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.

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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.

A Winter Tale

BM_Comfort476x290I vividly remember having the measles. It seemed to be the final insult in a year that had brought me nothing but grief. My father had died only months earlier leaving me confused and bereft as our family struggled to find its footing. We had moved into a house that was nothing like the ones we had been considering at the time of his death, but it had brought us great comfort in the short time that we had lived there. We had gone full circle, returning to the neighborhood and the school that we had left only a year before. The people who lived near us and those who attended our church had been welcoming and we had been gradually settling in to a new way of life without Daddy.

My mother’s selection of a home for us had been a very wise choice, but we were still navigating through a year of milestones that reminded us over and over again that the man who had been such an integral part of our lives was gone. Somehow we had made it through birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, starting the new year with the realization that we were going to actually make it on our own. Still I was feeling those sudden bursts of grief that seem to come and go in the first year after a loved one’s death. I often felt sorry for myself and my family, silently hoping that our tragedy had only been a dream. As the months went by it had become more and more certain that our new reality would never again include our father, so when I felt the first symptoms of illness that winter I thought that I was just having another bout of sadness. I felt so tired that I uncharacteristically retired to bed early.

By the following morning I was raging with fever and my head felt as though it was going to explode. I felt so dizzy that I hesitated getting out of my bed so I called my mother for help. My throat felt dry and scratchy and it seemed as though every bone in my body ached. I had at times dramatically wished I were dead like my father, but that was just a way to garner attention from my overworked mom. Now I wondered if my bizarre request had somehow been granted because I truly felt as though I had one foot in the grave.

My mother took a quick look at me and asked me to lift the top of my pajamas. Underneath the soft flannel was a scarlet colored rash that caused her to shake her head and declare that I had the measles. She immediately went into action, calling our family doctor who agreed with her assessment and advised her over the phone rather than having me come to his office. He did not want me to expose the rest of his patients to my highly contagious disease, so he and my mother discussed how to best treat my illness.

It was a bitterly cold winter that year in keeping with the somber tone of our household. The heater seemed to whir away continuously and I was so happy that our neighbor, Mr. Sessums, had put it in fine working order for us. I felt quite snug under quilts that my grandmother had made and somewhat relieved that I did not have to go to school on that day. My teacher was a woman who terrified me and any time spent away from her was welcome in my mind. I willingly stayed in my bed and fell into a deep sleep.

When I awoke my room was quite dark and I wondered if I had slumbered all day. Mama informed me that I was not to look out my window, watch television or turn on the lamps in my room lest the lights damage my eyes. She explained that having measles was very serious and that I needed to follow her instructions to the letter so that I might recover quickly and without any long term side effects. Since my fever was still quite high I had little inclination to disobey her. For the most part movements of any kind sent my head into a tailspin and so I languished in my room listening to the sounds of my family going about its routine.

As my seemingly endless bad luck would have it, Houston had one of the biggest snows in its history only a day or so after I was afflicted with the measles. I could hear my friends and family celebrating the uncommon occasion up and down the street. My brothers had snowball fights and built a snowman with my mother. They breathlessly recounted how glorious their fun had been from the safety of the hallway. Their cheeks were tinged with a bright red glow of excitement and I wanted more than anything to experience the adventure that they described to me.

Mama reminded me again and again that I was not to even peek through the blinds to view the white stuff on the ground. She was a good nurse but I truly doubted that her extreme caution was necessary. When she and my brothers returned to the winter wonderland to make snow angels I saw my opportunity to find out for myself what a true snowy day looked life. I gingerly squinted through a tiny gap in the wooden slats of the blinds and saw a glorious sight unlike any I had ever experienced in my hometown. The yards were covered with a lovely white dusting of frozen precipitation. Snowmen smiled in front of every home and children were bundled up in winter wear that they hardly ever had occasion to use. The sound of laughter filled the air as the winter party delighted young and old alike, everyone it seemed but me.

My mother never knew that I had so blatantly disobeyed her. For a time I worried that as punishment for my transgression I would become permanently blind, but when that never happened I felt justified in seizing that daring moment. Soon enough I was back in school and forever immune from catching the measles, something that seemed to make my mother quite happy. I would not understand the full extent of what I had endured until later in life when I was pregnant with my own children. It was then that I was told of the dangers of catching the measles while carrying a baby in the womb. None of those fears would apply to me, and later when they were born my girls would receive an immunization that would insure that they would never have to worry about catching the measles as I had.

The World Health Organization has officially declared that measles have been eradicated in the United States. My childhood experience is a thing of the past, an historic event that no longer happens in our country. Much like my grandfather’s stories of smallpox, my recollection of having the measles is a curiosity that my children and grandchildren will never truly understand. Thank God for that.   

Meh?

winter-dayThe twinkly lights are gone. The tinsel is packed away in the attic. It’s that time of year when the year stretches alarmingly in front of us with more work on our schedules than entertainment. We’ve made resolutions to avoid all of those yummy but unhealthy foods that we secretly love so much and find ourselves munching on raw carrot sticks and celery. The days tend to be dark and dreary with winter storms popping up again and again. Here in my hometown a series of training storms dumped several inches of rain yesterday leaving roads flooded and impassible in many parts of the city. The memories of the recent holiday seem to be in the very distant past rather than just a couple of weeks ago. It’s back to the routine with a vengeance and for some of us it’s the time of year when we have the most difficult time being enthusiastic.

We have taxes to pay and have to face those bills that we accumulated over the holidays. We get notices that our heath insurance premiums will rise once again. We wonder if we will even have health insurance with all of the arguing in Washington D.C. We hear of layoffs in businesses near us and watch the price of gasoline rising again. Some of us look forward to the inauguration of a new president with the same level of excitement that we would feel in undergoing a root canal. We dream of hibernating like a bear until the sun returns in April. Even better are thoughts of escaping to a tropical paradise.

In the schools so many teachers are noticing that their students have seemingly shut down. They arrive unprepared and listless. Their grades are tumbling and they appear to not even care. Motivating them is sometimes a Herculean task. Frustration abounds.

What is it that causes us to become so lethargic and sometimes even depressed each year as January rolls around? Only days after making all of those noble promises to be better so many of us lose interest. It feels as though we are in our sophomore year of high school once again. The best part of the year feels so far away and seemingly endless piles of work loom ahead. Why is it so ingrained in our natures to hit the doldrums in the grey days of winter?

We’ve all heard about people who become so despondent in January that they are said to have SAD disease, seasonal affective disorder. It is the tendency of some individuals to suffer with deep feelings of melancholy at the same time each year. Notably there appear to be more cases of SAD disease when the days are short. It is often linked to a surfeit of sunshine and one of the recommended treatments is to spend time under lighting that mimics the rays of the sun. Somehow this therapy actually works in many cases because we need a certain amount of daylight to feel balanced. As with almost anything, some of us need more than others.

I suspect that most of us experience particular days or times when we don’t feel as energetic and enthusiastic as normal. We feel a certain sense of dread when we face tasks that appear to be almost insurmountable. We have a difficult time envisioning how to break down our demands into doable chunks. We are often overly doubtful about our abilities to maintain the strict routines that we need to ultimately lead to successful conclusions. When the days are long and we have opportunities to end our work days with rewarding relaxation in the sun, we feel a bit better about our responsibilities. When our days begin and end in the dark it is less likely that we will be able to shake the feeling that life is filled with drudgery. We get low and just want to crawl under our blankets and wait out the long winter months.

The trick to finding the happiness that we seek is to keep moving forward, one step at a time. Each of us has more power within ourselves than we have the capacity to imagine. We just have to push ourselves enough to free the talents that are always there. We also need to accept that true achievement is rarely easy.

I saw a news item about a young man who was born with no arms or legs. He has pushed himself to overcome his disabilities from the time that he was a young child. In the process he has mastered a number of athletic skills. He runs with prosthetics. He learned to use the stubs that should have been his hands to type and catch and throw. The one thing that he most wanted to do was climb a mountain. It at first seemed to be an impossible goal but with the help of skilled adventurers who had reached the summit of many a peak he began to practice moving over rugged rocks. He had to literally crawl using the four stumps of his appendages. He wore specially designed leather covers to keep from tearing his skin as he slowly pulled himself along. Because of his disabilities it took him four or five times longer to cover the same ground as his fellow climbers. Even with the protective gear that he wore his skin became raw and excruciatingly painful. For many it seemed as though he was embarking on a hopeless task that was far too dangerous to even try but he was insistent that he only needed to concentrate on making one small bit of progress at a time. With a will of steel he not only made it once but has now climbed multiple mountains and has no intention of stopping. Instead of drowning himself in sorrow and regret he has constantly pushed himself to accomplish his dreams by realizing that all that it really takes is a willingness to face each day with a spirit of can do optimism, rather than wasting time worrying about what he lacks.

My husband’s famous words to our family have always been, “Stick with the plan.” That doesn’t mean that there will not be delays or that our routes will never change direction. It simply implies that we need not give up in frustration when things get really tough. Realistically we can all expect to have some days when our energy wanes and we just don’t have the oomph that we need. There is nothing wrong with giving ourselves a mental health vacation now and again. Sometimes that may take the form of sleeping in and staying in our pajamas all day long. The important thing is to get back on the path again and follow our individual yellow brick roads. Happiness really is to be found inside ourselves and nothing makes us feel better than overcoming our fears and realizing that we are capable of far more than we had imagined.

We’ve all experienced the elation of a wonderful moment when we manage to tame the voices inside our heads that hold us back. For me it was connecting a bat to a baseball and watching it soar over an open field. I have known that feeling of elation when I managed to bring true understanding to a struggling student. Getting to the end of a difficult road is as wonderful as the merriment of Christmas. As we begin our journeys anew each January we need to remind ourselves that it will be spring before we even know it so there is nothing to frown about in the dreary days of winter. Instead, embrace the moment. Enjoy the diversity of the year and never forget that there will always be fellow travelers to help us as we crawl along. We’ve all got this no matter how difficult it may seem, so don’t grumble with a “Meh,” just smile.

Nature Unplugged

21nov2011_1__dsc7226My husband and I went camping last weekend when the temperatures were in the freezing range. Our neighbors wondered out loud if we had perhaps neglected to note the arrival of colder than normal weather, especially when they heard that we were going to Galveston Island State Park. Somehow in their minds it seemed rather strange to head to the beach in low thirty degree conditions. I suppose that most people would agree but that’s because they haven’t tried it.

We covered out plants before leaving and took the more delicate potted ones inside. We kept our smart phones tuned to the Weather Channel and equipped the trailer with our warmest blankets, lots of hot chocolate, coffee and tea. We made sure that we had coats, gloves and hats and that the propane that runs our heater was in full supply. Mike even had foam insulation to put around the hoses that provide water for our convenience. We were as well prepared as a bevy of Boy Scouts.

It was grey and rainy when we arrived at our campsite. We had a grand view of Galveston Bay which was anything but tranquil. The thirty mile per hour winds created enormous white caps on the waves that churned the water. It was a glorious site that we enjoyed from inside the cozy comfort of our trailer whose walls were buffeted by the storm. We listened to music and had the rare privilege of simply enjoying the scene around us without interruptions from phones or unexpected solicitors at our door. We felt as though we were in a warm cocoon hibernating from stress and it was wonderful. We had neither the need nor the desire to venture outside because we were surrounded by the serenity and bounty of nature.

The marshlands between us and the bay were teeming with exotic birds doing their best  to hunker down until the environment became less hostile. They were magnificent and I felt as though I was being given a rare treat because I doubt that they would have been so bold if the other humans that were in the park with us were walking about. Since all of us stayed indoors we had a rare peak at what goes on inside such an ecosystem. I most enjoyed the pelicans who somehow appear graceful in flight despite their bulkiness in physique. There were cranes and seagulls and grumpy blackbirds that attempted to take control of the area but were generally ignored.

After dark we watched a movie while wrapped tightly in our blanket with the heater warming all of the corners of our tiny home away from home. We sipped on chai tea and hot chocolate and munched on bowls of popcorn. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening.

The sun eventually came out and we ventured over to the Galveston Seawall where the water was crystal clear and shining like brilliant jewels. Nobody was swimming but many sauntered along in their heavy winter gear just enjoying the sound of the waves and the lack of big crowds that usually cram the beach. It was actually far more beautiful that it is in the heat of summer and I began to think of all of the secrets of the sea and wonder what the waters had witnessed during the course of history.

We followed Seawall Boulevard all the way down to the end of the island where huge ships were entering the bay. I wanted to know from whence they had come and where they were going. There was a virtual traffic jam of tankers, barges and tug boats. Along the shore fishermen quietly cast their lines in hopes of landing dinner for the evening. It was isolated and felt like a private  tour of places on the island that I had not before seen.

We drove to the historic Stand and braved the cold to walk among the shops and browse the wares. The clerks were happy to have customers and the time to tarry in conversation. I learned that many people come from other parts of the country just to live in Galveston during the winter season. Most of them had neglected to bring their cold weather clothing and so they had to make do with layering on that very cold day.

It was Galveston Restaurant Week and so we stopped at one of our favorite haunts, the Gumbo Bar. It was good to find some warmth and a special menu in honor of the festivities. We enjoyed oyster po’ boys and bread pudding and then drove to the ferry that goes across the bay to the Bolivar Peninsula. There were more ships and hundreds of birds as well as offshore oil rigs to keep our attention in the short trip across.

I had not been to that area in a long time. I had heard that there had been grave damage when Hurricane Ike hit several years ago. It seemed to have recovered rather well but as always it is a quieter side of Galveston Bay without nearly as much of the tourist trade. It’s a paradise for fisherman and those who want to catch a few of the blue crabs that inhabit the waters. I noticed a number of RV parks hosting snowbirds from northern states, people who come each year to avoid the snow and months long cold of their homes.

By the last day of our mini-vacation the temperature was hospitable enough for us to take a long stroll along the beach. We bundled up and brought a bag to use in collecting the many shells that had been left behind by the storm. I found some beauties but mostly enjoyed the fact that we were the only people anywhere. I felt a contentment as we walked silently from one end of the beach park to the other with the waves whispering their welcome to us. I didn’t need to enter the water to feel a sense of joy. I only desired to observe all of the wonders of nature that graced us in our solitary little haven.

We reluctantly left for home driving for one last time along the seawall. There were more people braving the cooler temperatures to walk on the wall built by people attempting to tame the wildness of the sea after the ocean swallowed Galveston in a hurricane of 1900. The waves were asserting themselves as if to remind us all that they are ultimately in charge. Their power is breathtaking and my last glance at them left me with a lovely memory whose image I draw upon for comfort and serenity.

Those who believe that there is nothing to do in Galveston on a freezing cold day in January have never been there to see what we did. It was one of the loveliest camping trips that I have ever made. It’s delightful to visit a place without the sometimes intrusive footprint of other people crowding the view. Go there in the winter. Linger in the quiet. Enjoy nature unplugged.