Step where I step…

It’s no secret I enjoy hiking, especially with my sister. I may be the oldest and bossiest, but it’s one of the times she’s in charge. I listen and respect her vast experience, wealth of knowledge, practicality, and sheer grit. We have racked up many miles through our years on foot with some stunning scenery, unique opportunities, and funny stories along the way.

Our recent exploration west (the first hiking trip together in six years) led us into the Black Hills of South Dakota. The drive west was its own road trip adventure. From the Atlantic Ocean through the amber waves of prairie and farm lands to the Badlands and majestic mountains of the west, stunning formations, exciting explorations, fresh air (Ponderosa Pine!), time together, and extraordinary views dominated each day’s adventures. We even hiked down into Wind Cave (another story for another day).

As little girls, we hiked with our dad in the summers while on vacation at the same working ranch in the Rockies of Colorado. Before each trail hike, we always looked up in awe of the daunting task ahead wondering if our momentum, lungs, and little chicken legs would get us to the top (and, let’s be honest, excited to see what snack daddy would have for us at the top). Of course, when we reached the top, taking in the view, eating our snack, and basking in our accomplishment, our perspectives grew. Daddy innately understood why we needed to climb a mountain every now and then; it was his quiet way of teaching us about life’s challenges and hardships. When we climbed mountains, we faced hurdles, obstacles, and problems to solve while on the trail using our attitude, effort, and strength. When we faltered, he always reminded us to “step where I step.” We experienced first-hand how these same personal super-powers on each mountain hike are ever-present within us as we overcome challenges in everyday life.

On our first morning, my energy and anxiety were high and ready to go. It was hot and we did a loop trail of about 3.5 miles early in the morning. On the rocks, never my favorite, Beck reminded me to “step where I step” as a way to encourage me forward. By the time we completed this first hike, my muscle-memory kicked into familiar gear. With so much to explore in the first day, I wanted to keep going but listening to my body was paramount in the moment. The temp was hovering 98 and my body was still adjusting to the altitude, so it was time for less sun and lots more hydration.

Step where I step“…simple words with powerful punch. While each of us desire our own path, it pays to sometimes stop a moment, take a deep cleansing breath, and start again with proven steps. These steps often showcase the personal super-powers to keep on climbing the path. The mountain (or the cave), no matter how big or rocky it is (and I swear it grows as I climb), is no match for the faith and desire to successfully climb. Attitude, effort, and personal strength are everything in life, especially in climbing. Mountains are meant to be climbed. Problems are meant to solved. All are critical learning experiences; some in sorrow and sadness, others in success and JOY. Each mountain serves a higher purpose to showcase how stronger, wiser, resilient, grace-filled, or hopeful we are in physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual ways.

While we often can’t control what happens to us, we do control how we see and climb the mountains in our life. We can look at the mountains as being in the way or as THE WAY to personal growth and success (or as momma would sing to remind me to, “bloom and grow forever”). We always have a choice. We can stand at the bottom overwhelmed and initially defeated, or we can dig down deep in our resource well to find the very best way within ourselves to climb onward, encouraging one another, just like Beck: “Step where I step!”

South Dakota was a fantastic adventure! The trip helped to re-center, recharge, rejuvenate, and restore after six challenging years. So here’s to each of us finding clever ways to fearlessly hike the mountains and caves in our paths on our journey. And please know I’m hiking (and singing) beside you. Feel free to step where I step. Please take care of yourself as you care for others; may you be blessed and be a blessing, friends. 🙂

Goose Sense

As spring continues to blossom, the geese are flying back, laying nests, and leaving their mark in our neighborhood pond area these days. Their presence is firmly and clearly evident as they announce their return, thus I always reflect fondly once again upon one of my mom’s favorite life lessons. Something simple yet profound, she reminded us each spring and autumn of this story because, perhaps, we needed occasional reminders to tap into our inner goose-sense. Today is one of those days…

Everything in nature happens for a reason and scientists have discovered why geese fly in the “V” formation.  As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following.  By flying this way, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.  Truth #1:  If we share a common direction and sense of community, we can get where we’re going quicker and easier because we travel on the power of one another.  Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.  Truth #2:  It’s important to stay in formation with those who are headed in the same direction we are going.  When the lead goose gets tired, he rotates back into the formation and another goose flies point.  Truth #3:  It pays to take turns doing the hard work–with people or with geese flying.  Geese honk from behind to encourage one another and the others up front to keep up their speed.  Truth #4:  We need to be careful what we honk when we honk from behind! 🙂  Finally, when a goose gets sick or wounded and falls out of formation, two geese fall out to follow her down to help and protect.  They stay with her until she is able to fly or goes to the great sky beyond, then they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up to their group.  Final truth:  If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other no matter what. 

Here’s hoping our collective goose-sense and these basic truths find new and better ways to prevail! Please take care of yourself as you care for others and may you be a blessing as you bless others. HONK! 🙂

Iconic Legend

This world lost a treasured soul yesterday. This one is for you, LaRue Miller…may you rest softly in eternal Love, grace, peace, and learning, beautiful sainted one.

We often attempt to live our lives backwards…wanting more things, more education, more money, more order, more control, all in an attempt to do more of what makes us happy in this life.  The way it actually works is the reverse.

“You must first be who you really are and then do what you need to do in order to have what you need and want in life. The smiles and trials will come and go but your true self should always shine the brightest.”  ~ LaRue Miller

Mrs. Miller chose to embrace and actively live this particular pearl of wisdom with her signature grace and unconditional love. Gratefully, her personal philosophy will live on in the generations of lives she touched throughout her teaching career of 55+ years as well as her volunteer work in the very town and home where she grew up, raised her own family, and gave back everyday of her fruitful life. To hear her voice a thought was to participate in a master class of communication and collaboration from deep within her soul. Her obvious passion for learning and teaching, her quiet strength, and her pearls of wisdom were discreetly dropped into any conversation. To read her personal story was inspiring. To hear and witness firsthand how she led with her story and shared it everyday of her life was a modern miracle. Her determined ability to see and draw out the personal best in each soul was legendary. These were just a few of the touch-points in the powerful legacy of LaRue Miller.  And while she would never admit it, she was and will forever remain the most insightful part of something profoundly extraordinary because she, LaRue Miller, was the catalyst.

Mrs. Miller would often share how she was humbled and honored to have her legacy carried forth in the classrooms of the school bearing her name.  One of her proudest moments was the morning our superintendent called to inform her of the decision. Even today, when you visit or volunteer at the campus bearing her name, you will find telltale signs of her subtle influence:  a picture or book here, a quote there…all reminders of her majestic influence and continued inspiration.  She deeply loved her community, her namesake school, her church, her former students and their families, her beloved friends, and most especially, her own impressive family. 

As the first principal of her namesake school for the last eight years of my educational career, I remain forever grateful for her wisdom, enthusiasm, stories (especially those when she taught with my mom), collaborations, and hugs; she was so generous with those hugs!  🙂  She knew her story, she communicated her story so incredibly well, and she always led with her story every single day!

There is a beautiful book in every classroom on her campus called The LaRue Miller Legacy, written by students and staff about her incredible story the first year her campus opened. It is heartwarming and comforting to know her legacy book project will continue to assist young learners and leaders in practicing the speaking skills and story-telling Mrs. Miller herself modeled throughout her lifetime. She believed strongly young students needed positive role models as they developed language and communication skills through shared conversations. During my tenure on her campus, she modeled this weekly in small groups, during parent nights, at campus-wide family functions, and so much more. She also encouraged students and their families to document their life stories and lessons for future generations. It is our responsibility and honor now to take up her story for her so the exceptional life and legacy as the school’s namesake will never be forgotten.

Thank you, Mrs. Miller, for honoring us with your legacy. Thank you for being the approachable, personable, smiling living legend we needed with much grace and unconditional love.  Thank you for blessing my family and countless other families in a million, brilliant ways. Thank you for small talks, short walks, laughter, storytelling, remembrances, books, smiles, hugs, and all those spaces in between where cream gravy soaks in and grace shines through them. Thank you for knowing and sharing the secret to a well-lived life is in giving…giving your support, encouragement, respect, presence, talents, gifts, service, time, and love. Thank you for believing in and actively living the sacredness of The Golden Rule throughout your long and fruitful life. Thank you for being a deep and special part of those you served and those who served with you. Thank you for actively living, sharing, and always reminding all of us, “the goal is simple…to help you achieve yours!” 

To the Miller Family (her school family and her personal family): May great love and precious memories wrap each of you in comfort and strength to help soften the edges of her physical absence as you face each new tomorrow…bva

Do you hear what I hear?

Ahhh…’tis the season for marvelous music my friends!  Even in the midst of more pandemic, this time of year is gratefully filled with beloved sounds, carols, voices, instruments, and glorious music ushering in the message and season of celebration.

While talking and laughing with my sis yesterday, she was sharing her intense prep work with her singers–several at the Met, vocal students doing juries, recitals, performances, and more. I reminded her of her very first singing experience (see the picture) at age 3 as a member in The Cherub Choir at Kessler Park United Methodist Church.  Mom literally coaxed her (tears and all) to “boldly and courageously march in the cherub line, stand still, open your mouth, and proudly sing for all to hear!”  Gratefully, she accepted mom’s initial challenge that first time and successfully continues to do so beautifully on a much grander scale for many decades…

We both share a deep and abiding love for all types of music, including Christmas music, and especially carols. When pressed for specifics, two personal favorites come to mind. The first choice is one our grandmother sang often, a French carol called The Holly and the Ivy:

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown;
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing of the choir…

The second carol is one we sing frequently in church (and often on a hiking trail).  Gustav Holst composed the music in 1906, set to Christina Rossetti’s beautiful 1872 poem, In The Bleak Midwinter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow;
In the bleak midwinter, long ago… (there are two more verses and this final one)

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him; give Him my heart.

Both of these pieces hold deep and personal meaning, but are only two of a long list of favorites. What are your personal favorite Christmas carols/songs to hear, play, and sing during the season? Here’s hoping you experience many extraordinarily beautiful seasonal sounds however you celebrate this time. As you prep and celebrate, please find gentle ways to care for yourself as you care for others, my friends…

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.

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.