Tag Archives: Beauty

Dark


I had the opportunity recently to drive alone for 4 1/2 hours to central Kansas, most of it in the dark. It was kind of surreal once the sun went down and full darkness settled in. That part of eastern Kansas is sparsely populated, and the small arc from my headlights was often all that was visible as I sped down the lonely highway. An occasional yard light would float over the horizon to remind me that hardy souls have chosen this remote life. Some of the lights turned out to be false oases…co-ops with only propane tanks and no permanent inhabitants…and I would feel even more alone. Every little bit, a solitary tree near the road would slowly watch me pass his post…a silent, gentle giant reminding me that we are never really alone. The stars, plainly visible without city lights to dim them, were my only constant companion. But for most of several hours, the only visible sign that I was making progress toward my destination were the passing road signs and dashes zipping by on the pavement. The only frightening part of the journey was the bloody massacre of thousands of bugs, attracted to their doom on my windshield by the only light for miles around; it wasn’t a pretty sight in the morning light. Near the end of my journey, a massive lightning storm on the distant horizon broke my boredom. I later learned that it was hundreds of miles away, but it still put on a good show. As I drove, the isolation was comforting. I’m a Kansas girl, raised in the country. I don’t need civilization to feel safe.

I reversed the trip two days later in the daylight. People from the city say that there’s nothing to see on that drive – I disagree. I studied shapes in the clouds as I drove–there’s no better place to cloud watch, where you can see the whole sky at once. I passed dilapidated farmhouses (including one with an outhouse), houses built of rock, white country schools and churches, and red barns…just the color they should be. Some of the churches had small cemeteries, and several farmers had painted big old American flags on the sides of out buildings. One driveway sported a crudely painted sign that read “Thanks to our troops”. Motionless oil wells sat frozen among the hay bales and cattle, and I got to see the corn crop being brought in. One sign said “farm fresh eggs”, and another shaped like a giant, white cow announced an upcoming fall festival. I even got the best view that I’ve ever had of Kansas’ only nuclear power plant, which had frightened me since the news stories from its construction during my childhood. But the best part of the drive is that this time of year is sunflower season, in the sunflower state. They filled the ditches on both sides of the road, so thick that if I had a dollar for every flower that I passed in that 100+ miles, I’d be the richest person in America. That day, in spite of the modest boredom of that lonely drive, I kind of was.

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”  –Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz

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Breathtaking


It felt like all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the interior of my car when I got into it one day after work this week.  I actually struggled for breath for a couple of minutes until the A/C kicked in (I realized later that I could have simply rolled down the windows for a few minutes).  The effect reminded me of a similar but opposite experience when we lived in Minnesota.  The long walk in January to the parking garage at work was also a suck-the-breath-out-of-you experience.  By the end of the seven winters we lived there, I could instantly tell you the temperature within five degrees, depending on whether it hurt to breathe or the moisture in my nose instantly froze.  It’s a skill I never want to need again.  

Ironically, I hated the first day of summer in Minnesota, as that’s when the days started getting shorter…it was a tangible reminder of what was to come.  I no longer hate the first day of summer or any other day.  We’re back to four seasons from barely more than two, and I don’t mind any of them.  They each have their merits:  spring’s reawakening of life; summer’s outdoor memories and garden goodies; fall’s melancholy beauty; even winter’s chill is necessary to set a proper holiday mood.  I have the strange feeling that God has given us the rhythm of the seasons for more than just their natural outcome of the Earth’s orbit and tilt.  Something about a cycle of growth and rest seems to have a lesson in it.  Heaven knows the parallel to our own life cycle is uncanny.  But I enjoy the change and blessings the seasons bring, even without their deeper meaning.  Even when the heat takes my breath away–it’s a reassuring reminder that things always plow on.

“When the seasons shift, even the subtle beginning, the scent of a promised change, I feel something stir inside of me.  Hopefulness?  Gratitude?  Openness?  Whatever it is, it’s welcome.”  –Kristin Armstrong


Scars

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Everyone in my immediate family has surgical scars. It’s one of the things I’ve always pointed to when highlighting ways we’re alike, even though we don’t all share DNA. When the girls were little, our new puppy “played with” a beloved stuffed Tigger, requiring surgery to repair; even Tigger was proud of the scar which made him one of us. While I’ve pointed to our scars to help us focus on what makes us family, I also wanted the girls to be proud of the scars from the heart surgeries which saved their lives. Little did I realize this lesson would come back to teach me one day.

Megan and I were passing time recently on one of the long drives to Little Rock, retelling family folklore. It comforts us both, somehow, to process our past as we face a somewhat scary future. I was sharing the story of adopting her kid sister when I realized, for the first time and with the full clarity of hindsight, how much fate intervened so that our youngest would end up a McCleary.

We were a few months into the adoption process when we discovered that I had a stomach tumor. We spent the next six weeks on a cancer roller coaster, which included a major and unpleasant surgery. By the time we got the all clear, we needed time to recover from some pretty deep scars, both physical and emotional. When we eventually restarted the adoption process a year later, our little peanut with the million dollar smile joined our family.

I now realize that without that unwelcome interruption, we would have ended up with the wrong daughter. While I’ve long been grateful for the gifts of perspective that specific trauma gave me, it hadn’t dawned on me that I owe the very makeup of my family to those scars. But I suppose that’s often the case, isn’t it? Our scars make us who we are, not just shaping us inside and out, but acting as serendipitous detours which help get us where we end up. Thank heavens I was never really in charge of shaping my life after all…if so, I’d have gotten it very wrong.

“Scars show toughness:  that you’ve been through it, and you’re still standing.”  –Theo Rossi


Music

Music is powerful; I can feel my blood pressure drop at the first few notes of a favorite song. Music is nearly universal in how it impacts us, yet it is still inexplicable in why it does. Probably the closest I’ve gotten to understanding it was reading the fascinating book Musicophilia, by neurologist Oliver Sachs. There are also the sociological theories that music binds us together and provides a vehicle to pass down our histories. But none of the theories fully explain its power.

Today it’s easy to take music for granted.  It’s been less than 15 years since Steve Jobs profoundly changed how we interact with music. Before 2001, music was bulky, inconvenient, and not very mobile. It was expensive, too: you had to buy a full album to get that one favorite song. The iPod replaced CD’s, which had a dynasty of just more than a decade and which in turn replaced cassette tapes with a heyday of less than 20 years. While our children don’t remember a time when music wasn’t instantly accessible and mobile, those of us over 40 remember music choice as something special. I could only afford the radio, with no choice in song selection, only genre, and I had to suffer through commercials. I’m still in awe that today I can own any song I take a fancy to for a buck and listen to it an infinite number of times, anywhere that I am.

Specific songs are a powerful time machine, taking me back to a certain moment in time and place. One song reminds me of Geneva (I had a terrible cold when I visited the Matterhorn), another to Liverpool (we bought our lunch at the nearby Asda every day for two weeks), and another reminds me of my first few weeks commuting to work in Minneapolis (it was bitter cold, and I was missing my friends). I love the term “ear worm”, for when a song gets stuck in your head until you listen to it enough times for it to release its hold on your mind. Only in the last 50 years have we had that luxury; for the first 10,000 years of human history, only those who had the means and leisure time to learn to perform music could scratch that itch.

I’ve sometimes pondered the irrelevant question about which sense I’d give up if I had to. Watching a friend with macular degeneration lose her sight tells me that’s not the one. But hearing is right up there as well, solely because I can’t imagine living without music. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is. I’m just grateful to live in a time and a place that it can be.

“Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.”  –Victor Hugo


Vampires And Castles

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The most amazing place I ever visited was someplace I would have never gone on my own. I spent two weeks in rural Romania for work, but the weekend trip into the mountains of Transylvania was spectacular. Part of my awe came from the contrast to the stark scenery on the rest of the trip in one of the poorest countries in Europe, but that wasn’t all of it. The other reason for the awesome trip was the people I met.

I arrived in Bucharest alone, my first trip to Eastern Europe. I’d grown complacent with travel in Western Europe where people spoke English and getting around was easy. My team, in Podari ahead of me by a few days, sent me a note: bring cash…lots of it. Their American credit cards weren’t working. Unfortunately, by then I’d already left the Bucharest airport with just what I needed to get the 200 km to meet them. I made my way to the train station with the first of many cab drivers who didn’t speak a word of English. I later learned that knowing Russian would have helped me, not that it mattered to learn that. Once at the station. I spent a nerve-wracking five minutes trying to communicate with hand gestures that I needed to go to a small prairie town by way of a second class ticket, to preserve as much of my precious cash as possible. I was eventually successful, guaranteeing that I would spend the next three hours traveling with average Romanians. I moved into the station to find a place to wait the hour for my train. The only place that looked comfortable, or even safe, was the McDonald’s–bright, well-lit, and cheery. I nursed a Coke for most of the hour until I realized that I’d better find a restroom. Turns out this was the only McDonald’s I’ve ever been in without one. I left in search of a WC sign, finding one at the top of some narrow steps into the basement. The tiny restroom was all that was down there: dark, dank, and cramped. It cost me a pittance of my precious cash, but there was no choice. It was the second worst restroom I’ve ever used in my life, just behind a filthy hole in the floor in an unlit closet in a government building in remote China. I finished as quickly as possible and boarded my train.

Though the car wasn’t crowded, an elderly babushka chose the seat right next to me. She wore a colorful scarf over her very white hair, which matched her very deep wrinkles. Her heavy black overcoat covered her dumpy frame, and hose-covered, thick ankles ended in sturdy black shoes. She attempted conversation with me right away, a futile effort. She was clearly disappointed as we settled back for our long ride. Proud of having navigated this far through the alien environment by myself, I settled in to read and watch the Romanian countryside go by. It looked amazingly like my native Kansas, with fields of sunflowers and grain elevators punctuating the flat land every 20 minutes or so. It was no coincidence that it looked like home; this was exactly the kind of place the agricultural company I worked for would locate a plant. After an hour of quiet, the old woman startled me by suddenly speaking to me again, quite animatedly. I was at a loss until, through gestures, I realized that she was lecturing me about crossing my legs. She pulled down one of her thick, woolen stockings and pointed at her varicose veins, chattering the whole time. She clearly didn’t want me to meet her fate. I sat with both feet dutifully on the floor until she got off on her stop 20 minutes later. I crossed my legs defiantly the rest of the way.

The work part of the trip was uneventful, beyond the unexpected September heat wave which made for uncomfortable sleeping in our un-air conditioned hotel, and one drunk taxi driver who decided to punish us with a 120 km/hour ride though city streets for some imagined slight. Another taxi driver who chased me down made up for him, however. I had left my fanny pack in his car. My passport, credit cards and phone were in there; I owe that humble man a lot. But the weekend trip to Transylvania was truly unforgettable. A colleague secured a van and local driver who spoke English. He was amazing: personable and passionate about showing us the best of his country. He succeeded. We saw castles and silver domed monasteries and gorgeous mountains and brightly painted gypsy carts next to campfires. It was truly magical. Our guide was a single dad who had lost his young wife to cancer. Quality health care was not available. Devoted to his young daughter, he had since fallen in love, but was working unsuccessfully so far to convince his prospective in-laws that he was a suitable husband. I have hoped for the five years since that he did.

He and the other Romanian people I met on the trip, while frustrated at their “lost 50 years” from Communism and the slow pace of reform since, were immensely proud of their beautiful country and their heritage. They should be. Some of the coolest things happen on the journey you’d have never taken on your own.

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” –Bram Stoker

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Bridges

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I was recently making the three hour drive to visit my daughter in the hospital where she remains gravely ill. It was a glorious summer morning driving through the beautiful Ozark Mountains. I’ve loved these mountains since camping in them as a kid. They’re not the majestic Rockies, of which I also have fond memories, but they have a peace and serenity to their beauty that just makes you feel this is the way life is supposed to be.

On this particular morning, the clouds were still resting among the tops of the mountains. The rising sun lit up their east sides a lush, summer green. Their twins on the west were allowed to sleep a little longer in semi-darkness; they would make up their extra snooze that evening, basking in the sunset. It was a scene of beauty which would normally make my heart soar. But this particular stretch of road has a thorn–bridges. Really high bridges, between the mountains. Exactly ten of them, I’ve counted. I don’t have a phobia of bridges, or even of heights, but I don’t really like them either. High bridges or bridges over large stretches of water are particularly troubling. I didn’t look forward to them this morning.

Entering the mountains and taking in their beauty, I braced myself for the bridges ahead. As I experienced the tug of war over these opposing emotions, I was suddenly struck how so obviously inseparable they were:  I could not experience the serenity of a drive through those beloved mountains without the burden of their bridges. I quickly made the connection between my journey over the bridges and the journey we’re on with our daughter. I have loved being her mother – she has brought us laughter, sunshine, and love. But the path we’re on with her now is dark and twisted, frightening beyond any fear I have ever known. Yet as stressful as living in a hospital is, never knowing what the next day or the next doctor’s visit will bring, my husband and I both long to be only there. We use the same word–privilege–to describe being by her side through this horrific ordeal that no child should have to endure. I already have emotional scars in just this first inning, but would be nowhere else. I have also experienced wondrous strength and faith and love, at a depth I hadn’t known possible. I have loved my daughter since I first laid eyes on her, yet I know I will be welded to her the rest of my days in a new way. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I wouldn’t give that back.

On the drive home, in spite of darkness setting in, I did not count the bridges this time. Instead, as I passed over each one, I thanked God for them, as they allow me to experience the peaceful beauty of His mountains. I thanked Him for the trials which allow us to see His heights. And I had peace on my journey home.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future.  If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are ok.  Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously.  Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”  –Thich Nhat Hanh

 


Birdsong

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Our house is five years old, and they’re just starting to build on the last half dozen lots in our neighborhood of one hundred or so homes. That means there are few mature trees in our neighborhood, and therefore, have been few birds…until this year. We’re in our third summer here, and what a difference a year makes. Starting this spring, the birds arrived. Most trees are still not mature, but there are lots of them, and we have apparently reached a bird tipping point. It’s wonderful.

You don’t realize how important birds are until they’re not around. A robin signaled spring this year. Their morning gossip is loud enough to be heard in the house when I get up before dawn. And the swallows jealously guard their nest in the eaves of the house across the street, dive bombing us when we take our trash to the curb. If only they knew how grateful we are that they are here, they would know we are friend and not foe.

When the girls have grown and we downsize out of this house, the trees will be mature, and the birds will be thick. I will miss them; they add joy to my life. And I will search for a new place where they thrive, for I have found that I do not want to live without the lessons their songs can teach.

“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” –Rabindranath Tagore