How infinitely rich

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

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

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

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

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

When we fully understand

Owen with his PaPa, September 14, 2016

Owen with his PaPa, September 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

On gray days

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Among these winters

Photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash.com

Photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash.com

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

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

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

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

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

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

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

We conquer

Marmolada is the highest mountain of the Dolomites, Italy. Photo by Marco Bonomo via Wikimedia Commons.

Marmolada is the highest mountain of the Dolomites, Italy.
Photo by Marco Bonomo via Unsplash.com.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” — Edmund Hillary

Hillary makes an excellent point. The mountain can’t be conquered by any person. But its magnificent, inevitable presence can be a venue for the building of skill, courage and resilience. It’s not surprising that mountains have become a favorite metaphor for the challenges of daily living.

Perhaps you face a year of daunting challenge in 2017, as I do. Or maybe your year promises to be typical, but holds an as-yet unrevealed crisis or obstacle that will take you by surprise. Either way, I hope we will remember the mountain and work with the reality of whatever lies in our paths. We can survive, and maybe even thrive. I really believe that.

Much is taken, much abides

The photo is a bit blurry, ut the love comes through. With Betty Jo and Tuffy, December 2016

The photo is a bit blurry, but the love comes through.
With Betty Jo and Tuffy, December 2016

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I knew this Christmas would have to be different, so I didn’t even try to capture any of the old magic. Instead, I tried to find reasons to rejoice in what remains of the abundant blessings that have colored my life. Earlier in the year, Jeff and I had talked about possibly going to visit my “other Mama and Daddy” this Christmas season, if he was able. This is the family with whom my parents, siblings and I spent pretty much every Christmas (and a lot of Thanksgivings and New Years and other times too) during our childhood. I didn’t want to give up on the idea of the visit, so a few weeks ago I called my sister Carla and asked her to meet me near their home atop Lookout Mountain. We went to see them on the day before Christmas Eve.

I have always felt lucky to have this wonderful second set of parents in our lives. They were close friends of my parents before I was born– in fact, “Tuffy” and my Daddy grew up together, and remained lifelong friends. How exciting to be seeing them again, enjoying a delicious meal and home-baked cookies Betty Jo made for us, just as she had done countless times when we were kids. We were able to visit with two of their children whom we hadn’t seen in many years, along with two of their grandchildren and one of their great-grandchildren.

We marveled at the view from their deck on a sunny day in late December, feeling happy we had come and already planning to come back again sometime. We all are older now, having each endured much loss and sorrow, but the heartfelt bonds that drew us together for years remain strong and vibrant.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you have lived enough years to identify with the mixed emotions one experiences when much has been taken, yet much still abides. I wish for you, at the close of this year and into the dawn of the new one, many opportunities to rejoice in what remains; to connect with all that has made you the person you are, with deep appreciation to mingle with whatever grief you may be enduring. This blending of time and joy and sorrow creates a powerful alloy. May it fill you with renewed strength to face whatever lies ahead.

Every year I dream, 2016

Merry Christmas, everyone! I wish you pleasant dreams tonight, and joy in the morning.

Me in 1958, already dreaming my Christmas dream

That’s me in 1958, already dreaming my Christmas dream

Lyrics from the song A Christmas Dream by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Recorded by Perry Como
(You can listen to the song and see some beautiful Christmas photos here.)

Watch me now, here I go, all I need’s a little snow
Starts me off, sets the theme, helps me dream my Christmas dream
Every year I dream it, hoping things will change
An end to the crying, the shouting, the dying

And I hope you will dream it too
It’s Christmas, remember?  We’ve got to remember
The whole world needs a Christmas dream
We need it to warm us, to calm us, to love us
To help us to dream our Christmas dream.

I fell in love with this song instantly, on first hearing a bit of it in the movie The Odessa File in 1974.  I searched for a copy of it for years until I finally found it online.  I have listened to it countless times, every Christmas season since.  For me, it captures so many of the emotions I feel at this time every year.  It’s filled with the optimistic merriment of Christmas, but acknowledges wistfully that so many things are not as they should be.  I hope this song will help you dream a few dreams of your own.

Like of each thing, 2016

This seems a most fitting post for me to re-blog, as I try to see through tear-dimmed eyes whatever gifts are there for me in this season of my life. Ann, the photo of Pasha is for you!  And Happy Birthday to my dear friend Nancy, whose home was always open to Jeff and me from the earliest days of our courtship, through every trip to Nashville we ever made over the years. Thanks to all of you for being here with me.

Pasha watching the snow fall at Christmas time, Alexandria, Virginia 2010

Pasha watching the snow fall at Christmas time, Alexandria, Virginia 2010

“At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.”
William Shakespeare

When we moved to Virginia from California, I missed having roses in December.  Yet I was happy to be living once again in a climate similar to that of my home town, where each season brings its familiar but ever-fresh charms.  Wherever you are living, whatever your weather, I hope you will be gladdened today by the natural adornments of the season.

To the sender

Soldiers enjoy Christmas Cards from school children in Norman, Oklahoma, 2012. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers enjoy Christmas Cards sent by school children in Norman, Oklahoma, 2012.
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“While we tend to focus on the benefits of cards and letters to those who receive them, possibly the greatest benefit is to the sender…As I address and sign cards, I take a few moments to remember people who have played some role in my life, major or minor. I call to mind memories of places and events that I might not otherwise ponder. As I do so, I smile, laugh, or maybe cry….Ultimately, even if my recipient never reciprocates, or tosses my card and letter in the trash with nary a glance, the act of writing and sending it helped make me more human.”Cheryl Magness

There are probably as many good reasons NOT to send holiday cards as there are to send them. I get that. Still, some of us were born to correspond in writing, and most of that admittedly small (and getting smaller) group tends to prefer paper and ink. If you are among those who do, I’ll be happy to send you a card in the postal mail! Just send your address to me at defeatdespair@verizon.net (and I promise not to use it for anything else, or sell it or distribute it or do anything tacky like that).

But if you are the type who wants to go digital with everything, here is an online card for you.

And if you are the type who doesn’t like ANY sort of cards, bless your heart (as we say in the South). I send you good wishes anyway, which you may delete, return unopened, or throw away. As Magness says, the greatest benefit is to the sender, so it’s a joy no matter what. Happy holidays, or if you don’t celebrate this season, have a great (generic) day!

The gift not yet opened, 2016

Hello everyone. Since I won’t be doing a Christmas tree this year, I thought I’d feature a photo of one from past years. If you have decorated a tree this year, feel free to send a photo to defeatdespair@verizon.net, and I’ll post it here. I hope you are finding some moments to enjoy this festive season. May you experience childlike excitement at the possibility of a literal or figurative gift not yet opened.  ** Scroll down to see some other unique and lovely Christmas trees shared by readers!

Our Christmas tree, 2011

Our Christmas tree, 2011

“The most splendid Christmas gift, the most marveled and magic, is the gift that has not yet been opened. Opaque behind wrapping or winking foil, it is a box full of possibilities…Often what precedes is better than what follows, even when, like Christmas Day, what follows is good.”Gregg Easterbrook

As with other happy events, the anticipation that builds during the holiday season is often just as exciting (or more so) than the day itself.  As the old saying goes, “getting there is half the fun.”  If the stress of shopping, baking, wrapping and decorating has you undone, try slowing down long enough to actually savor the tasks themselves.  Perhaps it will help if we think of the future as a gift not yet opened.  Rather than focusing on what irritates or worries us, let’s enjoy the wonder of the present, and the hope for beautiful things that may lie ahead.

Sue's Christmas tree, 2016

Sue’s Christmas tree, 2016

 

A friend gave Susan this feather tree for her new apartment.

A friend gave Susan this feather tree for her new apartment.

Jena's miniature tree

Jena’s miniature tree

Patricia sends her Christmas greetings to us, along with a photo of her glowing tree.

Patricia sends her Christmas greetings to us, along with a photo of her glowing tree.

More present

One of Jeff's last gifts to Drew and his family was a membership to the Chattahoochee Nature Center. Here they are, on their first visit after Jeff's death. November 2016

One of Jeff’s last gifts to Drew and his family was a membership to the
Chattahoochee Nature Center. Here they are, on their first visit after Jeff’s death.
November 2016

He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

At times the pain of missing Jeff stabs me with a grief so severe and sudden that I wonder how I will survive without him. More often, though, I feel through the sorrow the reassuring stability that was his first and greatest gift to me. It’s true that he is still present with me, every day, there in my mind and in my heart, as if he never left.

It’s not so different, in a way, from the bond I feel with many of you. We may have seen each other seldom, or only once, or not at all, except in imagination stretching across a bridge of words. Yet I feel secure in knowing we think of each other with support and affection, and are not alone. Thanks for being here, where it’s not always easy, but hopefully, it’s always safe, and kind, and real.

No pessimist, 2016

Hello friends, I miss you, and I miss my time here. I hope your week has been better than mine. Even though I tried to prepare myself for this grief for nearly four years, it’s the sort of thing for which one cannot prepare. Matt and I are both in the midst of a difficult phase; the adrenaline is gone, and the reality of daily life without Jeff is cold and hard to bear. Somehow I didn’t realize it would get worse before it gets better. But I’m determined to cheer myself up (and hopefully some of you, as well) so I’m re-blogging one of my favorite photos ever, of a view that holds a very special place in my heart. That sight never failed to inspire me with hope and joy.

If you are feeling discouraged, or lonely, or sad for any reason, perhaps Keller’s words and the courage of her life will lift your spirits. I’m praying we all have a wonderful weekend– or at least a quiet, comforting one. Thanks for being here, and for helping me to keep looking up. I hope you all realize what a blessing you are to me.

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, 2003

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” — Helen Keller

Few sights are more breathtaking to me than the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding lands and sea.  Such a vivid reminder of the creativity of people, and especially of the God in whose image they are made, never failed to lift my spirits no matter how many times I stood on the shore and looked out on this scene.  I am deeply grateful for the daring, hard work and optimism that made such wonders a reality for us to enjoy.  What wonders, large or small, are you thankful for today?

Love at the board, 2016

Dear readers, this post from Thanksgiving last year still says it better than I could say it today. It’s a sort of visit from the Posts of Thanksgiving Past, to borrow a phrase from Dickens. At the time I wrote this, I honestly never expected that it would be our last Thanksgiving with Jeff. Despite the deep sorrow of missing him, I cannot look at this photo of three people I love dearly without feeling a heart full of gratitude and joy. For those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving  Day today, may your holiday be blessed with awareness of riches no money could buy. I am very, very grateful for all of you, and for your presence here!

P.S. — Ann, Pasha stars in that third link!

Our last Thanksgiving BC (before cancer), Alexandria, November 2011.

With Carla on our last Thanksgiving BC (before cancer), Alexandria, November 2011.

For hearts that are kindly, with virtue and peace,
and not seeking blindly a hoard to increase;
for those who are grieving o’er life’s sordid plan;
for souls still believing in heaven and man;
for homes that are lowly with love at the board;
for things that are holy, I thank thee, O Lord!

— Walt Mason

For many of us, this Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet time as we observe the holiday without loved ones.  This year, our family feels the absence of our Daddy who worked so hard for 87 years to ensure that we would celebrate this and all days with bounty, gratitude and reverence. We honor him today with the thankfulness he instilled in each one of us, bolstered by faith and renewed by deep joy in all that is beautiful and right in our world.

One year ago (2014), our family had experienced another sudden loss shortly before Thanksgiving.  Even so, we were able to come together as a family and reflect upon those blessings that remained, and encourage one another with hope for the future.

The year before that (2013), we had a most unconventional Thanksgiving day, exhausted yet filled with thankfulness and hope.

The year before that (2012), we were reeling in the shock of Jeff’s stage IV cancer diagnosis, having received bad news followed by worse news followed by even worse news. Yet even that year, there were reasons to be thankful.  Among them were the readers of the newly-begun Defeat Despair.

I didn’t know then that a blog I started as a personal effort to stay focused on blessings amid the trials was to introduce me to wonderful people all over the world.  Though I could not know it in those early days, I would find myself three years hence with dear friends whose existence was then unknown to me, and my dear husband, my rock and surest support, would still be with us, still working full time, still defying the odds.

Thus we face another Thanksgiving Day with full hearts and a deep sense of gratitude for mercies that truly are new every morning.  May each and every one who reads these words experience love, joy, peace and many reasons to be glad.  Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Absolutely, positively, certainly 2016

I’m still here. Hope you’re still there! Another reblog; this one was originally posted on November 27, 2012:

Fresh flowers bought for a few dollars at the Kroger markdown bin give us days of enjoyment, and lift my spirits every time I come into the kitchen.  Here’s to inexpensive joys!

“In our rush for newer, quicker, better, we seem to be missing out on what we fundamentally crave, a calmer, gentler, sweeter and more gracious life.  Is it easy to achieve such a life?  Definitely not.  Is it possible?  Absolutely, positively, certainly, yes.  (Don’t look for impossible from me; I’ve never found a solution in cynicism.)”  — Alexandra Stoddard

I’ve always loved Alexandra Stoddard’s writing.  Her words are calm, measured, and unfailingly optimistic, and she understands that life is a gift to be treasured in all circumstances.  As we struggle with the toughest challenges, we find renewal in seeking for good wherever it can be found.  May your day be blessed with eyes, heart and mind sharply focused on the abundance all around us.

Open to the day, 2016

I took this photo just 48 hours before Jeff told me he needed to go to the hospital. From our Alexandria patio, September 21, 2016

I took this photo just 48 hours before Jeff told me he needed to go to the hospital.
From our Alexandria patio, September 21, 2016

Hello friends, I’m still treading water, but thinking of you. Please keep those thoughts, prayers and comments coming. They truly brighten my day, and I look forward to responding to each of you when I get a bit of a break – hopefully soon, as fall semester ends a couple of weeks before Christmas. Meanwhile, for now, another re-blog from what now seems a lifetime ago.

That’s Mama in the photo below. As most of you know, she became a widow just a little over a year before I did. The past year without Daddy has been especially tough for her. Knowing how hard it is to be without Jeff after “only” 38 years together, I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a husband after 66 years of marriage.

Mama, who has survived much medical trauma during her 86 years, now has stage IV cancer (lung, metastasized to the spine) and has moved to long term care. I hope to be seeing her again soon. Meanwhile, I wanted to re-blog this post that features her photo. It’s another of my favorites, mostly because I so love the last two lines in the poem excerpt quoted below. I can’t say I feel the meaning as deeply as I did when I first published this post nearly four years ago, but I still love it, and it’s something to strive for. Thanks for being here, and for caring.

Originally posted on 11-26-2012:

My mother on my parents’ 50th anniversary, in Banff

That more and more a Providence
Of love is understood,
Making the springs of time and sense
Sweet with eternal good;

That death seems but a covered way
Which opens into light,
Wherein no blinded child can stray
Beyond the Father’s sight…

That all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.

And so the shadows fall apart,
And so the west-winds play;
And all the windows of my heart
I open to the day.

— John Greenleaf Whittier, from “My Psalm

Live faithfully a hidden life

Dear friends, thanks for visiting us today. We are still struggling with our loss, but surviving. Right now I am completely consumed with various tasks — catching up on school work, with three major papers, much reading, and several smaller assignments yet to complete; dealing with the seemingly endless paperwork that goes with my new life circumstances; taking care of Matt without the nurturing help and loving presence of Jeff; managing (as well as I can) two homes; and just generally trying to get through the grief. I ask your patience as I re-blog a post that has been on my mind a lot lately, that features one of my all-time favorite quotes. Since it’s almost four years old, perhaps there will be many of you who never saw it, and many others who have forgotten it. Meanwhile, please know that I appreciate your comments, thoughts, prayers and warm wishes, and will answer each and every comment as soon as I can! As Marlene says, Giant Hugs!

Calligraphy artist, Chinatown, San Francisco 2004

Calligraphy artist, Chinatown, San Francisco 2004

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
George Eliot, from the closing lines of Middlemarch

Look around you today.  You are surrounded by saints, cleverly disguised as fallible human beings.  Indeed, you may be one yourself.

A luxury

Decorative sinks at the Mt. Zion Hotel in Jerusalem. Photo by By Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Decorative bathroom sinks at the Mt. Zion Hotel in Jerusalem.
Photo by By Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Today we enjoy a luxury kings and queens throughout history had to suffer without: water is available to us just by turning on a tap.”Alexandra Stoddard

I don’t stop to think about it often, but running water is among the blessings for which I’m most grateful. Imagine what it must be like to have to walk miles to a well for clean water to haul home, then have to use it sparingly for washing, cooking and cleaning before the next trip.

Whenever I dread scrubbing sinks or toilets or floors, it helps to remind myself that all the clean water I need to accomplish the task thoroughly is right at hand. People without running water in their home might laugh at my notion that these chores are hard work.

When family members are home recovering from illness or surgery, the gift of having clean running water is even more obvious, as it tends to be needed more often during each day. Can you imagine how difficult it is to care for medical needs without this convenience?

A couple of months ago, my brother Al and I were chatting during a visit with Mama at her new home in long term care. It’s located on a pleasant, well-run campus of various levels of assisted living for seniors. We were counting our blessings and feeling grateful that Mama had such a place available to her in the heat of the summer, or the cold winter, when many elderly or disabled people might find themselves without power or water due to a storm, a maintenance issue or a forgotten, unpaid bill. As with so many things we take for granted, we don’t tend to appreciate daily blessings enough until we find ourselves without them.

Today, I’m sure most if not all of us will turn on a faucet many times, scarcely thinking about what we are doing. Let’s pause at least once to feel happy about this incredible luxury; to enjoy the refreshment of cool water running over our hands, or chilled, pure water to drink, or a nice warm tub of water to relax us after a long day. It’s a privilege fit for royalty.

 

Through the rain

I photographed this rainbow on the evening of April 4, 2016.

I photographed this rainbow on the evening of April 4, 2016.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
George Matheson

Sometimes a poem, song, quote or Bible verse stored in my memory will become more relevant, and therefore more appreciated, many years after I first encounter it. The quote above is from a hymn I learned in childhood and have sung many times since, but I don’t remember it having been a favorite. Lately, though, I have come to love it. The words have played in my head often since Jeff died, and the lyrics bring true consolation.

The photo above was taken on what should have been a wonderful evening for me, but I was beset by worries. Jeff and I had an unprecedented three-week vacation planned, to celebrate his retirement and continued survival. We had never, ever had that long a break before. All was ready and our dream trip was less than two weeks away. But Jeff had been having problems with his balance, and I wondered whether it was wise to leave on a transatlantic cruise if there were any risks we might not anticipate.

That evening, as I was finishing up my walk following an earlier rainstorm, I was startled to see a bright rainbow at the very end of our street. We rarely have rainbows here, and certainly not one arching over the entrance to our neighborhood. I ran inside to get my camera, and called Jeff to walk out and look at it with me. He agreed it was unusual and beautiful. “Maybe that’s meant to be a sign for us,” I said.

But that night, he could not walk upstairs easily. I convinced him to go to the Walter Reed ER the next day, and when I pulled up to let him out at the entrance, he got out of the car and immediately collapsed to the ground. I screamed for help, and staffers inside who had seen Jeff fall were already running out with a wheelchair. “I’m afraid he’s had a stroke,” I told them.

Of course, as most who read this blog already know, it was a metastatic brain tumor. The surgery to remove it went quite well, and Jeff recuperated with his usual astounding strength. In fact, the surgeons and I had to laugh when Jeff first said he did not intend to cancel our trip, but wanted to go on despite having just had neurosurgery. For once, I was on the doctors’ side when they told Jeff this would really, really not be possible. But they expressed great optimism that we would get to go later.

To his doctors’ amazement, Jeff was even able to ride the metro alone to Bethesda for radiation during the weeks that followed, as his post-op visual disturbance gradually healed. Taking the metro involved a significant uphill climb to the hospital, but Jeff was accustomed to such challenges, literally and figuratively. His resilience and stamina were such a blessing that I almost forgot about the crushing disappointment we both felt at not being able to take our long-planned celebratory trip.

We didn’t yet know that during the weeks following his surgery and radiation, when he was unable to take chemotherapy, the cancer so long held at bay would come back with a vengeance. The next set of scans showed a worse spread than ever. Jeff started to lose weight and could not seem to keep it on. Still, he went about life as usual despite his waning strength, and was able to see and hold our newborn second grandson when Drew’s family came to visit us in July. Jeff even took them to see the Independence Day fireworks over DC.  He worked with me on various home improvement projects, and a month before he died, made a trip to Atlanta to see his grandsons again, and to see Mama one last time. Given her recent stage IV cancer diagnosis, we had no idea she would survive him.

Since then, I have thought often about that rainbow. What had seemed a promising delight at the time had taken on a cruel irony the following day in the face of Jeff’s brain tumor diagnosis. I suppose I am glad that, once he survived the surgery, we never dreamed he would not live to see even another November.

Still, I do have a happy memory of two of us standing outside in the warm sunset of a springtime evening, enjoying a beautiful and unexpected gift, just as we had enjoyed countless natural wonders over our 38 years together.  Perhaps the rainbow’s meaning (if there was one at all) was different than what I first thought it was, but in any case, it was a joy that I captured with my camera. I can now look at the photo with mixed emotions, and somewhere amid the resentment and anger and sadness and grief there are traces of gratitude and hope.

If you are in the midst of sorrow or stress, I hope you can believe with me in the beautiful rainbow that often comes after a storm. We may not see it, or even if we do see it, we may not recognize its timeless meaning. But it’s there, and as it was from the beginning, it’s the symbol of a promise.

The strength

Lights glow amid the darkened branches of a real live Christmas tree. Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008

Lights glow amid the darkened branches of a real live Christmas tree.
Colonial Williamsburg, December 2008

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
Helen Keller

I’m not exactly sure how we’ve gotten through the past three weeks, but somehow we have. Some days are much worse than others, but all of them bring small reasons to be grateful. I can acknowledge that in my mind without feeling it in my heart, and that’s often what I end up doing.  There are days when it’s all I can do to get out of bed, but it must be faith that enables me to keep going.

It’s not just my own faith that gives me strength, of course. That would, no doubt, be inadequate. There’s also the faith of so many who believe in us, pray for us and remember us with countless small kindnesses. There’s the faith by which Jeff lived his entire life, an enduring legacy that gives me something to strive for, and to cherish in memory. There’s the faith that eventually, somehow, the sorrow will be eased and the happy memories will eclipse the pain and anger and exhaustion and grief.

One of the many things I’m grateful for is the amazing community that has come together on this blog over the past four years. I see all of you out there, shining like points of light in the tangled darkness that so often surrounds me. As Misifusa says, Shine On! And thank you, so much, for being here.

The wise will know

Jeff at Niagara Falls, a place he loved. May 2009

Jeff at Niagara Falls, a place he loved. May 2009

If we call for the proof and we question the answers
Only the doubt will grow
Are we blind to the truth or a sign to believe in?
Only the wise will know

And word by word they handed down the light that shines today
And those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray

Yes those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray

Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson

Jeff was the classic left-brain thinker, disciplined and methodical. He tended toward skepticism in most areas, from alternative medicine, to charismatic politicians, to the good intentions of people who often promised more than they delivered.

About his faith, though, he never wavered. He lived his last hours with the same stoic acceptance he demonstrated throughout our 38 years together, secure in his belief that death was a passage to another life and not merely the end of this one.

He had no profound parting words or emotional scenes during those last few days. He knew, as we did, that his life had spoken more eloquently and consistently than any words could express. His steadfast faith, hope and love are an enduring example, a light in our lives that will never be extinguished.

The arabesques

Drew had these roses waiting for me when I returned from Bethesda. October 2016

Drew had these roses waiting for me when I returned from Bethesda. October 2016

The arabesques a hope can do… 
     the dances dreams can make…
the patterned pain a mind may shape…
     before a heart will break

Joan Walsh Anglund

Despite the risk of heartbreak, hope is a better way to live. I really believe that.

I am so thankful you are with us here. Your presence is a solace for which I’m deeply grateful.

Memory of the heart

A memory of my heart for which I'll always be grateful. Jeff waves from our stateroom balcony, Mexico, January 2015.

A memory for which I’ll always be grateful.
Jeff waves from our stateroom balcony, Mexico, January 2015.

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart; therefore forget not to say often, I have all I ever enjoyed.”Lydia Child

It’s not good to live in the past or long for bygone times. Ecclesiastes 7:10 reminds us “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Still, as one grows older, and beloved friends and family members face illness or death, it can be all too easy to feel deep sorrow when we are reminded of how things once were.

Child gives us one secret of how to avoid this difficulty. If we are mindful of our blessings in the present, and enjoy life to the fullest, we will never really lose what we once had. All the beauty and humor and fun and joy that have gone before are now an abiding part of us, and will remain with us to fill our hearts with gratitude as our days continue to bring new reasons to rejoice.

When I was a teenager I once told Mama and Daddy that I would never lose them, because I would always know what they would be saying if they were still here. I felt certain I would be able to hear their voices in my mind and know the kinds of wisdom they used to share with me, so they would never really be gone. Daddy replied that everybody gets a little clue of eternity in this life, and he thought that particular idea must be my personal glimpse into infinity, and he hoped I would hang onto it.

Though I still believe the things I said so glibly in my youth, it turns out to be harder than I imagined to hold that confidence during sad or scary times. When change comes, whether through loss or retirement or other life transitions, we are never completely ready for it. There will always be at least a little sadness and fear for most of us when it’s time to move into uncharted territory. But gratitude is the surest protection I have found when I feel lost and alone in the face of a strange new situation.

If you should find yourself feeling a bit sad when you hear a song that reminds you of a loved one, or see a photo of your young family having fun on some long-ago vacation, or come across a special gift once given to you by someone you wish you could somehow see just one more time, remember that what you have cherished is yours forever. I wish you an enduring awareness that you still have all you ever enjoyed, a secure bank of memories stored deep in your heart.

To all my readers, and especially those who share with me via the comments section, I send my sincere apologies for not being able to answer comments lately. Because these posts are written in advance, the posts sometimes continue even when I am not available to respond immediately. If you have followed this blog for very long, you can guess why I’m not available right now. Many of you are in touch with me by email. For those who want personal updates, please send your email address to defeatdespair@verizon.net and I will include you on the personal updates I send, though these too have been rare lately. Please know that I do read and cherish your comments, emails, cards and other expressions of concern. I feel and deeply appreciate your caring support now more than ever. You are in my heart always. I will be back as soon as I can and will answer each and every comment when time allows.

 

Whimsy and change

This display of flamingos caught my eye in Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015.

This fanciful display of flamingos caught my eye in Cozumel, Mexico, January 2015.

“Pretension and trendiness are pesky intruders. I try to swat them out of my studio while making tea for whimsy and change.”Ellis Anderson

My friend Ellis wrote those words years ago referring to her work in jewelry design. But I copied and saved them, even though I’m not an artist, because I think they apply to almost every aspect of life.

There’s something in me that resists anything trendy. It’s partly because trendy seems so fake on me. What might be appealing in somebody else just doesn’t work when I try it. I’m sort of an oddball and always have been, so I can’t escape feeling a bit pathetic when I try to follow the crowd. As a result, I tend to get stuck in comfortable ruts, happily staying where I am and wearing the same clothes, using the same linens, doing things the same way for years on end.

Being content with life is mostly a great asset, but I am discovering how refreshing even small changes can be. And whimsy can perk up a day as nothing else can. So a bit of whimsical variety here and there can be a great way to defeat despair.

What are some of your favorite ways to add a little flair to the everyday routine? Do you have a colorful scarf or interesting strands of beads or a striking hat that you pull out when you are feeling blue? Or maybe some colorful linens or a special plate or mug to use now and then?

I enjoy keeping all sorts of stationery and decorative postage stamps available to brighten my spirits when I write old-fashioned cards and letters. I also like saving colorful tins to store things, although I tend to get a bit carried away when I start to collect anything, so I have to be careful about that. When I’m in need of a dose of whimsy, I try to focus on things I will consume or use up, such as interesting flavors of tea, bright office supplies, or a fresh flower or two.

Seasonal changes give us a wealth of ideas for incorporating whimsy into our lives. I delight in seeing the smiling pumpkin faces and scarecrows that pop up around our neighbors’ doors at this time of year. Kids in their trick-or-treat costumes add to the fun, and winter will bring its own motifs to enjoy– snow people and Santas and wreaths and light displays.

As the days grow shorter and the sunlight fades, I wish you the best of whimsy and change to brighten your life.

 

Sufficient proof

The inscription at the base of this statue at Dachau reads: "To honor the dead, to warn the living." Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany, August 2005

The inscription at the base of this statue at Dachau reads:
“To honor the dead, to warn the living.”
Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany, August 2005

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl spent three years of his life in various concentration camps, including Dachau. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like in a Nazi death camp, but it does seem that witnessing what Frankl describes would have been stunning. We all long to believe that we could be heroic if called upon to be so; that we would be one of the few who would have been giving what little comfort we could to our fellow prisoners.

Fortunately, those of us reading this blog likely will never face circumstances as catastrophic as those the Holocaust victims endured. What might escape our notice is that we can be heroic in far more mundane circumstances. The same impulse that would lead a starving person to sacrifice his last bit of food is manifest in countless unremarkable ways, every day.

When someone gives you a few minutes of precious time by attending to your story, sending you a note or small gift, cooking a meal for you, helping with a small task, or any other of a number of personal kindnesses, they are enacting the same spirit Frankl witnessed in the camps. When someone lets you into traffic instead of honking at you, waves you ahead in a line at the grocery, or gives you a smile or a friendly word just when you need it most, they are exercising the freedom to choose a caring attitude.

This, Frankl reminds us, is a freedom that can never be taken away. It belongs to all of us, today, this very moment. How will we use it?

Anything valuable

It's a good thing we didn't have to wait for these trees to grow. Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, 2013, by Tuxyso, CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to wait for these trees to grow.
Sequoia National Park, 2013, by Tuxyso, CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Anything valuable is going to take time. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and others.”Alexandra Stoddard

I think technology is training us to be impatient. Recently I turned on an old computer so I could use it while the one I typically use was in the midst of a lengthy maintenance procedure. At first, I thought something was wrong with the old one, because it was taking so long to do everything. Then I realized that it was just a bit slower because of its age, and what seemed like a long time was actually less than a minute.

Saving time has climbed to the top of our priority lists, and for good reason. There are many wonderful things we can be doing with that time, so it is natural for us to be greedy with it. The problem is that impatience actually robs us of the enjoyment we seek. I can’t think of any difficulty that is not made worse by impatience, nor any joy that is not made better by taking the time to savor it.

I might attempt to rationalize my own impatience by telling myself it’s useful; that those of us who are impatient somehow manage to hurry things along. On reflection, though, this idea is mostly a delusion. Ever caught yourself hitting an elevator button or a walk signal button repeatedly because you got tired of waiting? I know I have, many times, even though I know it doesn’t help anything.

No matter what you are doing today, it’s likely that there will be something that takes longer than you want it to. If a robot answers your phone call and puts you on hold, or if someone you are waiting for is late, or if you are standing in a long line, try to find ways to turn your attention elsewhere. Keep a small book or magazine with you and read for a few minutes, or turn your held call on speaker while you attend to something different. Check your email, load the dishwasher, file your nails. I guarantee you that the time will go faster if you do something else while you wait.

But if you’re not able to do any of those things, just close your eyes and visualize those gorgeous giant redwoods, and think about how long it took them to grow. Aren’t we lucky they were waiting for us when we arrived on this earth?

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