This is enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packed up, but still

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because you once traversed

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

“These trees are yours because you once looked at them.
These streets are yours because you once traversed them…
You once spoke to Him, and then God became yours.
He sits with us in darkness now…”Kamand Kojouri

We talked here recently about how, in a sense, experiences in our past belong to us for always. What happens does not un-happen simply because of loss and change. Albert Einstein is widely quoted as saying “the dividing line between past, present, and future is an illusion.” Whether or not the quote is an accurate repetition of his words, his work seems to point to that conclusion.

This idea becomes sharply relevant to those of us who have endured great deprivation. It’s one reason why people blessed with long years of life will often seem, to younger generations, to live mostly in the past. When the entire landscape of one’s life is swept away as if in a natural disaster, the foundation established in earlier years becomes terra firma to unsteady feet and a disoriented mind.

Likewise, as Kojouri points out, the foundation of faith remains with us even when all contact with God seems to go silent. Many of us have had the startling experience of emerging from a period of long, lonely darkness and finding God still there, bringing the absolute conviction that we were never alone even when we felt ourselves most deserted.

Truly God sits with us in the darkness, knowing that dazzling benevolent light will eventually return to bless our silent waiting with reassurance and rebirth. I believe this because it has happened before in my life. I trust it will happen again, for me and for whomever sits in the shadows alongside me. Together we trust, and hope, and wait.

As it always does

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

“But when fall comes, kicking summer out…as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed…”
Stephen King

As I write this, Hurricane Florence is forecast to strike the Virginia and North Carolina coasts in a few days, and our beloved York home is pretty much in the center of the expected path. Between the memories of mid-September two years ago and this new threat, it’s a bit hard to think of September as an old friend. Still, though, I’m always happy to see fall roll around.

I spent yesterday afternoon stashing away pretty much everything in our back yard that might blow into a window and smash it, but the real threat will be all those lovely tall trees that surround our lot. The year before we moved here, Hurricane Isabel, “only” a category 1 storm, sent trees into the roof of the home we later bought, as well as those of many of our neighbors.

Isabel turned out to be the costliest disaster in Virginia history. According to the weather site linked above, “Our top intensity models unanimously predict strengthening of Florence into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane by Tuesday, and the storm is also expected to increase in size.” Wow.

Beyond reasonable preparations, I’m not going to worry about it too much. Most of us who read this blog have been riding out all sorts of storms for many years, and have learned to survive by taking one day at a time.

Meanwhile, life goes on. We had some pretty intense heat this summer so the cooling weather will be appreciated. I’ve enjoyed seeing the beautiful chrysanthemums appear at the hardware stores, groceries and plant nurseries. Have you put any flowering fall color out yet?

Here’s wishing you weather that is sunny rather than stormy, and temperate instead of tempestuous. If you are in the path of the hurricane, my prayers are with you and all who are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. Hope is a better way to live. I STILL really believe that.

Not alone

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

“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.”Shannon L. Alder

The online world is full of contradictions, and none more obvious than its tendency to create feelings of isolation even as it facilitates digital connection. Still, the anonymity and freedom from scheduling conflicts that the internet offers are, in certain circumstances, essential to forming connections with others who understand some of the most sensitive problems people face.

All of us have situations in our lives that are not easy to talk about. Maybe we are private people who just don’t like sharing deeply personal information, especially if it involves violating the privacy of someone else by talking about their involvement. Or maybe we’ve found that there are some things even the closest friends and family can’t seem to understand. Fear of being misunderstood or judged harshly can cause us to withdraw, thus creating a vicious cycle of alienation and defensive withdrawal.

This separation from others often happens even in common or fairly universal circumstances such as illness, disability or death. Imagine how the problem is magnified when the challenges are attached to some form of stigma, creating feelings of shame, embarrassment or vulnerability.

In such situations, an online source of support can be helpful. While every resource (including the ones linked below) must be evaluated carefully to determine whether it will provide support consistent with one’s own beliefs and values, the very existence of such sites can affirm that, in the words of Fred Rogers, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

Below are just a few samples of blogs that address deeply personal, difficult life challenges that affect more people than we might guess. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Life is hard and full of struggles. If you or anyone you know could use these resources, spread the word and help others know that none of us needs to feel alone in this big and frightening world.

Are you, or is anyone you love, struggling with suicidal thoughts and emotions? You are not alone. This site offers understanding from professionals and lay people who have been there.

Has your adolescent child been snared in the dangers of online pornography? You are not alone. Visit with a hopeful mom who is navigating that particular minefield with courage and determination.

Have you been rejected and forsaken by one or more of your adult children? You are not alone. Other parents who have faced that particular heartbreak have words of support for estranged mothers and fathers.

Do you have a loved one who is incarcerated? You are not alone. Individuals and organizations can help you weather the storm of being separated from a family member who needs your love.

Has your life been affected by hoarding? You are not alone. Share the perspective of adult children who are coping with the fallout of growing up in a home where normal life was crowded out by stuff.

This short list is far from exhaustive. There are online support groups for pretty much any difficulty out there. The caveat is that there is a great deal of online “information” that is untrustworthy, deceptive and damaging, so discernment is of paramount importance. But with due diligence and caution, it’s possible to find helpful, potentially life saving or sanity saving guidance as well.

We humans are often overwhelmed and floundering, but we remain capable of remarkable things when we reach out to each other in faith and understanding.  Whoever you are, whatever you are facing…remember you are not alone!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You never know

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

“…you’re not the only one who feels like you don’t belong, or that it’s better somewhere else. But there ARE things worth living for.  And the best part is you never know what’s going to happen next.” ― O.R. Melling

Recently I was flying out of DCA to attend the memorial service for Tuffy, about whom I recently wrote. I got to the airport early and strolled into the USO, hoping to grab a cup of coffee and relax for a few minutes before heading to the gate. But I ended up with much more than a snack.

I’ve been to airport USOs all over the country, so many times that I lost count of how often. But this was the first time ever that I was greeted just inside the door by a beautiful therapy dog who was there to reassure nervous or exhausted travelers. Though I was not jittery or tired, I was feeling the usual chronic sadness that goes with being a widow who lost her beloved spouse much too soon. As always, the sight of a canine companion lifted my spirits immediately.

“She’ll sit on your lap,” her handler warned me, as I sat down on the floor beside the Keeshond named Nikita. “I hope so,” I told him, and of course she did. She clearly was accustomed to being greeted warmly by delighted new friends. She was like a super-soft stuffed toy that came to life. I lost track of how long I sat there with her, chatting with USO staff and snapping photos, but I think it was around 15 or 20 minutes. I left the USO that morning in a considerably happier mood than when I arrived.

I thought of that unexpected encounter when I read the quote from Melling. So many of the things that make life worth living are small things that arrive at unexpected times, just when we most need them. That has been true of the gifts, cards and other expressions of concern that have come from so many who meet me here in cyberspace, and it was true of the comforting visit I enjoyed with Nikita.

We never know what’s going to happen next. While not everything that surprises us is good or even neutral, if we keep hope alive, there are joys to brighten our path, and new friends just around the corner, waiting to greet us. Some of them may even be humans.

So much faster

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

“They outgrow us so much faster than we outgrow them.”Jodi Picoult

Drew and Grady flew in to see us on Matt’s birthday. I had not seen Grady in nine months, and during that time he went from a somewhat precocious four year old to a very mature five year old. His birthday is a few days before Matt’s, so we had a joint party for the two of them.

Grady already has been in public school full time for an entire year, having been selected at random for a pilot program enrolling preschoolers in full time classes at the local elementary school. Although he recently started kindergarten for the first time, he’s accustomed to being at school all day.

He is not shy, but like his father and grandfather, he’s not particularly chatty. He did tell me proudly that he knows how to take pictures “with any kind of camera.” Thus I was able to indulge in one of my favorite activities, taking pictures of other people taking pictures. This one, of course, is extra-special. This was the first time Drew or Grady had ever been at Jeff’s grave with Matt or me.

Grady photographed Drew and Matt at Jeff’s grave.

Grady also enjoyed working a jigsaw puzzle of the USA that belonged to Matt many years ago. He liked it so well that he chose to work it again the next day, preferring that activity to going back to the swimming pool. When I asked him questions, rather than blurting out an answer quickly, he usually thought a moment before responding, often qualifying his response with a parallel reflection.

I really enjoyed having the chance to spend some time with him, and though I would have loved to see Owen too, I was more able to focus on Grady instead of dividing my time between the two of them. Since they spent only two nights with us, it was a short visit to begin with, and each moment with him was precious.

In that regard, as with so much else in my life (really everything, it seems to me now), I am consciously choosing to see whatever blessings and advantages I can find in what remains a pretty dismal picture. I might be determined to defeat despair, but I’m also a fundamentally honest person and I can’t lie about how hard it still is to get through each and every day.

But as the old saying goes, time flies whether you’re having fun or not. So I’m determined to keep having as much fun as I can– or the closest thing that passes for fun in this harsh, still-new existence– and no matter what else is going on, a grandson is certainly a magnificent gift. Sons are pretty special, too.

Like a handprint on my heart

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

You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart…

— Stephen Schwartz

Many of you will remember my earlier post about going to visit my “other Mama and Daddy” on the first Christmas after Jeff died. My siblings and I were blessed to have a second set of parents who provided us with another home where we felt loved, safe and happy. The fact that this additional home was in the same neighborhood, just a short stroll away, was an added benefit, but the bond had never depended on geographic proximity. “Tuffy” and Betty Jo had been close friends of our parents since before we were born. I cannot remember a time when their presence was not a significant part of our lives, even during the relatively brief time they lived far away from us.

On Friday I got word that Tuffy was very ill and near death, and on Saturday came the phone call I was dreading, letting me know that Tuffy had died. Echoes of other losses resonated with this new sorrow. One by one, the adults who shaped and shielded my early life have left this earth, leaving a landscape that often feels desolate and bare. It’s a continual reminder to me that we, as adults, seldom realize the deep impressions we can leave on young lives.

It seems increasingly rare in today’s world to find lifelong friends whose connection begins in childhood and lasts more than eight decades. This was a great gift in my Daddy’s life, and therefore in that of his entire family. Friendships are blessings in so many ways, but one that I don’t hear mentioned very often is how important adult friendships are to children, who learn everything by watching. Trust is understood on a deep and unspoken level by seeing friendship demonstrated over long periods of time, affirming that loved ones are with us through rejoicing and sorrow, holidays and weekdays, good times and bad.

If your dear friends have children or grandchildren, know that your presence in their family’s life is a blessing to them as well as to the older generations. You may well be leaving handprints on their hearts; a seal of affection that will stay with them.

Smaller and less sneaky

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

“Friends can make you feel that the world is smaller and less sneaky than it really is.”
Lemony Snicket

Sometimes, especially lately, it’s pretty hard to see the world as a friendly place. From the nefarious newsmakers who hack away at others figuratively, digitally and sometimes even literally, to the rude strangers who cut in front of us in traffic or checkout lines, the seeming prevalence of ill will is enough to make the boldest of us want to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed.

But that’s only part of the story.

Every now and then it takes a slightly zany plan to open our eyes to just how many people out there are friends that we simply haven’t met yet. This weekend was a perfect example. Susan, whom I knew through this blog and the one at Upper Room, and then later through several face-to-face visits, did NOT think I was crazy–no crazier than her, anyway– when I suggested she fly in from Minnesota to ride up to Pennsylvania with Matt and me to celebrate Raynard’s birthday at the Shady Maple. This is a trip I had been threatening planning to make for several years now, and this year seemed like the right time. So I was excited when Susan turned out to be thinking the same thing I was. Soon, she had plane tickets and we both had hotel reservations. Pennsylvania, here we come!

We decided to head to Amish Country on Friday as soon as she got into DCA, hoping to do some exploring when we got there. As it turned out, we arrived to one of those torrential downpours that turns umbrellas inside out and soaks you sideways no matter how close you park or how fast you run. Then at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, we ended up stuck in the sort of parking-lot traffic snarl that somehow seemed out of place in a location so obviously removed from New York or L.A.  No worries, though; we had quite a unique evening despite the setbacks, and we knew the real reason for the trip was yet to come.

The next day, we arrived at the Shady Maple where Raynard, Mary, and a large gathering of their friends, family and church family had assembled to share a birthday feast. I didn’t get a head count but my guess is there were at least 30 people of all ages at several long tables full. Though the smorgasbord lived up to its reputation, the food took a backseat to the fellowship as people drifted from table to table chatting and joking and generally having fun. Susan, Matt and I had never seen any of these people before, except for Raynard and Mary. But everyone felt like a friend, and it had the jovial atmosphere of a family reunion.

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

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, must surely be the most wholesome place on earth, even without factoring in the appealing sights of Amish horse-drawn buggies and women in print frocks with white caps and aprons. The greens of the landscape, decorated with farmhouses and barns and silos, are a soothing balm for agitated nerves. If I was asked to write a long list of adjectives describing that locale, “sneaky” is a word that would never make it even to the bottom of the 376th page of the list. But I digress. (Did you really think I could write about Raynard’s birthday without working that phrase in somewhere?)

If the world feels like a big, scary, rude and ugly place, I highly recommend you plan a trip to Lancaster County. Or maybe just pop on over to Delaware and drop in on Raynard and Mary. Or call up a friend who lives thousands of miles away and propose a last-minute trip to someplace where there are abundant green spaces and smiling faces. The world is a big and sneaky place, but it shrinks and brightens considerably if you choose the right company.

A book of hope

This little side gate leads to the lovely back lawn of the Gables Guest House,
where I spent my first few days in Oxford, England, June 2017.

“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.

Like a million suns

Bright center of a star cluster. Photo by NASA via Unsplash

Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns, 
And calls me on and on across the universe…     — John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Recently while I was driving to York County, I began getting sleepy as I almost always do when I make long drives alone. The coffee I brought along was gone and didn’t seem to be helping, so I turned off the podcast I was listening to and cranked up the music. This time, I chose the Beatles, and soon I was wide awake, enjoying once again the music that was part of the soundtrack to my youthful life.

Of course, there was “Here Comes the Sun,” which for many years was my very favorite Beatles tune. And “The Long and Winding Road,” with its magnificent wall-of-sound orchestration. But the selection that spoke to me in a new way was another longtime favorite, “Across the Universe.” When I was young, I loved it for the gentle reassurance of the delicate music, and the meandering, poetic lyrics that told me someone out there besides me had a mind that wandered in many directions.

If you’re familiar with the song, you know that the words “nothing’s gonna change my world” repeat in the chorus with an almost hypnotic insistence. On the surface, these words sound like a naive delusion; wishful thinking that the coming years would prove false. But to me, even when I was young, I knew better than to take them literally. Rather, they suggested the presence of an eternal foundation that would remain unmoved despite external circumstances.

Hearing the song from where I now find myself, that suggestion is all the more powerful. The final verse, from which the quote above is drawn, resonated deeply with me as I thought of Jeff, and my parents, and my grandparents and other friends and family whose “limitless, undying love” really does shine around me like a million suns, reflecting the divine source to which they have all now returned.

The shining isn’t limited to those who have passed from this life. Every day, as I wade through mundane challenges magnified by the sadness and anxiety that crash on me in wave after wave, it’s the love shown by others that “calls me on and on, across the universe.” None of these people are superheroes or celebrities or miracle-workers. They’re just people who show up day after day, in my life or yours, with nothing remarkable about them except the presence of that same “limitless undying love” that’s so cleverly camouflaged by ordinary existence that we almost always miss it. But it’s there, and sometimes we can sense what we cannot see.

One of our ministers recently wrote that “faith is ultimately deciding that the real world is the unseen world.” Our eyes give us only a dim reflection of that reality, but as the saints and poets (and musicians) have always known, there is a blindingly brilliant radiance calling to our souls, shining like a million suns, cheering us on.

Art, Carol, Amy, Lee, Lynn, Tuck and Renee, shining like a million suns. July, 2018

Still, flowers bloom

Wow! These are so pretty I just had to share them. At our York home, July 2018

“this life
has been
a landscape
of pain

and still,
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?

Patience and perseverance

The U.S. flag flying at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, September2013

The U.S. flag flying at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, September 2013

Dear Readers,
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:

Through all the gloom

Perhaps the greater

The photo only gives a hint of the dazzling beauty. June 23, 2018

“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!

How important you are

This unusual motto shows up all over this London neighborhood. Fred might love it.
Shoreditch, London. Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

“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!

A wayside sacrament

The waterfront at Bar Harbor, Maine, June 2012

The waterfront at Bar Harbor, Maine, June 2012

“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

Dear readers,

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.

Such beautiful lessons

What a joy to see these ducks and cows as I strolled along the Thames with my classmates. Oxfordshire, England, June 2017

Another morning and I wake with thirst 
for the goodness I do not have. I walk 
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, 
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time.
         – Mary Oliver

During the course on C. S. Lewis I attended at Oxford last summer, our class would spend late afternoons and evenings walking through the countryside to tiny villages or other noteworthy sites. On these lengthy strolls we were guided by our professors, who had walked these paths with their students for many years. Without a doubt, the best lessons of my short time in England took place outside the classroom, even though these informal sessions involved no tests, no memorization, no presentations or papers to write.

I think I could say the same of my life. Like Oliver, I see beautifully divine lessons all around me, yet I am persistently slow to learn all I need to know from them. How to be still and refuse to feed the agitation of stressful circumstances– how to see the ultimate insignificance of most of what bothers me– how to rest in the many consolations that provide balm for sorrows that no earthly power can heal– these messages and more are beamed to me continually, and I treasure them. Yet how quickly they fade in the face of urgent distress or refractory grief.

I suppose all that I really have going for me is this thirst Oliver mentions, for the goodness I do not have. Happily, that otherworldly goodness is visible in this world, and all we have to do is look for it. It’s hiding in plain sight, one beautiful lesson after another. As long as we have the mercy of a little more time, we surely will find it.

Though they sleep

In memory of Earl Glenn Cobeil, my April 2012 visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In memory of Earl Glenn Cobeil, my April 2012 visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“The brave die never, though they sleep in dust:
  Their courage nerves a thousand living men.”Minot J. Savage

Dear readers, though I don’t typically re-blog earlier posts, today I wanted to share this one again. Arlington National Cemetery is very much on my mind for so many reasons. May this Memorial Day bring you somber reflection and grateful hope. This post was originally published five years ago, on May 27, 2013. 

In April 2012, I planned to take some visiting relatives to Washington DC, where they would spend the day sightseeing.  I decided that, after dropping them off in town,  I would stop by Arlington National Cemetery, where a good friend of ours was interred in 2011.  I also wanted to visit the grave of Earl Glenn Cobeil, whose POW bracelet I had worn while I was in high school.

In the decades since I first wept over the news that Colonel Cobeil had died in captivity, I had often sought information about him but still knew very little.  On one of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known as “The Wall”) I had learned a few facts, including the notation that he was buried at Arlington, so I wanted to find out where his grave would be.  Before leaving home that day, I made what I thought would be a brief search online to find his grave’s location.

In searching for this information, I came across the devastating truth about the savage and unrelenting torture that had led to his death.  A long-buried grief stabbed at my heart again as I realized that my worst fears for this man had been less horrible than what actually happened to him.   The one bright spot amid this sorrow was the discovery of contact information for his family.  I resolved to write to them, and after visiting Arlington that day, walked across the bridge and into DC to The Wall.

Before taking a photo of his name there, I pulled out a tissue and polished the surface surrounding the engraved letters.  A photographer with an SLR and a tripod approached me, telling me he had made “some really good photos” of me, apparently for a newspaper.  I asked him if he would take a photo with my camera, and he agreed.  “Touch the wall again,” he said, and I reached up and put my fingers under the name.

After taking the photo, he asked me why I was there; whether this was a family member or friend who was lost in the war.  I explained to him about the POW bracelet I had worn, as had so many others in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and briefly described what I had just learned that day about how Colonel Cobeil died.  I thanked him for his interest and for the photo.  Later, I left this tribute at the Virtual Wall, one among many others for a man I never knew, but will never forget.

I did contact his wife Patricia, now remarried, and she called me.  We had a wonderful conversation, as well as further written correspondence.  In talking with her I mused that, during the years I wore the bracelet, I could never have imagined that I myself would someday be married to an Air Force Colonel.  What I also never imagined was the heartbreaking news Jeff and I would soon receive about his stage IV cancer.  During the very difficult early days of coming to terms with his grim prognosis and the hard battle that lay ahead for him, the courage of Colonel and Mrs. Cobeil was an inspiration and source of strength to me.

Today, I hope we all will take time to remember the brave sacrifices of countless people whose names and faces we will never know, as well as those we have loved who are no longer here with us on earth.  May their legacy live on in those of us who have been blessed by their example.

May 28, 2018, a short postscript: I now have a lovely silver bracelet with a message of hope, sent to me by Colonel Cobeil’s family after I wrote them of Jeff’s diagnosis. The grave that Matt and I will one day share with Jeff is not far from that of Colonel Cobeil, an easy and lovely walk when the weather is favorable.

Count on flowers

Seasons come and go, but beauty remains. Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, May 2018

“No matter how uncertain our world sometimes seems, we can count on flowers to appear each spring.”Barbara Milo Ohrbach

Longtime members of the Defeat Despair community will be familiar with Susan, whom I first met here and whose previous visits have inspired earlier posts. She spent some time with Matt and me this past week, and though I’ve now met many of you face to face, Susan is the first person I met on the blog who has visited our Yorktown home.

Staying several days in the “Historic Triangle” meant we spent a lot of time in the early history of our country, at least in our imaginations. We learned that those 18th century fashions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they look (at least, not according to those who were wearing and creating them); we served on the jury at the piracy trial of Blackbeard’s first mate (the unanimous verdict was GUILTY!) and we spent a delightful afternoon listening to the incomparable Thomas Jefferson, whose hair has gone completely white since the last time I saw him in person over a dozen years ago, but who can still captivate an audience with wit, style and eloquence.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of education, politics and his hopes for ALL Americans.
Colonial Williamsburg, May, 2018

But with all the dramatic appeal of the “living history” presentations, one of my favorite pastimes during the days at Colonial Williamsburg was strolling through the gardens, swapping information or sharing questions about various plants, playing “name that flower” (and initially confusing foxglove with larkspur), and taking endless photographs.

One of the earliest posts on this blog featured a 2009 snapshot of the lovely home and garden pictured above, and as you will see if you compare the photos, it has held up well. If you look closely, you will see the tips of the foxgloves that dominate the 2009 photo, peeking over the picket fence in the background of the photo above. I don’t remember whether there were poppies and violas behind me in 2009 when I took the closer shot of the cottage, but they were impossible to miss this time, so I went for the long view.

Even a re-created tableau of colonial American history does not remain static. There were many new activities and sights to see on this visit, and also quite a few attractions that are no longer available, which I really missed. But the flowers did not disappoint me. Ohrbach is right; we can count on them to appear each spring, reminding us of beauty that has been bringing people joy for centuries. Despite competing with patriots, pirates and petticoats, flowers hold their own, inspiring every bit as much curiosity, and triggering more photographs. I hope your springtime is full of their colorful company.

The jangled soul can flee

My favorite local library. The reading garden hints of the delights found indoors.
Poquoson, Virginia, June 2014

‘Tis fitting in these days of noise,
Here in these thunder years of steam,
The soul should keep its equipoise
And think its thoughts and dream its dream.
We scar the placid vales with mills,
We scoop the seas and shear the hills:
‘Tis well that to these temples of the mind
The jangled soul can flee and leave the noise behind. 

Sam Walter Foss, librarian and poet
(Lines from the 1904 dedication of the Carnegie Library in Melrose, Massachusetts)

When was the last time you visited your public library? It’s a great place to defeat despair. To adapt a phrase from Dante, every library should have a sign posted above the door that says “Rediscover hope all ye who enter here.” The best public libraries are places of sheer delight, and even the worst have something to offer.

Reading the quote above, it’s interesting to think that 1904 was described as an era of noise and jangled souls. This was before television, traffic and technology became ubiquitous. Some things, apparently, never change, including the soul’s need for a place of respite from the chaotic demands of daily life.

As a librarian I’m more than a little biased, so it’s not unusual that the library would be one of my favorite places to take refuge from confusion and despair. Just walking through the door lifts my spirits. I’m sure to find books, videos and audiobooks to entertain me, as well as practical help for everyday problems. Whether I need to repair a light switch, nurse a plant back to health, or give myself a pep talk, I know I can find the information I need at the library.

Of course, most of us go to the internet with such questions, and that’s a great convenience for which I’m thankful on a daily basis. But there is something about wandering the stacks of a library that offers a different sort of solution. If you haven’t done that lately, give it a try. What begins as a nice relaxing browse can lead to the opening of all kinds of mental doors, and a sense of freedom and possibility that clicking on hyperlinks can’t capture.

If your soul feels jangled, flee the noise and spend a few moments– or hours– at a nearby library. It won’t cost you a cent, and you’ll leave with something money can’t buy.

Nothing but the thread

Like quotations, flowers are individually appealing and collectively irresistible.
I photographed his eye-catching display in Amsterdam, April 2007.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”John Bartlett

In a recent post, we talked about the fondness for quotes that many of us share. Probably no name has been more associated with quotations than John Bartlett, whose classic collection has continued to be revised and published for more than a century after his death. The longevity of his work confirms our observation that quotes remain relevant, entertaining and inspiring.

Pretend for a moment that you are me, and you’re sitting down to write your next blog post after having written 1041 of them. What quotation would you choose? Where would you look to find ideas? Bartlett’s first volume featured the words of Shakespeare or the Bible so frequently that they made up a third of the book’s 258 pages, but there were a total of 169 authors represented. Who are some of the people you hear quoted again and again? Do you have a favorite author whose works are full of quotable passages?

Here’s an idea. Find a favorite quote and send it in a note or personal online message to someone who might like it. Maybe you even thought of that person the moment you read the quote. If so, find a few minutes today to add your words to someone else’s, and send a synergistic smile.

You’re invited to share your favorite quotations in the comments. I reserve the right to use them in upcoming posts! Our colorful threads can weave together the binding for a cheery bouquet this week– one that won’t wilt or fade.

To share our pain

Photo by Milada Vigerova via Unsplash

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
Henri Nouwen

“…losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.”Paul Simon

The past six years, and really the past 32 years, have left me with far more questions than answers, but observation has firmly established the truth of some generalizations about humans. Among them is the unmistakable tendency for people to shy away from anything that can’t be easily fixed. We live in a throwaway culture where objects, animals and even other people are discarded or disregarded when they lose their practical value or don’t perform as expected.

Because of this I spend almost all of my days and hours alone, seeing nobody who isn’t paid directly or indirectly to be in either Matt’s life or mine.  Matt is the only person who is reliably present face-to-face in my life, and of course, his ability to communicate well enough to share my pain (or his own) is sadly limited. I miss countless things about Jeff, but losing the gift of his presence in daily life is the greatest sorrow of all. His devotion to us manifested itself on many levels, but the most profoundly beneficial was his steadfast proximity to all the details of our lives. He never needed a reason or an occasion to be there; he chose to be with us, as we did him, over and over again.

If you have known the prolonged isolation that too often accompanies chronic or catastrophic suffering, you will understand what I am talking about. Most people my age or younger don’t know yet what that particular form of alienation is like, but I believe almost everyone will experience it if they live long enough.

Meanwhile, even if you have no clue what it’s like– even if you feel impatient when your well-intended suggestions aren’t adopted, and you just want to shake that despondent individual and tell her to SNAP OUT OF IT– realize that nobody expects or even needs you to solve an unsolvable problem. Sometimes, all that’s needed is someone to be there.

Chances are there is a person in your life right now who might like to hear your voice or see your face, and it wouldn’t have to be more than a brief visit. It won’t pay your bills or raise your social status or get your to-do list checked off. It’s almost certainly not a priority with you. But it might change someone’s life. Maybe even your own.

Conversation partners

Meet some fascinating people. Blackwell’s bookstore, Oxford, UK, June 2017

“The borders between reading and writing and living are fluid. I do not take time out from life to write, nor do I take time out from life to read. When I quote somebody, I’m not hiding. I’m introducing you to one of my conversation partners.” — Patrick Henry (no, not that one, this one)

When I first started this blog, I my intent was to hide behind the quotes. In fact, initially I planned to have nothing but one quote and one photo each day. My very first post here was intended to be the permanent format. But then I added a few words, and as the comments and questions began to come in, the borders I had drawn expanded. The rest is history, 1036 posts and counting, available here in neatly archived sequence for anyone who cares to explore.

For me, Henry’s quote explains why I ended up doing more than posting a quote and a photo each day. Reading and writing are so much a part of my life that I find it hard to separate them from everything else, such as posting a blog entry. And the librarian in me, the one who will never retire, loves nothing better than to introduce people to potential conversation partners. Among those whose words I’ve shared here are some of the most intriguing, inspiring and imaginative individuals you could ever hope to meet. Each has, in one way or another, helped me defeat despair. I hope they do the same for you.

No endings

Kathy at Jeff’s grave, Arlington National Cemetery, April 2018

“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” ― Hilary Mantel

“…life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight.”Carly Simon

During the past week my friend Kathy was visiting me from Texas. We went out to Arlington National Cemetery and from there into DC on a lovely spring day. The cherry blossoms were just past full bloom, still beautiful, and it was the kind of afternoon that is a balm for the sorrows of a cold and dreary winter. 

Daffodils were blooming throughout Arlington and in the District.
These were a short stroll from Jeff’s grave.

I don’t have many words today, but I do wish you lovely April afternoons to fill you with peace and reassurance that cannot be fully described or understood.

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