“…novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings..Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined” — Annie Murphy Paul
Even if you’re not lonely or isolated, books can add so much to life. I’m a big fan of all sorts of nonfiction, and I love the practical information of home and garden references, or the fascinating insight into history that biographies and memoirs offer. But fiction can be even more true to life than nonfiction.
Whether the story is written in first or third person, the characters in a good novel will come to life for us even if they exist in a distant place or time, with a much different story than ours. In fact, novels that introduce us to new worlds and different ways of thinking are often the most spellbinding. Lisa See, Junot Diaz, Maeve Binchy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Orhan Pamuk have seemingly nothing in common, except their ability to take readers where many of us have not gone before, and show us familiar or exotic things as seen through someone else’s eyes. And if you’ve read Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful series about Mma. Ramotswe (seventeen books and counting so far) you may feel almost as if you have relatives in Botswana.
Have novels taken you to any faraway destinations lately? Do you have fictional acquaintances who seem almost as real to you as people you have known face-to-face? Do you know any books that are a great place to go when feeling sad, disappointed or afraid? Share your fictional friends with us– we may like them as much as you do!
“…bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases– like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase…We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don’t want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will be still married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache.” — C. S. Lewis
While the world remembers this day as the dark anniversary of permanent change, and as recent news has been rocked with other tragedies and natural disasters, I find myself still coping with deep sorrow in my private world. My inner landscape is oddly consonant with the outer world, which remains a distant reality in my heart compared to what I am living on a personal level, day to day.
The Labor Day weekend was part of an extended low period for me. Matt and I spent the holiday alone, and I felt that he and I are unwanted and forgotten. It took awhile for me to realize that it was the second anniversary of Daddy’s death, which was the beginning of many months filled with much devastating turmoil and grief. I’ve always heard that such anniversaries are felt on a subconscious level, even if one is unaware of it. I believe that now.
Of course, as an even more heartbreaking anniversary approaches, I am forced to accept that the healing I had hoped would be at least beginning by now has shown no permanent signs of taking root. There are all sorts of practical reasons for this, including the ongoing uncertainties of life for both Matt and me in the wake of unexpected consequences of Jeff’s death, most notably the impending loss of Matt’s disability services.
But the real reason I’m still hurting is that I’m still without Jeff after 38 years of being with him. Everything was easier to bear when he was with me; without him, every pain is sharper and slower to heal. In a strange way, accepting that the sorrow of his loss may well and truly never end has given me a bit of clarity that I hope will prove helpful as I try to piece together some sort of life for Matt and me.
My sister has been my saving grace. She and I have talked on the phone several times during this time of sad remembrance, and one night we just cried together as we talked about missing Mama and Daddy. Though she has never experienced losing a spouse (and I pray that she never does) she knows as much about Jeff and me, as a couple, as anyone else does; perhaps more, in some ways. I know that she understands the complex and overwhelming force of the waves of grief that keep hitting me again and again.
So how does one live this phase “well and faithfully?” Jeff himself talked with me in the months before Daddy’s death, trying to prepare me for the likelihood that I would lose the three most reliable people in my life within an unbearably short period of time. I knew he worried about me, yet I felt from him a confidence that I lacked. He realized full well how hard each of these three losses would hit me, but I know that he believed (despite his innate pessimism about most other things) that I would somehow survive it all. The memory of Jeff’s absolute confidence in me, which never wavered through the formidable challenges of all the years we were together, was one of his greatest gifts to me. It continues to give me motivation, if not always tangible strength, to keep going.
On my very worst days, which seem far more numerous than I ever expected, I remind myself that this is a regular phase of marriage, however irregular the complications that magnify my particular experience of it. I think, again and again, how fortunate I have been to have had two remarkable parents and one of the most singularly exceptional husbands I can imagine. That is quite a lot for one lifetime, and though I may not always feel it in my heart, I know in my soul that “God’s grace is sufficient for me.” Thanks for being with me in this strangely overabundant life.
“I didn’t have particular baseball heroes in those days…I didn’t relate to baseball players, even though I played the game myself, because I knew I had nothing to look forward to. There was no hope for me to play in the big leagues back then because I was black.” — Hank Aaron
Wow. Talk about defeating despair! The young Henry Aaron must have loved the game enough to go on playing despite being, as far as anyone knew at the time, shut out of the chance for a professional career. If he was a different sort of person, he might be sitting around today telling his grandchildren how he could have been a star if not for the racism he lived with every day of his youth. He could be complaining of how he had to start his professional career playing on a team called the Clowns, or about all the times he had to play in segregated stadiums, or had to eat his meals while sitting in the team bus because he wasn’t allowed to go into a restaurant with his white teammates.
For that matter, he could have been consumed with fear and resentment at the death threats he received decades later as he neared Babe Ruth’s longstanding home run record. But from his youth onward, Aaron just went on doing what he did best, and he was impossible to stop. For many of us, he is still, and will always be, the greatest home run hitter who ever lived. If you’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and seen the Barry Bonds home run ball with the large asterisk carved into the leather, you know how many fans (who voted for such an alteration in the ball before it was donated to the museum) agree with me on that.
Hank Aaron is larger than life to me because I grew up in Atlanta, and remember hearing Milo Hamilton’s exited voice on the radio, shouting with glee whenever Hammerin’ Hank knocked the ball out of the park. I remember when a high school classmate of mine, secretly listening to his transistor during Algebra, blew his own cover by shouting aloud that Hank Aaron had just tied the home run record with #714. Instead of reprimanding him, the teacher allowed him to go tell the front office, and the normally straight-laced principal went on the school PA system to announce it to the entire school, after which much cheering erupted throughout the building.
It’s hard now for us to imagine a little league player who has no big-league heroes, but Hank Aaron apparently didn’t need any. He became the hero himself. It would be impossible to count how many of us are grateful he had what it took to go the distance, blessing the world with his extraordinary talent.
“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order…a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” — Kakuzō Okakura
It seems to me that there is no day so dismal, nor any day so happy, that it cannot be improved by taking time for a cup of tea.
One of the most enchanting days I’ve experienced in a long time was the Saturday I spent walking and riding through several villages in the Cotswolds, not far from Oxford. After getting off the train at Moreton-in-Marsh, I met a delightful new friend, Teresa Fong, who introduced herself to me and asked whether we might spend the day together. She was a young mother from Hong Kong who was traveling alone for the day, as I was. The friends she was visiting in London had to work for the day, so she ventured out with the same idea I had, to see the legendary beauty of the English countryside.
We had a marvelous time– it would have been nearly impossible not to, with the lovely weather and the charming villages– and I soon discovered that I had found someone whose enthusiasm for photography surpassed my own; that may have been a first for me. For every photo I took, she took at least two or three, using both a regular camera and the one on her cell phone. I never needed to apologize for stopping to take a photo, nor felt too rushed to take a shot from more than one vantage point. It was great fun.
After several hours of strolling and snapping away, we had lunch at the Small Talk Tea Rooms in Bourton-on-Water. It was so pretty inside that we both took several photos from almost every possible angle, and I still somehow managed to consume quite a bit of tea along with our lunches. If there’s anything more fun than taking photos, it has to be drinking tea.
When I read Okakura’s quote, I thought of that magical day in the Cotswolds. The qualities Okakura mentions here in reference to tea– beauty, purity, harmony, romanticism– all are perfect descriptions of the picturesque villages we visited, and of our leisurely enjoyment of tea at lunch. In the midst of what had long felt (and still sometimes feels) like an impossible life, here was a dream-like experience that turned out to be not only possible, but real.
“Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.” — Vera Nazarian
I love staying in bed and breakfast inns, especially if the hosts live in or very near the home where the guests stay. I don’t go for the pricey or frilly ones, just the type that seem clean and comfy and friendly. I tend to be more mindful of my own presence in such places; quieter, less wasteful of resources and more deferential than I am in the impersonal setting of a large hotel.
I think it takes a special sort of person to be a successful innkeeper. The ones Jeff and I met over the years have been professional yet friendly, offering travel hints that only locals tend to know about. Something about sitting at the table of the person who has cooked a delicious breakfast helps me feel a bit more at home, wherever I happen to be.
My hostess at the B&B where I spent my first two nights at Oxford told me of a lovely village, Burford, in the Cotswolds. I hadn’t read about it in any tour books or heard it discussed as a “must-see” destination, but she told me how easy it was to catch a bus there from right outside her door. It was a wonderful place to spend the day, and I enjoyed every minute. I likely would never have seen it without her helpful instructions. I’m sure I’ll eventually share some of the photos I took there on this blog.
On that same trip to England I had my first experience with an AirBnB home just outside London, and am now eager to try it again sometime. Just as the internet has enabled other kinds of online connections, new travel opportunities are possible for us, offering a different window through which to see a famous or lesser-known destination. It’s true that one usually saves money traveling this way, but the real attraction for me is the chance to have a one-of-a-kind introduction to a place that is, first and foremost, someone else’s home.
Have you visited any lovely bed and breakfast inns lately? Feel free to tell us all about it. We might just show up there sometime, and we’ll tell them you sent us!
“The ground I tend sustains me in early summer, but the garden of the spirit is the place I go when the wind howls…Raised in the mind’s eye, nurtured by the faithful composting of orange rinds and tea leaves and ideas, it is finally the wintergarden that produces the true flowering, the saving vision.” — Louise Erdrich
Thank you, Louise Erdrich, for pointing out the beauty of our gardens of the spirit. I need the occasional reminder that this unseen garden requires tending, so that its blooms will be there to lift my heart when the wind howls. I was delighted to read that Erdrich uses the same compost materials I do. Sometimes I run low on orange rinds when they are out of season, but I’m never short on tea leaves or ideas. I also rely on the gifts of friends who bring me their coffee grounds, veggie peels and reassuring words to sprinkle over the soil after a hard rain.
If we were to take a quick tour through your garden of the spirit, what might we find there? Do you favor lots of annual color, or does the landscape feature mostly sturdy evergreens and hardy perennials? What are your favorite composting materials? Is yours a formal garden, with statuary and fountains and topiary? Or is it a beautifully overgrown cottage garden with a cute bistro table and chairs for casual chats over a cup or two? Maybe you are a practical type whose garden puts wholesome fruits and vegetables on the table, or maybe your own garden of the spirit is a combination of many types.
The wonderful thing about gardens, whether of the earth or of the spirit, is that no two are exactly alike. But they all require diligent care. If you run short on composting materials or need some help with the weeding, let me know. Cooperation and community are the most productive and fun ways to cultivate thriving gardens of the spirit. Iced tea (or hot coffee) and comfy chairs will be waiting for us on the Verandah when we finish working for the day. Sun hat optional.
“It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey, and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive.” — Rachel Held Evans
The metaphor does hold, on so many levels. I could talk about how the bends in the road may be hiding something wonderful, or something awful, but mostly they just reveal more road that looks quite ordinary to us, until we are somewhere different.
I could talk about the people we meet along the way, how some of them walk quite a long while with us, and others just refresh us with a cup of cold water, then wave briefly and wish us well. I could talk about the people who leave, or take a different turn, or die, and don’t make it with us all the way to whatever we hope to find in this life on earth.
But when I read this quote tonight, I had a much more comical and mundane image in my mind– equally clichéd– that of a little kid asking again and again, “Are we there yet?” Usually that phrase goes with an image of kids in the back seat of a car, but imagine how much more often they might be asking that question if it were a really, really long walk.
It might be a hot day, or there might be a rainstorm, or even both. As the hours stretch on, they might have to sit down in the road awhile from sheer fatigue, and maybe even cry a little before getting up again. The parent keeps reminding the child of the dry, safe, climate-controlled rest at the end of the journey, the refreshing drinks and delicious food, but somehow all that can seem so far off as to be not quite real.
Evans was far too young when she wrote this quote to know what one feels like, say, sixty years into the journey, after protracted sorrow and too many heart-rending goodbyes. I’m guessing (though I could be wrong) that her energy level was such that the “keep-moving” uncertainty sounded a bit less daunting; that maybe she had no idea how long it can feel when we “never exactly arrive” for decades on end.
I’m sure, though, that she remembers what Hebrews 11 tells us, listing example after example of real people who walked this road before us: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…the world was not worthy of them.”
If life is a long series of letting go of one idea, thing or person after another, perhaps the last thing we loosen our grip on is this notion that someday we will arrive; that we will find (or make) a perfect world. Not on this earth, we won’t. But that same passage reminds us that these people were hoping for a better place, and God has prepared one for them — and us. I really believe that. So as long as I can, I ‘ll keep walking.
“It is curious that with the advent of the automobile and the airplane, the bicycle is still with us. Perhaps people like the world they can see from a bike…without leaving behind clouds of choking exhaust, without leaving behind so much as a footstep.”
— Gurdon S. Leete
While I was in Oxford, I found myself snapping photo after photo of the bicycles that were parked all over the city. They added spots of color to the stone walls, injecting a whimsical element into what could have been an intimidating fortress of hard work, tradition, decorum and regulation. Each one looked prettier to me than the one before.
I haven’t ridden a bicycle for years, but I did have one that I rode frequently between 1990 and 1996, while we lived on the central coast of California and in Hawaii. I never learned to ride a ten speed or even a three speed, and when I requested a bike for Christmas, I told Mama it would have to be the old-fashioned kind like the one I rode as a child. It took her a long time to find one that could be delivered to our home in California, but she managed to do it, and soon I was riding through the gentle hills of our lovely neighborhood.
People often asked me why I would want to ride a bike like that, but I was afraid of a faster one, and I didn’t mind that it took more work. Riding more slowly was fine with me; the views were better that way. The only thing I didn’t love about it was wearing the helmet that nobody had realized was a necessary precaution when I was a kid.
Once in awhile, in Hawaii, I would ride the three miles or so to the beach on base, just to see the ocean and spend a few minutes there before heading back home. The way home often seemed quite long, and many years later I would have vague dreams about riding home from the beach for an impossibly long distance (maybe twenty miles or more, in the crazy illogical landscape of sleep). Sometimes in the dreams it would be getting dark, and I would be asking myself “why on earth did I ride so far on this bike?” and feeling fearful that I would not make it back.
I don’t remember ever feeling that way in real life, and even in the dreams, my distress at the distance I was traveling felt more like the sorrow of moving farther and farther away from a past I had loved, without quite knowing what might lie ahead. Now, of course, I remember those dreams with a confirming sadness that my anxiety about the future– if that is what haunted my sleep– turned out to be quite reasonable.
Yet bikes are still happy things to me. I don’t plan to ride one ever again, but I love the sight of them. Maybe I should get an old brightly-colored bike that nobody wants to ride anymore, and use it for a garden decoration. Or maybe I’ll just make a photo collage of all the Oxford bikes I captured in digital and mental pictures.
Did you (or do you) ever ride a bike? Please tell us what you love about it.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
— name withheld at the poet’s request*
This post is for everybody who is heartbroken– over the news, over the strife in this country and around the world, or over personal sorrows, or sheer exhaustion and despair not directly related to the chaotic world outside the doorstep.
My wish for you, and for all of us, is that we take a few moments to find a still, silent place to breathe deeply and realize that even the air we take in, and the ability to breathe unaided by machinery, is a gift we did not earn.
I wish you gratitude and sanity and calm, a peace that passes understanding. I can tell you this sort of peace is possible, even for one who lacks that breath, one who is dying and knows it. It must be possible for us, too. May it happen for us.
*no, the poet is not me or anybody you know from this blog.
If you want to know why the name is withheld, read the last bullet point here.
“You know that the eyes of love aren’t blind, they are wide open…you realize how ordinary it is to love the beautiful, and how beautiful it is to love the ordinary.”
— Marius Vieth
When I travel, I find that I enjoy the everyday neighborhoods and local groceries, libraries and post offices almost as much as I do the world famous tourist spots. It’s a habit I picked up from my parents; no matter where we would travel, we usually took the public transportation and avoided pricey tours. Jeff and I continued that tradition, because he too preferred independent exploring over group itineraries.
When I was planning my trip to Oxford, I scheduled a couple of extra days following the end of classes. I wanted to have plenty of time to get from Oxford to Heathrow, and had always wanted to see the Royal Botanic Gardens (also known as Kew Gardens) just outside London. Feeling a bit adventurous, I booked an Airbnb lodging on a residential street within an easy walk of the Gardens and the Underground station. I was hoping I wouldn’t regret my first-ever experience with the intriguing service, which promised to offer something more than a typical hotel could sell at any price.
It was a lovely way to end my trip. I stayed at the home of a congenial Italian family who had been living in Britain for seven years or so, and built a cozy one-room studio near the back wall of their garden. It was a quiet neighborhood where I felt safe walking around in the evenings, enjoying the famed English gardening skills on full display at almost every home I passed.
I suppose that living so near to Kew Gardens might provide an extra incentive to indulge one’s love of flowers, but I saw such displays everywhere I went in England. I don’t know how much I might have noticed them if I were driving past in a car. There was nothing spectacular about the modest neighborhood where I stayed; it certainly didn’t compete with the charming cottages of the Cotswolds, or the stately buildings of Oxford, or the gorgeous mansions of Belgravia. But if someone asked me which I enjoyed most, my day at Kew Gardens or my quiet evening walks in the Richmond neighborhood just outside its gates, I would have to think about it for a long time to answer accurately. In fact, I thought about it before writing this post, and I’m still not sure of the answer. I think it must be “both.”
Things can be beautiful without being uniformly so, of course. I probably could have taken many photographs that made the area look ugly. Appreciating the beauty does not require being blind to the unsightliness that is usually present right alongside the beauty (though the camera is good at focusing in on what is best and cutting the rest).
No matter where you or I might live, if we were strolling through one of our neighborhoods together this evening during the last of the fading sunlight, I bet we could find many beautiful things to photograph. We could even take a few of those now-obligatory selfies to remember how much fun we had.
Isn’t it extraordinary to live in a world where the ordinary can be so beautiful?
“Nobody is born smiling – being happy in this world is something you have to learn.” — Ashleigh Brilliant
How true! And as with all kinds of education, some people seem naturally better at learning happiness than others. A few are exceptionally gifted in this way, and others are what we might call “learning disabled” when it comes to enjoying life. Even so, I think anyone can learn to be happy at least some of the time. For many of us, being happy is something we will have to re-learn several times during a lifetime, but the payoff is worth it.
I’m in one of those stages where I’m re-learning how to be happy. I am fortunate to be blessed with many great teachers who excel at this subject, and quite a few of them are people who visit us right here on this blog. I am also thankful to report that, despite tremendous sorrows, there are still abundant resources to help us build this skill. And most of them are free!
Today I invite you to join us for class. It’s being held everywhere, including wherever you happen to be right now. Bonus points for bringing your camera, and extra bonus points for sharing with the class. Suggestions for the location of next week’s class are now being accepted. So far, the list includes: baseball parks, libraries, picnics, tea rooms, church, your friend’s house, and that perennial favorite, your own back yard. Got any other ideas?
“There is an air about it, resonant of joy and hope: it speaks with a thousand tongues to the heart: it waves its mighty shadow over the imagination…and points with prophetic fingers to the sky.” — William Hazlitt, describing Oxford
This was my third visit to Oxford, but the first time I stayed more than three days. The weather was as close to perfect as I could have wished, and I walked to my heart’s content and more, averaging 8 miles a day. Much of that walking was part of class sessions or group activities, but a fair amount of it was my own exploration. There were some great class outings, and none more memorable than climbing the narrow spiral staircase in the 13th century tower of the University Church.
The tower was so cramped that a few visitors who were there that day felt, on seeing inside it, too claustrophobic to even try to climb it. Those of us who did had no regrets; the view from the top was breathtaking, and extended almost 360° to give an unparalleled view of the city. Reading Hazlitt’s description of Oxford, I immediately thought of that panorama.
I can’t think of any thriving city of such relatively small size where so many of the buildings have been in use for so long. Yet there is nothing that feels antiquated about Oxford, at least not to me. Perhaps the presence of so many colleges with their youthful population explains part of the animated atmosphere, but I think that is only a part of the appeal.
As is my travel habit, I spent much time exploring the residential areas just outside the city center, riding the buses with the locals and roaming around the grocery stores hunting for snacks and teas I can’t get at home. Like the city center, these places were modern, yet set in charming historic neighborhoods where I was tempted to stop and take photos so often that always ran out of time before I saw as much as I wanted to see.
I’m a great believer, though, that we don’t need to go someplace far-off and exotic to find fascinating things. Most places will speak to us with a thousand tongues, if we stop to listen. Here’s wishing us all a week of tuning in to the resonance of joy and hope wherever we find ourselves.
“He had a way of using all that he read and experienced to transform the way that he lived. There was no such thing as purely academic knowledge for him…” — John Bremer
As it happens, I’m taking a break from working hard on a “purely academic” paper on C. S. Lewis that’s due in a couple of days, but I remembered it was time to post. So it seemed appropriate to share one of the photos I took on our visit to his Oxford home, the Kilns, where one of our class sessions was held.
Lewis lived most of his life in this modest but lovely little home, sharing it first with his adopted family (and for a time, some British children evacuated from London during World War II, who were said to have inspired his Narnia books), then with his brother and later, his wife Joy. The house is now maintained by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, and scholars-in-residence make it their home for months or even years at a time.
My ten days in Oxford were a rare privilege that now feels more like a dream than reality. As time goes by I’ll tell you more about it, but for now, suffice it to say that if one must write an academic paper, which is definitely my least favorite kind of writing, there is no more appealing topic. Despite his fame and popularity, Lewis predicted shortly before he died that he would be forgotten by five years after his death. But he remains as influential as ever, and he is one of a very few authors of his generation whose works have never gone out of print. Apparently, in transforming his own life, he was able to help others transform theirs as well. Isn’t that an encouraging thought?
“When we do the hard, intimate work of friendship, we bring a little more of the divine into daily life. We get to remind one another about the bigger, more beautiful picture that we can’t always see from where we are.”– Shauna Niequist
Okay, so imagine you are traveling across several states to northern Virginia, to attend a family reunion of 110 people– that’s right, one hundred and ten— coming together from all over the country, as far away as California. Let’s say you only have a couple of days there. What would you do? Visit with family? Go tour the monuments? See a bit of the Smithsonian? Help your friend with her research paper? Hmmm, how did that one get on the list?
You might want to ask Pat. She’s your neighbor here at Defeat Despair, and she shows up on a regular basis, though you will seldom see evidence of that unless you look for the little green and white quilted square that became her Gravatar the first time she clicked “Like.” Pat is not one to comment much online, as she has mentioned before, but she’s very faithful to read the blog and let me know she’s been there by clicking “like” to leave her little quilt emblem, like a friendly secret handshake.
She’s also wonderful at keeping in touch the good old-fashioned way…postal mail, and sometimes its closer cousin, email complete with digital photos now and then. Pat and I have been in touch for somewhere between four and five years now, and if you’ve been in my home, you’ve seen bits and pieces of her gifts to me. Cute postcards, a cheery fridge magnet, a book of inspiring quotes with a personal history behind it, a CD of songs composed by her late mother, who was a gifted musician…Pat often senses that I’m in need of uplifting thoughts or an encouraging word or two, and she’s filled that gap for me more often than I can remember.
And now you get to see her in person! Well, almost. After years of knowing her only through her words, gifts and occasional photos, I was overjoyed that she chose to spend one of her precious two full days in the DC area with me. I was able to meet many of her family (and to congratulate the people who put that amazing gathering together) before whisking her away to my favorite little cafe, La Madeleine, where we celebrated Bastille Day with a tasty brunch and little blueberry/strawberry tarts made for the holiday. Pat’s multilingual and speaks fluent French, so that made it even more fun.
Then she went back to our townhouse and let me interview her for my research project on letter writing. Although it was a fun topic, it’s not what a lot of people might define as a preferred way to spend a rare vacation day. But she somehow made me feel she enjoyed it almost as much as I did, not to mention giving me some great ideas to incorporate into my paper. That’s the sort of thing that Niequist might include in her reference to “the hard, intimate work of friendship:” answering a lot of questions about your personal habits and opinions, knowing that there’s absolutely nothing in it for you. There was plenty in it for me, though, on so many levels.
The highlight of the day for me was when I was dropping her back off at the hotel and we had to say goodbye. We prayed together and as she walked me to my car, she spontaneously burst into a beautiful gospel song we sing at church sometimes. I knew then that she had inherited her mother’s gift for music. That song of praise rang in my mind for days, a gift that kept on giving, a reminder of the bigger and more beautiful picture. I still can’t see it very clearly, but Pat helps me keep believing it is there.
“A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” — William Arthur Ward
Hello everyone (those of you who are still with us). I have missed you immeasurably, and just couldn’t go another day without posting. Or maybe it’s partly that I need some escape, however momentary, from getting my papers done. (OK Amy, I hear you, I am getting back to work now! You need not tell them about the other momentary escapes that somehow added up to hours.)
Seriously, I’m worn out with being serious, so I just headed over to the trusty Yoda Meme Generator and made a photo the easy way. Besides, I could hear his wise little growl in my ear, telling me that wait I should not. I can always count on the old Jedi master to remind me of serious things in the funniest way possible. We used to say (only half-jokingly) that Daddy reminded us of Yoda.
I’m going to try my best to be back here regularly, and I’ll update you little by little, as I hope you will do too, in the comments. The short version is that Matt and I are OK, we are surviving, and some days are better than others. Thanks so much for all of you who have continued to keep in touch, sending me warm thoughts, little remembrances and much-needed prayers. Though Matt’s situation (and therefore mine) is still in limbo, I have a few happy things to report, so stay tuned. Note to Pat: now is your last chance to tell me if you don’t want to see your smiling face coming soon to a blog post near you!
“If the whole world were put into one scale, and my mother in the other, the whole world would kick the beam.” — Henry Bickersteth, Lord Langdale
Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging comments. I have appreciated each one, and will respond as soon as I am able.
I wrote the post below for Mother’s Day four years ago, and I now re-post it in memory of my amazing Mama, who died yesterday. She lived only 20 months without Daddy, the love of her life, her husband of 66 years, and (during his final years) her constant caretaker. The relatively short time she lived without him was filled with suffering and heartbreak for her, but she held fast to her determined faith and indomitable spirit. Again and again, she expressed gratitude for the abundant blessings of her life, and reminded me continually that even in loss, we have reasons to give thanks. Up to the evening before Jeff’s passing, and well beyond that, she filled my life with her strength, courage, and refusal to give in to despair.
Jeff and my mother were so alike that losing her so soon after Jeff’s death resonates with the deep sadness that an abandoned child must feel. Now I carry on without the three steadfast and stalwart pillars of my life: Daddy, Mama, Jeff. No other person will ever love me as they did. None can equal their devotion, faith and diligence. No light will shine more brightly than that of their shared legacy, which marks the way ahead for me. Thanks for being with me through all this, and for caring!
The following post was first published on May 12, 2013:
Even after I became a mother, I have never liked Mother’s Day. It seems to me an artificially contrived and ultimately inadequate invention designed primarily to sell cards and flowers, and in some cases, to assuage an adult child’s guilty conscience. Nonetheless, I do find myself thinking of my own mother each year on this day, and feeling at a loss for words to describe what her presence has meant in my life.
Perhaps I dislike Mother’s Day mostly because none of the sentimental, flowery tributes commonly sold at this time of year ever seemed an appropriate homage to my mother, who was and is a formidable woman. Her blunt practicality and unfailing generosity are equal to her iron will and undaunted courage in the face of adversity. She has never been the longsuffering, quiet, kind and gentle saint portrayed by so many of the maudlin descriptions of motherhood. More than anyone I know, she embodies the truth that tough love is, in many cases, the most beneficial sort.
Yet just when she seems most intimidating, a whimsical humor will break through and leave us laughing. She is still the one I run to when hit with unexpected sorrow or hardship. Somehow, nothing seems quite as impossible after I’ve talked to Mom about it. She’s been through more than most of us can imagine, but always managed to outpace almost anyone I knew.
She survived poverty and polio as a very young child, and has lived almost her entire life with only one “good” leg, but she never allowed that to slow her down. She had four children in four different states within a period of ten years, my father’s career having demanded frequent moves. When she was nearly killed by a drunk driver going 70 mph who rammed into the driver’s door of her car, no one knew if she could ever fully recover, but she soon was back to her unrelentingly busy schedule, caring for her children and working on various church and community efforts.
Years later, when she faced brain surgery for a hemorrhaging aneurysm shortly before our wedding in 1980, she stayed true to form, stoic in the knowledge that she might not survive. Showing no fear and little emotion of any kind, she reminded us that no matter what happened, we all should feel grateful that she had lived through the car crash and was able to care for us until we were all grown. For as long as I can remember, she has given us a nearly flawless example of what it means to live in faith and trust that God will do what is best. I know that example will be with me always.
So, with all due respect to those who celebrate this day, to the preachers who will preach their yearly sermon about mothers, and the restaurants that will be filled to overflowing, and the many fitting tributes of love and appreciation that will be shown today, let’s all admit that no day could ever be long enough, no tribute strong enough, to capture the gratitude so many of us feel for the amazing gifts our mothers have given us. Happy Mother’s Day to all!
If anyone asks you how I am
Just say I’m doin’ fine.
If you will do that for me,
I’ll do the same for you sometime.
And if anyone asks you where I’ve gone
Just say I’m down the line.
I don’t want my friends to see me like this.
Maybe some other time.
Too much rain fallin’.
Too much rain fallin’.
There’s just been too much rain, down on me.
One day I’m gonna understand
The way that my heart works,
And then I’m gonna work it out,
So that I won’t get hurt.
But if anyone asks you where I’ve gone,
Oh, don’t say where I am,
Just say you saw me and I’m doin’ fine,
‘Cause I’m doin’ the best I can.
Too much rain fallin’.
Too much rain fallin’.
There’s just been too much rain fallin’, down on me. — Carole King
For some time now, I’ve wondered what to do about this blog. Since Jeff died, it has been very difficult to keep it going. I have never really been able to rest enough to recover from the grief, and the exhaustion of endless tedious paperwork, hard decisions, and bad news that seems never to stop coming. From where I sit now, watching how things have unfolded the past seven months, I can see no reason to think that anything is going to get easier anytime soon. Caring for a disabled adult son with Jeff’s steady and reliable help was difficult enough. All by myself, at age 60, and after 32 years of the continual, relentless pressure of being on call 24/7, it’s often more than I can manage.
Yet I live my everyday life in nearly total isolation, mainly seeing or talking only to people with whom I must stay in touch for managing Matt’s medical care and ongoing life issues. The comments on this blog are often the closest thing to conversation I have during the day. Sad, isn’t it? But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that. I say it only to let you all know how much your presence here has meant to me.
Some of you who stay in touch with me outside this blog know about the sorrow and grief that seems to just keep piling up, though it’s likely that no one person knows about all of it. That is as it should be, for only Jeff was in a position to understand all of it, and talking about it only makes it worse.
So now, for the first time in four and a half years, I must step aside from posting until I can replenish the wells of optimism and faith and hope and courage that are rapidly running dry. I will post here whenever I can, but I cannot say when or how often that will be. Please continue to pray for me, and know that I will read and respond to any comments you send.
One neglected pleasure I hope to make time for during this sabbatical is visiting the blogs many of you publish online. I am well aware of how much time, effort and sharing goes into blogging. There is so much inspiring, uplifting, candid, funny or thought-provoking richness out in the blogosphere. Of course, as I write this, I hear that nagging voice in my head saying “Ah, but that was what you intended to do when you dropped from blogging daily to blogging only twice per week– and didn’t that end up the way most of your good intentions do?” Guilty as charged. However, I won’t let past failures deter me from trying again.
It has been an amazing journey so far. Together we have compiled an archive of over 980 posts and countless online conversations, and if I’m unable to post very often, please remember there is a handy search feature which you can use to seek out posts on any topic you may want to read about. Comments remain open on every single post, so feel free to share your thoughts with me on any post you read, or re-read, no matter how old it may be.
Given the enormous life challenges so many of us have faced during the past five years, the abundance of thoughts, ideas, smiles, laughter, prayers and tears we have shared here (with each other and with all the world) represent no small accomplishment. Thanks for being part of it. I hope someday to get to that 1000-post milestone! Until then, know that you have been, and still are, an essential part of my personal and ongoing efforts to defeat despair.
“When I look out the window, I exhale a prayer of thanks for the color green…for the simple acts of faith like planting a garden that helped see us through another spring, another summer.” — Barbara Kingsolver
Many times over the years I have felt deep gratitude for the color green, especially as it reappears each spring, brightening lawns and gardens, or in the heat of late summer when it provides cool shade above and soft relief from too-hot pavement underfoot. I love all the colors; it would be almost impossible to pick only one favorite. But I truly cannot imagine living without the green of the outdoors. Even in fall and winter, I look for the evergreen trees that accent the golden autumn foliage, or adorn an otherwise barren landscape.
If you’re feeling especially agitated or frustrated, or tired and discouraged, try giving yourself a brief interval to focus on the many shades of green with which nature paints this season. Make a few minutes to step outside, if time and weather permit; if not, looking through a window (or at colorful garden magazines) will suffice. It almost always helps me. I hope it will do the same for you!
“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.” ― Ann Patchett
I think most everyone who writes can identify with this quote. But for those of us who blog, the line takes on a magnificent blur as the imaginary friend we reach through our writing may, from time to time, step through the mist and become real to us. And for many of us, this might happen again and again, with several different people who read our words, and whose words we read, leaving us with an entire family of friends we might never meet face to face.
Just last week I was exchanging emails with a woman in a distant city whom I know only through this blog. Though she does not blog herself, nor comment very often, she writes to me privately and has sent me several precious tokens of friendship in past years. I was able to tell her in all honesty that, though we had never met, I thought of her as a true friend.
Of course, sometimes we do meet in “real life,” which is a unique and exciting kind of joy. And sometimes the friendships we maintain through writing are the continuation of ties we formed in person when we lived in geographic proximity to each other long ago. But regardless of these details, once the friendship is formed, it flourishes through correspondence as surely as it would in person. As with handwritten letters, online correspondence that leads to friendship cannot be rushed. Instagram and Twitter are fun and sometimes useful, but they can’t connect us to another person deeply with only random soundbites and snapshots. But through emails or blogging, unconfined by a limited number of characters, and set free from geographic borders and boundaries, we can transform the imaginary friends into real ones.
That’s not exactly what Patchett meant, of course; she is referring to the writing itself– the process– becoming the imaginary friend. And I don’t disagree that can happen. But how dimensional and vibrant it becomes, when that imaginary friend of writing introduces us to all sorts of fascinating people who also love to read, and write, and visit, through this historic form of communication that has remained vital from the age of quill pens right up to the era of digitally “instant” contact.
So I invite you to join me at the imaginary tea party that is always going here, or as Sheila and I might say, at various Club Verandah locations all over the world. We can chat and have lots of fun even if we never meet face to face. And if we ever do meet, it will be even more festive and magical.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” ― Haruki Murakami
There’s an old saying that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I’ve never been particularly fond of that quote, and to this day I’m not sure I believe it. Speaking strictly for myself, I feel weaker than I’ve ever felt. But if that old saying is true, and if I survive the past five years with my sanity intact, surely I will be a female Hercules.
Until this most recent storm is resolved, it’s probably best not to discuss it here. Let’s just say that there is very little chance that Matt and I can hold onto even what currently remains of our life as it once was. Change– seismic, inevitable change– seems to be hitting us with overpowering force. Stay tuned and I’ll keep you updated. For now, though, please accept my deepest gratitude for being with us through all this. And please keep those prayers coming!
If you are facing unwanted changes right now, I hope you will grit your teeth and hang on. And if you are not, just wait awhile; sooner or later, it hits all of us. Let’s be strong for each other and keep believing that despair can be defeated, and one day it will be. For good.
For those who may be interested, the full video of Jeff’s burial ceremony
is available for viewing online at this link.
“…spring always finds a way to turn even the coldest winter into a field of green and flowers and new life.” — Charlotte Eriksson
Probably there are few spots of ground in this hemisphere that have been more neglected in the past three years than our once-lovely azalea garden in the corner of our York back yard. When we first planted additional azaleas back there over twelve years ago, we tended it lovingly. I pruned the shrubs and Jeff was careful to feed and mulch the plants with the acidic nourishment they preferred. Once he even gathered a big bunch of pine straw from the wooded common areas of our neighborhood because I told him that azaleas loved pine straw (or so my mother always told me).
But somewhere along the way, our springtime gardening got hijacked. Spring 2013 brought Jeff’s first liver surgery; Spring 2014, Matt’s fifth open heart surgery; Spring 2015, work crews and equipment were in our yard continually as our guest house was being built; Spring 2016, Jeff’s brain tumor and craniotomy, and of course, Spring 2017, his burial. That corner of our yard is now overgrown so wildly that I can barely walk through to the fence where Pasha is buried near the large tree. I wasn’t expecting much beauty to show up there this spring.
Lo and behold, though, that little patch of ground is doing fine all on its own. Two days ago I looked out the kitchen window and saw the sun streaming through the dogwood flowers, and had to run get the camera to take a shot to share with you.
Don’t you just love it when things go fine even when you aren’t able to contribute to the effort? This has been another week filled with bad news, but springtime always has something uplifting to say to me. I hope you’re enjoying some seasonal cheer, too!
“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritation and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” — Mark Twain
Dear friends, I thank you for your patience and your kind comments– which I look forward to answering as soon as I can catch my breath and a few spare moments. I wish I had some good news for you, but still no daylight in the ongoing, all-consuming effort to keep Matt’s programs and services in place. I don’t know about you, but I could use a laugh. So I went searching for old posts about humor to re-post for tomorrow (it’s too late to even think about trying to write a post tonight). When I read this post from January 2014, I smiled as I remembered that long ago day on the MARTA train. I hope you, too, will think of funny memories to brighten your day. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Of all the things that have helped us survive the past thirty years, and even before that, I would have to say that humor is near the top of the list. I cannot count the times when a good laugh has lightened everything up for us. If someone asked me to name the trait I value most in both our sons, it might well be their robust sense of humor.
Years ago when the boys and I were visiting my parents, we decided to take the MARTA train into Atlanta for some reason or other. I have forgotten what we did in town that day; what I remember most is something memorable that happened on the way home.
It was right around rush hour in the afternoon, and our train was crowded. Somewhere between West End and College Park, after the train had gone above ground but was not near a station, it began to slow, grinding to a stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
For a couple of seconds a hush fell over our car, and then something wonderful happened. As if on cue, almost everyone in the car burst into laughter. It was so contagious, it was hard not to join in. As we sat there — I don’t remember how long, but it might have been ten or twenty minutes — there was a relaxed, almost party atmosphere as people engaged in lively speculation about what was going on, and how long it might be before it was fixed.
What surprised me most was the complete absence of any impatience, irritation or annoyance from anyone I heard. It was as if we were all caught as extras in some sitcom episode or comedy movie, enjoying it to the hilt. It was most unexpected, and makes me smile to this day when I think about it. The car eventually started up again, but the memory of that temporary stop lingers on.
I’ve wondered about it a good bit over the years. Why did these people react with such spirited humor? I tell myself that maybe it was something about the relaxed good will of Atlanta (I can’t imagine that happening on the New York subway) or the southern African-American culture (we were the only white people in our car) or maybe it was just the sunny weather of a beautiful day in a lovely city.
Whatever the reason, the experience left me indelibly impressed with the power of humor to turn bad situations into good ones. I hope you have had many such experiences, and will have many more. Feel free to share some of them in the comments!
One year ago today
“Sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmitted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.”
— Pearl S. Buck
Dear readers, as always when I take even a short break, I find myself far behind on urgent tasks. In addition to caring for Matt by myself now, I am dealing with tax returns and extensive paperwork related to the aforementioned issues with the Veterans Administration. This kind of thing is why I used to stay two weeks ahead with my posts (and back then, I was posting DAILY, so that meant staying 14 posts ahead! wow) but since Jeff died, I have not managed to stay even one post ahead. I hope you will excuse my re-posting a previous entry. I also thank all who have commented in the past week, and apologize that I am so late getting to the comments. I sincerely hope to answer each and every one within the next few days! Thanks so much for your patience. For those who were with me the first time this was published, perhaps you have forgotten enough of it that it will not seem repetitive.
I believe that true optimism must include comprehension of the role sorrow plays in all our lives. A positive outlook is not a form of denial; rather, it’s a conviction that even our deepest grief has meaning; that our trials and tragedies bring understanding and transformation more than superficial knowledge ever could.
In the years since Matt was born, Jeff and I have dealt with sorrow upon sorrow as the medical and developmental challenges continued one after another, and practical daily support was often scarce. It has changed us forever, in more ways that we can describe or even know. But I truly believe that our lives have been made richer for all Matt has taught us, that we could never have discovered without him. It’s no coincidence that the author of the quote above walked a similar path years ago, and left us a priceless literary legacy as a result.
For as long as I can remember, I have heard Jesus referred to as “the man of sorrows.” I didn’t understand how profound and ultimately beautiful a concept that was, until I experienced recurring sorrow for years on end. The terms “God with us” and “man of sorrows” are now linked in my mind, as I contemplate the full implications of a God who, in granting humans freedom of choice, allows us to undergo suffering — an omnipotent God who chooses to walk beside us and share in that sorrow, rather than render us powerless to choose our own destiny.
There could be no deep joy if we did not know sadness, just as a person who has never gone hungry is unable to appreciate food as fully as those who have been without it. It’s a kind of paradox; a mystery we can’t fathom. Yet its truth has sustained people through circumstances far worse than the ones we now face. If you are in a time of suffering or grief, I pray you can hold on to the belief that your sorrow may yet be transformed into happiness deeper than you could have imagined.
“A sweet friendship refreshes the soul.” — Proverbs 27:9 (The Message)
It’s a good thing, too, because my soul was badly in need of refreshment. My voice is still gone, the bureaucratic hassles continue, and of course all this is nothing compared to missing Jeff. Spring is lovely but without him, it’s just not the same.
What a perfect time for a Boomdee Boost. Kelly’s visit has been a wonderful mixture of laughter, tears, taking photos, looking at photos, sipping coffee, strolling, talking (even with my raspy voice), watching funny videos and sharing favorite songs. It has been a great way to re-boot my frozen spirit and remind me that even the deepest sorrows can be bearable if we keep focusing on the blessings.