Saucer Magnolia Study

“…Peace is joy at rest and joy is peace on its feet.” ~Anne Lamott

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That’s what I think of when I remember the day I took these images last spring.

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What a magnificent day it was.  So peaceful, yet so inspiring.

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I remember standing beneath this Saucer Magnolia tree with my camera

pointed straight up through the blossoms and I never wanted it to end.

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Everything about it was magical.  The light – the air – the tree…

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I look back on it now and can remember exactly where I was standing and

how it felt to be seeing that tree at the perfect moment in time.

Saucer Magnolia_13-0414_7439-2  And it’s almost here again!

Some For All

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I gathered this spring’s first batch of daffodils yesterday. Five little blossoms – one open, four still cocooned away inside their protective covering – all living beneath my bedroom window on the south side of my house. This group is always the first to emerge each year as they are in a prime position to soak in the late afternoon sun, yet stay protected from the worst of the seasonal winds. In other words, they got it good.

The other group – the ones that run along the fence on the east side of the front yard – they’ll be along in another week or two, flashing their sunshine smiles at the passing cars as they bask and bathe in the morning sun. This patch that runs the length of my 40’ side fence will be seen by many; whereas the first batch of five will be seen and enjoyed only by me.

In our society we often equate “more” with “better”. The more you own, the more you’re worth. The more you sell, the more you have. It’s created a society that honors “more for one” over “some for all”.

My whole life I’ve been a “sharer”. If I get, I give. If I receive, I pass it on. I keep a portion for myself and then find a way to bless someone else with what I’ve been given. I do it with flowers, with money, with food, with my photographs – I basically do it with everything. It is an inherent part of my genetic makeup that I was reminded of when I took an autumn leaf into my mother while she was in the hospital this past fall. I handed her a beautiful oak leaf and she looked at my dad and said, “Look, Jack…she’s still bringing us leaves.” She then recounted how I couldn’t be outside for long as a child without running up to hand her a flower, a leaf, a rock, or a caterpillar. I delighted in the outdoors as a child and I wanted everyone to see – and share – in the items I delighted in.

So it’s no wonder that when I picked up a camera ten years ago that I would eventually decide to photograph nature and then give away my prints for free. You like this one? Please, take it. Have it framed. Smile when you walk by it every day. It brings me joy to bring you joy.

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“More for one” is a fine concept – it rewards the doers of the world for doing what they do – and that’s all well and good. I’m glad to have that tiny bouquet of daffodils sitting on my kitchen counter this morning, staring back at me as I prepare a pan of lasagna to take over to my father later today. Those five blossoms will bring me great joy as I reflect on the coming spring this morning. But it’s the 40 feet of daffodils that are still a week or two away that will really light my heart up because I’ll know that every car that passes by, every person that walks my street, every mother that pushes her newborn in a stroller – they will all pause and think “Isn’t that a joy to see!”

Some people delight in the richness that comes from money. I choose, instead, to delight in the richness that comes from passing on a little joy to others. At 56, it seems a little too late to change that now…but what about you?

The Funniest Moments List

A couple of years ago I had a really bad day – REALLY BAD.  Nothing like a car wreck or a death in the family – but one of those days where I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, then the car was basically out of gas when I went to leave, I made silly mistakes all day at work, and on and on and on.  By the middle of the day I was sitting in my cubicle surrounded by all my male counterparts, trying desperately not to bust out in tears and trying to convince myself that things would turn around by the end of the day.  I went to lunch, came back and hunkered down on a project, and that’s when the day really went to hell.  By the time I was heading home, I wanted nothing more than to go straight to bed and never come out again.  And then I had an idea…

I sat down at my home computer and I began writing down all the funny things that had happened to me over the years – things that involved me, my siblings, and my friends.  As long as the memory made me laugh, it got paraphrased onto my Word doc.  I called my friend, Maureen, a day or two later and was telling her about the list and how it had cheered me up and she began to ask, “Did you put down the time we…?”  and I realized I had only scratched the surface of my “Funniest Moments” list.  One memory led to another memory which led to another memory, and soon I had a list of over 100 of the most laughable moments of my life down on paper.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at that list over the last couple of years.  It continues to grow as memories surface (or new memories are, um, “created”).  It was during the end of my grieving for my brother that I decided it would help to start a blog and write all of those memories down so others could share in the laughter, but that’s also about the time my mother became terminally ill and then died, so the blog started out with a little different “flavor” to it.  Short / Cuts was meant to be a repository of laughable moments from my life but then I realized every moment is worth remembering, no matter how high the highs or how low the lows.

Anyway, today I am going to take a look back for the very first time at the funnier moments in my life – things that made me spit Diet Coke out my nose or turn my cheeks shades of red – or both.  And I’ve decided to start with a short story from my first trip to The Grand Bahahas and the very first time I was ever in an ocean.

I had won a 4 Day/ 3 Night trip to the Bahamas through a contest at work and elected to take my best friend with me.  Maureen had grown up in New Jersey so she had been in ocean water before (although I highly doubt it was as crystal clear as what they have down in the Bahamas.)  I, however, had never experienced setting foot in anything other than a big lake.  This was going to be a first for me and, although, I was very excited about it, I was also a bit frightened.

As we began to take our first steps into the ocean Maureen pointed out to me that the water would pull us forward and then kind of sweep us back – that it was the pull of the current and not to fight against it but just go with it.  So I stepped into the pristine water and took a few steps out.  I had water up to my waist when I decided to go ahead and swim on in.  The water was the perfect temperature and it was an amazing experience.  Even if you accidentally got a mouthful of water it tasted like salt water you might use to gargle with instead of the lake water I ingested way too many times as a young water skier at the Lake of the Ozarks.

I wasn’t very far out but the bottom of the ocean floor was several feet below me.  I looked down and saw something move in the sand and I hollered over to Maureen.  “Any idea what that thing is that’s moving down there?”  She took a look and replied, “Oh, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”  So we – and several other hundred people – kept on swimming.  I couldn’t quite get my mind off the object that had drawn my attention, though and I kept peering at it to see if I could make it out better.  It was right at the edge of where the ocean dropped off so the water was a deep blue and the sun was bouncing around on the surface of the water, making it hard to figure out exactly what it was.  But, at some point, we both decided it had to be a sea creature of some sizable girth that probably had razor-sharp teeth that would saw us in half if given the chance and we broke out in a desperate attempt to get out of the water post-haste.

Of course the closer I got to the water’s edge (and safety), the more the tide kept pulling me back out.  I was desperate at this point, sure I was about to be swallowed whole by JAWS, flailing around in the water and expending way too much energy trying to take a single step in the right direction.  Finally – FINALLY – I made it up onto the shore again and I turned to see if the monster I had viewed had swallowed my best friend in one big chomp when I saw her standing right where the offending creature had been spying on us, laughing her ass off.

“It’s a rock!” she hollered up towards me.

Apparently the sun moving on the surface of the water had made it appear to be a moving object and I, the rookie of the oceanfront, couldn’t figure that out, so I convinced myself that I was about to be dinner for some sea creature that preferred white meat.

“It’s only a rock!” she recounted, laughing as she calmly waded into shore through the current’s pull.  She walked out of the water like an old pro while I lay on the beach looking like a piece of sea kelp that had washed up on shore to die.

Over the next three days I spent plenty of time in the water between the hours of laying on the beach with a Bahama Mama drink in my hands and coconut butter on my skin, but I never again called attention to the questionable sea life floating around beneath me, ready to devour me in a single bite.  I decided it was better to be the latest casualty on the 6 o’clock news than to make that embarassing mistake again.

 

To Grieve or Not to Grieve

My parents would go to our local Barnes and Noble book store almost every Thursday to pick out a new book to read and then they’d go have lunch together.  It was no surprise to me to find a good hundred plus books all tucked away in the nooks and crannies of her sewing room after she died.  I came upon a stack of Anne Lamott books there and, having read “Traveling Mercies” years ago, I snagged the other Lamott books and threw them in my quickly-growing “take-home” pile of knick-knacks, quilts, and jewelry.

It’s been five weeks since mom passed –and four days after that was my birthday – one that I decided against celebrating.  Instead, I spent most of the day doing what Oprah used to refer to as “the ugly cry.”  Basically, this is when you can’t hold back your emotions no matter how hard you try.  Tears spontaneously bursts out of you while your face contorts and twists in unimaginably ugly ways, all the while your breath hitches and sputters like a backfiring old pickup truck.

In other words, I totally lost my shit that day.

But then the oddest thing happened.  After that day passed, I felt a huge load lift off me.  All the months of seeing mom deteriorate one day at a time right down to the last moments of her life – the stress surrounding all of that vaporized.  With them went the tension that was tightly woven into my being my mother’s daughter – that pull of never living up to her expectations or her dreams for what my life would be like.  I was supposed to be feeling overwhelming grief but, instead, I was feeling deep and abiding peace.

The more the peace settled in around me the more I began to wonder about it – was this denial (for which I’d pay dearly down the road)?  Was it my mind giving me a break after a solid year of grieving the loss of my brother?  Or, was this something else entirely?  Guilt began to push its way in – taunting me with its patronizing backlashes.  I wondered: should I feel this good this close to my mother’s death?  Am I the worst daughter ever?  What would people think if they knew I wasn’t devastated by all we’d just been through with her?  Something inside told me to keep going and to enjoy the peace while it lasted – and so I did.

I returned to work the following week and began reading “Grace, Eventually” during my lunch breaks.  I immediately remembered why I love Anne’s writing style so much: she’s truthful about the life she’s led (warts and all) and she uses the occasional word that even I have to go look up.  (I love an author that increases my vocabulary!)  Most of all, though, she writes in short snippets that I can easily digest but her words stay with me.  I think about what she writes long after I read it – and that’s my gauge for a good read.

I was most of the way through the book this week when I came upon a chapter titled, “Mom, Interrupted” and one paragraph into it I realized that this is one of those God moments where the entire universe lines up so you can know in your heart and mind that this whole “God thing” is not some giant fairy tale that is meant to appease those of us who find life too difficult to live at times.

Anne writes, “For a long time after her death I didn’t feel much of anything – except relief…”  She goes on to write, “I felt much more spaciousness in my life after my mother died, partly because my phone did not ring every several seconds….”  She goes on describing her mother – how she was a handful and how she was both imperious and had no self-esteem at the same time.  Her mother was “controlling, judgmental, withholding, needy, and desperate to be loved.”

Ditto.

A few pages later she writes, “It wasn’t until her death that my mother stopped exhausting me…Now, here it is three years later, and I am beginning to miss her.”

And there was my answer: the guilt about not feeling deep and ongoing grief over her death got up and skulked out of the room, and that peace I’d been experiencing in my heart slammed the door shut behind it. I was not the world’s worst daughter after all.  Anne Lamott said so. 

I threw the book in my lunch bag that evening and was driving home when it suddenly dawned on me that it was my mother who had purchased that book.  She bought that book and left it on the shelf in her sewing room where it would be easily seen.  Then I, being the only one of her three remaining children interested in such things, picked it up and threw it in my sack of stuff to bring home, and then I read it.

In other words, because of something my mother did before her death, I was comforted by her one last time after her death.  Just thinking about that makes my face contort, my breath catch, and the tears start to flow.

Here I go again…

 

The Final Score

 

After a surprising three weeks of experiencing hardly any grief, I woke in the middle of the night and felt a sudden sadness overtake me. I cried softly for a short time and then turned to look up at the alarm clock overhead. It was a few minutes past midnight – officially making it a month since the day my mother died. “Ah…that’s why the middle-of-the-night crying jag blues,” I thought to myself.

I got out of bed, wiped my eyes, and drug my weary body down the hall. I stumbled into the kitchen, turned on my phone, clicked on the gallery, and there she was, in her final days on earth, a photo of her taken right before we moved her to hospice. I don’t know why I didn’t remember I had taken it until that very moment.

Suddenly, all the questions I had been wrestling with for the past month were put to rest. Looking at her in that photograph I knew we had done the right thing. The woman I saw in that image – that was no longer my mother. Her eyes were drawn up into tight little slits, almost as if her body knew her eyes were preparing to close for the very last time. Her face was ashen in color, and her cheeks slack jawed and deflated from having gone so long without food. I let my fingers trace her outline, turned off my phone, and said goodnight to the ghost of a woman hanging out in my memory.

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I’ve lived long enough now to have more than a few deaths in my past. I’ve been down this road of grief enough times that it almost feels like a familiar trail I have walked on a cold and overcast day. The first time you experience loss and grief it can be so totally overwhelming. You wonder if you will ever feel like “you” again. The answer, of course, is no…you won’t. But, with time, you will feel a new sense of normal and you’ll find yourself petting your dog one day and you won’t see the faces of the dogs you loved before it looking back at you with those big, brown eyes. It is possible to move on – to live your life without those that mean the most to you. If death is the worst thing you ever experience in this lifetime then moving on after it happens is, perhaps, the biggest miracle.

Having lost both my mother and my brother in the past 15 months, I am beginning to understand death in a way I never did before. Having back-to-back losses really sucks you down into the muck but it also leaves you with clarity about life you couldn’t get any other way. I was telling my friend last week that I was surprised how I seem to remember only the best and the worst of the people I’ve lost; all the middle ground gets diffused into a mental fog that never clears. Occasionally a normal, everyday “nothing special” moment will float up to the forefront of my mind but, for the most part, it’s really the highs and lows that stand out. It reminds me of the refining fire they talk about in the Bible. Everything that meant nothing gets burned away and all that’s left is the most important part: what you did for others that came from a place of love and what you did to others that came out of a need to hate.

It’s a solemn thought, really: that I’ll be gone and those left behind will be tallying up those two columns, trying to decide if having known me was an asset or a hindrance to their lives. If that doesn’t make you take stock in who you are, I don’t really know what will.

Tally

 

Every Moment, New

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Our life is full of fresh starts.  Some we look forward to with anticipation and hope for our future; others we reluctantly slog towards, knowing things will never be the same.

Some we plan for; others we are dragged towards.

But all fresh starts have one thing in common: they hold within them the impetus for change.  And it’s okay to look back on those crossroad moments and reflect on whether reality met up with our hopes and dreams – or not.  But when we stay in that same place too long – when we turn away from the next fresh start because the last one left us too scarred to move on – that is when we lose our way in life.

Every year, for eons and eons, life on earth has followed a set-in-stone pattern in which spring follows winter; summer follows spring; autumn follows summer; and winter follows autumn.  It is the cycle of this planet and the cycle of our lives.  We start out new, we grow and flourish, we begin the descent, and then we die.  For some, this cycle takes mere moments; for others – decades.  We do not get to choose how long the circle of life will last but we do get to choose how to live each moment within the journey that makes up our lifetime.

You can spend it planning and scheming, contemplating and worrying, reflecting and remembering – or you can let go and let each moment be exactly what it is supposed to be.

Pick up that foot that is holding you in your past.  Pull Back the foot that is dragging you into your future.  Set them both down here, now.   Plant your feet beneath you and let them be your anchor.  Don’t worry that you won’t get to where you’re going; you will.  Watch where life will take you.  Be open to the changes as they come…

Because every moment can be new; every moment a fresh start.

Blue Skies

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Our city got a short reprieve from winter this weekend.  The winds shifted to the south and for three lovely days we had spring-like weather instead of the bone chilling cold we normally experience in late January.  It did a lot to lift my spirits and bring me out of the grief-funk of the past two weeks.

Despite the better weather and my elevated mood, my mind has been cycling through the last weeks of my mother’s life.  Did we do enough or give up too soon?  Was there something we missed that should have been seen?  Was there malpractice by one or more of the doctors?

And even though these thoughts keep creeping into my conscious mind, I know in my heart that it was her time to go.  All the would have/could have/should have’s don’t make a bit of difference in retrospect.  It’s over.  It’s done.  It’s time to move on.

So I shall swing my legs out of bed tomorrow morning, fully aware that the winds are predicted to swing back around and cover us in a blanket of winter weather again.  The blue skies will turn back to a sad, flat gray, the temperature will plummet back to the southern end of the thermometer and I…

I will cling to the memories of a winter weekend full of blue skies, warm breezes, and my mother’s smile.

 

Feeding the Hungry

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I got hooked on feeding the birds in my backyard after visiting my friend, Maureen, in Michigan ten years ago.  She lives 16 miles outside of the center of town in a rural area that’s a cross between suburbia and farm country.  As you can imagine, there are lots of birds there – and she, as well as quite a few of her neighbors, feed them from backyard bird feeders.  I spent a week there sitting on her back porch drinking cold beer and watching the comings and goings of the different feathered creatures that live in her neck of the woods and I came back to Kansas City and set up my own little avian feeding station.

That first winter brought with it my first run in with a flock of nasty European Starlings.  Those big bad birds will come down in massive flocks, crowd out all the song birds, eat up all the good seed and suet and then take off again, leaving little behind for anyone who comes after them.  I tried everything I could think of to keep them from getting to the seed and suet – but they are smart little S.O.B.’s and they figured out how to eat to their hearts content on my dime, while crowding out the bird population I was trying to attract.  After two or three winters of this rude behavior, I almost stopped feeding the birds altogether because I couldn’t stand for those big nasty birds to get more than their fair share of the food.

Then, one day, I overheard a conversation at the store where I buy all my bird food and feeders.  One man was going on and on about how much he hated the Common Grackle that overtook his feeders every spring, pushing out the songbirds and leaving a wake of destruction in their path.  And then I heard one of the shop employees say, “That’s the way it is.  If you want to feed the birds you love, you have to also feed the ones you don’t.”

A few days later I was having a discussion with someone I know about donating money to our local food bank and he came back at me saying how he refused to donate to charities because people who didn’t really need free food always find a way to get what they don’t deserve, and my mind immediately flashed back to the conversation I overheard in the bird store.

Yes, all of the charities, public assistance programs, welfare, etc. have some theft or fraud involved – it’s bound to happen because the human race is a messed up lot of people. But, for the 2-9% that walk away with free stuff they don’t need or deserve, the other 91-98% goes to those who, for whatever reason, can’t make ends meet, can’t find a new job, or don’t have family who can take them in.  Bad stuff happens in this life and it doesn’t always happen to those who “deserve” it.

You will always be able to find a reason not to be generous, not to give something back, or not to be compassionate.  But, perhaps the question you need to ask yourself is, “Are you really ready to let the other 98 song birds die because you were mad at the 2 that ate and never sang?”

 

All Quiet on the Home Front

It’s been a very quiet weekend around my home – exactly what I needed, actually.  I’m still putting away all the items from my mom’s life that I took from my parents’ home (e.g. jewelry, cook books, etc.).  Little by little, I have integrated the things that were once hers in with the items that have always been mine.  They will now coexist with the things I have from those other family members who have passed on – my grandmother’s metronome that sat atop her piano; my grandfather’s pepper mill – he loved fresh cracked pepper; dishes that belonged to my great grandmother, Julia.  My cabinets and shelves are full of mementos from lives now gone.

I spent the morning updating my living will, Last Will & Testament, and my Power of Attorney.  After watching what we went through with my mother I wanted everything to be in place when my time came.  I named my sister as the person in charge of making all my medical decisions because she has the best grasp on when to say “enough” out of all my family members.  She was the first to realize (after me) that we were only prolonging the inevitable with my mom.  When you’ve tried everything you can think of, it’s time to let go.  She gets that – so she gets to be my voice when I can no longer speak.

As part of the process, I allocated some of my possessions to friends and family.  It’s daunting to give away your things – to think about who would want the things you consider so special that you’d rather not live without them.  I was stumped on who to give my camera equipment to as nobody else in my family would really want it.  Truth is, it will be so out of date by the time someone gets their hands on it it probably won’t matter much.  It’s hard to believe it will be meaningless to everyone else when I consider it to be the most precious thing I own.

I’ve always known in my heart that things are just “things” – that the house could burn down or the tornado could sweep through – and you have to be able to let it all go and move on.  But, now that I’m older, I see where people can become attached to their possessions.  I realized that the first time I raised that camera to my eye.  It would be like taking off my left hand at this point – something I would never be able to fully comprehend how to live without…but I’d make adjustments and find a way, I’m sure.

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My dog, Gracie, turns 11 tomorrow.  I don’t know where all the years have gone but I kiss her head every night and I thank God she’s been here with me through the last decade.  She and Petee not only keep me company in an otherwise empty home, they have taught me so much about myself.  I see the best of who I can be – and the worst – in their eyes.  I try to do right by them and to love them as unconditionally as they love me.  I don’t always deserve their love and affection, but I always take it in, nonetheless.

Gracie sleeps on an afghan that my mother crocheted for my bed years ago.  (At some point I changed my color scheme and the afghan became the dog blanket.)  Some would think that was a terrible thing to do with a keepsake from my mom but she would have loved it.  She loved her dogs like she loved all of us kids.  She was especially fond of Grace and always looked forward to coming over to see her.

I know the dogs don’t know why I am bringing new items into the house and I doubt they can comprehend why I’ve been crying more than usual but I know we will all get through this time of grief.  It still hasn’t fully sank in that my mom is gone but I look at her wedding ring that now sits in my jewelry box and I know that its true.  Possessions can be a blessing or a curse in this day and age; I try to only hold on to the ones I see as blessings.

 

 

True Beauty

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I’ve been photographing the world around me for the past nine years (not counting the year before that where I spent endless hours learning how to use a digital camera and how to compose and expose an image properly.)  I used to practice every day and felt incomplete if the camera wasn’t weighing heavy against the back of my neck (kind of like how some people feel when they take their wedding ring off to do a special project, then forget to put it right back on again.)  I still look at my camera as one of my dearest friends; it’s been with me through so much and has always pointed me towards new discoveries about myself.

I was probably five years into photography when I started to put together a portfolio of my favorite images and I noticed a pattern emerging: I had an overabundance of single-item images.  One leaf, one tree, one bird, one flower – the pattern was unmistakable.  I was a single person taking images of single items.  Hmm…

Yesterday several of us were looking through some old family images and someone pointed out that I am overly critical of myself in photographs.  I’ve always been that way – seeing the flaws that others miss (or never mention.)  I think almost all of us are this way.  We hear ourselves on a taped message and immediately say, “That doesn’t sound like me!” Then everyone else laughs and says, “Oh yes it does.  That sounds exactly like you.”  We tend to hear and see ourselves differently than how others see and hear us.

But photographs taken by a particular photographer over the course of time never lie.  We see the world in a particular way and, if patterns are searched out, we can tell someone’s work if we know it well enough without ever having to read the name below the print.  You would never confuse a Monet with a Van Gogh, right?  As an artist, we are unique in how we see the world and how we express it to others.  Speaking for myself, I tend to lean towards those single-subject images, with clean backgrounds and simple presentations.  When you see one of my photographs next to the others you will see some variations, but many of them will have all the same attributes because I am expressing who I am through this medium and who I am is largely unchanged over time.

The more I’ve learned about photography the more critical I’ve become of photographs – both mine and those of other artists.  I look at them with a detailed eye and try to learn from each one – what could have been done better?  Lower angle?  Different direction?  Light at a different time of day?  But, in the end, it doesn’t keep me from loving that flawed photograph.  If anything, it’s taught me that true beauty doesn’t lie in perfection; it lies, instead, inside the lack of it.  I may not love what I look like in photographs but I love how I see the world through them.  For me, that’s where the beauty of who I am truly lies.  And in my photographs of the world around me I always see the very best version of myself because that is where I am more “me” than anywhere else in this world.

Put a camera in my hand and watch me be me.  I guarantee you’ll never see that same smile in an old family Polaroid.