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Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Yesterday was the perfect summer’s day.  Bright sunshine, cooling breezes, and a sky adorned in the most glorious shade of blue.  Here in the Shenandoah Valley, our mid-Atlantic weather can turn quite hot and very humid at this time of year, so this was a special treat for me.

It hearkened to the summers of my youth, deep in the forests of New York’s Catskill Mountains.  To those languid days beneath towering trees in dappled sunshine, all alone, and quite content to spend hours stone-hopping up and down crystal clear, ice cold brooks, making Indian paint, and searching for salamanders or crayfish.  The air was most often dry and crisp under a bright sun that sparkled across an expanse of violet-blue sky, interrupted only by white puffball clouds floating on a current of cool winds.

Days like this always make me a little homesick for those ancient hills.  It’s like Appalachia is calling me home, lest I forget the magic, the connection we shared for so many years.

I soon became lost in the pleasure of the day.  I am long since a child and there are no babbling brooks here, but my covered front porch is a paradise all in its self.

I lay on my porch swing for hours in joyful observation of the world around me.  My husband, Doug, sat beside me in companionable silence, pushing my swing in such comfortable rhythm that I felt like a babe in its cradle, being rocked gently to sleep.

Our peace was so perfect, our pleasure so complete, I started thinking of other bygone days, when this was the norm for Sunday afternoons and after dinner at eventide.  Once upon a time, people who lived in small towns and rural areas all across America spent a lot of time on their front porches.

I thought about the shows of my youth – very unlike the sitcoms of today – that showcased quite a different life-style.  In particular – I remembered Mayberry and Sheriff Taylor (Andy Griffith) on his covered front porch.  There was many an episode that featured a restful summer evening, with Andy quietly strumming a guitar, Aunt Bea knitting or reading, and Opie playing with toys at their feet. They would occasionally talk, or discuss things on their mind, but most often they sat in quietude, enjoying each other’s company against the backdrop of cool, evening breezes.

Of course those were also the days before the existence of central air, and I’m sure that summer evenings on the front porch was a cool respite from the stuffy heat of the day.  But it begs the question.

Has progress really improved our lives?

Well, yes!  But I believe we’ve also lost some important things along the way.  In essence, we’ve thrown “the baby out with the bath water”.

I pictured scenes from stories about the deep South and wide covered porches – or verandas – peopled with families and friends, cloth covered tables laden with delectable treats and pitchers of iced lemonade, children playing underfoot, and grandpa reading the paper or whittling a new toy for his favorite grandson.

A romantic notion, perhaps.  But even the poor enjoyed front porch time with music, refreshment, or just relaxation in a favorite rocking chair.

Science and technology have definitely enriched our lives, ten-fold.  We can all be thankful for the prosperous and luxurious lives we lead – in comparison to even that of our grand parents.  But we should be mindful to not lose the lessons from our past, by judging them with modern eyes.

I propose that we keep the best from both.  Modern conveniences – but shared family obligation.  Information and social media – tempered with quiet time for reflection and chatting with the neighbors.

Could – Should – Would …

I know how easy it is to let our 21st century blinders slip into place.  We’re all so busy.  The world has become a small place yet we seem to be lost in the crowd, assaulted with information from every angle until we can’t hear our own thoughts.

This is the insight I received while I observed the birds, and white clouds drifting in a sea of blue.  Perhaps I have the advantages of reaching middle age in comparative comfort, which allows me the luxury of time for such contemplation and rediscovery.

All I can say is this.

If you have the means and a porch of any kind, a shady tree, or even a garden bench – then it’s worth your time to just sit and do nothing.  Watch the clouds, the birds, the wind teasing treetops.  Our ancestors, for whatever reasons, knew this simple joy.  Why shouldn’t we?

 

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And in honor of those who were left behind…

Memorial Day is a solemn tribute to all United States soldiers who died in war.

It’s a national holiday that also holds a noble truth — life and liberty comes with a cost, willingly paid for by others.

We owe these service men and women a debt of gratitude.  It’s the least we can do for someone who has forfeited their own life, to defend ours.

But history is a fascinating thing; it can morph with time.

What began as a tradition shortly after the U.S. Civil war became law, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, thereby establishing three-day weekends for Federal employees and Memorial Day as a national holiday.

Each year, during the last weekend of May, barbecue smoke rises from millions of American grills as backyards and campgrounds swell with celebration, and parade fanfare fills the streets.

Most notably, designated military personnel will place small American flags at the graveside of each and every soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery, politicians will make speeches, and motorcyclists will travel by the thousands to participate in Rolling Thunder, an annual pilgrimage to Washington D.C. in remembrance and respect for all those who defend our country.

All this is wonderful to be sure, but it makes me wonder.  How many of us truly feel the sentiment of what Memorial Day represents?

For those of us who have not been personally touched by war, it is easy to be lulled into a peacetime slumber, to become drowsy with the luxury of full bellies, feasting on prosperity afforded to us through the sacrifices – paid in blood – by generations past.  It’s the same mentality that creates a commonly held, unconscious illusion — bad things only happen to other people.  It can’t happen to me…

I am not writing today to scold, but to awaken.

War is a necessary evil – for there will always be disparate world views leading us into conflict.  And this conflict is met by those who bear a dual responsibility.  They must not only fight to win our nation’s cause, but to also protect those of us at home.  These brave men and women deserve our gratitude, prayers, and remembrance.  We must do them justice by feeling the weight of their sacrifice, honor, and duty.

Here’s something to ponder.

What if it had been your beloved that died in battle?  Your husband.  Your wife.  Your son or daughter.

Think about the scores of widows and orphans, families and friends left behind to mourn alone, for nothing can ease that kind of pain except time.  Loss is a personal hell that carves its place deep within one’s soul and can take years, if ever, to truly recover.

I speak from experience.

So on this Memorial’s Day remembrance, I would like to dedicate this poem to the families who bravely supported their loved one’s decision to serve, and then paid the ultimate price.  Thank you.

The Weeping Willow 

It stands alone, this weeping willow,

within a curtain of leaves,

drooping with despondency.

Does the willow weep?

I truly think it does.

I’ve heard the shivering,

the rustling, the quivering,

as when a willow weeps.

Why does the willow weep?

A mystery unsolved.

For all is hidden in her heart,

the sorrow she’s endured,

forever poignant, yet obscure,

is the pain of the willow tree.

If you can imagine the sight of this tree,

then at most you know the bark of her.

This weeping widow, who gazes down at me,

far above, in a third story window.

Tears wetting her eyes, that face the breeze,

her hair flying loose like a willow’s leaves.

~ by Kyla Wong

 

 

 

 

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I found a secret garden.  It was there all along, hiding in plain sight beneath the brambles and waist-high grasses.

I felt like Mary Lennox as I pulled aside weeds to discover living treasures emerging from a moist earth.  Each new find brought a fresh wave of joy – an antique rose bush here, feathery fronds of fennel there, a tiny lavender sighing in relief.

The picket fence surrounding Peter Burr Farm‘s colonial garden was almost obscured by wild brier and useful weeds commonly found in hedgerows or alongside foundation stone – ground ivy, cat mint, greater celendine, chickweed, cleavers – all tangled together in between grasses nearly three feet high.

The inside of the garden was equally overgrown, except for a small area by the entrance gate.  I learned this progress was due to the valiant effort of just one person in a single-handed attempt to bring order back into the historic garden.

Quite the daunting task.

So I did what any self-respecting herbalist and veteran gardener would do.  I volunteered.

Donning my battle gear against ticks and poison ivy, I sprayed myself liberally with a home-made, anti-creepy-crawly, bug repellent and got to work.

As did my husband, Doug.  Who is only too happy (translation: minor grumbling) to join me in whatever current scheme I have devised for the day.

We make a pretty good team.

First I harvested some of the “weeds” that would have to be tamed, namely ground ivy and greater celendine.  I’ve been wanting to experiment with the medicinal qualities of these two herbs for a while.

And then it was time to do some serious weeding.

While Doug concentrated on weed-wacking the outside fence, I went to work pulling weeds from the gravel walkways and border edges of the raised beds.  We worked steadily for nearly two hours until the humidity and heat reached a whopping 95 degrees.

 

I would have liked to keep going, but Doug took one look at my reddened face and wisely called it, lest I drop of heat stroke.

Still, I’m pretty happy with the progress we made.

Since then, I’ve set my herbs to dry and brew — all destined to become tea, ointment, and tincture.

The temperatures have now dropped to a cool seventy degrees – but the forecast calls for almost a week of rain.

Again I feel like Mary Lennox, glumly looking out my window and wishing myself back to the secret garden.

 

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I have so much on my mind it’s hard to sleep.

I awoke much too early for the second morning in a row, courtesy of my overactive brain trying “to take over the world” like a bad episode of Pinky and the Brain.

It’s not only the extravagant landscape project, with it’s myriad of decisions, design details, and growing costs that’s keeping me awake, but also all the other plans I’m formulating.  My mind is in a perpetual loop, vacillating between “need to do” and “want to do”, if-then-else statements, budgets, time constraints, and more.

It’s like an incessant mind-meld of plotting, planning, and strategy – with a little crystal ball gazing thrown in for good measure.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  In fact it’s the exact opposite.

The world is my oyster!

I am an extremely lucky duck to have these kinds of non-issues robbing my sleep instead of woe.

Which reminds me of a Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme, and how it relates to all of us at different stages of our life – regardless of the actual day of our birth.

Right now?  I’m Monday’s Child, fair of face, dancing beneath the lovely Moon in all her splendid guises.  A bright blessing indeed.

Perhaps this carefree joy is a well-earned reward for my time served as Wednesday’s Child, full of woe.

I’ve certainly paid more than my fair share, carrying the weight of the world and selflessly caring for others whether they deserved my compassion or not.

I do feel a little guilty though, my fiction writing has been taking a back seat to all the upheaval around my house.  And I do mean that in the most literal of sense.

Bulldozers, hydraulic tampers, masonry saws, sound all throughout the day as workmen cut stone, mix concrete, pound in new earth, 360 degrees around my house –  this has been my constant companion for well over two months and counting.

Large construction projects are always stressful to a certain degree, so it really helps to hire the right crew.  By all means, do your homework upfront and choose a company wisely.  They will be your partner for the duration and the vehicle for making your idea a reality — on time and under budget if possible.

By these standards, our contractor has exceeded all expectations and we couldn’t be happier.  They have proven themselves to be extremely professional and highly skilled artisans.  There’s never a problem that can’t be fixed or detail too small to discuss.

It makes a world of difference.

Piece by piece, day by day, my vision of landscape nirvana has slowly been taking shape.  A long awaited dream is coming to fruition, more beautiful than I had even imagined.

That’s when I decided to go for the brass ring.  I just couldn’t stop myself.

As a former IT Project Manager, I’m well aware of things like scope, requirements, and mission creep.  But I’m wearing ‘two hats’ now.  I’m the customer too and I want what I want.

In other words, I just doubled the original project – multilevel patios, outside fireplace, connecting terraces, yada yada yada – all currently in the design process.  Decisions, decisions, decisions.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be finished any time soon.

But what a paradise it will be! My sanctuary, my home.  I am so happy, I may never travel to distant places again.  Well, never say never but a stay-cation is looking pretty high on my list.

I’m hoping to have everything done by Midsummer so hubby and I can host a big party to celebrate.  Not because the disruption ends, or that the project is completed and ready to be enjoyed — although that does call for a certain degree of celebration — but to commemorate a turning point in our life.

This massive landscaping job marks the beginning of our Golden Years.  Age-wise we’re getting a very early start, but these next years are destined to be golden nonetheless.

My husband and I turned the page and found an exciting new chapter.  So many adventures await!  And our journey begins now.

L’Chaim!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Easter Day!  Millions of children eagerly awoke this morning in search of candied treats, sent in secret to households the world o’er during the pre-dawn hours.

Afterwards, they will attend church services dressed in their Sunday finest, hunt for Easter eggs, and watch the annual Easter parade.  At mid-day, families will share a meal of traditional foods such as ham, hard-boiled eggs, and various sweet breads like hot cross buns.

It is twenty-seven days past the Vernal equinox and the Earth’s return to life is now in full swing.  Seemingly overnight, the world outside my window donned a robe of flowers and birdsong.

This time of year, this day, is magical for many reasons.  But for me?  It is all about transition and rebirth.

Truly, is there anything more glorious than an apple orchard in full bloom?  Or an air perfumed by clusters of purple and white lilacs?

Of baby chicks chirping beneath grow lights and Peter Rabbit’s arrival in the form of our very own Easter Bunny, delivering sweet treats in pastel-colored baskets of cellophane grass.

Okay, I can think of many other equally glorious things too — but, the fullness of spring holds a divinity all its own, a unique pleasure gifted to us by Mother Nature herself.

There’s a freshness, an invigorating energy that permeates everything around me.  My soul remembers, and a swell of gratitude rises.  My senses come alive in the crisp cool air and vibrant landscape set out before me.  I realize, I’m smiling.

Then Spirit sends me a blessing.  It comes as a burst of thought, a moment of insight.  I suddenly become aware of an incredibly simple truth.

I’m happy.

I look across the expanse of yard and can’t imagine a prettier lawn.  The grass smells sweet.  And even though it’s been recently mowed, it is studded with bits of yellow sunshine and dots of purple twilight – dandelions and violets arrayed in all their glory.  Robins hop hither and yon, sometimes taking flight.  I invite them to eat their fill of grubs, but kindly leave behind some worms to aerate the soil.

By now, all of the migratory birds have returned ‘home to roost’.  Each year I anxiously listen for my feathered friends.  Catbird arrives and jealously guards a certain cherry tree until it produces its ripe, ruby fruit while the mocking bird sets up camp in the jasmine.  Our house wrens boldly sing, so loud, I fear they may have swallowed megaphones.  And so many more, too numerous to list here.

It’s a pleasure to hear their cheery voices greet the day and ride the gentle breezes, singing to their loved ones as they work hard building nests and laying fertile eggs.

Is it any wonder that Easter Day is adorned with colored eggs?  It’s the age old symbol for new life and new beginnings.

On that note, I must leave you here – for it’s time to set out tea for an Easter brunch.

May you enjoy the love of family and friends; and may the gift of life be cherished by us all.

 

 

 

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dr-seussAccording to Dr. Seuss – love is defined when one person’s weirdness is compatible with that of another’s.

That’s one way of putting it…but how do we define weirdness?

Is Aunt Tilly’s predilection for hosting tea parties with garden gnomes as guests – weird?  Maybe so.

But Uncle Walter doesn’t care one way or the other.  He only sees that it makes Aunt Tilly happy, and so, works extra hard to make their garden a beautiful spot for her to enjoy her tea.

I would argue it’s more about matching someone’s perception of reality.

My perception of someone else’s weirdness is colored through the lense of my own experience, thoughts, feelings in the same way that ten different witnesses to the same crime can report conflicting observations.   Our perceptions, the things we “see”, are unique to each of us.

This fact is further complicated by those folks who fool themselves into creating a reality that doesn’t really exist – refusing to see anything other than what they want to see.

It is no small wonder why the human race is at such odds with one another.  So many opinions…and each thinks the other is wrong – haters hate, lovers love – blinded by a perceived reality of their own design.

299621-john-donne-quote-no-man-is-an-island-unto-himself

Maybe we should take a page out of some 17th century wisdom.

In 1623, John Donne wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (Meditation XVII) in which he is famous for two quotes:

 

“For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…No man is an island, entire of itself”

But what do these phrases actually mean and how does it apply to us today?

John Donne is referring to the human condition.

For whom the bell tolls – signifies an individual’s death.

News flash – we all die, every single one us.  But Donne tells us that each death offers valuable lessons, if only we can properly understand, if we have eyes that can “see”.   He speaks about hardships as blessings.  Because it is mostly through tribulation that people grow as individuals, expanding their consciousness, learning and gaining new insight.  According to Donne, these are the things in life that are more valuable than gold.

No man is an island – refers to the fact that each of us are pieces to the whole of mankind.  Thus every death holds meaning because we all share the human condition.  In other words, whatever happens to our neighbor – can happen to us too.  Does the bell toll for you?  Or for someone else?

Take a moment and endeavor to see reality through someone else’s eyes.  Who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, your perception will expand and possibly change.

And if not?  No matter.  You will, at the very least, have gained insight into another’s definition of “weird”.

 

 

 

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Humphrey Bogart…  What can I say?  He makes me want to swoon.

Humphrey Bogart - Casablanca, 1942

Humphrey Bogart – Casablanca, 1942

As such, I’m a big fan of 1940’s movies, particularly those labelled (after the fact) “Film Noir”, described on Google as:

“a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term was originally applied (by a group of French critics) to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1944–54 and to the work of directors such as Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder.”

The past can always be romanticized, and for me – the 1940’s films exemplify a bygone era of style and class, when men wore fedoras and women silk stockings.  It was a time when polite society dictated manners, grace, and etiquette.  There were no computers or cell phones.  Detectives had to call for back up from pay phones and information gathering was done the old-fashioned way – questioning people face to face.

However, lest anyone misunderstand my ‘wistful’ tone, I wouldn’t want to actually live in the 1940’s – no more than I would the 1840’s.  To enjoy ‘historical’ fiction, one must temporarily put aside the reality of the times (like social injustice) in the spirit of entertainment — just like we do when attending a Renaissance Festival (let’s face it, the reality of medieval Europe was no picnic, but it sure is fun to dress up as a wench or knight, drink mead, eat turkey legs, and watch ye ‘ole jousting tournament).

It was while watching TCM movies one day… ok, gorging myself on a marathon of 1940 black & white oldies, when inspiration struck.

Months earlier, I had been invited to participate in a new writing project, in collaboration with a group of fellow writers, to write a book with “short-story” chapters that shared a common theme and set of circumstances.  YET — maddeningly — my creative muse had fled the building and remained missing in action.  I had only a general idea for my story, missing key details like plot line, point of view, tone, and voice.

But thanks to Humphrey Bogart, my germ of an idea sparked into flame, and within a few short days, I had a completed story.  My muse had returned in full glory…

The book is about to enter its editing phase next month, so the following is subject to change.  Here’s the opening scene to my “chapter”:

Evelyn Smythe

          Retired detective Sean Malone absently sipped the seltzer brought to him by Nurse Flechette and watched the stormy procession of Ravenwood’s newest inductee from his perch beside the parlor room windows.  The boorish tittering of the old ladies having their afternoon tea faded as his attention was drawn to the tallish woman marching up the Manor’s stone walkway.  He maneuvered his wheel chair for a closer view, feigning nonchalance lest he betray his interest to the resident gossips, and took note of the woman’s clenched teeth, tilted chin, and stiff back.  She was accompanied on one side by a long-haired woman whose pinched face looked as if she was sucking on lemons and on the other by a well-dressed man scurrying to keep pace and talking non-stop like a lawyer arguing a case.

As the troupe drew closer, Sean’s pulse quickened.  This was no common resident.  She wore a tailored suit that accentuated a trim figure, in the same tawny shade of her loose, shoulder length hair.  The woman moved with such grace that it was like watching a gazelle in stride.  But it was the sharp intelligence in her honey brown eyes that captivated him.  This was a lady that could rule kingdoms.  What on earth did she need an old folks home for, he wondered.  True, Ravenwood was as classy a place as they came, a marvel that he found himself spending his last days in such a place, but still, she seemed much too young.  In fact, she didn’t look a day over fifty.  And given her vigorous parade up the flagstone steps, she looked to be in the peak of health.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…”.  Humphrey Bogart’s voice echoed in Sean’s memory.  A warning perhaps?  Or was something awakening.  He felt the dull shroud of medicine bottles, patronizing nurses, and murky sunshine begin to lift, it was like a brisk autumn wind stirring layers of dust from his dormant senses.  Call it professional intuition if you will, or the by-product of experience gained from a life-long career, but the street-smarts he thought long since dead were making a grand return entrance.  He couldn’t deny his immediate gut response to this striking, self-possessed woman approaching the house.  Sean’s lips absently sought the ghost of his time-honored cigar.

More to follow once the book is published.  Suffice it to say for now, I borrowed on the Film Noir genre’s “mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace” to tell a very modern story.

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