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.

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Into the Mystic…

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

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

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

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

And I’m okay with that.

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

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

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

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

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

Let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…

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

 

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.

 

 

As we forgive those…

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On my birthday I had lunch with my father.

That doesn’t sound too momentous, but there was a time, years ago, when that would have been a bridge I would have thought impossible to cross. For twenty-nine years we have been friends, but for the first nineteen years of my life we built a steady and sturdy resentment against each other that finally caused a six-year stalemate during which we had no communication. The details are not important now.

What is important is that we let it go.  We let go of bitterness that was poisoning each of us. We let go of the hateful and hurtful things we had said. We forgave each other and became friends.

What was the catalyst for this transformation? How could it all just suddenly not matter?We could have continued not speaking, not sharing holidays, not observing birthdays, not giving thanks for the lives we have because of each other, and life would have gone on for us both. But there came a Sunday morning during church, as I was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, when I said the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and I heard those words as I had never heard them before. They spoke to me. And if I wasn’t forgiving, then I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be forgiven. And I not only needed to extend forgiveness – I needed to ask for forgiveness. It took me almost a month, but I finally worked up the courage to call my father. We spoke for the first time in six years, agreed to meet soon, and did, and have remained in at least weekly contact since then.

I recognize it might not be that easy for everyone. Sometimes it is impossible to re-establish contact for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a name has changed and the new name is un-known. Perhaps there has been a relocation and the new residence is unknown and internet searches just aren’t yielding results. Perhaps there has been a death. Or perhaps what went before created a physically or mentally dangerous situation and it is best to not re-establish contact. But even without contact, there can be forgiveness.

I once read of a teacher who, on the first day of school, assigned her students to bring a potato and a zippered, re-sealable plastic bag for an assignment. The next day those students were instructed to carry the potatoes, in the zippered bags, for the first grading period, and then the lesson of the potatoes would be revealed. Of course some students did not complete the assignment. Potatoes were lost, left on the bus, tossed away in silly games, thrown away as it was evident they were decomposing, etc., but for the students who completed the assignment, at the end of the first term, the teacher asked them to consider the state of the potato. The potatoes were placed on desks and examined. Most were a stinky, rotting mess. As they unzipped their bags, even the students without potatoes were affected by the rotten odor. The teacher then asked the students to reflect on lessons they learned from the assignment. In their responses, students stated that at first it had been novel to keep up with the potato, to talk about it, to explain why they were carrying a potato in a plastic bag, but after awhile, it became a burden, and even though they wished to put it down, they felt the duty to keep carrying the potato. For some, it simply became a habit and they carried it naturally as it became a part of who they were for those few weeks. Most stated they were proud to have been able to keep up with the potato, even as it began to soften and smell bad.

The teacher listened to all responses without comment, and then she explained, “When we hold grudges, and do not extend forgiveness, it’s like these potatoes. Sometimes we get extra attention because of them and we talk about them repeatedly to our friends and family, even to strangers. For some people the grudge becomes a burden, but they don’t want to put it down, to let it go, to forget, to be vulnerable again. They determine to always be mindful so they won’t get hurt or insulted or slighted or left out or misunderstood again. They carry that rotting potato with them and even though it stinks and they’d like to be rid of it, they will carry it as a reminder to never forget. Some people will carry the grudge and never acknowledge the burden it is. The grudge becomes a habit and they put up a wall, not realizing they have walled themselves in with the grudge, and while the person who caused the hurt can’t get in, neither can the hurt one get out.  Meanwhile, the grudges, like the potatoes, continue to rot and fester and smell up our own environment and to affect those around us.” The teacher had given her students a priceless lesson on not being easily offended, as well as the impact and value of forgiveness. She reported that the atmosphere of her classroom changed immediately as students made the connection between the slights, errors and bumps of everyday life with humans, and the bagged potatoes. They realized they had control to discard the potatoes and not have to bear those offensive burdens anymore.

Forgiveness can be hard. The longer we carry that potato, it may seem impossible. Or it might become more comfortable to carry it than to put it down, but if we can find a way to it, if we can allow forgiveness to rule each day, we can have the peace we long for, the joy we crave, and we can not only hope to see light, but we can be light as we bring that peace and joy to our corner of the world.

Excuse me, I think I might need to go clean out my potato bin…

 

Gee means go…

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My father-in-law always called his wife Mary G., but over time the nickname was shortened to just G, (spelled Gee,) and that’s how everyone knew her. And we all knew that Gee meant “go.” Because she was always on the go. Touring Scotland, Ireland, England, and Wales, accompanying her husband on a business trip, shopping, having her nails done, vacationing in their condo at the beach,  playing bridge, singing in the choir at church, or dining in one of her favorite restaurants. At the Bonefish Grill she was such a regular that when she walked in, her server immediately brought out an espresso martini, her favorite. At Christmas, the manager presented her with a box of Godiva truffles. She was always on the go, always having fun, and always prepared no matter the occasion. Her clothes were stylish, her hair chic, her nails perfect and her face smiling. And it was a little family chuckle that Gee and her sister Charlotte graduated from the BOOH School of Driving. (Bat-Out-Of-Hell, that is.) She could tell a good story, had a wickedly sharp sense of humor, and was recognized and admired for her positive attitude. Through the last few years, I recall her saying during many trying circumstances, “I can laugh or I can cry.” It was her protocol, therefore, to look for something to laugh, or at least smile about.

She had grown up the daughter of a railway man, and so even after the stock-market crash of 1929, her family did not face the dire situation many families suffered through. She went with her brother and sister and friends to school and with her family to church. It was there she met a handsome young man who was the new preacher’s eldest son, and in 1946, she married him in that same little church. She finished college as a married young lady, and she and her husband moved to take teaching positions in a nearby county, he teaching History, and she English. A couple of years later, when they started their family, she gave up teaching to rear the five children they would produce, and keep a home for all of them to retreat to at the end of each school day.

On Sunday, Thanksgiving weekend, 2017, she took one last drive, although she had promised herself she wouldn’t drive anymore, to see her children play a family tennis match at a local country club. We received a call that she had failed to complete an almost 90-degree turn, struck a magnolia tree, and was en route to the local ER, where we all rushed. As expected, she was in good spirits, and said she had very little pain, although she had a broken ankle and several broken ribs. A few days in the hospital, then to a rehab unit, and then, we all hoped, home, where she would stay and we would take turns staying with her until she was on her feet again. She was 91 years old.

On Tuesday afternoon some cardiac/respiratory event occurred and from that time she rarely spoke to any of us, but began to see people in the room we could not see and would talk to them instead. She was transitioning although we were not ready to say goodbye.

Our eldest daughter was a senior at university at the time, and was in her final week of exams, but she wanted to see Grandmama, whose middle name she carries. They had a special bond, as one was Big Little Gee, and the other Little Big Gee. I never understood which was which, but I didn’t need to. They understood each other.

At the end of Tuesday’s exam, this granddaughter drove back home and got to the hospital after dark, after most family had said goodnight, and then she waited until she was the last family member in the room. She approached the hospital bed where Gee was propped up on pillows, and spoke quietly, “How are you Grandmama? I wanted to tell you goodnight.” Gee looked into her eyes, but could only smile. Thinking she was probably tired and ready to go to sleep, our daughter asked, “Would you like to lay back Grandmama?” My mother-in-law motioned her closer and Kinsey leaned in. “Yes ma’am?”  “Lie, Kinsey. Chickens lay. People lie.” Grandmama rested into her pillows, staring into Kinsey’s eyes. A proper, gifted English teacher to the end, these were the last words Gee would speak on this Earth, and Kinsey rushed home, delighted to share with her daddy the gem she had been given. This story was also shared at the funeral service two weeks later on December 9. It was the parting gift of a smile that became part of the celebration of this life so joyfully lived, but not the last one, as we stepped out of the sanctuary into huge, fluffy goose-down snowflakes, letting us know she had arrived safely.

The time had come for Gee to go. But when she left, she left us with joy in our hearts, with hope of seeing her again, with peace in our minds, and with the light of her smile in our lives.

 

 

 

When I grow up…

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What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s the go-to conversation-starter with kids.

After watching the first Moon landing in July, 1969, I only wanted to be an astronaut. I read everything available about outer space. I learned stars and located constellations, and after getting a small telescope for Christmas one year, I began to make my own star charts. I would go outside each night and study the sky, noting changes from season to season. Space fever struck many of my schoolmates as well, and several of us met regularly on the playground to share our experiences of “shooting stars,” and strange happenings beyond the stratosphere. We were fascinated and energized when a television movie aired, Stowaway to the Moon, in which a boy just a little older than us hid out on a rocket to the moon, and after his trials and tribulations, finally made it back to Earth. We were sobered and somber when three cosmonauts died in the summer of 1971 due to decompression within their space capsule.

Nevertheless, my goal was to work for NASA. To soar above the clouds, through the layers of the atmosphere, until I reached space, “the final frontier,” where I would drift from planet to planet, sampling, photographing and noting everything I observed, and, I hoped, meeting beings of all shapes, sizes and colors. I was a huge Star Trek fan, and Ensign Pavel Chekov was my favorite series character, although I had great admiration for Communications Officer Uhura and implicitly trusted “Bones” McKoy.

In 1976, when Star Wars premiered, I was hooked. I had a Star Wars digital watch, Star Wars bedsheets, action figurines, posters, records. I begged my piano teacher to get the sheet music for me, and I learned several pieces from the soundtrack score. I braided my long dark hair and tried to twist it over my ears like Princess Leia, but my glasses spoiled the effect. I saw all of the movies multiple times and bought books about George Lucas’ saga. I collected any magazines or newspapers that yielded more information about the movies or any of the actors from the movies.

In 1977, my space fever ramped to a new level with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Steven Spielberg production in which people’s lives are turned upside down after contact with aliens from deep space.  Project U.F.O. followed in 1978, a television series that dramatized Project Blue Book, a government study on whether we were indeed being visited and influenced by extraterrestrial civilizations who had gotten to us before we could get to them.

In 1985, I contacted NASA to learn the requirements for their civilian-in-space program, but item #1 on the list knocked me out of consideration immediately. An astronaut had to have eyesight no worse than 20/40, and I had passed 20/1200 before starting high school. I knew President Ronald Reagan was very vocal about schools and businesses encouraging physically-challenged persons to full participation in all vocations, and so with this glimmer of hope I again contacted NASA, explaining that while I was somewhat visually impaired, my vision was easily corrected with prescription lenses and I could serve as the first handicapped civilian payload specialist. After all, I was also training to be a teacher, and NASA was sending Science teacher Christa McAuliffe on board the space shuttle Challenger. NASA kindly declined my offer.

With the explosion of the Challenger, in January, 1986, the civilian-in-space program dropped from NASA’s agenda, and becoming an astronaut disappeared from my personal agenda. While it had been an astronomically long shot anyway, it was now, obviously, an impossible fantasy. I would focus on being the best teacher I could be. The dream was over and I was permanently Earthbound. Perhaps I would teach an astronaut.

Fast-forward thirty-two years, through which I finished school, married and reared three amazing young women, experienced all kinds of joy and heartache, lost and found hope again and again, prayed a lot, laughed a lot, and cried a lot, changed a lot, taught a lot. I haven’t seen the astronaut yet, but I’ve taught firefighters, nurses, teachers, soldiers, truck drivers, singers, farmers, mechanics, x-ray technicians, photographers, football players, musicians, attorneys, accountants, day care owners, entrepreneurs, bankers, and police officers.

I’m retired now, no longer looking into young faces, asking, “What will you be?” “What fascinates you?” “What gifts do you possess?” “What do you dream of?” Now I look into the mirror each morning and ask my own reflection, “What will you be?” “What fascinates you?” “What gifts do you possess?” “What do you dream of?” The countdown is on, but I have no idea of the departure time.

I just hope before I leave that I can reflect some light, maybe starlight, spread some peace, such as may be found on the dark side of the Moon, and leave a comet-like trail of joyful memories.

*Won’t you consider sharing your own dreams of being “grown-up” in the comments? I’d love to hear from you. Wishing you joy, hope, peace and light…

 

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.

 

Ashes to ashes…

person on a bridge near a lake
Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

In the Christian year, yesterday was a special day, Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of forty days of repentance leading up to the highest of holy days, Easter. We are challenged over the next forty days to examine ourselves, our thoughts, motives, actions and words. It is in the excellent practice of reflection that we discover ways we have fallen short. We lament the brokenness in our lives and in our world, and our hearts are wrenched for the pain we see and feel all around us and throughout humanity. No matter the religion we practice, or even if we subscribe to no religion, our human hearts can be broken as we see how our brothers and sisters suffer, physically, mentally, emotionally. And I do sincerely believe we are all brothers and sisters, all part of humanity, all on the way to the same certain fate, ashes to ashes…

Over thirty years of teaching I met many broken young people. Hurting, abused, homeless, angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and while I picture many of their faces in my mind, in this season of reflection I always recall the first truly hungry person I ever encountered. Her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in a tight bun, her nails painted bright red, and she was dressed appropriately for the weather. I was a newly-hired cashier at the local grocery, so when she placed several cans of dog food on the conveyor belt, alongside a box of popsicles, I tried to make conversation as I rang up her purchases.

“Does your dog enjoy popsicles?” I asked. When she didn’t answer I looked around to find angry, dark eyes staring from her weathered face. “I don’t have a dog,” she snapped, continuing to glare at me. I glanced down at the dog food and back at her, realizing I’d made a naive assumption, and I had embarrassed her with my silly question. Without saying anything further, my customer counted out a large handful of coins, snatched up her bagged purchases, and left.

The nearby manager, hearing the brief conversation, shrugged his shoulders and explained that the lady had nothing but pride, would not accept groceries he had offered her, and that she regularly went through the store’s garbage dumpster for discarded, stale, spoiled food. I watched for her each shift I worked, but never saw her again. Even as a teenager making minimum wages I felt I could help her, be friendly to her, speak a word of peace into her heart, but I never got another opportunity.

Perhaps you have heard the maxim that we should be kind to everyone we meet, for everyone is fighting a battle. This saying is attributed to Ian Maclaren, the pen name of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. The lady in my grocery line was certainly fighting her own battle, and even now, thirty-six years later, I wonder what the outcome was. Where did she sleep? Where did she get the change she paid with? Did she have a family? Did she regularly eat dogfood? How was she so neat and clean? Who was she? As I reflect on the one sentence I shared with her, it grieves me still, that in my effort to be funny, I had wounded her.

Reflection is painful, because it forces me to admit where I have wronged others, but it is also healing because it gives me the chance to right wrongs, sometimes even before I commit them. Perhaps St. Francis, of Assisi, Italy, prayed most eloquently what I hope to be the outcome of this most introspective season:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

 

 

 

Big

grayscale photo of candle
Photo by Alyona Dlusskaya on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s gonna be big!

 

 

 

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
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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.

The Unexpected Stop

This past Saturday I attended a memorial service for a former student who took his life one week into the New Year. His mother told me he had Facetimed her the day before and they shared a three-hour conversation that basically boiled down to, “If I happened to die angry at God will I go to Hell?” She gave him all the comfort she could, explaining that God can handle our anger and He loves us no matter what we do or say or feel and that he could still go to Heaven just the same, no matter how he died and no matter how he was feeling at the time. He thanked her, closed the conversation with all the usuals, and ended the call.

The next morning he got up, washed and dried his laundry, rolled up all his clothes and tucked them neatly into drawers, took his father’s gun, went out in the woods behind his father’s house, sat down, and pulled the trigger. In the note he left his mom he explained that he was happy and that nothing anyone said would have changed the decision he had made, that he loved her and she had helped him have peace in his heart.

And for the rest of her life, she will hold onto those words of encouragement, cherishing them as a final gift from a broken son, who sought refuge in the thoughts and views of his now-broken-hearted mother. She, and he, are why I am starting 52 to a Brighter View.

Behavioral research scientists tell us we can break, or establish, a habit in thirty consecutive days of effort. I don’t know what habits this young man had. I have not seen him in five years. I know he enjoyed music, skateboarding and time with friends. To all appearances he seemed to be enjoying a ride many sixteen-year-olds would envy. I know a new habit his mom will have, and for many more than thirty days. She will question herself and her own choices in ways she never has, and reflect on her relationship with her two sons, with both ecstasy and agony.

I have to reflect too. When he was a student in my Social Studies class in sixth grade was there anything I said that put despair in his heart? Was there anything I said that caused him to lose hope? Did I encourage him in any way? Perhaps he hung on longer than he would have if we had never met. Just maybe I said something that lightened his load even briefly. Or maybe something I said was one of the proverbial straws that drove him to call out, “Stop!” before he reached his destination. There’s no way to know. He got off before I could find out. But I do know this. Words have power, and I want to use my words to encourage.

So. I hope you and I have thirty days in which to establish a habit of encouragement. I hope we have thirty weeks, maybe even thirty years. Let’s start with this year. Fifty-two weeks, each one the opportunity for a fresh start. I’ve lived long enough to know that they won’t all be happy or cheery or delightful. No rose-colored shades here. But I’ve also lived enough to know that we can feel joy as tears stream down our faces. We can experience hope in the midst of devastation. We can make peace when the world seems to be burning down around us. And we can find light in endless, darkest night.

Please join me each week, in pursuit of joy, hope, peace and light, as we encourage each other to A Brighter View in 52.