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. 

The Voice of the Wind

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The wind speaks to me. It’s voice is often amplified by the chimes in my garden or interpreted by the branches in my trees. I love it’s comforting sound unless it furiously warns me of an impending tornado or hurricane. Then I scurry for cover until the anger passes. Most of the time the wind is gentle or playful reminding me of the many mysteries of nature around me. I share the wind with the birds and other critters who reside in my yard and the forests that I visit on camping trips. It is more relaxing to listen to the wind than streaming a grand work of classical music. The wind is more beautiful than anything that we humans are capable of producing.

The wind tells me that I am but a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe. It plays with my ego by tousling my hair whichever way it pleases. It laughs at my preoccupation with things and worries suggesting that I remember that it has been present at the coronation of kings, the death of great nations, the birth of a tiny child in Bethlehem. It outmatches all of my attempts to extend my life and it does so with beauty and grace. The wind need not boast as I do. It simply is a powerful and influential force on this earth.

I love when the wind caresses my face and whispers comfort to me. It tells me to focus on what is important and shun the fears that sometimes overtake me. Instead like Elsa in Frozen it shows me how to let my anxieties go so that I might be as free as it is. The wind is a truly wonderful counselor that enters my mind and calms the forces that endeavor to distract me from the true beauty of my existence.

Sometimes the wind warns me to stay inside where things are safe and secure. It clangs my wind chimes relentlessly making sounds that remind me of the march of history and the humble role of human attempts to tame and sometimes even destroy the very climate in which both me and the wind live. It sounds angry that my kind has been so cavalier in our ways and our refusal to hear its strident predictions of what may happen if we choose not to consider the symbiotic role of mankind and nature, It rips across my city and leaves my roof in tatters or takes down trees in my yard. It tells me that it will return more and more often to plead with me to be kinder and more frugal in the ways that I use the earth’s resources.

The wind is a voice that tells my soul that there is a higher power, a God who has created a great gift of life that I must always treasure. I cannot take it for granted whether I am holding the dirt of the earth in my hands or interacting with another person. All is sacred and to be cared for. I must not waste my life in the ugliness of envy or anger. I must always be aware of the presence of all that is around me. I was meant to be a caretaker of both people and the earth and that role is not to be taken lightly. I must protect whatever or whomever is being attacked. I must use my time and my talents to bring hope and joy to the world, not hate and destruction.

The wind tells me that it has known all of the people who came before me. It watched as they celebrated life and endured hardships down through the ages. It tells me that I was loved and wished for even before I came to this world. It assures me that it will continue far into the future as long as I teach my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to listen for its voice. I hear it best in the silence when I still the other sounds that abound around me. It has spoken to me at the boulder field on Long’s Peak. I have heard it under the ancient and gigantic trees of Yosemite. It has rattled my little trailer rocking me to sleep next to rivers and lakes. Like a loving mother it seems to always be near just in case I need reassurance that life will go on in spite of the mistakes that I make.

Yes, the wind has a voice and I have learned how to interpret it’s messages. It has been my companion through life, traveling through the changing seasons. I grow older with each passing year and more and more attuned to the importance of being at one with all of my fellow travelers including the wind which has the gift of tongues if only we are willing to listen. In the wind if I am very still I often hear the voice of God and sense the presence of angels guiding me even when I feel very lost. Ours is a lovely relationship, the wind and I.

Pause from whatever you may be doing. Turn off the babbling that so distracts you. Sit for a time and listen. The wind will speak to you and fill your heart with peace and purpose. You will realize your place in the universe and you will know how to proceed.

A Nation of Knowledge

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There are many national treasures in the United States, a number of them gifts from nature. The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking spectacle. The mighty redwood forests are haunting. The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the country. We sometimes forget our manmade creations that seem to pale in comparison to the ancient edifices and wonders that lie in other parts of the world, but one that stands out as a true gift is the system of Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. that span so many facets of human enterprise. Surprisingly the beginnings of that incredible institution came from a man who had never even been to the United States.

James Smithson was a wealthy Brit who possessed an intense curiosity about science and the world. From a young age he dabbled in research and his studies and findings enabled him to accumulate a rather tidy sum of money for the time. When he died his will stipulated that his fortune would go to his nephew, but if that nephew died without heirs then it would revert to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  As fate would have it Smithson’s nephew indeed died without children and so a plan was devised to send the five hundred thousand dollar estate to the U.S.

After a flurry of debate over how best to spend the windfall Congress decided to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.” In August of 1846, President Polk signed the bill into law and of course the rest is history. Today there are nineteen different museums in the Smithsonian family and countless visitors from around the world enjoy the exhibits and benefit from the research that happens all because of the largesse of one man who never actually explained why he had chosen to donate his wealth to the fledgling country. This generous act has indeed increased and diffused knowledge to countless ordinary people over the ensuing decades and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world.

I suspect that during his time Mr. Smithson saw the United States as a rather wild place with little history of which it might boast. The country was still struggling to define itself and to keep afloat in the early nineteenth century. Much of the world sat back waiting for the whole experiment that had been unleashed by the Founding Fathers to implode. It was easy to see that there were still many problems that needed addressing when Mr. Smithson died in 1829. He must have been considered rather eccentric to even consider leaving his fortune to a nation that had yet to prove itself, but in retrospect it was a brilliant idea. What better way to insure progress than to promote education? It is indeed in opening our minds to the knowledge that has come before us and the ideas of the future that we as people become stronger. The foundation of success lies in learning and uncovering truths. The Smithsonian Institution has dedicated itself to being a repository of information that is open to all people.

We are presently engaged in heated discussions about how to move forward in a world that is very different than the one that James Smithson inhabited, and yet his essential understanding of the importance of knowledge holds the key to unlocking our full potential. If the Smithsonian Museums that grace Washington D. C. have taught us anything it is that the power of mankind is unleashed at its best when we work together as people to provide win/win situations for all parties.

What worries me most about the environment that I observe today is that people are taking sides and demanding that their points of view be accepted without quarter. In other words there is an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that virtually insures that half of the population will be angry one way or another. Little effort is being made to consider alternatives or to engage in healthy research and discussion of issues. Much of the population is ignoring the knowledge that we have accumulated over time that might help in unravelling the challenges that we face. I find that few people even possess a fundamental understanding of our Constitution and why it was created the way it was. Even our presidents are sometimes guilty of believing that they have powers that do not belong to that branch of government. We seem to promote freedom of speech only as long as it aligns with our way of thinking and the entire political spectrum is quite guilty of intellectual laziness.

The Smithsonian Institution and all for which it stands should be more than just a vacation destination for Americans. It is not Disneyland, but rather a treasure trove of information and ideas about which we should be eager to learn and discuss while eschewing our preconceived notions. Ours is supposed to be a nation of “we, the people” not “you people” and yet so often I hear taunts that divide us into camps as though there is no possibility of ever coming together.

Propaganda is bombarding us every minute of every day. It is up to each of us to take the time to unravel fact from fiction, lies from truth. It should not be them against us, but rather all of us searching together for the truths that are evident and that may be found in the unfolding history of mankind much of which is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Our goals should not be to defeat those who think differently from ourselves but to find ways of managing our beautiful diversity so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and power. Our journey to such ideals should begin with educating ourselves and our children.

As we begin yet another school year we would be wise to be inspired by James Smithson’s generosity and wisdom. Somehow he understood that all nations need to learn from the knowledge that mankind has assembled over time. It is in using our rationality that we better the lives of everyone and those who have come before us have demonstrated time and again that struggles for power are not the answer. All of the lessons are right in front of our eyes. It’s time that we buckle down and take them to heart.

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.

Off Season Adventures

Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-16-HD-Image.jpgMost of my life has been directed by the school year calendar. Whether as a student, a parent or an educator I measured my days in six or nine week cycles filled with reading, study and compositions. It was only in the warm months of June, July and August that I had enough free time to experience the wonders of nature beyond the confines of places near my home. I saw the world from the perspective of only a quarter slice of time. I had little idea that so much was happening in the places that I so loved while I was ensconced in classrooms and libraries. Because I did not have the benefit of taking a vacation at a time of my own choosing I never truly experienced the changing of the seasons or the differences in color and light from one month to the next. Mine was always a holiday shared with vast crowds. It was not until I finally retired from my labors that I began to see the world around me in new and quite enchanting ways.

Travel is quieter and less hectic when schools are in session. Campgrounds and hotels generally have many vacancies from which to choose. The roads are less congested and the drives are leisurely. There is no ticking clock announcing a need to hurry. There is a glorious feeling of aimlessness that allows for random explorations that lead to exciting discoveries. For the first time in my life I am at liberty to take advantage of my freedom from an academic calendar and head in any direction that I choose on any day that I wish. I experience an exhilarating freedom every time that my husband and I hitch up our trailer and head onto the open road.

I have seen the rich hues of red, orange, yellow and gold that paint the fall landscape. I have felt the crackling of the fallen leaves beneath my feet and the sting of a cool afternoon on my nose. I have stood all alone in a forest while the wind blew across my cheeks and tousled my hair. I have listened to the silence all around me. I have enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of chili at the top of a mountain in a restaurant preparing to close for the coming winter. I’ve stopped at a Buccee’s when I was able to park right in front of the door and walk straight through without bumping into hordes of people. These were wondrous moments for me because heretofore I had never been able to enjoy such experiences. I would have been busy imparting the knowledge and skills of mathematics to the latest members of my class.

I have learned that the ocean is perhaps at its loveliest in the winter. Its aspect changes from hour to hour. It may be draped in early morning fog and then glistening in afternoon sunshine. The beaches are pristinely empty and it takes little imagination to feel the sense of wonder that may have been the reaction of the first explorers who landed in such glorious places. There is a majesty in hearing only the sound of the waves and the flapping of the wings of the birds who have reclaimed the area for the season. I so love staring into the horizon and feeling as though I am looking into forever. I think of all of the people who have stood in the same spot from which I am viewing the splendor of the sea and wonder what dreams and stories unfolded from my vantage point. I find buried treasure in the form of sand dollars and shells of many shapes and colors. I eat the lunch that I have brought in silence, starring out as far as my eye can see and feeling that surely I have found a tiny slice of heaven.

I have passes to the Texas state parks and all of the national parks as well. I love to explore the trails and pathways that invariably lead to the most delightful destinations. I feel my energy and health improving with each step. It is a glorious way to exercise. I have no need of machines when the great outdoors is beckoning me. Everything that I need to shed anxieties and pounds is right in front of me. I forget about the stresses and concerns that so often plague me when I am communing with the forests and the creatures that skitter around me. I feel at home enjoying the bounty that no man is capable of reproducing. For all of our genius we cannot build a mountain or an ocean but we can enjoy and honor the wondrous bounty that nature still provides us and there is no better time than when our footprints do not have to compete with big crowds.

I never sleep as well as when my trailer is parked in a secluded area surrounded by trees or the vistas of a lake. I am caressed by the quiet and warmed by the heavy blanket that I always carry for cold nights. A simple cup of tea tastes like the nectar of the gods on such nights. The starry sky puts my own place in the universe into perspective. I understand that I am but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things and yet I am unique and important. I feel content as I become a shadow in a darkness that is not possible in the lights of the city. I feel relaxed and I find the comfort of slumber so easily.

The food that I eat on such journeys always seems to be so good. A bite of baked chicken or a crisp apple lingers on the tastebuds of my tongue. I have no need to hurry my dining. I sit at the table and slowly partake of my simple feast while enjoying the antics of a rabbit or laughing at the cardinals that zip past my window. Sometimes a family of deer strut through my campsites and on occasion I see something truly exotic like a moose or a turkey or a roadrunner. It is like having dinner and a movie, more special than the most expensive night out and often I am among an elite group lucky enough to be present when few others are there.

I feel blessed to be able to enjoy my little adventures and to discover the world as it is during the school year. It is truly grand to visit places in the off season when the tourists are mostly gone. Sometimes my husband and I may be the only people in sight. In those moments I feel as though I am royalty enjoying a private beach or a castle in a forest of my own. Who knew how many simple pleasures were just waiting for me to find them? Traveling at odd times of the year is truly one of those little known secrets. It is the best.