A powerful call

Aim high, and keep looking up!
Boys play ball in Jakarta, Indonesia – photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“…we’ve found that optimism can be a powerful call to action. And it has a multiplier effect: The more optimists there are working for a better future, the more reasons there are to be optimistic.”Bill and Melinda Gates

One of the most pernicious aspects of despair is that it snuffs out the motivation to do anything at all. Nothing seems worthwhile, meaningful or even fun when we are in the grip of despair. And just as optimism has a multiplier effect, so does negativity and despair. If we give up on life, we lose not only our own happiness, but also the exponential effect of whatever joys we could have inspired in others who, in turn will radiate that cheer outward so that it spreads indefinitely.

I’ve been guilty of gloom more times than I care to remember, knowing even as I am venting to a trusted friend or loving family member that my complaints are not doing anything to make anyone’s day better, least of all theirs or mine. I try to be forgiving of myself and others when we find ourselves caught by pessimism and frustration. Even so, I know this is not where I want to stay, or how I want to live my life.

Some people might say it’s easy for Bill and Melinda Gates to be optimists; look at their unimaginable fortune. But riches do not eliminate the human struggles that go along with each and every life. Many wealthy people have chosen to end their own lives, or to break faith with their life partners or families, or just generally to misbehave in countless ways, searching restlessly for more. Money is not the antidote to despair, as often as it may seem to be.

I admire the Gates and others like them, who use their means (whether small or great) to bless the world and leave it a better place. When I’m feeling low, I often find inspiration in learning more about the deeds of those who are ahead of me in this regard. Whether reading about the Gates Foundation and their many projects, or visiting with like-minded people in church or community settings, such optimists provide a virtual “shot in the arm” that inoculates me against the malignant spread of discouragement.

Billionaires tackling global diseases and water supply challenges have much in common with everyday heroes working in our hospitals, schools, communities and homes. All are doing what they can, with what they have at hand, united in the belief that whether or not they see the effects instantly, their work is not done in vain. These are people I look to for encouragement during dark times. Their light shines on the good that is always there, waiting to be recognized. Today and every day, I hope we will see them…and BE them!

Sparkling colors

These gorgeous flowers were a gift from…my grocery store? Yes! May 2019

“…let’s stay in the loop and pursue the momentous flow of daily little wonders, since life kindly tenders us gorgeous bouquets of sparkling colors, telling signs and rousing episodes.” —  Erik Pevernagie

So when I was putting this post together, I kept thinking maybe I should call this blog “Defeat Despair with Flowers.” But then I thought, couldn’t it just as well be called “Defeat Despair with Books?” Or “with Tea?” Or “with Animals?” Hmm, I guess I’d better stick with Defeat Despair. There are countless ways to do that, for which I’m deeply grateful.

But back to the flowers. One of the first things I had to do when I was released from the hospital was go to the grocery store to get some suitably bland food. Bland is not typically part of my life, and certainly not what I keep in my pantry. But I wasn’t hungry anyway. I just needed to eat, to heal and re-gain my strength.

Imagine my surprise then, when I got a wonderful (though non-edible) surprise as I was checking out with a few unexciting food items. Just as I reached the head of the line, the cashier at Lidl told us, her customers, “See all those flowers? They’re free if you want to take some.”

Those of us standing around looked at each other in disbelief before the cashier emphatically repeated that they were FREE. The bouquets didn’t look old or wilted, but maybe that was the point; perhaps they would be losing their fresh look soon, and a very smart store manager realized the soon-to-be-faded flowers could buy far more than their weight in good will if they were given to delighted customers. We didn’t need to be told more than twice. Several of us gladly scooped up a bouquet to take home.

Though I didn’t feel all that great, when I got home I made time to cut the flower tips off and arrange them, setting the arrangement beside the lovely one from Amy that I pictured last week, which was still beautiful. I can vouch for the healing power of the sight of those flowers. I took their loveliness in large doses through every day of the past week. It took the edge off the nasty antibiotics that make me feel nauseated, dizzy and miserable…though I’m thankful that the pain that made them necessary is gone.

I’m also thankful for each of you who have checked in with me in various ways, letting me know that your thoughts and prayers are with me. It truly means more than I can say.

Pevernagie is right; life hands out gorgeous bouquet to go along with the challenges and difficulties. For many of us, these “daily little wonders” provide the fuel that keeps us going through the tough times. May your most difficult hours be bursting with unexpected blooms and timely blessings.

There were even a few shorter blooms for this bud vase, seen here with a joyful sign sent to me years ago by a friend I met through the blog.

Precious document

Amy brightened my hospital room with these lovely flowers. April, 2019

“The most precious document in the world is a clean bill of health.”Ashleigh Brilliant

I just got out of the hospital, where I spent most of last week. It’s ironic that last week’s post was about not feeling sorry for oneself, because that pre-scheduled post published on a day when I was feeling quite sorry for myself, curled up in misery in a hospital bed wondering what was wrong with me.

It turns out that I had an abdominal abscess, secondary to diverticulitis. They gave me medication to control the pain as IV antibiotics addressed the abscess, but I was not allowed anything to eat or drink all week until the last day, when I was allowed clear fluids for 24 hours before they sent me home. I’m a person who drinks fluids all day long (water, or my precious tea) so going without anything at all was like torture. Sometimes a sympathetic nurse would bring me ice chips, and I cheated a good bit in that way, but it still was hard.

This was the first time ever that I have been a hospital patient, and I’m not very good at it. Other hospital procedures, even my appendectomy, saw me happily on my way home in a day. Not so this past week. I had been admitted from the ER, so I had not brought anything with me other than my phone and Kindle Fire. I didn’t have any of the cozy comforts I might have packed for a scheduled stay. I didn’t know any of the doctors and would not have chosen them myself, but an ER admission brings no choice about anything, as I discovered. The nurses were more agreeable and sympathetic, but they can only do so much.

Perhaps the most painful part was that the hospital setting triggered many sad and emotional memories of Jeff’s long battle with cancer and the weeks we spent together in a hospital room. I thought again and again of all he had suffered, and how bravely he endured it all. I was a total wimp in comparison. Being there alone, in pain and unable to eat or drink, was almost unbearable.

My friend Mary Ann had to cancel her planned trip to see me. This is the 20th year of our friendship, and we have not seen each other for 15 of those 20 years, so that cancellation was part of the crushing sadness of the week. I appreciate my friend Amy for coming by to see me several times and bringing the lovely flowers pictured above.

I’m doing much better now, but I have a lot to digest — or more accurately, NOT to digest —  as I face more appointments and a restricted diet. It seems I’ll be giving up many of my favorite foods. For all who have left comments, I apologize for my delay in responding and I hope you have not felt ignored or disregarded. I’ll get to the comments as soon as I can. I’m moving pretty slowly and trying to catch up with all that accumulated while I was out of commission. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

If you are facing illness of any kind, you have my sympathy and more understanding than I could have offered before. If you are in good health, treasure it! It’s a precious gift that we tend to take for granted until it vanishes.

To trade places

Us near our home in Hawaii,1994, around the time of Matt’s second open heart surgery.
It’s hard to imagine now, but even there, we faced hard times and low moods.

“Today you will be tempted to feel sorry for yourself. Don’t! Lots of people would love to trade places with you. Before you get down in the dumps over whatever is bothering you, read today’s obituaries to see how many people younger than you died yesterday, or visit the burn or stroke rehab center at a local hospital.”Rubel Shelly

We’ve heard similar sentiments before, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need to be reminded. No matter how blessed we are, it’s far too easy to indulge in self-pity sometimes.

For example, during our years in Hawaii, there were lots of people who said they envied our being able to live in what they thought of as paradise. Some may have thought they would have traded places with us. But those were very difficult years in many respects, and I know I felt sorry for myself occasionally. From where I sit now, though, I naturally wonder how I ever did.

In fact, most of us, if we were able to travel back in time and visit a younger version of ourselves at a time when we were feeling low, would say, “Don’t! Someday you will realize more fully what you have right now. You won’t always have it.” Yet even at this moment, some future self probably could be saying that same thing to us today. For better or worse, today might be as good as it gets, and I want to make the most of it and not to look back with regret.

The trouble with self-pity is the first part of the term: self. There are a number of research studies documenting the positive effects of volunteer work in forestalling or improving depression, particularly among older people. Among many seemingly obvious reasons for this, it surely must be beneficial to re-focus and turn our thoughts and efforts away from our individual cares.

When we are active in faith or community groups, we become involved in the lives of other people. We learn to realize that almost nobody has it easy in this life. Even when our personal challenges are more burdensome than average, those difficulties are often inextricably linked to blessings we would not choose to be without.

I hope today is a happy one for you, with no reasons at all to feel sorry about anything. But if you find yourself feeling low, remember how many people, all over the world and throughout the centuries, would love to be in your shoes.

Treasures everywhere

A picnic spot, a wildlife garden, and a Little Free Library, all in one place?
Not to mention the adjacent public library, full of discoveries. April 2019

“You don’t need to go to exotic places to find meaningful things. With a bit of curiosity, you can unearth treasures everywhere.”Mark Zeff

Zeff heads an architecture and design firm, so he’s referring here to collections that are featured as part of interior decoration. However, the principle applies to all sorts of treasures, and my favorite kinds are the ones you don’t have to buy or own to enjoy. Let your curiosity take you exploring right in your own home town, and you’ll see there really are treasures everywhere.

The photo above is taken at the garden of what surely must be one of the best small town libraries anywhere, but I’ve been to others just as full of unique treasures. There’s no telling how many more of them are out there, just waiting for us to discover them. Here’s another photo of a lovely memorial sculpture at that same library.

Even on an ordinary day, surprises are tucked away if we venture out a bit. Matt and I attended a benefit for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and along with more kinds of “free” food than I’ve ever seen in one place, there were other fun discoveries, such as this cautiously friendly fellow, a great horned owl:

I was amazed that, the minute I raised my cell phone to take a photo, he swiveled his head 180 degrees around. “He must be afraid of a flash,” I said to his handler. “But I’m not using a flash.” As soon as I said that, he turned his head back around and I snapped this photo. It was fun to pretend that he had understood what I said.

Finally, in the category of ordinary treasures, here’s a photo of my azaleas and dogwoods just starting to bloom. There’s nothing exotic about this everyday scene, but it’s one of the most meaningful aspects of home for me.

I never get tired of this sight, no matter how many times I see it. April 2019

Right where you are, there are treasures waiting to be discovered. Where will your curiosity take you today, and what will you find?

Can you imagine…?

Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal, photo by

Wherever there are books, you’ll find fascinating people, visible and invisible..
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal – photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

“My house is full of people escaped from literature. If this is the case in my home, can you imagine how it is in a library?”Isabel Allende

I know exactly what Allende means, because my house– or really wherever I find myself– is also crowded with literary escapees. Look over there in the kitchen– Mma. Ramotswe is having tea with Nancy Drew, and they are no doubt swapping stories of their brilliantly solved (and frustratingly unsolved) detective cases.

Out in the living room– she referred to it as the parlor– Elizabeth Bennett is having a lively conversation with Holden Caulfield, both of them full of witty observations about how people behave in public. You might think there would be a communication barrier, given their vastly different dialects, but not so. In fact, according to Holden himself, “the way she talks knocks me out. It really does.”

Up in the library, Alyosha Karamazov is debating ethics with Sidney Carton. What opposites they are! But each is quite noble in his own way, well suited to such a chat. Meanwhile, off in a corner somewhere, Francie Nolan is curled up with a book. She still reads one every day, just as she always has.

It’s a wonder anyone can hear themselves think, with all that noise Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are making down in the basement. I might have to send Viola Swamp down there if they don’t “hold it down to a low roar,” as my Daddy used to say.

I’m guessing that your house is also full of people who have entered your life through books. If so, remember Allende’s observation that the library has exponential numbers of such fascinating company. If you’re ever feeling lonely, a trip to the library is a sure remedy. But you might not have to go that far. Who is hiding in your own home, within the pages of your books?


From the insistence

The little frog seemed not to notice my camera just inside the window. July 2018

“Much of the bothersomeness of daily life arises not from circumstances themselves, but from the insistence that they ought to be other than they are.” Oliver Burkeman

When I read that quote, I was struck immediately with how truly it describes most of the stress I face each day. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a very strong sense of fairness versus unfairness, right versus wrong, justice versus injustice. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that I often forget I’m not the best arbiter of these distinctions, and they aren’t always an all-or-nothing, black and white proposition.

Not only am I inadequate as a judge of these opposing forces, but my sense of the relative importance of something often gets lost in the immediacy of the moment. To put it another way, I am too prone to “sweat the small stuff.” Having said that, I don’t always err on the side of being frustrated. I sometimes find joy in things that other people consider negative or downright irritating.

The little critter pictured above is a prime example. One night soon after I had moved into my new home, my sister noticed a tiny frog clinging to the glass of the door to my deck, catching flies and (in our fanciful imagination) watching what we were doing inside. We thought the frog was adorable, and we behaved in all the silly ways people sometimes do when they see a cute animal — talking to it in high pitched voices, wondering about where it lived, and whether it was as curious about us as we were about it.

For several nights in a row, this frog (or another one who looked just like it) reappeared in almost the same place. Apparently there was quite an insect buffet on offer there, due to the light coming from the windows into our kitchen which drew the bugs in abundance. One night when we didn’t see the frog, we actually felt sad at its absence, and wondered if it was OK. We were quite happy when it reappeared the next night.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read numerous complaints about frogs on our online neighborhood group. Apparently, not everyone finds the frogs cute or even useful. Anything that eats bugs is OK by me (except maybe spiders or snakes), but several people were griping about how many frogs we have in the woods behind our homes, and how they leave droppings and generally offend others by their mere presence in our human environments.

I agree that the droppings are mildly annoying, but they’re quite easy to remove with a broom or wet paper towel. I find the delight of these amphibious visitors far outweighs whatever drawbacks they might bring. Besides, did I mention that they eat bugs?

This all started me thinking about how much energy is wasted– by me and clearly, by many others– in choosing to be unhappy about things that are a natural and inescapable part of life. A simple re-framing can work wonders, for almost any frustration not life-threatening or catastrophic.

For instance, consider traffic, one of the chiefest offenders for anyone living near a city. If I allow sufficient travel time so as not to be in a hurry, and keep an interesting recorded book or some favorite music loaded into the car’s audio system, I find that the traffic does not infuriate me as it will when I’m in a hurry or simply BORED by the slow crawl of many vehicles.

Traffic can be viewed as a good sign, despite the pollution it generates and the nerves it frays. It means people are able to be out and about, conducting business, pursuing recreational activities, or visiting friends and relatives. It’s a sign of life. It’s also a sign of prosperity, as friends from countries where cars are considered a luxury have made me aware. Yes, it might be nice if the roads were adequate for the density of vehicles traveling them. But road construction, too, comes at a price; ask anyone who ever lost their home to eminent domain laws. To say nothing of taxes, disrupted travel while the work is being done, and then even more cars using the newly-opened road. Like work, traffic will always expand to fit the space allowed for it. It’s a problem that will never be totally solved, and fretting over it continually will profit us nothing.

Becoming aware of my tendency to engage in unproductive fuming over things I perceive “ought to be other than they are” was a useful tool in my quest to defeat despair. One recent day it seemed as if many (small) things had gone wrong, and I ended the day with a sense of general irritation. When a not-so-small problem reared its head that evening, I could feel myself spiraling into the cortisol-laden anger that tends to send me off tilting at digital windmills or banging my head against immovable walls. But somewhere in the midst of my reactive state, a better thought emerged. I reminded myself that, whatever happened, life is too short to spend it being unhappy.

I let go of the illusion that I could do anything at all about what had me worried and upset, and I totally changed mental channels. I don’t remember whether I picked up an enjoyable book, or turned through a magazine I like, or listened to favorite music. I only know that I made the decision that the hours remaining in the day would be spent in more agreeable pursuits. Right there, almost instantaneously, my day turned around.

Are there things in your world that “ought to be other than they are?” If you have done what you reasonably can do about them, or if nothing will alter the situation, try changing mental channels and enjoying activities that bring you joy and a sense of purpose. Some of you are naturally good at this and don’t need this advice, but if any of you are more like me, diligently (sometimes almost obsessively) trying to right all things you perceive as wrong, you have my sympathy, and my understanding. I invite you to sit down with a cup of tea and turn your thoughts to something pleasant. Maybe it’s a memory, or a fun project, or an exciting goal. But maybe it’s something as simple as– look!– that cute frog on the window again, catching bugs.

Always more mystery

A close-up of one of the flowers in the picture I posted last week.
No matter how often I see them, they fill me with wonder.

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”Anais Nin

One of my favorite people in this blog community frequently wishes me “a wonder-filled week.” I love it! The word wonderful is used so often that we tend to miss its root meaning, so I find her revision of the term an apposite way to wish someone the best. I think one of the nicest things we can wish each other is a wonder-filled week, or year, or life.

Nin is right; no matter how much we know, there are always more mysteries to wonder about. The daffodils that have been my lifelong favorite flower are a familiar sight, as I’ve planted so many of them over the years. But I never cease to be amazed at their delicate structure and sunny colors. Botanists can tell us all sorts of details of taxonomy, propagation and genetic modification, but those words never capture the pure delight of seeing these blooms appear every spring.

In a totally different corner of my world, I’m amazed by the advances in cardiology since Matt was born. Nearly 34 years ago, he was diagnosed with a complex heart defect that he likely would not have survived if he had been born a decade or so earlier. Through five open heart surgeries and counting, I’ve been stunned at what the doctors are able to do. Their procedures continue to evolve, rising to the challenge of Matt’s formidable cardiac anomalies in ways that are fascinating and encouraging.

This amazing wireless home monitor sends data from Matt’s pacemaker to his doctors, giving them a minute-by-minute account of how his heart has been doing.

Yet beyond all the scientific sophistication of their equipment and methodology, there is the abiding mystery of how they, and Matt himself, can remain so indefatigable and compassionate in the face of very difficult circumstances. In the midst of sorrow at all he has suffered, and the stress of wondering what lies ahead, there is the consoling experience of being filled with wonder at the divine blessings that come to us through the hands and hearts of people who know what to do, and more importantly, who genuinely care for him– and me.

All of us live in a wonder-filled world of manifold mystery. What are some of your favorite everyday wonders?

Spring emerges

I didn’t miss it! The plum tree in bloom at our York home, March 2019

“As a child I used to think that spring happened suddenly.  Now I know that spring emerges gradually, as new as dawn—and as old.”June Masters Bacher

We had some unseasonably warm weather a few weeks back, and because of that (and OK, maybe because of what the ground hog said) I was expecting an early spring. But it’s just now starting to arrive. In past years, I’ve seen daffodils as early as February, but not this year. However, I’m happy to say that there now are definite signs of spring at our York home.

In early March I had noticed the plum tree just starting to bud. I was dismayed because I knew I would be away for 12 days and was afraid I’d miss it. But I didn’t! As you can see in the photo above, it is just now blooming, with none of the petals having dropped to the ground yet. Like many fruit trees, it has a short bloom time so I felt lucky that I caught it looking so pretty. Here’s what the flowers look like close up.

The delicate structure of a flower never fails to fascinate me.

The daffodils are blooming, too! Here’s a shot of some in the front yard. the ones around the trees and mailbox are the bright yellow monochromatic kind, and they haven’t appeared yet. I love any kind of daffodil.

These are always the first to appear each year.

Since it’s still cool, the last of the camellia blooms are still visible here and there, but clearly fading..

A few camellia blooms overlap with spring flowers– the best of both seasons.

These were growing near the ground, so I cut them to bring inside.

Indoors, they add such cheer to my days!

As Bacher says, spring emerges gradually…especially when one is waiting for it as eagerly as I always do. How about you? Are you seeing signs of spring– or in the southern hemisphere, of fall? Send us a seasonal snapshot– in words or an actual digital photo, if you can figure out how to upload it–and let’s welcome these blessings that are “as new as dawn– and as old.”



Like a fire

The home in East Point, Georgia where I grew up, as seen in the mid 1960’s.

“A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.”Eudora Welty

The house pictured above is the place I will always think of as my childhood home. I’ve returned there, just to drive by it, several times since my parents first moved away more than twenty years after that photo was made, and I’ve been happy to see that the house and the neighborhood still look lovely to me.

This is not the first home I remember, though. That distinction belongs to this house in Hapeville, Georgia, where we moved when I was a toddler who had already lived briefly in two other states:

Daddy photographed our home after a rare snowfall, probably in 1958 or 1959.

Oddly, I don’t remember ever going back to see this home, though I had very fond (if vague) memories of the wonderful park across the street. Recently before a planned trip to Atlanta, Drew mentioned that we might take Grady and Owen to the Dwarf House, which Chick-Fil-A fans might know as the place where it all started.

I knew the Dwarf House was in Hapeville, and for the first time I can remember, I wondered whether it might be fun to go see that old home. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I spent over an hour on a google map search of the surrounding area neighborhoods to see if any of them looked familiar. When I saw photos of the park during one of the searches, I was hit with that startling “ping” of recognition not unlike the emotion one might feel at a chance meeting of a dearly loved person long absent from one’s life. I looked at the street name, and it too rang a distant bell somewhere in my memory. I called my sister, who would be meeting us in Atlanta, and we made excited plans to go back and visit the house, and the neighborhood.

So, after landing at ATL and filling our stomachs with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the Dwarf House (where Owen was fascinated with the tiny dwarf door that was just his size), we drove the short distance to what we believed was our old neighborhood. We were delighted to find that it was still a charming and well-kept community. We got out of the car and stepped into our past.

“Magical” is an overused word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind in describing the experience. “Nostalgia” doesn’t capture it at all, because it wasn’t connected to any specific conscious memories. It was more like being transported to a place of belonging, almost a state of being, that was unexpectedly familiar. I felt like a tiny child again, running excitedly through the park that I had remembered as being much more enormous than it appears to me now.

The wooden bridge over the creek had been replaced with a stone structure, and a playground area with newer equipment had been added. But otherwise it was unmistakable, and now I had the surreal feeling of watching my grandsons running through that same park, the younger of whom was about the same age I had been while we lived there.

The really funny thing was that we remembered the park with more certainty than we remembered the front of our home– neither Carla nor I could be sure which of two different houses across the street had been our own. Later we went back to Mama and Daddy’s last home in Fayetteville, where our younger brother now lives. He wasn’t even born during those years, but he pointed us to the old photos where we located the picture posted above. There was no doubt now which house had been ours, and it has held up well during the nearly 60 years since the first photo was taken:

Other than an awning and added masonry veneer, little has changed in 60 years.

But it was the park that will stay in my memory and in my heart. I somehow had forgotten to bring my camera (the photo above was taken by Carla’s husband George, who used his cell phone) but here’s a photo of my older brother, older sister and me, having fun there 60 years ago. You’ll have to trust me that, unlike us, the park looks almost exactly like this now. Our home is visible in this photo, too. It’s a photo of a photo– I didn’t have access to a scanner — so the quality is lacking, but perhaps the enchantment will come through:

Eric, Carla and me, in an enchanted world called childhood — probably 1959.

When I read Welty’s quote, I thought immediately of our visit back to our Hapeville home. “A fire that never goes out” is a very good way to describe it. Much depends on what kind of fire it is; for some, early memories of home can be dangerous and even destructive, and maybe best forgotten. But for most of us, despite less than perfect memories, home can be a life-sustaining force that warms the world until the end of our days.

Do you remember your childhood home(s)? Have you been back to visit? Feel free to share memories of your own “fire that never goes out.” Millions of homes all over the world are chock-full of stories just waiting to be told.

Too important

Teresa photographed me with our lovely waitress at the Small Talk Tea Shop in England.
For more on Teresa and this photo, taken in July, 2017, read this post.

“Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal process──which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.” Lytton Strachey

I had a rough week, interacting with robotic systems that were creating errors related to banking, finance and other necessities of daily life. By jumping through various automated obstacles, I contacted actual human beings to try to correct such mundane problems as my checking and saving account statements being sent, for no apparent reason, to an outdated address that was changed nine months ago. I was chagrined to discover how powerless the employees are, to correct or even understand the computer-driven systems that have taken over most business tasks in today’s world.

Even though my problems were “escalated” (to use popular business lingo) to higher-level departments, the people at those levels were equally stymied in their attempts to figure out what was happening, and why. I was left mulling over the brave new world of artificial so-called intelligence that now controls and too often bungles so many aspects of daily life. My conclusion is that I am finished with robots; all is over between us, insofar as I can manage to disentangle myself from such systems. Of course, much is already beyond our ability to control it, but I will continue to seek out humans for as many interactions as I possibly can.

The first thing I did was take steps to sever a 31-year dependence on online banking, which served us well through many military moves, but which is no longer functioning efficiently or even adequately. (My recent problems were part of an ongoing pattern of similarly inexplicable errors.) I went to an actual, brick-and-mortar bank branch and opened several accounts to which I intend to transition all my business. While the bank is part of yet another gargantuan corporation that relies, as all do, on computers, at least I had contact with real people to whom I can turn when such problems surface in the future, as they undoubtedly will. This represents an improvement over calling an 800 number and getting a different person each time, telling the same story over and over.

There are other ways to step away from impersonal encounters with robots. Months ago, I began doing something many of you already are doing: making an effort to deal with local businesses insofar as I reasonably can. Other small steps include focusing on face-to-face interaction as often as possible, writing real, physical letters in my own unique handwriting, and reminding myself to make eye contact and smile at people I encounter, however briefly, in the course of a day. Interacting primarily with machines can make us lose our humanity– I really believe that– and I’m not going to give it up without a fight.

Another thing I realized is that technology allows us to stay home far too much, especially in cold weather. There’s nothing wrong with being happy to stay home. Feeling content in our own cozy nest is one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s a risk: it can lead to becoming increasingly isolated from our communities, robbing us of what other people have to offer us, and depriving them of our own contributions.

I think travel is so invigorating because it forces us out of our cocoons and puts us face to face with people who are friendly, often fascinating, and completely new to us. We have much to learn from people we have not yet met. All such encounters are helpful insofar as they allow us to practice courtesy, communication and congeniality, all of which atrophy when we deal mostly with robots.

I’m no Luddite. I love technology, and my presence here at this blog is exhibit A that demonstrates my enthusiasm for the gifts of digital progress. However, in addition to the reservations described above, there is a darker side to technology that became apparent to me as I dealt with the frustrations of the past week. I noticed how much easier I found it to become hostile and rude with people with whom I spoke over the phone, when they seemed unhelpful or dismissive of my difficulties.

When not face to face with another person, it’s far too easy to vent and even shout when I become irritated. This is especially true if I’m speaking with a nameless person I’m unlikely ever to reach again, at one of those branched-out call centers with locations in multiple cities, teeming with employees whose conversations one can overhear buzzing in the background. Such inadequate approaches to customer service underscore how minuscule any one person’s problems must seem to this mammoth corporation. Call center employees are normally powerless to do much, and rarely can they even return a phone call or pass the problem on to someone who might be able to help. No wonder it’s so infuriating to deal with them.

However understandable my anger might be in such situations, venting it accomplishes nothing good. Accordingly, I’m going to avoid such call centers as much as I can. That might not be possible in many cases, but there still do exist businesses that have local representatives one can consult in person. Even if it costs more to deal with them, I’ve decided it’s worth it.

Many of us have been raging against the machine for a long time, but I’m ready to do more than rage. One way I am choosing to defeat despair is to go retro with how I conduct my business. How about you? Do you have any happy encounters to relate, whether in your home town or on the road, that will inspire us with faith that the robots have not yet irrevocably taken over? Can you point us to companies that have made a commitment to put people over profits? As Strachey says, people have a value that transcends any temporal process. How can we live out our understanding of that eternal truth?

Life is there

Gloria sent Jeff these hydrangeas on his retirement ceremony, February 26, 2016.
I later planted them outside, and I hope they will soon be sprouting new spring foliage.

And still the earth is cold and white,
And mead and forest yet are bare;
But there’s a something in the light
That says the germ of life is there.           Jane Goodwin Austin, “February,” c.1886

I searched through all my February photos and couldn’t find any that showed pretty flowery landscapes, so I resorted to cheating (again) with a colorful potted plant for today’s post. We all need some color right now. While I was visiting my sister in north Alabama last week, I saw several flowering fruit trees, but so far nothing in bloom here at my Virginia homes.

We’re having those on-and-off, up-and-down weather days, which surely mean (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) that spring is on its way. Yesterday the afternoon was so warm that I went outside to prune my crape myrtles, and though I accidentally cut a deep “V” into the side of my thumb while I was at it, I couldn’t help but feel cheerful.

I’m dreaming of spring plantings, and can’t understand why the landscapers aren’t as impatient as I am to get going. What are your garden plans this year? Will you be setting your own seedlings out, or enjoying those of your neighbors? Are you as eager as I am to see some outdoor blooms?

There sat the world

The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library.
Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle via Unsplash

“I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.”Patrick Ness

When I was a child, we didn’t have nearly as many children’s books in our home as I would have liked. But we did have quite a few books of general interest, including some really magnificent items, and none of them were off limits to us. I remember spending hours with the books from our modest home library .

Whether I was at home or at the public library, I could spend as much time as I wanted browsing and poring over whatever caught my eye. I don’t remember my parents ever trying to censor or limit my reading. In fact, once when my older brother saw me reading a book called Expectant Motherhood, he felt duty-bound to report it to my mother, feeling certain she would not want me to be exposed to these biological details at an early age. But she just scoffed at his concern, telling him there was no harm in my reading it.

Thus I grew up sensing that information was nothing to fear, and wide-ranging opinions were not dangerous if tested by reason, logic and fact. I connected immediately with the quote by Ness, especially his description of himself as “a hugely unchaperoned reader.” For all the adventures I would later experience through travel, my earliest explorations were made possible by public and school libraries.

It’s never too late to set out on an unchaperoned voyage of discovery, and you need travel no farther than your public library, much of which you now can access directly via your home computer. Unlike the structured reading done in the context of classes and assignments, solo expeditions at the library allow you to follow your own pathways and timetables. There sits the world, waiting for you– send us a few postcards of your most interesting finds!

Happy Birthday to my sister, who read to me and taught me to read.

Generous beyond all reason

For only $2.99, I got hyacinths to feed my soul while buying groceries to feed the rest of me.
How’s that for a generous life?

“This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: the facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things that ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.”Augusten Burroughs

Perhaps the oft-repeated question should not be “why do bad things happen,” but rather, “where does all this beauty and abundance and joy and love and delight come from?” People of faith believe there is a divine wellspring of goodness that blesses our world even as it explains our existence and gives meaning to life. But surely even those who believe this planet evolved from a cosmic accident must agree that the bones of life, as Burroughs refers to them, are indeed generous in a way that defies easy description.

Did the sun break through your window this morning so brightly that waking up was a bit easier? Did your mailbox surprise you by containing a note from someone you love? Are the green shoots of daffodils beginning to pierce the frozen ground in your yard? Have you had a delicious cup of coffee or tea that jump-started your brain as it pleased your taste buds? Is a dog or cat lying nearby, exuding warmth and companionship?

Did you have the exquisite delight of buying a small gift that you know will be wanted or needed by someone dear to you? Are you wearing a comfortable sweater in your favorite color? Is beautiful music almost certain to be part of your day, playing on an amazingly inexpensive but sophisticated speaker that transmits the sound of a faraway orchestra? Can you imagine the faces of all those individual musicians, each of whom gave a lifetime of practice to bring you a symphony that never fails to bring tears of joy to your eyes?

I could go on and on, but really, I don’t need to. Chances are this post has you thinking spontaneously of the countless sentiments and supports and sensory surprises that color your day with happiness. Life really is, at its core, beautiful and generous beyond all reason. Even when things are at their worst, some part of me never doubts that primal truth. It is a rock-solid encouragement to continue.

Whether your day is wonderful, difficult or somewhere in between, I wish you many reminders of abiding beauty and the peace that passes understanding.


Small places in a large world

Both a garden and a story: San Juan Bautista, California, June 2003

“A story is a garden you carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But…we must never mistake the stories we tell for truth.”Alexandra  Curry

Over 30 years ago in a Bible class, the teacher spoke of how big the truth is. Afterward, Jeff and I had a discussion on that assertion. Jeff said he had always thought of the truth as something narrow and well-defined. He belonged to a profession based on hard science and peer-reviewed research involving lots of double-blind studies.  It was also his personality type; Jeff was much more skeptical than I am. I think he would have agreed with the caveat that, if we tell ourselves stories, we must not mistake them for the truth.

But I agree with that long-ago teacher. I think the truth is a big thing, so enormous that no human mind can fully grasp it. As such, I think stories, even totally imagined ones, contain grains of truth that may often be better illustrated by fiction than by bare facts. As Curry says, the stories we tell ourselves typically serve the function of adding joy to our lives and giving us refuge. They are not meant to be didactic, but they resonate with what we know of the truth, and they bring us humor and reassurance.

However, we also could tell ourselves stories that are not helpful. These tales might make people or events more evil or destructive than they actually are. We may re-invent the past to fit narratives that cast us in a better light, or make others the villains in a real-life drama that might be far more nuanced than we describe. Worse, we may convince ourselves that this self-serving version of events is the real one. So Curry’s point is well taken.

Having said that, I am immensely grateful for the power of stories, and I really like the analogy comparing them with portable gardens. Who among us does not enjoy escaping into a great novel, a well-produced film or an enthralling live theatrical production? The best of these stay with us, like a beautiful song or favorite memory, and shine brightly in the often drab reality of daily life. We may not have physical proximity to the sort of garden pictured above, but wherever we are, we can escape into a good story.

For those who have lived many decades, our memories are full of stories, like vast gardens with a wide variety of botanical rooms. Some are more colorful and verdant, some may be overgrown and ill-tended, and there will be those that bring more sorrow or regret than joy. But always we can find beautiful settings to enjoy, especially if we are willing to venture beyond our own story gardens, into those of our friends, and those that make up the great legacy left to us by authors, poets and artists of present and past centuries.

Today, let’s make it a point not to spend more time than necessary in desolate mental places. Let’s be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves, and choose hope. Our pockets are full of stories– gardens through which we can stroll for a soothing escape from whatever may be clouding our vision and worrying our minds. In the dreary days of late winter (or the parched, dry ground of late summer), these “pocket gardens” can transform our inner landscape. Feel free to share a favorite story with us here in the comments.

To see wonders

Thanks to Denise, I discovered these lovely flowers to bring home. January 2019

Upon a bank I sat, a child made seer
Of one small primrose flowering in my mind.
Better than wealth it is, I said, to find
One small page of Truth’s manuscript made clear…

…The years that pass
Like tired soldiers nevermore have given
Moments to see wonders in the grass.
— Patrick Kavanagh

This post is for Denise, who inspired me to challenge myself this past week. The goal was for each of us to buy fresh flowers for ourselves. Denise had achieved this almost immediately, but I took a few days longer. However, with her example to encourage me, I ended up with the lovely primroses pictured above.

Earlier, in a discussion in the comments section, I had written that cut flowers are a good investment despite their short lives. I mentioned that it was easier for me to buy myself a potted plant I could eventually transplant outdoors, hoping that it might last a bit longer, but almost never bought myself freshly cut flowers. Denise said she had a similar reluctance to treat herself to a bouquet, so we agreed we’d bring home some botanical joy as soon as possible.

So my original plan was to buy cut flowers, not something potted. The interesting thing was that, had I not gone into Kroger’s in search fresh cut flowers to follow Denise’s example, I would never have found these adorable primroses, which are among my all time favorite flowers. Like the beloved daffodils that always top my list, primroses bloom very early, before winter is past. Is there a pattern here, with my preferences? I think so!

Every year, I search (usually in vain) for potted primroses to enjoy. I love their vibrant colors and deep green foliage. But they are hard to find; maybe I just don’t know where to look. Even when I see them advertised, the stores are always sold out by the time I get there. The few I have bought over the years have transplanted beautifully, sometimes coming back again the following year. Our Alexandria townhome that I sold last year had a lovely yellow primrose I had planted beside the patio. It returned annually, blooming in the still-cold weather, reminding me that spring had almost arrived.

Anyway, after I read about Denise having bought herself some flowers, I went into my local Kroger’s, which boasts a wonderful floral department. Despite how beautiful their displays are, I almost never take time to wander and buy; I’m always in a rush to get the practical groceries and get home with them. But I was determined to find some cut flowers to live up to my own words.

Imagine my delight when I saw these lovely primroses! At only $1.50 per plant, I could afford all five of the colors on display. Now I will have the double pleasure of flowers to enjoy indoors, and flowers to plant in a few weeks in the new planting beds adjacent to my just-finished patio. I was so excited to bring them home.

The next morning, I was having my usual cold-weather reluctance to leave the snug and cozy cocoon of my bed. All the usual cares and worries came flooding into my mind, setting me up for the gloomy mood with which I begin far too many days. Then suddenly I remembered my new flowers, and immediately, it was as if a light was switched on inside my brain. Just the thought of seeing them when I went downstairs made starting the day an easier task for me.

Thank you, Denise, for helping me to see wonders! It does often seem that the years “pass like tired soldiers” but as the poet has written, there are wonders woven throughout, truths that are better than wealth.

A postscript: readers who enjoy Christian reflections might appreciate the full poem from which the quote above is drawn.

Hints of gladness

Jeff took this photo of me exultant amid the beauty of Muir Woods, May 2003.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.    Mary Oliver

I had already begun putting this post together when I looked for a link to include with Mary Oliver’s name. That was how I found out she had just died. I gasped aloud, feeling suddenly the deep sadness shared by countless others whose hearts were touched and reassured by Oliver’s work. I have already featured many quotes from her poems in this blog. When I chose this one for today, I had no idea she had so recently left this world.

There were all sorts of things I could have shared about trees in this post, but really, what more needs to be said than what Oliver put into words in this remarkable poem? May your life be filled with such hints of gladness, there for you when you need them most.

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.

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