The Beauty of Spring

Maple ree flowers and leaves 1

My father was an arborist, and my father’s grandfather was an amateur horticulturist. In my mind I can still see the small orchard of a dozen trees he planted on part of his property. He also designed extensive gardens around the house and scattered over the lawns. Growing up next door to his home, where my Great Aunt Alice still lived, was a very special experience. The property was large in area, and I was able to spend much of my time outdoors. Actually, any time the weather permitted, I was sent outdoors “to play,” as my mother was a firm believer in the importance of fresh air. It is also possible she wanted me out from under her feet.

Some of my fondest memories are of the trees on the property. The apple orchard with many different varieties that blossomed and fruited throughout the spring, summer and fall, was a special place. The big birch tree that stood sentinel over my small garden where I planted flowers I was given by Aunt Alice’s gardener, was a favorite. I loved chewing the bark. The big beech tree whose branches I used for my primitive tree house were my home away from home. Wherever I have lived since, there have been special trees I have enjoyed.

Outside my bedroom is a maple tree. Maple tree blossoms dangle from the tree’s branches and I watch them every day as they grow. I enjoy observing the tree all year round, but especially in the spring when it goes through so much activity. When the sun shines, the little green blossoms make a filigree design that graces the no–longer bare branches. When I go outside, gazing up I see how the trees in the little wood beside our building paint their leaf buds against the blue spring sky. So inspiring!

Though our usual destinations—supermarket, P.O., library, and so forth are not available now, we do need to run the car. We found this out the hard way when we wanted to drive it, and it wouldn’t start. According to our mechanic, letting the car sit and run wasn’t giving the battery enough “juice” to start up after days of idleness in the parking lot. Somehow time had gone by without our notice, and since we weren’t going anywhere, we didn’t think of running the car.

However, this has turned out to be the perfect month to take the car out for some exercise. There are trees everywhere with flowers radiating beauty even when the sun isn’t shining. The yards and streets of our town are filled with blossoming branches. The duty of driving around to exercise the car has become a joyful experience. The lovely gardens in front of people’s houses, as well as our public buildings are another treat to see. I must be extra mindful not to get distracted.

While it is true that I would have enjoyed the trees and gardens regardless, the fact that they are my reason for going out greatly enhances my appreciation of them. Recently, my heart rejoiced to see another maple tree. the tiny fan of brand-new leaves was just emerging beneath the small green flowers. The leaves shone with their newness, reaching for the sunlight like the hands of a little baby. Nature is such a wonderful comforter in these times of stress.

Agreeing to Disagree

2014-09-16 15.36.53My parents frequently discussed decisions, disagreed often and usually did so at the tops of their voices. They were a fiery couple and yelled their feelings vociferously. We did not have any neighbors nearby and no one could hear them but me. Though there was never any physical violence between them, I do remember the day my mother hurled a plate of scrambled eggs at my father. He ducked and it sailed into the closed window behind him, breaking through it, to land and shatter on the stone terrace beneath, breaking through the wood.

Their fights were scary for me. As a young child I found their loud discussions difficult to bear. I vowed I would never do that to my family. When I married my late first husband it was with that thought in mind. I worked extra hard to keep the peace. I made sure we did not fight or even disagree  in front of or within hearing of our children.  Also, he was not one to express his feelings anyway. Actually, he did not like to discuss them at all. He made the rules. Our marriage did not survive the rough waters of silent dismay and disagreement.

When Stephen and I first got together I told him that if our relationship were to last it must be based on honesty. As I explained it, what that meant was that when one of us had negative feelings to express or was uncomfortable about something, that person must be able to talk about it freely. He agreed to this and our relationship just passed its forty second year.

Very rarely have we had what could be termed a fight. We do bicker, and we do discuss, and sometimes we need to just say, “I hear you,” and let it go.  No matter how much you may love them it is impossible to agree on everything with one’s loved one. For instance, Stephen finds it easy to ignore his piles of various possessions, clothes, papers, etc.. He doesn’t care how much they accumulate and though he may try to be neat, it’s just not one of his priorities.

We differ radically on this. To my way of thinking , insofar as I am able, to arrange it there’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. This often creates opportunities for discussion between us. However, because frequent communication is the bedrock of a good relationship, this is good. Talking about how we feel keeps the feelings from piling up and becoming negative behavior. Mutual respect keeps conversation civil, and when we agree to disagree, love prevails and so does harmony.

Though you may not agree with everything a loved one says or does, when you love him or her wholeheartedly you can respect his or her opinions enough to allow him or her to keep them. That does not mean there is nothing to discuss. That discussion is the glue that keeps rhe relationship together. It is important to express your own feelings as well as to allow those of your loved one to be heard. Most importantly, it is vital to speak with tact and gentleness rather than sarcasm and bitterness. The eyes and ears of love are kind.

The Importance of Self Acknowledgement

Fall Dandelions

It can be frustrating when you cannot do something that you have done all your life with ease. I’ve been putting on my own clothes for most of my life. However for the first two weeks I was home from the hospital, I wore the same simple garment every day. It went over my head without effort and kept me adequately clothed. As time went on I could wear more elaborate clothing until finally I could pretty much dress myself in whatever I wished to wear, all except for my shoes and socks. That required more bending than I was capable of.

Shoes and socks seem simple, do they not? Everyone can manage them. I have a distinct memory of learning to tie my shoes as a child. I know I was still only three, because I was attending nursery school at the time. My memory is of bending over my shoes until I had learned to wind the shoelaces into bows that would keep them tied. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. In my mind I can see the bedroom I slept in with my caregiver and feel my sense of frustration as I tried over and over again to tie those laces until at last I succeeded. Then oh, how happy I felt. I can still remember that too.

Just recently I had another small victory. I was able to put on my left sock all by myself. To do that sounds so simple. Yet it was the final step since my hip replacement two months ago, in my being able to get myself entirely dressed without help. To be sure up until now Stephen has been ever so kind about assisting me. Yet regardless how kind someone helping you is, it is very appealing, at least to me, to be able to do something I have always been able to do, by myself once more.

My parents weren’t generous with their praise of my accomplishments. They always informed me I was supposed to do well. They were apt to say, “Now that was quite good, can you do better next time?” They thought this was how to encourage me to try harder or at least keep on trying. I, on the other hand, believe strongly in praise. My children’s father taught me this. No matter how wretchedly the children he coached performed, he found a way to say some encouraging words. His teams invariably did well and I think this was one of the main reasons.

Not many of us have a coach in life to praise us, so it is up to us to pat ourselves on the back when we need encouragement, and more importantly, when we need to be acknowledged. It is not only permissible but also important to take note of our personal victories, most especially to do so for ourselves. We need to feel good for ourselves, not because someone else has praised us. When we recognize our successes we can build on them with a sense of satisfaction. When we feel satisfied with our performance we do not need to seek praise elsewhere but instead can feel good and be happy because we know for ourselves that we have done our best.

Mourn and Move On

Fall Maple Gold 2 When I was small I had a small cemetery. It was beside the church I had set up in a corner formed by a chimney and the wall of a small greenhouse. My family lived in the country. We had chickens and at one time some ducks. Baby chicks died and I buried them  there as well as the other assorted creatures whose deaths went unmourned except by me. My acquaintance with death came early and in a natural way. This was of help to me later.

Laurens Van der Post, a South African author whose writing I respect, once wrote, “There are some things we never quite get over, however once in a while we go back, pat them on the head and say, ‘How are you doing old fellow?'” In this instance he was speaking about his time in a Japanese prison camp, where he was very cruelly treated. I have remembered this quote for many years. It has been very useful in reminding me not to dwell on past grief, yet not to suppress it. The recent unnecessary death of a poet friend helped me to recall this.

When anyone special o us dies, it reminds us of others of whom we are fond who have left us. Yet it is well to remember them with joy rather than regret. I will treasure in my heart my friend’s funny emails and his amazing adventures. He was a unique character with a huge, loving heart and a mission to try to help every woebegone that crossed his path whether or not they deserved to be helped. He also had a way of getting into trouble. As well he had several bad habits, one of which resulted in his premature death. Rather than blame him for his foolishness I will bless him for his courage in pursuing his life the way he wanted to—whether I thought it was a good way or not.

When you live a long life as I have, you do “lose” people that you have, for one reason or another, outlived. Whether these were members of your family or your friends, along with the current grief the sadness of their passing may easily come to mind. In addition, in our lives there are other instances of departure or absence: the job we didn’t take or did, the home we bought or didn’t, the gift we meant to give, even the words that went unsaid or the ones we wish we had not spoken. The grief engendered by regrets small and large can consume us if we let it.

It is important for us to grieve and let go. It is vital not to carry these burdens any longer than necessary. There is a Zen story of two monks who came to a stream where they found a woman who was afraid to cross it. One monk picked her up, carried her over the stream and set her down. As they continued, his brother monk began to berate him for touching a woman’s body. Finally the first monk turned to his friend and said, “I set the woman down a while ago. You are still carrying her.”  There is no need to carry our grief endlessly. We can let it be on a shelf in our memories and then once in a while, go back and pat it, and say, “How are you doing, old friend?” And then go on to find a happy memory to continue on with.

Small Gestures May Mean Much

Bridge of flowers Bee Balm I disliked it intensely when as a child I was ill and had to stay home from school. It was no fun whatsoever. My mother did not believe in coddling sick people. She thought it would make them malinger. Perhaps she thought if I was bored I’d get better sooner and want to get back to school. She did not treat me with sympathy. My entertainment consisted of listening to soap operas on the radio and reading if I was allowed to. When I had the measles I spent days in a darkened room with nothing to do. It was said reading would damage my eyes

Whenever I was sick I simply sat in my bed alone most of the day. Extremely bored, I was happy to get back to school. For most of my adult life I have been healthy and strong. My recent hip operation is the first time I have been extensively laid up. As I have moved through the healing process, I have gained a great appreciation for the nice things that have been done for me.

Back in the 50’s here was a popular song titled Little Things Mean a Lot.  A sweet song it spoke of loving moments a couple might share. You can look it up on You Tube. As a result of my operation five weeks ago, I have been living small: confined to myhome, resting a lot, and generally entirely dedicated to getting well. Both my physical movements and the focus of my thoughts have revolved around this.

This has made the small circumstances of my daily life stand out more than they might ordinarily. Anything I might have taken for granted before is now emphasized. Small kindnesses have more importance. I find myself even more grateful than ever for the sweet emails people have sent me wishing me well. The generosity of friends who have offered to and taken Stephen shopping or for errands is special. I feel blessed by the meaningful kindness of those offers. Most of all I am grateful to Stephen for all the help he has given me.

When I came home after the operation I couldn’t dress myself at all. I needed help to perform the simplest tasks. I couldn’t cook anything, clean anything, or do more than spend the day on the couch. We watched movies and old TV shows together, and that was fun, however to do much more than that was just not possible. While this period of time was short in terms of my life so far, it was highly significant in terms of its effect. I feel enormously grateful for what I have received from it as well as what I have learned.

I’ll be out of the woods soon and my life will be back to its usual flow and rhythms. This time has been a kind of island in my life. I have rested there and soon I will launch back into the daily stream and be carried by the flow of my days. Certainly I feel belter for having had the operation. Soon even the slight aches that remain will be gone and I won’t need to walk with a cane. What will stay with me from this time is the many loving gestures of friends and acquaintances and most of all the care and kindness of my husband Stephen when the full burden of our daily lives fell upon his shoulders.

Dealing with Anticipation

Flower -1 bud  The appointment for my hip surgery was made more than three months ago. Now its time has come. While I feel positive about the outcome of the experience, I also feel a tiny bit apprehensive. Everything I have heard about the surgery from those who have had it done has been good. I even ran into someone who had the procedure done by the same doctor I have and she said hers had gone wonderfully and she was very pleased.

However, my mind has been twirling around the upcoming surgery for all the months I have been waiting. My thoughts have revolved endlessly about what I will be unable to do and for how long, as well as what I will need to have prepared and so forth and so on. Now as one who tries hard to be in the present moment as much of the time as possible, this has been a real teaching situation. Present moment mindfulness is not something to be practiced only during meditation. It is a frame of mind to be kept in place all through the day.

I once met a man who said, “Whenever I think about what is upcoming, and dread it, it always seems much worse than it turns out to be.” The fear of the unknown is what drives the dread. The silly part is that anticipation has no actual basis in fact, and therefore it  is inaccurate. Only when the experience has arrived can it be truly judged. Otherwise its truth is obscured by what we feel rather than whatever the facts may be.

There is an acronym for fear that reads: “False Evidence Appearing Real.” This is a good description of fear. The so called evidence is usually a product of our active imagination, warnings by people who are trying to be helpful, past experience that may not be applicable here, or feelings of inadequacy. When we think about what is upcoming if we can recognize this for ourselves we can think about it in a more positive way.

As a child I used to enjoy anticipation. I would think about going to the circus, something that happened once a year, with great joy. I looked forward to going to the library to get a pile of new books to read. An avid reader, I often devoured a book a day whenever I could manage to get the time to do so. School vacations were a great source of anticipation. Before they arrived they always seemed to stretch out invitingly and even when they were over there were more to be looked forward to

There was one form of anticipation that was unpleasant. That was when I had done something I shouldn’t and my mother would say, “Wait ’til your father gets home!” Even though he was a kind man, I knew whatever punishment was coming would be more severe if he administered it. My anticipation of the surgery is not with dread, however, but with joy. I look forward to more mobility, less pain and a better sleep at night. Meanwhile I am trying hard to stay as focused as possible on the present moment.

 

Small Blessings Bring Joy

Dandelion and pebblesKittens grow up and become cats. They learn to use their claws on the furniture, and then they reach a point where if we do not pay attention, they may produce more kittens. Snow falls, gets turned by snowmen by eager, mittened fingers, and then when the sun comes out and the cold retreats, they melt. I wash the dishes, polish up the burners on the stove and sigh, remembering that there will soon be more dishes to wash and something will fall on the cooking surface and smell of burning if I don’t notice it before I begin to cook again.

It is important to me to take notice of how nice it is to have an empty sink and a clean stove. If all I do is think about doing it over again I will miss the feeling of how nice it is to have done with my small tasks. They can become routine, done without thinking, and without appreciation for the effort as well as for the result. When I take the time to notice, I feel better about myself and about my life in general.

When spring comes and the first bluebells and crocuses poke up through the thawed ground, how wonderful it is. We say, “Spring is here.” And it is. Yet spring turns to summer. Then we rejoice in the longer days and firefly strewn nights, until the hours of daylight begin to shorten again. Fall’s bounty of color comes and then goes.  It is good to appreciate what we have while we have it because as a wise teacher of mine used to say, the only constant is change.

It’s easy to take for granted small blessings that pass quickly. We do it all the time without thinking. We’re actually more likely to take notice of what is wrong than what is right. I’ve read that our brains are wired that way for self-preservation. It’s important to make note of the danger lurking nearby—is that a wild beast? Or see the car coming a little too fast as we are about to cross the street. However, our built in warning system can override our joy.

Just recently the wild roses bloomed. Their sweet smell permeated the air by my back porch. I made sure to take time to enjoy their scent. Now the petals have turned brown and I have to wait until next year to enjoy them again. Still, I do have the memory, and although it does not have an actual scent, it can still bring back the pleasure of what I enjoyed when the petals were fresh.

If I am focused on regret because the roses have passed, it is more difficult for me to remember the joy they brought me. As well, I might not be able to take advantage of some new and pleasant experience that could await my notice. Small blessings do not announce their presence with a shout but rather with a whisper. The bright dandelion by the side of a building might go unseen and unappreciated if I am not aware of its gift. If I am only looking at the trash around it, I might not see it all. Small blessings bring joy.

Honoring my Father on Father’s Day

Even though she didn’t like to cook, my mother would not allow my father to do so. She said he burnt everything. She had a strong fear of wasting food. Later I think he occasionally tended a barbecue, however they were not in vogue when I was little. I have early memories of him polishing the family silver. My mother didn’t do that and didn’t wish to even display it. We had many different pieces. They were family heirlooms, inherited from elders who had passed on. I remember a huge tea set with lots of shiny parts to it that rested on a big silver tray on a large wooden sideboard. My father loved and cherished it.

As it is wisely said, no one is perfect because God isn’t finished with us yet. Perfection may be something to strive for, and attaining it is most likely impossible. People are people and bound to mess up. Fathers can’t be perfect either. Some are cruel, whether consciously or unconsciously. I knew someone once who said that her father used to tell her and her brother to jump of the kitchen table and he’d catch them, only he wouldn’t. He told them he wanted to teach them not to trust what anyone said.

Doubtless he meant well. Perhaps he had suffered from believing, himself. My father would taunt me and my siblings when we made mistakes. He wanted us to toughen up, learn not to care what people thought. Did he succeed? I believe he did, however it took a while to sink in. Meanwhile, I resented his pointing finger and his “ha ha” followed by some negative comment. That was not all; we had a lot of fun together too, and he could be very kind. I once came home to the apartment my young husband and I shared to find him sweeping the rug. I didn’t have a vacuum and hadn’t realized I could sweep it with a broom. He used to give me lovely valentines.

He bought me my first washing machine—it was state of the art for the time, with a rubber tub that squeezed the water out of the clothes. He taught me how to dance, and he was a good dancer. He gave me money for years, an allowance that helped greatly when I was first married. Later on he paid for my health insurance because he wanted to take care of me. No, he wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t care. I loved him faults and all. He lived large and had wonderful charm. He had a lovely smile and he smiled often.

I miss him. Yet I miss most the father of my childhood and youth, when he was strong , energetic and good looking. He was a snappy dresser and loved loud ties and colorful clothing.  Bad habits and ill health took their toll. His later years were not happy and he declined mentally. It was difficult to see him so diminished. Yet once in a while the old smile radiated from his face and sometimes he told a joke or said something cute and funny that recalled the man he had been when I was little, and we used to build sand castles and jump the waves together.

Lemons are Luscious when Sweetened

Lemons, front and back together.png  There is a wonderful song by the Kingston Trio from the 60’s I believe, about lemons. It contains a real truth concerning them: they must be sweetened to taste good. The chorus goes: “Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat. Very true, and it is also true that lemons can do all sorts of things besides make good recipes..

Versatile lemons can serve us in so many ways it is impossible to count them. You can use them to polish your furniture or to soften your elbows.  I found a lot about their uses when I was doing research for my book Up to my Neck in Lemons. In the Middle Ages ladies used a special straw brim with holes in it to lighten their hair. They would pull strands of hair through the holes and bleach them by painting them with lemon juice and sitting in the sun.

According to my research, the origin of lemons seems to be a mystery. They may have originated in India or perhaps China and are probably a hybrid of the sour orange and the citron. They were known in Egypt and the Middle East from 1000 AD.  They were used primarily as medicine or as an ornament. Once sailors learned to carry them on ships they prevented a disease called scurvy that comes from a lack of vitamin C. Christopher Columbus brought the seeds to the United States from Genoa, where they had been cultivated and used, though often as ornaments. When I visited southern Italy I saw lemon trees growing in gardens there.

Though as I discovered they have so many other uses, we usually think of lemons as food. Yet unlike most fruit, they are not meant to be eaten plain–like apples, or even peeled and sectioned like oranges.  Rather they make a fine ingredient or a wonderful seasoning. Life’s lemons are equally useful. They can season or sweeten our experience, helping us to make our best use of it to learn and grow. However it does take experience and tenacity both to learn this and to put it into operation.

The first and most important skill to develop is observation. I must first notice how I am looking at my life lemon. Once I see how I perceive it, I can change my perspective and see it differently. For example if I am feeling frustrated because something isn’t working the way I want it to, I can keep pushing against the difficulty or I can look to see if there is another way to approach it or perhaps even how I can use it to my advantage.

I can choose how to use this particular lemon—as a sour taste or as a reminder that something must change in order for me to succeed. Of course this can take time and effort, but so does any good recipe, whether for happy living or lemon meringue pudding or pie. In my new book, Up To My Neck in Lemons, I have many actual lemon recipes together with poems, and essays that provide examples of how I have dealt with some of my life lemons. If you would like a copy, please contact me. I’ll tell you how to get a personally autographed copy.

The More Things Change…

TashasSpiralGarden          Of a recent Saturday, we were out and about checking the yard sales. While Stephen was perusing the items displayed there, I fell into a conversation with the person in charge. She had grown up in Grafton and spoke of how much had changed in the years she had lived here.  I agreed. Although we have lived here only thirty years as of this year, we too have seen many changes. This got me to thinking about how it was then compared to how it is now.

When we first moved to Grafton the shopping center that is now home to the Stop and Shop had a department store where we found a winter jacket for Stephen. He wore it for many years and finally gave it away, still in useful condition. There was a drug store where the deli and sandwich shop is now, and I remember when the drug store went out of business. I bought a pair of real nylons with seams left over from the fifties or sixties.

Restaurants have come and gone in the building by the lake, and there still is one there. There was a book store and later a market where now other stores are, yet the plaza remains and the stores sell items, just different ones. It is truly said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The garden I began at the first home we lived in in Grafton, has with its different owners, undergone many changes, yet it still exists in its current form. I have had many gardens in my life and all of them have evolved in their own ways. Now though I no longer garden, I still in a way tend to one of another kind: my life has become my garden.

Many years ago I had a dream in which in some way I cannot explain I was both a garden and its gardener. This has become a kind of metaphor for how my life has evolved. Those I love and tend could be said to be similar to plants that grow and thrive as I care for them.  Too I am my own garden as I care for this body the best I can, though sometimes I neglect it and then like a garden deprived of proper nourishment, I suffer for it.

As once I studied how to make my garden grow at its best, so now I try to learn what best nurtures me and those I tend with the same love and care I once devoted to my gardens. At times I weed out what no longer belongs in my personal garden, and at times, those I have tended outgrow their place in my garden and transplant themselves elsewhere.

Or like other plants, they outgrow their earthly existence and move on. My life like my garden provides me with wonderful opportunities to learn and grow, and I try to take advantage of them. What matters most to me is that I do whatever I can with whatever resources I have to be a good gardener, and that I stay awake and aware to what works best to make my gardens grow.