Ralph Waldo Emerson

Surviving trauma and loss requires learning how to ride the waves of sorrow that threaten to turn exhaustion into despair and resignation. Despite the ever-increasing use of antidepressants, the efficacy of which has been called into question in several recent studies, most people will battle feelings of sadness or hopelessness at least once or twice in a lifetime. For some of us, it may be a continual struggle.

On the plus side, we have an arsenal full of tools to fight the blues– listening to music, yard work, gardening, crafting, writing, cooking, or visiting a friend who needs or wants to see us, to name only a few. Over the years I’ve found that nothing is a better antidote to depression than actually doing something.

For those who work a full time job, this may be automatic. But for those of us who are retired from regular employment, or who work from home with self-regulated hours, it may be more difficult. Some mornings when I awaken with dread at the thought of getting through another day, I will remind myself to avoid “ruination by rumination” by simply getting up and getting to work on something I want or need to do.

When the task involves strenuous labor, so much the better. But even light activity is remarkably beneficial. Whether or not anyone ever praises your work, it’s edifying to the spirit. Some jobs such as care-giving (or really any sort of ongoing maintenance) are by their very nature almost invisible to others. If we wait around to be noticed, we’ll likely be disappointed. The good news is that Emerson is right; just having done something well is satisfaction enough.

Do you have any nagging tasks hanging over your head, or projects you’re eager to get started on, but just haven’t made the time? Try carving out a bit of time today to begin. If you feel hesitant, promise yourself that you can stop after 30 minutes, or even 15. Chances are you won’t want to, once you get going.

Today, I wish you the reward of a thing well done.

Each must be the last

Bloom-again azaleas don’t flower as profusely in the spring, but the payoff comes
in summer and fall when they return with more to show. Farewell flowers, October, 2018

“Each golden day was cherished to the full, for one had the feeling that each must be the last. Tomorrow it would be winter.” Elizabeth Enright

A great many of us have experienced an unusually warm autumn so far, though it seems the cold weather is creeping in. Eager for cooler temperatures, having had our fill of too-warm afternoons and turbulent weather, we feel a wistful longing for golden fall days that strike the perfect balance between summer and winter.

The three-season azaleas are blooming one last time before winter.

In Virginia, our trees are barely beginning to turn, and I’m hoping we will have at least a few weeks to enjoy foliage before the leaves fall. But I’ve enjoyed the lingering blooms of this warm October. At our York home the remnants of summer colors are overlapping with the beginning of the camellia flowers.

An early camellia bloom joins in the fall festival. Can you tell I like pink?

The crape myrtles are starting to fade, but the flowers are hanging on.

Same goes for the Walker’s Cat Mint, a hardy plant if ever there was one.

Early this year, in a rare burst of optimism, I decided to plant a blackberry bush in our back yard near the deck. The young K-Mart clerk who talked me into buying the inexpensive plant assured me that it would not be hard to grow. Her enthusiasm when describing her own blackberry plants was contagious, and I decided to take a chance, though I was already preparing for disappointment by telling myself that my own little blackberry bush was unlikely to do very well with only the sporadic care I would be able to give it.

But the K-Mart clerk was right; the plant did beautifully. I’ve even been able to eat a few berries from it. Here is one that I picked most recently, big and ripe and delicious as only a home-grown fruit can be. Now I will try to nurture the plant (which has grown almost as tall as I am) through the coming winter.

Believe me, it was YUMMY!

Are there traces of summer still lingering in the region you call home? Or, if you live south of the equator, has spring broken through the chill yet? Seasons bless us with the repeated reminder that life is fragile and subject to change. With the cycles of nature, our eyes are opened anew to the sobering truth that we almost never know when we are experiencing the last of anything precious– or at least a temporary parting from what we’ve grown to take for granted. Whatever this day brings you, cherish it to the full. For better or worse, it will soon be gone.

Overheard by the soul

Jeff planted this three-season “bloom again” azalea less than a year before he died.
In the warmth of October 2018, its fall blooms whisper a reminder of undying beauty.

And we dance
to a whispered voice
overheard by the soul
undertook by the heart.
You may know it…
Neil Diamond

There’s an intriguing story in the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life, because the queen, Jezebel, had sworn to kill him. It was no idle threat; she had already put many of Elijah’s fellow prophets to death. At one point, Elijah became so exhausted and discouraged that he prayed to God that he might die, but that prayer was answered with an angelic delivery of food and water, and a command to eat and drink to replenish his strength for a long journey.

Forty days later, God told Elijah to go to the mountain where God would pass before him. At this point, it’s easier, and more poetic, just to quote directly from the story– in this case, the New International Version:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 

I’m sure you know, or have guessed, that God came to Elijah not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the gentle whisper.  In the King James Version of the story, the translators used the term “a still, small voice,” which is the origin of that popular phrase.

I’ve thought of that story many times in the past five years or so, through the storms of our lives, in which I could not hear the voice of God despite clinging to the promise that God would be there for us. To the extent that I have felt a sense of God’s presence, it has been in the form of the whispered voice; a still, small reassurance that my soul can only occasionally overhear in the quiet of solitude.

The whispers, of course, are not literal sounds. But sometimes they are remembered echoes. Sometimes they are the unexpected discovery of a startlingly relevant message in a note written many years ago. Sometimes they rise from a photograph, or from a sunlit morning seen through a familiar window, or from the bloom of a botanical gift lovingly planted by one who would not live to see its growth.

As Neil Diamond suggested in the beautiful song linked above (which I hope you will take the time to experience), overhearing the whispered voice is only part of the experience. It must be undertaken by the heart, if we are to understand what we are hearing. There’s quite a trick to dancing to a whispered voice, when you think about it. The beat doesn’t come from a musical instrument, but from the heart.  But what a dance it is.

 

All serious daring

Sheltered, daring, and soaking wet after climbing Anna Ruby Falls in the rain,1974.

“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Eudora Welty

By most standards, I have lived a very sheltered life. I don’t regret it. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences, traveled widely and read extensively, but I also have had the luxury of being spared exposure to the sordid, violent or sleazy. I’ve known people who find such things fascinating (“I love squalor,” a college friend once explained to me earnestly, without a trace of irony) but I’ve never been one of them. I dislike horror films and graphic descriptions of sex or violence in fiction, and cringe at some of what I encounter in news headlines. Give me a clean, well-lighted place with uplifting books and salubrious beverages and lively, congenial company.

Yet I don’t think many would describe me as timid. As Welty says, a sheltered life does not preclude daring. It takes courage to face the uncertainty of encountering new ideas, people and possibilities. There is a comfort in sameness, and a (mostly false) security in sticking to the known and familiar. Breaking away, even in philosophical exploration, requires an adventurous spirit that may or may not lead to far-flung journeys into space or across continents.

Today, right where you are, you can instill some boldness into your otherwise typical day. In fact, a sheltered life can fortify you for fearless forays into yet-undiscovered paths. Try a new spice or ethnic cuisine, read an author whose work lies totally outside your usual literary taste, or write a forthright, unpretentious note of encouragement to someone you don’t know well– maybe even to someone you have never met. Visit a new (to you) neighborhood, place of worship, library or museum. Show up at an assisted care home, or an animal shelter, or a community group that could use your help. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper, or post a thoughtful, conciliatory comment online to combat the current hatefest.

Then, feel free to pop back over to our Virtual Verandah for a cup of pretend tea and tell us about your adventures. In the cozy world of our sheltered cyber-salon, you’ll almost certainly encounter some serious daring. Everyone is welcome here– especially you.

 

This is enough

Jeff and Matt walk the Public Garden of Boston, Adams’ home town. September 2007

“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know…Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”
John Adams

I can certainly identify with Adams’ observation about reading, thinking and anxious inquiry. In fact, I’ve noticed that my tendency to overthink everything is fairly common in today’s world.
I once believed that it was important to discuss ideas and share one’s personal beliefs and emotions, but I have come to doubt the practice. It seems to me that most everybody is talking and hardly anyone is listening. Talk seems to go in circles and accomplish nothing, or worse than nothing.

That reflection is hardly original, and I’m not the only one coming to that conclusion. In fact, thousands of years ago, the book of Proverbs stated: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NASB).
I guess some things never change.

Adams’ quote ends with a reference to another Bible verse that has long been a favorite of mine, Micah 6:8. This verse was read at Jeff’s graveside during his funeral. It’s a fitting description of how he lived his life, and a worthy standard to which I aspire.

Since I lately spend most of my hours in solitude, it may be convenient for me to decide that talking is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I do know that communication is not lacking in our world. I wish I could say the same for the virtues Adams mentions. Justice? It seems increasingly confused with “vengeance.” Mercy? It appears to be mostly outsourced to impersonal charities and government agencies. Humility? Definitely not a modern virtue.

So I find Adams’ words at once reassuring and challenging. I’m happy to be reminded I’m not the only one who “knows” far less than I did in my youth. One thing I have learned, however, is that a lifetime will not be enough to achieve the straightforward command to “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Not easy, but simple. And enough.

Packed up, but still

Trimpley Resevoir, Bewdley, United Kingdom
Photo by Sugden Guy sugden via Unsplash

“Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave…”   Thomas McGrath

Many years ago, when the movie Dances with Wolves came out, there was a sort of fad of people thinking up American Indian names for themselves that were descriptions of their own personality, appearance or character. I remember thinking that the name I would choose for myself was “one who stays.” There were many reasons for this choice at the time, few of which are relevant now, but I could hardly have known how prophetic my pretend name was.

Sometimes I think growing older is primarily an exercise in being left behind. Grandparents, parents, siblings and spouses are lost to death. Children and grandchildren grow up and grow away, too busy with their own lives to stay in regular touch. Friends leave, too, sometimes by choice, and this can be one of the cruelest losses because there is no forced parting to explain the departure. It feels like an unnecessary added pain.

Still, I think there can be a kind of nobility in remaining, sorting through the pieces others have left behind and sweeping their dust and clearing their rooms. Someone has to do it, and better a friend or loved one, however forlorn, than an absolute stranger.

We spend painful hours culling, letting go of trinkets and mementos that represent one expired dream after another, photographs of smiling faces, and letters and cards full of earnest emotion long since vanished. What we choose to keep we pack up, along with most of what we once thought possible in our lives. We gaze out the window at the leaves beginning to fall, grateful for the cooling sympathy of autumnal decay. And we stay.

Because you once traversed

Trees line the road to Domremy, France, the village where Joan of Arc lived.
I traveled that road once and now it belongs to me. April, 2007.

“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.

As it always does

Fall chases out summer with a dazzling color show all its own.
Bar Harbor, Maine, September 2007

“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.

Not alone

Confused? Worried? Overwhelmed? You are not alone, no matter how isolated you feel.
Photo by Maia Habegger on Unsplash

“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!

Activity

Never still: hummingbirds flit to and fro between Carla’s two feeders and beyond. August, 2018

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” ― John Wooden

My sister keeps two hummingbird feeders on her deck, and during the few days that I spent with her recently, I probably saw more hummingbirds than during the rest of life put together. They swarm around, off and on, for most of the day every day.

To watch them is to have a whole new perspective on words such as “energy”and “activity.” Not only are they never still for more than a second or two, but they keep interrupting each other, or being interrupted, and then flitting back to the very same thing they were doing before, taking small sips of nectar and then flitting around presumably in search of more– only to come right back to the same spot and take another quick sip before flitting off again.

The red-throated males, more territorial, chased the others away before they sipped.

I found myself wondering whether they just like to fly, or whether their wings need constant exercise. Is their work more like play to them? Why don’t they sit still for more than a second or two when feeding? Couldn’t they achieve the same end– nourishment– with far less expenditure of energy? Or can activity be an end in itself, contrary to what Wooden says in the quote above?

From the perspective of the past six years of my life (this blog will soon be SIX years old!) I am far more likely to see most of what humans do as ultimately futile, in the sense that so little of it will last. The failures or successes of the present, even toward noble goals such as saving or prolonging life, or improving schools, communities and nations, seem far more momentous in the moment than they will seem ten years hence, or in most cases, even five years or one year from now.  Yet that does not mean that what we do has no purpose. And perhaps one of the biggest purposes is the preservation of our own mental health.

Have you ever noticed the therapeutic effect of activity? Whether it’s weeding in the yard, washing dishes, or finishing a report for work or school, directing our minds to a specific, focused task can chase away the blues as nothing else can. It’s why we have hobbies, and why we travel near and far before returning exhausted but grateful to be home.

Wooden makes a good point; activity is far more fulfilling if it results in a desired outcome. In that sense, achievement is far different from simply staying busy. But meaningful activity can be worthwhile even if the target is never quite reached, or if the process could have been hastened along and completed more quickly than we managed to do it. Sometimes the process itself is what brings us inner renewal, sharpening our minds and reassuring us that, despite how many of the world’s problems seem unsolvable, there are still ways we can take positive steps to improve our days, our homes and the lives of at least a few people around us.

The next time you feel lethargic, try watching (or imagining) the tireless hummingbirds. Their energy must be one reason we find them endlessly fascinating. Think of them as you flit about between whatever nectars are calling to you today, and consider that your efforts may be drawing nourishment for your heart and spirit as well as your body.

 

You never know

Nikita says hello…to me, and now to you. DCA, August 2018

“…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.

So much faster

Grady handles his suitcase like a seasoned pro. August 2, 2018

“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 photographed Drew and Matt at Jeff’s grave.

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.

Like a handprint on my heart

We went with Daddy to greet Tuffy as he arrived home after his first flight as Captain.
At the old Atlanta airport, sometime in the mid-1960s.

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.

Smaller and less sneaky

Do we look sleepy? With the food we had just eaten, I’m surprised we were still awake.
Matt, me, Mary, Raynard and Susan, July 2018, at the Shady Maple

“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.

All smiles: Susan and Mary enjoy the food, fun and fellowship.

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.

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