Archive for December, 2012

“Every action in our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.”

— Edwin Hubbel Chapin

In only three days, the calendar will turn over and reveal a brand new year.  It seems like only days ago that we perched on the brink of 2012, but here we are again — still the same and forever changed by the events of another year on planet earth.  Legacy will travel with me for another year.  I am not yet finished with her, nor is she finished with me.  In the next few days, I will try to choose a traveling companion for her, but she will remain.

There is something in Chapin’s words that will help set our new direction.  If  “legacy” is what we leave behind, what remains when we have gone, then it is good to recognize that there is no action we perform that is without consequence.  My mind begins to conjure up a cartoon version of the resonating chords that result from our seemingly insignificant choices.  There is the booming bass sound of a full-grown elephant stepping on a sturdy wire and then releasing it to vibrate with a tone that causes one’s heart to shudder in response.  There is the tiny, almost non-existent ping of a dragonfly who touches down for such a short instant that we wonder if we really saw it at all.  It lands on a fiber that is much smaller than a strand of hair and touches our ear with the sound of an angel’s wing against a crystal bell.  Between are the high and low tones that merge together to create the harmony and dissonance that is the music of life.  How amazing would it be if we really could hear the effect of each choice and discern how it blends or collides with the other notes that hum in the air around us.

We create the music, and we determine what the melody will be that continues to play and to invite other players from now until the end of eternity.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could embrace the awareness that every action we choose to take will send a vibration through the web of life that will play as long as life exists?  What music do you want to leave as your legacy?  What tune will you add to the music of the spheres?  It is up to us to bring harmony to our world.  Walk lightly on the wires and threads that weave together to form the web, for it connects us all.

“Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.”

— Oscar Levant

I like to think that when happy times come my way I am able to immerse myself in those moments and feel the warmth that happiness brings to my heart.  With our holiday celebrations a not-so-distant memory, I find it easy to access the happy times we shared as a family; but being together with other human beings is so much more than that.  If we are real with each other, we share the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the happiness and the sorrow.  We live together, we laugh together, we agree, we disagree, we cry, we shout, and sometimes we mourn.  This is the human experience; and if we are very fortunate, the happiness outweighs the sorrow and we say that we are happy.

The subject of happiness has come up often this past year, usually in conversations with my elderly father whose ninety-first birthday is just around the corner.  His world has grown very small.  His freedom has been compromised by the increasing needs his age has heaped on him — needs he is no longer able to meet for himself, or for the woman he loves.  Yes, my ninety-year-old mother still sits by his side.  Most days, she sleeps more than she is awake; and there is no doubt that my father’s life has more moments of sorrow than of joy.  He has to reach far into the past some days to find a bit of happiness to embrace, and often bitterness wins out and leaves him angry, sad, and alone.

The reason we have talked about happiness is that my father, sitting in his tiny world, sees my life as ideal.  He weaves his own version of how wonderful my world must be.  He fantasizes that my many children and grandchildren swarm in and out of my house to do homage on a daily basis, that they live to assure that my happiness is complete.  “What you have going for you,” he tells me, “is that you are happy.  Never forget how lucky you are to have happiness,” and what is omitted, I know, is that he has none.

I try to tell my dad that being happy is a choice I have made.  There are those who would look at the life I’ve led and some of the challenges it has contained and would tell you that I have more reasons to be miserable than to be happy.  This is where the choice comes in; and as 2012 winds to a close, I must thank my father for a happiness-related legacy.  In his own funny, backward, and sometimes miserable way, he has accused me of being happy.  Yes, it is an accusation, especially when it comes from someone who thinks that happiness has passed him by.  My father’s legacy reminds me to continue practicing happiness and not to wait for it to appear magically in my life.

I am a gardener.  There is a great deal of happiness for me in encouraging things to grow; and the solitary time I spend among the plants fills me with perspective.  Being happy is very much like gardening.  We do not simply walk to the garden one day and discover a beautiful tomato.  That moment is a joyous one, for sure, but it is the culmination of many other moments that may not be so exciting.  We dig the soil and enjoy the pleasure of its pungent aroma, but we remove the rocks that might crowd our seedlings.  We stake and support the growing plants, but we pull the weeds that want to take up the space they need to grow.  We pinch off the diseased leaves that might compromise a vine and we do our best to keep insects and birds from stealing away what we have worked to cultivate.  When the growing season is over, I remember the avalanche of sweetness that has overflowed into my home and into my belly.  I let the hardships of the garden fade into distant memory.

Perhaps it is true that our real experience of happiness takes place in our memories.  It is important when the insects come to destroy that we remember them in isolation.  The same is true for the sorrow and the grief and the anger.  They belong to our lives, but we must keep them in perspective.   Happiness is different.  Just as the gardener remembers the bounty of the harvest, we must let our happiness accumulate in one place where we can go and visit it in our memories and remember what we choose to pick and keep and what we choose to touch briefly and leave along the way.

Today I will visit the huge storehouse of happiness that lives in my memory.  I will be attentive to the events of my day and pay attention to adding any good thing that comes my way to the bountiful supply that my life has offered.  I will live every aspect of my life, but I will choose happiness.  My father has taught me how important that really is.  It is his legacy.

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

— Thomas Gray

If a flower blooms unseen in the desert, is its sweetness wasted?

As we move toward the end of 2012, my year of  “Legacy,” this idea of wasted beauty touches something deep in my soul.  How often do we put aside the urge to add something beautiful to our world simply because it may not be seen and recognized by other people?  How dependent are we on the immediate recognition of our accomplishments and contributions?  Can we possibly reach a point where we simply are free to be who we were born to be, to create and contribute and beautify simply because the things we carry inside us need to be turned loose on the world?

As I reflect on the year that soon will end, I can think of times when my heart opened wide and spilled all the good things into the space around me.  I can also think of times when I sat on the impulse to allow goodness to flow and convinced myself that such a contribution was insignificant, unnecessary, and unwarranted.  Perhaps timing seemed to be an issue, and it appeared that the time was not right for sharing or creating or spilling the contents of my heart on that day.  Perhaps there will be a better time and the unseen beauty will one day come into the light.  Perhaps it will stay confined and remain a mystery, even to the one whose heart carries it.  Sometimes we fail to recognize our own gifts until we see them in the light of day.  For this reason, if for no other, it is important to open our hearts and let them spill their beauty, even when we have no expectations that it will be seen, recognized, or embraced.

In his story, The Little Prince, Antoine de St. Exupery tells us, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it contains a well.”  Knowing that there are such marvelous things just beneath the surface of even the most bleak landscape can send us searching for some relief from the ordinary, the mundane, the unexciting things that make up our existence.  Perhaps this is the reason we must not rely on the recognition, approval, or permission of others when our hearts have something beautiful to share.  Perhaps this is what Legacy is about.

We must trust that each time we spill some beauty into the universe there is a traveler somewhere whose curiosity sends him searching for just the thing we have to offer.  The flowers that bloom all around us every day can become almost invisible as we see them as ordinary and unremarkable and unworthy of our attention; but a flower that suddenly appears in the middle of the desert can captivate us, delight us, and transform our view of the desert simply because it took the time to bloom with no promise that it would be seen.

We are all connected.  One piece of the universe touches another which touches another.  Our reason for existing is to let the beauty spill from our hearts so that it can touch the heart of another person’s curiosity.  We must not be discouraged because there is no one to see what our heart has to share.  We may not always be present at the moment of discovery, but we must continue to bloom.  This is our legacy.

Let us remember on this Christmas Day to think of how we, too, can fit into the story of the birth of Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Journey

The pair trudged into town.

Their muscles ached,

They longed for rest.

From every door they passed,

The smell of food,

The light, the warmth,

Were beckoning to them;

But when they stopped,

There was no room.

(Who was ever more alone?)

The cold November rain.

Walls of iron that open only

To cold winter snow.

A spark ignites,

And then is quenched.

It gutters with

The slightest breeze –

To touch damp straw

With flame is futile.

(Who will tend the fire?)

The Keeper of the Flame.

God made man,

Who dwells in man,

Breathes breath to dry the straw,

Through those who dare

To risk and hope;

And Christmas, every year,

Brings dawning hope

And new Creation.

(Breathed through you and me.)

— Pamela Stead Jones

It is true.

For ten days, I have taken a break from my blog.  For the first time in three years, I have skipped my daily writing time as I prepared for the yearly visit from my children and grandchildren.  It was good to disappear for a while into other parts of my life.  There are corners cleaned that haven’t had a visit for way too long.  There were projects completed and finishing touches applied to Christmas surprises.  There was a homecoming that brought us all together for an early Christmas celebration before our children, now parents themselves, retreated to their own homes and prepared magic for the next generation.  By now, I am sure, the little ones have come downstairs and discovered that Santa has come.  By now, they are repeating the traditions we built for them when they were small.

Our house is very quiet this morning.  Nobody woke us at 5:00 AM.  There were no little feet scurrying past our bedroom door, only to return with the new that “Santa was here.”  Instead, we waited up last night and had a ten o’clock dinner with Emily when she returned from work.  We sat together and watched her favorite Christmas movie, wished each other a Merry Christmas when the clock passed midnight, and settled down for a peaceful night of sleep.

Homecomings are wonderful things.  They teach us about the way that absence sweetens the return.  They show us how we have grown in the space and time since our last meeting.  They reassure us that nothing is ever really lost, even though it may be out of sight for a season or two.

Today I celebrate another homecoming.  I wondered, when I decided to take a ten-day hiatus, whether I would feel motivated again to return to writing my thoughts, my hopes, and my dreams in this place.  What I have learned is that absence does make the heart grow fonder.  I have learned that even when I dive into other occupations, I am diminished by not stopping here.  I have learned that the vessel cannot continue to be filled unless it is emptied.  I have learned that inspiration flows like a silver stream and must not be allowed to stagnate like a muddy puddle.

As the end of 2012 approaches, as my year spent with Legacy draws to a close, I have learned from absence that we must leave a legacy each day — not only for others, but for ourselves.  It is in being true to who we are that we allow the creativity to blossom.  It is through doing what is specifically ours to do that we leave a unique mark on our world.

It is good to take a break now and then.  When we discover that our hearts long for the things that truly feed our souls, we return refreshed, renewed, and ready to create our legacy.  Today is my homecoming, and my heart dances for joy.

“Oh, as I was young and easy, in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

–  Dylan Thomas

My plan for today was to post a quick message here and let everyone know that I would be taking a few days off from blogging.  In three years’ time, I have missed fewer days than I could count on the fingers of my own hands; but as I begin some long-awaited time off with my sweetheart and share with him the joyful preparation for the gathering of our whole brood this Christmas, it seems like a good idea to spend some time immersed in the life we share.

Then the news landed from Connecticut.  With Christmas only ten days away, a whole bunch of families — those who have lost loved ones, and those whose children have lost beloved teachers and friends, and those whose lives are impacted by the story of such random darkness existing in our world — will never be the same again.  It is doubly sad that such horror should take place at the time of year when the world is festooned with Christmas decorations, when parties are being held in schools, when most people are just a little bit kinder and more generous than they might be at other seasons of the year.  As one who has buried a child, I can tell you for certain that time heals; but I also can tell you that the amount of time such healing takes can leave us changed in ways that make it difficult to see the things that once brought us joy.  For many people who are touched by yesterday’s violence, it will be years before tinsel looks like anything more than funeral crepe, before lights trigger memories of anything but the darkness, before their broken hearts can open up to celebration rather than mourning.

It has now been almost thirty-two years since I buried my son.  At the time his accident occurred, I was folding laundry inside my house while my boys played outside with their neighborhood friends.  It was a warm February day with a bit of drizzle in the air and a sunless sky made gray by the mist that hung there.  The car came down our quiet street.  It’s driver was traveling below the speed limit.  As ten children poised to cross the road, nine saw her coming and one — my dear Brett — did not.  In an instant, my whole world changed.  In an instant, time was out of order.  In an instant, I had outlived one of my children.  Unthinkable.  Unimaginable.  Unbearable.  Life-altering.

I told myself at the time that I could never again risk loving a child, because I knew how painful losing that love could be.  I told myself many lies about who I was and what sort of mother could fail to protect her son.  It took years of forgiveness, of healing, of vowing to live the sort of life that would have made my son happy, to undo those lies.

I have loved many children since that day.  I have learned to let them venture out and grow, in spite of my desire to protect them at all cost.  I have watched them become parents themselves and bring with them an enhanced love of family that cannot exist in a world that never has experienced loss.  I have found some parts of me, on the other side of the lies I once believed, that I really like.  I have learned that the flip-side of grieving is compassion.  I have learned that the darkness only wins when we fail to shine our light.

My heart was broken thirty-two years ago.  It will always carry a scar that is just the shape and size of one beautiful child who inhabited it for almost seven years.  A thin scar has grown to cover the crack in my heart, and the most amazing thing has happened in that place with the scar.  As the years passed, I began to notice that there was a light that shined out through the scar.  I realized that it had been there all the time; but it took some breaking to set it free.  It is when our hearts are broken that we discover the light inside of them.  Broken hearts often shine the best light into our dark world.

Many people were changed yesterday, and the change is permanent.  It feels like their world has ended; but I have lived long enough with my change to know that is not the truth.  Hearts are broken when innocence dies, but hearts heal; and in that healing they begin to glow with something rich and beautiful.  The light of their healing and compassion can send the darkness running.  We who have discovered that light must tell the wounded that there still is life to be lived, there still is hope for the world, and the darkness must not be allowed to win.

On certain days, when I am folding the laundry, I think of that surreal day long ago.  On certain days, when the clouds hang low and misty rain turns the whole world gray, I think of the day when my life was forever changed.  When I look at the lights of Christmas this year, I will see the faces of the broken-hearted and say a prayer that one day they will be able to celebrate life again.  Amen.

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”

— Elton Trueblood

My love affair with trees is fairly well-known.  The ones I see on my morning walks are like old friends — faithful, true, well-grounded, and beautiful in the imperfections life has bestowed upon them.  The ones I love best are the ones that have stood for decades, planted by unknown hands or left in place by the men who first cleared the land to build their homes.  I love to watch the buds burst open in Spring, when the very first leaves of the season are a delicate green that never is duplicated during any other time of the year.  I love to sit in their shade on hot summer days and enjoy the shelter of their abundant leaves.  I love to watch as they take on the colors of Autumn and invite us to look just one more time at the splendor and the wonder of all that is a tree; but I think I love the trees best when the last leaves have fallen and they stand crooked and bare against the cold winter sky.

It is then that we can see the crooked structure that usually is hidden by foliage.  It is then that we learn that surface beauty is only an expression of something more profound and deep — of strength and endurance and sometimes a scar or two that rarely are apparent to the naked eye.  It is then that we can connect with the fact that our present comfort and enjoyment is built on years and years of living and loving and hoping for the future.  As the last month of 2012 winds down and I consider the travels I have made with my companion word, “legacy,” I am thankful for the trees.  There is no better visual for “legacy” than a gnarled old tree, planted by unknown hands, tested by time and weather, and still standing strong and true as another winter approaches.

I would like to plant some trees that will bring shelter to my great-great-grandchildren one day.  Perhaps some of them will actually be oaks or maples.  Perhaps some with be other sorts of legacies that I drop like seeds along my path and hope will be discovered in some distant time when I am not here to tell their story myself.

Let us be about planting.  Let us think about the seeds we would like to sow and not worry about who might reap the harvest.  The trees have taught us well.  They grow whether the planter is present or not.  They stand tall and show us what it means to be true to ourselves, whatever the season; and they remind us that there is no shame in bearing a scar or two.  I would like my descendants to know these truths.  They are my legacy,

“The return makes one love the farewell.”

— Alfred De Musset

A few weeks ago, my son and his family came to spend the day with us.  We had a family meal together, chatted endlessly, and best of all had a chance to play with the grandchildren.  We love being the ones who are visited, and it always brings back memories of trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s house with our own children when they were the little ones.  A bit of deja vu occurred at the end of this particular visit.  As the kids were packing up to leave at the end of the day, five-year-0ld Cheyenne began to cry.  She wasn’t hurt or in any sort of trouble, she wasn’t even particularly tired.  She simply didn’t want the good time to end.  I found myself telling her, as I had told her father before her, “don’t cry because you have to leave, be happy that you can come back another time.”

I knew my words wouldn’t make much difference for a little girl who still had things in mind to explore at Grandma’s house, but still I spoke them.  After all, it is important to learn these things.  What would our lives be like if we only felt the love of family and dear friends when they were in our presence?  It is important for us to learn to love the farewell as well as the greeting upon their arrival.

I think back to my own childhood and a visit to Florida.  Not only did I get to spend time with my own grandparents and learn about their home and their lives, but I got to spend time with my only cousin and her family.  I remember a moment when a family friend of theirs who had been visiting at the same time had to go on his way.  Out of nowhere, I was overtaken by a strong surge of emotion.  I was the child who could not contain my tears.  I had no particular attachment to the man, but his departure that day represented all the goodbyes I knew were coming in a very short time.  When we are children, those goodbyes seem so permanent that they hit us like a ton of bricks.

Object permanence — that’s what we learned about the way our children perceive the world when they are very little.  If we walk around the corner, we no longer exist.  When we return to the room, it is as though we magically re-materialized out of nowhere.  Peek-a-boo teaches the babies that things can be out of sight and still exist.  They learn that out of sight does not have to mean out of mind.

As the holiday season approaches and loved ones re-materialize from around every corner, we are reminded of the cosmic game of peek-a-boo that we play in our mobile society.  Soon, all seven of my grandchildren will appear at once and inhabit the corners of my life.  They will laugh and explore, and I will make note of how much they have grown and changed since our last encounter.  When the time comes to say goodbye, we will probably endure a tear or two, but they will not be mine.  I have learned to love the farewell, even though it will mean some distance and time before we meet again.  In the end, it is the love we hold onto and the love that we recognize when people come around the corner and exclaim, “peek-a-boo!”  No matter how many times we say goodbye, it is the love that greets us when we return to those we hold dear.  I will love the farewell; but for a week or so I will embrace the hello.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.”

— Emily Dickinson

Have you finished your Christmas shopping?  When we drove past the mall this weekend, it looked as though every spot in the parking lot was occupied.  As one who loves people but abhors crowds, the sight made me grateful to be passing by quickly on the highway instead of venturing into the swarm of shoppers.  I always feel vaguely isolated at this season of the year, simply because I find it hard to get excited about planning trips to the meccas that collect my peers.  “What do you mean, you hate to shop?”  I sit on the outside and look through the windows of such scenes.  Although I avoid them on purpose, I still feel a little bit awkward and a little bit alone.  Maybe this is the reason why my shopping list is a less traditional one.  The gifts I plan for Christmas are not for sale at the mall.  Their absence is costly, their price-tag is free, and giving them is priceless.

Perhaps it is the vague sense of sadness at not enjoying all the hubbub of the holidays that makes me aware that these days of preparation and celebration can leave a whole bunch of people feeling isolated and disenfranchised.  When the mall trips are done and the bright wrappings have encircled the last item on your shopping list, will you take a bit of time to write another list? Will you take out your invisible tape and mend a heart or two that are in danger of falling to pieces at this happy season?

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Write your next list in increments of time.  It takes only a matter of minutes to deliver a plateful of cookies or a home-cooked dinner to someone who faces the holidays alone.  It takes only seconds to pick up the phone and call someone whose holiday happiness lives only in memories of people who have been lost to them.  It takes only a small amount of your precious time to begin a new tradition that brings joy back into the present for someone who thinks it has gone forever.

It takes only a small amount of time and a heart filled to overflowing with love and compassion.  If you want some meaning in your life this Christmas, then find it by bringing joy to a heart at risk of breaking.  Gifts will come and go, be worn out and consumed.  Give a lasting gift of time this year.  Priceless.

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles.”

— Willa Cather

Twenty-seven years.  How is it that twenty-seven years have passed since that Pearl Harbor Day when my sweetheart and I said, “I do?”  On our best days, we say it was a day that will live in infamy.  On our worst days, our dark humor turns to the theme of sneak attacks.  Either way, we’re in it for the long haul; because when the Joneses and the Steads say, “I do,” we mean it; and we say it with great love.  And where there is great love, there are always miracles.

Mark and I often wonder what our lives would have been like if we had met when we were younger.  Instead, we were in our mid-thirties and already combined our three children to make an instant family.  When we take into account our mutual love of children, we realize that the count might have been higher by then rather than an instant nuclear group.  Nuclear things sometimes are our allies, and sometimes they explode; but where there is great love, there are always miracles.  Somehow we managed to take that unrelated group of people and join them at the hearts.  Now, we often forget that biologists would tell us we are not really a family.

Before long, we added two more babies; and Dan and Emily had the dubious honor of bonding with the other molecules that made up our compound through shared DNA with all of their siblings.  They were welcomed, loved, and claimed by us all, and they carry with them all the best of all the families that joined before their births to create the foundation that supported their home.  In their minds, it is normal to have five or six grandmothers and grandfathers and extended family with many names and many cultures.  It has taught them to love and be loved in an extraordinary way; and where there is great love, there are always miracles.

It was great love that created each member of our family, and it was great love — a commitment to love — that brought us together.  Whether each day is one that will live in infamy, or whether it is a sneak attack day that makes us want to duck and cover and wait for the dust to settle, we have come to expect miracles.  More importantly, we have come to understand that it is through loving — even when the emotion runs thin and we must rely on the commitment — that we create the miraculous life we live.  Celebrate love with us today.  Let it be great and let it overflow in every way it can.  It is the stuff that miracles are made of.