The frost is on the pumpkin…

autumn leaves

“Listen! The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves, we have had our summer evenings, now for October eves.” ~ Humbert Wolfe

Since 1969, I have spent every fall day, every Autumn, indoors, either as a student or as a teacher, or as a busy mom of three, trying to catch up each Saturday all the laundry, housework, and food preparation one week might require. And every year I found fall dark, depressing and sad. It marked the end of golden, lazy summer; everything died and the cold seemed to seep too quickly into my bones and heart and make me so tired I longed to hibernate with the wild things. Fall was my least favorite season.

My retirement began last year on November 1. This year I have spent time outside every day, intentionally observing and embracing Autumn. I have witnessed leaves turn golden, amber, ginger and chocolate, and flutter to the ground in the breezes and gusts that warm us still, from south and west, and are beginning to cool us, from north and east. I have listened to the squirrels chatter and chuckle, scrambling up and down trees, building nests and gathering nuts. I have observed the birds chirping and twittering as they, like the squirrels, prepare for the coming cold, the smaller ones leaping excitedly from branch to branch in the trees while the large, lazy turkey buzzards and sharp-eyed hawks ride warm thermal currents, circling ever higher into the clear sunshine against the not quite summer-blue sky. With the cooling night temperatures I notice morning fog hovering over the still-warm lake while I drink my tea and allow the dogs to frisk in the chilly dawn and snuffle in the crispy leaves. Those leaves produce a certain acrid odor that tells me somewhere nearby is a neighbor who has diligently raked his fallen leaves and burned them, his yard all neat and tidy in preparation for shortening days, an odor that evokes memories of doing the same with my family many years ago at my childhood home.

Now that I have this time for reflection, and long morning, mid-day and evening strolls, I realize it wasn’t fall so much that I disliked – it was going inside, losing the freedom of summer, becoming disconnected from the Earth, the trees, the animals of the woods. It was less sunshine, less wind in my face, less feeling the pace of Nature. Indoors, my pace was artificial, the lights artificial, the urgency artificial. Inside provided warmth and comfort on a cold night, to be sure, but inside lacked the authentic richness of connection to this colorful, mature, ripening, burgeoning season of harvest.

College football, scarves, sweaters, boots, crysanthemums, Halloween, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, fires in the fireplace, fall festivals, crockpot suppers, warm cider and pumpkin spice everything bring their own joys. But this year, hope comes up each day with the sun, instead of counting days to the weekend, or the next holiday break, or next summer. Peace grins from carved pumpkins, honks from flocks of geese on the lake, and turns over for a season of rest in the fallow fields that I pass daily. And the seasonal light sets the sky on fire each morning and evening, with the most gorgeous hues of lavender and apricot.

Fall just may be my favorite season!

Wishing you all the blessings of Autumn…

 

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Doctor My Eyes…

girl's eyes

At the local community college where I teach English 111, freshman composition, I traverse the campus twice a day every Tuesday and Thursday. As a freshman there in 1984, I recall being delighted to be on campus with many different people – teenagers like me, straight out of high school, preparing for college transfer or training for a trade or a certification program. There were retirees pursuing paths they were interested in to fulfill curiosity or explore interests rather than to enhance careers. There were stay-at-home moms whose children were now in school, taking advantage of those precious daytime hours to complete programs they had postponed years earlier, devoting themselves full time to home-making. There were workers adding on certifications and training to advance in their workplace or business, or to increase income and support their families.  I remember sitting in classes beside people from all these walks of life, and more. We were all in school together, pulling in a common direction on our own journey, and we shared our experiences with each other.

Things are very different on campus now. In the intervening thirty-five years, we, as a society, have made our children wise to “stranger danger.” We have sent two complete generations through public school in an atmosphere of lockdown, drilling for where to hide when the unthinkable occurs. We have promoted bullying and racism to the point where the words don’t even have meaning anymore. We have grown accustomed to the fact that at any moment we could be attacked, by terrorists, by strangers, by coworkers, and as the entertainment industry tells us, by those we most trust for safety and security in our lives. Technology that has the ability to link us to the world through the internet and social media has so isolated us that I am inspired to play a game as I walk to and from my classroom looking into each face I meet. I count each day to see how many people, 1) will make eye contact with me, and 2) how many who look up from their phones will actually smile or speak a word of greeting.

Here are my results. Through the month of September and the first week of October, each Tuesday and Thursday, there has been one young man and two young women, who, when I see them, will actually make eye contact and speak. The young man I have known since birth and he knows me as his parents’ friend, so that is not unusual. One of the young women I taught at the local middle school years ago, so that is not surprising either. The other young lady is a complete stranger to me, but I feel a kinship with her simply because she will acknowledge me, smile and say hello. I haven’t decided when yet, but I am going to tell each of these three people what it means to me that they are willing to connect with another human, and dare to share that little bit of themselves – a glance, a smile, a word of greeting. Everybody else, and I mean everybody, no exaggeration and no exception, either stares fixedly at the phone in their hand, or if they turn their head in my direction, seem to be looking through me at some point in the distance, no eye contact. And they never smile. And they never speak.

No doubt, we want our children to be safe, to be aware that not everyone who smiles is a friend. No doubt we have to practice lockdown drills. I took these drills very seriously as a public-school teacher because, as I told my students, we may only get one chance to get this right and even then there are no guarantees. And no doubt, our phones have opened up the world to us. We have more information at our fingertips than all previous generations before us, and we can stay in touch with friends and family all over the world and see places and experience cultures we might never have seen or even known about had we lived just slightly earlier. We truly live in a breathtaking time.

This little experiment has reminded me how important it is to be intentionally present with my husband, children, family, and friends when we are together. It has prompted me to actually speak to strangers, most of whom seem glad for human contact once we start a conversation. Maybe it’s that I’ve hit that magical era called “middle aged,” and maybe I’m relieved that my children all made it safely, so far, to adulthood, or maybe I came to grips with my own mortality through a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, but there just doesn’t seem to be as much to be afraid of anymore. Maybe I’m so wearied of terror, fear, anxiety and dread, that I’m just numb to them, and maybe that’s good.

I will continue to look into faces, unobtrusively, but with a ready smile and greeting. I will take more time to talk, and listen, to the grocery checkout girl who is looking for a publisher for her first novel, the tattooed young woman who cheerily serves our meals at our favorite restaurant while chatting about her latest heavy metal concert experience, my 98-year old neighbor who enjoys his daily walk and nightly sip of bourbon, the tennis team member who struggles daily with depression and constant, paralyzing back pain, the young father who doesn’t want to leave his home or children but whose wife has made it clear the marriage is over and she’s moving on, the student who is working forty hours a week while caring for her younger brother and sister and carrying a fifteen hour course load, the choir member who is so confused she cannot remember from the beginning of practice to the end what music she should have in her folder.

Jackson Browne, in his hit, “Doctor My Eyes,” pleaded,

Doctor my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of tears without crying. Now I want to understand.

I have done all that I could to see the evil and the good without hiding.

You must help me if you can.

You can help me. I can help you, and we can help each other, by sharing in each other’s joys, by encouraging hope, by passing on peace, and by letting our light shine.

Here’s to a brighter view!

 

 

The Final Task of the Mama Bird

 

nature animal cute sitting
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As we pulled into the highway that would take us back home last Friday, after moving our youngest daughter into her college dorm, my husband asked, “Did you get to do everything you wanted to Mama?” I knew he was asking about setting up the room, having a quick supper, making sure our daughter knew where the stairs, laundry, post office, market and health services were, all those preparations that would give her a good start on this journey away from parental guidance toward independence. But the hot tears that sprang from my eyes betrayed the truth that no, I had not gotten to do everything I wanted to.

I wanted more baby snuggles and snuffles. I wanted more fat, dimpled fists, belly laughs, chunky little feet and round, un-self-conscious bellies. I wanted more faltering first steps, more crayon portraits, more high-chairs graduating to booster seats and cribs to bunk beds. I wanted my house filled with giggling, decorated holiday batches of cookies, birthday cakes in front of glowing faces and sparkling eyes, hands gracefully holding back long, dark tresses from icing and flame, those same graceful hands dancing over the keyboard or placing bows to strings. I wanted more Narnia, more Hogwarts, more orchestra concerts, more sleepovers and prom gowns, more first days of school, first cars, first dates.

But those times are past and I must dry my tears and look to the future. After all, this is the time my husband and I have been looking forward to for twenty-four years, since we first learned we would be parents. We are grateful for the children we have and the people they have chosen to be. Some of our friends and family have lost children along the way, to accidents, to disease, to unfortunate and deadly choices. And some friends and family members have children who will never be able to live independent lives for a variety of reasons. They have their own joys, and different kinds of hope, journeying down the roads that are their lives, so I am daily reminding myself to be grateful.

Grateful for the joy in all the times I have shared, and will share with my grown daughters. Grateful for the hope that I felt twenty-four, twenty-two and nineteen years ago and all the years since as I’ve watched my daughters mature and blossom into the delightful, thoughtful, compassionate, independent young women they are. Grateful for the peace I have knowing they made it safely through childhood, and while adulthood has its own share of frights and faults, I am at peace knowing we’ve done the best we could to prepare them to make the lives they want for themselves. Were we perfect parents? A resounding no! Have they made, and will they make mistakes? Of course! That’s life. But we learn from those mistakes and so I am grateful for them as well. And I am grateful for all the light moments we have shared, moments of faith and laughter, moments of relief from pain and fear after months of illness and several years of loss.

One of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show is “Opie, the Birdman,” in which Opie accidentally kills a mother bird with his new slingshot. He places her orphaned baby birds into a cage where he feeds and cares for them as best he can. With Opie we watch the birds grow and when they begin flopping around in the cage, trying to fly, Andy tells Opie there is one more thing the mother bird would have done for her babies, and that is to let them go. Opie reluctantly acknowledges that he knows it’s time, but he worries, “What if I haven’t done something right? What if they’re not ready?” Andy assures him they are ready. Opie opens the cage and carefully lifts out each fledgling, calling them by name, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, and hoists them into the air, watching them soar away from him, never to return to the cage. He sadly looks back at the cage and remarks on how empty it is, but wise Andy, with a brilliant and knowing smile, turns Opie’s attention away from the vacant cage, declaring, “Yes, but aren’t the trees nice and full!”

We’ve released the last of our fledglings. Wynken is engaged to be married soon, working in her father’s business, Blynken embarked on her teaching career this month, and was very proud to send us a pic of her first paycheck, independent at last, and Nod, well, she’s spreading her wings and taking to the skies of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My nest is empty, for now, but aren’t the trees nice and full?!

Lessons From the Garden

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I’ve heard it said that gardening is good for the soul. Almost every year of my life I have had a vegetable garden and certainly always enjoyed eating fresh produce from it, but I never cared much for tending the garden. As a child it was one of my chores to weed the garden, but of course that is never much fun, not like picking tomatoes or corn or cucumbers or squash.

My husband used to call me a deist gardener, because I would do the work of soil preparation, plant the seeds, fertilize and water – set the whole thing spinning in motion – and then step back to let whatever was going to happen, happen. After spending a school year with one-hundred or so sixth graders, and trying to catch up during the summer on all the housework, home projects, my own children, and much-needed rest, I just never seemed to have time to maintain what I started in the raised plot I called our family garden. But this summer, my first summer in retirement, I have not only set the garden in motion once, twice, only to have my tender squash blossoms, okra blooms, and almost ripe tomatoes gobbled up by voracious deer, but I have actually begun all over again the third time this year, this time, using ample amounts of a natural deer and rabbit repellent spray, apparently made of rotten eggs, and touted as a liquid fence. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, with quiet time weeding and turning soil and planting again, I’d like to share with you some lessons life in my garden has taught me:

  1. There are some things I cannot do anything about. When I acknowledge that, it takes the pressure and stress off me to change what I cannot change and lets me be more focused and productive on what I can.
  2. I compost. Coffee filters and grinds, egg shells, peach and potato peelings, bruised bits of tomatoes. It’s not pretty or sweet smelling during the rotting process, but once the process is complete, that stuff sure makes everything my garden produces prettier and sweeter and in the end, enriches my garden and benefits me.
  3. No matter what, if I really want a garden and all its benefits, I’m going to have to put in time and energy. And be very patient.
  4. If it’s not the rabbits, it’ll be the deer, and if not the deer, birds, and if not birds, caterpillars. There will always be someone ready to dismantle my work and take the fruits of my labors, but if I want the garden, I’ll plant anyway, and do the work, and do it again if I have to.
  5. There are going to be weeds. I don’t have to pull them all at one time but the longer I leave them, the deeper the roots, and the more nutrients they will take away from the plants I do want to produce. Pull the weeds. Early. Roots and all.
  6. Water, water, water. If it doesn’t rain, I have to water. There is a point of no return, when the garden has gone too long without water, when the damage is done and there is no recovery possible. I try not to get there.
  7. There is a season for everything. I might plant something out of season that will take root, but it won’t produce. Enjoy the pleasures each season brings and take them in their turn.
  8. Chemicals may help short term, but they have long-term downsides. I try not to rely on them.
  9. The garden is a great place to center and be in the moment. I frequently pause and focus on each sense, naming what I see, smell, feel, taste and hear. A good way to stop worrying about the past or the future and just enjoy the moment.
  10. The soil can be stripped of nutrients and energy, and must have a time to rest and renew, just like me, or it becomes barren and unable to yield. Just like me.

So, how does your garden grow? Share in the comments what your garden produces, physically or metaphysically. I’d love to hear from you.

Friends, in this gardening season, I wish you joy as you tend and cultivate the garden that is your life, hope for what may come, peace with what you have, and light to see the results of your labors.

Into the Mystic…

landscape photo of pathway between green leaf trees
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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.

 

God Takes Notes

 

man desk notebook office
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In 1985 I eloped to New York City and married a man my parents did not approve of for many reasons, but he told me many times every day he loved me, and because I was a naive 20-year old, I thought that meant he loved me. Turned out, not so much. We returned from the city and moved away from home to finish our college degrees. After graduation, when I accepted my first teaching position, he moved in with his girlfriend. That went as might be expected and our divorce was finalized January of 1991.

Also in 1985, while at university, I would occasionally run into a lifelong acquaintance, Edward. He and I had grown up in the same church and had always known each other, although our age difference made courtship inappropriate as kids. Once when we passed each other on campus and spoke briefly, Edward later told me he had commented to himself, “Thank you God I’m not married to her. She’s so miserable!” And God, hearing His name, took note.

What He and I knew, that Edward could not know, was that I had admired Edward throughout my childhood. When we were in elementary school I watched for him on the side walk, in the halls, the library and the cafeteria. In town I looked for his Mustang. At church I watched for him at the water fountain and even joined the choir in 8th grade so I could be closer to him and have the additional chance to see him at Wednesday evening choir practice. I never had any real hope that he could ever be romantically interested in me. Then he graduated high school and left for college, and after earning his degree he moved to Nashville, TN. I finished my degree, secured my first professional position, filed for divorce and took my miserable, heart-broken self home.

A few months later, Edward was laid off from the company where he worked and he also came home and God set about healing my misery and my broken heart. We both rejoined our home church and choir and struck up an adult friendship that has brought us many wonderful times, as well as carried us through some incredibly rough patches in life. It has also been the foundation that made a home for our three daughters to grow up in. Next month we will celebrate our twenty-sixth anniversary. Although he never said the words, “I love you,” until after we were married, I knew from the way he spoke to me and treated me that his love and affection were deep and true, not just a momentary feeling, but a commitment to a loving way of life.

I admire Edward as a tennis player, a musician, a handsome and honorable man, a hard worker, a respectful and dutiful son, a loyal friend, and a caring and kind husband. On this day when we celebrate fathers, I honor him for being a father who would love his children unconditionally, be patient and thoughtful of them from the moment he was aware of their presence in his life, cuddle, diaper, rock, and walk them as infants. He cooked for me and kept our house running when I went into labor early and was put on bed rest. He went to all my doctor appointments and attended the birth of all his girls. He made up little songs for them, played games with them, told them stories, listened to their chatter, welcomed their friends, encouraged them, and shared the lessons he had learned along the way, offering, not insisting, suggesting, not dictating, and allowed them the space and freedom to figure out their own gifts and find their own way. I never doubted that if something happened to me, Edward would be able to finish rearing our girls with grace, faith, patience, and love. He is not perfect, but he’s the best he can be more often than not, and he demonstrates the ancient word “husband,” – house bond, or, the one who bonds the home together.

Not everyone has the fortune to grow up with such a daddy, and surely many suffer neglect and abuse at the hands of those they call “father.” I am grateful today that our girls, young women now, have had this example and model of what a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good man looks like and how he behaves. And I am grateful for the little screenshot Edward shared with me, “Thank you God I’m not married to her!” Sometimes the world is confusing and confounding, chipping away at our peace of mind, casting shade across our light, crushing our joy, and snuffing out our hope. But God, our Heavenly Father, takes note of what we need, sometimes even granting us the desires of our hearts, maybe even with a little chuckle along the way.

May He grant you joy, hope, peace and light, a laugh to lighten the load, and good memories in rough times until the path straightens and points you to a brighter view.

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…

 

Last Man Standing…

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Uncle Joe was one of nine children born to my maternal great-grandparents: Gilliard, Dorothy, Janey, Lena, Jacob, Annie, Joe, Hubert and Betty Ann. From a small town in Alabama, they all answered the call to serve our nation and all of them survived to return and make civilian lives for themselves. Of the nine, Joe lived closest to the land, raising his garden year after year, putting up quarts of tomatoes, corn, beans and peas, soup starter, peaches, apples and a variety of other vegetables and fruits that would carry he and his family through the winter. He also enjoyed hunting. It was at Uncle Joe’s table that I first tasted venison, and it was delicious, well-seasoned, well-prepared. Uncle Joe was a prepper before prepping was popular, when everybody prepped because, well, that’s what they did.

I guess that was why it chafed him so badly when he offered to serve his country and they insisted he go where they sent him and stay there until they sent him elsewhere. He was a G.I., but G.I. Joe he was not. The story has been told that he missed his mother’s cooking so badly that he would sneak off his guard duty post and run home through the woods for a few meals, and then head back to camp with biscuits and cornbread filling his pockets. After being reprimanded for this a couple of times the Army realized it could not break Joe of this annoying habit and so put him on a ship, a place from which he could not run. The first shore liberty he received, his feet had barely hit solid ground when he spied his older sister Dorothy, an Army Captain, walking down the street ahead of him. He ran up to her and whisked her up in a big, brotherly bear hug, for which he was again punished, this time assigned to chipping paint off a destroyer scheduled to receive a fresh new coat. Apparently G.I.s weren’t allowed to come into physical contact with officers, even if the officer was his sister.

Uncle Joe’s next assignment was on a cruiser in the Pacific, the last place he could run away from or get into trouble with his siblings because he did not receive shore leave in the Pacific theater. Joe was put to work in the kitchen. One morning a curt young officer approached Joe as he was cooking breakfast and stated, “The Captain would like butter on his eggs.” Without looking up, Joe responded, “You can tell the Captain he’ll get his eggs just like everybody else,” and as he finished the sentence, he turned to find himself face to face with…the Captain. And that is how he found himself chipping paint again, only this time in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, exhausting work and much harder than scrambling eggs or peeling potatoes.

And perhaps that explains why Uncle Joe slept through battle stations a few days later when the ship came under attack. He tried to explain he was just so worn out from the intense heat and labor that he simply did not hear the alarms. This time he was court-martialed, and although the details are unclear exactly what his punishment was, I know he finished out the war without any more stories, at least no stories he would tell his great nieces and nephews.

I only saw Uncle Joe a couple dozen times in my life. We lived so far apart, and once I was married I never went back to Alabama with my mother and aunts for the annual family reunion, with the covered-dish dinners, 4-part hymns around the piano, little cousins spread out on palettes wall-to-wall at Aunt Annie’s or Aunt Dot’s. Over the years, there were less and less siblings of that large family to gather with. Uncle Joe did come up to North Carolina once a few years ago with his sister Dorothy, Aunt Dot to me, and my husband finally got to meet him and listen to his stories and see his great beaming smile. Aunt Dot passed away a couple of years later, and that left Uncle Joe, the last of the nine siblings.

Uncle Joe suffered a stroke three weeks ago and passed a week later. He has rejoined all his brothers and sisters now, as well as his wife and all his in-laws, and my Grandaddy and Granny Hogue. I imagine there is great joy in that reunion, and probably quite a bit of 4-part harmony in the hymns they’re now singing, in that place of eternal light, where there is no longer the need for hope, and where they practice war no more.

As I saw the flags lining the main drive on my way to town this morning, I thought again of all those good people, and gave thanks for their willingness to risk everything, to sacrifice their health and potentially their lives so that I, and my children, could enjoy the freedoms we have today because, well, that’s just what they did.

Thank you, Uncle Joe, for your service, even if it was reluctant at times, for the light in your smile, and the joy you spread through your stories and your memories. And many thanks to all those families who observe an empty place at the table this Memorial Day, who continue to burn the light of hope, who dare approach each day with joy, until the time we all rejoice that at last there is peace on Earth.

 

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.

 

 

Try a Little Tenderness

photo of piano keys
Photo by Karyme França on Pexels.com

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…

person sky silhouette night
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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.

red candle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

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.