Staying vertical

When asked, “How’s it going in your world today, Daddy?” His answer is likely, “Any day I’m vertical is a good day.” If asked about how he’s feeling, the answer will be, “Great!” because in saying so, he somehow makes it so in his unique world.

For example, I picked him up one day last week to ride around with me, running errands and gathering supplies. We even stopped to have some brunch outside a favorite local spot–no doctor appointments or vaccines or bad news, just a familiar daily experience of “noodling” around town. It was amazing to watch him simply savor riding in the car, looking at the colorful trees and leaves floating on the breeze, feeling the cool wind on his face, and interacting with others during our time together. At one point, we walked into a downtown bank to drop off some company materials for M and dad left with a lollipop and four new acquaintances who knew little about him other than he’s a witty, personable guy.

While Dad never sweats the small stuff (“preventative worry” was my mom’s job according to him), he embraces the small everyday pleasures with the greatest of ease. He rarely allows his unknown setting or situation to get in the way of being a decent human being. His brain may not hold names, dates, or many memories, but deep inside his heart and soul, kindness and decency prevails. He waves and greets, smiles behind his mask, compliments, thanks, and even holds the door for others. He finds purposeful, meaningful ways to interact and showcase his gratefulness for remaining vertical. As a former private pilot, dad often attributes life’s events and experiences to the weather–the various storms, winds, and pressures come and go whether he can fly in them or not. He simply chooses to be grateful for all of them because each season of life brings it own unique opportunities and blessings anyway. And oh how I marvel with the way he keeps moving forward vertically and in gratefulness for as long as he has voice in this world.

So today: When challenges attempt to prevail in your life, what purposeful ways bring fresh perspective and possibility for gratefulness anyway?

Stay vertical y’all, and as always, be blessed and be a blessing as you care for yourself and others. 🙂

For all the Saints

All Saints’ Day…All Souls’ Day…All Hallows’ Day…Sabbath Soul…Dia de Muertos. From my perspective, this particular day has always provoked an emotional reaction.  Within our worship service, this first Sunday in November is marked as a day of special remembrance for those who have gone before, not just this year. The service is sprinkled with responsive readings, special hymns, remembrances, lit candles, the presentation of a white rose to a surviving family member, and clergy reading aloud the names of those saints from the congregation who have passed in the past year. Most disheartening, the list was long this morning; the alter lit with too many candles. As my Granny B. often observed, All Saints is the time “to open and honor the ‘thin space’ where all the saints meet.”

Thanksgiving, 1996.  My mom holding kitchen court while preparing the family feast. As expected, she is dressed in holiday attire, festive jewelry, coiffed hair, spotless makeup with her beautiful eyes sparkling intelligence and southern sass. I would quietly sneak up to her with my camera; she NEVER liked having her picture made (though she always took the most stunning pictures). She passed in 2016 and I miss her every single day, but especially on certain remembrances like today.

Ironically, I find myself deeply nostalgic and profoundly grateful every year on this day. Grateful for all who came before me, whose shoulders I continue to stand upon. Grateful for the treasured stories, the powerful memories, and the lasting legacies of these saints. Grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the transformational stages of my own life journey. Grateful for each new day and the chance to clear away the broken parts while exploring new paths to grow in grace and hope. 

So today, take a moment to reflect on the saints in your life.  Who are you particularly grateful for and why?

Here’s hoping we never lose sight of the gifts gratefully given to us by those who come and go before us…for when one is missing, the whole is somehow less. “For all the saints who from their labors rest…” May you be blessed and be a blessing as you care for yourself and others, my friends!

Simple Gifts

This one’s for you, Floramay Holliday… “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free. ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be; and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight. (Chorus:) When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d, to turn, turn will be our delight; till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”

You’re humming it now, aren’t you?  Penned by Elder Joseph Brackett (1848) while he lived in the Shaker community of Alfred, Maine, these original lyrics were a one-verse song with chorus.  Multiple versions, from Sydney Carter’s hymn entitled “Lord of the Dance” in 1963 (also used in Michael Flatley’s dance musical of the same name) to Aaron Copeland’s adaption of the melody in the music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, have popularized the tune and lyrics through generations.  Many songwriters, recording artists, instrumentalists, and poets share versions and interpretations.  In fact, did you know there are two additional non-Shaker verses in existence?

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return, ’tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn; and when we expect of others what we try to live each day, then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say… ‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be; ’tis the gift to think of others not to only think of me. And when we hear what others really think and feel, then we’ll all live together with a love that’s real.  ‘Tis the gift to be loving, ’tis the best gift of all.  Like a quiet rain it blesses where it falls; and with it we will truly come to believe, ’tis better to give than it is to receive.”

In my opinion, the most powerful message of the poetry speaks to the simple gift of practicing gratefulness daily. Simple gifts help to grow our soul so we become more loving, kind, fearless, peaceful, gracious, and hopeful.  Even in the midst of heartbreak, despair, sadness, or profound grief, our burdens may ease some when we take a moment to gratefully notice a simple gift each day. It may be the sun coming out on a clear morning or the fresh smell of pine trees after a night of rain. It may be the cardinal in the bird feeder watching you pour that first cup of coffee or colorful chrysanthemums fluttering in the autumn breeze. Choosing to live with an open heart in that moment helps create space for gratefulness, a simple gift by itself.

Like the song says, simple, but not always easy each day. Brain research shares how gratefulness creates positive feelings and emotions. Gratitude showcases the positive around and within us. Negativity cannot occur in the brain at the same time as gratitude; it melts away without effort. Our brains naturally work to track success. We notice what is good when the brain focuses on gratefulness. The simple, sweet, little things we do for ourselves and others each day softly seep inside us where possibilities arise, where the light shines brightest, and where serenity calms the soul.

So here’s your challenge on Day #2:  What is one simple way you can cultivate your own gratefulness today? 

May we continue to help each other seek simple, real, meaningful inspiration in the practice of living from a grateful heart. Just know you’re not alone on this journey; I’m walking right beside you. May you be blessed and be a blessing as you take care of yourself while caring for others.

And by the way, Floramay, I’m still wearing the smile you gave me on a Sunday morning when we talked about you doing an album of hymns…this one might need your consideration as well. 🙂

November enters…

There are everyday blessings; no need to look far

To know at a glance just how special they are.

A leaf falling slowly to a littered forest ground

A squirrel scampering a tree trunk all the way down.

The geese honking above on their trek south

With a frog croaking response from its mouth.

The quick gust caressing softly a freckled cheek

The sun’s rays warming aged bones that often creak.

As we look to autumn shifting with the cooling northern breeze

Our time for grateful reflection starts this first November eve…

Day One of Gratefulness: What did you observe in your daily life today, just one thing, that made you grateful? Take a moment to say THANK YOU for this one thing. Today, I’m grateful for outside observations on my walk and the words to share them with you.

As we move through this time of reflective gratefulness once again, may you take a moment each day to breathe deeply, show up, pay attention, speak your truth, and let go to the possibilities. Be a blessing and be blessed, and remember to care for yourself as you care for others, my friends.

Hey, ‘lil pumpkin!

Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere…

As my paternal grandfather would say, “Hey, ‘lil pumpkin!”  His booming voice and hearty laugh still linger and while I have few memories of him, the ones I do have are strong, especially this time of year.  He grew up on a Texas farm, so planting was in his DNA. As a youngster, I remember growing pumpkins with my Pop Sam (Sr.) in his backyard. Although I’ve seen similar variations of it through the years, it was my grandfather, Pop Sam, who first shared with me the life advice from a pumpkin’s point of view:

Be well-ROUNDED.  ROLL with it. Grow a THICK skin. Enjoy the SONshine. CARVE out your goals. Stand out in your FIELD. Always PATCH things up. Be grateful for the HARVEST. Learn when to hold onto the VINE and when to let go. Add SPICE to your life…and always dream BIG!

Each October, he found something spiritual in the ritual of preparing a pumpkin/Jack-o-Lantern for each Halloween (something my dad did with his granddaughters as well!). From washing off the dirt and opening the pumpkin up to scooping out the inside “goop” to carve on a smiling face, he felt the pumpkin represented each of us in our unique ways. He reminded me how important it is to fill others with a warm, glowing light. He told me,“we all need to occasionally wash off the dirt in our lives and open ourselves up on occasion to scoop out the yucky seeds of doubt, greed, and more so our own inner light can shine better.” While I seriously wonder what he would say about our world today, I’m grateful for these seeds of sage wisdom and practical advice deep in my memory bank. May you and yours enJOY the harvest season and find gentle ways to shine your own light into our world…and may the glow be with you always!

What would Jane say?

As quirky as this may sound, the pandemic has provided unusual opportunities during the past several months for helping me cope with my anxiety in a variety of ways, a key one being my reading choices. Jane Austen and her body of work resurfaced in my world. While some consider her novels simple romantic escapism at the core, each novel, in fact, has much to say about perseverance and empathy. Reading them again at this point in my life surrounded in current events, experiences, sorrows, JOYs, and more to draw upon, her writing offers unexpected consolations. Looking beyond the preoccupation with love and romance (my 15-year-old self), and a layer of steel with a second layer of resilience is formed in her stories…and reading each novel again inspired me onward this past year.

Why should Jane’s novels be suited to our pandemic era? On one level, they seem to offer the perfect romantic escapism (similar to Bridgerton without the steam scenes). Dig deeper in her writing and you find she offers unexpected consolations. Her own life was a lesson in forbearance. She published six novels in a seven-year span and died at the age of 41 with unpublished pieces. Jane understood firsthand and lived most of her life with constant financial insecurity. As a woman with limited choices during England’s Regency time period, she felt trapped and surrounded by family friction and the constant overcrowding of psychological stress, even though she and her characters continued to “crack on” as expected. Austen showed families as imperfect, just like hers and ours. Her works spotlighted the reality behind the closed front doors of daily life.

Jane’s journey to actual publication was its own lesson in resilience and grit. With multiple rejections and fake promises, she carried forth. Her novel heroines reflected Jane’s own stoic perseverance and strength of character; self pity was not an option. Her characters emotionally grew during their challenging journeys, thus inspiring us during this time of uncertainty as we continue to re-evaluate what really matters. Characters adapted with a growth mindset, something our society in general must continue to pursue if we hope to survive. Life was, and still is, a constant process of change, of adapting to challenges, and accepting, while hopefully learning, from mistakes. Failure brought success…may it be so for us!

Personally, I think of Jane as a friend. She has been a part of my life well over a half century. Her particular kind of narration allows an intimate reading experience where I relax and find comfort in each of her novels. In fact, her works provide such emotional solace, I better understand why my father-in-law (who fought in WWII) read Jane on the front lines to his fellow soldiers. He told me, “If it was calming for the trench fighters in WWI and Prime Minister Churchill, it’s better for me.” My Granny B first introduced me to Jane. She claimed Austen’s works were read orally to her by her grandmother during the Pandemic of 1918.

As Lady Russell notes in Persuasion, “Time will explain.” We may not have all the answers or even the questions as this pandemic lingers, but there is hope. There is also a restorative power and slow-down effect in the rhythm of Jane’s words. The core of her writing for me is how she effortlessly comforts as she challenges us onward. She is poignant with her mixture of social satire and epiphanies. She embraces the dark and lonely aspects of life with lightness, gentle humor, and her signature touch. I cannot help by wonder if Jane were sitting next to me drinking a cup of tea what she would share about society and our families today. What, indeed, would Jane say?

Special note: A former professor of mine recently reached out to visit. This is lovingly dedicated to her in gratitude for her continuous wisdom, inspiration, and the challenge to what would Jane say…

Never Forget: 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago today, after my early morning message to our campus and my usual morning walkabout through hallways and classrooms, a relatively peaceful start to another school day commenced.  I made my way back to the front office in time to take a phone call from a parent who happened to be in NYC on business that day.  We visited briefly as he began to share the reason for his call.  During the course of our conversation, the landline crackled, there was a horrific explosive sound, and the call went dead. I attempted to call him back but nothing connected. The front office phones started ringing and all four landlines jammed. I remember a chilling, sinking feeling washing down my body (Granny called them “riggers”); our school was out in the country and something felt completely OFF. Little did we know…

In the course of working through the temporary moment of panic (we had no set protocols back in those days for lockdown or shelter-in-place), I decided to lock all the exterior doors of our campus in order to mitigate outside traffic.  The librarian caught me in the hallways as she wheeled a TV to the office and asked me to join her as we witnessed the second plane crashing into the other tower of the World Trade Center.  Before we could comment, the reporter broke in to share that the Pentagon was on fire and another plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field. I alerted and updated teachers in person, asking them not to turn on TV or radio, but to teach and maintain a schedule while keeping email open for updates from me. My assistant principal and counselor stationed themselves at the front door so no one came in or out without ID. The office staff manned the non-stop phone calls and checked out students as parents arrived. Recess was forgotten that day. We got through the school day in a controlled, terrorized fog. Little did we know in those first moments of terror and uncertainty just how much all our lives would completely change.

While still in the midst of a global pandemic, we mark 20 years since this fateful day. Ironically, certain aspects and outcomes of this terrifying time in our history still resonate: All the children who will never see a parent again; all the families who have lost a loved one; all the individuals on the front lines of defense who have sacrificed themselves in order to assist and care for others; all the uncertainty and long-term effects for those who continue to struggle and search for answers… We see you and we hear you; may we never forget!

Likewise, a powerful image of hope emerges:  all those who sprint into action to assist; all the scientists, healthcare workers, front-line workers, researchers, and supporters continuing to work endless shifts for answers and cures; all the educators and parents teaching, working, and keeping the home fires going; all the small business owners investing in their communities while their communities invest in them; all those folks simply acting in supreme kindness day in and day out even in the darkest of moments (just like a complete stranger who made certain that dad in 2001 made it out of that first tower alive and home to an anxious family). We are beyond grateful; may we never forget!

With so much political divide, the constant barrage of ugliness in words and deeds in a 24/7 vortex, the resistance to needed change for centuries-long systemic issues, or, just simply being asked to wear a mask, get tested, or get a vaccine, we all need to STOP for a collective second and just breathe.  Breathe in and breathe out because we can.  Breathe in and breathe out to re-center our own humanity. We have life and so much more. One simple truth continues to prevail no matter our situation: there is always more uniting us than dividing us in this country.  We are still “one Nation, under God, indivisible; with Liberty and Justice for ALL…”  We are not here to BE right; we are here to get it right. We are here to DO the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. I know it; you know it. And on this particular Patriot’s Day, 20 years later (and every day), may we never, ever forget.

Transitions

“Love is the real force motivating this next chapter of my journey, Bethy…” He spoke the words softly to me as he hugged me up before I left him in his new apartment alone for the first time. We were both being brave and stoic, yet our eyes were watering. We both understood how this next transition ensured his continued care, safety, and quality of life as he lives with Alzheimer’s. The transition is simple, just not easy.

Packing and stacking of belongings, arranging and organizing of spaces, laying out and labeling everything (thank you, H!) culminated in a smooth and successful move for Daddy into assisted living. Our coast-to-coast little family answered the call and gathered together for a few days to ensure all went well for everyone involved in this next transition. Pop relished in the attention, feeling the support, encouragement, and love in making this decision and then getting him settled properly, because, you know, we have requirements. 🙂

For the second time in my life, we travel this familiar path with a parent. Dad’s journey with this relentless disease is entirely different from mom’s journey. His progression and various turning points often pass quietly, yet we find ways to negotiate the transitions as they naturally occur. While we may have doubts at times, he literally continues to walk (with his cane) into the situation like it’s a sales meeting…and yes, he still works an entire room of strangers that way (just ask the men’s group leader). Another huge blessing is Daddy continues to maintain his amazing sense of humor, and this will carry him well in his new surrounding. He’s a natural talker and if he doesn’t know you or cannot remember your name, he just fakes it, says something funny, and invites your participation and input. His gift of gab and storytelling are present no matter the setting. In fact, I’ve been warned he’ll likely be the voted in as “mayor” before we know it. 🙂

Because we’ve been straight-forward and realistic about this overwhelming situation, it has helped all of us roll up our sleeves and get messy with the details when necessary. We’ve had the tough conversations about his finances, his health expectations, his final wishes, and more. He makes it clear what he expects. As he likes to say, “I haven’t forgotten; I just can’t remember…so when I forget, thank you for remembering for me.” We have his plan and will work his plan each step of the way, just as he clearly expects of us.

Alzheimer’s may be taking away the vibrancy of Daddy’s mind, but for now, we take it a step at a time with expert assistance as a new part of his team.  Make no mistake, his heart and soul continue to hold what his mind cannot. He reminds us in unique ways how some things in life cannot be fixed, but are shouldered with love, help, and strength of others. In his unique way he teaches us how to covet each day, each memory, each opportunity as he holds on, and in turn, lets go. It’s showing up and paying attention in the moment while not being wedded to the outcome.

Our home is quiet as I wander on his side of the house today. I am weary from the buried anxiety and stress of these last few years. I’m “feeling all the feels” as my daughter says. There is also profound relief from the controlling need to serve as “benevolent overlord major general” and daily cruise director. (I did this for 34 years before “retiring”). As I told a sweet friend yesterday, I am simply excited to just be my daddy’s daughter during this next chapter of his journey…and I venture to guess, he simply is too.

Like most of life, this transition is simple, just not easy. I lean into my faith, hope, and love. And just as daddy observed, love IS the most powerful force of motivation moving us onward during each transition of his journey…it really is simple, just not easy, my friends. May you be blessed and be a blessing to others.

Dogwood Trees

dogwood3As we walk the woods, the dogwood trees are emerging cautiously with their subtle blooms. I am reminded once again of the story my Granny B shared each spring, usually around Easter:

There is a legend, that at the time of the Crucifixion, the dogwood had been the size of the oak and other forest trees. So firm and strong was the tree that it was chosen as the timber for the cross. To be used for such a cruel purpose greatly distressed the tree, and Jesus, nailed upon it, sensed this.  In His gentle pity for all sorrow and suffering, he said to it: “Because of your regret and pity for My suffering, never again shall the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used as a cross. It shall be slender and bent and twisted, and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross…two long and two short petals. On the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints, brown with rust and stained with red, and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns, and all who see it will remember…”

This story had a huge impact on her throughout her lifetime as evidenced in her writings. The following poem, penned by her in 1934, was her version of the story:

In Jesus’ time a dogwood grew to a stately size and a lovely hue; 

Strong and firm its branches interwoven and for the cross of Christ, its timber was chosen. 

Seeing the distress at this use of wood, Jesus made His promise still holding good: 

“Never again shall the dogwood grow, so large enough to be used just so…

Slim and twisted it shall be, with blossoms like the cross for all to see;

As blood stains the petals marked in brown, and the blossom’s center with the thorny crown. 

All who see it will remember Me, crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree. 

Cherished and protected this tree shall be; a reminder to all of My agony.”

When Granny moved from her beloved Tennessee to Texas in 1955, she brought a clipping of a beautiful dogwood tree for replanting in her new yard as a powerful reminder each spring of the legend, and of His grace in our lives.  Happy Easter, friends…be blessed and be a blessing to others. 🙂

Dear Mrs. Cleary,

It goes without saying, but I will, how much your body of work affected my literary world and eventually my life’s work since that first day I picked up Henry Huggins to read with daddy. He took my sis and me to the public library one Saturday morning while momma was rehearsing a cantata and asked the librarian where he might find a quiet place to introduce us to his favorite childhood friend, Henry. She led our little trio to the treasured area where all of your books in print at that time (1968) were shelved and displayed in all their glory next to your picture. My eyes grew large looking at this collection of treasures. REAL “chapter” books (I was five, so this was BIG)! Daddy sat at the little table and read Chapter One softly to whet our appetite…this daddy of mine who traveled for a living but spent Saturdays with his two girls reading in a library and drawing a little crowd in the process. I was allowed to check out two books that morning, a first for me and my library card. Henry, Beezus, Ribsy, and Ramona became my new literary friends, taking me on adventures, talking like I did with my own friends, and so much more. Ralph S. Mouse from The Mouse and the Motorcycle helped me through my own illness a couple of years later, and instead of momma giving me medicine, I imagined Ralph delivering the pills on his motorcycle while I slept. Ramona The Pest (a minor character before then) finally stepped into the spotlight that year on her own as a curious, enthusiastic, disruptive and unruly heroine of children’s literature on level with Jo March, Harriet the Spy, and other untidy gals who balked at the status quo. I may…or may not…have received a consequence for squeezing and decorating my own bathroom sink with an entire new tube of toothpaste (all in the context of experimentation, mind you), but then my sister decided she would paint the walls with it. Oh the stories, the drama, and the fun of your true life-like children in real-world situations and play… You, and your books, were and will always remain a remarkable influence in my literary world…and we even made an “A” on a college research paper or two together.

In my classroom, your books were often read-aloud choices where we paused a few moments each day to gather as a group and simply enjoy the gift of storytelling. Your books allowed many of my students to experience more simple joys, pleasures, challenges, and triumphs of childhood, no matter the time or place. Most of the students I had the honor of teaching for several years came from backgrounds very different than the neighborhood children and stories you shared, yet they identified and relished in the real childhood elements of life. Your stories demonstrated hope while giving a voice to the hearts of my students. Your soft, genuine, and respectful way with language and childhood conversations, even on the toughest adult issues like money, divorce, and loss, presented an opportunity for us to talk about ways to grow into our greatness with respect, compassion, and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. You took the ordinary and added that little something “extra” for the ultimate experience or remarkable adventure. You challenged our critical thinking by showing us how problem solving (and I’m not talking calculus here) is really our life’s work. Most gratefully though, you helped me demonstrate to my learners how reading is pleasurable and “not just something that teachers make you do in school.”

I will miss your voice, your wisdom, and your words in the writing world. As Leigh Botts observes in Dear Mr. Henshaw,I feel sad and whole lot better at the same time…” knowing your library of characters, problems, solutions, conversations, and words of love and hope in 42 books with over 85 million copies printed in 29 languages leaves us a legacy of stories to savor for generations to come. As you yourself once observed: “I think children like to find themselves in my books because the emotions of children I write are universal.” Dearest Mrs. Cleary…yes, and thank you.