“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.
The sixth anniversary of this blog passed recently, without mention by me or anyone else. The giddy hope that inspired a feeling of celebration on the first and second anniversaries gave way to reality, although I did recognize the milestone in a small way for the third year. The fourth passed in an abyss of grief, and by the fifth, I suppose I didn’t see any reason to note the anniversary of a blog that had gone from seven posts per week to just one.
I look back at the videos from the first and second anniversaries with stunned silence at how much can change in a very short time. Yet there are those of you– you know who you are– who have been with me through all of it, for all six years. That in itself is worth celebrating; it is a thing of wonder. Through your steadfast encouragement, what is excellent in you has belonged to me, and has enabled me to survive.
To those who come and go, joining us as you are able, I appreciate your presence here whenever you are with us. I sadly recognize how absent I have been from my friends’ blogs, and I know how life gets in the way. Please know that I am happy to hear from you each and every time you make your visits known to me, and rejoice when our paths cross online.
To those who contact me privately to share your appreciation of a post or a photo, I enjoy hearing from you too, and I understand that making a public comment is not something everyone is willing to do. Having loved many people who are intensely private and averse to such open sharing, I understand that individual messages are more meaningful to many. Thank you for being with us and for letting me know you are reading.
And to those who visit silently, I appreciate you too. Though I may never know you are reading these posts, I am always surprised and delighted to hear for the first time from someone who has been following the blog for years without my realizing they were. Some are people who know me only through the blog, and others are friends from long ago, but each reader, known or unknown, has a special place in my heart.
For six years, this blog has been a connecting point for me, a family I did not know I had until I stumbled onto WordPress as a means of coping with crisis and devastating grief. I appreciate you!
“There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. And heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.” —Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Yesterday was Veteran’s Day, and some may have a holiday today in honor of those who have served in the military. Yudhoyono’s quote seemed appropriate for this day, because most troops will never be singled out for special honor or widespread acclaim. Yet the life of our nation depends on their faithfulness to duty, their willingness to show up day after day for whatever demands are placed upon them to secure the overall mission of the armed forces.
Through 30 years of Jeff’s military career, I came to have a deep respect for the discipline, humility and tenacity of the women and men who are willing to take on a way of life requiring sacrifices that are largely unseen and sometimes misunderstood. Our veterans are everyday people with families, obligations, interests, hopes and dreams, but they have made the commitment to set all of these aside at a moment’s notice and put themselves in harm’s way, if necessary, to protect all of us.
Even in peace time, or when not deployed to a war zone, soldiers, sailors and airmen participate in readiness exercises that sometimes require reporting to duty in the middle of the night, or being called without notice to undisclosed locations for unspecified lengths of time. Service members are on call 24/7, and even when they take leave (civilians call it a vacation) they have to furnish detailed information where they can be reached at any time. In a very real sense, they are always on duty, never far from their professional responsibilities and obligations.
Whether or not you have friends or family in the armed forces, our veterans have almost certainly made a difference in your life. I hope you will join me today in remembering them with gratitude and honor.
“Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.”— Lauren Destefano
The weather here is finally cooling off enough that we are getting some splendid fall color, though it was still over 70 degrees several days this week, with perfect sunshine for at least part of the day each day. The combination of sunny, short-sleeve weather and striking autumn foliage is an unbeatable remedy for the blues. Come for a virtual visit with me and let’s enjoy the glorious autumn sunshine as seen from my windows.
Our new home is surrounded with forest views on three sides, which is why I chose the lot I bought, and why I still have no window coverings on the main floor rear windows or doors. When it gets really cold I might have to give up and get some insulating shades, but for now I’m enjoying the fall colors even more than I loved the leafy greens of summer. Here are views from two of the family room windows, and from the main floor guest room. You can see a faint reflection of the bed in the lower half of the window:
Just as I hoped, there are some vivid shades surrounding our home, including the bright red leaves I so love to see in the landscape. If you never tire of seeing photos of autumn foliage, scroll on to see views from various windows. But if you have a “seen-one-seen-them-all” boredom with too many similar photos, you might want to exit now. Consider yourself warned! I can almost hear Jeff saying “Julia, how many photos of leaves do you think they want to see?”
My bedroom is just above the family room, so the views from my windows are upper level views of those above. Matt has a corner room, with good views in either direction. The golf course is visible in the first photo taken from his front window:
The views from the craft room, the library and the loft are pretty good too:
If you’re feeling energetic, we can walk the half mile to the gym and view the Potomac River from there. You can see the construction on the shopping center which will supposedly one day feature a riverfront area with restaurants, along with a VRE commuter rail station. In fact, we can walk right up to the riverfront now (just beyond those red trees in the distance), if you want a closer view. There’s a nice paved road lined with magnolia trees, leading past the clubhouse and ending in a circular viewing area. You’ll be able to see where the train station is supposed to be built. If you take the train to see me, I can walk down to the station to meet you!
I guess we should quit goofing off and get back to work– after one more virtual cup of hot tea or coffee before you go. Thanks for visiting me today!
“The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Surviving trauma and loss requires learning how to ride the waves of sorrow that threaten to turn exhaustion into despair and resignation. Despite the ever-increasing use of antidepressants, the efficacy of which has been called into question in several recent studies, most people will battle feelings of sadness or hopelessness at least once or twice in a lifetime. For some of us, it may be a continual struggle.
On the plus side, we have an arsenal full of tools to fight the blues– listening to music, yard work, gardening, crafting, writing, cooking, or visiting a friend who needs or wants to see us, to name only a few. Over the years I’ve found that nothing is a better antidote to depression than actually doing something.
For those who work a full time job, this may be automatic. But for those of us who are retired from regular employment, or who work from home with self-regulated hours, it may be more difficult. Some mornings when I awaken with dread at the thought of getting through another day, I will remind myself to avoid “ruination by rumination” by simply getting up and getting to work on something I want or need to do.
When the task involves strenuous labor, so much the better. But even light activity is remarkably beneficial. Whether or not anyone ever praises your work, it’s edifying to the spirit. Some jobs such as care-giving (or really any sort of ongoing maintenance) are by their very nature almost invisible to others. If we wait around to be noticed, we’ll likely be disappointed. The good news is that Emerson is right; just having done something well is satisfaction enough.
Do you have any nagging tasks hanging over your head, or projects you’re eager to get started on, but just haven’t made the time? Try carving out a bit of time today to begin. If you feel hesitant, promise yourself that you can stop after 30 minutes, or even 15. Chances are you won’t want to, once you get going.
Today, I wish you the reward of a thing well done.
“Each golden day was cherished to the full, for one had the feeling that each must be the last. Tomorrow it would be winter.” ― Elizabeth Enright
A great many of us have experienced an unusually warm autumn so far, though it seems the cold weather is creeping in. Eager for cooler temperatures, having had our fill of too-warm afternoons and turbulent weather, we feel a wistful longing for golden fall days that strike the perfect balance between summer and winter.
In Virginia, our trees are barely beginning to turn, and I’m hoping we will have at least a few weeks to enjoy foliage before the leaves fall. But I’ve enjoyed the lingering blooms of this warm October. At our York home the remnants of summer colors are overlapping with the beginning of the camellia flowers.
Early this year, in a rare burst of optimism, I decided to plant a blackberry bush in our back yard near the deck. The young K-Mart clerk who talked me into buying the inexpensive plant assured me that it would not be hard to grow. Her enthusiasm when describing her own blackberry plants was contagious, and I decided to take a chance, though I was already preparing for disappointment by telling myself that my own little blackberry bush was unlikely to do very well with only the sporadic care I would be able to give it.
But the K-Mart clerk was right; the plant did beautifully. I’ve even been able to eat a few berries from it. Here is one that I picked most recently, big and ripe and delicious as only a home-grown fruit can be. Now I will try to nurture the plant (which has grown almost as tall as I am) through the coming winter.
Are there traces of summer still lingering in the region you call home? Or, if you live south of the equator, has spring broken through the chill yet? Seasons bless us with the repeated reminder that life is fragile and subject to change. With the cycles of nature, our eyes are opened anew to the sobering truth that we almost never know when we are experiencing the last of anything precious– or at least a temporary parting from what we’ve grown to take for granted. Whatever this day brings you, cherish it to the full. For better or worse, it will soon be gone.
And we dance
to a whispered voice
overheard by the soul
undertook by the heart.
You may know it…
There’s an intriguing story in the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life, because the queen, Jezebel, had sworn to kill him. It was no idle threat; she had already put many of Elijah’s fellow prophets to death. At one point, Elijah became so exhausted and discouraged that he prayed to God that he might die, but that prayer was answered with an angelic delivery of food and water, and a command to eat and drink to replenish his strength for a long journey.
Forty days later, God told Elijah to go to the mountain where God would pass before him. At this point, it’s easier, and more poetic, just to quote directly from the story– in this case, the New International Version:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
I’m sure you know, or have guessed, that God came to Elijah not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the gentle whisper. In the King James Version of the story, the translators used the term “a still, small voice,” which is the origin of that popular phrase.
I’ve thought of that story many times in the past five years or so, through the storms of our lives, in which I could not hear the voice of God despite clinging to the promise that God would be there for us. To the extent that I have felt a sense of God’s presence, it has been in the form of the whispered voice; a still, small reassurance that my soul can only occasionally overhear in the quiet of solitude.
The whispers, of course, are not literal sounds. But sometimes they are remembered echoes. Sometimes they are the unexpected discovery of a startlingly relevant message in a note written many years ago. Sometimes they rise from a photograph, or from a sunlit morning seen through a familiar window, or from the bloom of a botanical gift lovingly planted by one who would not live to see its growth.
As Neil Diamond suggested in the beautiful song linked above (which I hope you will take the time to experience), overhearing the whispered voice is only part of the experience. It must be undertaken by the heart, if we are to understand what we are hearing. There’s quite a trick to dancing to a whispered voice, when you think about it. The beat doesn’t come from a musical instrument, but from the heart. But what a dance it is.
“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
— Eudora Welty
By most standards, I have lived a very sheltered life. I don’t regret it. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences, traveled widely and read extensively, but I also have had the luxury of being spared exposure to the sordid, violent or sleazy. I’ve known people who find such things fascinating (“I love squalor,” a college friend once explained to me earnestly, without a trace of irony) but I’ve never been one of them. I dislike horror films and graphic descriptions of sex or violence in fiction, and cringe at some of what I encounter in news headlines. Give me a clean, well-lighted place with uplifting books and salubrious beverages and lively, congenial company.
Yet I don’t think many would describe me as timid. As Welty says, a sheltered life does not preclude daring. It takes courage to face the uncertainty of encountering new ideas, people and possibilities. There is a comfort in sameness, and a (mostly false) security in sticking to the known and familiar. Breaking away, even in philosophical exploration, requires an adventurous spirit that may or may not lead to far-flung journeys into space or across continents.
Today, right where you are, you can instill some boldness into your otherwise typical day. In fact, a sheltered life can fortify you for fearless forays into yet-undiscovered paths. Try a new spice or ethnic cuisine, read an author whose work lies totally outside your usual literary taste, or write a forthright, unpretentious note of encouragement to someone you don’t know well– maybe even to someone you have never met. Visit a new (to you) neighborhood, place of worship, library or museum. Show up at an assisted care home, or an animal shelter, or a community group that could use your help. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper, or post a thoughtful, conciliatory comment online to combat the current hatefest.
Then, feel free to pop back over to our Virtual Verandah for a cup of pretend tea and tell us about your adventures. In the cozy world of our sheltered cyber-salon, you’ll almost certainly encounter some serious daring. Everyone is welcome here– especially you.
“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know…Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”
― John Adams
I can certainly identify with Adams’ observation about reading, thinking and anxious inquiry. In fact, I’ve noticed that my tendency to overthink everything is fairly common in today’s world.
I once believed that it was important to discuss ideas and share one’s personal beliefs and emotions, but I have come to doubt the practice. It seems to me that most everybody is talking and hardly anyone is listening. Talk seems to go in circles and accomplish nothing, or worse than nothing.
That reflection is hardly original, and I’m not the only one coming to that conclusion. In fact, thousands of years ago, the book of Proverbs stated: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NASB).
I guess some things never change.
Adams’ quote ends with a reference to another Bible verse that has long been a favorite of mine, Micah 6:8. This verse was read at Jeff’s graveside during his funeral. It’s a fitting description of how he lived his life, and a worthy standard to which I aspire.
Since I lately spend most of my hours in solitude, it may be convenient for me to decide that talking is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I do know that communication is not lacking in our world. I wish I could say the same for the virtues Adams mentions. Justice? It seems increasingly confused with “vengeance.” Mercy? It appears to be mostly outsourced to impersonal charities and government agencies. Humility? Definitely not a modern virtue.
So I find Adams’ words at once reassuring and challenging. I’m happy to be reminded I’m not the only one who “knows” far less than I did in my youth. One thing I have learned, however, is that a lifetime will not be enough to achieve the straightforward command to “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Not easy, but simple. And enough.
“Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave…” —Thomas McGrath
Many years ago, when the movie Dances with Wolves came out, there was a sort of fad of people thinking up American Indian names for themselves that were descriptions of their own personality, appearance or character. I remember thinking that the name I would choose for myself was “one who stays.” There were many reasons for this choice at the time, few of which are relevant now, but I could hardly have known how prophetic my pretend name was.
Sometimes I think growing older is primarily an exercise in being left behind. Grandparents, parents, siblings and spouses are lost to death. Children and grandchildren grow up and grow away, too busy with their own lives to stay in regular touch. Friends leave, too, sometimes by choice, and this can be one of the cruelest losses because there is no forced parting to explain the departure. It feels like an unnecessary added pain.
Still, I think there can be a kind of nobility in remaining, sorting through the pieces others have left behind and sweeping their dust and clearing their rooms. Someone has to do it, and better a friend or loved one, however forlorn, than an absolute stranger.
We spend painful hours culling, letting go of trinkets and mementos that represent one expired dream after another, photographs of smiling faces, and letters and cards full of earnest emotion long since vanished. What we choose to keep we pack up, along with most of what we once thought possible in our lives. We gaze out the window at the leaves beginning to fall, grateful for the cooling sympathy of autumnal decay. And we stay.
“These trees are yours because you once looked at them.
These streets are yours because you once traversed them…
You once spoke to Him, and then God became yours.
He sits with us in darkness now…” ― Kamand Kojouri
We talked here recently about how, in a sense, experiences in our past belong to us for always. What happens does not un-happen simply because of loss and change. Albert Einstein is widely quoted as saying “the dividing line between past, present, and future is an illusion.” Whether or not the quote is an accurate repetition of his words, his work seems to point to that conclusion.
This idea becomes sharply relevant to those of us who have endured great deprivation. It’s one reason why people blessed with long years of life will often seem, to younger generations, to live mostly in the past. When the entire landscape of one’s life is swept away as if in a natural disaster, the foundation established in earlier years becomes terra firma to unsteady feet and a disoriented mind.
Likewise, as Kojouri points out, the foundation of faith remains with us even when all contact with God seems to go silent. Many of us have had the startling experience of emerging from a period of long, lonely darkness and finding God still there, bringing the absolute conviction that we were never alone even when we felt ourselves most deserted.
Truly God sits with us in the darkness, knowing that dazzling benevolent light will eventually return to bless our silent waiting with reassurance and rebirth. I believe this because it has happened before in my life. I trust it will happen again, for me and for whomever sits in the shadows alongside me. Together we trust, and hope, and wait.
“But when fall comes, kicking summer out…as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed…”
— Stephen King
As I write this, Hurricane Florence is forecast to strike the Virginia and North Carolina coasts in a few days, and our beloved York home is pretty much in the center of the expected path. Between the memories of mid-September two years ago and this new threat, it’s a bit hard to think of September as an old friend. Still, though, I’m always happy to see fall roll around.
I spent yesterday afternoon stashing away pretty much everything in our back yard that might blow into a window and smash it, but the real threat will be all those lovely tall trees that surround our lot. The year before we moved here, Hurricane Isabel, “only” a category 1 storm, sent trees into the roof of the home we later bought, as well as those of many of our neighbors.
Isabel turned out to be the costliest disaster in Virginia history. According to the weather site linked above, “Our top intensity models unanimously predict strengthening of Florence into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane by Tuesday, and the storm is also expected to increase in size.” Wow.
Beyond reasonable preparations, I’m not going to worry about it too much. Most of us who read this blog have been riding out all sorts of storms for many years, and have learned to survive by taking one day at a time.
Meanwhile, life goes on. We had some pretty intense heat this summer so the cooling weather will be appreciated. I’ve enjoyed seeing the beautiful chrysanthemums appear at the hardware stores, groceries and plant nurseries. Have you put any flowering fall color out yet?
Here’s wishing you weather that is sunny rather than stormy, and temperate instead of tempestuous. If you are in the path of the hurricane, my prayers are with you and all who are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. Hope is a better way to live. I STILL really believe that.
“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.” ― Shannon L. Alder
The online world is full of contradictions, and none more obvious than its tendency to create feelings of isolation even as it facilitates digital connection. Still, the anonymity and freedom from scheduling conflicts that the internet offers are, in certain circumstances, essential to forming connections with others who understand some of the most sensitive problems people face.
All of us have situations in our lives that are not easy to talk about. Maybe we are private people who just don’t like sharing deeply personal information, especially if it involves violating the privacy of someone else by talking about their involvement. Or maybe we’ve found that there are some things even the closest friends and family can’t seem to understand. Fear of being misunderstood or judged harshly can cause us to distance ourselves, thus creating a vicious cycle of alienation and defensive withdrawal.
This separation from others often happens even in common or fairly universal circumstances such as illness, disability or death. Imagine how the problem is magnified when the challenges are attached to some form of stigma, creating feelings of shame, embarrassment or vulnerability.
In such situations, an online source of support can be helpful. While every resource (including the ones linked below) must be evaluated carefully to determine whether it will provide support consistent with one’s own beliefs and values, the very existence of such sites can affirm that, in the words of Fred Rogers, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Below are just a few samples of blogs that address deeply personal, difficult life challenges that affect more people than we might guess. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Life is hard and full of struggles. If you or anyone you know could use these resources, spread the word and help others know that none of us needs to feel alone in this big and frightening world.
Are you, or is anyone you love, struggling with suicidal thoughts and emotions? You are not alone. This site offers understanding from professionals and lay people who have been there.
Has your adolescent child been snared in the dangers of online pornography? You are not alone. Visit with a hopeful mom who is navigating that particular minefield with courage and determination.
Have you been rejected and forsaken by one or more of your adult children? You are not alone. Other parents who have faced that particular heartbreak have words of support for estranged mothers and fathers.
Do you have a loved one who is incarcerated? You are not alone. Individuals and organizations can help you weather the storm of being separated from a family member who needs your love.
Has your life been affected by hoarding? You are not alone. Share the perspective of adult children who are coping with the fallout of growing up in a home where normal life was crowded out by stuff.
This short list is far from exhaustive. There are online support groups for pretty much any difficulty out there. The caveat is that there is a great deal of online “information” that is untrustworthy, deceptive and damaging, so discernment is of paramount importance. But with due diligence and caution, it’s possible to find helpful, potentially life saving or sanity saving guidance as well.
We humans are often overwhelmed and floundering, but we remain capable of remarkable things when we reach out to each other in faith and understanding. Whoever you are, whatever you are facing…remember you are not alone!
“…you’re not the only one who feels like you don’t belong, or that it’s better somewhere else. But there ARE things worth living for. And the best part is you never know what’s going to happen next.” ― O.R. Melling
Recently I was flying out of DCA to attend the memorial service for Tuffy, about whom I recently wrote. I got to the airport early and strolled into the USO, hoping to grab a cup of coffee and relax for a few minutes before heading to the gate. But I ended up with much more than a snack.
I’ve been to airport USOs all over the country, so many times that I lost count of how often. But this was the first time ever that I was greeted just inside the door by a beautiful therapy dog who was there to reassure nervous or exhausted travelers. Though I was not jittery or tired, I was feeling the usual chronic sadness that goes with being a widow who lost her beloved spouse much too soon. As always, the sight of a canine companion lifted my spirits immediately.
“She’ll sit on your lap,” her handler warned me, as I sat down on the floor beside the Keeshond named Nikita. “I hope so,” I told him, and of course she did. She clearly was accustomed to being greeted warmly by delighted new friends. She was like a super-soft stuffed toy that came to life. I lost track of how long I sat there with her, chatting with USO staff and snapping photos, but I think it was around 15 or 20 minutes. I left the USO that morning in a considerably happier mood than when I arrived.
I thought of that unexpected encounter when I read the quote from Melling. So many of the things that make life worth living are small things that arrive at unexpected times, just when we most need them. That has been true of the gifts, cards and other expressions of concern that have come from so many who meet me here in cyberspace, and it was true of the comforting visit I enjoyed with Nikita.
We never know what’s going to happen next. While not everything that surprises us is good or even neutral, if we keep hope alive, there are joys to brighten our path, and new friends just around the corner, waiting to greet us. Some of them may even be humans.
“They outgrow us so much faster than we outgrow them.” – Jodi Picoult
Drew and Grady flew in to see us on Matt’s birthday. I had not seen Grady in nine months, and during that time he went from a somewhat precocious four year old to a very mature five year old. His birthday is a few days before Matt’s, so we had a joint party for the two of them.
Grady already has been in public school full time for an entire year, having been selected at random for a pilot program enrolling preschoolers in full time classes at the local elementary school. Although he recently started kindergarten for the first time, he’s accustomed to being at school all day.
He is not shy, but like his father and grandfather, he’s not particularly chatty. He did tell me proudly that he knows how to take pictures “with any kind of camera.” Thus I was able to indulge in one of my favorite activities, taking pictures of other people taking pictures. This one, of course, is extra-special. This was the first time Drew or Grady had ever been at Jeff’s grave with Matt or me.
Grady also enjoyed working a jigsaw puzzle of the USA that belonged to Matt many years ago. He liked it so well that he chose to work it again the next day, preferring that activity to going back to the swimming pool. When I asked him questions, rather than blurting out an answer quickly, he usually thought a moment before responding, often qualifying his response with a parallel reflection.
I really enjoyed having the chance to spend some time with him, and though I would have loved to see Owen too, I was more able to focus on Grady instead of dividing my time between the two of them. Since they spent only two nights with us, it was a short visit to begin with, and each moment with him was precious.
In that regard, as with so much else in my life (really everything, it seems to me now), I am consciously choosing to see whatever blessings and advantages I can find in what remains a pretty dismal picture. I might be determined to defeat despair, but I’m also a fundamentally honest person and I can’t lie about how hard it still is to get through each and every day.
But as the old saying goes, time flies whether you’re having fun or not. So I’m determined to keep having as much fun as I can– or the closest thing that passes for fun in this harsh, still-new existence– and no matter what else is going on, a grandson is certainly a magnificent gift. Sons are pretty special, too.
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart…
— Stephen Schwartz
Many of you will remember my earlier post about going to visit my “other Mama and Daddy” on the first Christmas after Jeff died. My siblings and I were blessed to have a second set of parents who provided us with another home where we felt loved, safe and happy. The fact that this additional home was in the same neighborhood, just a short stroll away, was an added benefit, but the bond had never depended on geographic proximity. “Tuffy” and Betty Jo had been close friends of our parents since before we were born. I cannot remember a time when their presence was not a significant part of our lives, even during the relatively brief time they lived far away from us.
On Friday I got word that Tuffy was very ill and near death, and on Saturday came the phone call I was dreading, letting me know that Tuffy had died. Echoes of other losses resonated with this new sorrow. One by one, the adults who shaped and shielded my early life have left this earth, leaving a landscape that often feels desolate and bare. It’s a continual reminder to me that we, as adults, seldom realize the deep impressions we can leave on young lives.
It seems increasingly rare in today’s world to find lifelong friends whose connection begins in childhood and lasts more than eight decades. This was a great gift in my Daddy’s life, and therefore in that of his entire family. Friendships are blessings in so many ways, but one that I don’t hear mentioned very often is how important adult friendships are to children, who learn everything by watching. Trust is understood on a deep and unspoken level by seeing friendship demonstrated over long periods of time, affirming that loved ones are with us through rejoicing and sorrow, holidays and weekdays, good times and bad.
If your dear friends have children or grandchildren, know that your presence in their family’s life is a blessing to them as well as to the older generations. You may well be leaving handprints on their hearts; a seal of affection that will stay with them.
“Friends can make you feel that the world is smaller and less sneaky than it really is.”
― Lemony Snicket
Sometimes, especially lately, it’s pretty hard to see the world as a friendly place. From the nefarious newsmakers who hack away at others figuratively, digitally and sometimes even literally, to the rude strangers who cut in front of us in traffic or checkout lines, the seeming prevalence of ill will is enough to make the boldest of us want to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed.
But that’s only part of the story.
Every now and then it takes a slightly zany plan to open our eyes to just how many people out there are friends that we simply haven’t met yet. This weekend was a perfect example. Susan, whom I knew through this blog and the one at Upper Room, and then later through several face-to-face visits, did NOT think I was crazy–no crazier than her, anyway– when I suggested she fly in from Minnesota to ride up to Pennsylvania with Matt and me to celebrate Raynard’s birthday at the Shady Maple. This is a trip I had been
threatening planning to make for several years now, and this year seemed like the right time. So I was excited when Susan turned out to be thinking the same thing I was. Soon, she had plane tickets and we both had hotel reservations. Pennsylvania, here we come!
We decided to head to Amish Country on Friday as soon as she got into DCA, hoping to do some exploring when we got there. As it turned out, we arrived to one of those torrential downpours that turns umbrellas inside out and soaks you sideways no matter how close you park or how fast you run. Then at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, we ended up stuck in the sort of parking-lot traffic snarl that somehow seemed out of place in a location so obviously removed from New York or L.A. No worries, though; we had quite a unique evening despite the setbacks, and we knew the real reason for the trip was yet to come.
The next day, we arrived at the Shady Maple where Raynard, Mary, and a large gathering of their friends, family and church family had assembled to share a birthday feast. I didn’t get a head count but my guess is there were at least 30 people of all ages at several long tables full. Though the smorgasbord lived up to its reputation, the food took a backseat to the fellowship as people drifted from table to table chatting and joking and generally having fun. Susan, Matt and I had never seen any of these people before, except for Raynard and Mary. But everyone felt like a friend, and it had the jovial atmosphere of a family reunion.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, must surely be the most wholesome place on earth, even without factoring in the appealing sights of Amish horse-drawn buggies and women in print frocks with white caps and aprons. The greens of the landscape, decorated with farmhouses and barns and silos, are a soothing balm for agitated nerves. If I was asked to write a long list of adjectives describing that locale, “sneaky” is a word that would never make it even to the bottom of the 376th page of the list. But I digress. (Did you really think I could write about Raynard’s birthday without working that phrase in somewhere?)
If the world feels like a big, scary, rude and ugly place, I highly recommend you plan a trip to Lancaster County. Or maybe just pop on over to Delaware and drop in on Raynard and Mary. Or call up a friend who lives thousands of miles away and propose a last-minute trip to someplace where there are abundant green spaces and smiling faces. The world is a big and sneaky place, but it shrinks and brightens considerably if you choose the right company.
“Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out in me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom…possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.” ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The past few weeks have been so hectic with the details of moving that I’ve scarcely noticed the summer, except as an occasional annoyance when the heat became intense. There have been a few magical evenings in the York back yard, tending plants and generally soaking up the greenery, but they have been all too rare this year.
Just a little over one year ago, when the grief of losing Jeff was raw and fresh, I kept a long-planned commitment to travel to Oxford, England to study C. S. Lewis. I remember being wracked with anxiety about going overseas, wondering whether I could handle so much travel alone (I was only with classmates for part of my two weeks away) and doubtful of whether I could manage the work load of my summer courses.
As it turned out, the trip to England was a jewel that glimmered in the darkness of a very dark night. The coursework was a fascinating and absorbing distraction, and by sheer coincidence (or maybe not?) two of my fellow students in the class of about 20 were recent widows very close to the same age as me. I will always treasure the memories of our walks and talks, finding understanding with each other that was all too rare in our everyday worlds. Even the subject of our study, C. S. Lewis, was famously bereaved, writing words that have become classics of comfort for people blindsided by the loss of someone very dear.
But above and beyond all of these consolations, the legendary beauty of the English countryside in summer was as therapeutic for me as any remedy could possibly have been. Indeed, I came home with starry-eyed plans of leasing a cottage in the Cotswolds for a few months in the not-too-distant future. Buying a new home has postponed that dream, but I’m still hanging onto it. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I am determined to find some time to get out and enjoy the flowering beauty of midsummer evenings, just before dark, or mornings before the heat has a chance to take hold. If you’ve been able to garden, or travel, or otherwise appreciate the summer, send me some inspiration! The past few years have given me a bit of a love/hate relationship with hope, but like Sáenz, I still want to believe. I’ll keep reading that book of hope, and I’ll welcome your comments on the chapters that mean the most to you.
bloom in it.” ― Sanober Khan
Just when it seemed the heat was becoming unbearable, it broke. On Friday my sister and I walked outside and simultaneously burst into exclamations of delight at the wonderfully cool air. When I arrived back in York County, the temperature was even more refreshing. Everything was green and growing, but with my eyes closed, I would have thought it was spring or fall.
I had another surprise waiting for me. I don’t remember planting a lily at the base of one of our trees, but I noticed the green stem shooting up the last time I was at our York home. It was getting tall, but still had no flowers on it. I tried to figure out whether it was something I had planted. I couldn’t even remember exactly what it was. It looked a bit out of place but I resisted the urge to pull it up.
When I came back ten days later, I was rewarded for having left it undisturbed. The flowers were so vibrant that they splashed instant cheer on my anxious, sad spirit.
I’m starting to understand why it became traditional to send flowers to those who are ill or grieving. No matter what one is enduring, flowers have a mystical power to conjure up instant joy. It’s especially fun to find surprise blooms in an everyday setting, seemingly popping up out of nowhere.
What’s blooming in your life today?
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, I find myself sorely in need of both patience and perseverance. This week has been filled with endless paperwork, logistical tangles and other oppressive tasks, and it feels increasingly difficult to muster the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Here I am, once again re-blogging a previous post because it’s too late to do anything else, but I don’t want to be totally absent here. So much has changed in our country since I wrote this four years ago, but I think Adams’ words are more relevant than ever. I hope you will find them inspiring as our country continues to navigate itself through tumultuous seas. May your holiday be safe, happy and full of grateful reflection.
“I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.”
— Abigail Adams
One year ago today, in honor of America’s birthday, I featured a quote from my personal favorite of the “founding fathers,” John Adams, along with a video clip from the HBO series about him. Today’s quote is from his eloquent and formidable wife Abigail, arguably as influential in her own way, if only because of the vital role she played in the development of her husband’s career, intellect and philosophy.
The letter to her husband from which this quote is drawn (the text and image of which is linked above) was written near the end of November, 1775, less than a year before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. In her letter, Adams raises valid questions and concerns about the enormous implications of the steps toward self-government that the colonies were taking. While there seems little doubt that she shared her husband’s enthusiasm for independence, one cannot read her letter without realizing she was keenly aware that their ongoing efforts were fraught with danger, even after they succeeded in their goals.
The most interesting thing to me about Adams’ letter is how timeless her concerns are. So many of the perils of power she mentions are with us to this day, and “a labyrinth of perplexities” is an excellent description of the current dilemmas our country faces regarding health care, foreign policy, immigration law, economic and environmental issues, and almost anything subject to government legislation.
Of course, it’s not only governments that face such complicated problems. On a much smaller scale, our individual daily lives can be pretty challenging too. Most of us frequently deal with complex and difficult decision-making. No wonder we are often too overwhelmed with our own concerns to be very involved in politics, even when we care deeply about the outcome of governmental actions.
Ever practical as well as stubbornly optimistic, Adams pinpoints four vital keys to overcoming difficulties large and small: justice, righteousness, patience and perseverance. Looking closely at the history of the United States, one can see these four traits have been the foundation of whatever good has been achieved by our country, even when such achievements took decades or centuries to fully realize, or are yet imperfect. Though I’m less familiar with the history of other countries, I would not be surprised if a similar dynamic appeared to be at work everywhere in the world.
Happy 238th Birthday to the U.S.A! May the wise words of our first citizens remind us that there are some principles that never change, regardless of what circumstances we face. With patience and perseverance, we can keep moving forward.
One year ago today:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
Let’s just say it had been one of those days. Following one of those weeks. And one of those lifetimes.
Matt and I were driving through a drizzle that was the tail end of a huge thunderstorm. Traffic seemed even ruder than usual, probably because I was already in a bad mood, and feeling sad and kind of hopeless.
I was taking Matt to get a haircut that he badly needed. As I turned right onto the access road into the parking lot, the sun broke through the clouds and our windshield was filled with the most dazzling rainbow I’ve seen since leaving Hawaii over 20 years ago. I quickly parked and got out my cell phone. I have a cheap phone with a lousy camera that I’ve never really learned to use, but even with inferior equipment, it was hard to totally miss the beauty of the scene. Perhaps a bit of it comes through in the photo above
The photo doesn’t do it justice, but maybe you can imagine how it felt to be hit smack in the face with something so breathtaking, just when it was most needed. As Tolkien said, there is still much that is fair. Maybe he is right about love growing even more when it is mingled with grief, just as beauty is more remarkable when contrasted with dreariness.
It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s wonderful video clip about being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud, which I linked in this post. I wish you a rainbow today…see one, or BE one!
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” ― Fred Rogers
“Mister Rogers wasn’t a relic of a simpler time; he was a warrior in one of the most turbulent periods in American history. And he shows us, more than ever, how to cultivate our own heroism in the midst of chaos.” — Mary Elizabeth Williams
“…to think of Fred as a saintly person is to somehow absolve the rest of us from having to have a responsibility to live up to it. He worked hard at it, he struggled with it.”
— Morgan Neville
As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for very long, Fred Rogers is one of my great heroes. My nephew emailed me yesterday about the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which I knew was coming, but didn’t realize had already been released to a limited number of theaters. Now I’m searching for: 1. a cinema where it is showing, and 2. the time to go see it as soon as possible. I can’t wait to take Matt with me to see it. He’s as big a fan of Mr. Rogers as I am.
It’s hard to believe that over 15 years have passed since Mr. Rogers died, but I remember having my brief letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after his death. (My letter appeared in the print edition, but it’s available online too; if you scroll down this archived page about halfway, you’ll see it.) So much has happened during that 15 years, but the essential message Mr. Rogers brought to the world is more needed than ever.
The trailer to the film is linked above at Mr. Rogers’ name. If you watch it, you might understand why I’m so eager to see the film. The other two quotes, from a film reviewer and the film’s director, offer additional perspective in the linked articles. The film was produced by Nicholas Ma, son of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was a close friend of Mr. Rogers.
Given the many times I’ve mentioned Mr. Rogers on this blog (including here, in one of my favorite posts), and the abundance of current publicity surrounding the film, I really don’t feel the need to add anything more.
Except maybe one thought. As Mr. Rogers said, you leave something of yourself at every meeting with another person. Many, many of you have participated in this blog to the extent that we feel we know each other. In coming here and joining the conversation, you have left us with a part of yourself. Something you’ve said may be important to people you never even dream of. And I know how important you have been to me. Mr. Rogers understood that all sorts of people can and should be neighbors. I think he’d agree that this blog, too, is a neighborhood…and I’m so glad you are my neighbor!
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” —Charles Kingsley
I’m sitting here in the wee hours of the morning after a very active week of packing, closing on the new home, organizing things before the packers came on Thursday, moving some preliminary items into the home this weekend, shopping for window shades, ceiling fans and other additions, and now getting ready for phase one of the move, with today (a few hours hence) being the day all the furniture will be moved from our Alexandria town home to the new home in Potomac Shores. My arms are covered with bruises from bumping into things while carrying too-heavy boxes full of books and other treasures. I’m excited but exhausted. So I haven’t written a blog post this week. Instead of not showing up at all, I decided to re-blog whatever it was I wrote and posted five years ago today, not having the least idea what it might be. Luckily, WordPress never forgets, so here it is.
I was interested to note the common threads between this post and the one I wrote last week. Kingsley was clearly recognizing the “beautiful lessons” Oliver spoke of in the quote from last week’s post. I hope you enjoy this re-blogged post today, again or for the first time. Thanks for your patience with me during yet another major transition. This one, hopefully, will be a happier one than most of the ones I’ve endured since I first wrote this post.
Travel is one of my favorite ways of searching for lovely sights, but it’s not necessary to be in a gorgeous town such as Bar Harbor to catch glimpses of beauty. As Kingsley’s quote implies, it’s all around us if we welcome it.
Two practices have helped me feed my soul with beauty: walking, and taking photos. With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures is practically as inexpensive as walking. I hope you will welcome beauty wherever you find it, but today I especially encourage you to wander outdoors in search of “wayside sacraments” that are easy to miss in the rush of everyday life.
If you have a digital camera, try taking a few photos of what you find. You might be surprised how good a photographer you can be! But if you’d rather not take photos with a camera, take them with your eyes and memory. May we all cherish this “cup of blessing” that will lift our spirits, spark our creativity and energize our minds.