When 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.
The joyful birthday of our country on July fourth happens to be right next to and between my husband Stephen’ birthday on the third and our wedding anniversary on the fifth. Over the many years of our life together what a wonderful time we have had with our celebrations. In the past we would share what we used to call our three days of peace and love with friends. They would come from everywhere and stay for the three days, overflowing our large home and even camping in the back yard. The pool and the hot tub were frequently in use. They were joyous occasions.
Today we live more quietly, yet we still celebrate and have friends in to join us, though not so many or for so long. Special recipes are always fun to share for these occasions. One of Stephen’s favorites is a cake made with Almond paste or Marzipan. The main ingredient can be purchased at almost any market. This cake is not the kind to be frosted however you could also decorate it with fruit. In my case if I decide to make it this year I might spell out Happy Birthday Stephen with pieces of strawberry.
Marzipan Cake for Special Occasions
Preheat oven to 325
Grease and flour, or grease and line with parchment an 8″ round cake pan.
7 or 8 oz almond paste or marzipan
¾ cups butter
2/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon almond extract
¼ tsp baking powder
1/3 cup all purpose flour
Method: Crumble almond paste into bowl. Add butter. Beat well until blended. Gradually add sugar and beat well until mixture is light in color and texture. Add beaten eggs, continue beating for 3 minutes. Add flavoring. Sprinkle in baking powder by pinches. Fold in flower. Scrape batter into prepared baking pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until firm and browned on top, and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes on a rack. Slide a thin knife around and under the cake to detach from pan. Invert on rack then turn right side up and finish cooling. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.
This cake is a wonderful treat, and can easily be made gluten free by using a flour mix from Bob’s Red Mill or another one you might like. It really helps to have a mixer, as it would be very labor intensive to mix it by hand, though it would also be excellent exercise. Whether I make this recipe or another I am fond of, I know I will enjoy celebrating these special days.
Fathers Day actually sprang to life in 1910, the same year as the day honoring mothers. However, Mother’s Day was established as the second Sunday in May in 1914 and took hold as a celebration much faster. Father’s Day also arose in other places, each unbeknownst to the other and was celebrated sporadically for many years. In 1957 Senator Margaret Chase smith proposed it be officially established the third Sunday in June. However in the end it wasn’t until 1972 that President Nixon signed a congressional resolution establishing it like Mother’s Day, on a continuing basis.
It may seem strange that it took much longer to establish a day for fathers, yet until fairly recently in our western society, their role has been more often that of the protector and provider than of the nurturer. My children’s father was a case in point. My first child was about 6 months old when I had to go out and leave her in his care. I asked him to change her diaper if need be. On my return she wore an unfolded cloth diaper, pinned at the corners with the rest of the cloth dangling between her legs. Men didn’t care for their infants then.
It delights my heart to see fathers caring for their infants or toddlers in public. I see them now in markets as well as on sidewalks, in crowds at gatherings and at the beach. This is a new phenomenon in our society and I believe it is an important step toward happier children and a more balanced family life. The tenderness of men is a strong instinct and one I am very happy to see given a chance to blossom. In many older families one or more animal companions may take the place of human children as objects of nurturing love. It is healthy to care for a dependent whether animal or human. The heart thrives on the giving of affection.
My husband Stephen has taken to fathering a collection of succulents. He has evolved a garden in pots that he tends and looks after, calling them “the babies.” Once in the years when we owned our home and had the space for it, I was the gardener in the family. Two years ago he began by purchasing one small succulent garden. It was entirely his idea and he cared for it throughout the summer. He enjoyed it so much that soon he purchased more pots and more succulents and began putting together more miniature gardens.
Now his original single pot has expanded to five and he cares for them tenderly. It makes me happy to see him visiting them several times a day, making sure they are healthy and have enough water and generally caring for them. There is no limit to the nurturing instincts of fatherhood. They can be applied to any and all of creation. Our world came into being with a combination of different energies motivated by a creative force that continues to this day. We are the gardeners here, and the more participation in its nurturance that can be encouraged, the better.
As I drove around doing errands my eyes kept being drawn to the beautiful blossoming trees and bushes on the local lawns and roadsides. The town I live in is truly filled with beautifully kept homes and gardens. People here take pride in the appearance of their homes and everywhere you drive in Grafton there is beauty to be seen. As I drove I thought how eloquently the green grass, the freshness of the leaves, and the tidy gardens spoke of the loveliness of the beginning of summer. It is nearly time for the solstice. June 21 will bring the onset of the long hot bright days of June, July and part of August.
When I was a child I could hardly wait for these wonderful summer days: free time, swimming, sitting in my favorite tree reading, all these activities and more awaited me. As a young adult with my children in tow, on any sunny day I headed for the beach, meeting friends and chatting over iced tea as we watched over our little ones. However, as an elder, I confess that I cringe at the prospect of these long, hot days. The heat of the summer hours robs me of my ability to think and makes it harder for me to sleep at night. I have to lurk indoors with the air conditioner going, hurrying out of the house for an exercise walk either first thing in the morning or later on toward sunset.
Too, the sun is not as benign as it used to be. The thinning of the atmosphere due to global warming has increased the potency of the sun’s rays, necessitating cover-ups and hats, not to mention sunscreen and sun glasses. Remember rushing out to get a tan at the beginning of summer? The “healthy tan” we all used to crave is less desirable now. It’s almost as though we need to go back to Victorian times when pale skin was a sign of beauty. Now it could be a sign of care for one’s health. I remember when I was in college skipping a class I disliked to sit out on the porch roof with my friends so we could “work on our tans,” as we used to say. The idea was to increase the effect of the sun with tanning lotion rather than block it with sunscreen.
I regret that the onset of the summer heat and more especially the humidity takes more out of me than it used to do. I’d love it if I had a personal air conditioner I could wear around my neck that would provide me with a cooling breeze when I need to be refreshed from the heat. Even so, there are some delights that nothing can spoil. Yesterday, as I walked past a wild rose bramble my nose caught the sweet scent of the tiny white blossoms snuggled into some trees by the side of the road. I stopped and inhaled, taking time to smell these very special June treats. The present moment joy is what matters, not the prospect of discomfort, and at least I do have the benefit of the air conditioner in our apartment. Indeed, what is can possibly be so rare as a day in June when it brings me gifts like the wafting glory of these tiny June treats.
As children we are often told to be kind, to be sharing and giving, and to show our love to others by how we treat them. We are seldom told to care for or to love ourselves. I remember as a child sending for a nurse kit from Quaker Oats. It was advertised on a radio program I listened to every weekday. I liked the idea of being a nurse. It was a way to care for others, as I was told to do. After my little kit came I bandaged up my teddy bear and treated him to a hospital stay as I played nurse in my little white cap and apron.
As young people we feel invulnerable; we can go for a night without sleep and hardly notice. Unless we have allergies or some medical condition, eating whatever we like is the rule rather than the exception. We seldom need to sit and rest after exertion but can continue on as if we were made of steel. I was in my late forties when I began to realize I could no longer treat my body as if it were some kind of machine that could go on and on.
I began to notice that if I didn’t pace myself I would need to slow down or even stop in the middle of my efforts to get everything done. This bothered, even annoyed me. I didn’t like to stop. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Then I had a real wake-up call: I got an excruciating pain in my neck and shoulder that wouldn’t go away. It took a number of chiropractic treatments and a lot of rest before I was able to move without hurting. The experience was extremely unpleasant. I finally got the message: I had been treating my body badly, and I needed to change my attitude.
First and foremost I realized I heeded to stop and rest between efforts. I also began to notice that when I ate certain foods I was uncomfortable; when I didn’t get enough sleep I was dragging. While this annoyed me, I had to admit it was important information. I realized that while it was strong and able my body needed a different kind of attention. Rather than treat it offhandedly as a machine that just needed fuel and occasional maintenance, I needed to treat it kindly, as if it were a faithful animal that was carrying me where I needed to go. I also had to accept its messages as needs and wants rather as impediments to what I wished to do when I wished to do it.
The importance of my self care grows with each passing year. Movement I used to take for granted has become an effort. There are even things I can’t easily do at all any more. But what is more important is that I remember to do what I need to do for my comfort as well as my health: Rest between efforts, meditate, take time to sit with my feet up, put in my eye drops, drink enough water, eat enough fiber, avoid what I can no longer comfortably digest. My list could go on and on, however I’ve made my point. Self care matters. More importantly, remembering to care for myself means I can continue to care for others, and that most of all is a good reason to do so.
My father’s father died in World War One when my dad was six years old. I can still see the picture of them both that stood on top of our piano in my childhood home. It was in an old fashioned, gold toned frame partnered by one of my Great Grandmother on the other side. Tinted brown, it showed a handsome man in an army officer’s uniform wearing riding boots—he was in the Calvary, standing opposite a small boy in a sailor suit, saluting his father. It may have been the last picture ever taken of him. My grandmother never remarried but raised my father and his brother alone.
My father was a colorful character who dressed as he chose and did things the way he wanted. Although he didn’t care too much what others thought, he was in many ways a traditional person. Every Sunday he attended the Episcopal Church in the neighboring town where he had grown up, and where my grandmother had endowed a stained glass window dedicated to her late husband. On the rare occasions I attended it with him as a child, I would gaze up entranced at the light shining through the image of a knight in armor with a face that seemed to me to resemble the man I’d never met, surrounded with emblems symbolic of his life.
A square in the center of that town was dedicated to my grandfather. He was a decorated hero and had been awarded a medal posthumously. Each Memorial Day the parade of marchers would stop there and a member from the American Legion would place a wreath of Laurel leaves on the hook on the pole beneath the sign that bore his name. My grandmother and later my father would add a big bunch of red carnations. I can remember one year my father lifted me up so I could do it. Each year we went as a family for the ceremony.
My father also decorated the graves of two elderly friends who had come from England to live in our town. Their pink marble gravestones still stand out among the somber gray granite of the rest of the local cemetery. He had been fond of them and I remember his taking me to visit them when I was very small.
My father’s grave is in a family cemetery on Cape Cod where some of his ancestors lived and worked. It is too far for me to travel to easily. His headstone, a simple boulder with a brass plaque, was his unique choice for his grave. It stands out boldly among the more traditional gravestones of his ancestors and the other members of his family. He was an individualist to the end.
On this Memorial Day as always I honor my late father in my heart. When I donate to a charity I know he would have given to, when I pray in my own fashion for the good of others, as well as when I emulate his kind nature and unique sense of fashion, I am honoring his memory. I cannot place flowers on his grave nor can I tend it as I would if I lived nearby; I can honor his memory in my own way by how I live my life and carry on in the way he taught me to do.