Heaven On Earth

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When I was just a tad older than forty my husband and I decided to attempt a climb of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park along with our two daughters. We camped a little way up the trail and rose in the dark of the early morning hours to begin our trek. There was a silence between the four of us and our fellow adventurers who moved patiently up the mountain with only the illumination of flashlights to guide the way. Around five in the morning we stopped to gaze at the lights of the town of Estes Park far below where humanity was just waking up for a new day. It felt like looking at a little fairy village in a scene inside a snow globe.

By the time the sun rose above our heads we had reached the Boulder Field, an outcropping of massive rocks over which we would have to climb to get to the final stages of our journey. As I stood there with a brisk wind blowing across my face I looked all around and down below experiencing an other worldly sensation. It was as if I had somehow found a slice of heaven on earth, a vision that stays with me and soothes my soul to this very day.

I was unable to continue the trek to the summit because one of my daughters became quite ill with mountain sickness. I knew that I had to get her to a lower altitude where the air was more rich with oxygen. I might have been disappointed in coming that far and not being able to continue to the to the end of the trail but for the fact that I felt such serenity in the place that I had already encountered. I literally was aware of God’s presence in the world and it was not necessary to go any farther to feel a sense of divine ecstasy.

There have been other times when I believed that I was in a heavenly place and each of those moments were defined by the people with whom I had shared the experience and the magnificence of the scene before me. Last year I traveled to a quaint little town near York in England. It was called Robin Hood’s Bay and the combination of sharing fun times with my brothers and sisters-in-law along with a spectacular view made me once again feel as though heaven had somehow come to earth.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a seaside town rumored to have once been an outpost for pirates. It is now a sleepy fishing village with a passage to the North Sea and from there to distant shores like Norway. It is built on rugged cliffs and the wind seems to whisper the stories of the valiant people who once lived and worked. It’s main street features shops and buildings sitting precariously on steep hills that meander up and down while sea laden breezes fill the air. The whole place appears to have come from a fantasy with its quaintness, but in truth life was once very hard there. Somehow now the people have settled into a slow pace of living and being there was quite glorious. Sitting with the people I love while laughing and looking into the eternity of the horizon brought me a heavenly peace.   

Heaven on earth has meant holding my babies, first my daughters and then my grandchildren. There is a hopefulness about being near little ones. Their innocence makes them seem like tiny cherubs. They remind me that there is still pure unadulterated goodness in the world. A baby sleeping on my chest brings me a calmness that only paradise itself might otherwise provide.

I have found heaven on earth in the most unexpected ways like sitting in the bough of a tree, watching the sunset in Grand Canyon, hearing the haunting cry of a loon. Sometimes relaxing in the quiet of my living room while listening to the laughter of the neighborhood children fills me with so much joy that I think this must surely be what heaven is like.

Each day I draw closer to the inevitable end of life here on earth that each of us will face. I sometimes wonder what heaven will actually be like. Will I get to choose what makes me happiest or is it so unimaginably special that my own images of it fall short of the reality? Will I once again see all of the people that I have known and loved? How will they appear? If I want to see Abraham Lincoln will that be possible? I’d like to believe that the contentment that I have felt on that mountain top and in that village will be mine for eternity but will it take a form that is more special even than my own thoughts?

Heaven is ethereal. How is it possible that we might get a glimpse of it even for a second here on earth? Somehow I believe that the glory of the best moments of my life will be magnified a thousand fold when I finally see my divine reward, but for now I am here and I want to find more of those times when the earth itself has felt so perfect. I think of a rainbow over the winding road of Glacier National Park, the first kiss from my husband, my mother’s smile, my father reading to me, my little girls kicking me from inside the womb. Surely heaven must be even more wonderful. 

Just Like That

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Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.

Winter In My City

winter-weather-and-chimneys-houston-tx-lords-chimneyThe weather on Christmas Day was glorious, but the days following have been cold, damp and dreary. The only thing to do in such a situation is make soup, hot chocolate, tea, coffee or all of the above which is exactly what I have been doing. Being from Texas my first inclination was to make chicken tortilla soup, but I’m known as the soup and bean queen so I had a number of possibilities, including a really mean potato leek concoction that I sometimes prepare. Somehow the standby chicken tortilla soup seemed most perfect for the occasion, and so I settled on preparing a steaming pot to take the chill off of the day. I suspect that I’ll be making all sorts of delicious brews in the coming weeks because winter in Houston is brief but almost always rainy and bone chilling when it occurs.

Coats last forever around here because we don’t really wear them that much from year to year. I’ve got jackets and capes that have served me for decades. Sweaters go out of style long before they become threadbare. They are more likely to dry rot or get eaten by moths than to fall apart from use. I always wonder why the stores carry so many heavy items in October and November when the temperatures are most likely to be in the eighties, and then replace them with spring clothing just when it finally becomes cold enough to use that sort of thing.

The few times that I have been in traditionally cold climates I have truly enjoyed the frigid weather. I’m told that I would soon grow weary of winter weather if I had to live in such places, but as a visitor who rarely witnesses low temperatures or snow, I get quite excited by what I consider to be normal climate. I’ve got wonderful memories of walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with snow falling on my face. The best such event, however, was in a little mountain town in Austria where I went on a nighttime sleigh ride through the countryside. I was so cold on that trip that I literally lost feeling in my limbs even though I was wearing long johns as well as snow boots and woolly socks that I had purchased from L.L. Bean. I’ve had those shoes for twelve years now and never had occasion to wear them again. I keep them just in case but unless I travel far from home in the winter I don’t expect to need them ever again.

My idea of truly enjoying a snowy place would have to include having someone to shovel the white stuff from my driveway and sidewalks, not to mention retaining an experienced driver to take me on my errands. I haven’t mowed my lawn in years, and I don’t think I would enjoy shoveling snow either. I just want to enjoy the experience like a tourist, and then return home when I grow tired of the work associated with winter.

Even in my temperate climate I somehow I love the wintery moments far more than the summer. I like log cabins in the mountains and hillsides glistening with snow. I enjoy sitting by a warm fire and wearing layers of clothing with cute boots and warm gloves. I like hearing the crunch of snow under my feet and building snowmen. Somehow in spite of the fact that I have always lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and rarely experienced a true winter, I long to have that experience. It just seems more natural than wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops in the middle of January. Still, I love my hometown and have no desire to leave except for a brief interlude that might provide me with the winter wonderland of which I dream.

It’s ironic that so many snow birds come our way for the winter because they have grown weary of the long relentless winters. They’ve traded in their snow shovels for RVs that allow them to be sun seekers. One of the prime spots for such folks has traditionally been Rockport, Texas, a small town only a few hours away from Houston, which welcomes folks from northern states each winter. The town is usually filled with refugees from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and other frigid places. This year there is no town of Rockport. It was quite literally blown away by hurricane Harvey. There are tent cities in vacant lots even six months later, and there is a grave shortage of places for the natives to live. The rebuilding has been brutally slow because in some ways Rockport has been forgotten and many of the citizens worry that the quaint seaside town will never again be the same. The regular visitors have had to find other places to stay this year and it’s possible that they will never return again now that they have been forced by circumstances to find an alternative location for wintering.

I suppose that the grass is always a bit greener in places that are not like our own. We wish for things that we don’t have without really thinking about the implications. I never consider how much work it might be to live in a place that fills with snow, while those who come to our neck of the woods rarely consider the horrors of the hurricanes that now and again come our way.

I suppose that I will have to be content to have a kind of make believe winter experience. I’ll wear my winter gear when I can and enjoy our small doses of soup weather with an appreciation for not having to endure the more difficult aspects of Jack Frost. I’ll crank up the fireplace and maybe even build a bonfire in our outdoor pit on cold dry days. I know that I probably appreciate the cold more because it is so rare, something very special around here. Soon enough it will be warm again and I’ll be donning my sleeveless shirts and sandals.

I’m afflicted by never ending hot flashes. I’ve been told that if they have not gone away by now, they never will. I’ve done research to find out how I might minimize them and learned that the best way to do so is to live in a cold place. Since that is not going to happen, I’ve had to learn to live with them much as northerners understand how to avoid frostbite. It’s funny how we adapt to whatever our situations may be.

This is still my favorite time of year even though it’s wintery aspects are short for those of us who live this far south. I’ll miss going to visit the Whooping Cranes that winter in Rockport each year. I hope that their habitats will be sufficient for them because I suspect that the humans who generally protect them are busy with their own survival this year. We’ll all make do with what we have, but I still have hopes of a snowy January day.

Choose Experiences

PossessionsI have accumulated lots of things over the years. Some of what I own was handed down to me from my elders, other items are treasured gifts from friends and family. I still possess many of the wedding presents that I received almost fifty years ago. Of course I have kept souvenirs from vacation trips and art work from my children and students. There are all of the usual household and clothing items, not to mention furniture and books. I own music and musical instruments, hobby supplies and gardening implements. I keep wrapping paper and greeting cards and decorations for virtually every occasion. I enjoy my collection of little pigs that are supposed to bring me good luck and smile at the thought of the china that my brothers purchased for me using all of their savings when they were still young boys. My possessions represent a lifetime of accumulation and most of the objects are actually somewhat sentimental to me. Still, I remind myself continuously that they are just things and of little value when compared to people and experiences.

When I think back on my life I hardly remember buying something, but I always vividly recall the special times that I have spent with the people that I love. Thinking of the Sundays that I spent on the banks of Clear Lake with my cousins back when I was a kid warms my heart. I am literally able to hear the humming of the motor boats that were pulling skiers over the water. I can taste the salty spray and feel the heat of the sun on my neck. I recall our antics as we jumped the waves and lowered chicken on strings into the water in hopes of catching crabs. I see my mom and her siblings and they are so young and beautiful and fun to be around. I’m not sure what I purchased in those years or even what I wore, but I am certain that those days we spent together were magical.

I can still see and hear every single detail of my first date with my husband Mike. It’s funny how I knew on that day that I had met my soulmate. I’ve never so instantly clicked with anyone else in my life. We started a conversation back then that we have never completed. He was so incredibly handsome as he arrived looking as though he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. We saw The Flight of the Phoenix at a theater at Gulfgate. We ran into a couple of my high school classmates and I was proud to be in the company of someone as stunning as Mike. Later he took me on the first of the many adventures we would share. Our destination was to a downtown musical venue called The Cellar that was unlike any experience I had ever before enjoyed. I would later tell my friends that I thought I had met the young man that I was destined to marry.

I am able to outline every detail associated with the births of my children from the time that I learned that I was carrying them all the way through the pains of labor. Of course those wonderful child rearing years were most decidedly the best of my life. We really did have fun on Anacortes Street as they grew into lovely women. Best of all were our vacation trips that took us all over the United States in our different trucks. We slept under the stars in a canvas tent that resembled a circus big top. We laughed and shared stories and marveled at the wonders of our land. Summer after summer we traveled to all of the national landmarks making memories that have never been forgotten.

I can still feel the burning in my muscles as we trudged up the rocky path in the middle of the night on our way to the top of Long’s Peak. We watched the lights come on in the towns below and made it to the Boulder Field by dawn. We weren’t able to make it any farther because the girls were just not old enough and strong enough to climb over the huge rocks, but we felt such a sense of accomplishment and that hike became one of my all time favorite memories.

I still think back on my daughter’s milestones, their first steps and words, their school days and accomplishments. I am often reminded of their programs and performances and the glory of their graduations. Of course their weddings were wonderful even though I was so busy that I hardly had time enough to eat. Best of all were the births of my seven grandchildren who brought new and unparalleled joy into my life. Spending time with them and watching them grow has provided me a whole new set of joyful experiences.

I always loved my work and the educators and students that I met in that capacity. So many of those people are still numbered among my friends. We shared long days together, some of which were stressful at the time but always in the end we felt that incredible sense of having accomplished something very personal and important. I suspect that we are still as close to one another as we are because of the real significance of our work together.

I’ve had so much fun over the years with very special friends. I loved the times when my friend Pat and I spent weekends taking our children to movies and the 59 Diner. I still laugh at our visits with Linda and Bill and the way it took us hours to actually drive away whenever we had announced that it was time to leave. I treasure the trip to Austria that we shared with Monica and Franz as the new year dawned in 2005. I smile with pleasure at the memory of bridge games with Susan and Nancy. I love the dinners and lunches with friends and students that keep our relationships thriving and provide all of us with feelings of being loved. The concerts in which I saw the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were sensational. Seeing The Phantom of the Opera  on Broadway was the culmination of a dream.

It may have taken me a bit too long to get here, but I now understand the critical importance of an undisputed truth, “We should all invest in experiences rather than things.” At the end of the day even if we lose every possession, nobody will ever be able to steal the joy that we have felt from the moments in which we have seen glorious places and been with people that we love. That is what we should seek. That is what is most important.

On The Road Again

299756_thumb.jpgIn just a few more weeks the kids will be out of school for the summer and Americans will be hitting the road for vacations. Thanks to President Dwight Eisenhower we have a fairly decent interstate highway system that links us from one place to another. Traveling by car takes more time than flying, but it is a far more interesting way to go. Driving gives a real sense of geography, the changing landscape and the enormity of our nation. In some ways it is almost like a pilgrimage, a time for relaxation and reflection, a way of getting to know our landscape more intimately. It is on the hidden byways and along the main streets of tiny towns that I truly begin to understand the variety and diversity of the United States. Those long road trips are filled with unforgettable memories of places that I had no idea even existed. Long after I have returned home I picture them in my mind and almost feel as though I am there once again.

As we whiz past homes along the route I find myself wondering who lives in those edifices and how they came to settle in such places. Sometimes the houses are palatial and speak of money and success. Other times they are the size of small huts, filled with signs of poverty and neglect. Since I have no way of knowing the stories of the residents I create descriptions of them from my imagination. I pretend to know what the rooms are like and what the people within them may be doing. It occupies my mind when the miles stretch endlessly ahead.

I love the towns the most. I wonder what the citizens think of those of us who are only passersby. I try to get a sense of why some small places even exist. I begin to realize just how much of America is so different from the metropolis from which I come. I want to stop and tarry for a time but usually have to continue onward to the next place lest I never reach my ultimate destination.

Some of the most wonderful memories that I have are from unexpected places. I can still see the road to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. It is late afternoon and a storm is brewing. The clouds are dark and foreboding. The people who live in the farmhouses are safely inside with the warm glow of lights radiating from the windows. Even the livestock have taken cover, having more sense than we do as we continue on as the wind whips our vehicle warning us that perhaps being outside is not particularly safe. Then we see a twister moving across a field traveling in our direction. We abruptly change our course as a torrential rain overtakes us. We race back to the tiny town from whence we have most recently come and hurry for cover along with others caught so unexpectedly by the angry forces of nature. As we settle inside I feel a rush of excitement and somehow know that I will never ever forget this experience.

There is another trip that returns to my recollections time and again. On this occasion we are in Utah heading toward Durango, Colorado. The sun bears down relentlessly on our car. Dust on the road coats the paint with a fine red mist. It is unbearably hot but somehow there is a beauty in the utter desolation of the road that we are following. I find myself thinking of the first people who settled in such a wilderness and marvel at their fortitude. While it is magnificent it is also forbidding. I try not to think of what our fate might be if we were to break down or become ill, for there is nobody around. It is as though we have become the only people left on the planet.

It is dark by the time we drive into Durango. We are exhausted and quite famished. We find a restaurant that features a dinner of rainbow trout. A chill has come over the dessert-like climate and so a fire is burning to warm the customers. It is cozy and welcoming and we are quite thankful to have serendipitously stumbled upon such a place. Our food proves to be more excellent than we had imagined it might be. We tarry in the hospitable atmosphere and somehow file away the moment in the part of our brains that holds thoughts of the most treasured times.

Road trips have taken us through Yellowstone National Park in the midst of a raging forest fire. They have shown us a glorious rainbow in Glacier National Park. They have made us laugh as we witnessed the ever present humor of our fellowmen in signs and silly yard displays. They took us along narrow mountain trails and through miles and miles of green corn fields. We have learned of the difficulties of driving through downtown New York City, and chided ourselves for the foolishness in the aftermath. We found old time tunnels through which our vehicle barely made it. We marveled at the manicured vineyards of wineries and the permanent ruts made by the wagons of long ago travelers. We might never have seen any of these wondrous things had we decided to travel by plane. We would have missed them as we flew high above the clouds. What a loss that would have been!

Later this summer we plan to travel to Wyoming in hopes of getting a glimpse at the once in a lifetime solar eclipse that is scheduled to take place in a swath along much of the northwest and midwestern states. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather will cooperate and that we will be able to actually witness this phenomenon, but even if things don’t turn out as planned I am confident that our road trip will provide us with many wonderful surprises. We will see things that we had not expected. Just thinking of the possibilities is rather exciting.

Thank you, Henry Ford, for making the automobile accessible to the common man. Thank you, President Eisenhower, for insisting that we have a nation of good roads. Thank you to the little people everywhere who set up the gasoline stations, restaurants and places to rest for the night. Because of such innovations my world has been much more expansive than it might otherwise have been. I am a far different and better person for seeing so much of this wondrous country. I can’t wait to get on the road again with the strains of Willie Nelson filling the cabin of our car. Who knows what lies ahead?