Spot, The-Other-One, and the Feathered Coxswain

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese
The Wild Geese Are Heading Home Again….. Photo credit Pixabay

There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese.  Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.

I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.

“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte

Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me, spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other.  We were always sure to be home for supper and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek.  The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.

The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber souled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead? 

A Box of Possibility and Imagination

In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.  

This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.

“Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field

In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice, and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready”, they honk. “Prepare”, they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.

There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.

Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese too it seems.

My Friend Spot. Names for the tiny patch of white hairs on his back.

Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book, Frederick, by Lio Lionni.  It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.

So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch remembering the warmth of my grandson’s tiny hand in mine or the way my granddaughter lays her head on my shoulder. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.

Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.

How are you restocking your pantry?

Making Memories at the Corn Maze.
Masks removed only for the photo and when social distancing within the rows of corn stalks.

You Have Left The Planned Route

“Right now there are thirty-one satellites zipping around the world with nothing better to do than help you find your way to the grocery store.” 

 Ed Burnette, Hello, Android: Introducing Google’s Mobile Development Platform
Heather in the Highlands, 2015

The Highlands of Scotland are filled with magic and mystery. The hills fairly echo with legends and tales of clans and kings, so it’s rather fitting that it was in the Highlands that I first heard that disembodied, decidedly British voice that would eventually entice me to listen for and respond to its every command.

In the summer of 2004, Dave and I, together with our son, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, made our first unescorted trip to Scotland.   We were all so exhausted and jet-lagged when we reached our first night’s lodging that our heads barely hit the pillow that night before we were asleep. The next morning refreshed and fortified with a full Scottish breakfast we followed the map north to Cawdor Castle.  We had a lovely time exploring the castle and the grounds while talking of Shakespeare and Macbeth, but like many first-time tourists to the Highlands, we could hardly wait to reach our next destination…the famed Loch Ness.

From the Gardens at Cawdor Castle, 2004

As we prepared to leave the car park at Cawdor Castle, Jeremy and Jenna…driver and navigator respectively… suggested that we try out the GPS system that came with our car, after all, why not? At that time…sixteen years ago…none of us had any experience at all with a navigational system. How difficult could it be? It might be fun. Confident that like most techy things programming the guidance system would be rather intuitive, Jenna plugged in our desired destination, and within minutes we were off.  Our British friend guided us skillfully through the twisting streets and roundabouts of Inverness and in less than forty-five minutes we arrived on the eastern end of the northern shore of the Loch Ness. Easy Peasy.

On the Shore of Loch Ness Waiting for Nessie, 2004

We found a wayside pull-off where we parked the car, looked for Nessie, posed for pictures, and collected pebbles from the shore. It was blissful to be on this amazing adventure together at a place we had all heard about from childhood. Such a delightful morning.  As we listened to the waters caressing the shore someone shared that they had read that the southern, less-traveled side of the loch was even prettier than the more populated side. “Sounds good.” we agreed. “Let’s go that way.”

“Two Roads Diverged In A Wood And I – I Took The One Less Traveled By, And That Has Made All The Difference”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

“Sometimes The Road Less Traveled Is Less Traveled For A Reason.”

Jerry Seinfeld

We planned to go south to the ruins of Urquhart Castle, around the end of the Loch near Fort Augustus, then turn north again along the quieter side returning to our B and B for a much-anticipated nap.  We’d rely on our new found friend…Gladys…to guide us.  Surely, she’d know the best route. 

Urquhart Castle and The South Side of the Loch, 2004

She didn’t. 

Well…actually…maybe she did, but there was a slight problem in communication.

Somewhere near Fort Augustus, we made a wrong turn. What we didn’t know at the time was that Gladys would recalculate the original route and find a new way to get us to our destination.  What a disaster! Bliss became calamity. We tried to self-correct using instinct, our maps, and the conflicting and confusing instructions we were getting from Gladys. We never saw the loch again. The roads were narrow, twisty, and unmarked. We were completely lost.  Filled with frustration, Jeremy pulled the car off the road and asked to see the map for himself.  

“I’m 100% sure this is where we are,” said Jenna pointing confidently to a thin blue line.

“Jenna,” Jeremy laughed, “That’s a river!”  

With perseverance and pure dumb luck, we eventually made it back to our B and B well past nap time. The next morning at breakfast as we were lamenting our experience a fellow traveler overhearing our dilemma clued us into the rerouting feature. We had been fighting against poor Gladys for hours. She must have been so confused.  At this point, Dave mentioned that perhaps we should look at the manual.  

“There’s a manual?”  J and J said in unison.  “There’s a manual?!

”Well, yes,” Dave replied.”But I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

The kids just rolled their eyes.

“When all else fails, read the instructions”

Annonymous

Navigational systems have made advancements since those early days, but I think they could be still be perfected by the addition of an elementary school teacher to the design team. A teacher would add features that could make the entire experience smoother and much more pleasant.  For example, when making a turn or exiting a round-about successfully, a friendly voice would add words of confirmation and support to let the driver know they were on the right track and that they had made the maneuver correctly…Excellent, Nice job, or Way-to-go.  If an error was made the voice would remark in calm, reassuring tones…Whoops, Almost, or Sorry, not quite.  To avoid panic she’d quickly add…Relax. We can figure this out together.  Give me a minute to find the best way to help. Then as the route was being recalculated the driver would hear a few bars of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. “Don’t worry about a thing ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.”

Three Little Birds, 2016

For the most part, I have found my experiences with GPS to be very satisfying. The Voice-in-the Box has directed me safely through city traffic at rush hour and on backcountry roads that have no obvious names, but every so often that sweet little lady has led me on some wild adventures as well. For example: repeatedly directing Dave to turn the wrong way on a one-way street in Amsterdam; leading us to the terror-inducing pass in Colorado widely accepted as the highest standard passenger vehicle road in the United States; twice taking us to ferry crossings where the ferries were no longer running; and once in Vermont on my way to a bridal shower I was routed past two naked bike riders on their way to the Montpelier segment of the World Naked Bike Ride… yes, there really is such a thing…through a trailer park, and ending in a gravel pit with a cheerful…”You have reached your destination”.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Helen Keller

I have never worried too much about taking a wrong turn or misreading the map. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Michigan which is divided into mile-square sections and bordered by the Great Lakes. Finding your way primarily involves following roads that are laid out in right angles. Go too far in nearly any direction and you’ll eventually come to one of the big lakes. Of course, go too far south and that’s another story. Hello Ohio and Indiana.

Once, when my children were small, I became disoriented in an unfamiliar city and we found ourselves in a parking lot instead of on the highway.

“This is what I call an adventure,” I said cheerfully.

“It’s also what we call lost,” replied my young son.

True, I suppose, but the best adventures and the most interesting stories always seem to involve getting lost..literally or figuratively… and then finding your way again.

During the last several months I have often felt lost, disoriented, and adrift. Frankly, I could use some help. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a GPS to help us find our way through these distressing COVID times? Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost contact with the satellite without a clue of how to proceed. Am I heading in the direction of the beautiful side of the loch or just wandering aimlessly on the back roads? I would happily make a legal U-turn as soon as it is safe to do so if I had any idea when or where that might be. Like everyone else, I want to know how much longer I’ll be on this highway before my next maneuver and when I could expect to reach my destination. I’d also be grateful to know what other obstacles, delays, and detours lie ahead and if there is an alternate route.

Waterbury, VT, 2019

I really, really want someone to give me the kind of message I would get from OnStar. “You have left the planned route. Directions will resume automatically when you return to the route. Do you need updated directions?”

Oh, Gladys. Where are you when I need you.

We’ve all left the planned route and yes, we need updated directions.

Life in The Chrysalis

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Maya Angelou

Tucked in amid the profusion of perennials that surround my sister’s house you will find a huge milkweed plant. Often relegated to roadside ditches or borders along the back-forty, milkweed is dwindling in number along with the Monarch butterflies who spend their caterpillar phase living and feasting on the host plant’s bright green leaves.  This particular milkweed did not suddenly appear in my sister Kelly’s garden unbidden and unannounced. It was planted and nurtured there with intention; an invitation to passing Monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. “Please, come. Land here. We want you in our neighborhood.” The hardy plant grew tall and strong, full of broad leaves, but not a single Monarch flew by to check out the menu or the accommodations.

Finally…a couple weeks ago, my sister, called to say that she had discovered a Monarch caterpillar feasting on the milkweed. “Come on out. You’ve got to see it,” she implored with great excitement. “It’s amazing.” So, with my mask in place and observing social distancing, I  went to watch this remarkable little fella sprint from the bottom of the stalk up toward the buds of the blossom at the top.  He was a voracious eater and quite the little gymnast.

The First to Arrive (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone.  Apparently, Monarch caterpillars are considered a delicacy by the Orioles who nest nearby. Kelly was heartbroken as she imagined her little friend being the main course at an Oriole summer picnic. Perhaps, however,  her striped buddy had escaped the birds and traveled to find a more safe and secure place to construct his chrysalis. Monarchs will often hike as far as ten meters in search of the perfect spot, but whatever his fate…lunch or location…he was no longer present on her milkweed.

In the coming days, she searched the remaining leaves, waiting and willing another caterpillar to appear on her special plant, vowing that if she found other she’d bring it in and rear it, keeping it safe from predators. No one came.

Imagine her joy when days later, while exploring the back fields near her rural home, providence placed her right next to another milkweed where a beautiful orange and black queen of the sky rested quietly on a leaf. As she watched, the regal butterfly appeared to shudder slightly, pause and then fly quickly away leaving behind a very tiny, cream-colored egg. Once she knew where to look and what to look for, Kelly found many more of these pearl-like spheres no larger than the head of a pin.

Led by Providence (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Originally, Kelly had hoped to watch a single caterpillar progress from larva to pupa and then butterfly, instead, my little sister was rapidly becoming a Militant Monarch Mama caring for her tiny charges as they grew and she learned more about how to nurture, protect, and defend her growing army of caterpillars.

Humans have always been drawn to butterflies. It is mesmerizing to watch one of the delicate, winged creatures flit from flower to flower gathering nectar knowing that our momentary pleasure will end too soon as they hurry off toward the next stop on some ancient instinctual travel plan. The way butterflies float and drift on the currents, alighting momentarily just beyond reach is magical. Our eyes trace their carefree journey across the sky and we marvel that such fragile wings can carry them about the clouds.

On the Migratory Path, Vinalhaven, Maine, October 2019

Of course, there are many dangers and obstacles that threaten our wee friends…lack of habitat, climate change, rain, dust, pesticides, and birds… but these flying Buddhists don’t worry about such things and are not troubled with thoughts of the future. Always living in the present moment their short lives are unencumbered by responsibilities and are filled with beauty and freedom.

One early evening a few nights later, I heard the ding on my phone alerting me that I had a message. I was delighted to receive an update complete with photos. There on the screen was a close-up of a small, silky, green chrysalises and a buddy about to create one of his own. Two of Kelly’s charges were one step closer to becoming butterflies.

Caterpillar to Chrysalis (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Watching a lowly caterpillar snake off his jester’s garb and shimmy into a silky green changing booth only to emerge dressed in the bright orange raiment of a sovereign it’s easy to understand why butterflies often symbolize the soul, transformation, or rebirth. Their metamorphosis is the epitome of second chances and new beginnings.

While there are many references to caterpillars and butterflies when discussing change and transition I find little mention of the chrysalis or the time spent within it. What’s going on in there? How does a caterpillar grow wings? Biologists have studied the changes that occur within this hidden realm, but to the casual observer…people like me…it remains mysterious and miraculous.

I wonder if the caterpillar was surprised to find that it was slowly twisting and turning itself into the strange vessel that was to be its new home. Does he have an idea of how long he’ll be hanging there or why or what he’s supposed to be doing? Does he know that he is in the world, yet secluded from it?

No. Probably not.

“The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by telling everybody it has wings. It actually buries itself in darkness and grows those wings.”

C. JoyBell C.

Lately, I have had the feeling that I, too, am living in a kind of chrysalis…isolated, waiting, expecting, and hoping for change.  How long will this last? Will I emerge better and stronger? Will I find wings with which to fly? Will my former life on the milkweed be recognizable when I reemerge into a post-COVID-19 world. Some things, when they change never do return to the way they once were and butterflies reassure us that that can be a good thing.

“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…Remember, this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings.”

Nicole Stephens

And so…we wait.

We hope.

We remind ourselves that even life inside a chrysalis is a gift.

A few days after the first two chrysalises appeared Kelly sent me another text message with yet another picture of her two charges. I had no idea that with time a small, silky, green chrysalis would become so amazingly beautiful.

Gold and Jewel Tones (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

And…it would continue to change before the butterfly would break free and unfold its wings.

Almost Time to Break Free (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Like butterflies, we have the power to modify our own chrysalises. Yes, it’s true we’re still confined by limitations but it is amazing the many ways we are finding to bring beauty, connection, and joy into our lives? We attend family gatherings over Zoom; we live stream theatre and comedy shows; we create virtual choirs; we visit friends at a distance of at least six feet; we spend time outdoors, and we use our eyes to smile at strangers over our masks.

Not all chrysalis hatch you know. Sometimes they are destroyed or eaten or just don’t make it. Nothing is guaranteed. Let’s not wait for our wings. Our life is now.

Before he took flight, the first glorious Monarch to emerge, landed briefly on a milkweed blossom Kelly held in her hand. He paused for a few sips of nectar and a momentary fluttering of his wings in gratitude and affection…I think. Then knowing that he could…he flew away.

“Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly. And butterflies are free to fly. Fly away. High Away. Bye. Bye”

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
And Butterfly are Free to Fly (Photo: Steve Forsgren)

A special thank you to my sister, Kelly Daab Green for sharing her adventure with me and for allowing me to share it with you.

The Stars Shine Even in The Daytime

Recently, I was asked, “Where do you find beauty?” I didn’t answer right away, but thanks to stay-at-home orders I’ve had lots of time to ponder that question. It’s a good one, for I can think of no other time in my life when I needed the transcendent power of beauty more than in the last few months.  

“A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed, the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive”. 

John O’Donohue, Irish Priest and Poet

Everyone experiences shimmering moments of beauty that catch us off guard and take our breath away. We delight in moments that arrive without warning as suddenly as butterflies that spring from the grass on a summer afternoon or as gradually as blossoms that swell into apples.

When the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary we are filled with wonder, awe, and a heightened awareness that the world around us is bursting with hidden beauty.  Beauty doesn’t save itself for special occasions but is already present in everything.

Beauty is so finely woven throughout our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.

John O’Donohue

The colors of the sunset, the sound of wind through the trees, or the trust in a child’s eyes will be there whether we notice or not, and though we’re almost never aware of it the stars shine even in the daytime. It is up to each of us to pay attention, recognize, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. 

Reflections of Star Island, Isle of Shoal, NH

It was serendipity that brought me to my first photography workshop on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. I sat in the back of Sandpiper at the end of a long, narrow table, with my tiny Canon point and shoot tucked in my pocket trying to blend into a world of SLRs, tripods, and assorted lenses. Any notion that I actually belonged there didn’t last much longer than the first part of my first question.

“You know that button?  You know the one? The one you push to make things bigger…?”  

As if they were marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer a matched set of curly-headed New Yorkers sitting in the front of the room where the good students sit, turned in unison and replied in a single voice filled with great incredulity.

 “Do you mean….the zoom.” 

“Yes,” I replied.”That would be the zoom.”

Apparently, zoom is a basic photography term. I knew immediately that I had somehow matriculated into a master class without taking the required prerequisites. The instructor and my fellow students…especially those two New Yorkers…were kind, extremely patient, and always willing to help, so I returned the next day and the next. I remained in the workshop for the entire week.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.  I have taken subsequent photography workshops where most often, I’m still the one with the most to learn. I continue to use a point and shoot camera…up-graded…but still rather basic and now, too, I use the camera on my phone. 

I delete many more shots than I keep and I miss more shots than I take, but I came away from that very first workshop with something much more valuable than learning the difference between aperture and speed, or how to set the ISO.  I learned to see. To really see the beauty that surrounds me every day.

“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.”

Rumi

During that first workshop, I became very aware of light. “Find the source, see where it falls and place yourself and your subject in relation to it,” Caleb said. “ Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light.  Reflect the light.  Be the light.”

Neither my camera nor I am fast enough to capture everything I see, but now I notice the way the light reflects off the water and dances among the leaves at the edge of the river; I marvel at the way the sun shines through the delicate petals of the bearded iris that line my sister’s walkway, and I find much joy in the twice-daily golden hour that momentarily highlights the ordinary with opulent splendor.  Beauty is transient. It doesn’t wait or linger. We must be vigilant and observant. The brilliant sunset morphs and fades even as we watch; the final notes of the song once clear and crisp dissolve into the evening air, and the eagle soars overhead and then is gone.

A few years after I took that first photography workshop I joined a photography group at the local senior center. The facilitator was very fond of Wabi-sabi, the philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the every day, and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying. It is seeing beauty in common items and scenes often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find it. That philosophy opened my eyes even wider.  

Shortly before his death, my husband and I spent four days in a ghost town outside of Arches National park in Utah.  I brought my camera along on hikes in the park where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the awe-inspiring arches carved in the soft red sandstone by wind, weather and time, but I was also able to appreciate the special kind of beauty that remained in the weathered boards, the chipped and faded paint and the sagging roofs of the once prosperous village in which we found ourselves.  Even in this place, I could still hear Caleb’s voice.  “Crop with your feet.” and paraphrasing Robert Capa…”If it’s not interesting, you’re not close enough”.  Through my lens, I saw the roofs now naked and shingle-less, and the abstract perfection of the staunch and upright nails who still remained at attention with no other purpose than to be beautiful. Streaks of rust from broken hinges, garden gates covered with vines, shattered glass, and tattered curtains also revealed their unique beauty.  What a blessing to be able to appreciate the wonder of such a place. 

Even in this strange time of physical distancing and self-isolation, we are discovering the beauty that has been hiding in plain sight…the light that turns the neighborhood windows to gold at twilight, the still life created by groceries on the kitchen counter, the smiling eyes that look back at us across a homemade mask. We dance, we sing, we write words on the page, we add paint to a canvas, we capture light through a lens, we rearrange pieces of broken plates, we read, we walk in the park, we sew masks,  and we bake loaves of bread. I believe our need for the beautiful…and the compulsion to create it…has enabled us to endure this challenging time of the pandemic.

“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful

L.R.Knost

Learning to see the beauty of the world isn’t the only lesson taught in those photography workshops.  For if you didn’t notice, the rules that Caleb taught me are also lessons for how to live in this world as well. Find the source of light…the source of love…the source of that which you call holy… and place yourself in relation to it.  Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light.  Be the light and kindle the flame for another when their light flickers in the storms of life.   Wabi Sabi entreats us to see the beauty, the wisdom, and the divine in people who are broken, tired, old, and worn, as well as in objects or buildings and if they’re not interesting we’re not close enough.  Crop with your feet. 

“Where do you find beauty?” he asked.

“Everywhere.” I replied, with a smile. Everywhere

Originally shared as part of a chapel service during Virtual Star Arts Retreat. Star Island, Isle of Shoals, NH

June 26, 2020

Crossing The Threshold

I’m a dweller on the threshold, And I’m waiting at the door, And I’m standing in the darkness, I don’t want to wait no more…I will walk out of the darkness. And I’ll walk into the light. I will sing the song of ages, And the dawn will end the night.”

Van Morrison, from Dweller on the Threshold
Crossing the Threshold
Star Island

The entire world is standing on the threshold…the narrow place between the world as we knew it just a few months ago and the world as it is becoming.  We watch as other states rush to open and we wonder when or even if we can safely return to activities we once took for granted.  So many questions.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2019, I was on my way to church when I slipped on the ice and broke my ankle. At the time I was living in a two-hundred-year-old, cape cod house in New England. My house had plenty of character complete with sloping floors,, small doorways, and uneven transitions between the rooms. 

I never mastered crutches, so until I could be given a walking cast my mode of transportation through the house was a knee scooter. One knee and lower leg would rest on the padded seat of the scooter, the other leg provided stability and power and I had handlebars for steering. I got pretty good at making wide turns, moving on the straightaway, and even backing up. The challenge, however, came when I needed to cross the very uneven threshold between one room and another. I really had to concentrate and plan my actions so that I moved the scooter forward without putting it or me off balance. Sometimes this also involved carefully lifting the front wheels slightly off the ground, over the wooden boards, and then setting the scooter back on the floor. Occasionally, it was necessary to rest briefly before repeating the process and moving the rear wheels over the obstacle and into the adjacent room.

Crossing a threshold…literally or figuratively… involves moving from where we are into where we will be. For now, we find ourselves sheltering in place, and much like my knee scooter, we remain directly on the threshold…waiting to make the transition from life before the virus to life after. Eventually, we will cross the space between known and unknown, until then, however, we can only guess at what lies ahead.

Waiting on the Threshold
Lower level in St Peter’s Dom, Trier

Many of us find this condition unsettling, uncomfortable and our equilibrium is off-kilter. No one enjoys being in a state of limbo, but perhaps we could consider this resting on the threshold experience as an unexpected gift. A gift of time that we can use to catch our breath from the abrupt change in our lives, plan our actions for the days ahead, evaluate what we really want to keep and what we have learned to live without.

Although we are together in this space between beginning and ending some of us have had our engines running at full speed…teachers, parents, essential workers, and those working from home have not had the benefit of a little breath-catching time. The unanswered question of when, if, and how things will return to something familiar is an unwelcome complication and an additional stress for all of us, but especially for these folks.

Moving forward…getting all our wheels on the same plane…is going to take courage, bravery, and a good deal of faith.  “Thresholds are dangerous places, “ says Alix E. Harrow. “neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt,” he says.  You can’t fear the in-between.”

The In-between
Montreal, 2019

None of us is sure how long we’ll be staying in this in-between…it would be so much easier if we did… but already we have begun to inch our way toward the other side. Until we sprout wings lets stand on the solid ground of where we are, pull on our big kid pants, lace up our shoes and put one foot in front of the other and step out in faith toward the other side. The length of our stride isn’t important. It’s that we just take those steps and keep on moving forward.

George Harrison of the Beatles once said of Elvis Presley that although they were devoted fans and his music was a great influence on their work, The Beatles always felt sorry for him, because he was alone and they had each other. They had their mates. Everything is better with a mate or two by your side and this pandemic is no exception, but even those of us who have been sheltering in place solo are more like The Beatles than Elvis. We’re all full of trepidation as we stand on this unique threshold, but we are not standing alone. We are making this journey into the future…taking tiny steps toward the other side…with neighbors, family, friends, and many helpful strangers…supporting each other with love and walking side by side. We’ll get through this together. When we support each other we find we are supporting ourselves as well.

Walking With Grandpa
Cochem, 2019

One of my friends, said recently, that we can’t really cross a threshold until we can imagine what lies on the other side. It seems that lately when I imagine what might lie ahead the soundtrack is similar to one of those movie scenes where the intensity of the horns and strings gradually increase and you hold your breath as the suspense builds until you find yourself shouting at the screen trying to warn the protagonist…”Get away! Get away! And for God’s sake, don’t open that door!” But…sometimes imagining what’s under the bed is much worse than the dirty socks that got kicked under there in the first place.

It’s also true that sometimes amazing adventures are simply beyond our imagining. Could Lucy have imagined Narnia as she pushed her way towards the back of the wardrobe or Alice imagine the adventure at the bottom of the rabbit hole? And remember, in the movie version, it wasn’t until she landed in Oz that Dorothy found color

The Dublin-based creative agency, The Tenth Man created a moving video called The Phoenix. It offers hope and an important reminder that this crisis will not last forever. We will cross the threshold. It will end.

“When this will all end we will be reunited, so now, just for a minute, let’s imagine it. The moment you’ll hear that voice again. See that face again Feel that embrace again. And we will embrace, the old, the young the family, the friends, friendly rivals, the rival rivals those you wouldn’t have thought twice about touching before and we will cry Oh, we will cry. Fat hot wet tears will roll down our faces as we hold each other tight and for far too long because when this will all end it won’t feel right to ever let go again. And when this will all end you’ll ask me to dance and I will say yes let’s dance.  Let’s dance for the dawn of a new world, for those we love, for those we’ve lost, for another chance and you’ll put on your red shoes and dance my blues away and as we sway you’ll look In my eyes at my soul reviving, burning, arising,  And those fat hot wet tears will fall and we will never ever forget it and we will never ever let go again. And this, this will all end.”

Yes, This will all end and we will find ourselves on the other side of the threshold until then we’ll just put one foot in front of the other and move slowly toward the other side.

Originally shared with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Michigan, Mt Pleasant, Michigan

May 10th, 2020

From the Inside Looking Out

“Your desire to be near to a window is your desire to be close to life!” 

― Mehmet Murat ildan
Invercargill, New Zealand

Recently messages flooded my Facebook newsfeed wishing me a Happy Easter. Three of these greetings stood out from the others and really gave me pause. One was translated from Italian, another from Dutch, and the third came in Polish. For some reason, those brief Paschal blessings sent from friends around the world suddenly made our shared condition of sheltering in place real for me. Of course, like you, I had seen pictures of the eerily empty streets of Rome, London, and New York and I understood that the world had come to a halt in the abstract, but those words of hope and rebirth came not from nameless statistics, but from people with whom I had shared hugs, meals, and laughter, people who were now, in their own countries safely ensconced in the safety of their homes. The worldwide lockdown was suddenly concrete and very real. Across the globe, people are staying inside, wearing masks and keeping a distance of six feet as we connect socially through Facetime, Facebook, and Zoom. We go out only when necessary and watch the change of season from our windows.

Throughout history, people have been forced to take refuge in confined spaces for safety. I think of my ancestor, Hugh Trueman, who made the journey from Londonderry to Philadelphia safely below deck on the barque Bradshaw in 1839; I remember too, huddling in the northwest corner of the basement for what seemed like hours as tornado sirens blared; and we know many stories of Jews who went into hiding during the Holocaust, but never has there been a time in human history when so many people are sheltering in place at the same time. This truly is a singularly extraordinary time.

Lamps in lonely windows are symbols of connection. Each lamp illumines an area of the dark, and all lamps together create the community of light, sign of the human family, casting light abroad…beaming this message: ‘We who lit these lamps are brothers and sisters!’

Kenneth L. Patton

My sister recently recommended a group on Facebook…View From My Window…where individuals in self-isolation around the globe share photos of what they see when looking out. The images are as varied as the people who post them. This morning I saw views of snowcovered mountains in Norway and sunny coral colored courtyards in Morocco. There are glorious views of oceans, lakes, and rivers and urban vistas of rooftops, metal, and sky. Some people see colorful gardens full of flowers and birds, while others view bare twisted branches that hold only the promise of blossoms and leaves. Photos come from skyscrapers in Dubai, brick-red villages in Africa, and small quintessentially American towns across the mid-west. Whether grand or humble the person posting always finds something to appreciate about the view, perhaps simply because it is home. It is where they are hunkered down, finding refuge, and comfort, marking the days as we weather the storm together.

Seeing the view from the various windows reminded me of the trip Dave and I took in 1999 from Fairbanks, Alaska south through the inside passage. Choosing which type of cabin to book for the ocean portion of our trip was a challenge. As you may know, cabins are classified by where they are on the ship and the size of the window. We knew that we wanted an outside cabin with a view and, although much less appealing, we concluded that a room with a single, small porthole probably best suited our budget at the time. Dave, in charge of making the initial deposit on the trip, headed off to the travel agent with a checkbook in hand. Upon his return, he confessed that he had upgraded our cabin to one with a much bigger window. “I just couldn’t justify being in Alaska and not being able to see it,” he said. He was right. We happily spent a bit more money and were able to enjoy the scenery without taking turns on tiptoe at the porthole.

This pandemic has made it abundantly clear that we are fellow passengers on this beautiful Blue Boat Home of ours. Yes, we’re all stuck in port on the same boat, but we are not all on the same deck. Some of us are comfortable on the upper deck, drinking our Mai Tais and wondering when we will be able to use our travel vouchers from canceled trips, whether the theatre will honor our unused tickets, or when we can stroll the aisles of garden centers, bookstores, and other small shops. Everyone is concerned about getting sick but not all of us have to worry about health insurance or whether we can pay our utility bill. There are still others on this journey whose only view is from the porthole and many, many more who have no window at all not to mention the hands sweating below deck working tirelessly to keep the ship afloat.

Between the light and darkness, we dwell, knowing both joy beyond measure and trouble beyond imagining. Keep us as we would keep each other, knowing that we belong together and that when we walk through the valley of shadows we need not do so alone.

Burton Carley, With or Without Candlelight: A Meditation Anthology
Sheltering in Place, View from my porch, Mt Pleasant, Michigan

As we hunker down and try to find equilibrium in our new normal let’s fling open our windows to the world beyond our own walls, allowing light and love to wash over us, reminding us that we are definitely not alone and until we can find the tools and precious glass to construct more windows let’s also remember with caring, compassion, and gratitude those on the decks below.

I Need a Technicolor Coat

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”

Probably not…Sigmund Freud

As a student, I struggled with the use of symbolism. I understood the concept but just couldn’t seem to recognize it in the text. If by some miracle I did realize that the author was using that technique I seldom had a clue what it meant or what message was hidden there. How reassuring when in a master’s level seminar, after the class had spent over an hour prying all the possible symbolic meanings from The Old Man and The Sea our professor warned, “Remember don’t get too caught up in symbolism. Sometimes it’s just about a fishing trip.”

Ducks at Chip-a-Waters Park, 2020

Shortly after my mother died, I began to have a reoccurring dream. It returned night after night. In the dream, I’d grab my computer or my phone and in panic and terror, I would plead a desperate warning: “Don’t delete the program! Be careful. Don’t hit the wrong key. Don’t delete the program! Just don’t delete the program.”

If dreams are merely stories we tell our unconscious selves why did I keep repeating this one? Knowing my struggle with symbolism I surprised myself by how quickly I came to understand the message of this nighttime vision. It seemed obvious. The program I didn’t want to delete was my mother.

The dream returned when Dave died.

It came again last week.

I woke myself up in the middle of the night, grabbed my cellphone and had it in my hands trying to find which keys I needed to push when I realized that I was once again in the dream and there was nothing I could do to keep the program from self-deleting. The symbolism had changed only slightly. It was not my mother or my husband I was trying to keep from slipping away; it was my life as it had been before COVID-19 snatched it from my grasp.

I recalled the dream the next morning when I was fully awake and had to admit that in many ways I am right back in the early stages of grief. This time, of course, I’m not alone with my private pain. This time the entire world is collectively grieving. Each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not is in one of Katherine Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance.

Being sequestered in my home, I see grief being manifested in the roller coaster ride of posts on social media. Friends share silly videos, humorous graphics, and uplifting messages of hope one minute and posts full of anger and frustration the next. I feel it in my own life too. I am often filled with fury and despair at the calamitous situation in which we find ourselves. At other times, I am nearly paralyzed with sadness; my eyes welling with tears and a lump in my throat that I am unable to swallow away. I am overcome with the mirrored emotions of fear and apprehension, and yet, when I notice small green shoots poking through the pebbles reaching for the sun or watch the Mourning Doves build a nest in the big pine tree I also feel a sense of calm acceptance of things as they are. Grieving is a complicated business.

“In times of grief and sorrow, I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry I cry and when you hurt I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods of tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life”

Nicolas Sparks, The Notebook

As we walk this unfamiliar valley together…at a distance of six feet…we are aware of our interdependence and connectedness. We are all in this journey together…holding each other’s sorrow, listening to each other’s story, and taking turns soothing each other’s bouts of fear and distress. Instead of bringing brownies, lasagna, or pots of soup to assist those in mourning as is our normal custom, we are supported by courageous strangers who perform the unseen but necessary tasks that keep us fed, safe, and secure. Our hearts are full when we consider all the simple kindnesses that grace our lives on a daily basis. We worry and pray together for all of those on the frontlines doing battle on our behalf. It’s such a paradox that as we hunker-down, flatten the curve, and stay inside we are alone and yet the world entire is walking the same crowded path.

Recently, the songs of the early morning birds crept into that space between dream and waking as I tried to squeeze a few more minutes of sleep from what had been a restless night. As I slipped into my dreams once again, as often happens in dreams, one of the birds began to speak to me, “Follow me”, he said in his little bird language which amazingly I had no trouble understanding. “Follow me and everything will be all right.” I watched as the wee fellow flew into a dark, narrow cave. “Don’t be afraid,” he continued to chirp. “Follow me.” I took a deep breath and began to follow. I hadn’t gone far when, although still surrounded by impenetrable darkness, I could see sunlight bouncing off the walls ahead. Then, as in any good third-grade story…I woke up.

Once again, the symbolism seemed quite clear to me. My feathered buddy was telling me that as we enter this time of tremendous uncertainty and yes, grief, we should remember that there is the promise of light up ahead. Spring is here and summer is coming and even in the midst of great sorrow, fear, and disappointment there will flowers blooming, trees leafing out, and moments of great joy.

Hey…I’m finally getting good at this symbolism stuff, however, in case the universe is wondering, I’m perfectly happy to simply savor a night of deep, peaceful uninterrupted sleep.

Please be safe, be well, and do what you can to flatten the curve.

Never Pray for Courage

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

L Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

A friend once told me that there are just some things you should never, ever pray for. “Think about it,” she said. “If you ask God to teach you patience or courage or empathy how do you think those lessons are going to be delivered? God is going to place something in your path that is going to require those skills. It’s going to be hands-on learning, take-home exam, and definitely pass/fail.” That was enough to convince me; I sure wasn’t looking forward to any of the lab work. As it turns out you don’t even need to pray for those skills; sometimes the course work just arrives at your doorstep unbidden.

Last Spring, as I recovered from a broken ankle, I had plenty of ‘thinking time’. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m a senior citizen, but surely, I concluded, I’m much too young for my days of travel and adventure to be over. There’s still so much I want to see, taste, and do, but without my travel buddy, if I am going to see the world, I’ll probably need to be brave and learn to do it on my own.

After pondering how I could return to Scotland alone…Dave always did the driving and I never learned to drive on the left…I decided that if I stayed in a city I could easily travel using shank’s pony and public transport, so last Spring I booked a place in Edinburgh. I would spend the month of April in a two-bedroom flat just off the Royal Mile.

St. Giles Cathedral,
One of my favorite places. The bagpipe-playing angels live here.
  • December 25th: Christmas Eve, While we were singing carols and lighting candles the first publicly reported collection of virus samples was taken from a patient in China suffering from pneumonia of unknown cause.
  • January 8th: I was excited that the installation of my new flooring was underway while scientists in Wuhan announced the discovery of a new coronavirus. That same day South Korea identified a possible incidence of the virus coming from China.
  • January 21st: The first case of what is now called COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States.
  • January 31st:, Travel to the US from China was restricted.
  • February 26th:, My granddaughter arrived on her first solo trip from Burlington to Detroit. During her week-long visit deciding whether or not to roll the dice again and risk wiping out our score in a game of Farkle was our biggest concern other than wondeingr whether or not a snowstorm was going to keep us from getting to and from the airport safely.
  • March 8th: The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was found in Vermont. Two days later, the first confirmed case was diagnosed in Michigan.

I canceled the flat on March 11th. There were 1,267 cases of COVID-19 in 43 states. Later that day, the first case was recorded in Scotland.

Edinburgh Castles
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Making the decision to cancel my long-awaited and much-anticipated return to Scotland was heart-breaking. At the time we were getting such mixed messages. It was like trying to find your way across an unknown room in the dark. Possible, but really difficult. At the time, making a prudent choice seemed unnecessary and overly cautious. After all, the planes were still flying, the numbers of cases were proportionally relatively low and the CDC was advising travelers not to cancel their flights or travel plans to the UK. I agonized about making the right choice. I really, really wanted to be in Edinburgh. Was I overreacting? Shouldn’t I just go ahead with the trip? Couldn’t I tempt fate in Scotland as well as in The States? What was the brave reaction to these facts? What was the courageous thing to do and doesn’t courage demand action?

“Perhaps there were worse things than being afraid of the dark.” 

Holly Webb, Return To The Secret Garden.

President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear“. The fear remains, but he suggests, you can conquer it with action. It’s true, bravery and courage often require us “to do something”, but I am learning…we…are all learning that it also requires a great deal of daring, guts, and, strength “to not do something”.

Young Girls on a Field Trip to Edinburgh Castle

COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world with great rapidity. Had I waited, my choice would have been made for me. Across the globe, millions and millions of people are making similar choices. We desperately want to have the party, see the play, take the trip, hug the grandchildren, and do a myriad of other things. We have canceled, postponed, or found creative ways to be together…while apart. We are staying hunkered down and not doing those things which only a month ago we took for granted.

“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right”

JK Rowling, Dumbledore, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Finding myself in a high-risk group for the coronavirus, I have chosen to isolate myself. It is strange, but when I go out for a walk I change my route if another person approaches. I haven’t spoken to another living being face to face in over a week. I miss those squirrels that plagued me so much last winter and long for birds to light on my porch rail. It is a lonely existence that lmost makes me wish I had a cat, but then there’s that whole litterbox thing. No, I guess, not.

From my window, I watch as birds build nests in the large pine tree in the back yard. Around the world people, too, are creating nests, dens, even blanket forts in the living room; places of comfort, peace, and refuge; settling down, retreating, and sheltering where they are. In this crisis, we must protect each other, the vulnerable and those on the frontline. Remember, it is what we choose not to do that will test our courage, demonstrate our bravery and demand our strength.

Please, Stay home! Flatten the Curve!

Robin Seen in Chip-a-Waters Park, First Day of Spring 2020

Laughing Death in the Face

“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”

Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie

I am becoming quite the movie buff. My new condo is literally only five minutes from the local multiplex and I’ve discovered that going to the movies is a rather enjoyable solo activity. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that I almost prefer going by myself. I can decide to go at the last minute, I can sit wherever I choose, no one talks to me during the feature, and if I decide to leave early, there’s no one to disappoint.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, however, I went to the movies with my sister’s family which was great fun. After purchasing our tickets, drinks, and popcorn we moved to the butter and salt station where my nephew showed me a trick he uses for making sure the butter is on all the kernels not just those on the top of the bag. He took an extra straw, put it into the bag, pushed it down near the bottom and then deftly placed it under the spout for the melted butter. As he released the warm liquid into the straw he carefully pulled the straw up through the popcorn and voilà the butter was distributed evenly throughout. Great idea!

Movie Popcorn is the Best!

The next time I ventured off to the movies I thought I’d try the new butter technique. I place the bag of popcorn under the dispenser and then positioned my straw into the bag and aligned it with the spout. It was a tight fit getting my straw in the proper position. It looked easy when my nephew did it, but eventually, I had everything in position and pulled the handle forward and began to fill the bag with rich, creamy butter. It was then I noticed the butter dispenser to my right. I wasn’t aligned with the butter. I was filling my bag of fluffy white popcorn with Vitamin B & C-Pomegranate-SoBe-Water! Yes, the entire bottom of my paper sack was filled with vitamin water!

Not to worry, I put some butter on the still fresh kernels at the top of the bag and headed into the theatre. It’s true, most of the bag was really wet and soggy almost to the point of saturation, but hey, the top third was delicious!

“If you can laugh at yourself, you are going to be fine. If you allow others to laugh with you, you will be great.”

Martin Niemoller

One day, not long after the popcorn incident I was baking brownies to take to my brother-in-law. The scent of chocolate was filling my small kitchen with the promise of deliciousness. Near the end of the baking time, I took a peek into the oven to see how they were doing. Something was very wrong. There was a pool of oil floating on the top of the semi-solid brown batter. What had I done? I reviewed the directions. I hadn’t added too much oil as I first suspected. I had omitted the egg! Quickly, I retrieved the brownies from the oven and stirred the half-baked mixture with a fork. They were still wet enough that I could easily add the eggs and then return the pan to the oven. Without hesitation, I cracked first one egg and then the other into the warm chocolatey concoction. Do you know what happens when you add eggs to something hot? They begin to cook! OMG! I began to stir frantically in an effort to combine the eggs with the brownie glob before they turned to scrambled eggs. I’ve come to terms with chocolate wine, but huevos con chocolate…I don’t think so. Never fear, I was beating those eggs hard, fast and with great determination. In the end, the only evidence of my culinary blunder was a few very small white flecks of egg marbled throughout an otherwise perfect pan of brownies.

He ate them with delight.

“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”

Barry Humphries
Remember the Eggs

My late husband, Dave, would have loved those stories. Humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other sustained our marriage for forty-three years. In many ways, the two of us led parallel lives. We had very different interests, attitudes, and styles, but we both loved to laugh and we considered it quite an accomplishment when we were clever enough to get the other to “fall for” one of our many jokes. Not to brag, but I “got” him most often. Laughter was a very important part of who we were as a couple and who we were…are…as individuals. For many people the trauma of loss has them questioning whether they will ever laugh again. Many people wonder if, in their grief, if it is inappropriate or unseemly to smile or laugh. Thankfully, that wasn’t my experience. Telling Dave’s stories and jokes is a way to keep his memory…and him…close and alive.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Grief has become an omnipresent fixture in my life. It hides in the shadows and rises unexpectantly with the specter of Death, his co-conspirator, to fill me again and again with unspeakable sadness. I have learned, however, that I am pretty resilient and when I can look Death in the face and let loose with a hearty guffaw, Grief can not defeat me and Death does not win!

Finding the ability to laugh isn’t always easy. There are days when joy can remain an out-of-reach, unattainable goal, but Happiness and Laughter also live at my house where they are constantly working to keep the sadness at bay. Often when I least expect it, I’ll find a picture, or remember a funny situation, or come across an object Dave unintentionally left behind for me to discover causing me to smile, chuckle, or dissolve into fits of laughter.

“Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.”

Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Soon after his death, my sisters and my daughter-in-law were helping me pack Dave’s clothes for Goodwill. “What is this?” my daughter-in-law asked incredulously. The look on her face was a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, and hilarity. Pinched between her thumb and index finger she held a piece of navy blue knit material. Suddenly, right there in the midst of this very sad task, the four of us began to roar with laughter. She was holding the remnants of a long-forgotten practical joke….her father-in-law’s rather ample…underpants with “Chick Magnet” emblazoned across the bottom.

Chick Magnet Undies

Thanks, Dave!

And…Take that Death and your little buddy Grief too!

One Foot in Front of the Other

“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

Several years ago, my granddaughter and I took a short hike toward a promised overlook. It was obvious that she was really not enjoying this adventure. Her foot hurt, she was tired, and she wanted to turn around. The ‘beware of bears’ sign didn’t help either. We stepped off the wooded trail to rest on a large boulder while we considered what we would do. In this small clearing, the sun’s rays shone down upon us, no longer filtered through the leafy overhang. We could hear the rush of a small stream as it played amongst the pebbles on its way to the sea and wildflowers were peeking through the scrub in their dresses of white and blue and yellow and orange. It was just a brief moment of light in the forest. After this short respite, we stepped back onto the path, into the shadows, and beneath the umbrella of leaves.

Glacier National Park

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

C.S. Lewis

Grief is like that too. As I hike the trail through this valley, the trees open up more frequently to moments of light and flowers and joy, but without warning, I look around and find myself once again in the gloom of thick underbrush and beneath branches that block the sun. Even so, if I keep myself open, grief continues to teach me her lessons. Fear, courage, and bravery are on the first page of her syllabus. It takes a certain amount of daring to face the disorientation and uncertainty of life after a loss. Nothing is as it once was and it’s difficult to find your bearings. To live without equilibrium takes strength, faith, and fortitude.

Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once – a way to orient our life.

Samantha Smithstien

“You’re so strong and brave,” people told my friend at the death of her second husband. “I’m not brave or strong,” she replied. ” I just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other.”

Each day we make the choice whether to pull up our big-kid pants, put our feet on the ground, and take those steps forward…or not. Often, we’re doing well to sit on the edge of the bed and just think about moving and there are days when even that is a stretch. But, with courage, hope, and a great deal of bravery eventually, we shuffle our feet and move to the music of life.

One Foot In Front of the Other and Lead with Love

I decided that this year one of my goals is to consciously work on being brave. “Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, ” I chant to myself throughout the day hoping that at some point it will become internalized and I can change this admonition into an affirmation. “You are brave! You are brave! You are brave!”

For me, being brave means moving forward not necessarily with confidence, but with faith. It is the belief that scrambling over the obstacles life puts in our path will make the next hill a little easier to climb. Being brave acknowledges that we’re all going to stumble, fall, and skin our knees. It also gives us the resilience not to let those set-backs put a halt to our progress. Being brave allows us to laugh at ourselves when we trip and land spread eagle on the ground, our glasses askew, and those big-kid pants on display for the world to see. Bravery reminds us we just need to get back up.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

On my December trip to Vermont as darkness fell and after hours of driving, I accidentally turned off the road I knew, the road I meant to be on, and started down an unplanned route. In that instant with a single right turn, I was facing my top three fears…being alone, being somewhere unfamiliar, and making an error in judgment. The disembodied voice from my GPS assured me that I could indeed go forward on the new road and that it would lead me to my destination. Since I had never approached my destination from this direction I thought perhaps the GPS knew a better way. She didn’t. Following her instructions, I found myself in upstate New York, on the wrong side of Lake Champlain. She’s taking me to a bridge, I thought. She wasn’t. At 10:30 on a Wednesday night, I found myself at the ferry dock which had been closed for hours. I was on the wrong side of the lake, I didn’t know where exactly I was, I had no idea how to find the bridge, I was tired, and it was beginning to snow. In all honesty, it was scary.

Seyon State Park, Vermont
New Year’s Eve, 2019

Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

With help, via cellphone from my son; after figuring out how to override the GPS that kept trying to take me back to the ferry; and with a great deal of positive self-talk as I drove twisty, snow-covered and deserted back roads I eventually found my way to the bridge and familiar roads in Vermont. I was disgusted with myself for not simply returning to my regular route after making the wrong turn and yet, facing my fears and solving the challenge of the situation was exhilarating and empowering. Half of being brave is just breathing and taking that next step.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.” Yes, this is my mission for the year. I was never courageous enough to climb the huge pine tree with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. I missed seeing the world from that lofty vantage point. What else will I miss if I don’t dare to live my life as it is, even if it is still a little out of sync? I’m learning to be brave, so I’m pullin’ ’em up and I’m steppin’ out.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Rainer Maria Rilke with