Feeling Vulnerable

John found this lovely Butterweed plant in our side garden.  Tall, bright, and yellow, this small wildflower stood-out among peonies and daylilies struggling to bloom in an abnormally cold and gray spring.  I noticed the plant when a first single flower appeared at the top of the long stem, surrounded by several waiting blossoms.  I could almost feel the power in the plant’s sturdy stem.  On a damp and windy day, I snapped many images, trying to capture this wildflower as it danced in the wind. 

Spring has been difficult, with much more time spent at home in dismal and sometimes depressing weather.  We know we are among the vulnerable, seniors that are at a higher risk over our younger counterparts.  Our age can be a reminder of our vulnerability, the fact that time is sometimes unkind and limiting.  

Each day, I have visited this wildflower and am greeted by more flowers perched on top of a still wavering stem.  Somehow, this little plant makes me feel less alone, a companion plant for John and I.  This one is determined to survive.  So are we.

Timeless Symphony

I was inspired to produce this composite image while standing on the shore at a local park last spring.  Leafed trees reflecting upon the water reminded me visually of the sound waves produced on audio systems years ago.  Music has ancient roots, an important part of our history and awareness.  On that day, the rustle of those leaves in the gentle wind mingled with the sound of young birds eager for the warmth of spring continued to fill my ears, a musical symphony that was truly timeless.

I am reminded that music, both figuratively and literally, continues regardless of surrounding circumstances.  This year, sheltering-in-place has prevented my participation in many of the activities I took for granted last year.  Yet somehow, it is comforting to know that birds will still sing and tree leaves will still rustle in the wind.

Unexpected Sunshine

Winter makes me sad.  Perhaps it is the gray or the cold, but my smile seems to disappear with the last dying sighs of fall.  For me, winter means weeks spent indoors peering through dirty windows, longing for budding flowers and nesting birds.  In winter, the vivid colors of spring, summer, and fall fade to sterile pastures laced with pale blues, grays and muted white.

Yet, after days of bitter cold and treacherous weather, we had a bit of a weekend reprieve in our great state of Ohio.  A mid-winter thaw brought the temperatures up to the mid-fifties, a safer bet for hiking with aging knees and hips.  Hubby and I braved the remaining remnants of snow for a day-trip to Dawes Arboretum, cameras in hand.  I hadn’t expected much, but at least had hoped for enough white blanket for a few picturesque shots.  For the most part, my shakey optimism was met by slush and muddy shoe prints.

Hiking proved to be difficult as we tread slowly on uneven and slippery pavement, rock and grass.  By sunset, we had reached the lake, completely snow covered, barren and seemingly lifeless.  A common winter scene for a picture, I thought  – except for the sun that seemed to rest so perfectly on the side of the tree with light so bright as to appear to have taken a bite from the tree’s sturdy trunk before gradually descending into the night.  John saw it while I lamented the ordinary and I captured this bit of sunshine with the press of one button.  

The beauty of sunshine glistening on blankets of snow, fragments of ice or a small lakeside tree is winter’s gift and the fact that I had not expected it made the gift all the more special.  Unlike other seasons when sun and warmth are more common, the stark contrast of winter highlights gifts that are too easy to take for granted.  That should keep me smiling for a long time to come.

Shadows

Reminded of the Shadows

It would be a reflection of what is to be.  Lately, close friends are passing at an unusual rate.  First we are born with a lot of people looking at us, just shadows.  We do not or not able to look at the people looking. We basically are born with the instinct to suckle and nothing more. All the senses must be developed to potential over time with a lot of help from the shadows.  Shadows, yes shadows, many people who affect our learning (mentally) and development (physically) are shadows.  Just like shadows they appear and disappear.  They can appear as long shadows and you deal with those people long term. For example, Mom and Dad shadow you for a longer time than say your first grade teacher.   This first grade teacher only a short time compared to your parents.  Shadows can influence you positively or negatively.  Then there are the shadows that guide you when parent shadows are not around.  With me it was a scoutmaster, a counselor, a teacher and close friends. Many of those shadows have set with the sun.  They pass from the Earth and no longer cast a shadow over me.  They become only reflections in my mind. 

The close friend that I grew up within the Boy Scouts was a shadow. I think I always looked up to him for strength through adolescence, as he was a boy leader and was easy to talk with about my growing up stuff.  He gave me heads up because he already had been there.  I used to see him once a week as an adult, and we would reflect upon our youth, the fun times.  It was a shadow that lingered with stories of youth.  That is now gone, that part of my youth, I only have memories of our talks to reflect upon. It is a reflection of what is to be.  He no longer casts that positive shadow, it is now gone with the sun. 

Meditation

Look at the picture of a Back Alley concert of a musician.  Notice the shadows looking at him.  He is truly playing for the shadows. He himself is a shadow, he gives music, hopefully, the short shadows give something to him before they set with the sun. Do you reward those who help you in some way?  Is your shadow the only company you have?

CONTEMPLATING NEW ORLEANS

My husband and I decided to visit New Orleans as our 2018 winter vacation destination.  I knew from the start that this vacation would be different.  Most of our vacations have consisted of fine sand beaches, picturesque trails, and amazing wildlife.  As a historic and cultural mecca, New Orleans would most certainly be none of the above.

We arrived in New Orleans mid-day on a Saturday, greeted by miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I had expected “quaint,” but instead we sat on an elevated bridge overlooking the Superdome and a dirty, sprawling city.  I wondered if I really knew what I had signed up for.  My initial impression of New Orleans was not what I had expected.

Over the course of several days, we visited the typical New Orleans landmarks – the French Quarter, the Garden District, famous eateries such as the Commander’s Palace and the Lafayette cemetery.  We listened to fine jazz in the clubs lining Frenchman Street and wandered thoughtfully through mazes of art galleries on Royal.  This was the New Orleans I had read about, heard about and wanted to experience.

Yet, New Orleans was still not what I expected.  New Orleans was much darker and much edgier.  Laced among the tourists and everyday Joes, people pass with vacant stares.  Some drop in front of you and curl up next to a storefront to sleep.  Street musicians line corners collecting money in well-placed buckets and hats.  Conversations of poverty and sickness fill streetcars.  Glassy eyes glance your way without a hint of emotion. Drug deals line nighttime streets and tent cities reside beneath downtown underpasses.  Dinner at a finer restaurant is interrupted by a vagrant pounding on the outside window.  He is hungry and has nothing to eat.  In one art gallery, pictures from Hurricane Katrina tell a grim tale of a city laid waste by mass destruction.  

Weeks later, I still do not know how to feel about New Orleans, a city of seeming contradictions.  Of life and death. Of celebration and despair.  Yet, among her contradictions, is a picture of life that is raw, real and tangible in a way I have not experienced anywhere else.  New Orleans is a story in the making – of recovery and relapse in the best and worse ways life has to offer.  

I don’t know how to feel about New Orleans and, perhaps, that is the point.

Worship Our Image

For the past three years, I have passed these words scrawled into the blacktop on the Newark rail trail. I hike this trail frequently and often ponder the author’s intent in this choice of words. Always visible, these three words have survived several winters, as if to protest removal with words too stubborn to submit to change.  Does the author revisit this place at the first sign of warm weather to reinforce a statement apparently important enough to remain for years? What exactly does it mean to worship our image? 

The word “worship” is common to religious traditions, defined by the provision of reverence to an intended deity. To worship is to place in an exalted position, above oneself. Therefore, on the surface, to worship our image, could well smack of arrogance implying the lofty placement of self above the welfare of everyone and everything else.

I could dismiss the statement as ill-informed, but I pause at this statement every single hike. The statement gnaws at my brain, inviting me to consider other possibilities implied by the statement in search of a deeper meaning. What is the difference between the self and an image of self? Does the use of the corporate “our” in the statement denote the author’s intent to be inclusive, extending a privileged position to all humankind or even all living-kind? Do these distinctions make any real difference?

Perhaps any indictment is short-sighted and ill-advised. Perhaps I think too much. Perhaps, I should hike a different trail.

Or perhaps, a different and more positive meaning can be found beneath the surface of this statement.

Beyond the religious connotations, “honor” is but one alternate meaning for the word “worship.” And while the word “image” could be used to describe a physical object, such as a photograph or statue, image, in a broader sense, could refer to a reflection or extension of self. While, I will never know the author’s true intent, considering the possibility of worship and image from this broader context is intriguing. What if you and I truly honor the person we are and the life we have been given? What image would be produced if we truly live the gifts we’ve been given from the best self we can cultivate? 

Jane Pauley did a couple of segments on today’s Sunday Morning show that spoke to this idea of honoring our gifts. One segment featured comedians that had blazed the early television trail leaving a legacy for other comedians to follow. A second segment featured the iconic Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s band album and the way in which the music from this album pushed the limits of studio technology, sound and even art in ways unheard of in the industry.  

In-between days of rain, I took a hike on the one sunny day offered this week. I had to see if the statement was still visible on the trail. Much like the artist’s legacy, I found it, once again, subtle, but still speaking from the same place it has occupied in year’s past.

I doubt any of the artists featured on this morning’s broadcast foresaw or planned for the impact their work might inspire. Like ripples in a vast sea, sometimes honoring our gifts by nurturing and sharing them with the greater world, reflects into the world in unimaginable ways. How would our world change if each of us decided to live through the gifts we’ve each been given? Could the reflection of each of our best selves change our world from the inside out?  

That’s one image that could truly make a lasting statement.

As Daylight Sleeps

It is 5 a.m. and beyond my seventh-floor balcony suite, I hear the deep groan of ocean waves against the shore. Most Gulf Shore mornings, I can see the ocean stretch before me. But this morning, I cannot see the ocean yet; the sky is black with night. Above me, scattered stars glitter, but directly ahead the sky extends in complete darkness like an empty void. Every few minutes, a bolt of lightning illuminates the dense cloud cover in the distance. Except for the anxious chatter of passing seabirds, the day begins quietly and without intrusion. Day still sleeps under the blanket of night.

There is stillness in these moments before dawn, a gift from the insanity of daily life. Yet under the cloak of a quiet night, a storm looms unseen in the darkness, revealed only in the momentary flashes of distant light.

Morning breaks slowly, and with the first rays of dawn, subtle light exposes a rapidly evolving storm. The storm has drawn closer and angry skies loom large overhead, moving ponderously forward over a wind-tossed sea. The wind is gaining strength. I pull my wrap tightly around my shoulders and retreat to the kitchen.

In many ways this morning was a metaphor for some of the more difficult circumstances encountered in life. Often, life storms remain unseen until they are upon us, even though they may have been brewing for quite a long time. Clarity is the child of light and in life, often the exception and not the rule. Consider recent events – those catastrophic, unexpected tragedies that ravaged our world with wildfires, hurricanes and human violence. In the aftermath of tragedy, a question remains.  What is the best way to avoid or at least minimize damage done by each horrific event?

A certain amount of training provides some degree of preparation for handling the aftermath of a broad-scale tragedy. For the record, I am forever grateful for the men and women who continuously risk their own lives daily for the sake of others. Yet, in the moment, when countless critical decisions must be made swiftly, I cannot imagine any amount or type of training that would ease the burden of making difficult choices with irreversible and potentially life-altering consequences. Given the right circumstances, how would one choose to save one life over another or decide to move forward with a risky imperative when the outcome is far from certain. Some decisions, however necessary, come at great cost.

On a personal level, storms find us when life fails us in some way. Perhaps, a loved one dies or leaves. Maybe, success in a business or other partnership escapes our grasp or we are forced to live with a disability or fight for life in the face of a chronic or terminal disease. There are many ways in which life can take an unexpected turn, often with little or no warning.

In such times, I have wished for answers written in the sky. Life might be easier if problems would present themselves with ample time for consideration. Life might be easier if answers were clear. Life might be easier without disability, disease, hurricanes, fires, death, and pointed guns. If only I knew what was coming, I could plan an effective strategy. If only I had known what was coming, I would have made a different choice.

It seems that the best advice is most often visible only through the lens of time. 

Life would be easier without the darkness, wouldn’t it?

But then, what meaning would there be in the light? Would light even exist if not for the darkness?

In the dark of night, we find time for both rest and refinement. The unexpected brings the need for action and quick thinking. If we are wise, what we learn becomes the catalyst for growth. Struggle challenges us in ways that only exists within the delicate tension of strife. Perhaps darkness is what shoves us into the light.

Still, I doubt many would wish for the darkness. Hardship is never pleasant, regardless of what lessons the night holds for our souls. Yet, the next time a life storm appears on the horizon, I may be wiser to look for the gift from the night, a reminder that life can be both unpredictable and insane, a subtle urge to remain alert, thoughtful, diligent and gracious in preparation for the larger challenges which still remain hidden in the dark.

May your 2018 be filled with gifts from the night to light your path with rest, refinement, peace and joy.

Happy New Year.

Thanksgiving – New Beginnings

Thanksgiving, always a wonderful family get together. I often wonder how interesting the first Thanksgiving was when I was a kid. I studied about the holiday that represented when pilgrims new to the surroundings of the North American Continent, joined with the natives of the land sharing a harvest. I would ask where are the Indians Dad? How come they do not come to our Thanksgiving dinner? I cannot imagine he gave me an answer to that question since we drove them from their lands, eventually killing them or forcing their assimilation into the American culture by placing them on reservations.   

The first Thanksgiving was a gathering to celebrate a good harvest and natives were present, and if it had not been for them, the pilgrims would have not made it through the winter of their first year. The natives and pilgrims ate fowl such as ducks or geese. On a trip to Plymouth, I remember reading in one of the museums, the turkey was just another name for ducks and geese, probably not any turkey as we know it now.

That brings me to wonder how the gathering went. You are in your first year in a new place. The plants certainly were different. There were probably animals they had not met with in their home country of England or even the Dutch countryside. The natives that they eventually met lived in different houses and dressed differently. The strangeness of someone entering this territory alone would cause the natives to be in protective mode. Oh, and the natives had a completely different culture and language.

Yes, the pilgrims, found a different climate for growing crops. It made it somewhat difficult to plant the seeds they brought with them. They were not so successful at first. The natives however, did not allow the pilgrims to starve and helped them with their crops, introducing to them squash and corn which can be stored and provide one with food all through the winter. I imagine that some of the food at that gathering and the way it was prepared would have been strange to both the native and pilgrim. The native allowed the pilgrims to settle on the land. With all this cooperative sharing the natives and pilgrims gathered frequently to share and learn from each other.

I know for a fact that to be true. Our Thanksgiving meal this year was probably like the first gathering. My wife and I have been eating a whole food diet instead of the American Standard diet. It is truly a healthy way of eating, but you must make concessions. We eat no meat, no eggs, and drink no milk. Yes, we do eat a lot of vegetables. Usually, when family comes over we have a large turkey, oyster dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberries. Sweet potatoes with cinnamon and butter are an option. Then pie, cherry or pumpkin topped with whipped topping for desert is always a favorite.

Now our meal had to be vegan. No meat, but we had a tofu turkey roll stuffed with wild rice. No dairy, so I used silk soy milk where milk was required for baking. Butter was soy based so it was not dairy. We could not eat oysters nor the turkey broth that mixed with the stuffing. We made a separate one with mushrooms and used vegetable broth. The green beans and corn are vegetables and needed no changes. The sweet potato was a good substitute for mashed potatoes and gravy.

Compromise and substitution are necessary with a gathering involving food. The cranberries had to be made sugar free, but some people in the party had an allergy to artificial sweeteners and one person was diabetic. We made two cranberry dishes, one with artificial sweetener and one with sugar. We had vegan pies for desert and they tasted great, crusts made without milk or real butter. It was a different kind of thanksgiving, much like the real one, note that potatoes that the natives offered were considered by the pilgrims poison and some of the pilgrims would still not eat them. Some of the pilgrims at my Thanksgiving did not care for the tofurkey when we offered a taste. Everyone had a wonderful time and all the other food was eaten and consumed with much pleasure.  I am sure the pilgrims and the natives felt full and happy, too.

In Search of Paradise

Like many folks, I have spent many hours this weekend watching the news cast as Hurricane Irma drew closer to the Florida Keys.  And on Sunday, I watched in horror as the media brought live coverage from various points in Florida during the storm.  Landfall, storm surges, and extreme wind brought fears of catastrophic damage, made more ominous by the storm’s western turn towards the gulf.  Original forecasts predicted the brunt of the storm on the east coast and while Miami prepared, places like Tampa and communities along the gulf coast had much less time to enact measures to withstand a Category 4 hurricane.

One of the places directly in the storm’s path was Marco Island, one of our favorite vacation spots.  On our first trip, I remember a visit to the Welcome Center.  A retiree from the North talked a lot about her life in this tropical paradise.

“What about hurricanes?” I asked.

“Not worried,” she said, “We’ve been lucky. They never seem to hit here.”

She is not alone in her optimism.  Many people decided to stay put in defiance to evacuation requirements and repeated warnings.  At one point in a televised broadcast, a convenience store owner along the southern shore stated, “At some point, you just have to think that it really will not happen.”

Are folks simply in denial or is something else at play here?

On Saturday, I spent the day with my daughter.  As we discussed the approaching storm, she told me about one person who had moved to one of the Florida Islands. 

“I like living too much,” I said.

“That’s exactly what she said,” my daughter replied.

Point made. 

Later in one of the televised broadcasts, a reporter spoke with a woman who had decided to remain on Key West. “I have lived here all of my life,” she said. “This is home.”  She reminded me of the young business man who had just opened a bistro close to the shore on Marco Island.  The excitement in his voice was obvious as he described his hopes for this new venture.  There was no separating his dream from his life. They were, in fact, one and the same.

Like a captain who would rather sink with his ship, perhaps for some, the idea of paradise lost is inconceivable.  The thought of leaving is no more possible than leaving your own skin and surviving.

Tonight, my thoughts are with the realtor who found a retirement home on Marco Island and the millions like her living in Florida.  Tonight, my heart is with the young man and his bistro; and the woman who has lived her entire life on Key West. 

We could all use a little more paradise.

Ordinary Moments, Extraordinary Life

On a recent Thursday morning, I made a common detour onto the access road headed for McDonald’s to collect my dose of unsweetened iced tea.  On many mornings, I pass several semi-trucks parked along the fence lining this road.  I typically do not see the drivers, but on this day, I observed a trucker attempting to parallel park a double semi-trailer between two other trucks.  I admired his skill as he competently slid this big rig into a tight parking spot.  Contemplating my own experience with parallel parking a small SUV, I imagined how difficult it would be to maneuver a vehicle of this size.

My father was a career truck driver until he retired after forty-years from Terminal Transport. He took great pride in his ability to drive the big rigs and considered himself a professional driver.  This identity took on new dimensions when my teenage-self reached driving age.  He was my teacher and he was tough.

Driving, like many life markers, is ordinary because it is a common rite of passage for most teenagers.  Yet driving also is extraordinary because it marks the beginning of new freedoms and responsibilities.

This relationship between the ordinary and extraordinary seems woven into life’s fabric. While we may long for extraordinary moments, adventures planned and otherwise, simple hindsight often attests to the impact of those ordinary times in life revealed in extraordinary results.  Small and seemingly insignificant choices and events often have big consequences.

Perhaps that is what my father was really trying to teach me all along.  But, my teenage-self did not appreciate my father’s tutorage.  “Dad it’s a Mercury Cougar,” not a semi-truck,” I whined, in response to his seemingly incessant corrections.

“When you have been driving forty years, you can have an opinion,” my father retorted.  “Until that time, you will do it my way.”

Several months later, the brakes failed in that same car as I was driving my mom to the grocery store at Central Point Shopping Center.  I was in the center lane and traffic was heavy.  As a new driver, my instinct was to panic, but I could hear my dad’s voice in my head telling me to stay calm regardless of the circumstance.  Methodically, I reached for the turn signal and thanks to the kindness of a stranger in the next lane, I was able to change lanes and swerve into a nearby parking lot burying the front end of the car into a set of hedges.  No one was hurt and the car escaped serious damage.

Meditation

It is often said that hindsight is 20/20.  Extraordinary moments make for lasting memories.  Yet, in looking back at life, like a grand tapestry, clearly it was the countless decisions made within the context of the ordinary day that has the most profound impact on life. Ordinary moments provide the foundation for the extraordinary life.

So today, I raise my glass of iced tea to those ordinary moments and ordinary days. While we can certainly celebrate the extraordinary events of life, so should we also cherish those ordinary days that fill life with substance. 

As for my dad’s advice – of course, my dad’s words were a bit more colorful at that time and it has been more than forty years.  So now I get to have an opinion.  Guess what, dad?  You were right.