Into the Mystic…

landscape photo of pathway between green leaf trees
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It has been a reflective summer for me, the first since 1970 I have not spent these precious weeks anticipating the coming school year, either as a student or as a teacher. I have had time to pull weeds and plant flowers in the beds Edward built for me twenty-four years ago. I have taken many morning walks accompanied by bird-song and lake breezes. I started playing tennis with  a very gracious group of ladies and gentlemen who have played forty or more years and who have been quite patient and encouraging with this beginner. I’ve had time to work in my vegetable garden, even though the deer have pillaged it twice.

My professional career as a teacher is ended and although I miss my students, my curriculum and the teachers I worked with, I am grateful for reduced stress, increased rest, and a healing sense of my own worth after feeling like an exhausted, cracking cog in the relentless testing machine (that used to be public education) for too long.

Our oldest daughter is learning my husband’s trade and looking to the future as a self-employed business owner while making forever plans with her boyfriend. Our middle daughter graduated college in May, has made several road trips with friends, moved out of our home and in with her older sister, and recently signed her first teaching contract. Our youngest daughter has completed high-school and will leave in one month for university life. Several times when we were the only ones in the house for a couple of hours, she and I have made a gigantic bowl of salty, buttery popcorn, iced down a large Coca-Cola, and put on a movie to watch, chattering through it as friends will do, enjoying each other’s air-conditioned company in these last long, lazy, hot days before she leaves.

So what now? I am in an area I don’t have a map for, no lesson plans, no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no testing or technology trainings, no continuing education credits to earn, no certifications to renew, nothing on the horizon, no goals I am accountable for to any supervisor or administrator. The pavement has ended. There are no more street lights. No road signs. I’m not even sure there is a road. And still I am moving forward, into a murky unknown, wondering what the future will reveal to Edward and me and our girls.

And I’m okay with that.

There are things I want to do, things I am doing. Places I want to go. People I want to spend time with. I have never cared for the idea of a bucket-list, so I’m not making lists, nor am I anticipating kicking the bucket, although undoubtedly that is part of the misty future. Squared that away six years ago with a cancer diagnosis, and as my friend Kim says, “If that’s what gets me, at least I know how I went!”

My goals now would never appear in a Personal Development Plan like the ones I had to fill out and submit for approval every year of my professional life nor would they be acceptable if they did. They are not measurable by any test, and they don’t tie in to any standards except those of my own making. They can’t be bubbled in or scanned, nor are they observable to the infrequent clip-board or laptop-bearing visitor. They are:

Share joy. Seek hope. Pursue peace. Lift light.

It is so hard to not anticipate, when I have spent my whole life looking forward. Planning. Knowing in detail what was coming next, what was on the calendar. But this time is for the moment. The now. The future will come of its own and too quickly be the past. I like the way Van Morrison describes it in his 1970 recording, “Into the Mystic” :

Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea and feel the sky,

Let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…

Wishing you unexpected joy, unquenchable hope, peace that passes understanding, and reflective light for the murky places you may encounter on your own path.

 

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Gather Moments While You May

Our youngest daughter graduated from high school today, the high school that was our biggest county rival thirty-six years ago when I graduated. When we moved into this house in 1994, I wasn’t thinking then about what high school my as-yet-non-existent children would got to. I wasn’t thinking, Oh, now we’ll have to say Go Patriots, instead of Go Vikings! I didn’t think about green and gold instead of blue and white. I didn’t think.

But today I’m thinking. I’m thinking about how quickly time goes. I’m thinking about Philip, the classmate who drowned a few days before our June 10 graduation. I’m picturing that empty chair next to me that muggy June night, and how he will forever be eighteen, while those of us who have survived have turned mostly grey. I can still hear the chorus singing Paul Anka’s, “Times of Your Life,” which I thought so sadly, sappily sweet at the time, but which now makes me cry because there is so much truth in the lyrics, something we could not know that night:

The laughter and the tears
The shadows of misty yesteryears
The good times and the bad you’ve seen
And all the others in between
Remember, do you remember
The times of your life?

Most of us are parents, many are grandparents. Some of us attended each other’s weddings, comforted each other when divorce or death ended those plans, celebrated college graduations, new jobs, new homes, new families. We have observed moments of silence at reunions for those who passed between-times. We have prayed each other through cancer, car wrecks, heart attacks, loss of parents, and children, and kept up with each other through changes in jobs, homes, names, the changes time brings. But mostly the last thirty-six years are misty, filled with the laughter and tears, the good times and the bad that we experienced on our own personal journeys.

We graduated before Columbine, when kids and teachers kept their shotguns and rifles in their trucks or cars, even bringing them to school to show each other, prepared for the next hunting trip or target shooting session. We graduated before Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram, before the world-wide-web, before cell phones. Many of us who cared to have stayed in touch, through letters, emails, calls and texts, sharing highlights of the times of our lives, and remembering.

And it will be the same for my daughter. Most of her classmates will become parents and eventually grandparents. They will celebrate weddings, graduations, jobs, homes, families, friendships, and they will find comfort in lifelong friends when they need a shoulder or an ear, a sympathetic heart who can recall the laughter and the good times, when times are not so good. They will dance and grieve, pray and hope, weep and exult.

In a sadly similar situation, my daughter lost a classmate this week. His mother accepted his diploma today when his name was announced, and she will somehow live through his funeral service tomorrow at the same high school where he would have graduated today.

For whatever time these 2019 graduates have on this Earth, they will feel the same feelings humans have always felt. They will shed tears. They will laugh together. They will have moments of chaos, confusion, anger and frustration, and if they can just hang in there until the storms exhaust themselves, likely they will experience moments of absolute tranquility, of serenity, of their own peace and joy. They will share meals, lift glasses to cheer each other and the new friends life brings, and eventually they will observe moments of silence for those classmates whose journeys are concluded.

And they will remember…

 

Big

grayscale photo of candle
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As a preschooler, my biggest goal was to be grown-up, a fantasy enjoyed by most youngsters I imagine. Once, when I was four, one of the men my father worked with came by the house one afternoon. When I heard his voice I picked up a couple of my storybooks, walked carefully down the stairs to where S.L. was, flashed him a smile, held up my books so he could see them, and informed him it was time for me to study. Later I asked my mother if she thought he might have mistaken me for “a college girl.” Oh, how I practiced being “big.” I would hang around the adults at church, at the grocery with my mother, at family gatherings, and try to make witty or informative additions to each conversation. I’m pretty sure I was the most annoying child in the room at any point. And how it crushed me to be placed at the “children’s table” at holidays and at church meals or to be sent to the nursery if I was disruptive to Sunday worship.

When I started school my father promised that if I could sit quietly through Sunday services, I would be allowed to attend the annual Candlelight Christmas Cantata. This was huge in my little world because it meant that I would get to enter through evening twilight into that holy, dimly-lit sanctuary the Sunday evening before Christmas, and listen to the choir tell the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, of sheep, donkey and shepherds, of Bethlehem and Herod and “no room in the inn,” of a star and angels in the sky bringing news of “peace on Earth and good will to men.” To my way of thinking, the choir in their flowing white robes were the Heavenly host, and were merely reenacting that first Christmas night so long ago, through their anthems and carols. At the conclusion of the story, each participant, including me, would receive a slender white candle with a paper collar around it.  We would light those candles, passing the flame one to another, and lift them toward the Heavens as we sang “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and “Joy to the World.” To that five-year old, it was the most wonderful night of the year.

The words proud and privileged only begin to touch on the feelings that welled up inside me as I tilted my wick to light it off the candle my father extended toward me. I had been allowed to enter the mystical adult world of darkness and flame, of trust and responsibility, of sacred song.

And then the first drip of melting wax hit my hand. The shock and pain that followed made me think instantly that perhaps I didn’t want to be part of the “grown-up” community I had only just entered. Tears welled in my eyes as my skin reddened and blistered where I peeled off the wax. What should have been my triumphant entry into maturity only made me feel more childish. Why did I suddenly need my mother’s comforting touch? Why was my joy extinguished and my peace snuffed out with the light of my candle?

Life is so often like that. We think we have arrived, but all our great expectations come with unpleasant surprises of their own, and our anticipation turns to dread.  We are afraid to pursue joy again because of the disappointment of last time’s pursuit. We are hesitant to hope, and we coast along complacently in order to avoid another heartbreak. We neglect tending our own light because there is always a cold, cruel winter wind threatening to extinguish the first tenuous sparks. We grow weary of this adult independence that promised so much and looked so appealing when we were children and only wished to be “big.”

So what then? Rest and reflection are good places to start. When we’ve shed all the tears we need to in order to cleanse our eyes, we are again ready to look for the light. When we’ve grown weary of embracing the sadness, we once again reach out to hope. When disappointment becomes a disappointment, rekindling joy is our new aim. And so the cycle of life continues, and again we look to the future, to a time when our newest wisdom and most recent experiences will guide us into the next stage of growth, of life. Where I live winter is ending and we are seeing the first hints of spring. But extreme cold is predicted in the coming week. So at least one more week we will hunker down and wait, anticipating blue skies, warm sunshine, transparent new leaves and budding flowers. Our world is ever-changing from one stage to the next. Always has been, always will be. Anticipate the coming spring with me, in hope, in joy, at peace, lifting our eyes to the light of life. Here it comes! Can you see it?

It’s gonna be big!

 

 

 

And the song of the day is…

In 1989, I signed a contract to begin teaching in the county of my birth. A complete physical was required. I made the appointment, showed up, and was immediately chilled  to hear the LPN say she had detected a lump during my breast exam. I had recently graduated, separated from my husband, moved back home to accept this teaching position, and felt very alone and frightened. My friends were far away and I hadn’t really re-established myself in my former hometown. A mammogram was scheduled. I was 24.

A week passed until the test. Almost another agonizing week of waiting for the results, and then great sighs of relief. The lump was a cyst that would soon resolve itself. I learned I had very dense breast tissue and fibrous cysts that might arise occasionally to cause concern, and which I would need to monitor with regular self-exams. I had no family history and did not smoke, so I was happy to put all that worry down and move on. I didn’t do the self-exams, and figured since I went for annual exams, they would find anything that might need attention.

It makes it easier to understand then, why I was not alarmed to feel the little lump, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, right after my clear mammogram in August of 2012. By October though, it seemed a little bigger, more like a small pea. When I asked my OB-GYN to check it out for me in October, she ordered another mammogram, “just to be sure.” Again, I got the all-clear. In November it seemed more the size of a plain M&M, and again I called my doctor. She ordered an ultra-sound, which lasted for nearly forty-five minutes before I got up from the table, nerves frayed, and again she patted me on the shoulder, comforting me. “Let’s watchfully wait,” she suggested, “And if it gets any larger call me, since the technician really can’t see anything worrisome.” December came and went, winter finally ended, my 48th birthday passed, and the school year ended, stressfully as usual. When I went for my annual exam mid-July, she began the breast exam at the spot we were monitoring, and I saw her face change instantly. “Why didn’t you call me?” she exclaimed. And thus began the most frightening day of my life, July 31, 2013.

Because all three of my daughters were still in school, I was immediately concerned for them and how my illness would affect their lives. I was also especially concerned for my husband who was dealing with health issues of his own and his oldest brother’s recent unexpected death. My mother-in-law’s words came to mind, “We can either laugh or we can cry.” On August 1, I determined that each day I would look for something beautiful, good, cheering, positive, some silver lining that might ordinarily be overlooked in each day’s busyness. While washing breakfast dishes, I heard The Rascals on the radio, “It’s a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go outside for awhile, and just smile, and drink in some clean, fresh air…”.  It became a daily game. What song might characterize my observation or experience for the day, that I could share with my family and friends to encourage them to hope with me? It would be something to look forward to each day, and because my chemotherapy drugs made me nauseated 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks after each treatment, I looked forward to this mental game I could play to keep my mind occupied when the workday was finished, all the laundry done, supper dishes washed and night falling.

One day might be characterized by a hymn, another day, Aerosmith. One day’s inspiration might be Broadway, while another brought forth a medieval madrigal. There was never any predicting where the song might come from, or what time of day it would appear. And with each song came a reflection that I could share with friends on Facebook. The game lasted as long as my chemotherapy lasted, into the middle of December, and then with my father-in-law’s death, the songs stopped coming and the game ended.

While it was a dark time for our family, the light of hope burned, sometimes more steadily, sometimes barely flickering. Through mastectomy and thirty-three rounds of radiation, through baldness and pain and scars and sadness, still the previous joy of the game sustained me and bolstered me, until the burns healed over, the scars stopped aching, and a fine fuzz covered my head. It seemed with the longer light of the new spring, I too might emerge, like the delicate, pale leaves unfolding from the birch branches outside my window.

I don’t know what scars or pain you bear. I don’t know their origin, their purpose, or their destination. I only know we can laugh or cry, and both feel good in their time and both are needed.

Whatever it takes to get you from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next, and sometimes even one moment to the next, hang on to this miracle of life. For all its rivers of misery, there are great gushing waterfalls of inexpressible joy tumbling down over our heads, if we will only look up to drink them in. Joy may be in fireworks and raucous parties, but it doesn’t have to be. In my experience, joy is more often found in quiet moments and in still, small voices. Joy may be found in a delicious meal, in a familiar hug or a stranger’s smile. It may be experienced in pulling on a soft sweater, or snuggling into a comfortable pair of shoes. You may locate it in a banking cloud, or hear it in a bird’s chirp. Perhaps you’ll find it gazing into a candle’s flame, or taking a walk just after a summer rain.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a song that lightens your heart, even for a moment, to give you peace enough to get to the next moment, and the next…

waterfalls

The More Things Change…

planet earth
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In October, 1967, Louis Armstrong recorded his Grammy award-winning song, “What a Wonderful World.” The song has enjoyed regular air-time since then, and it piqued another generation’s interest when it was included in the movie, Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987.  I have heard it played at weddings and funerals. Oddly, as the song floats out over the air waves in the movie, we view huge explosions and terrified, fleeing people as gunfire and helicopters threaten to drown out the singer’s voice.

The imagery of the lyrics paints a picture of an idyllic society of mutual love and respect, of appreciation and care for the natural world. Fifty-two years after the release of “What a Wonderful World,” it is hard to believe, looking at the news or following social media, that anyone could ever even conceive of the world pictured in that sweet song. War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, human trafficking, poverty, slavery, ignorance, hatred, disease, division, lack of care, respect, understanding or even desire to seek justice and insist on freedom for all people – that is the reality of the world that surrounds us and threatens to engulf us. It is easy to become discouraged, to lose hope, to feel unease rather than peace and to see more darkness than light.

1987 was also my junior year of college, and to this day I am grateful to a Sociology professor who assigned a research project in the university library micro-fiche records. Since there was no internet yet, I spent hours poring over pictures of newspapers from the last two centuries. It was astounding! War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, murder, robbery, poverty, slavery, epidemics, ignorance, division, lack of care, respect, understanding, justice – change the dates and the newspapers told the same stories. That assignment encouraged us that there never were any “good old days,” no special golden time that had come and gone before we got here. Mankind seems to suffer the same ills throughout history. No matter which century we are in though, despite the problems, people are still marrying, still creating businesses, still starting families, still studying and learning and striving for a better life, still composing music, writing great literature, cooking delicious meals, looking up to the stars, planting gardens and vineyards, creating art, building homes, going fishing, laughing with friends, inventing, reflecting, singing, and living, every hour of every day.

Our technology may look a little different, but people are still just people, and the cliche still rings true. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Be encouraged friends. We have not passed some great golden age, with our best days behind us. Do you wish for joy? Bring a smile to someone else’s face. Is your hope draining away? Count how many mornings you have awakened, how many steps you have taken, how many breaths you have drawn, and give thanks in anticipation of yet another, and another. Do you long for peace? Give up a grudge, extend or receive forgiveness, make a stranger your friend. Does the light elude you? Perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction, eclipsing the brightness before you. Turn your eyes to the blessings of the present, with gratitude for the past, and expectation for the next shining moment.

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An Unlikely Source of Hope

man and woman holding each others hand wrapped with string lights
Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

I have no idea how it came to be there.

Edward and I were taking our evening walk. We had enjoyed supper with our girls a couple of hours before and now the sun had set and muggy summer temperatures had dropped. We put on our shorts and running shoes, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the door up Pleasant View Lane. We had followed the same two-and-a-half mile route around Lake Echo for the last two months, pursuing increased energy, improved circulation, better health all around, and time to hold hands and talk together, away from household chores. Across Firetree, up Edgewater past the fitness center, composition courts and the long flat stretch that curved downward just a few feet away from the lake, where we heard bullfrogs courting, croaking and plopping into the shallow water if we got too close. Then the road sloped up again past the stables and golf-ball water tower. Many nights we could hear the horses whickering softly as they munched tufts of grass next to the road. Earlier that day we received my doctor’s diagnosis – breast cancer. She had emphasized how important it would be for me to continue to exercise throughout my treatments and recovery, so we were proactively trying to stay ahead of the curve that would contain nausea, pain, scars, fear, loss and possibly death.

Turning left on Sunset Way we continued past our halfway point to a slight rise where the oak and ash trees leaned to meet overhead, and there, in the dark humidity, something glowed in the pine straw on the left side of the road. We walked toward it, assuming it was a piece of trash reflecting light, but as we drew closer it became apparent this was no reflection. Something was illuminating a nickel-sized area. Edward knelt down, and with a small branch, lightly lifted the luminescent semi-circle.

“It’s a glow-worm!” he exclaimed. Now I had read about glow-worms in James and the Giant Peach, but had never seen one. Edward declared he had never seen one either. This was a new experience for us within our whole range of new experiences – the threat of cancer, becoming intimately involved with the health-care system, facing chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation, and a life-time of waiting and wondering – and somehow this faint little creature attracted our attention in that one moment to remind us that hope was possible. With everything we were facing, hope would continue to shine in the darkness of our fear, pain, sickness and worry. A worm, a beetle larvae, had given us a great gift, beckoning us to continue the journey hand-in-hand, eyes alert, and looking forward to the future.