Friday, September 25, 2015

Autumnal Musings

As the growing season draws to a close, I am often drawn to thoughts about growth. Growth in the plant kingdom is something I observe every year--I love to plant annual flowers and then revel in their blooming glory all summer long. Growth abounds in the summer, but growth is not an ever outward process--the end of summer comes.

Of course, then comes autumn. Much as I love autumn, I always rue to impending death of the flowers I have enjoyed. Of course, as I garden I observe, and muse, and draw conclusions about life...about living.

Much of my time of late has been taken up in continuing to help my father and step-mother as they age and transition. In many ways, it is like the life cycle I observe in the flowers.  (Before anyone takes offense, I am not suggesting that people aging is the same as plants aging,  but as in everything nature has much to teach humanity.)

Since my parents live in a retirement village, and are now in sheltered care, transitioning to nursing care, I observe many facets of what it means to age.  Frequently, when I am visiting I encounter other elderly people--people I don't know. But I always try to be cheery, to be helpful, to say a kindly word. And it is the reactions that amaze and baffle me. 

A few people simply don't/can't hear me, and so my cheery comments fall on "deaf" ears. A few reciprocate--smiling and responding, even if briefly.  It is the other portion of responses that always surprise--the people who harrumph, and complain and are downright unpleasant.  One day, as I was exiting the elevator, I caught and held the door for an elderly man on a motorized scooter who was entering the elevator.  Rather than say "thank you" to me for holding the door, he snarled I CAN DO IT FOR MYSELF.  OK, then. So much for being nice.

While that example is somewhat extreme, it is not an isolated example.  And what it has made me do is examine my own aging process and the way I respond to people.  Of late, I find myself very intentionally cultivating an attitude of being grateful, of expressing thanks.  

In every encounter I have at this retirement village, especially with staff, I try to say--THANK YOU. Thank you for the work you do, for the care you give, for the thorough professionalism you display while you are also showing great care and compassion.  Maybe my efforts of overdone--but given that I have observed so much ingratitude I feel my verbal affirmation is the least I can do.

As I deliberately try to show gratitude, I am hoping that it is also cultivating in me a growth tendency--as the twig is bent, so the tree's inclined.  If the day comes that I am a resident in such a facility, I hope the attitude I display will not be curmudgeonly and grudging. 

Maybe by now you are scratching your head and thinking--wasn't she talking about fall flowers.  Well, yes I was.  The way a flower grows, even as it draws near the end of its season, is greatly influenced by the encounters along the way.  I know, I know--the analogy is imperfect. A flower can't decide to water itself to enhance its growth and beauty. But it can make the most use of the water and sunshine it receives.

Where does that take me? What I have determined for myself is that I will cultivate gratitude and thankfulness. I do not want to be the person who pushes away help with a curt--I CAN DO IT FOR MYSELF.  I want to be more like a flower that blooms in its time, in response to water and sun. The beauty of that flower remains long after the petals have fallen.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Pussy Cat Pussy Cat, where have you been?

Why, yes, that is me riding a carousel with a special girl.

Remember that children’s rhyme?  The next line was “I’ve been to London to see the Queen.”

Well, yes—we’ve been away. 

Hence no blog for…oh, awhile.  
And, like Pussy Cat, we’ve been to
London.  We didn’t see the Queen, though  last summer we did actually see the Queen’s “house” when we toured Buckingham Palace and saw the Royal Collection—an amazing collection of paintings.

So, here’s what we saw on this trip: 

Some things are still there

Something else we saw, but...didn’t see exactly.

As we passed Lord's Cricket Ground, on our way to St. John's Wood, where we attended church in a lovely Church of England church--I noted this poster.

Advertising the second test of the Ashes. OK—if you have to ask, you don’t know what it is.  Cricket. Enough said.

The second test was played at Lord's Cricket Ground--sort of the Holy Grail of cricket. But, already I've exhausted my knowledge of this sport.  

(The fourth test of the Ashes has now been played elsewhere, and England did rather well.)

The St. John's Wood church is one of my favorite churches in the world. Now, I have not been in that many...considering how many there must be worldwide.  But I've been a few and I love the classic interior of this church, with its fantastic acoustics.  The church has an 8 member choir--that's all. And yet they sing beautifully, full voiced and thrilling to hear.

The remaining sights were personal and familial.

Such as...
A little girl who likes to jump in muddy puddles
a little girl showing Papa the ropes!

Two little girls with crash helmets...which they need when they ride their scooters!
Nearby where we were visiting is a large recreation area--lots of excitement there, including a local fair. See the photo at the top of this blog.

Also various types of transportation.
A tractor picking up trash in the park

An air ambulance picking up a patient 

Two dear people riding a teacup! 

BUT, BEST OF ALL, WE SAW THESE PEOPLE! (and one is brand new)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Ash Tree

This is a story about a tree--not a grove (as in the lovely Welsh song The Ash Grove)--but just one tree.

When we moved to the house we live in--some 30 plus years ago--it was a barren place. No trees, just mounds of dirt from dug-out basements and other construction detritus.

The wind would blow out of the northwest--sometimes quite fiercely, making the master bedroom the coldest room in the house.  So we set about to plant trees.

We planted bare-root stock 18 inch high evergreens, various types. And we planted an oak tree, a blue atlas cedar, two dogwoods, and a Japanese maple.

We also planted a green ash tree, known for its hardiness and ability to withstand wind. That tree was planted on the northwest corner.

All the trees grew robustly. With the evergreens--so much so that we had to take out every other tree.  When trees are 18 inches tall they look mighty puny, so we got them too close together. 
All was well...until this year.

This year, the tree did not come into to full leaf--parts looked downright sparse.

We called our tree guy. and he took one look and said--emerald ash borer beetle.  Oh, no!

He cut away some branches, and said we might get this year out of the tree.  It has provided such wonderful shade over our sunporch. Plus it is the place we put squirrel whirl-a-gigs on which to put corncobs for squirrels to eat...and entertain us.

This is not the sign of a healthy tree--see how frantically it is trying to stay alive by putting out enormous leaves along the side of the trunk.

Come fall, we will have to say goodbye to the ash tree. There is little likelihood that we can replace it with a tree large enough to provide all the shade the ash tree did.

Farewell, ash tree.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Portrait of a Man

In recognition of Father's Day--I offer this brief portrait of the life of a man--he is my father, David.

David was born in 1919, and is the baby in this photo. While he was born in Pennsylvania, when he was less than 2 years old, his parents, along with him and his older brother, went as missionaries to southern Africa.

The family lived there for 10 years, returning to the United States in 1929.  While they were there, the third son was born, as you can see in the photo below--the three sons: Arthur, David, and Joel.

Since the formative years of his growing up were spent in a place with a sub-tropical climate, he felt somewhat out of place in the eastern United States. Maybe the clothing in the photo--which was taken in southern Africa before they returned to the U.S.-- also helps explain why he felt out of place.  The life he was accustomed to was not what he experienced upon the family's return. Not until his family moved to southern California in 1933 did he feel connected to where he lived. He loved southern California which reminded him of the climate and scenery in southern Africa.

The next photo shows my father as a young man--he is 18 years old. It was the summer of 1937, and he had just finished high school. Since his family was not rich, and since after returning to the U.S. his parents had two more children, daughters, they informed him that he needed to make his own way in the world.

It was a hard decision--but he did it--found work, saved money, and made plans to go to college .  And then he met my mother at a church revival meeting in Pennsylvania.

Of course, the tidy way in which I present this information lacks nuance and detail--of which there is much nuance and many details. These few details are only to give you a sense of a young man growing up.

Once my father had sufficient funds to go to college, he chose a college in California. My mother, soon after they became engaged, joined him there. And in October, 1942 they were married.

When my father graduated from college, he got a job teaching in central California. Because of that, he had a deferment from military service.  I was born in 1945, just before the end of World War II.  

Although my father was teaching, he had a sense of calling to be a missionary, as his parents had been.  Happily, my mother had the same sense.  When they were accepted by the mission board of their church, they were sent to what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

At the very young age of 27 my father was assigned as superintendent of a mission station near the Zambezi River in southern Zambia.  The conditions then were somewhat primitive--no electricity, no indoor plumbing for example. 

Over the next 19 years, my parents served in various capacities in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia.  He was superintendent of another mission station, this time in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and eventually bishop of all the mission work for his church in southern Africa.  During those years, my parents also had an infant daughter die (of malaria), had a son born and another daughter born.  

In 1965, my parents returned to the U.S. for good. I had been in the U.S. from 1960 to 1965, and through the generosity of a benefactor was able to meet my parents after that 5 year absence in London. 

My father, who is now 96, has a prodigious memory and from reading his autobiography, which he has worked on for some 20 plus years, I have learned many tales about his time in mission and church work.

Of course, I have my own stories to tell about my father.  But I would rather turn your attention to a post I wrote on a prior Father's Day--here are the things I learned from my father.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015


OK I have to say it...I don't get it.

My Vanity Fair magazine arrived today complete with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. And that got  me to thinking...just what is a woman?

Are you a woman because you think like a woman? More on that in a bit.
Because you look like a woman?
Or have a body like a woman?

Thinking like  woman?
Well, what is that?

An article by Elinor Burkett in June 6  NY Times nails it. In responding to the interview question about recognition of being transgender, Jenner had responded “My brain is much more female than it is male.”  Burkett asserts that “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers*, shouldn’t get to define us…” Jenner has not had a lifetime of being defined as a woman and THEREFORE shaped by those presumptions. I commend the rest of the article for you to read -- here.

Another recent story is also informative.  Earlier this month, Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt remarked at the World Conference of Science Journalists explaining why he couldn’t work with women scientists. His reason? He said, “Three things happen when they are in the lab.... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry." What an appalling view of women.

Thankfully many women scientists displayed far more intelligence, sense and humor by their responses.  Perhaps that is thinking like a woman.

It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book—when men get into trouble—quick, blame a woman.  Ahem, does the name Eve come to mind?

So, back to the subject of what is a woman. It is understandable that the thinking displayed in the Tim Hunt story, replicated many times over in thousands of other examples, unavoidably shapes women.  Girls who are pampered, protected, diminished, demeaned can’t help but experience life differently—think like a woman—than boys who have been encouraged to be assertive, be bold, be strong.  That does NOT, of course, mean that girls can’t assert themselves and find their own identities.  But it is much easier to do that when girls are encouraged to be assertive, be bold, and be strong.

One more observation on the Caitlyn Jenner transformation. As the Vanity Fair story reveals, Jenner had two years of treatment to remove facial hair (I can think of many post-menopausal women who would envy the chance to undergo such treatments).  Further, she had 10 hours of surgery to help “feminize” her face. She had body sculpting, including—obviously—breast augmentation. And, lastly, that waist!  As the cover photo reveals, the body constructed is quite stunning.  It is a body that many many women do NOT have, and yet they are most decidedly women.  The irony is that in order to be a woman, Caitlyn Jenner opted for a physical, visual approach—yet again defining how society too often defines women.

What I find so very sad is that these stereotypical ways of thinking about what it means to be a woman—looking great, “thinking” like a woman—miss the mark and what I think is the most important attribute of being a woman.  When our daughter was a little girl, like many little girls she would say she wanted to be pretty. I used to tell her—I don’t want you to just be pretty, I want you to be intelligent.  And then I would add—pretty can fade, but intelligence doesn’t.

That’s what I wish people meant when they say—just like a woman.
* Lawrence Summers--former president of Harvard, among other accomplishments. He "famously" stated that there aren't many women in math and science because of "biological differences."

Monday, May 25, 2015

My Country, 'Tis of Thee

I am sitting in a movie theater in Bulawayo, Rhodesia*. It is 1958. I am a student at Eveline Girls High School in Bulawayo, and along with other boarding students, we are waiting for the movie to begin.  I have no recollection whatever of which movie it was. But certainly it was made in Hollywood and was therefore an American movie.  As movies did years ago, this one began with several short films—maybe news reels. I don’t recall.  But what I do most vividly recall is that when the opening credits of the feature film were about to roll, the screen suddenly filled with a flag of the United States of America, in lovely vivid color. As it waved in the breeze, I felt my whole being swell with pride. Here was the flag of MY country. The image was accompanied by the strains of the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

I suspect I was alone in my patriotic fervor. I was no doubt the only American girl in the group. Most of the other students attending the boarding school were Rhodesian girls—white, in those days of apartheid—daughters of farmers and businessmen in the country. While there were other American girls attending Eveline—daughters of missionaries, as I was—I lived in the house closest to the actual school buildings, a consequence of my having had rheumatic fever which meant I was not meant to be subjected to too much physical strain, such as walking a distance to classes.  And when it came to movie going outings, we went by house**.

Fast forward several decades, and I am sitting in a football stadium attending a Penn State football game. As does every athletic event in the U.S.A., this one began with the band striking up the opening strains of the Star Spangled Banner and the entire crowd joining in.  Except me.  I found it hard to sing joyfully the words I knew by heart, and happily sang in the movie theater in Bulawayo.

When my parents, brother, sister and I returned to the U.S. in 1960, the United States was as shining an example of democracy as one could imagine.  We had helped win World War II, we had saved Europe and perhaps western civilization. We embodied the Yank can-do spirit. Give us a problem, and we could solve it, fix it, rescue it, save it.

Sure, we had divisions—some more painful and vivid than others. Blacks in America were living under continued white domination, even though slavery and the Civil War had ended. But blacks also migrated north in astonishing numbers and helped drive the great explosion of American manufacturing. 

Political parties existed, but Republicans and Democrats tolerated each other, and even worked together.  Where politics took on a very sharp turn was when Senator McCarthy began spotting “Communists” under every stone.  The McCarthy hearings devolved into some of the worst political persecution the United States had seen in its history.

And then came a decade of unraveling.  Like many Americans, I was entranced with the bright new president John Kennedy.  His assassination, while not the first of a sitting president, seems so much like turning out a light and plunging the nation into a kind of darkness.  Other political assassinations followed in stunningly swift succession — Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Robert Francis Kennedy.

The unraveling was also evidenced by the U.S. becoming mired in a winless war in Vietnam.  This is my generation’s war. Like any war, it took too many young lives. Classmates, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, brothers, fathers.  We mourned deeply, as we do today, Memorial Day. 

News trickled out of the horrific wholesale slaughter of villagers in Vietnam. We heard names like My Lai—places we never knew existed much less had an idea what they looked like. We only knew that the U.S. had lost its innocence. We weren’t the good guys anymore. The flag of the United States no longer symbolized something heroic.

There were other ways we lost our innocence. We learned how many countries had leaders overthrown by the CIA, in our name. Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil, Dominican Republic, and even South Vietnam—ironically, President Kennedy authorized the assassination of President Diem in August, 1963.

What amazes and heartens me is that even with all this—the ways in which political leaders have deceived and failed us—we still have young men and women who are motivated by patriotism. Who see beyond the cynicism and respond to the call of duty. Young men and women who firmly believe that they can make the world a better place.

So on this day, Memorial Day, I say thank you to Larry and to Jay (friends who died in Vietnam), to all the young men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan.

I love my country—I love the potential for which it stands.  I love the good it has accomplished in the world. And I love that it continues to beckon people all around the world to come here.  Yes, I will sing the Star Spangled Banner again—I just wish the “rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air” was a less frequent occurrence. Along with the national anthem, I would love to sing heartily the words of some of our other unofficial national anthems—"God Bless America," "This Land is Your Land," and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

 Childe Hassam's painting Flags, Fifth Avenue

*In 1980, Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe.
** Think Harry Potter, where students are sorted into different houses, both for lodging and for academic competition.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Too soon old; too late schmart!

Confessions of a 70 year old.

Today is SΓΈren Kierkegaard's birthday. That is note-worthy for this blog as it was Kierkegaard who noted that “life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that is must be lived forwards.” 

To put that philosophic thought another way, we have the Pennsylvania Dutch expression: we grow too soon old, and too late schmart.


This year, I celebrated my 70th birthday. I was born in February, just months before the close of World War II. Of course, I don't remember that event, but the proximity of my birth to the end of the last world war helps frame the span of my life.  It also means that I was on the cusp of the Boomer generation.

So by now, I should have the “understanding life” part down.  I do have a few confessions that perhaps have come with looking back over life and understanding it:

1. I don’t feel 70.  While I have no desire to be a 20 or 30 year old again, and while I have certainly matured, my inner sense is not all that different from what it was decades ago.
2. I don’t look 70. I recently had a conversation with someone who had come to do some work at our house. In the course of the conversation, I noted that my husband and I have lived in our house for 35 years--whereupon the worker asked how old I was. I replied--70. In response to my reply, the worker burst out--NO WAY. Then he asked how I managed to not look 70. The answer is:  good genes; good luck; and no smoking.  Of course, I could be like a well-preserved antique car that, suddenly one day, has all its wheels fall off.
3. And I feel 70.  OK, so this contradicts # 1 above.  Let's just say my MIND feels young, while my body throws in an occasional creak and moan to say "Not so fast."
OK—enough of confessions.

Here’s another part of growing older.  There is a somewhat tired joke that the first thing one does in the morning is read the obituaries—if your name isn’t there, go ahead and make a cup of coffee.  Well, I do confess to reading the obituaries. Having lived in one place for 50 of these 70 years, there are many names I recognize.  And occasionally, someone’s death is recorded and I write a note to the ones who remain behind.

It isn’t so much that growing old makes you think more often of death—although of course you do because—well, because it’s inevitable. That’s one of the understanding life insights.  What I do think of is that the passing of a person from this life leaves behind a void. And for a time, loved ones and acquaintances remember. And then we fade from view.

I want to note in particular a recent death of a blogging friend—Philip Robinson. I never met Philip in person, but through his blog I learned to value this singular person. His blog—entitled Tossing Pebbles (which is still available to read) reveals a man with a wide array of interests. Through his blog I learned that he was a father who raised a son virtually alone; that he was a very proud grandfather to three accomplished grandchildren. I learned that he was interested in and dedicated to subsistence living—I shuddered every year when I read his blog about chopping enough wood to see him through a northern Canadian winter. He was passionate about history and about politics. It was always a delight to read his thoughts in any given blog post.

Now, he has died. He learned in January that he had pancreatic cancer, and even though he had surgery and received good medical care, this aggressive disease overwhelmed the best efforts. 

Living life forward, understanding life backwards. Thus it ever was. Or as my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors might say “too soon old, too late schmart."