Friendship refreshes

Kelly and I enjoyed a warm spring day at Mt. Vernon, Virginia, April 2017.

“A sweet friendship refreshes the soul.” — Proverbs 27:9 (The Message)

It’s a good thing, too, because my soul was badly in need of refreshment. My voice is still gone, the bureaucratic hassles continue, and of course all this is nothing compared to missing Jeff. Spring is lovely but without him, it’s just not the same.

What a perfect time for a Boomdee Boost. Kelly’s visit has been a wonderful mixture of laughter, tears, taking photos, looking at photos, sipping coffee, strolling, talking (even with my raspy voice), watching funny videos and sharing favorite songs. It has been a great way to re-boot my frozen spirit and remind me that even the deepest sorrows can be bearable if we keep focusing on the blessings.

 

Ways of healing

Weeding at Tenryuji Temple By Gavin Anderson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“A woman’s heart always breaks a little in the spring. But spring offers its own ways of healing. Hoe the row a little deeper. Kneel on the ground and dig the roots.”
Marjorie Holmes

Even when the heartbreak is more than just a little, spring does offer a degree of healing, however inadequate it may seem at the time. After fighting yet another flu-like illness for more than a week, I was dealing with the far more distressing madness of endless bureaucratic tangles related to all the aspects of Matt’s disability “benefits” that changed when Jeff died. When the sun came out on Saturday afternoon, I took a break and made some time to pull a few of the weeds that have taken over many of the flower beds in our York backyard.

My efforts didn’t produce any miraculous results, on either the yard or my psyche, but the combination of working with my hands while listening to an Alexander McCall Smith audiobook did at least provide me with a bit of relief from the noxious combination of sorrow, frustration, exhaustion and bewilderment. I know that as long as I’m able, I’ll keep kneeling on the ground and digging, waiting for a reprieve.

If you’re facing a phase of life that seems to keep smacking you down one way or another, no matter how often you try to get up, I hope you will hoe a little deeper and hang on. Spring will bring healing even as it clouds the skies and muddies the ground with rain. Heartbreak, it would seem, is an almost universal malady, but most of us do survive it. Spring is a pervasive reminder of that fact; both a comfort and a challenge.

Earth’s immeasurable surprise

Ewe with two lambs in the snow by Andrew Hill, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

“Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.”  Philip Larkin

What more can one add to such verse? Nothing, really, except to wish you the immeasurable surprise of mercies that are “new every morning.”

Dare

Naïve and loving it: me with my stuffed dog “Rex,” somewhere around 1958

“Dare to be naïve.”  — Buckminster Fuller

We think of being naïve as something negative, and we generally don’t want others to see this trait in us. Aren’t the really cool people insiders, those in the know, those who are savvy and worldly-wise and experienced and cynical and acerbic? People no one would dare criticize because the comeback would be swift and stinging. People who are basically jerks, in other words. Hmm, maybe being naïve isn’t such a bad thing after all.

I’m a bit biased on this topic, because I am one who has often felt defensive about being ignorant of many harsh realities. If I hear a really smutty joke, chances are I won’t get it. Not too many years ago, I had to ask someone what “WTF” stood for, even though I’m far too coarse in my own use of words sometimes. Most other pop culture references sail right over my head, too. I was teased and called a “space cadet” in high school. Having married my first and only boyfriend, I never had a romantic heartbreak until he died recently. And you know what? I have no regrets about any of these forms of “ignorance.”

Most of us learn things we’d rather not know as we grow older. That doesn’t mean we have to let that knowledge taint our innocent way of seeing the world. Where did we get the idea that innocence is a bad thing? For the record, I’ve never fallen for an email scam or a fast sales pitch or a phony get-rich-quick scheme. But that doesn’t mean I’m not naïve. It’s just that I’m not typically interested in any of the things the hucksters are trying to sell.

If you tend to be someone who distrusts other people, I imagine life isn’t much fun for you. I’m not saying we should not take reasonable precautions for safety, nor even that we should believe everything our friends and acquaintances tell us. But I do find that I enjoy the day more if I assume, until proven otherwise, that most of the people I run into today are going to be fairly decent types. Not perfect, not even necessarily likable, but fellow humans who are doing the best they can with their own sets of limitations, just as I am.

I wonder…if most of us dared to be just a bit more naïve, would we be happier? Are some forms of ignorance truly blissful? Until we turn off the television, put down the gossip magazines and quit letting other people decide for us what is cool, we may never know. To be sure, being naïve can be risky. That’s why it takes daring.

The tiniest fragments

Our cherry blossoms as seen from the living room window, March 22, 2017

“Somehow, even in the worst of times, the tiniest fragments of good survive. It was the grip in which one held those fragments that counted.”Melina Marchetta

“The NPS said that about 50 percent of the cherry blossoms survived, but now that we can see the flowers coming out it looks like that is going to look much better than that sounds…There are certainly whole trees where the cold damaged practically all of the blossoms on that tree, and there’s no question that the cold did significant damage–it’s easy to find the evidence of it. But most of them sustained only partial damage…even some of the individual blossoms that were damaged are still blooming. If you look very closely at some you can see that they have petals that are missing or have parts that are scorched brown but the rest of the flower looks fine. From a normal viewing distance, it just looks like a healthy flower, and you have to look very closely to notice it.” —  2017 Cherry Blossom Watch

Through a February that was among the all-time warmest on record, an early peak bloom was predicted for the famed cherry blossoms of the Washington DC area. But the weather pulled a cruel trick, reversing itself on March 10, just as the trees were budding. I had set the many flowering plants I nurtured through the winter out on the deck to enjoy the sunny warmth, but the night of Jeff’s burial, I forgot to bring them in, and with just one night’s exposure, they all froze. I was heartbroken, but cut back the dead leaves and decided to wait and watch in hope.

If the cherry trees are any indication, perhaps I may yet have a survivor among my scraggly plants. Our own trees, whose blooms I can see closely from our upstairs windows, are still beautiful despite having weathered the snowfalls, winds, and freezing temperatures. The buds were out on March 8, and I was afraid none of them would endure the long spell of cold weather that followed. But clearly, many of them did. I’m more thankful than ever for the resilience I see in them, and in so many other beautiful signs of hope.

True and appropriate

Dental student Jeff with a 1-month-old Drew, spring 1984.
Even the baby’s babies are now past this stage.

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ ” — Abraham Lincoln, 1859 speech in Wisconsin

The wise words Lincoln quoted here are most often spoken at times of frustration, grief or anger, but as he emphasized, they are equally fitting when applied to times of joy, success or prosperity. Not only do they serve as a caution against pride; they also are a reminder that what presently might seem to be hard times may someday, in hindsight, seem like “the good old days.”

When we first moved from the central coast of California to the sunny shores of Hawaii, I was miserable, and not just because I was physically ill during that move. I also was dreadfully homesick for the magical existence we had enjoyed in California, our wonderful church family there, and the closely-knit circle of friends who brought such happiness into our lives. Yet, only a few years later, I was to look back on that first year in Hawaii with a nostalgic longing for that time, too.  Our sons were still very young, innocent and full of joy at whatever we shared as a family, no matter how modest, and the rainbows and plumeria and beaches were richly unique decorations in our lives.

Over the years and decades that followed, I noticed that this is a pattern in my life, as well as other people’s lives. When we are in the midst of a situation, we often don’t realize how good we have it, or how happy we really are; we take it for granted. Of course, from where I sit now, I can look back on even the most stressful and difficult times and think “yes, but at least I had Jeff to lean on then.” Then I have to wonder: what or who do I have in my life now, right this very minute, that I may one day look back on with this same longing for something that is no longer available to me?

Life brings all kinds of reversals, many of them sudden: the unexpected accident or loss of health, a job or financial security; the death of a friend or loved one; career changes that bring geographic separation from those we love. Other changes are more gradual: aging and the many small losses that go with it; declining energy and ability in our parents or ourselves; babies, and then grandchildren, who grow up and away from us, a little at a time.

No matter what is happening in your life right now, I can just about guarantee that there are some aspects of it you will one day look back on and miss. That’s what I keep trying to remind myself right now. If I get too mired in sorrow over Jeff’s physical absence, which cuts so deeply on a continual basis, I will be missing other blessings, beautiful gifts that I will later regret losing. So I coach myself, even in the pervasively numb disinterest I can’t seem to shake, to focus on all that remains.

“And this, too, shall pass away.” It’s both a blessing and a curse, but if we are mindful of the two-edged nature of time’s relentless pace, we will appreciate all that we still have. Look around you today. What gifts are yours in the here and now?

A happy thought

From a sweet friend in the faraway North, a wooden sign that lifted my spirits. March 2017

“It was a happy thought to bring 
To the dark season’s frost and rime 
This painted memory of spring, 
This dream of summertime.” – John Greenleaf Whittier

Last Thursday, the evening before Jeff’s burial ceremony at Arlington, I opened our front door to family arriving from out of town and found a package on my doorstep. It must have been delivered late, because I had been out earlier that afternoon and did not see it. In the rush of arrivals and plans for a very full day the next day, I tucked the package away to enjoy later when I had a few moments to myself. I knew there would be a time when I really needed it.

Even though I did not open it immediately, I was delighted to get it. It was from one of the “regulars” in our little blog family, who lives far away and often sends me thoughtful surprises in the mail. (No, it wasn’t from Boomdee, but good guess!) The day it arrived had been remarkably warm, almost hot, but the next day the cold set in and even brought flurries of snow that began during the outdoor moments of Jeff’s ceremony, as the flag was lifted from the casket and folded, the gun salutes were fired and the bugler played taps.

The cold weather remained for days, as if nature was in mourning with me, and a fairly heavy snowfall came on Monday. The overcast skies and the dread of facing my first springtime without Jeff had me feeling quite blue. Having caught up with many of the tasks that were awaiting me when the last of the visitors left that morning, I knew that it was time to open the lovely package I had gotten nearly one week ago. The time since it had arrived now seems a blur, but I did think how remarkable it was that it arrived in the warm weather and was now being opened on a cold, snowy night, having been sent from a place that was doubtlessly far colder than it is here right now. (No, it wasn’t from Susan, but that’s a good guess too!)

Of course, it did not disappoint. Each delightful gift had a thoughtful note attached or tucked inside, and the one pictured above, nestled under the colorful tissue at the bottom of the box, was the last gift I saw. It was perfect– absolutely what I needed on this cold and gloomy night. The little handwritten note with it was even more perfect than the gift itself. Just when I needed it most, a cheerful splash of color and a ray of hope. I felt so blessed and grateful.

So how are you today? How is the weather as you are reading this? If it’s a sunny day, I hope you will have time to enjoy it, spending a few minutes outdoors and maybe even planting some primroses or pansies. But if it’s gloomy day, overcast by literal clouds or the burdensome cares and worries that can render even the best weather powerless to lift your spirits, I wish for you an unexpected surprise that warms your heart with the knowledge that you are not alone, no matter how much it sometimes seems so. May your memories of spring and dreams of summer be painted with all your favorite colors!

P.S. Thanks to all of you who have left comments — I have read and enjoyed them, and hope to respond very soon. I appreciate your patience!

Since you don’t know

Jeff and I casting shadows in Manteo, Roanoke Island, North Carolina, September 2013

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you…Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Each of us, sooner or later, must endure losses so enormous that they cast shadows over our lives, leaving us forever changed. After such losses we see things differently, as past events, present circumstances and all thoughts of the future are filtered through sharpened understanding and sensitivity. We are confronted with bewildering incongruity; we must be strong when we feel more fragile than we ever have, and we feel a constant, pervasive numbness that nonetheless is shot through with debilitating pain. And Rilke dares to ask why we would want to exclude such ordeals from our lives?

But of course he’s right. Not that we have a choice, in any case. Yet we have seen the pattern played out, time and again, in the lives of people who made history, as well as those we know personally: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” This is the sort of process that’s far easier and more comfortable to watch from a distance, as it plays out in someone else’s life, but very few of us will have that luxury indefinitely.

So I’ll try to take Rilke’s advice to heart, and not be frightened by the shadows. I’ll keep reminding myself that a shadow only happens when there is light shining from somewhere.

A genuine man

Jeff with the 2015 graduating class of residents and the deputy directors.
The lines quoted below are taken from a poem hand inscribed on back of this framed photo.

“For years to come the stories will be told
Of a genuine man with a heart made of gold…

A good bond is strong, like Gorilla Glue
You bonded with us and we bonded to you.
We love you Colonel Denton!”
— lines taken from a poem given to Jeff by his graduating residents, 2015

Tomorrow Jeff’s casket will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, with the traditional ceremony of full military honors. Many of you will be with us in spirit, and a few of you will be with us in person to share this memorial service.

In sorting through memorabilia for display at the reception to celebrate his life, Amy and I spent many hours reading through seemingly endless tributes written to Jeff during the last six months of his life. In those few short months, he experienced many milestones. He retired with 30 years of active duty service, being honored at a ceremony in February. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a large metastatic brain tumor for which he had surgery and radiation, recovering with his trademark amazing stamina. He welcomed a second grandson, began chemotherapy again, and made a brief trip with us to Atlanta, then unexpectedly met an obstacle he could not overcome, as his lung tumors complicated a treatment-resistant case of pneumonia. He finished his life on this earth as he had lived it, calmly, bravely and with very few words, his actions having said all.

There’s a myth in our culture about what constitutes strength, and what a person who wishes to change the world must do. This myth often involves speaking loudly, commanding respect for oneself, and forging ahead with single-minded ambition. Jeff’s life embodied none of those things, but as with so many great people, his quiet influence and inspiring example live on.

Here are a few quotes taken directly from the (often lengthy) letters written to or about him during the final months of his life, by colleagues and some of the residents he taught during his 16 years as director of a postdoctoral dental residency:

“He is such a rare find in this world, a combination of achieving success and being an amazing leader, while also exhibiting great kindness, gentleness and compassion.”

“I care about so much more than how you impacted my career. You reinforced and taught me about how to live life– how to be patient and calm in my reactions. How to find joys in spite of hardships. The importance in being intentional and taking time to speak…”

“You remain one of the kindest, gentlest and most wonderful people that I have ever had the privilege of knowing…Please know that your Air Force family surrounds you today, and every day, with love and adoration for the manner in which you have led your life.”

“He is the epitome of dignity, grace and endurance, and has consistently been an example for all of us to follow in our daily lives.”

“Not a day goes by that we do not think of you. You have been a source of strength for us, and for so many who have been lucky enough to work alongside you over the years…We are forever grateful for the opportunity to say that we have been taught by the great Colonel Denton.”

Because Jeff was such a humble and private person, he protested at every inclusion of any photo or reference to him on this blog over the years, but grudgingly endured it because he understood (as I always answered his protests) that it was impossible for me to write about my life without including him.

Yet here is a part of his life that even I was not completely aware of, one he never mentioned in a boastful or remotely prideful way. As a true professional, he left work at work, to the maximum extent a military officer can. From the moment he walked through the door each day, he gave his all to his family.  For years on end, he worked tirelessly and without complaint wherever he happened to be.

He never needed any advice from me about how to defeat despair. For him, the battle was over long before it started, and his victorious life will light the remainder of my days.

A pretty good diet

A lovely surprise greeted Matt and me at our York home: the plum tree is already blooming! March 5, 2017

A lovely surprise greeted Matt and me at our York home:
the plum tree is already blooming! March 5, 2017

“I am living on hope and faith…a pretty good diet when the mind will receive them.”
Edwin Arlington Robinson

It’s interesting that a poet of Robinson’s stature, who penned the devastatingly powerful “Richard Cory,” would describe himself as living on hope and faith. Such somber work does not seem consistent with what we think of as a positive attitude. Yet, by their very nature, hope and faith are not as obviously necessary for survival when all is going well. It is only when the full weight of human frailty and mortality comes crashing in that we realize our souls’ crucial need for belief in something higher than we can now comprehend.

I have been living on hope and faith for many years, and never more than during the past four. Cynical voices (including the one in my own head that I can never quite shut out) might rightly ask: so you have, and where did this get you? Were not your hopes disappointed, even crushed? Yes, they were cruelly dashed, time and again. But faith and hope are not wishing wells where simple petitions are met with guaranteed fulfillment. Rather, they are dynamic, growing forces that reveal layer after layer of hard-won understanding. As Robinson attests, they provide solid nourishment for the soul, when the mind will receive them.

My mind won’t always cooperate with such a diet. Like a child who turns away from vegetables regardless of how many times the grown-ups talk about how good they are, I often handle my pain with binges of anger, resentment, self-pity and hopelessness. And the cynic’s question is equally valid here: where do these take me? Not to any place I want to be for very long. Faith and hope are, in many ways, their own rewards, conferring benefits not dependent on immediate fulfillment.

So how do we discipline our minds to receive this “pretty good diet?” What visual, auditory and tactile input goes into your own recipe for pressing on through tough times?  What tastes or aromas bring instant relief from stress? Sometimes, an unexpected and surprisingly small joy can snap me out of a dismal attitude. My first sight of our early-blooming plum tree was one such delight that helped me through this weekend. What works best for you?

To wander

Grady was far ahead of me when I zoomed in for this shot. Atlanta, December 2016 ERROR! I did NOT take this photo-- I stole it off Megan's Facebook page, but it was an honest mix-up because I put it in the same computer folder. Same place, different day; this was made in January, 2017. SORRY!

Grady was far ahead of me when I zoomed in for this shot. Atlanta, December 2016 ERROR! I did NOT take this photo– I stole it off Megan’s Facebook page  — but it was an honest mix-up because I put it in the same computer folder. See below for some I did take that day.
Same place, different day; this one was made in January, 2017. SORRY!

“Wandering is the activity of the child, the passion of the genius; it is the discovery of the self, the discovery of the outside world, and the learning of how the self is both ‘at one with’ and ‘separate from’ the outside world. These discoveries are as fundamental to the soul as ‘learning to survive’ is fundamental to the body…To wander is to be alive.”Roman Payne

One of the pastimes of childhood that too often vanishes into the busyness of adulthood is this practice of wandering. Kids are naturally good at it, although I think contemporary and quite valid concerns for safety have curtailed the scope and freedom we enjoyed when we were very young. But perhaps I’m only imagining that we had a wider world open to us, when in reality, it was almost as carefully circumscribed by watchful parents and caregivers as it is today, and I was simply unaware of it because of their ability to keep those limits hidden.

For Christmas, Drew and Megan requested a family membership to the wonderful Fernbank Museum of Natural History, and we spent an unseasonably sunny and warm Christmas Eve there. When we went outside to the WildWoods, Grady took off to explore well ahead of us, and there’s no doubt his imagination took him worlds away as he navigated the fascinating features of the outdoor trails. Of course, he never left our sight, but in his mind I’m sure he might as well have been alone– with the added benefit of a comforting certainty that we would be there if he needed us. Watching him from a distance was almost as good as being a child again myself, remembering the delight in discovering so many things for the very first time.

When was the last time you went wandering? I encourage you to find time for it. If the weather and your health will permit it, wander around outdoors, perhaps visiting a park or garden. But if you are unable to get outside anytime soon, you can let your mind wander by visiting any library, or browsing your own well-loved collection of favorite books. The passion of the genius, as Payne implies, really does start out as the activity of the child. And perhaps we all still have a bit of the child– and the genius– somewhere inside us.

Editorial correction: I was just going through my photos and realized that I mixed up two different days of photos taken of Grady at the WildWoods trail. The one above was actually taken by Megan on a subsequent trip in January, 2017. As the photos below from the December 2016 trip that I wrote about here show, Grady (in a different outfit but just as adventurous) DID stay ahead of us then, too, both inside and out.

Grady took off ahead of us in the museum, too, even before we were outdoors.

Grady took off ahead of us in the museum, too, even before we were outdoors.

Here's one I actually did take that Christmas Eve, 2016.

Here’s one I actually did take that Christmas Eve, 2016.

 

These wishes

A candle-lamp shines through a window in Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008.

A candle-lamp shines through a window in Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008.

“I wish you, I wish you,
I wish you these wishes:
Cool drinks in your glasses
Warm food in your dishes.
People to nourish and cherish and love you.
A lamp in the window to light your way home in the haze.
I wish you the sweetest of nights
And the finest of days.” 
Judith Viorst

Most of the people I know are familiar with Viorst’s classic picture book about young Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I join millions of readers who are fans of this book, but there are books she has written for adults that I like just as well, or maybe better.

The little rhyme above is taken from her book Suddenly Sixty and Other Shocks of Later Life. Some of the poems in this collection are not relevant to me, but most of them are; some are strikingly so. Viorst has a talent for combining the poignant ups and downs of life with a remarkable ability to find humor in almost any situation.  It is immensely comforting to read her words and know that much of what we face in life is fairly universal. Her work glows with reassuring familiarity as she writes of the highly personal with confidence that her readers will understand and sympathize.

The words quoted today are from a poem subtitled “A song for our children and our children’s children.” But when I read them, I think mostly of the adult people I know right now: the friends I cherish, the family I will always love dearly, and the many faithful, fascinating and fabulous readers of this blog. I wish you all the lovely things Viorst mentions, and many more. Thanks for being here!

Close at hand

A single beautiful bloom brightened my day, February 2017.

A single beautiful bloom brightened my day, February 2017.

“Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away.”Yann Martel

Last summer I bought a small hibiscus plant at a clearance price, and brought it home to our deck. It thrived and bloomed profusely, until I noticed the upper leaves were beginning to disappear. It didn’t take long before I discovered the culprit: a squirrel who decided to dine on it several times a day. I got quite a few photos of that squirrel eating up our lovely plant before I chased him away, but he kept returning no matter how cleverly I placed the plant hoping to shield it from his hungry paws and jaws.

In the fall, as the weather began to turn and I was coping with the shock of deep grief, I brought the now-straggly plant indoors, hoping to preserve it for the winter. All but one of the stripped stalks eventual shriveled and died, but there was one that did not, and continued to bear leaves that the squirrel could no longer consume. With the recent warm days we have enjoyed, I took it outside for a few days, and soon it produced a single beautiful bloom.

As with all hibiscus flowers, it faded quickly, but not (as you probably would guess) before I took several photos of it, marveling at how it looked so different from various angles and lighting. It was a lovely start to an otherwise difficult day. Will that single stalk survive? Will others take the place of the ones that died? Stay tuned; updates are sure to follow.

In the meantime, though, I thought of that flower when I read what Martel said about survival. It is a concise but very accurate summary of what has kept me going. That bloom was close at hand, and immediate, as are so many other things that have filled the days and weeks that otherwise may have been unbearable.

Much of the immediate is not particularly appealing; bureaucratic nonsense related to various aspects of Matt’s disability services, seemingly endless paperwork following Jeff’s death, which comes from the Defense Finance and Accounting, the Veteran’s Administration, the Social Security Administration and numerous other contacts; and all the laundry, care-giving and household maintenance that I am now handling alone. Survival has required that I pay attention to these things, and whether I like it or not, it probably has been a sort of distraction from deep sorrow.

But I’m especially thankful for all the lovely things that are close at hand. Matt’s generally agreeable nature, Amy’s continual support, the morning mug of tea (and the second morning one, and the mid-morning one, and the noontime one, and the early afternoon, and…) and the continuing joy of books, birds and blooms– these are only a few of the things that are there, awaiting my attention, enabling my survival.

What is close at hand and immediate for you today? Whether these things inspire curses or blessings, your attention to them will get you through the day. I wish you many joys that are this very moment within easy reach.

No small gift

Happy dog in Eastham, Massachusetts. by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons

Happy dog in Eastham, Massachusetts, by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born.”Mary Oliver

My life is not yet ready to adopt another dog into our home, but that does not prevent me from enjoying every encounter, however brief, with these delightful creatures. For me, dogs are therapeutic, providing instant joy. I am so grateful they are part of our world. Please give my personal thanks to the next one you see.

A never-tiring affection

Carla made sure that I had flowers for Valentine's Day this year. February 2017

Carla made sure that I had flowers for Valentine’s Day this year. February 2017

“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

Yes, dear readers, Valentine’s Day was hard for me this year, harder than any that came before that one in 1978 when I had my first “official” date with Jeff (a very long and funny story). But still, it was not as difficult as it might have been.

My sweet sister Carla (unofficial motto: “Taking care of Julia since 1956”) sent me those gorgeous roses. Amy and I went for a Galentine’s Day lunch at my favorite restaurant, La Madeleine, and then she left me with some delicious homemade treats very long on sugar and chocolate and nuts and popcorn, which I consumed within 48 hours (ok, they were for Matt too, and he did get his share).

Alys sent me the most wonderful Valentine package of some lovely handmade tea-themed cards I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to order for myself for months. They are gorgeous, and all the more treasured because they are made by students with special needs who live in her district. And Jena indulged my love of poetry, as she has done for at least four years now (or is it five?) by sending me some of her own favorites, and even including some of her own work, all of which were beautiful. I’m happy to know that marriage has not left her too busy for romantic poetry!

If you’ve read this blog very much, you will recognize those names. Do you see a pattern here? I do.

May your path be warm with the sunshine of sympathy, courage, faith, and never-tiring affection!

Bonus shot. I always prefer to shoot with available light, but here is how it looks when shot with a flash. Which do you prefer?

Bonus shot. I always prefer to shoot with available light, but here is how it looks when shot with a flash. Which do you prefer?

A willingness to wander

From Flanders Fields to Arlington and many points in between, Amy has walked a long and winding road with me. Ieper, Belgium, March 2007

From Flanders Fields to Arlington National Cemetery and many points in between,
Amy has walked a long and winding road with me. Ieper, Belgium, March 2007

“The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief…requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route.” — Rachel Held Evans

In a society that seems determined to strive for warp speed in everything, it is not surprising that the quick cure is more popular than healing. But some maladies are not curable.  As Dr. Lissa Rankin explains, “healing and curing are inherently different. Curing means ‘eliminating all evidence of disease,’ while healing means ‘becoming whole.'”

Healing takes time, and often leaves scars. While the hope of a cure focuses on a return to normal (whatever normal was), healing almost always leaves us changed in some way. When a complete recovery isn’t in the cards, when our lives are changed irrevocably, we still may have the hope of healing. But we have a long road ahead of us, and as Evans affirms, very few of us are able to travel it alone.

It’s a protracted and painful journey, and rare indeed are those who are ready to accompany us on that path more than briefly. Those who stay close enough to share our pain will also share our frustration, exhaustion, bewilderment and anger. No wonder so few will sign on for such a role. And no wonder physicians, therapists and other paid care providers can only provide a small measure of what is needed for the healing process.

Here’s to those who are willing to wander through this wilderness with us. It is indeed a scenic route, though not in a picture-postcard sense. But not all of the landscapes are desolate. Wildflowers and rainbows appear unexpectedly. Bare trees and silent tombstones radiate an otherworldly beauty. The dusk brings a haunting solace born of the deep-seated understanding that dawn is only half a day away, no matter how far off it may seem.

Heart melodies

Grady in our Alexandria kitchen, July 2016

Grady in our Alexandria kitchen, July 2016

Bring me all of your dreams
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
 — Langston Hughes

One great thing about dreaming, whether asleep or awake, is how portable it is. No place is more conducive to reverie than a beautiful landscape or seashore, but indoor spaces can offer us similar means of escape as long as we make time for a few minutes of solitude.  Cold weather gives us the chance to gaze into a mesmerizing fire with one hand wrapped around a hot mug. Warmer weather calls us to relax in the sunshine, enjoying the cool breeze or the perfect stillness of a lazy afternoon. With a little quiet contemplation, dreams can flourish in either setting.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing today, I invite you to spend a few minutes with your dreams. Wrap them lovingly to shield them from exposure to a too-rough world. Your heart melodies are needed to offset the discordant noise assaulting us from all sides.

The glimmering star

Good Morning from the International Space Station, by Scott Kelly Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Good Morning from the International Space Station, by Scott Kelly
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“If in the dusk of the twilight, dim be the region afar,
Will not the deepening darkness brighten the glimmering star?
Then when the night is upon us, why should the heart sink away?
When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day.”
Alice Hawthorne, aka Septimus Winner, 1868

These words are from a hymn that I’ve known and sung throughout my early life, but never particularly liked. Its title is “Whispering Hope” which might have been part of the problem. I want hope to shout at me and shut down all the fears and doubts. I want it to drown out all the chaos and noise. But as the prophet Elijah found out, God doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to listen for “a gentle whisper.”

In any case, for reasons unknown to me (as I haven’t heard the song in a long time) the words of it came back to me recently, playing in my head, and I could appreciate them much more than I used to. I’ve found it’s that way with a lot of things that I didn’t fully understand when I was younger. I suppose growing older tends to open us up. Sometimes it happens naturally, of our own accord, but sometimes we have to be broken open. Either way, it can ultimately be a blessing if we hold fast to what is most important.

If you are in the midst of a dark midnight, and the future seems only dimly visible, I wish for you a glimmering star of hope to light your fears with promise of better times to come. The universe, apparently, is mostly darkness. But what an incredible difference the lights make!

How else

An infinitely brief moment that did not slip by. Alexandria, September 2016.

An infinitely brief moment that did not slip by unnoticed. Alexandria, September 2016.

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?  For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone…”Vita Sackville-West

I agree with Sackville-West that writing enables us to capture what might otherwise slip away. For many of us, as for me, it is not an exaggeration to say it is necessary to write. Yet there are other means of savoring and saving precious moments. Photography is one way. Just seeing– really taking the time to look, and remember– is another.

The photo above was taken one lovely day last September, when Jeff called me out to the deck to see how many bees were swarming in the newly-blooming Sedum. Naturally I dashed for my camera, and took quite a few photos of the bees, one or two of which are sure to show up here eventually. There was a butterfly among them, and I took quite a few photos of it too.

Now when I see this photo I don’t remember just the flowers or the colorful insect feasting on them. I remember, more than anything else, a day that I knew was beautiful, even without knowing it was one of the last of its kind. I remember one of the delicious moments that retirees will understand, when life has slowed down enough for such precious times to be possible. How grateful I am for that memory, and for the photos that bring it back!

The days are slipping by for all of us. Whether you preserve the fragile “butterfly of the moment” with writing, photography, art, or simply sharing it with another person through a conversation or letter, remember the ephemeral nature of beauty, and savor it.

 

Go after it

Mennonite sisters from Maryland go after Hurricane Katrina relief with all sorts of tools. Photo by Marvin Nauman, from the FEMA Photo Library,public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mennonite sisters from Maryland go after Hurricane Katrina relief with all sorts of tools.
Photo by Marvin Nauman, FEMA Library, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”Jack London

I just love this quote. I think it applies to all sorts of inspiration, not just artistic or literary. If I have learned anything from life, one of the most indelible lessons of experience is that inactive brooding and rumination never solves anything. There’s a place, of course, for contemplation, discussion and reflection. But I suspect that the contemporary world gives far too little attention to disciplined effort and meaningful action. At least, I know I do.

As the venues for talk multiply– TV, radio, online, print, formal and informal meetings– the talk multiplies until it becomes our primary activity, and sometimes deceives us into thinking that merely by talking, we’ve done something to address what is bothering us. No wonder we end up feeling overwhelmed by undone tasks and unfulfilled aspirations.

Going after inspiration with a club does not mean going at it carelessly, or being fueled primarily by anger or frustration. In fact, I believe the sort of violence and mayhem fomented by gratuitously destructive outrage is the result of failure to undertake more meaningful steps. Acting on impulse is not the opposite of forethought; it’s the result of a pronounced lack of it.

Still, though planning is essential, it too often goes nowhere. Sometimes when I’m sorting though old papers I’ll come across goals and plans I wrote years ago and promptly forgot. Usually, they’re quite well thought out, and articulated clearly, with sound purposes that focus on worthy outcomes. But they were set aside, no doubt as a result of urgent demands that may have been more obvious and intrusive, but less important.

For 2017, I invite you to join me in going after inspiration with a club. That club– a metaphor for determination– might take various forms on different days: devising a specific set of goals for de-cluttering or fitness, writing a letter or making a visit we’ve been putting off, scheduling an activity (such as exercise), or anything else that will break the cycle of sitting around waiting to be rescued from our sadness or lethargy.

We can’t wait for inspiration. But that doesn’t mean it’s not out there, waiting for us to find it.

The one who comes in

Still smiling after an arduous journey, Boomdee arrives at Reagan Airport, March 2016.

Still smiling after an arduous journey, Boomdee arrives at Reagan Airport, March 2015.

“A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” — Grace Pulpit

I’ve written before about how isolating trouble can be. To put it bluntly, most people would rather not think about illness, disability or death unless they can’t avoid it. Those who are dealing with such issues, often for many years and even decades, will find themselves forgotten by a large share of people whom they once considered loyal friends or family. It’s a hard truth, and one nobody wants to believe, but eventually nearly every person who lives very long will experience the harsh reality of feeling abandoned when support is most needed.

The silver lining is that there are others– far fewer in number, but all the more precious for being so– who come in just when everyone else goes out. Sometimes it’s a longtime friend who becomes even closer, bonded by standing beside us through life’s most devastating moments. Surprisingly often, though, they are brand new friends who show up in the midst of our circumstances when we least expect them.

So it was that a lively lady from faraway Edmonton, Canada appeared on my blog in its very early days, offering friendly encouragement. From the very first time I followed Kelly’s Gravatar back to the lovely land of Boomdeeville, I knew there were some diamonds to be found among the rubble of disastrous circumstances Jeff and I were facing. Kelly filled my comments section with warmth and humor, my postal mail with exquisitely crafted creations, and my heart with hope. Having her visit in person for a whole week was like a dream come true.

It was a long way for her to travel, made longer by the sort of missed-flight ordeals that are only funny in retrospect. We filled the week with one merry mishap after another, dashing around DC in the rain and wandering around Dulles Airport for over an hour searching for Pauline, who had made an even longer journey from New Zealand.  Despite everything (or maybe because of it) we were laughing all the way.

If you’re reading this, chances are you are in that rare group of people who came into my life just as it felt as if the whole world had left the building. Those of you who made an entry instead of an exit, or who drew closer instead of stepping back, you know who you are, and you have made it possible for me to survive thus far. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I hope you will have many steadfast friends who make sure you don’t face your trials alone. And if I’m able, I hope to be one of them.

How infinitely rich

Photo by Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“I think these difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes around worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”Isak Dinesen

Perhaps the understanding Dinesen describes is one of the greatest gifts to come out of suffering.  Such a gift is a mixed blessing, and not simply because it grows out of pain. Our deepened awareness can make us impatient with others who are complacent, caught up in things we see as inconsequential– and it can make us doubly hard on ourselves when we find that we are likewise wasting precious moments, too caught up in our own self-pity to see the loveliness.

Just as I have to shake myself awake some mornings when I am reluctant to open my eyes to a new day, I often have to rouse my heart and spirit out of its temporary blindness and ingratitude. Life is short. The clock is ticking. What beauty lies just outside your door, awaiting discovery?

When we fully understand

Owen with his PaPa, September 14, 2016

Owen with his PaPa, September 14, 2016

“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains…it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other.”Clarence Darrow

The photo above was made at Drew and Megan’s Atlanta home, just ten days before Jeff checked into Walter Reed Bethesda with breathing problems, never to return home again. None of us dreamed it at the time, even though he had been fighting cancer for more than four years. He was so amazingly strong that even when he was near death, we had no way of knowing it.

No one can take life for granted, of course. Beyond a reasonable caution for safety and concern for healthy living, let us not translate that uncertainty to anxiety that hampers our appreciation of life. One of my greatest consolations is knowing how fully Jeff lived his life to the very end, in spite of the malicious disease that ate away at his physical strength and stamina. His refusal to let illness take his spiritual fortitude and mental tenacity will always be an example for me through the difficult days ahead.

Instead of allowing life’s inevitable brevity to make us fearful and morose, let’s  reflect on what Darrow said about translating that awareness to a compassionate and sympathetic spirit. Every person we will encounter today carries the same sentence of mortality; it’s just a question of time. When I think about it, I realize I want to add to the fleeting joys, not increase the unavoidable pains. I’ll try to remember that next time I’m annoyed or short-tempered.

Here’s hoping we will find creative ways to fill each day with joy, however fleeting, and to help others do the same.

On gray days

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash

“On gray days, when it’s snowing or raining, I think you should be able to call up a judge and take an oath that you’ll just read a good book all day, and he’d allow you to stay home.” ― Bill Watterson

In the winter it’s so easy to become gloomy and depressed. Not surprisingly, I’ve had an especially tough time with that this winter. Take tonight, when I was feeling very morose and sad, cold and lonely. I started feeding my brain images of cozy winter scenes, with fireplaces and books and warm mugs of tea or hot chocolate. Bingo! Just like that, I felt better. I suppose it was a real-life demonstration of the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

So if you live in the northern hemisphere where it’s likely to be cold right now, I invite you to take a quick mental vacation. I hereby appoint myself the judge Watterson imagined. As far as I’m concerned, you may stay home and read a good book all day. Objections? Overruled.

Okay, so maybe you do have to work, or run errands, or do any of a number of other things you can’t gracefully avoid. Just do what I did tonight, and pretend: imagine a cozy scene with a favorite book. Throw in other fun ideas such as a fireplace, freshly-baked cookies or a savory quiche, or a long chat with a good friend who’s reading the same book you are. If you are like me, these thoughts will cheer you up, even if you’re only daydreaming for a minute or two.

Then promise yourself to set aside at least an hour tonight to bring the daydream to life.

Among these winters

Photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash.com

Photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash.com

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As always, the poet says it best. I am writing this with a blanket of snow outside our York home, and I’m burrowed in with my hot tea and books and silence. It’s a healing solitude, and through the enchanting communion of words I am visiting with many souls, living or passed from this earth, whose company cuts through the loneliness. Thank you for being among them.

I wish for you this winter the ability to celebrate the momentary days in joyful, perfect assent. Spring will be here before we know it.

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