Thursday, March 31, 2016


Two weeks ago we explored connections through history.

Today I want to consider connections through music, art, literature, and popular culture—ways of connecting ourselves to people long gone from planet Earth, to their creativity, their world view, their time and mores. In a sense, seeing with their eyes.

I used to feel a deep sadness when I thought about Beethoven’s deafness robbing him of his ability to hear the grand and glorious music he composed in later years. One source reported that he was unable to hear either the orchestra playing his Ninth Symphony or the great applause that greeted its premiere.

After reading several articles about Beethoven, I no longer feel sad, because I’ve heard music inside my head, as he must have also heard what he was working on. What he missed was the orchestra’s interpretation of his symphony. What he always possessed was the way it was supposed to sound because he’d heard it first inside himself.

I have no training in art appreciation, so I bring very little knowledge to the viewing of a painting. What I can do, as I gaze upon the work of the Old Masters, is enter into their vision—see with their eyes for a short time. Was that man’s nose really that long? Was the woman’s chin so pointy?


What draws me most, connects me strongly, is the written word. From my earliest reading on my own, I could see inwardly the scene unfolding in the story. Only black marks on white paper, but, oh--! People doing things—racing to catch a crook; dashing about the country roads with the top down on the convertible, dust billowing behind; creeping through the trees at dusk to spy on the inhabitants of the old abandoned mansion . . . . People saying things: dialogue to help the reader follow the sleuth’s thinking, or show character strength, or make the transition from one scene to another; dialogue to stimulate the mind.

Description also sucked me in—but only if it was good description. Long before I attempted to write stories, I “osmosed” the need for all five senses to make a scene “real”—to make a book live in memory.

Early in my life I was allowed to stay up to listen to radio serials. The Lone Ranger was a favorite. Yes, I was one of the kids who lay on my tummy in front of the radio and “saw” the action in the cloth-covered speakers. Several years later, television appeared, but it never won me over the way the radio shows did. The stories about the Wild West appealed to me because my father had lived in Colorado in the 1920s and worked on a ranch as a young man. Whether he experienced any of the wildness of the time, I never knew. But I liked trying to picture him in that setting.

Movies are a category of their own. I wasn’t crazy about historical novels, but movies set in old times, far-off places, could transport me immediately. Again, it was the visual detail that captured me. I was taken to see Gone With the Wind long before I could appreciate it, but later viewings gave me a taste of what it was like to live and struggle in the South during The War Between the States. Though I never knew my Great-grandfather Cather, I knew he fought in that war on the Union side. That knowledge gave me a different sense of what the war meant to people like me.

Historical shows are still popular: Downton Abbey, Foyle’s War, Grantchester, to name a few. They're set in the 1940s and 1950s--historicals? I remember those times! Does that mean I'm old? (Hmm, something to ponder.)

My examples in this post come from times gone by. I've lived through many decades, so I know what the feelings were during those days, how we dressed, what was available in the grocery store. Connecting to someone who lived in my parents' or grandparents' time helps me understand them as young families--what they lived with, and through--and so my own ancestors become more alive to me.

You'll find connections everywhere. You don’t even have to look for them—just recognize them when they occur.

They may be as near as your mailbox, when you get a letter from an old friend. Or as close as the movie theater or video rental store. Libraries offer such a broad range of subject matter, settings, and time periods that you can lose yourself in any era you select. Or, people you meet may open a window onto a time or place or way of life you never experienced.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


Baby peonies...on their way!
One of my favorite emails (there aren’t many, sad to say) is the one whose subject line reads: “Your order has shipped!”

In the days of long ago, an order was made out on the form provided in a catalog, put in an envelope, stamped, addressed, and mailed. No one acknowledged it had been received, but after waiting, sometimes impatiently, for a few weeks, suddenly a package appeared on the front porch, courtesy of the letter carrier. (Those days we called him the mail man.)

I don’t know which is better—a long wait, letting the anticipation of the coming items grow into a Big Thing. Or, with the click of a mouse button, letting the nice folks at L. L. Bean or Amazon or some other big chain know that I want my stuff ASAP. They always acknowledge that I’ve contacted them (“Thank you for your order!”). And they sometimes let me know the order is being processed. Okay. Great. Then comes the magic message, “Your order has shipped!” Sometimes this is only one day after I ordered. That’s service.

I thought about the ordering process while I was working in the back yard yesterday. After several days of feeling under the weather (allergies, sinus problems—the usual annual annoyances), I discovered the trees had deposited another great load of little sticks, big sticks, long limbs, and a couple of chunks of dead wood (not sure about those) all over the yard. It was time to don mask and gloves, haul out the biggest bin for sticks, and pick up (changed to raking when I saw how many there actually were) as much as possible.

Lily leaves...overachievers perhaps?
Now the clean-up didn’t actually trigger thoughts on the ordering process. But as I finished I went around the yard and looked at various bushes, plants, and other growing things.

Lo and behold! The hostas were coming up, the peonies were 4 inches above ground, and the Resurrection lilies--! They’re way ahead of schedule.

I knew Spring had sprung when the neighbor-across-the-street’s daffodils blinded me one morning with their near-neon yellow mass. They live in a flower bed between the houses—just the right place for the sunlight to fall and get trapped for several hours, making an effective hothouse. Those bulbs bloom first of anything in our whole neighborhood.

So Spring isn’t coming soon . . . She’s already arrived. If you live in middle Indiana or farther south, this is old news. But for us up here in the northeast corner, Spring’s arrival lifted many a flagging spirit. And we didn’t have to search online to order!

Though Spring officially arrived last Sunday, March 20th, we’d been having warmer days for some time before that. And my highly unofficial records of daylight hours show that the Equinox occurred at approximately midnight on March 16.

In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours. --Mark Twain
(Mr. Twain is sometimes given to embroidery.)
Besides beauty and longer hours of daylight, Spring is Renewal.

Renewal of Nature—we see this all around us, smell it when the blossoms open, hear it in the birdsong, feel it with the waft of a warmer breeze, even taste it (have you ever tried dandelion greens, or wild asparagus?).

Now, go deeper—how about Renewal of ourselves?

An overwhelming job, you say? Well, might be. It is for me. But if we break it down into do-able tasks, like anything we tackle, it may become less overwhelming.

So here goes: I’d like to renew myself in thought, word, and deed.

Thoughts can determine our attitudes. Being wound up in a tangle of ideas that never seem to resolve themselves creates in my little self-universe an attitude of “what’s the use?” Why bother? Someone else will clean up the world. Why fret over someone else’s “wrong” way of thinking? I’ll never change them. (See how it works? Not a pretty sight, is it?) If, instead of letting those thoughts veer toward the negative side of life, I keep them firmly in hand and head toward the sunny side, I find my attitudes smooth out. Maybe I can’t clean up the confounded world, but I can work on my own little corner of it. (I know, I’ve said that before. Still true.) And I can pray for the other person--not to change to what I want, but for whatever healing he or she needs.

Renewing myself in word turns out to be easier. That is, so long as I have control of my tongue and my fingers. No matter what technology has done for us, there is no DELETE button on our tongues, no UNDO icon to click just in time. If I’ve said it, then I’ve said it. And if it was hurtful, my best efforts are pretty wimpy—“I’m sorry” helps, but the words said . . . . 

The DELETE button does work when we write letters, emails, or comments on blogs. Always a good idea to reread what we’ve written—did it really come across as I meant it to?

The renewal of deeds—actions—is a whole other ball game. Now we're in the big leagues. What we say, what we think, are important, and can have lasting effects, good or bad. But what we do—that’s what people, complete strangers, see and experience of us. What do my actions tell about me? (This is scary, folks—like looking in a mirror and seeing an image you don’t recognize.)

One of my hardest actions to change is forgiveness. Not that I carry a grudge forever—these are the everyday little annoyances that seem to simmer and stew and affect my attitude (yup, back to that). Can I let go of the irritation I feel when someone cuts me off in traffic? Is there any reason to resent a curt voice on the phone telling me to wait? (This part of renewal is on my permanent Today List.)

Using Nature as a guide, we can do our personal renewal step by step. Nature doesn’t fling out grass, flowers, fruit tree blossoms, high temps, rain and sun, all at once. There’s a logical progression—warmer days, plants emerging on their inherent timetable, rain; grass in its own time. Birds return in waves, not all at once.

So much is happening every day we tend to think it all came at once. But it didn’t. We, like Nature, need to take time for renewal. A cheerful note, a helping hand, a prayer for someone’s healing—seeking forgiveness from someone we’ve hurt—offering forgiveness to one who has hurt us.

Take it a day at a time, one step at a time. If we fall back, get up and begin again.

As my tortoise friends say: “Forward is forward.”

In our competitive society we think so much about standards, about keeping up, or passing, other competitors, about reaching a goal, about winning.

With Renewal, there are only winners. We have our favorite flowers, birds, type of weather, but that’s only our own opinions. In self-renewal, there is only success, if you truly want to renew. That success may be incremental, almost non-existent; but consider—a seed looks mighty insignificant when compared to its full-grown plant.

Try a little renewal—you may surprise yourself at how you’ll blossom.

And while you’re at it, Celebrate Spring! Celebrate the season of hope, of new growth, and celebrate another chance at renewal.

Wonderful sight to greet the weary winter eye!

Thursday, March 17, 2016


When I got a haircut in February, I scheduled an appointment for March.

“How about the 15th?” I asked the stylist.

“The Ides of March!” she said.

I came up for air on that one. Someone younger than I am—by over a decade—knows about the Ides of March?

About all I remembered about this date was a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March!” And it was good advice, because Caesar was slain by a large number of people on that date. (Maybe that’s where Agatha Christie got her idea for Murder on the Orient Express.)

Back to Ides of March. During the month following that appointment, my mind kept going back to our little conversational exchange about a date I figured almost no one remembered.

Besides Caesar, the other dire event for which March 15 was known to me was the date income taxes were due—this was before my time as a tax-paying citizen; we’ve had April 15th (or 17th this year) since, well, maybe forever.

[Now You Know: The first income taxes were due on March 1, 1913; changed to March 15 in 1918; and changed again to April 15 in 1955.]

I’ve been thinking about my Ides of March conversation lately—to us, the date Julius Caesar was put to death (in 44 BC) is not only ancient history, it doesn’t relate to life today. Or does it?

How about, for example, the way we view history now? I’ll give you some personal examples:

·       I feel no particular reaction to March 15, but around the third week of November I start feeling uneasy—I recall watching our young president get shot in Dallas.

·       School starts in August in my neck of the woods. The second week of September I honor those who died in the attack on the Twin Towers in NYC. I don’t have the same numb “no, no, that’s not really happening” feeling that I had that day in 2001 when I saw the disasters shown again and again and again on Internet news. No gut-wrenching horror. No, now there’s the felt but unvoiced certainty that our country can be invaded, can be attacked, our people (all kinds) can be wiped out as we watch it happening.

·       In many Christian churches, Palm Sunday begins on a triumphal note, but the service ends with the certain knowledge that there’s a bad time to come. Holy Week can be especially emotional for me—when I was an organist I could get through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services by focusing on the music. This year I’m one of the characters in the Passion readings. It will all be happening again, for me.

History can be interesting. I’ve learned a lot of world history reading novels set in other times, far-off places.

Note, however: Novels may not depict what actually happened, but their stories are built around actual events. We can’t know, ever, the facts about an event—we always know it only by way of the particular lens through which it was viewed: a soldier, a nurse, a young mother, a business executive, a grandmother alone in the world, a school boy, a teenage girl planning her wedding. This is true of "eye-witness" accounts of current events, as well as what people thought and wrote about events in 1865 or 1066--any date you want to pick.

Equally true for me, history is always a personal thing. It ties me to events far outside my daily round.

For that reason, when my daily round included four children under six years of age, meals-meals-meals, diapers ad infinitum, Sunday School, choir, and occasionally sleeping a whole night through—when I lived that life, very little of the outside world crept in. There was simply no crack it could get through, and no place for it to light if it did.

I wrote letters to family members, eagerly read the ones I received. The kids and I made trips on foot to the branch library for books; I read mine while stirring pudding on the stove, and read theirs to them at bedtime. Letters and books gave me access to the outside world. Limited, true—but it kept me in the loop, so to speak.

I truly admire women who “do it all.” Even if I could have morphed into Wonder Woman (my childhood dream) I doubt if I’d have been happy. Yes, there was, or seemed to be, no leisure time for just being, just smelling the lilies of the valley that came up in the yard or watching the sun set on a summer day. Evenings, though, I put the kids to bed and sat at the piano to play while they drifted off—folk songs, show tunes, old-time songs (“Ben Bolt,” “Beautiful Dreamer”), hymns remembered from childhood. That was leisure time activity. By 10 PM I was ready for bed—right after I folded laundry, straightened the living room, put away the clean dishes, checked the fridge for milk, juice, fruit for the next day (though why, I won’t ever know; there was nothing I could do about it late at night in the early ‘60s).

But even deeper, I had too much fear, too much uncertainty about life, too much anxiety left over from my early years. These kept me near the edge of emotional collapse. Add four young children to the mix—what if she fell? What if he got a bad disease? Should I let her go to nursery school? Are they warm enough? Do they eat enough?

Relax? I never learned how.

Watching news on TV made it too, too real. In the newspaper events seemed milder, but still--. I began to feel guilty for not “doing something” to make life a better place for my children, for other people. Nowadays, we say we have too much on our plate. Then, we said we had no time.

I still relate to news of the world—it still makes me uneasy, though perhaps I’m less fearful. My church has an active outreach program where we’re doing something positive about feeding hungry people, and making blankets to keep them warm. We hold fundraisers to collect money to send to aid global needs.

Years later, as maturity catches up with me, I can view world events without feeling I have to do something big and grandiose. Or, maybe I’ve actually learned a couple of important things: (1) there’s always going to be something bad going on in the world; and (2) praying is doing something.

We may not be able to clean up the world and the messes we find there. But we can work on our little corner of it. That’s one way of staying connected.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


“And whether rich or poor, well or ill, happy or sad, books can be a refuge, they do not change with changing circumstance, they are the open highway to yesterday, today and tomorrow wherever you will to travel.” ― Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Daybook

Why do you read? Why do I read?

A couple of days ago I went to the library to check out books by Gladys Taber. Mrs. Taber was a short story writer, published often in the women’s magazines; also wrote novels; and later became a popular columnist for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle. From her columns, which were about country life in Connecticut (and later Cape Cod), she branched out into several nonfiction books about the same subjects—life and living in the country and by the ocean.

I read the original columns in Family Circle when I was a teenager. It was like being a part of her family—her children and grandchildren, the family visits, dinners, taking care of cocker spaniels and an Irish setter--. Gladys Taber’s writing filled in some of the empty places in my life, and I couldn’t wait for the next issue of the magazine to come to the A&P Store.

Rereading her books now, I recall how much they meant to me in the late 1950s. I am grateful for people like Gladys Taber who shared their lives so generously.

After I finally learned to read (in first grade), I couldn’t get enough of books and stories. Along about third or fourth grade I discovered mysteries for kids. The easy ones soon gave way to Nancy Drew and later on to Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, and Agatha Christie.

But my reading habits were eclectic--reading cereal boxes and pulp magazines, serious novels for high school English class . . . you name it, I probably read it.

From such a beginning, it was a natural, even inevitable, parth to a degree in English lit. That broad umbrella included American literature, expository writing (composition), and linguistics. I had a taste of European literature in advanced French classes. (That was an experience I appreciated, but never kept up with.)

We are the children of a technological age. We have found streamlined ways of doing much of our routine work. Printing is no longer the only way of reproducing books. Reading them, however, has not changed. --Lawrence Clark Powell

There have been a few times in my life when I couldn’t read.

When I was ten, I had scarlet fever. It was a mild case, but precautions were decreed: no reading; keep the room dark; bed rest. (That’s the only time in my life I can recall being bored. B-O-R-E-D.)

In my 30s and later, I had bad allergies that tended to wipe me out. I knew I was really sick when I didn’t even want to read.

Major surgery, with heavy doses of anesthetic, wiped me out again; while I was recuperating I couldn’t read anything for over three weeks. After that, only short--very short--selections in magazines.

And in my latter years, the time we call maturing, I’ve found some medications have a negative effect on me; my emotions virtually flat-line. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get away from most of those meds.

You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
Ray Bradbury

We read for so many reasons—to gather information for a job; to learn about other cultures; to escape current situations; for pure enjoyment.

I venture to say all these reasons are about connecting with something or someone else. We learn about our jobs by participating in what someone else wrote. We find out about other cultures, and discover how alike people are, everywhere. Even our escape reading, and our reading for the simple joy of reading, connect us to another person’s mind and heart that conceived the story we are living through their eyes.

For my birthday I received two Amazon gift cards! Talk about rich!! I now have a healthy account balance at and a Wish List that makes me smile every time I look through it.

Buying books (and movies and DVDs of TV shows) will never grow old.

The only problem is where to store everything. Hm, that downsizing gig isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

ACCOUNTABILITY - An Extended Definition

When I taught college freshmen how to write essays, we used a textbook that defined the different types. At the time, I think there were eight, so I spent the first few weeks introducing general concepts about this kind of nonfiction writing. Thus we eased into the types.

I was never happy with the one called Extended Definition.

All my life—well, after I learned to read—I had used a dictionary to help me define words. What else do you do when the only adult in your home refuses to tell you what a word means and you have to find out? You haul out the dictionary and “look it up.” (My children remember this well—I wouldn’t tell them, either.)

Fast forward to this end of my life, and what do I find myself doing? Writing essays about words, my old anathema, The Extended Definition.

Now that I recognize what it is, the Extended Definition has less gut-wrenching quality about it. After all, an extended definition is merely using my knowledge of life—as I’ve lived it, read about it, heard from others—to make a word come alive.

Today’s Word: Accountability

I know, I know—you don’t really want to hear any more about it. Your choice—find another blog to read this morning.

For those remaining, are we ready?

Accountability is partially defined as responsibility. Okay, I get that.

My walking buddy and I check in with each other in the mornings—do you feel up to walking? Did you rest well? Is the weather too cold/windy/icy for you? If we agree that all systems are go (more or less), we meet at the Y and do our laps on the track. One of us may walk more than the other does; depends on a lot of things.

What we’ve learned about ourselves—we’ve both mentioned it—is that if one of us doesn’t walk that morning, the other one may not either. Having a buddy going through the same early morning process of waking up, dressing for the Y, and driving the mile or two to the site, is a better motivator than just saying, “My schedule says I’m walking at the Y at 6:30.”

But we’ve also learned—no matter how tired, grumpy, unmotivated we feel, if we do go through the getting up stuff and make it to the Y, we’ll feel better afterward. Even if we do only half the number of laps we usually do. The effort is worth it, but usually only recognized after the fact of walking.

Along with responsibility, there’s an element of trust here. Much like responsibility, trust introduces the sense of relying on someone for support. This is especially true of organizations.

Take Weight Watchers. The organization has been around for decades. It’s now online so you don’t have to leave your hearth and home to weigh in. The website has opportunities for recipes, chats, and articles to boost your morale. The underlying message is that you aren’t alone in your struggle.

Churches have always helped me. When I go there I will be welcomed. The service won’t hold huge surprises, so I can forget about “doing things right” and just do them. I can sing or not, depending on my voice that morning. I can pray with a large group or I can silently add my own petitions. Besides having support in my spiritual life, I am being a support to someone who needs it. (Often I don’t know who that is; doesn’t matter. The important thing is to show up and be there.)

Perhaps the best support group is one’s own family. (This may not work for some people.) My children don’t live geographically close to me. Yet we are a close family—interested in each other’s lives, our growth, our problems. We check in from time to time—some are regular visits, some are occasional. If we have bad days, we trust someone close to us really cares.

Today’s technology practically forces us to keep in touch: email, texting, Skype, Google Hang-Outs. And if you aren’t on Facebook or one of the other social media, you’re really out of it. We dinosaurs still love our snail mail and phone calls.

But the bottom line is this: We trust someone else to be on the other end of our reaching out.

Accountability has been around forever, probably.

Families expect and encourage us to live up to some set of values. Many people think of that as "guilting” but without it, there might be no values lived up to at all.

School—now, there’s accountability in spades: grades, report cards, parent-teacher conferences. You did your homework for grades. You might get a chance at extra credit. But when it came down to the end, it was all about how well you did in your work. (And sometimes deportment—attitude plays a part.)

Group efforts—sports, music groups, clubs—expected each person to take part; team effort became the watchword.

I don’t have any great pronouncement to end this writing. I’m not in love with the word accountability, but I understand it and encourage us to embrace what it stands for.

For me it brings a sense of community, even when I’m alone.