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

Making Darn Good Time!

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms…I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from When Death Comes

The sun was shining and the sky was full of fluffy, white clouds the morning I left Michigan for Vermont. Everything was going in my favor all day. There was no line at customs, the traffic was light, and Audible was providing great entertainment. As I approached Toronto…which can be a race track or a parking lot…I decided to splurge and take the toll road. Somewhere, just east of the city, I received a message from my daughter-in-law asking how I was doing and whether I was going to drive straight through or spend the night. It was early afternoon and I was movin’ right along, so I said I thought I’d keep driving. “I’m making really great time. This road is wonderful. There’s no one else on it. I have the highway to myself.” One slight problem, I was making darn good time…but I had missed my exit and was on the wrong road! When discovered my error, I made a quick adjustment and was soon back on course.

In the months since my husband’s death, getting myself on the right road has been one of my major challenges. It’s difficult to get moving in the right direction when you’re not sure where you are, where you’re headed or where you hope to arrive. Being disoriented during grief is to be expected, but charting a course, setting goals, and creating a to-do list affects all of us no matter our age or station.

I once asked a group of children if it was possible to count all the individual grains of sand in a small jar I was holding. One little boy replied, “Yes, you could do it, but it depends on how you want to spend your life.” Great answer. One of my favorites. How do we want to spend our lives? Isn’t that the biggest question; the most difficult question; the question we continually ask ourselves even as we adjust, amend, refine and tweak our answers? After all, it’s possible to count the grains of sand, but is that what we really want to do?

“What are you doing the rest of your life, North and South and East and West of your life…”

Alan Bergman/ Marilyn Bergman/ Michel Legrand H

How we spend our lives is an ever-evolving, never-ending string of choices. Knowing that we have choices and that we are responsible for the consequences of those choices is often paralyzing. One false move and our house of cards may come tumbling down.

Quiet Water in The Adirondacks

On a simply glorious day, a few summers ago, I took my kayak out onto the quiet waters of a nearby reservoir. It was early in the day and I seemed to be totally alone. I paddled slowly around the perimeter mesmerized by the sunlight sparkling on the water droplets cascading from my paddle and smiling as I observed a family of turtles sunning themselves on a fallen log. I was soon joined by a pair of curious loons who swam close to my boat. I stopped paddling and drifted silently beside them. Within minutes an eagle circled overhead before settling into its nest. It occurred to me that at that moment, there was no place on earth that I would rather be. I also realized that all my life choices had led me to that place and time…my wise decisions as well as my mistakes, poor judgments, and total cock-ups. Each choice had played a part in bringing me to that glorious morning. That awareness was freeing, for even if I choose poorly now and again or make mistakes in judgment wonders and amazement still lie before me just waiting to be discovered.

Before the parade passes by I’m gonna get in step while there’s still time left…I wanna feel my heart coming alive again. Before the parade passes by.

Jerry Herman, When The Parade Passes By, Hello Dolly

I remember watching old black and white Westerns with my dad when I was a kid. Inevitably the hero and his pals would be stranded somewhere out on the plains. At first, they’d drink hungrily from their canteens, even pouring some water on their sweaty heads and faces, but as the journey continued…on foot by this point, since they always seemed to lose their horses for some reason or other…they would begin to ration the water only taking small sips…trying to make the water last. At this point in my life, I’m savoring the water in my canteen, sipping carefully and rationing my choices. My canteen has a finite amount of water I don’t want to waste a single drop.

Monument Valley, Utah
September 2018

In the end, how we make our choices, how we map our lives and plot our course is as individual as we are. Some may travel with a well-thought-out, elaborate itinerary, and pre-planned route confident about what lies ahead. Others want to leave plenty of space for the occasional detour, the missed exit, and the unplanned adventure.

Most of the choices we make…the miles we clock… are for every-day trips…short, routine, and seemingly insignificant…for which we need neither map nor GPS. It is these small moments…the simple choices…that eventually add up to the special moments of our lives. We must remember to delight in these as well. That big trip may be in the future…or…not…but our lives are now. How we choose to live it is up to us.

“…And the present is what your life is, and you are capable of choosing what that will be, darling citizen. So come to the pond or river of your imagination, or the harbor of your longing, and put your lips to the world. And live your life.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from Morning at Blackwater

I’m still not quite sure where I’m going, but the road has been plowed, I’ve got a full tank of gas, and  I’m making darn good time!

Pay Attention. Hurry Up. Slow Down.

No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has to come, think of the present because thats where you are. 

Kazi Shams
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Edited

The recipe called for one half cup of butter, softened. My butter was rock hard, but it was a warm day and the sun would speed this process along, so I put a stick of butter on the railing of the deck. I returned to the recipe and began to chop the nuts and maraschino cherries. I measured out the coconut, chocolate chips and mandarin oranges setting them all aside ready to be added in turn to the mixture. Finally, in another bowl I added the flour, salt, and, oh dear, I was out of baking powder. It would only take me a minute to run to the neighborhood store to buy a new container, so I slipped out of my wear-these-only-around-the-house clothes, washed my hair because it was sticking up all over the place, and headed off to Quality Market. But wait, if I was going out, I might as well take the mail down to the mailbox. I had several items in envelopes ready to go, but one needed to be printed. I got my laptop and opened it to the letter. The printer hasn’t been working properly for awhile, so it was necessary to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the machine. I’m getting rather skilled at this task and it was quickly accomplished. One of the letters needed special attention, so instead of the mailbox I’d stop at the post office on my way to the grocery store. Arriving at the post office I waited as two cars cleared the parking lot, leaving the space closest to the door available. I smiled as I went inside and discovered that there was no one inline ahead of me. How lucky. I ordered my stamps and requested that the last letter be sent via certified mail. I needed to fill out the label which would be affixed to the envelope. As I completed the questions on the attachment another woman approached the counter. She was hard-of-hearing which slowed the exchange somewhat, but the clerk was patient with her and realizing that she was obviously hungry for conversation listened to her tales and added one of her own. I was happy to wait and was moved by the kindness and caring of the clerk. I’m a fan of the postal service. I reached the store without complication and was in and out in no time. I returned home to find the ingredients still on the counter waiting for me. I’d get back to making the bread in a minute, but first I’d hang the sheets on the line. Carrying the wet fabric to the porch I was just about to rest the sheets on the deck rail only to remember…THE BUTTER. It was definitely softened.

Funny How the Package Kept It’s Shape Even Thought the Butter Didn’t
July 2019

I always thought I was fairly good at multitasking. As a mother and elementary school teacher it was a necessary skill, but it’s not one that I have maintained. Maybe no one is ever really good at it. Multitasking is such a misnomer, an illusion. It is impossible to focus on even two projects at once. In actuality we split our attention between them not giving our full consideration or effort to either.

How often have I walked into a room only to discover that I have no clue what prompted me to go there in the first place? I can lose my focus from one room to the next! Who knew that walking and remembering would be taking multi-tasking to the outer limits of my ability? The older I get the less often I’m able to hold two ideas in my head at the same time. My brain is slowing down like an old computer that needs to be taken to the Apple Store and swept for duplicate, unnecessary, and obsolete files. After all, do I really need to have the procedure for threading a reel to reel projector or the lyrics to The Monster Mash still taking up memory.

I’ve also begun to realize that there are two competing and mutually exclusive philosophies at work in my life these days.

Speed up! The clock is ticking!

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.” 

Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance

Slow down. Smell the flowers.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”   

Eddie Cantor

At this end of life, and especially since Dave died, people are constantly telling me to do what I want to do. “This is your time,” they say. But what do I want to do? Yes, the road is wide open and while I hope the end is far off in the distance I know it’s out there and I’m not sure how long the tread is going to last on my tires. Do I hurry and fit in as much as I can or do I relax and simply be? Do I move along the coast collecting lighthouses or do I sit quietly in the sand and contemplate the way the waves lap the shore? I’m still searching for the answer.

Lighthouses on Prince Edward Island, August 2018
Lido Beach, Sarasota, Florida 2016

Back to the melted butter. Do you suppose it was the result of the overstuffed files with their loose bits of minutiae scattered across my hippocampus or was it the result of simultaneously trying to bake, do the laundry, and sing along with the cast of Hamilton? It was probably a combination of the two if the truth be told.

I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing me to “Pay attention. Watch what you’re doing.” It used to be about spilling my milk, but now I think she’s telling me that whatever speed I choose going forward and whether I’m off bagging lighthouses or getting sun on my face and sand in my undies I should be present wherever I am. “Keep adventuring,” I hear her say, “but remember to stop the car at the scenic overlooks, get out, and stand in awe at the wonder of life.”

Hurry up, slow down, and… by all means pay attention to the butter.

A Sign?

“I keep stars in my pockets wear daisies in my hair but I tuck you tenderly in the folds of my heart and take you everywhere.” 

Melody Lee, Vine: Book of Poetry

My husband, Dave, absolutely loved to mow the lawn. He began as a young teen mowing the lawn at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the rectory, and eventually the cemetery. When we bought our first home, much to his delight, it had a three acre lawn that required, or so he said, a riding mower. He’d spend hours in a meditative state, going back and forth, back and forth alone with his private thoughts, but more likely just enjoying the ride in a state of bliss. He especially liked to be out on his tiny tractor, ball cap on his head, when the neighboring farmers were out plowing the surrounding bean fields. He prided himself on being able to greet them across the steering wheel with the forefinger and thumb farmer wave and have them return the gesture. Simple pleasures.

It seemed that every home we ever owned was blessed with a large lawn for him to mow. Hmmm. I wonder how that happened? If the lawn wasn’t large enough, he’d gradually increase it…reclaiming area that had been devoured by the wild grasses and weeds that grew along its edge.

When he died one of my many decisions was what to do about the lawn. Over the decades his mowers had, like the lawns themselves, gradually increased in size to the point that there was no way that I’d be riding it. I’d have to hire someone, but how much should I have them mow? Dave mowed just because he loved mowing. Did I really need to keep the lawn the size he had created or could I let nature gradually take back her claim?

I decided on the latter. The first few weeks would bring tears as I watched the grass grow beyond anything he would have allowed. I remembered the joy he had with his weekly ride and the satisfaction he felt at the end. As the grass grew and the weeds returned it was a constant reminder that he was gone.

Weeks went by before I ventured out into what was now a meadow. When I finally summoned the courage, instead of the weeds and grass I had expected, it had become a field of Daisies, Buttercups, Hawkweed, Clover, Fleabane and yellow, purple and tiny white flowers for which I haven’t a name.

In nature everything is valuable, everything has its place. The rose, the daisy, the lark, the squirrel, each is different but beautiful. Each has its own expression. Each flower its’ own fragrance. Each bird its’ own song. So you too have your own unique melody.

Diane Dreher

People often talk about receiving signs or messages from those who have died. White butterflies, bright red cardinals, and delicate winged dragonflies have become reoccurring motifs for many of my friends. I was never blessed with a unique sign from either of my parents and didn’t expect to receive one from Dave either, but perhaps this field of wildflowers was indeed a message from beyond. Oh, I know that when we are looking for meaning we can easily assign the profound to the most mundane…a butterfly lands on our hand, a dragonfly swoops through a party or a cardinal keeps appearing at the window…but perhaps signs become such merely because we say they are and if they give us comfort, bring a smile, or give us courage, who’s to say they aren’t sent from those we love?

Walking among the daisies I found where a deer had spent the night. Perhaps small mammals are also making this their home; insects of all kinds for certain; and I’m sure a snake or two has slithered in as well. I didn’t expect to find a field of wildflowers, but I did. If I listen maybe they are telling me that life does go on and it can be abundant life at that. No, I wasn’t looking for it, and I’m not sure who sent it, but I’m taking this glorious field of flowers as a sign.

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