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.

Dose of Hope

She spoke the required phrases, asked the critical questions, and verified the risks and consequences of what I was about to do.  She looked directly into the eyes of my masked face and smiled while clarifying one more time, “Are you ready to do this? It’s finally your turn now!” I’ve been through childbirth, surgeries, countless medical procedures, chemotherapy, and too many pokes and prods to count, but this was somehow different. This was working to save not only my life, but those around me. This was barely out of a research lab with rapid trial studies. This was being injected into my body with the intention of starting an immune response war. This was my first physical dose of hope.

An emotional release from the past year rippled through my entire body as she prepped my arm for the injection. I thought about my grandmother who lost her mom during the 1918 pandemic and carried a homemade cloth covering for her mouth and nose in her pocketbook until the day she died. I flashed-back to the time I lined up with my first grade class in the school gym for my first polio cube (something us “boomers” understand and never take for granted).  I remembered my friends and family infected and forever affected by the virus and the outcomes in this past year.  I pondered the vast interruptions of daily lives and how everything was stirred-up the world-over. I reflected on the millions of lives lost around the world to something few saw coming and the families still grieving. I considered my overwhelming gratitude for the remarkable amount of collaboration, communication, creativity, and problem solving in the past year being injected into my muscle, and the tears flowed in relief and hope. As my nurse attached the bandage, she wept with me.

This past year of pandemic mayhem with quarantine, anxiety, fear, sadness, loneliness, loss, and so much more, is about to turn a corner, at least for some. While this first shot will not cure everything, it gives a new dose of hope moving forward for my family. I realize how fortunate I am to receive it. I realize everyone cannot or may not choose to take a vaccine. All I control are my personal attitude and effort, and both were celebrating in silent tears of relief through a dose of hope.

Washington Irving said it like this: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love…” 

May these unexpected tears of overwhelming relief from this first dose of hope power me onward. May the emotional release and the strength of this first dose begin shifting all the unfamiliar of this collective experience into a new familiar filled in love.  May we all find little ways to help one another move forward, assisting and sharing our burdens and blessings, as we begin to emerge and rebuild on the other side. And for today, may I breathe easier as I nurse this sore arm, be kind to my fighting body and exhausted mind, and thank the angels sent my way to see me through the pandemic wilderness. And may you find and thank your angels too; may you be blessed and be a blessing of love to others, my friends. 🙂

Reflection for the new year…

In a few hours, we set our sights on new beginnings for the new year.  WHEW; truly remarkable in light of our collective experiences during 2020.  There is little to say as we continue to synthesize it all while looking forward.  After all, the history of each of us has always been in our stories, and 2020 definitely gave us unique ways of crafting and sharing our stories.  Missing traditional celebrations or beautiful moments with family and friends, not being able to hug and comfort each other in person in times of grief or triumph…these created relentless emotions and something I trust none of us will take for granted ever again.  Personally, I’m a hugger and my inability to physically connect with others through a hug is devastating; ZOOM and FaceTime just don’t do it, y’all (and y’all better get ready for us huggers when it’s safe)!  As my momma would remind me, “no gift, especially a hug, is too small or simple to give or receive when wrapped in thoughtfulness and tied in love.”

The Scottish phrase “auld lang syne” literally means “old long since” or for “old time’s sake.”  After MUCH reflection during 2020, this new year in particular offers sacred opportunities to take the wisdom and experiences of this past year “for old time’s sake” forward as we build on its foundational lessons for a stronger future. The changes, growth, triumphs, missteps, JOYs, and sorrows of our experiences bring a fresh and clearer perspective to forgive, to do better, to do more, to give more, and to love more.

So…I offer this hopeful challenge to us all in 2021 to:  BE in the moment, breathe deep and fortifying breaths, encourage one another, forgive with grace, keep promises, forgo grudges, apologize, share softer answers, work to understanding, walk more, seek adventure, smile at strangers through your mask with your shining eyes, examine personal demands (this is me preaching to me), think first of others, be gentle and kind, laugh more, help carry burdens, cherish inner dreams, learn a new skill, be bendable but not breakable, observe the beauty and wonder of the world, ask questions, explore options, express thanks, welcome others, and speak your love over and over and over and over again and again and again and again!  The spiritual gift of actively living this challenge with grace and gratitude fills my soul with hope as time marches onward; and hope, my friends, constantly and gratefully prevails in all our daily humanness.

Challenging paths and trails often lead to the most beautiful of places, so may the new year bring to you and yours bountiful blessings filled to overflowing with hope, peace, JOY, and love. And as always, may you be blessed and be a blessing, friends.  Happy New Year! 🙂

Solstice Blessing…

The longest night; the shortest day…Winter Solstice.

Yes; winter is coming.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we verbalized our collective concerns about caring 24/7 for an aging parent during a pandemic.  After we spoke, she sent an extraordinary poem reflective of the poignant connection between the darkness and the light.  Even as we live through the longest nights of the Winter Solstice ahead, may we trust the blessing of light will always be near us:

Blessing for the Longest Night (by Jan Richardson)

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com

On the Winter Solstice tomorrow, December 21, 2020, as with so much this year, we have another “unprecedented opportunity” to see a rare celestial event observable anywhere on Earth where the skies are clear.  Jupiter and Saturn will align in a “great conjunction,” appearing to collide into one super-bright point of light, similar to the rare “Christmas Star.”  Take the opportunity early tomorrow evening to check the sky in the southwest from about sunset to an hour after in your area to be amazed. As always, may you be blessed by this light and be a blessing in return.  Wishing you hope, peace, JOY, and love, with clear skies and wide eyes too, my friends. 🙂

JOY

Fun fact:  Did you know the word JOY has the point value of 13 on the Scrabble board?

On this third Sunday in Advent, on the 13th day of a long month in what feels like the longest year ever so far, it is time to light the third candle of JOY.  Even in the depths of a hurting and troubled heart, I cling to the message of the Angel’s rejoicing:  “I bring you tidings of great JOY that will be for all people…” Yet, JOY, in all its revelry and with its powerful message of hope, is in seemingly short supply these days.  How do we find and sow JOY?

Keeping JOY is good, but sharing it with others is even better.  It may be as simple as greeting someone through your mask, leaving a gift card in the mailbox for your postal worker, dropping a casserole on a neighbor’s doorstep, or creating a full-blown “pay it forward” opportunity.  Nothing extravagant; just sowing JOY to spark more JOY.

The message of Advent and Christmas is never-ending, yet it does not deny sorrow, hurt, grief, and sadness its place in this world.  Instead, Christmas illustrates how JOY is greater than despair or sadness, PEACE outlasts the turmoil and trauma, HOPE prevails in the darkest places, and LOVE, well LOVE ultimately wins.  Norman Vincent Peale issued this challenge:  “I truly believe if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can and will bring JOY and happiness and peace to this world…”  So, help me here… How do we sow JOY in order to experience JOY?  How do we keep telling the story, singing the songs, and living the spirit of JOY every day?

A JOY shared is a JOY doubled.  Perhaps accepting JOY with thanks and giving helps us find ways to sow it deeper for others.  May we always remain grateful for the JOY we spread and the JOY coming our way.  After all, JOY, in all its glory, is really the simplest form of gratitude in daily living, a small yet profound way to interact with others.  It doesn’t hurt either when it earns 13-points on the Scrabble board for the win. 🙂  Be blessed and be a blessing, my friends. #SpreadJOY