Grant Us the Grace

After I told my mother I didn’t like the dress she made me for Christmas because it was corduroy, not velveteen, she turned and left the room without speaking. Years later, she told me she didn’t respond angrily because she knew a reprimand would allow me to resent her rather than thinking about my own rude and hurtful words.

Dad’s union was on strike, and money was tight, something I usually understood and accepted; but my teenaged self was focused on envy of the fashionable red-velveteen dress Santa had delivered to my best friend.

I saw my mother’s disappointment and hurt before she turned away, but mired in envious misery, I didn’t try to make things right. Later, after sulking in my room, I came to my senses, found her folding laundry, and choked out, “I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” she said. “I’m not sorry that I can’t give you everything you want, because that isn’t how life works, but I am sorry that you can’t see all you have.”

I thought of Mom’s statement a few weeks ago when a television commentator said that rather than pushing Thanksgiving aside in our rush to get started on Christmas, we should savor the simplicity of the November holiday and call on its spirit of gratitude throughout the coming season.

So this year, during the busy buildup to December 25th, I’m going to notice simple pleasures, open myself to them, and remember all I have.

I invite you to join me.

We’ll enjoy the red-cheeked exuberance of small children as they happy-dance in store aisles and gaze in round-eyed wonder at Christmas trees filled with light. We’ll smile at how angelic our young ones look as they perform in holiday concerts, how happy they seem as they race home from school with decorations and cards they created; how thoughtfully they debate the number of cookies to leave for Santa.

We’ll sing carols with messages and melodies that have resonated through the ages, concentrating until their hopeful words envelop us and carry us back to the time when we sang “Silent Night” with all the belief and love of our young hearts.

We’ll read traditional Christmas stories to ourselves and others and respond to the lines we well know: Santa’s exclamation as he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight,” Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone!” and the simple but compelling words of the Bible, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

If Christmas Eve brings us a calm night when the trees are wrapped in frosty lace, the snow sparkles with frozen crystals, and every star in the heavens is visible, we’ll take the time to bundle up and walk outdoors to search for the Star of the East and listen as the glory of the night whispers our blessings.

My wish is that all of us will be granted the grace to enjoy the Christmas we have —not the ones others are having or the one we wanted to have — the grace to find beauty in the simple, the grace of understanding that the best days are filled with small wonders.

With My Eyes or a Camera?

“Are you taking lots of photographs?” my friend Mary asked during a telephone conversation with her granddaughter, Melissa, who was traveling in Italy.

“No, Grandma, I’m not taking photographs,” the experienced, young traveler replied, “I decided on this trip I’d be in the moment.”

Her response highlights my dilemma: I don’t travel with a camera and rarely take pictures with my phone. I tell myself I prefer to use my senses to soak up sights and experiences, that a camera would require me to frame, focus, consider lighting, and tell people where to stand.

Seeing with my senses rather than a camera has advantages. A few years ago, Joel and I drove home to Craig from Denver and saw a tower of gentle flame on top of a mountain pass at dusk: a great pillar of rainbow standing tall among snow-glazed trees, its vivid hues illuminating the the shadowed sky and mountain. I focused on the sight for several long moments, memorizing its details and capturing its splendor.

I still see the vibrant column; and it’s brighter, bigger, and more colorful in my mind than than in the photographs Joel took with his phone. Photographs sometimes disappoint.

tower of flame on Rabbit Ears

On the other hand, I spend long minutes studying the excellent photographs taken by others; and I enjoy the glimpses of a photographer’s mind my blog friends provide when they explain their planning, processes, and problems. I happily peruse pictures my friends post on Facebook and treasure the photographs I have of my family and friends.

Photographs record more accurately than my mind. Too often, when I look at an old photo, I discover my memory deceives me: The battered family car my sister and I stood in front of was blue not green; and, though I smiled as I held Barbara’s hand, it was not the sweet moment between sisters I remembered: instead, Barbara was acting like I was Godzilla: struggling to escape my iron grip and scowling defiantly.

Frankly, old though I am, a few years ago when I saw the photo, I wanted to pinch her.

Photographs also allow me to experience sights I will never see.Without family picture albums, I would have no idea how Mom and Dad looked during my early years. I have a sense of them — their presence and voices — but it is through photographs I see the people they were when young. I used to scrutinize the photographs of my parents, looking for signs of myself in them, so I could be sure I wasn’t adopted. Like Barbara.

I seem to need both photographs and the freedom to exist  in the moment. So I’ll continue observing as keenly as I can and spending time reflecting on the photographs taken by others.

Perfectly Said

When I discover quotes that succinctly state an idea I have entertained, but never solidified, I appreciate the person who captured my vague notion in brief, concise words, whether its Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, Mark Twain, or Eminem.

Some of the quotes that strike me fade with time; but many have staying power and I readily recall their insights.

Following are six quotes from my collection preceded by my reasons for liking and remembering them.

I exercise and will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Sometimes it isn’t easy, and I consider crawling into my recliner to snooze, snack, and read. But I drown the self-defeating thought in laughter by remembering this quote:

“You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres

Anna Quindlan’s brief explanation of aging captured the process and emotion of doing so. I frequently think about, write about, and talk about aging with others who share my defeated skin, reluctant joints, and challenged eyes. As I watch my circle of friends and loved ones grow smaller, I understand I could be the next to surrender my space among the living. Thus, my kinship with this quote:

“Mortality is like a game of musical chairs.”
Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan

Most women I know struggle with insecurities in a culture that emphasizes beauty. A common saying, designed to comfort those of us who don’t look like Princess Kate, irritated me no end when I was young and unhappy with my appearance; so I enjoyed seeing it skewered by the lady who wrote Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.

Jean Kerr

Jean Kerr

“I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want — an adorable pancreas?”
Jean Kerr

The seasons in transition fascinate me and I often write about a new personality forcing its way into the world: spring’s lighthearted playfulness, summer’s amiable offer of friendship, fall’s colorful briskness, and winter’s implacable nature. I’m particularly fond of describing the battle for dominance waged by the seasons in March; but I’ll never equal the master:

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

 Yogi Berra quotes abound and make sense in an offbeat way. I repeat his words when I find myself moving full-speed ahead without knowing what I’m doing, as I did when starting this blog, learning to be a principal, and driving around with my husband in a strange city looking for a small restaurant because a man at a gas station recommended it.

“We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

Finally, when I can’t sleep, I ponder this quote by comedian Steven Wright. Feel free to use it when you’re awake and alone in the middle of a dark night:

“If toast always lands butter-side down, and cats always land on their feet, what happens if you strap toast on the back of a cat and drop it?”
Steven Wright

Steven Wright

Nostalgia 

Nostalgia: a wistful yearning to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a tenderness for the happiness of a former place or time.                        

Late last fall, after a dry summer in which dust devils danced and mountains shed their snow-caps too early, rain sneaked in overnight and fell unnoticed on our parched part of the west. Early the next morning, Joel and I set out to walk a mountain’s rim in the after-glow of dawn.

thin path near the lawn with purple flowers in the shade of trees on a hillside in rays of sunset

Our chosen trail abruptly left the valley floor and twined up a steep ravine pocked with boulders and damp with rain. As we climbed, stretching our legs and breathing deeply, we moved into the pungent smell of wet sage with its distinctive fragrance of warm spices cooled.

The earthy odor, a familiar presence during my formative years, surrounded me; and as I inhaled it, I was once again a young girl, standing at the edge of early morning alongside a vast, yellowing field.Hunting Silhouette

Sleepy-eyed, I watched loved ones clothed in red — father, brothers, uncles, cousins — pace in silence through rain-soaked sage, watching for the flash of pheasant. Ahead of them, Spot swept swiftly, stealthily, back and forth across the field, nose to the ground, intent.

The memory fading, I stopped on the side of the mountain, letting Joel move ahead, breathing the scented air of my past, transfused by a mental yearning, a physical ache for the place, the family, the pet, the place, and the child I lost as I aged.

Those feelings, triggered when the smell of sage transformed a mountain path into my childhood, remained with me, gradually losing their power, until I had the wisdom to secure them with these words.

Such memories, when we manage to recapture them, are to be treasured, recorded, and shared with loved ones. They add up to a life.

Making the Grade

Apple on a vintage report card

Elementary students carrying backpacks and a carefree attitude pass by my house on their way to and from school, shedding announcements, art projects, and jackets as mindlessly as autumn trees drop leaves.

Yesterday, I watched spruced-up children scamper by my house, dressed in new clothes and excitement, and wondered what they were thinking about as they began another school year. My teaching experience tells me they weren’t focused on increasing their knowledge and earning high grades. Instead, they were probably thinking about friends, teachers, lunch and recess.

Learning and grades didn’t dominate my thoughts at the beginning of a new school year until I became a teacher. I remember working diligently to establish procedures for collecting scores and assigning grades that would fairly represent the progress of each student, refining and improving my methods year in and year out.

Still, I was often surprised by the reactions of parents to the grades I recorded for their children.

When I taught ninth-grade English, Willy’s parents attended a conference at my request after their happy-go-lucky son received a D in my class. When I asked the smiling couple for their thoughts on how we could work together to help Willy increase his achievement, Dad chuckled and said, “Oh heavens, Mrs. Bohart, don’t fuss about Willy. If he likes his teachers, gets passing grades, and stays out of trouble, we don’t worry about him much and neither should you.”

That same year, a tense mother made an appointment with me to review her daughter’s grade. She told me her daughter, Ellen, wanted to graduate as valedictorian in four years. Then she studied the girl’s scores, checking my arithmetic with a calculator, hoping to find an error that would raise Ellen’s A- to an A.

Good grief. When I was in ninth grade, I worried about increasing my meager collection of Jantzen sweaters, securing a date for the junior prom, and keeping my uppity sister in her place.

Then there were children who were delightfully oblivious about the meaning of grades.

A kindergarten student rushed into my office to show me his report card, on which his required skills had been marked on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Look, Mrs. Principal, my teacher thinks I’m 7 on everything except this one here,” he said, pointing to his score for knowing the letters of the alphabet. “On this one, she thinks I’m 8. Wow. Really, I’m only 5.”

In the current AARP Magazine, Brian Grazer, a film and TV producer, said he realized when he graduated from college that he hadn’t learned much other than how to get good grades.

Grades and test scores matter; I wish learning mattered more.

I Thought I’d Never See

A Flock of Flamingoes

Flocks of flamingo. Africa. Kenya. Lake Nakuru

Driving across the Caribbean island of Bonaire in a hard-used rental truck equipped with a shimmy and loose steering, Joel and I crested a hill and saw approximately two hundred flamboyant pink flamingoes wading in a large body of shallow water. Their long, stretched-out necks and heads, barely submerged and held parallel to the pond’s floor, snaked back and forth searching for food in a mesmerizing underwater undulation of flamingo heads. Long minutes passed. We couldn’t stop watching

A Bevy of Belugas

But there they were, surging through the ocean waters of Cook’s Inlet in Alaska, leaping waves in equidistant rows, barreling toward the horizon: syncopated, buoyant, a playful army on the march. We joined other drivers who’d abandoned their cars on the shoulders of the highway and rushed to the edge of the water as the whales paraded before us in formation. Strangers no longer, we all watched with smiles on our faces, passing the word, belugas, to newcomers, until the last rank disappeared.

A Band of Rams

Group of Rocky Mountain SheepWe came across five desert bighorn sheep as we explored Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. Suddenly, the superior-seeming animals stood in our path: uninterested in and unalarmed by our presence. They noted our arrival and stood as though posing for our benefit, muscles flexed in case our intrusion became inconvenient. Stocky, confident, and indomitable, they stared at us from between rounded horns. We broke eye contact first.

A Pair of Peacocks Fly in Formation

Airborne, the peacocks winged their way above the narrow dirt road we followed along the Mississippi River. Both of the birds trailed tail feathers of length, partially fanned. They flew in tandem, outlined against a billowed cloud, their iridescent plumage highlighted by the afternoon sun. We watched their graceful passage across the sky and felt privileged.

A Lone Lizard Perform a Feat

Common basilisk lizardIt stalked the earth below a Mayan ruin in Belize. The few tourists present gave way before its royal pace and majestic body, nearly three-feet long and crowned with intimidating crests. Cameras clicked. Then the incredible happened. Startled by a noise we didn’t hear, or perhaps tired of our attention, the lizard reared on its hind legs and sprinted away. We gasped at the sight of an upright lizard running to cover. Later, I learned it was a common basilisk, more widely known as the Jesus lizard because it runs, erect, over both land and water.

I didn’t expect to see any of these marvels, but I was blessed to do so.

And in my mind, I see them still.

Rose-Colored Glasses

aged woman with pink eyeglasses smiling at camera

I once read the more you remember about your childhood, the happier it must have been. I don’t remember the credentials, if any, of the person who authored this idea; but the notion stuck with me, and I ponder it from time to time.

I have an abundance of vivid, detailed memories of my upbringing. They are predominantly pleasant, so I tend to write with humor and happiness about the life I lived as a youngster.

But I sometimes wonder if I view my childhood through rose-colored glasses and thus mislead my readers, who could imagine I had perfect parents with only one or two endearing failings and siblings who squabbled, but always in a humorous, affectionate manner. My followers could believe I lived in a constant flow of love, exemplary behavior, good grades, abundant friends, and the pink glow of pleasantness.

Of course I didn’t live in a never-ending state of bliss. Some of my memories are embarrassing, humiliating, and hurtful. Most folks would probably agree the road of life is a crowded, bumpy, pot-holed path rather than a newly paved highway traveled by decorous drivers.

Dad’s temper could flare alarmingly at inanimate objects and recalcitrant animals. Mom — weary from babies, refereeing, cleaning, and cooking — sometimes issued sharp reprimands. The ridicule and insults of my siblings could wound me by falling too near the truth, and I would rush to retaliate as hurtfully as possible.

Our sibling life included yelling, crying, sneakiness, lying used defensively, defiance of parental rules, and resentment of punishments. Our friendships and school experiences contained bouts of bleakness; and money, which did not flow easily, could cause contention.

So I do remember turmoil and outbursts of chaos; but, if given the opportunity, I would choose to be raised again by the same parents and with the same siblings. My heart sings when I know I’m going to spend time with any of my brothers and sisters and floods with love when I remember my parents and deceased brother. If given a truth serum and asked to describe in one word the years I lived under my parents’ roof, I would respond, “Happy.”

I think the truth about anyone’s past is a liquid stream of luminous gray, neither pristine white nor deep black: a stream at the mercy of human memory, wending its way through the sometimes boisterous, sometimes placid, sometimes threatening river of our lives.

My memory soothes the intervals of disturbed water in my young life, and I’m glad. Though I don’t deny my realities, I prefer to remember  my childhood as stretches of calm river etched with sunshine rather than occasional turbulences edged by a threatening sky.

I’ve made my choice: if I ever write bleakly, it will have to be fiction.

On Hiking

I came to hiking late in life.

When young, I clamored to climb West Mountain with my friends. In reality, we ran up the first foothill, declared ourselves exhausted, and spent the rest of the afternoon acting silly and enjoying the ten pound lunches we’d packed.

I began to hike for pleasure in my twenties when I backpacked in the Sierra Nevadas with my first husband, a man of quirks. He ate freeze-dried food with gusto, scooted rattlers safely off the trail, and refused to build campfires or sleep in tents because to do so would isolate us from the night.

cg

I admit his desire to embrace the night advanced my stargazing from the Big Dipper and North Star to more difficult prey like Cassiopeia and the blue glow of Vega. It’s easy to recognize constellations and stars when they hang within reach like sparkling fruit.

While backpacking, I carried a fair share of weight and made do with minimal grooming. I knew I was a dawdler, not a pacesetter, so I walked second in line—though I’d heard that rattlesnakes, startled by the first hiker, tend to strike the second.

At times I felt fear.

I once walked a narrow path along a sheer cliff and pictured myself rolling away like a potato bug. When my husband joked that perhaps we’d fall to our deaths more quickly in the thin mountain air, I didn’t laugh. I edged into rivers: facing upstream for better control, side-stepping over slick rocks, probing for footholds with a hiking stick, my heart thumping in my chest. We once out-waited an unexpected lightning storm, crouched together under a clump of brush as jagged spears ignited the world and my terror.

But such moments of fear paled in comparison to my appreciation of the breathtaking beauty I walked through while carrying a pack on my back. I’ll never forget standing among Ponderosas of vanilla scent with my boots planted against the slope of the trail, while I gazed at a sky hidden by swaths of twilight clouds. The retreating sun stretched the shadows of the pines thin and long: a multitude of blackened arrows crossing contoured boulders, curtained cliffs, and a sunset-splashed river.

Since moving to Colorado in the nineties, Joel and I have climbed a few of Colorado’s fourteen-thousand-plus peaks called fourteeners. Standing on the summit of a towering mountain, mesmerized by a view stretching into eternity in all directions from a vantage point on top of the world, I feel enriched, alive, powerful.

Joel about to summit

Joel about to summit

Of course, on the way down, I’m brought back to reality by two knees, aghast at what I’ve done to them, muttering and complaining with each step.

Unwilling to give up a hobby that enriches my life, I swallow ibuprofen and ignore their grumbling.

 

The Worth of Mirth

I read that laughter lowers stress; but I already knew that: an unflappable first-grader gave me the gift of laughter when I was a first-year principal.

It was a tough day to be in charge. The temperature hovered near zero. Heavyweight snowflakes fell as though poured, and freezing winds whipped an icy playground. So I imposed indoor recess and discovered, as the day and the storm dragged into the afternoon, that young students don’t respond well to captivity.

Next, the copy machine gave up; the central office notified me the buses would be late; and the cap fell off one of my heels so when I walked, I clacked like a riveter.

Clicking along a hallway to check on demented laughter coming from the boys’ bathroom, I spotted Gus, a first-grade student and a favorite because we spent time together. “Guess what?” he yelled in his indoor voice, “I went to the dentist. He checked me and all my teeth.”

Scared cartoon boy visiting the dentist.

“Wow. Are you perfect?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow, considered my comment, and bellowed,  “No. He didn’t say I’m perfect. But I’m pretty damn good.”

Stress flees in the face of laughter.

I also read laughter promotes health and healing, but I already knew that as well, having learned it from my dad years ago. At eighty-five, after a bicycle accident and two surgeries, my optimistic, active father, who considered taking aspirin a sign of weakness, began to shrink and withdraw. Mom and I sat with him and watched his zest for life decline as one dreary hospital day followed another with no good news.

One afternoon, I went to a bookstore to buy a book Mom wanted. I also picked up a new book by Roald Dahl,  Revolting Rhymes, a retelling of fairytales. If Mr. Dahl wrote it, I knew I’d like it.

IMG_0844

At the hospital, Dad, with closed eyes and sunken cheeks, didn’t return my greeting.

When I showed the book to Mom, she suggested I read something from it to her as she crocheted. I chose Cinderella, and we were soon giggling at the unusual retelling of the classic tale. Dad opened his eyes and turned his face toward us. I continued:

“Quickly, in no time at all,
Cindy was at the Palace Ball!
It made the Ugly Sisters wince
To see her dancing with the Prince:
She held him very tight and pressed
Herself against his manly chest.”

Dad laughed. I increased the drama. By the time Cindy ran out of the ball in her underwear, the three of us were laughing at length and volume. During the following days, we read all of Mr. Dahl’s poems and repeated our favorites. Nurses began dropping by to join the merriment.

I know laughter hastened my father’s healing. He soon mended to the point he could leave the hospital and eventually travel home; and when he did, he took Revolting Rhymes with him.

If we want to live well and age well, we need to look for opportunities to laugh each and every day.

Of Food and Puffer Bellies

Young Dad In 3rd grade I made my dad a card shaped like a necktie for Father’s Day. I covered it with colorful stripes, avoiding pink because Dad wouldn’t wear pink. Inside I wrote, “I’m glad you are my father and work so hard to make money for food so we can eat good.” As I aged, I recognized other fine qualities my father possessed—honesty and humility, humor and quirkiness, absolute love for his family—but at eight, I didn’t see far beyond my stomach.

Twice a month, Dad, with a flourish, presented his check from Geneva Steel to Mom. “You earned lots of overtime, old boy,” she’d comment, the pride and affection in her voice making him grin. The rest of us headed for the car, anticipating our payday trip.

Dad drove and sang, his smooth tenor accompanying our commotion, while Mom refereed. The two little ones crawled back and forth, trying out the comfort of different laps. Squeezed into the back, the rest of us bashed each other about and complained: “Mom, she’s touching me.” Our interest picked up as we approached Ironton where Dad worked on the blast furnace—sometimes worked too hard on searing summer days, so that he came home sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked, and weak-voiced. On those days, we stopped our play and whispered a phrase we’d heard, but didn’t understand: heat exhaustion.

As the car climbed Ironton Hill, the plant’s smell engulfed us: an oily, metallic odor spewing from rusty smokestacks and hovering in a yellowish haze over stacks of windowless structures, dark and looming. Small railroad cars, filled with molten refuse from Dad’s furnace, traveled along the plant’s massive slagheap, dumping their contents. At night the slag glowed red as it poured like lava over the sides of the pile. To me, Ironton looked like the devil’s playground.

If we chanced to pass when the small engine and cars appeared, Dad would begin to sing, “Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little puffer bellies all in a row,” and the rest of us would join in, though sometimes a haughty teenager refused to participate.

Reaching Provo, we drove to Ream’s Discount Groceries, where we walked behind our parents like ants following a trail of crumbs as they piled our cart with staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables not grown in our garden or canned in our kitchen. After collecting these necessities, if they had enough money, they added luxury items that made our stomachs dance: a bag of oranges, a brick of cheese, licorice, hotdogs.

We never asked for treats. We knew better. We also knew we’d go to the Dairy Queen next, where Dad’s announcement, “Let’s have at it, kids,” triggered a stampede that terrified the teenage workers.

A few years after the deaths of our parents, their seven children reunited for a van trip around Utah Valley, the mountain-protected home we had loved. When the van neared Ironton, abandoned and mostly dismantled, we spontaneously burst into Dad’s song about puffer bellies and stationmasters. And everybody participated. I wondered if I was the only one who heard Dad’s voice soaring above ours.