The Wonderful Jacket

Tasha in hood 2Those of us who come from New England are familiar with Yankee thrift: use it up, make do, or do without. I am of a conserving nature, having in addition to a Yankee father, a German mother born at the outset of WWI. Nothing was ever wasted in the house I grew up in. I thrived on hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. Over the years I have accumulated clothing items I am happy to see again when their season rolls around. I often develop a fondness for clothing that has served me well.

Recently as I pushed my wagon through the aisles of a grocery store, I saw a woman standing by the meat counter in a unique and lovely white furry jacket. “I can’t resist telling you I think your jacket is magnificent,” I told her. She laughed and said it was from the 70’s, yet she could never bear to part with it. “Nor should you,” I replied. We each continued on our way, pushing our shopping carts in opposite directions.

I smiled to myself. I was wearing a jacket I have had for close to thirty years. It is a fairly ordinary, black, nylon one, with some very useful pockets. Black fur edges the hood. It is warm and comfortable, and probably unremarkable as jackets go. However the story of how I acquired it and what has been done to it since makes it special.

On a trip to the Cape many years ago, Stephen and I were in a consignment shop, poking around. I saw the jacket hanging on a rack, and figured I might be able to use it. I took it down, intending to try it on. “If you can zip it up you can have it,” said the woman behind the counter. I looked down at the zipper and saw that it was slightly frayed on the bottom and could be a bit challenging. When I tried it on I liked the feel of the jacket and resolved to see if indeed I could zip it.

Very carefully I inserted the frayed end into the metal slot and continued to be careful as I zipped it all the way up. The saleswoman was good at her word and gave me the jacket without charge. In the ensuing years I went on zipping it up carefully until finally one year I invested in a new zipper. Along the way parts of the jacket lining began to wear out. I was fortunate in having friends who at different times were able to repair the worn places in the lining so that it looked almost new.

Now when I put on my wonderful warm winter jacket I remember my friends and their generous work on my behalf. I also think how fortunate I was to have found it, been able to zip it up and to have it still after all these many years. What keeps me warm in it is more than the lining or the material, it is the memories and the love of friends that has been sewn into it. How could I ever part with this jacket? I believe I never could, nor do I ever wish to.

 

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The Dark Time is The Ideal Time to Rest

The trees outside my window have lost most of their leaves. Some few still cling to their branches as a result of the late warm weather, however not many. The leaves are being released from their branches. The tree has sealed off the part where the stem contacts the twig and the leaves are subject to the whims of the wind. Thus the trees move from active participation in growth and expansion to rest and restoration, solidifying what has been gained. Nature is sensible that way, bringing opportunities for alternative modes of being. Most animals as well as insects are in their burrows or nests, resting from the work of gathering and consuming food as well as maintaining the dwelling.

Once there was no electricity to keep us humming along 24/7. In many cases native peoples in the North went into quasi hibernation mode in the winter. Later, although torches and candlelight provided evening illumination, early bed times were likely. Judging from how I feel, the human body seems to be inclined toward seasonal rest. I always seem to sleep longer and even more soundly during the darker hours between November and February. I find that my body is happy with the additional rest. However I am fortunate that I do not have to answer to a time clock at work or an alarm clock at home that tells me I must rise and get moving regardless whether or not my body would prefer to stay under the covers.

We humans do love the light. Throughout history various cultures have provided and still do provide their own opportunities to invoke it during the dark hours. In our Western European culture, our holidays devoted to light in one form or another commonly include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Hanukah comes to us from another part of the world, as does Kwanzaa, a recent addition. The Internet can provide information concerning the many other celebrations of light that are not as common now because they have faded or been forgotten. These include interesting customs—some of which have come down to us, that include all kinds of symbolism as well as special dances and other activities. All these opportunities help counter the inevitable lethargy brought on by the dark hours.

Although I do not count the years, I still celebrate my birthdays. Now I have another celebration coming up, and I am reminded that as a result of the numerous autumns I have lived through, the leaves of my days are indeed falling. Little by little they flutter down, gathering on the ground in colorful heaps. I have also noticed that as the days of my life increase, I am slowing down. I do not get as much done; I need to rest more. Sometimes this is frustrating. These days are precious and the daylight needs to be made use of. Still I need to be kind enough to myself to allow for the rest I need to keep up my strength, most especially as the days of autumn dwindle and the dark hours grow longer.

Weeds are Flowers Too

Dandelion and pebbles

When I was growing up there was local horticultural society in our town. They had a show every year, and I participated in the children’s class, always happy to compete for the prize money awarded. One easy win was to collect 50 wildflower species and label them. This was easy for me, as we lived in the country and there were plenty of them around in August when the show was held. I diligently combed the fields around our home and won. First prize: five whole dollars, was a princely sum for a ten or twelve year old. Later when I studied the medicinal qualities of wild as well as cultivated herbs I learned to value them even more. Now though I no longer live in the country I still feel fond of the weeds I studied as a child.

Each spring, whenever I walk through the series of parking lots across the street from my building, my eye is drawn to the weeds decorating the barrier between two of the lots. All year long I watch them grow, flower, and then succumb to the cold, their length still softening the hardness of the barrier they have grown against. I also often notice the weeds growing next to concrete highway dividers. They struggle up through tiny cracks in the pavement, signaling the persistence of nature against human concretization. Soon now snow will fall and the remaining stalks I see when I walk will cast their shadows on the snowfall, reminding me of the inevitability of spring regardless of the current winter weather.

Despite the gardener’s dismay, weeds are flowers too. In addition to their roadside beauty, their seeds feed birds and the roots and leaves may be medicinal and even nourishing. Many of the weeds we have today formed a significant part of the diet of those who lived here before the Europeans arrived. The early settlers who planted them to harvest for food and medicine brought others. The virtues of a plant that we call a weed may be many. Now that I no longer have a garden I can appreciate their beauty even more. A weed is by definition something that grows wild, that grows where it has not been deliberately planted: an unwanted, uninvited guest in the garden. In a metaphorical sense, weeds could be defined as the unwanted catalogues that keep arriving in the mail, the undesired emails that show up in my inbox, or even those annoying begging or advertising phone calls from telemarketers.

How are these flowers in the garden of my life? Perhaps because as I eliminate them, they call me to pay better attention. I could also see them as helping me to be grateful that once they are gone I have more space and a better awareness of what I wish to keep for myself. These weeds are persistent in the gardens that we call our lives. However at least they do not require my bending over to remove them or to dig out their roots. As I appreciate the beauty of the actual weeds when I see them so too I can rejoice for that beauty that comes uninvited yet welcome to my view.

Perspective Makes All the Difference

Cherry Blossoms on a rainy dayAt the time I was born my mother was newly come to the US, a bride of less than a year. Except for my father, she was very much alone in a big city, and I was her only companion for quite a while. I have often thought that my persistently positive perspective on life may have had its roots in my trying to cheer her up when she was sad and missing her family and friends back in her home country. Over the years since I have come to understand the power of a positive perspective on a potentially negative situation or experience.

This has become essential to my work. When I tell people I am a writer, they often ask me what I write. If I say I write essays, it sounds as though I am writing from a scholarly point of view. If I say I do inspirational writing, it sounds as though I am coming from a religious perspective. In truth, what I am doing in my columns is to simply present a different or alternative point of view from that which some might take about any given situation or experience. I write to be helpful, but it is self help I write about. Helping others to help themselves is my intention and my goal.

There is little we can do about circumstances. Daily life presents us with issues and difficulties we must deal with. The school of experience is our ever-present teacher, one we cannot escape no matter what we do. I’ve often felt that maturity or adulthood truly begins when we’re willing to learn from this teacher rather than moan, groan and feel as though we are victims of fate, circumstance or those who might perpetrate it. It is a lot easier to complain than it is to “bite the bullet” and admit there might be something to learn from any given situation.

I believe the expression “bite the bullet” comes from battlefield medicine when in the days gone by the surgeon had to amputate or otherwise operate without anesthesia. After whiskey was poured liberally into the patient, a bullet was put between his jaws to bite down on as a way to keep from crying out. Whether this is actually true or not it makes a good metaphor. When our focus is put not on complaint or disappointment but on what can be gained from whatever is happening to us, coping becomes easier and wisdom more accessible.

In my own life right now I am dealing with a change in lifestyle and a need to take better care of myself. I have learned that much of what I used to take for granted, I no longer can. Exercise is not an option it is a necessity. I need to do additional work on my body to restore it to better working order. I could complain, or even bemoan my fate. Instead I rejoice that I now have a good way to lose weight, that I can become stronger and healthier with effort and that it is good and helpful to be made to do that. Therefore I bless these circumstances and state firmly that I am exceedingly grateful for them.

Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

Tidying up the Piles

Tasha's desk 7-17

I remember vowing as a child that I would never have small heaps of stray things around my house the way my parents did. I can clearly remember the way it looked then. My memory of the past has not eroded to the extent my short term memory has, and I have a clear image in my mind.

As I visualize my parents home, I can see the small piles of unread papers here and there, along with the mail that needed to be answered, the notes concerning phone calls on stray bits of paper, as well as other notes about things that were important or that needed to be done. Then too there were the little piles of items that had not yet been put back where they belonged.

Sometimes these various piles would sit for a long time, most probably my parents had gotten used to them being where they were. However, because my father liked to entertain, the house nearly always got picked up just before the guests arrived. That meant the piles would suddenly migrate elsewhere or possibly be distributed somewhere they actually did belong.

It’s only fair to say that my mother had plenty to do with caring for my three siblings and me so it’s no wonder there was little time left for tidying. And of course as they all got older they added to the various piles with their toys, books, and school projects. When I cleaned out my mother’s storage last year I threw away quantities of items that had simply lingered long after their owners had departed the home.

I fear I have no excuse for my piles. I have no little children to attend to and my time is pretty much my own. I do have the time, I think I lack the motivation. I have noticed that one good way, perhaps the best one to get tidied up is to invite someone over—especially someone who may not know us very well and upon whom we wish to make a good impression. This is wonderful motivation to redistribute the piles and get things cleaned up.

It is also true that tidying up may help me to find things that have been lost or misplaced. I really do like to keep things in good order, however, like my parents I fear I have the same attitude that promoted their piles. “I’ll just put it here for the time being until I have time to put it away.”

My desk is a good example of my doing that. For several weeks I have promised myself I will tidy it. The last time I did I found an overdue bill I hadn’t paid. The strange thing is I thought I had, and in fact even had a distinct memory of paying it. But I had not done so.

I suppose I need a better place to put the unpaid bills. Or else I might pay them as soon as they come in. too often something more immediate takes precedence over what I intend to do and things get disorganized. I fully intend to get that desk organized very soon, however, I do have these deadlines to meet and so I’ll do it soon, very soon, but just not right now.

The Many Ways to Happiness

Grafton sky 2When I was a child one of my favorite occupations was to rearrange my mother’s pantry shelves. I delighted in doing this. It seems to me that I was born with a need to accomplish. In many ways, this has been a source of my happiness and a way of making myself feel good. I can remember when I was a young mother that time spent in the kitchen helped to heal any disappointment or dismay. Baking cookies for my children did wonders for my spirits and helped keep me cheerful. Even simple tasks like the ironing I did then were useful to me in lifting my spirits.

I learned long ago that whenever my spirits need lifting I have a choice. Beyond dwelling on whatever it is that may be bothering me, I can seek happiness or I can stop and look around me for something to be grateful for or to enjoy. When I do I have taken a significant step toward being kind to myself as well as making myself feel better. But there is more: I can keep reminding myself to take note of the many things to appreciate that surround me. My happiness is made up of small smiles harvested daily.

While the link between accomplishment and happiness is still strong within me, this other link is even stronger: the opportunities to notice what makes me happy. It functions for me whenever I notice whatever is beautiful around me; it is delivered in the joy I receive when I walk with Stephen in the mornings and listen to the birds twittering and chirping around us. When I get a phone call or an email from a friend I haven’t seen or heard from for a while, my heart fills and I smile. I feel happy when I read the morning newspaper and find interesting stories from it to share with my husband.

It is truly said that happiness does not work as a goal. If for instance I buy something I have wanted, it may make me happy for a little while yet that kind of happiness does not last. Not unlike taking a drink of alcohol or indulging in sweets, the good feelings gained this way dwindle soon. This diminishment is one of the stimuli for addictive behavior. Once the good feeling is gone it is normal to wish for more in order to regain or prolong it. This experience leads many people to practice self-destructive behaviors.

However, the happiness that comes from the appreciation of what is given is not addictive nor can it be sought. It comes from the practice of awareness, of noticing some small joy or gladness that comes to us as a kind of gift. It also helps to have an understanding of what makes us feel happy so that we can take extra care to notice it when it is given to us. I must open my eyes and ears to notice the beauty around me in order to appreciate it. I need to remember to look out the window to see the lovely sunset when it glows there. This kind of happiness lasts beyond the experience and nourishes me always.