Death Is No Stranger

death is no stranger

Night Sky. Photographed by Frank Lee Ruggles, January 2021

Death is no stranger to any of us in ordinary times. With Covid still quite visible in our rearview mirror (in the US the 2020 death rate per 1000 people was the highest since 1943), our thoughts may stray to the tenuous hold we have on life.

Two stories this month reminded me to not take my time on earth for granted.

Whenever a celebrity dies suddenly with others in an accident, the news seems to tell the story from every conceivable angle. About the celebrity, that is. But the others who die with the famous person are often shunted aside. Consider the tragic helicopter accident in January 2020 that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Do you recall the names of the seven other people who died with them in the crash? Neither did I until a singer on America’s Got Talent told the audience that his wife Christina, an assistant basketball coach, died in that accident. The others killed were John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; and the pilot Ara Zobayan.

Every single life that ended in an instant was just as important as Kobe Bryant’s was.

The second story happened on July 4. A photographer named Frank Lee Ruggles died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep; the cause of death has not yet been determined. Although he and his wife Lisa lived in Virginia, I did not know him personally. But I found his photographic work absolutely amazing.

I can’t recall how I first learned about him, but we went to a showing of his work a number of years ago, and I’ve given some of his photographic excellence as gifts to my husband and son-in-law. Frank’s shot of the eclipse hangs in our master bedroom.

His history is a story worth telling and so below I’ve included a link to his beautiful obituary. He served his country as an Amy paratrooper, and he held the position of a federal photographer from 2007-2010 where, on a journey of 100,000 miles across all fifty states, he captured (and that is the absolute best verb to explain his work) America the beautiful.

To quote a portion of the obituary, “Frank continued to serve as the National Artist Ambassador for the National Park Trust; he lectured and taught around the country and is the author of Chasing Light, An Exploration of the American Landscape…Frank went on…to become the Artist Ambassador for the National Park Trust, using his passion for the environment and skills to capture the majesty of the national parks through his lens to share with the world and educate children that we must protect our natural resources for generations to come.

His latest passion project for the last three years was the 79 Years Project. This project consisted of a modern-day reshooting of the Ansel Adams 1941 Photo Murals project, shot-for-shot same days and locations with the same equipment, to show what has changed in the lifespan of the average American.”

A small portion of his memorial service was uploaded online; friends delivering eulogies. There seemed to be an in-joke going on. You see, each of them thought that HE was Frank’s best friend.

And wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to be remembered…that each of your friends thought that he or she was the most beloved of all because of how you treated them?

Yes, indeed, remember that life is short, and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us.

Thank you, Frank Lee Ruggles, for gladdening our eyes, hearts,  minds, and souls with your photography.

“I live, eat, breathe and even sleep photography. Photography is life.”  – Frank Lee Ruggles, January 5, 2021

~~~~~

Obituary, Frank Lee Ruggles

Short article from Bioethics Research Library Georgetown University

Matt Mauser’s audition (his wife Christina died in the crash with Kobe Bryant)

A Rhyme In Time

Rhyme in Time

Be honest. How often do you read poetry? For a while, it seemed to me that poetry was on its way out. So I was happy when the 2020 winner of America’s Got Talent was Brandon Leake whose talent was identified as “spoken word poet.” And of course with Amanda Gorman’s stirring rendition of her original poem The Hill We Climb at this year’s inauguration, I think we can claim there is a resurgence in interest.

Way back in 12th grade English class, an assignment was to recite a poem, explain its meaning, and share what it meant to us personally. I chose a little-known poem called The House with Nobody in It from 1914.  Recently one of my closest friends (who was with me in that long-ago English class) shared that since the day I presented it, that poem has remained her favorite.

The author is Joyce Kilmer who is most widely known for his 1913 short poem titled Trees. He and his wife and children were living in Mahwah, NJ, when he wrote much of his poetry. The first line of the House poem refers to a walk from Mahwah, NJ to Suffern, NY along the (now defunct) Erie Railroad track, a distance of about two miles.

Joyce Kilmer was a World War 1 hero, dying in 1918 of a sniper’s bullet and being presented with (posthumously) the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration awarded for gallant action in war. He is buried in France.

The House with Nobody in It

Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.

I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn’t haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.

This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.

If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I’d find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.

Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there’s nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.

But a house that has done what a house should do,
a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.

So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

Kilmer bestows almost anthropomorphic attributes to the old house.  It seems as if the battered place has human feelings and can recall memories of happier times.

When houses become homes, they are woven into our stories and our histories. So very much of our lives happens within our homes. Look at your family photos and you’ll see the following take place inside your walls: birthday celebrations, presents under the Christmas tree, family Thanksgiving dinners, getting ready for the first day of school, the prom, and graduation, coloring Easter eggs, baby’s first steps, and Grandma’s last visit.

Anyone who has left a beloved home to move somewhere else can tell you it’s a momentously sad occasion, regardless of how happy we may be about moving to a new home. I’ve done it twice and cried mightily both times.

I think the feelings, emotions, and memories connected to our home are why infirm or elderly people, even when they know they are not physically or mentally able to continue living in their home, are so opposed to leaving it. That’s likely why the concept of “aging in place” is so appealing to people my age. We just want to stay put, safely wrapped and held close by our homes’ walls.

~~~~~~~~~

Amanda Gorman at the 2021 Inauguration

2020 AGT winner Brandon Leake’s performances

a reading of The House with Nobody in It

Joyce Kilmer

Rainbow Music

rainbow music

Indoor rainbow – Photo by Norma Thatcher

A signature song. That phrase captures the imagination. It’s defined as the ONE song a successful artist or band is most closely identified with. Some examples are

  • What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
  • I Left My Heart In San Francisco – Tony Bennett
  • YMCA – The Village People
  • Piano Man – Billy Joel
  • Moon River – Andy Williams

Judy Garland’s signature song was Over the Rainbow from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. (Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg)

Do you suppose there is anyone reading this post who is NOT familiar with that song? In 2001 Over the Rainbow was voted the greatest song of the 20th century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry of America.

Why is it so popular? What is it that makes us like it so darned much? How can it have not only endured but prospered after 82 years?

Professor of music Walter Frisch (who wrote a book about the song) believes, “The song’s mix of hope and anxiety has allowed people to read into it their own concerns.” It’s a universally appealing song.

Based on the comments found on YouTube for various covers of the song, people have their own interpretation of the emotions the song brings forth. Here’s a partial listing: Hope, sadness, loss, yearning, escape, a leap of faith, optimism, happiness, courage, daring, healing, solidarity, and reassurance. Quite the diverse list!

Over the Rainbow has been sung at weddings and at funerals. People play it at graduation parties. And it has been on NASA’s playlist to wake up astronauts!

Katherine McPhee sang it sitting on the floor as an American Idol finalist in 2006.  And she and her husband David Foster just uploaded a new informal version of it in April to help raise funds for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County, Texas.

There is a light and upbeat version of it by Hawaiian singer Israel (Iz) Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole that has smashed records. It has been in the top ten on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales for 541 weeks! The video, which is a mashup of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World, has been viewed on YouTube over a billion times.

But my favorite cover is a soulful rendition by a once relatively unknown singer named Eva Cassidy. She was local to the DC Metro Area, and the link below is restored footage of her singing live at the Blues Alley Jazz Club in DC in 1996, ten months before she died at the age of 33 of malignant melanoma. If you click on only one of my links today, make it hers.

The “words guy” for Over the Rainbow, Yip Harburg, had this quote that sums it up: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”

~~~~

Israel (Iz) Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, mashup of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World

Katharine McFee Foster, Over the Rainbow April 2021  (Note: The song starts at 1:42.)

Eva Cassidy, Over the Rainbow January 1996

PBS clip on why Over the Rainbow endures (you’ll need to scroll down the article to the video and then endure an ad)

Petals of Our Lives

swirling petals

Photo by Julie Busony

I’m convinced there are many astounding views of life we miss seeing simply because we’re not paying enough attention.

Case in point: Stop and watch this 26-second video I shot at the park last week so that the rest of this post will make sense. (But come right back or my feelings will be hurt.)

We had just finished making the rounds at the park, and my dog Grace wanted to walk in the park’s creek. As she was snooping around in the shallow water, I stood still. That’s when I noticed the swirling eddy of flower petals with several green leaves nestled in on top.

And this thought came to me: Surely this is a metaphor for life. The petals represent the people in our lives. Some closer to the center stay near to our personal orbit as our days turn to weeks, months, and years. Their actual position may change but they remain in our inner circle.

Some farther out toward the edge may be with us for a shorter time and have less impact, and then they drift away to influence others.

And some touch our life for just a moment before breaking off. Only on the periphery, perhaps having a marginal influence on us, still…for that moment they were a part of our individual world.

Regardless of the length of their stay or their closeness or distance, we should not underestimate the influence that any of these petals, er, people have on us. I’m hoping that right now your mind has jumped to images of people who made a positive impact on you, and that’s good.

But I’m sure we can all look back and find people in our past that we wish we hadn’t encountered. That terrible boss who couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag? The supposed friend who betrayed a serious confidence? The business acquaintance who stole an idea, claiming it for her own? I’m sure you can add your own list of nefarious folks.

We don’t like to remember those people, but guess what? The impact they left helped shaped us into the people we are today just as surely as the wonderful people have.

About ten years ago a community program tagged me to help a single mom with a teenager who had some special problems. I did my absolute best and believed I was making a positive impact on both of them. That blew up when the mom made accusations that I was trying to sabotage her, that I put her down. Even though she was accusing some other community members of similar actions, I couldn’t find solace in numbers. I was devastated that I had been falsely accused.

Fortunately, I had a wonderful mentor at the time. When the story came pouring out of me (I was mad, hurt, embarrassed, ashamed of failing, etc.), so did the tears. When I ran out of words, my mentor paused and said, “What a gift that woman gave you…the opportunity to triumph through an adversity. Let it go.”

I hadn’t thought of that story in years. When I started writing this post, I had no clue it would end up here. I write where the Spirit leads, and so sometimes I’m just as surprised as my readers!

Grouse, Grumble, and Gripe

Grouse grumble gripe

Ordinary, run-of-the-mill griping. We’re all guilty of it. We complain about the cold temperatures of winter, yet when the first humid day of summer hits, we whine about how humidity sucks the life from us. Or at the least, turns our hair frizzy.

We know our land needs rain, yet when the downpours arrive, we fuss over the inconvenience of how wet and muddy the yard is.

We moan about the people who stock up to the point of selfishness and create shortages in toilet paper, paper towels, and most recently, gasoline.

We may speak ad nauseam about the bosses who overwork us while they underpay us and fail to appreciate our true worth to the company.

Sometimes I catch myself complaining and wish I could figure out how to slap myself.

I’m sitting outside in the shade on a perfect Sunday afternoon as I write this. There’s enough of a breeze to seriously ruffle the pages of my writing tablet. The dog lies at my feet in Zen-like quietness, hoping to assuage the squirrels’ cowardice enough to lure them closer within pouncing range. The male red-winged blackbird sits on top of the wrought-iron hook that holds the feeder, serenading us before he hops down to the perch to snack on seed.

Being grateful for this—just this small peaceful moment in time—is where I need to divert my focus instead of on what’s NOT perfect in my life.

It’s easy to get distracted, to drift toward the negative, and I need to keep rowing against that tide. Because I know how easy it is to get pulled along in negativity.

I don’t believe any of us intends to be constantly mired in unpleasant thoughts or feelings. We just lose our intentionality and slip into it.

No matter what your personal situation is at the time you’re reading this post (and I do know that at least three of my readers are in the middle of serious health issues), take a breath and then look around you.

And I pray you will find a tiny spark of happiness and gratitude in first, being able to actually take a breath and then to see something that (or someone who) brings you joy.

For that moment, know you are blessed.

~~~~~~

 

Heave-Ho to Upheaval

heave-ho to upheaval

Photo by Norma Thatcher, April 2021

This has been an unusual year in America in many ways including weather. In the mid-Atlantic states, we saw some winter days hit the low 70s, and then we endured recent spring days in the low 30s. My husband just noted that the weather channel is predicting that Denver will get five inches of snow today. Our poor plants, bushes, and trees have every right to be a bit confused.

We had one upsetting issue over the winter with frost heave. You may know that pressure from alternating freezing and thawing conditions can actually lift the soil and plants right out of the ground to produce the condition termed frost heave.

We had a lovely Viburnum bush at the corner of the house that also had sentimental ties; it was a transplant from my sister-in-law Alice’s yard and replanting it in our own yard was one of the last landscaping projects in which our son Tim assisted.

The power of nature is awesome to behold even when we’re unhappy with the results. That Viburnum bush now sits at a very odd angle, roots and ground heaved up from the earth, as you can see below.

frost heave

The most common English definition of heave is to lift or move something heavy. We can also produce a long breath by “heaving a huge sigh of relief.” It can mean an attempt to vomit as in retching.  In nautical vernacular, it means to pull, raise, or move a boat or ship by hauling on ropes.

Heave-ho is a nautical anachronism and was a command to sailors to pull hard in unison on a rope or cable. Today we might say someone was given the heave-ho if he was dismissed, rejected, fired from a job, or forcibly ejected.

Upheaval is closely aligned to heave. It’s a sudden change or disruption to something; a radical change. The pandemic was surely an upheaval to our way of life. But though we may have endured radical changes to what we perceived as normal, at our core, we are still US. We remain the kind and thoughtful people we were, and perhaps are even more so. Our capacity for compassion has grown.

Just like my Viburnum that endured the violent upheaval from the ground during the winter and yet has just blossomed and has hearty “fuzzy” dark green leaves, we can emerge from our upheaval with more beautiful souls.

~~~~~~

A post-Covid prayer by Nadia Bolz-Weber

On Being Easter People

Easter People

Photo by Norma Thatcher

Dear Readers, today’s post is a Lenten reflection video I recorded for my church, St. James’ Episcopal, Warrenton, VA. If instead of reading this post you prefer to watch the video, you can do so here.

If you would rather read it, the text is below.

Father Ben has reminded us in the past that as Christians, responsible for God’s reputation in our world today, we need to be Easter People, not just during the spring, but throughout the year.

As Easter People, we believe Jesus was crucified, that He conquered death, that the Resurrection was real, and that Jesus ascended to be with God the Father the Creator and will someday return in glory.

Until I became an Episcopalian thirty-five years ago, I hadn’t paid much attention to Holy Week. The denominations of the Christian churches I attended through the first third of my life celebrated Palm Sunday with gusto and then the following Sunday, like magic, taa daa, it was Easter!

But the pathos of Holy Week cannot and must not be ignored. The tragic events of Holy Week, leading up to the joy of Easter, are an integral part of our Easter People story.

Omitting the events of those Holy Week days from our Easter People story would be like me sharing my own life story and telling you ONLY about the joyous highlights, skipping over entirely the tragedies that have had so much to do with shaping me into the person I am today.

When we think about the worst moments of our life, emotions spill over. We don’t want them, we may beg to wish them away, we ask for a re-do. We question how a loving God could inflict such awfulness upon us. And no one has the answers. What is true, though, is that without those terrible events in our lives, we would not be who we are.

Likewise, without our focus on the fear, sadness, suffering, abandonment, outrage, denial, brutality, grief, and despair of Holy Week — without deep consideration on all of those aspects — we are less than fully engaged Easter People.

This suncatcher in the photo above represents to me what being an Easter Person means. In the center are the dark stones above that huge teardrop that captures all of the tragedy that Jesus endured. Yes, we need to remember and talk about the tears.

But encircling the tears are the bright jewels of joy and hope and belief that we are loved beyond measure, freely forgiven, and promised a new life after our earthly one ends.

And the beam of sunlight that runs diagonally through both the tears and the joy? Well, that’s a reminder that the Holy Spirit is within our hearts to sustain us through the difficult times and dance with us in our moments of joy.

~~~~~

“May God grant you always…A sunbeam to warm you, a moonbeam to charm you, a sheltering Angel so nothing can harm you.

Laughter to cheer you. Faithful friends near you. And whenever you pray, Heaven to hear you.”      an old Irish Blessing

Time For The Telling

Time for the telling

This story has waited for three years. God’s time says today is the day to tell it.

During the Christmas season of 2017, my cousin Beth emailed me with thanks.

She began, “Thank you for empowering me to speak.”

Beth had attended a Christmas gathering of an interfaith community group. Some members had known each other for years and were obviously quite comfortable with one another. But among the newcomers Beth noticed a couple that she knew had lost their 20-year-old daughter Emily a few years back to a heroin overdose.

Emily’s dad was sitting next to Beth and around them swirled a buoyant conversation about the birth of children as there was an about-to-deliver-any-day expectant mom sitting at the same table. Happiness rebounded as one after the other moms told the story of their child’s birth.

The dad sat silent, perhaps living through memories of his daughter’s death. Beth thought about how painful this must be for him. Then Beth remembered a conversation that she and I had concerning the death of a child. I had shared that it’s so important for parents to continue to hear their deceased child’s name and have them brought up in conversation. The loss of a child is a wound that is always there, but it’s made worse when others tiptoe around seemingly trying to avoid saying the child’s name.

Knowing that Emily had been adopted, Beth took a deep breath and risked asking the dad how old Emily had been when they adopted her. His face lit up and said, “Just 18 days old.” Then Beth asked to hear the story of Emily’s adoption, and he seem so pleased to relive all of the happy details.

Beth’s email to me closed with this thought: I don’t think I would have risked “opening his wound” by mentioning Emily if my conversation with you had not convinced me that those wounds are always open, but the pain is never being able to talk.

So, to my friends Linda and Jenn, on the 13th and 10th anniversaries of the loss of your beautiful children, let me say their names here:

Kristin and Jacob, you will never be forgotten; you will be loved for always and forever.

A Little Bit Of Light

a little light

In times of deep darkness, we not only need light —we need to be light for one another.  – Parker J. Palmer

Forgive me if I’m repeating myself from a past blog, but my favorite public space in my home is the smallest room in the house, the breakfast room, just off the kitchen.

A strong reason for its appeal is the amount of light that pours in through its two large picture windows. For most of the year, the windows are unadorned of any covering. But because they face west, in the heat of an afternoon summer, that light needs to be blocked because it’s just too strong.

I got to thinking about windows on a walk through Old Town Warrenton yesterday. My dog Grace likes to walk up and down steps, so when we reached the John Barton Payne Building (a historic old building that housed Warrenton’s first library), I let loose of her leash so she could bound up the steps.

After she moseyed back down, Grace decided to snuffle the bushes off to the side of the steps. That’s when I saw the teeny-tiny window pictured above.

Now I’ve lived in this town for about thirty-four years, and I’ve been to the John Barton Payne Building many times for meetings, lectures, and with my children and (later) my grandsons when, during the Christmas season, Gum Drop Square was hosted there.

But I had never before noticed this charming window that looks out directly to the ground on which the building sits.

I wondered what may have prompted the architect to add this opening to the world in such an odd spot. When public places are open again, I plan to seek entrance to the space to see where the window fits from inside.

We vary as individuals as to how much light we’re comfortable with in our surroundings. As a natural light enthusiast, I detested the few years my work office was along an inside wall of the building. When building renovations were done and my team and I moved to new digs, I was thrilled to have my desk facing a large window.

As our life moments ebb and flow, we may need more or less light. If, for instance, we’ve just come through a dark period, too much light at once can feel overwhelming. Imagine an ebullient person on the counseling end of a suicide prevention hotline who heartily responds to a despondent caller by saying, “Oh come on, cheer up. It can’t be that bad!”

No, we know that would an inappropriate response. While the person in darkness doesn’t need more darkness, neither does she need a picture window’s worth of light shined upon her like a spotlight.

Instead, maybe what would be most helpful is just a candlelight’s glimmer of hope or a supporting night light’s beam to light the way between spaces of then, now, and tomorrow.

And when she’s ready, the light of a new day casting rays through the panes of a teeny-tiny window may be simply perfect.

~~~~~

https://liftedup.us/beautiful-scars/

Oh My Soul, You Are Not Alone by Casting Crowns

History of the John Barton Payne Building

A Simple Prayer

a simple prayer

I wrote the below prayer around fifteen years ago. I’ve occasionally dusted it off, revised the final paragraph to suit a particular time or need (such as Lent), and shared it with some folks.

It’s actually an embodied prayer in that it has specific body motions to go with the words. But it stands on its own as a simple prayer as well.

I’ve been inspired to share it with you because of Amanda Gorman’s amazing performance of her Inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb.  She reminded me that our words, even simple ones, are too precious not to be shared.

Gracious God, we ask that you help us to push aside thoughts of the outside world, that we may be fully present here and now.

Heavenly Father, we lift up to you…our cares and worries. Take them. And fill us with your peace and assurance that you are in control, that life goes according to your plan, that all is well.

Heavenly Father, we lift up to you…our sinful thoughts, words, and actions. Take them. And fill us with your forgiveness and grace.

Heavenly Father, we lift up to you…our grief and sorrow. Take them. And fill us with joy in knowing that those we miss are with you and are at peace.

Heavenly Father, we lift up to you…our thanks for our many blessings. Take them. And fill us with the capacity to appreciate every gift from you.

Heavenly Father, we lift up to you…ourselves. Take us. And fill us with your Holy Spirit so that others will see your love shining through us.

Bring us together in these troubled times so that we can be messengers of love and hope and healing to those who need us, to the glory of your son Jesus Christ. Amen.

~~~~~

Amanda Gorman’s presentation in full

Time magazine response to Amanda Gorman’s poem