Grandaddy’s Gas

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Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…
                      Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

My grandfather was so proud when Ronald Reagan was sworn into office the first time, January, 1981, because, as he noted, the nation had placed their trust in someone of advanced years. Exactly Grandaddy’s age actually – 69. Somehow this was affirming to him, that if Reagan could hold the highest office in the nation, maybe he could also still accomplish great things.

I can see, looking back, how this would have been important to him. He really didn’t have much. His laundry business had burned years before, and for whatever reason he never tried to rebuild or begin again. He did own his home, but mainly he sat all day in his wheelchair the years I really knew him, watching television, reading newspapers, the Reader’s Digest, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was a retired Army man, who had married an Army nurse, he a Tech Sergeant, she a Captain. My Aunt Elizabeth stared down at their foot stones after they were placed on their graves and said, “If he weren’t already dead it would kill Daddy that the whole world can see that Mama outranked him.”

It seemed to me that was pretty much the opinion of his family – he was outranked. Alcohol had taken hold of him in his youth, and because of that, my Grammy was driving the laundry route one fateful winter day, when a young woman ran a stop sign and smashed into the laundry truck. Grammy continued to draw breath for almost a month, not living really. Her brain had been twisted in her skull from the violence of the impact. Finally, mercifully, she died, and my Grandaddy’s will to live died with her. He continued to draw breath another twenty-three years. I don’t think he ever forgave himself, knowing if he’d been able to drive the route that day, she might still be alive.

I was only three years old at the time, so I don’t have much recollection of my Grammy, and I didn’t see my Grandaddy again for almost twelve years. Even though we lived less than three miles apart, the hurt in my family created a divide that no bridge could span. Finally, as a teenager, for reasons still unknown to me, we again came together as family, and I began to know the grandfather I lost so early in life.

One thing I learned was that he had a twisted sense of humor. Grandaddy heated his house with natural gas, and one day, when I went over after school, he was seated in his wheelchair as usual, looking out the sliding glass doors where I always parked. He was waiting for me. He needed help. “What do you want me to do?” I questioned him after our hellos. “I want you to run this match over that metal tubing right there. I think I’ve got a gas leak and I need to find it so it can be repaired.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Grandaddy,” I cautioned, “I’m afraid I’ll blow up the house.” He chuckled, “It won’t blow up. I’ve done it before. It’s just getting so hard for me to get to it. Here’s the match,” which he promptly lit and  handed to me.” I blew the match out. “Grandaddy, I’m scared! I don’t want us to get hurt and if that gas has been leaking the whole house could explode!” A little annoyed he responded, “It’s not going to blow up! If there is a leak it’ll just flare the match a little and I’ll be able to see where it is.” He lit another match and handed it to me. Very frightened, but wishing to be obedient, I waved the match along over the tubing. Imagine my horror as, with one pass, there was a sudden fireball rolling and spitting above the silvery metallic tube.

“Oh my God!” I cried out, falling backwards away from the glowing, hissing ball of fire, bracing for the ensuing explosion.

Grandaddy didn’t even flinch. He was prepared with a wet washcloth which he casually tossed over the small pipe. “You found the leak. Thanks,” he said with a smile. “You knew that was going to happen! You knew I was scared but you made me do it anyway!” I sputtered, still shaking from fright. “I told you it wouldn’t blow up,” he reminded me. “I wish you could have seen your face,” he muttered. “Well, I might not have seen mine but I could see yours and you were laughing at me when I was scared to death!” I retorted. He just smiled again and said, “You should know I would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you.” I considered this and began to calm down as I thought on it.

This man sitting nearly helpless before me had served in Okinawa in WWII, had moved away from friends and family to another state to begin a new business, had lost his wife in a terrible accident and been alienated from his family, experiencing many long, lonely years. He lost his business, and so much more, and yet here he was, surviving. A little gas leak held no terror for him, and suddenly I had a great desire to know more about him.

We had many good talks, developing a kind of comradeship after what I thought was a mutual near-death experience. He told me his recollections of life during WWI and WWII, and all the technological developments he had seen, as well as some historical events I had heard of but not witnessed. And yet, I never felt I really got to know him. He was always guarded somehow, and after I went away to school, I missed several more years of our life together, although we did stay in touch through birthday and Christmas cards and an occasional letter. He passed away just about eighteen months after I returned home from school to began teaching. I sadly realized how very little I knew the man.

In all his life, what brought him joy? Where did his hope lie? Did he feel at peace? What was the light he followed? I will never get to ask him, but I will never forget his amusement as I leapt back in fright from what I feared was imminent death while he trembled not in the least. And I will never forget the pride he took in knowing that someone his age could be honored, trusted, respected, and believed in for leadership, somehow restoring by association all the things I think he longed for, yet was unable to attain for himself.

If I cannot hold up his life as a course to steer by, at least I can admire his tenacity, his ability to persevere, and the ideals which he held fast to in spite of his own shortcomings. For those things I am grateful today as I continue to pursue joy, hope, peace and light, in spite of my own shortcomings.

With gratitude, in this Memorial month, for our armed service members who gave their all…

*If the stories at 52toabrighterview.com resonate with you, please consider an encouraging like or comment or follow. Many thanks.

 

 

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Try a Little Tenderness

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Harry Woods, born in 1896, could attribute much of his success in the music business to his mother’s guidance and encouragement. Born without fingers on his left hand, his mother, herself an accomplished singer, encouraged Harry to learn to play the piano, and he developed his incredible talent covering much of the keyboard with his right hand, while hammering out a bass rhythm with his deformed left hand.

Harry was so successful as a piano player and vocalist that he put himself through Harvard singing in choirs and hiring himself out as a musician in various groups and bands. When he was drafted into WWI, despite his handicap, he began to write music in his free time. Once the war ended he moved to New York City and began to make a living as a songwriter, crafting dozens of great Tin-Pan Alley and depression-era hits, such as “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” “Paddlin’ Madeleine Home,” “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along,” and “Side by Side.”

Because of his malformed left hand, because of being drafted into “the war to end all wars,” because of the difficult economic times he lived through, Harry Woods had plenty of reasons to be down, to wonder, “why me?”, but he chose to adopt a life philosophy that accepted the hard things life seemed to toss his way, and reached out with his music to lift up and encourage those around him, living through many of the same difficult circumstances.

One of my favorite Harry Woods’ songs is “Try a Little Tenderness,” published in 1932, and covered by many greats, including Otis Redding and Three Dog Night. I don’t know, but I imagine that through the post-war years and the Great Depression, Woods must have felt tremendous compassion for the wives and girlfriends also affected by those tough economic times. In the lyrics, Woods urges men, husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, to be gentle with the women in their lives:

She may be weary, women do get weary, wearing the same shabby dress,

And when she’s weary, try a little tenderness.

You know she’s waiting, just anticipating, things she may never possess,

While she’s without them, try a little tenderness.

It’s not just sentimental, she has her grief and care, and a word that’s soft and gentle,

Makes it easier to bear.

You won’t regret it. Women don’t forget it. Love is their whole happiness.

It’s all so easy.

Try a little tenderness.

It’s really good advice for all of us. As the saying goes, we should be kind to everyone we meet because we never know what kind of battle each one is facing. It’s not easy, waking up each day to look for joy. Some days it just seems more and more elusive, and the smiles do not come as easily. The light itself is so dim it is more discouraging to seek and see it than it is to just stare into the darkness. It is so tempting to give up hope in some circumstances, to snarl back, to growl, to snap in self-defense.

So what do we do? We try a little tenderness, with ourselves, with others. In my last post I wrote about forgiveness. It is so much easier to write about than to offer sometimes, and often it is most difficult to extend it to ourselves and accept it.

Whatever your situation today, whether the sun is shining brightly for you, or if you’re in a deep, dark cavern with no visible way out, try a little tenderness, with yourself and whoever might be there beside you. If what you’ve been doing is taking you along a joyful path, be sure to speak tenderly to those along the way who don’t seem to be making forward progress. You may just shine a little hope and light on the route that helps them get moving again. If what you’ve been doing has your wheels spinning, maybe it’s time for a little tenderness. Remember, “a word that’s soft and gentle makes it easier to bear.”

Thanks Harry…I needed that.

 

And it came to pass…

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Whatever it was, it came to pass.

Whether it was so beautiful it sent my soul soaring straight to Heaven, or so awful I prayed I just would not wake up again, it came to pass.

Three months straight of morning sickness, three times, so bad that only precious sleep brought any relief, and looking with awe into my daughters’ newborn faces for the first time, seeing the person who had been growing inside of me the better part of the last year. It came to pass.

Hearing Edward say, “I love you,” for the first time on our wedding day, and then his pledge to love me until death parted us, and watching the heart monitor flat-line as Dr. Brower swiftly raised his clenched, intertwined hands preparing to restart Edward’s stilled heart. It came to pass.

My father-in-law’s hands on my shoulders as he looked into my eyes and said, “Never forget you’re my daughter now, too,” and those awful last hours, rattling and gasping his way to eternity as we sat around his bed, grieving this hardest farewell. It came to pass.

The radiologist’s hand on my knee as she leaned toward me, “We are very concerned about the malignancy in your chest,” and the five-year-mark passing virtually unnoticed, except by me, a whispered prayer of gratitude for each day since, and a new awareness of the miracle of each moment of life.  It came to pass.

A red-faced, principal venomously spitting, “You could leave here today and not come back tomorrow and this place would roll right on and nobody would know the difference,” to a starry evening, fifteen years later, as one colleague after another brings a hug, good wishes, expressions of gratitude, stories of mutual defeats and victories, and we share a meal together, thankful for this time to linger, uninterrupted, before we part. It came to pass.

Are you familiar with the Doppler Effect? Wave frequencies, whether light, sound or water, increase as the wave source comes nearer to us, but as the wave source moves away after passing us, the frequencies shift downward and diminish away. Most of life seems to operate with Doppler Effect. We anticipate, look forward, dread, get excited, prepare, visualize, fear, alert. And then it’s over.  Whether it was full of joy or full of pain, it comes and it goes. Some moments leave pictures, words, souvenirs, gifts to reflect and remember by, and some leave scars and stains. But they all come to pass.

In this season when winter is perniciously ending and spring is haltingly beginning, let’s pause. Take a breath. Let’s just appreciate a moment, as though nothing were coming or going. As though the noise of the world were not getting louder, or fading away. Let’s just be. Suspended, outside of unrelenting time. Part of the breathtaking, alive universe.

Because this moment will pass too, as they all do.

Moments of joy. Moments of hope. Moments of peace. Moments of light.

 

 

Taking Inventory

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My father-in-law loved people. And people loved him. The son of a Methodist minister, he grew up moving frequently as his father received new church assignments. As a boy this had its downside because in each town the other boys would have to size up the newcomer to find his standing in their school and neighborhood. He learned early to throw a hard first punch to eliminate any further questions.  In his era, this was a common practice, although it might sound shocking to our modern sensibilities. This moving and sizing up served him well in several ways. First, it honed his punching skills, and allowed him to become a Golden Gloves boxer during his service in the Merchant Marines. Second, it forced him to take in a big picture through noise and chaos, and make sense of it by filtering out distracting details, a very useful talent in his life’s work. Third, by the time he left for college he had lived in so many small towns that he already had lots of acquaintances, and was adept at meeting and greeting and making connections, also necessary in his career choice.

Right out of school he became a History teacher and coach, and pretty soon afterwards, a principal. As  county administration took notice of his leadership skills, he was offered the position of Superintendent of the local school system, an office he held for nearly thirty years. During his tenure he consolidated the city and county school systems, then oversaw the building of three centralized high schools within the district, and finally integrated all the schools a year before federal mandates required him to, a move that won him both admiration and notoriety. Because of his obvious care and respect for his neighbors, fellow citizens, and all the teachers, students and families involved, and his unsurpassed diplomatic skills, I have heard he was the only school superintendent in the nation to hold onto his job during the era of consolidation and integration.  He was known for doing the right thing, because it was the right thing to do.

He was also known for his love of sayings. “Always be as pretty as you can be, no matter how ugly you are,” was a favorite that elicited many thoughtful laughs. He frequently greeted me with the question, “How’s your conduct?” and after hearing my review, would respond, “Good report.” If asked how he were, he would often reply, “If I were any better there’d be two of me!”

In May of 1990, while at his kennel training field trial dogs, the house he had built with his wife in 1977 began to burn inside the walls due to wiring that had been slowly melting down after a recent lightening strike. By the time my mother-in-law alerted to the problem, there was only time to grab the dog, her purse, and a tackle-box that contained a few precious mementos, such as the marriage advice his own father had hand-written him, and his Golden Gloves pin. She ran next door to use the neighbor’s phone to call the fire department, but by the time they arrived the house was completely engulfed in flames. My father-in-law arrived shortly afterwards and stood with neighbors and friends watching the house burn while firefighters did their best to extinguish the flames and protect nearby homes.

My husband, their youngest son, had recently moved back from Nashville, and was temporarily living with his parents. He received a call at work informing him that the house was burning, so he quickly drove home to assess the damage. It was obvious at first sight that the home and all possessions were a total loss. And then he spotted his father, laughing to the side with friends who had come to offer comfort and whatever material help the family might need.

My husband, exasperated with the disaster in front of him, and frustrated with his father’s lackadaisical attitude, demanded, “Daddy! What’s so funny? How can you stand here and laugh? Don’t you know your house and everything you own, everything we own, is going up in smoke?” His father, not unsympathetic to his son’s upset, turned to him and placed an arm around his shoulders. “Well Boy, I’m not happy that my house is gone, and I was worried when I first heard what was happening, but then I got here and saw it for myself and I took inventory. Your mother is alright, none of my five children were in there, I’m okay. Even the dog is okay. I’ve got everything that was important to me, so it’s all good.”

In the billowing dark clouds of smoke, the light of that fire had illuminated for all of us what was really most important, and even in the face of loss, there was peace and joy. My father-in-law pointed us to it. Over the next few days, the family was amazed at the outpouring of love and comfort that walked through the front door of their new, short-term rental as they made plans to purchase their next home. People brought food, clothing, and household necessaries, shared stories, hugs and prayers, and offered many words of hope and encouragement. A lifelong practice of reaching out to others generously, in love and respect and kindness, now came flooding back and sustained them in what would have otherwise been a difficult time.

No matter what you are facing today friend, birthday candles or your own all-consuming inferno, I pray you are able to take inventory, to find a moment of peace, a moment of joy, and with hope, to discover that what is most important to you is intact, and it’s all good.

 

I Need to Ask a Favor…

Chris's piano

I received the text February 22, 2016.

Hey Tamara. I have a kind of difficult question to ask and would like you to call if you could. Don’t be too surprised if the answering system comes on. If it does please try calling again over the next several days – I should be home soon. Thanks! Chris

I called Chris back three nights later, but he wasn’t home, and his mom answered his phone. I told her Chris had asked me to call and she explained that he was in the hospital for a follow-up after his January illness. I fumbled a bit, trying to explain that I knew nothing of what had happened in January. I had wished Chris a Happy Birthday on Facebook, January 23, and he had responded, no mention of illness. She told me he had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia mid-January, stayed a couple of days and went home. And then, with continuing problems, had gone back mid-February and was diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer.

Chris had never smoked. He was employed by a local phone company out of college and worked in an office for years, tried substitute teaching but decided not to pursue education as a second career, and had worked on his family farm most recently.

In high school Chris and I had been very close friends, but not romantic. We were in classes together, sang in chorus together, were lab partners in Biology and Anatomy. Chris had good work ethic paired with academic integrity and lived by the rule that if he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything. He was kind to everyone, quiet and polite, and I liked to think we had a lot in common. We were both Sunday School teachers, accompanists at our respective churches, each had a younger sister, and we volunteered in the community.  But the fact is, Chris outclassed me, outworked me, and outshone me in every aspect of our lives, although it was not competition for him. He was just naturally a golden-hearted person. Sometimes I would tease him and tell him what a good monk he would make. He would smile and mildly reply that I’d make a lovely nun. The night we graduated was the last time I would see him for about six years, while our young adult lives took very different trajectories.

When I moved back home to take a teaching position, I began to run into Chris at charity fundraisers and volunteer events in the community. It was good to see my gentle friend again. Seeing him reminded me of the days when we were carefree and I had not yet made mistakes that I still regret, even now, almost forty years later. It was sadly sweet to reminisce when we were “the monk and the nun,” just for our brief social visits.

On Tuesday, March 1, I drove to the hospital after my school day ended. Over the weekend I had researched the kind of cancer Chris had. My own experience with cancer, taught me how a positive attitude was crucial to survival, and how vital it was to remain hopeful. A good friend, another survivor, had taken my hand the day of my diagnosis and promised to walk with me every step of the way, and I was prepared to walk this journey with Chris. After checking in at the nurse station I stepped into Chris’ room. His mother, father and sister were keeping company with him that afternoon. It didn’t seem the right time to ask about the favor he had mentioned in the text. We chatted for a little while and I asked if I could give him a kiss. On the forehead, of course. He smiled and said he would like that. His skin felt cool to me and he asked me to come back Thursday evening so we could talk.

Wednesday came and went, and before I could get to the hospital Thursday afternoon, Chris’ sister posted on Facebook, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That could not mean what I thought it meant. I tried to call, but no one answered his phone. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could, but his family had already left, and Chris was gone.

What was the favor my friend had wanted to ask? Hot tears spilled over my cheeks as I began to grieve that I would never be able to grant him his favor. What could it have been? Why could he not just text me, or call me, or tell me when I went to see him? For all the years of kindness, respect and honor he had shown me, I would never be able to return those favors or even to thank him.  And we would never celebrate his survival.

My phone rang Saturday morning, and when I answered, I heard Chris’ sister say, “I need to ask a favor.” Tears spilled again, as I told her my anguish that I would never get to grant Chris’ favor, and she cried too as she explained that yes, I would, that was the reason for her call. On the previous Thursday morning, as she was caring for her brother, he took her hand and whispered to her, “I’m going to die soon.” She leaned closer to hug him and he asked her to ask me to play for his funeral. And then he closed his eyes and slipped away as quietly as he had lived. And that was it. That was the favor.

Wednesday morning dawned sunny and cool. The sturdy white church was brimming with family, congregation members, his college roommate, former co-workers, and several of our high school friends. A bagpiper stood in full regalia, ready to pipe Chris to his final resting place. The gospel quartet he had been a member of in life now lifted one of his favorite hymns to the heavens. The pastor told of a man who directed his choir, accompanied his congregation, mentored his young friends and nephews, visited his older friends, baked cakes and pies for his church and his community, and wrote devotions for fellow followers. She spoke of a steady man who honored his family, kept company with the lonely, honed his skills at the piano, and enjoyed much meditation before he passed into eternity, away from the noise of this life. He was not political, followed no celebrities, stirred no controversy, expressed no temper, never made the news, He was fifty-one years old.

All the hymns I played, “When We All Get to Heaven,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Beyond the Sunset,” “Sweet By and By,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “We’re Marching to Zion,” spoke of a time in the future, when I know I will see Chris again, healed and whole. But for now, I need to ask a favor…

If you have a friend who has shown a kindness, tell them what it meant to you. If you have a friend who lifted you up in a dark time, tell them how their light shown a way. If you have a friend who made you smile, return that smile. If you have a friend who shed tears with you, marvel that their heart could feel what yours did, and rejoice at your human connection. If you have drifted from a dear friend, reach out a hand. Today.

We don’t have to have millions of dollars to bring joy to the world. We don’t have to be in an international spotlight to be a light. We don’t have to rub elbows with the politically powerful to bring peace to our corner. And we don’t have know the future to point each other toward hope.

Wishing you all these things today friends – joy, hope, peace and light…

 

Bread and Butter

autumn leaves bread and butter

I grew up on a farm in a rural area just outside of a small town, across the road from my paternal grandparents. My Mom and Pop were my earliest, best buddies, and even as a small child I would walk across the road to visit them almost every day. Pop would take me fishing in the pond in front of their house, or to the back pasture to feed the cows. Mom would bake sugar cookies with me or let me help her with her ironing, allowing me to sprinkle the starch water as she guided the hot iron back and forth across Pop’s shirts and her dresses.

Once I started elementary school,  Mom, my grandmother, would pick me up from school and take me back to her house to complete my homework assignments at her kitchen table until my parents got home from work. Our routine rarely changed. Mom would hand me a spoon to take to the corner cabinet that always held my personal jar of crunchy peanut-butter, which I would scoop out and enjoy while I worked math problems or practiced spelling words. There was usually a small green-bottled Coca Cola to enjoy with my snack while she started cooking supper for Pop who would be in to wash up shortly.

The week before Thanksgiving, when I was ten, my Mom suggested we take a walk one afternoon after school. I usually walked with Pop, so this was novel and I was excited. I pulled on my jacket as she tied a scarf over her hair and reached for her own sweater. It was a cool, cloudy autumn afternoon. The red and brown leaves crunched under our feet, and small birds and squirrels chirped and chattered in the trees above our heads. At one point our path parted around a huge oak tree and I dodged left while she continued on to the right. “Bread and butter,” she said. I stopped, sure I had misunderstood her. I hesitated, staring at her. “What?” I asked, waiting for her to repeat or clarify what I thought she had said. She stopped and looked back at me. “Bread and butter,” she repeated, holding out her hand to me. I took her hand, still curious, as we continued on our path. “Whenever you are going along with someone you love, and your ways part, you say two things that go together, to bring you back together again,” she explained. We spent the rest of our walk coming up with things that traditionally go together – moon and stars, peanut-butter and jelly, thunder and lightening, salt and pepper, and so on.

My grandparents were farmers primarily. They were simple people who grew up together, married, created a family, worked hard through the week, worshipped on Sundays, went to the mountains or the beach occasionally, pressed on through life’s challenges and tragedies, and lived quiet lives of reflection, close to the land which allowed them to make their living.  They took care of their parents, and aging relatives and neighbors. They spent as much time as possible with their grandchildren, and loved us, encouraged us, listened to us, told us stories of their own childhood, and made their home a place of peace and joy where we were always welcomed.

While Mom and Pop’s lives on this earth concluded several years ago, the unwavering light of their mutual life continues to shine, in memories, in photographs, in traditions, and in the hope that one day we, their grands, may pass on that light through our own families. And as Bob Cratchit reflected in A Christmas Carol, “…however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget…”

I am grateful for the legacy. I pray its recollection brings you a moment of peace today in a sometimes turbulent world.

Until we are together again, bread and butter…

 

 

And in all things…

 

Mental health professionals have made it clear over decades of research that “an attitude of gratitude” is top of the list for good mental health. This is puzzling in a world that seems to encourage us to wallow in our victimhood and glorifies the offended. No one alive has not suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We have all encountered hardships of one kind or another, either through physical abuse, verbal abuse, illness, injustice, harsh treatment and sometimes outright cruelty.

When I was a child and first began to learn about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, known commonly as Nazis, I was horrified, but all that evil seemed so far away and so long ago. Then, as a high school student, and later a college student, I learned more details through History classes, and finally having two decades to my own history, I realized again with horror that these atrocities had occurred within two decades of my own birth. It took my breath away to learn what had been happening in Europe just a few years before I was born, in modern times, and with air travel available, not really that far away. It made me take a rather dark view of humanity that people could treat other people so cruelly, and also that many people who knew what was going on could just turn a blind eye. Even when I learned about people who had protested, who had spoken up against the Socialist government, who had preached against Nazism, who had countered the Fascists, I only internalized more sadness and despair that they, too, had been tortured, murdered, their voices silenced and the lights of their lives snuffed out prematurely and coldly. How could we humans smile in each other’s face knowing the darkness and cruelty within the human heart?

And then I read Corrie Ten Boom’s, The Hiding Place. Through Ms. Ten Boom’s voice I experienced a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp. She too, after being captured and imprisoned, was at the point of despair and becoming cynical and bitter, when her sister Betsie pointed out that if she could find reasons to be grateful, she could survive and truly live, perhaps experience joy, even in the camp. Although Corrie was outraged at the suggestion, as she listened to her sister’s prayer that night she heard Betsie give thanks for the fleas. This was too much! Corrie angrily interrupted, “How can you be thankful for fleas, this pestilence, this infestation?! We are cold. We are hungry. We have lost our home and our family and are plagued with these biting beasts that draw our blood and take away even peaceful slumber!” Betsie gently pointed out that because the fleas were so bad in the bunks of their shed, the soldiers would rarely come in, and so the girls and women were pretty much left alone. Betsie again bowed her head and continued her prayers, but Corrie, in awe of her older sister’s humility and wisdom, determined that following this lesson she would likewise look with gratitude, for light, for joy, for hope, and therefore bring internal peace to the external violence and hatred all around her.

I have heard it said that what you look for you will find. That doesn’t mean we blithely turn away when we see wrongdoing, cruelty and injustice, pretending we don’t see it because we weren’t looking for it. All these things must be spoken against and we should take action on behalf of those who are incapable of acting and speaking for themselves. Our membership in the human race demands it. In the brief time we are here, however, let’s agree, like sisters Corrie and Betsie, to look for reasons to be grateful, no matter our situation. Let’s shed tears when we must, and share joy when we can. Let’s extend peace when possible, and always, always, bring light to darkness.

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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
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

 

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.