The Baptism

Parishioners and guests murmur as they settle into the pews.  Soft colors emanate from the large stained glass window in the north wall, suffusing the chapel with a muted glow.  In the front pew, my son and daughter-in-law wrestle my grandson into his father’s christening dress—the same gown I made for him some 40 years ago.  My younger son, flown in from New Mexico to offer his commitment as a godparent, sits beside them.

A bell sounds, creating a hush, and a Bach voluntary dramatically swells from the organ and fills this small, beautiful space.  The Celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism has begun.

My mind strays as I reflect on the importance—and challenge—of this sacrament, which speaks directly to our responsibility to discern our purpose in this life.  Why have we been made incarnate?  What is it we are to do now that we are here?  What are our gifts and how will we use them?  The epistle is from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (12:3b-13)… “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…”

I think about my renewed struggle to determine my gifts and how they might be applied in this world.  Discernment can be so daunting. I reflect how God’s hand—sometimes not so gently—gradually led me to a path that resulted in my work as a career consultant.  It was not a conscious goal on my part, but I recognized it as one manifestation of God’s work in this world, and felt privileged to serve in this way.

I wonder now, in retirement, what new vocation (vocare from the Latin “to call”) might be in store for me.  I wonder why I even think that something is in store!  And yet, I do.  I’ve mercifully stopped trying to force a resolution and, uncharacteristically for me, have decided to opt for an organic emergence of what God’s purpose for me might be in this encore phase.

I think about my sons and their oh-so-different paths.  My older son, with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit, has built a viable business and achieved financial success.  But I sense a restlessness in him that suggests if he could walk away, he would.  My free-spirited younger son lives in a tent in 40 acres of wilderness in New Mexico.  He is charmed by the remoteness and the grandeur of the vistas—and seems fulfilled, in a Scarlet O’Hara kind of way, to have found “his land.”  His challenge, of course, is economic viability.  My thoughts move to my little grandson being baptized today.  He is such a beautiful and expressive baby—he smiles with his eyes as well as his precious toothless grin.  What gifts has he been given?  How will he serve?

The service has progressed and the congregation is now renewing its own baptismal vows:  vows that renew our commitment to determine our mission in life and find our raison d’etre for being in this world.   A commitment directly related to the gifts we have been given and how we will use them in the service of others—our sending forth into the world as servants and stewards of the Holy Spirit.  The ceremony concludes with the powerful and lovely prayer of baptism in The Book of Common Prayer:  “O Lord…Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all our works. Amen.”  Amen.

 


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PLAY BALL

Ah, spring!  The feel of sun on one’s face, the smell of the earth, bulbs and buds popping all around.  But for baseball fans, spring doesn’t really arrive until they hear the call to “Play Ball!”  To push the season, my husband and I decided to go to Cooperstown, New York, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  It was March and freezing cold, but baseball was in the air everywhere.   Abner Doubleday, often cited as the “inventor” of baseball, lived in Cooperstown during his school years.  His role in baseball history has since been disavowed, but Doubleday Field in the center of town still proudly carries his name.

The museum hosts baseball memorabilia both old and new.  It is an awesome space to explore and a wonderfully nostalgic excuse to travel to a quaint upstate New York town.  The experience starts with a film—in a theater designed as a baseball stadium—followed by a self-guided tour of intuitively flowing exhibit spaces.   As we meandered through the unfolding of baseball history, I began to understand that baseball is not just a game—it is an intrinsic part of our history as a nation, incorporating themes of immigration, integration, and even war.  (Many players served in the military and, during World War II, Roosevelt thought it important that the games continue, to bolster national morale.)

The Baseball Museum is filled with more memories than grandma’s attic.  In one display, I encountered the iconic Yankee team of the 1950s, and was immediately transported to my childhood living room where my father and I cheered every run and bemoaned every out, from one World Series to the next.  We laughed at Casey Stengel’s grumpy demeanor and duck-like extension of his neck and head.  Wham!   Like a well-struck ball, I suddenly realized baseball was part of my personal history too.

“Hey, I remember that!” I exclaimed to no one in particular, on seeing the jersey Doc Halladay wore when he pitched his perfect game.  My husband and I laughed in glee spotting Wilson Valdez’s cap, remembering the May 2011 game when Valdez became only the second ballplayer (the other was Babe Ruth in 1921) to start the game in the field and end it as the winning pitcher—during the Phillies’ incredible 19-inning marathon against the Cincinnati Reds.  Ah, good times.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is really two museums in one:  a museum of the history of baseball (and the American experience), and a separate Hall of Fame lined with brass bas-reliefs of key people in the sport. The plaques are beautiful art as well as history, and the serene Hall exudes an aura of sacred space.  All conversations, as if on cue, became subdued and whispery as people entered.   Plaques commemorate owners, managers, and others who have served.  One is for a black woman, Effa Manley, a Philadelphia-born co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles of the Negro League.  She was a trailblazing owner and tireless crusader for civil rights.   She made her team a social force off the field and a baseball force on it, and the fans loved her for it.

Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League ball, is acknowledged for not only his baseball achievements, but also for his pivotal role in the future course of the game and American history.  “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern Major Leagues in the face of intense adversity,” reads his plaque.  Across the Hall, Pee Wee Reese, a white player from Kentucky, is similarly honored and acknowledged for being “Instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black performer.”

These plaques serve as a reminder that we all need courage to create a more just society.  These institutions demonstrate that baseball is more than a diversion and its greatest heroes did more than just play the game.  They were catalysts who changed our lives and wove themselves into the diverse tapestry that is American culture and history.

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The Cruelest Month

THE CRUELEST MONTH

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, I’m starting to think that February may actually be the cruelest month.  Call it cabin fever, snow and ice accumulation, fatigue, Dayquil and Nyquil overkill or whatever, I’ve had it.  For December and January, I was Miss Pollyanna.  But no more, no more.

The snows of December seemed season-appropriate and very beautiful, giving a festive air as final touches were put on holiday shopping and preparations.  They were light fluffy snows with enormous flakes that flaunted their individuality—a starfish here, an icy web there, little tiny babies’ hands waving everywhere.  All were exquisite and oh so mesmerizing.

We reveled in a squall through beautiful farmlands as we drove to my girlhood home in Buffalo for Christmas with my siblings.  The giddy swirl of flakes was accompanied by the uplifting Handel’s Messiah on the radio, creating a Currier and Ives lead-in to Christmas Eve as we wound our way in our CRV sleigh, cheerfully singing along with “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

Even in January, even with one icy storm, even with leaving the house for the airport one Tuesday morning at 10:00 a.m. and not arriving home until 4:45 p.m., the morning-after beauty still astounded.  “My Lord, what a morning,” I would repetitively announce to no one in particular as the sun shone on a landscape where sharp edges were now all softly rounded, whose surfaces glittered like diamonds in some Disney fairyland.

I’m not a fan of snow and ice any more than most people, but the serene aesthetic after a seasonal storm can still take my breath away.  Apparently, many artists felt the same, given the plethora of lovely wintertime renderings by Redfield, Schofield, Utrillo and Sotter, to name just a very few.

My early winter observations were a privileged indulgence.  As a retiree, I rarely had to navigate in any of it.  Except for the airport trek, I was not needed anywhere and so had no reason to even leave the house during or after a storm.  I also didn’t have to deal with any “snow day” school closings leaving me to juggle spur-of-the-moment childcare or deal with the energies of overly housebound children.  To have such artsy musings about the splendor of winter is the epitome of luxury.

But now, now it is February.  The snows of February have not been light and fluffy.  The sun does not shine the next morning.  The skies remain gray.  These snows have been heavy and wet and destructive.  Our beautiful border of arborvitae has been bowed and, in some cases, broken—revealing views not formerly seen and better left that way.  A good-sized tree branch from a tree in our yard snapped and fell, damaging our neighbor’s new fence.  The snows of this February were offering no redeeming aesthetic value—merely the frozen reminder of destruction.

We are lucky.  We were not among the 90 percent of residents without electricity, and none of the fallen branches landed on our cars or went through our roof or a window.  Not yet anyway.  We have commitments but not jobs; we have young grandchildren but not young children.  Even so, I am grumpy, grouchy, and grinchy.    I am heartsick about the damage to our trees, especially the taller, more established ones which have previously been impervious to storms of all sorts.  I feel badly to have added to our neighbor’s woes, as she is single and has been dealing with several other home issues all on her own.  I am anxious to return to my exercise and walking routines.   I will be glad to see the back of February.

Regardless of whatever month is deemed the cruelest, February—thankfully—is the shortest.

This essay is a chapter from Over the Hill and Gaining Speed:  Reflections in Retirement. It is available on Amazon and local Indy Bookstores.  For more information, visit her website at kaygrock.com or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kaygrock.authorpage.

 

 

 

 

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THE WINTER SEASON

THE WINTER SEASON

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”   These beautiful words from Ecclesiastes resonate through the centuries, a distant echo gaining force and speed as they penetrate our psyche with the power of a bullet train.  We move into another new year, yet these words remain as relevant today as for the ancients.

New Year’s Day has recently come and gone, and although not exactly a “season,” it represents a traditional time for reflection and resolutions—as well as an opportunity to review our “purpose under heaven.”

One of my readers refers to my essays as an exercise in French existentialism.  I prefer to think of them as an exercise in discernment—a process which may still hold anxiety and angst, but hopefully also clarity and peace.  Discernment—what a concept!

During my earlier decades of life, I never even consciously considered it.  In retrospect, there are many times when I must have engaged in discernment—that I would go to college, move to the Big Apple upon graduation, and befriend this person rather than that person and so on.

But my decisions were all frighteningly semi-conscious at best.   Now, as I move through the early days of a new year, discernment is continually on my mind, rolling around in my thoughts like stones in a rock polisher.

My last yoga class of 2017 began with the Fifth Law of Yoga, Om Ritam Namah:  The Law of Intention and Desire.  I consider how appropriate this is on the cusp of a new year.  Embedded in Om Ritam Namah are questions:   Who am I?  What do I want?  How will I serve?  Familiar, age-old questions that don’t get any easier to answer as I age.  I smile slightly to myself and wonder,  “Where’s the GPS when you really need it?”

I remember vividly when the whole notion of discernment finally hit my conscious mind.  I was in yet another career transition and attended a retreat through church entitled, “Thank God It’s Monday.”   The focus of the weekend was discerning our gifts and ways they could be used in the world that blended our need to earn money with our strengths and passions, moving us from soul-deadening “jobs” to spirit-fulfilling vocations.  The goal was to approach the work week with thanksgiving rather than dread.  Just imagine.  I finally achieved this goal, but it took decades, and navigation over many bumps.

Now, in retirement, my discernments are less work-related and more life-related—less about earning money—more about fulfilling my purpose.  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

I feel certain that my purpose “now” is different from my purpose “then.”  And if not discerned now—then when?  The answers to these questions have never come easily or quickly.  As I reflect back over the years, it is clear that God’s hand has guided me, even if—when—I sometimes resisted.

As I write, my gaze drifts out the window.  It is clear that this is the winter season—probably my least favorite time of the year.  And yet, winter’s important purpose seems to be to slow us down as we bundle up.  It offers a time to linger in front of the fire with a good book, a good friend, or just our own thoughts.  A season to ask ourselves questions.

The theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, encourages us to do exactly what we would do if we felt most secure.

Winter encourages us to slow down enough to consider what that might be.   Winter is a quiet season enabling our ability to listen to our words.  How many times a day do we say “should”?  How different would a day—or life—be if we substituted “want”?

Winter is a time to listen to our bodies, to become attuned to the subtle messages conveyed in our posture, our energy, our guts, and those little hairs on the backs of our necks.   Bodies rarely lie but too often the pace of our daily lives mutes their wisdom.  Winter is a season and time of hibernation.  Let us embrace winter’s purpose as much as possible to give ourselves the gifts of stillness, quiet, and rest. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

This essay is a chapter from Over the Hill and Gaining Speed:  Reflections in Retirement,” by Kay G. Rock.  It is available on Amazon.  For more information, visit book descriptions and small business purchase options at her website www.kaygrock.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kaygrock.authorpage.

 

May your gifts be rich in the spirit this holiday season...

“Tis the spirit in which the gift is rich

As the gifts of the wise ones were—

And we are not told whose gift was gold

Or whose was the gift of myrrh.”

E.V. Cooke

 

This little poem emphasizes not the gift but the spirit with which it is given.  Spirit more than trumps the gift itself.  It also emphasizes that gift giving is not a competition and we need not compare our gift to another’s to determine its worth.  What really defines any true gift, small or large, tangible or intangible, expensive or humble, is the sincerity and intention of the giver.

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A DAY THAT SHALL GO DOWN IN INFAMY

BEARING WITNESS

Last month we experienced a historic occasion.  Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, made his first visit to the United States.  He visited Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia.  All of his stops were significant, but I was particularly touched by his visit to bear witness at the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.  Less than a week before, my husband and I were visiting New York and also made an intentional pilgrimage to Ground Zero.  It was a powerful experience.

We stood at the edge of one of the memorial reflecting pools and lightly traced our fingers across an engraved name, outlining each letter.  Each of the nearly 3,000 victims from 1993 and 2001 was remembered by an inscription.  One of my tracings was of a woman and her unborn child.  Others were fathers, mothers, spouses, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Each name meant something to someone and everything to others. And all of them mean something to every American. We feel their loss in our hearts, minds, and fingertips. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

This summer, on a road trip across the US, we visited many fun and indulgent places.  In the midst of our easy-going rambles, we deliberately included a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to remember those victims and their families.  “It was a day like any other”—until suddenly and violently, it wasn’t.  The main impact of the blast hit the onsite day care center filled with children.  Innocents.

At the museum next to the memorial, we heard the start of a recorded meeting, business as usual.  Then:   the roar of the blast, followed by the screams.  It was visceral.  It made me angry.  It made me cry.  But mostly, it made me want to touch each one of the “chairs” on the memorial grounds and say:  “You mattered.  You will not be forgotten.”

And just as we remember those who were lost, it is imperative to recognize the challenges of those who survived—not only those who were in the buildings that day, but all the family and friends of those who went to work one morning and never returned,  all the parents who would never again hug and kiss their little toddlers.  The pain—on all counts—has made an imprint on our collective psyche.    “We Come Here to Remember.”

Later this year we will travel to Hawaii.*  We will lounge on Waikiki Beach, snorkel, drink pastel concoctions adorned with pineapple chunks and umbrellas, and marvel at fantastic coastlines and waterfalls.  But first—first, we will visit Pearl Harbor.  To bear witness.  To pay our respects.  To honor all those whose lives were lost on that fateful day.  We will learn about the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri—evocative remnants of “the day that will live in infamy.

All these memorials are dignified testimonies to our resilience as individuals and as a nation.  They offer comfort, strength and hope, even as they underscore the impact, waste, and ripple effect of violence.  And so we make these trips and stand watch—at least for a time—over those who were in our collective lives, to demonstrate that they remain in our collective hearts.  These pilgrimages are humbling journeys and weighty endeavors.  Even so, one can’t help but wish for a time with no new witness to bear.

*We did travel to Oahu in November 2015.  We wanted to see Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, which requires a short ride across the harbor on a small ferry.  Our tour left at 10:30 a.m. on November 12.  The prior day was totally booked as it was Veterans Day.  Due to weather conditions and rough seas, we were the last tour of the day. We were leaving Oahu the next morning and were, therefore, especially grateful to have had the experience of this visit.

Our group heard a brief presentation, saw the wall of names, and like so many before us felt the emotional impact of our visit.  Anyone who served on the Arizona may be buried at sea with their shipmates.  A navy diver carries the urn of ashes as high as possible out of the water.  When the ship is reached, they pause so that family and friends may pay their final respects.  Then with a flip, the diver goes under and the urn is sucked through a portal into the ship’s hull, to remain for eternity, mingling those ashes with the remains of their shipmates.  As of November 2015, there were seven remaining veterans who may choose the USS Arizona as their final resting place.

Roll call of those we lost on the USS Arizona, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, HI

Roll call of those we lost on the USS Arizona, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, HI

USS ARIZONA Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

USS ARIZONA Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

VETERAN'S DAY

VETERANS’ DAY

Our Veterans served to preserve our liberties and freedoms. Many died doing so. Honor a Veteran. VOTE!

It was the day after Hurricane Sandy, and only I, and our intrepid leader, John, showed up for the scheduled town walk through the cemetery.  The ground was littered with debris, the decorative iron fence marred by the force of a fallen tree.  As we walked the paths, John began picking up the small American flags, now strewn about the landscape, honoring the veterans buried there.  He returned the flags to their graveside medallions.

As I joined him, I was struck by the breadth of our indebtedness.  The earliest inscriptions we found were for the Spanish American War (1898).  There were many markers for GAR—Grand Army of the Republic—designating service in the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Some tombstones and medallions for the first European war (1914-1918) just said World War, devoid of a number, and serving as a reminder that this war was to be the war “to end all wars.”  But, of course, it did not.  Rows and rows of medallions, lined up like corn in an Iowa field, spoke to the apparently unending nature of war.

In quick succession we saw markers for those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Too many markers, too many wars, too many bodies.  If you stand quietly and close your eyes, you can almost hear the heartbeats.  Their presence gives one pause.

As we continued to walk we noticed a monument for the Stryker family.  We were specifically drawn to the headstone for Captain Frank P. Stryker: “Killed in Battle at the Elbe River, April 14, 1945.  Buried in Margraten, Holland, R.I.P.”  We knew the Stryker name from our walks through Maplewood, the post-World War II neighborhood, where a grateful citizenry named the streets for Stryker and fellow comrades-in-arms:   KREUTZ, MYERS, GLEN, MILLER, KERSHAW, CHUBB, WALTON, MCLAUGHLIN, MCCONNELL, and TAIFER.   A Veterans Park and dedicated memorial site acknowledge “…the freedoms gained for us by those honored dead.”

Our liturgy last year prompted me this year to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts to other memorials around town.  The courthouse lawn at a central crossroads forcefully reminds us that “Freedom isn’t Free.”  Thanks to a project undertaken by Gold Star families and the county commissioners, we not only read the names of those who served and died, we see their faces.  I feel the stinging pinpricks of tears.  Not just names, but faces.  Names, faces, and ages—ranging from 19 to 43, most in their 20s.  Their lives given in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Our town is the county seat and memorials abound, including one of the first Civil War memorials in the country.  This defining obelisk honors the 104th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry as well as Colonel W. W. H. Davis, a prominent citizen and founder of the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.  To raise the money for the monument, surviving members of the regiment baked bread and sold it to the Union Army.  How novel—the military holding a bake sale to raise funds!

Davis established Camp Lacey on what is now Memorial Field at a local high school. His stern leadership forced weekly baths and smallpox inoculations which resulted in much grumbling among the men, but the reality of war and pestilence soon revealed Davis’ wisdom.   After their training, 1,049 men departed to become part of the Army of the Potomac.  Regimental losses are listed on the plaque, again reminding us that armies are comprised of individuals, and that freedom isn’t free.

World War II veterans are honored nearby, as are those who fought in Korea, the Persian Gulf, and Vietnam*. The graceful arc of the Vietnam memorial offers an important reminder as it also pays tribute “… to those…who did return, yet later died or suffered due to debilitating physical or emotional pain…”

Looking around, I notice a solitary pink rose adorning the base of a small pillar and move closer to investigate.  It is a tribute to others who have died in service to their community:  police, firefighters, and other law enforcers.

Walking down Printers Alley to Pine Street, I encounter the rich mosaics of Freedom Square, commemorating the leadership and “service above self” demonstrated by two young local residents, both killed in Iraq.  This memorial not only honors the fallen, but also challenges the living, asking the provocative question, “Do we take liberty for granted?”

My journey then leads me to the County War Memorial sculpture at Broad and Main, dedicated to “…these memories of service and sacrifice” given in all wars  “…in the defense of our country…”

Our beautiful community reminds us—in all its corners—of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in preserving for us the ideals of liberty and justice and freedom upon which our nation is founded.  It has been a rich and inspiring activity to move among these memorials and grave sites, acknowledging each one.  It has left my heart heavy, but also grateful.

It is important that we remember.

*I dedicate this article to all veterans, but most especially to my brother, Donald Steinkirchner.  He was a proud member of the Navy and served in Vietnam.  He returned home to a nation that unfairly judged those who served, rather than those who made the decisions to pursue such a conflict. Despite the hostility, he used his skills, intelligence, and work ethic to develop his trade, learned on an aircraft carrier. He successfully reentered society and has provided a secure home for himself and his family ever since.  I am very proud of him.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Doylestown, PA

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Doylestown, PA

Doylestown BookFest October 13 and 14

There’s always something happening in our wonderful town. The latest is a new fall event: the inaugural BookFest being held October 13 and 14. There will be big name authors giving key notes, writing workshops, and a pub crawl for informal conversations. I’m delighted to have been selected as one of the vendors for Sunday afternoon, October 14. If you’re in the area, please stop by to say hello, get a kiss (the Hershey kind), and pick up a free bookmark. To learn more about the BookFest events and authors who will be participating, visit www.bucksbookfest.org.

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Autumn NUTS

Autumn has officially arrived. Time to reprise one of my essays from Over the Hill and Gaining Speed.

AUTUMN “NUTS”

Ka-plink, ker-plop, ka-bang.  I sit at the kitchen table, nicely nestled into a sunny bay window which affords a good view of the backyard.  I listen to the recurring autumnal symphony provided by acorns dropping from the oak trees that surround our home.  Squirrels scurry and scamper, each rushing to stuff their cheeks with as many nuts as possible, before another competing squirrel finds them first.  They are in all-out winter preparation mode and these sounds foretell a bumper crop.  I marvel at the squirrels’ efficiency and purposefulness, especially as contrasted to my lack of either.

Even the oracles of astrology seem to have noticed.  One daily horoscope cautions: “It’s important for you to remain organized.  You have so much going on right now that you need to stay focused.”  I’m not sure what I have going on, but I agree I need to regain some focus and get organized.  The other horoscope is less kindly:  “If you are more motivated to partake in inessential activities than in serious endeavors, don’t expect to get anything important done.”  Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!  That was direct.

Dr. Oz, the charismatic TV host, was quoted in a recent AARP article:  “… Among the major stressors in our lives are Nagging Unfinished Tasks (NUTs).”  Unlike acorns, these NUTs collect in the back of our minds, generating anxiety and sucking energy and focus from our days. Of course, in retirement, it’s nice to have some leeway to meander, and not move as quickly as we once did.  But I’m starting to realize that since we’ve returned from our cross-country trip this summer, I’m feeling somewhat overwhelmed and rudderless.  Could it be because of an ever accumulating basket of NUTs?

We all have them, of course, and they never totally go away—even as one is checked off the list, another is forming.  But after a summer away, I seem to have accumulated more NUTs than usual.  All the ones I left behind in July are still there, plus all the ones that accumulated over the summer.  Even more have gathered since our return home.  And the more they pile up, the more I seem to stumble upon distractions (aka “inessential activities”) that have become barriers to truly accomplishing anything.  Unlike the squirrels’, my bumper crop of NUTs feels more burden than bounty.

I consider Dr. Oz’s caution about not confronting our NUTs and realize that my dallying is no longer feeling good; rather, it’s a form of denial and escape from my growing anxiety.  My horoscope is right!  I DO need to get focused and I do need to stop directing so much effort into non-essential activities.  I’m unused to a summer off and realize I’ve totally lost any kind of rhythm to my days.  I still want to have time to linger over coffee at the kitchen table, but I don’t like the niggling anxiety that’s starting to arise.  As I continue to transition into retirement, I am starting to understand the need to consciously re-create the structure of my days and life so that I deal with the NUTs, while still accommodating my desire for time to just “be.”  It is autumn—a good time to get back on track, prioritize what needs to be done, clean up my office work area, break tasks down into their components, make some lists and start making some progress, little by little, one day at a time.  To do otherwise would just drive me, well…NUTS!

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Michener Book Club Meeting

The lively and congenial ladies of the Michener Book Club we so much fun to be with. I had been advised they liked selections relating to art and museums so I carefully curated my list of essays for the readings. I think the two most popular were the essay about Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania State Capitol (“A Capital Capitol Day”) and “Treasure Hunt,” a story of sleuthing by my sister, son and me on a trip to Santa Fe for her husband’s uncle, Josef Bakos. It turns out he really was an important southwest artist! Check out the photo of all of us below.

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THE VETERAN

Thelma Williams will be 100 years old 0n September 16, 2018.  She is a veteran of World War II.  For decades she has faithfully marched in the historic Doylestown Memorial Day parade (celebrating it's 150th year this May.)  This year, however, will be her last.  One day after the parade, she'll be getting on a plane and moving to Houston, TX where her son and his family reside.  She is an active participant in the local Silver Sneakers program as well as a faithful member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Doylestown.  She says of approaching 100 years of age:  "I never dreamed I'd live this long or that I'd still be having so much fun doing it!

Thelma participated in her second Honor Flight celebration and ceremonies in Washington, D.C.  in 2017.  She was selected to place the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  She speaks with awe and reverence of being given such an honor, and felt humbled and grateful to have been selected for this service.  "In my wildest dreams, I never expected to have such a rare opportunity and privilege."

The full essay about Thelma is available in Over the Hill and Gaining Speed.

Bon voyage, dear Thelma.  Knowing you has been a rare opportunity and privilege.  You will be missed!

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MY THANKS TO THE LADIES OF MT. CARMEL

What a warm welcome and enthusiastic support I received for my readings from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed," and "Everything I Know About Relationships I Learned Dancing, at the April 10 meeting of the Ladies of Mt. Carmel."

Thank you all so much!  I really enjoyed being with you and am honored to have been selected as a featured speaker at your monthly meeting.

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The Winter Season

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”   These beautiful words from Ecclesiastes resonate through the centuries, a distant echo gaining force and speed as they penetrate our psyche with the power of a bullet train.  We move into another new year, yet these words remain as relevant today as for the ancients.

New Year’s Day has recently come and gone, and although not exactly a “season,” it represents a traditional time for reflection and resolutions—as well as an opportunity to review our “purpose under heaven.”

One of my readers refers to my essays as an exercise in French existentialism.  I prefer to think of them as an exercise in discernment—a process which may still hold anxiety and angst, but hopefully also clarity and peace.  Discernment—what a concept!

During my earlier decades of life, I never even consciously considered it.  In retrospect, there are many times when I must have engaged in discernment—that I would go to college, move to the Big Apple upon graduation, and befriend this person rather than that person and so on.

But my decisions were all frighteningly semi-conscious at best.   Now, as I move through the early days of a new year, discernment is continually on my mind, rolling around in my thoughts like stones in a rock polisher.

My last yoga class of 2017 began with the Fifth Law of Yoga, Om Ritam Namah:  The Law of Intention and Desire.  I consider how appropriate this is on the cusp of a new year.  Embedded in Om Ritam Namah are questions:   Who am I?  What do I want?  How will I serve?  Familiar, age-old questions that don’t get any easier to answer as I age.  I smile slightly to myself and wonder,  “Where’s the GPS when you really need it?”

I remember vividly when the whole notion of discernment finally hit my conscious mind.  I was in yet another career transition and attended a retreat through church entitled, “Thank God It’s Monday.”   The focus of the weekend was discerning our gifts and ways they could be used in the world that blended our need to earn money with our strengths and passions, moving us from soul-deadening “jobs” to spirit-fulfilling vocations.  The goal was to approach the work week with thanksgiving rather than dread.  Just imagine.  I finally achieved this goal, but it took decades, and navigation over many bumps.

Now, in retirement, my discernments are less work-related and more life-related—less about earning money—more about fulfilling my purpose.  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

I feel certain that my purpose “now” is different from my purpose “then.”  And if not discerned now—then when?  The answers to these questions have never come easily or quickly.  As I reflect back over the years, it is clear that God’s hand has guided me, even if—when—I sometimes resisted.

As I write, my gaze drifts out the window.  It is clear that this is the winter season—probably my least favorite time of the year.  And yet, winter’s important purpose seems to be to slow us down as we bundle up.  It offers a time to linger in front of the fire with a good book, a good friend, or just our own thoughts.  A season to ask ourselves questions.

The theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, encourages us to do exactly what we would do if we felt most secure.

Winter encourages us to slow down enough to consider what that might be.   Winter is a quiet season enabling our ability to listen to our words.  How many times a day do we say “should”?  How different would a day—or life—be if we substituted “want”?

Winter is a time to listen to our bodies, to become attuned to the subtle messages conveyed in our posture, our energy, our guts, and those little hairs on the backs of our necks.   Bodies rarely lie but too often the pace of our daily lives mutes their wisdom.  Winter is a season and time of hibernation.  Let us embrace winter’s purpose as much as possible to give ourselves the gifts of stillness, quiet, and rest. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

 

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"A Day that shall forever live in Infamy..."

BEARING WITNESS

In November 2015, we travelled to Hawaii.  Our top priority in Oahu was to see Pearl Harbor, but we arrived on November 11, Veterans Day, and the tour to the USS Arizona was totally sold out.  So, we spent our first full day doing typical tourist things:  we lounged on Waikiki Beach, snorkeled, drank pastel concoctions adorned with pineapple chunks and umbrellas, and marveled at fantastic coastlines and waterfalls. 

The next day, we visited Pearl Harbor, determined to achieve our goals: To bear witness.  To pay our respects.  To honor all those whose lives were lost on that fateful day and offer our gratitude for their sacrifice.  We took the short boat ride across the Harbor on a small ferry to see the USS Arizona Memorial.  Our tour left at 10:30 am on November 12.  Due to deteriorating weather conditions and rough seas,  we became the last tour of the day.  Since we were leaving Oahu the next day, we were especially grateful to have had the experience of this visit, an evocative reminder of "the day that will live in infamy."

Our group heard a brief presentation, saw the wall of names, and like so many before us felt the emotional impact of our visit.  Anyone who served on the Arizona may be buried at sea with their shipmates.  A Navy diver carries the urn of ashes as high as possible out of the water.  When the ship is reached, they pause so that family and friends may pay their final respects.  Then with a flip, the diver goes under and the urn is sucked through a portal into the ship’s hull, to remain for eternity, mingling those ashes with the remains of their shipmates.  At the time of our visit, there were seven remaining veterans eligible to choose the USS Arizona as their final resting place.

More experiences of bearing witness...

Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, made a historic first visit to the United States in 2015.  He visited Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia.  All of his stops were significant, but I was particularly touched by his visit to bear witness at the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.  Less than a week before, my husband and I were visiting New York and also made an intentional pilgrimage to Ground Zero.  It was a powerful experience.

We stood at the edge of one of the memorial reflecting pools and lightly traced our fingers across an engraved name, outlining each letter.  Each of the nearly 3,000 victims from 1993 and 2001 was remembered by an inscription.  One of my tracings was of a woman and her unborn child.  Others were fathers, mothers, spouses, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Each name meant something to someone and everything to others.  And all of them mean something to every American.  We feel their loss in our hearts, minds, and fingertips.  “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Later that year, on a road trip across the US, we visited many fun and indulgent places.  In the midst of our easy-going rambles, we deliberately included a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to remember those victims and their families.  “It was a day like any other”—until suddenly and violently--it wasn’t.  The main impact of the blast hit the onsite day care center filled with children.  Innocents.

At the museum next to the memorial, we heard the start of a recorded meeting, business as usual.  Then:   the roar of the blast, followed by the screams.  It was visceral.  It made me angry.  It made me cry.  But mostly, it made me want to touch each one of the “chairs” on the memorial grounds and say:  “You mattered.  You will not be forgotten.”

And just as we remember those who were lost, it is imperative to recognize the challenges of those who survived—not only those who were in the buildings that day, but all the family and friends of those who went to work one morning and never returned,  all the parents who would never again hug and kiss their little toddlers.  The pain—on all counts—has made an imprint on our collective psyche.    “We Come Here to Remember.”

All these memorials are dignified testimonies to our resilience as individuals and as a nation.  They offer comfort, strength and hope, even as they underscore the impact, waste, and ripple effect of violence.  And so we make these trips and stand watch—at least for a time—over those who were in our collective lives, to demonstrate that they remain in our collective hearts.  These pilgrimages are humbling journeys and weighty endeavors.  One can’t help but wish for a time with no new witness to bear.

 

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DRIVING "Miss Crazy"

DRIVING “MISS CRAZY” 

This summer we traveled to Scotland with four friends.  We saw wonderful sights:  Edinburgh Castle, the Highlands and Isle of Skye, and Glasgow’s soaring Central Station.    We heard glorious sounds:  the Military Tattoo featuring hundreds of bagpipers en masse, the distinctive Highland dialect, an actor reciting Robert Burns’ poetry (in Scots) from a parapet at Stirling Castle.  We experienced delicious tastes:  Scottish salmon, cranachan, fish and chips, and wee drams of single malt.  

At the end of our tour, each couple went their separate way on self-guided adventures.  My husband and I rented a car to continue our journey down through England.  This was a brave thing to do—drive a rental car through England that is.  Britons, as you know, drive on the wrong side of the road.  My husband did an awesome job getting us around but despite his capable chauffeuring, I was still experiencing major crises of perception.  My mind revolted at the mirror image experience posed by driving in Britain.  I sincerely believe if someone had held a gun to my head and said, “Drive here, or else!” I would have said, “Shoot me!”

I rode in the passenger seat, which, of course, felt like the driver’s seat—and which soon led to my transformation from a relaxed traveler into “Miss Crazy.”  If the car wandered too close to the curb, I gripped the arm rest and yelled, “Close, close, CLOSE!”  On narrow country roads, (where signs actually said “On-coming cars may be in the middle of the road”), “Miss Crazy” yelled—with every oncoming car—“Car, car, CAR!”  Right turns were a seat-gripping, eye-widening event.  Roundabouts—of which there were more in a 30-mile stretch in England than in the entire state of New Jersey—put me into a full imitation of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

As the navigator, I found myself trying to decipher signs crowded with circles, arrows, and hilariously cumbersome names like “The Wallops-near-Bramble-side,” “Sudbury-on-the-Lea-over-Water,” or “Flow-Gently-Sweet-Afton.”  One needed an Evelyn Wood speed reading certificate to determine which arrow to follow to which destination and just where one should exit the roundabout to get there!  “Miss Crazy” had no choice but to yell, “Circle, circle, CIRCLE,” to allow time to determine if we were to exit at “eleven o’clock,” “ one o’clock,” or “three o’clock.”  Sometimes it took so long we got dizzy.  Fortunately, once in the roundabout, we had right-of-way.  Equally auspicious, my husband remained calm in the midst of my panic attacks.

Driving challenges aside, our travels through the Lake District, Midlands, and ultimately the Cotswolds, provided glorious scenery and experiences, a highlight of which was a tour of Highclere Castle, filming location of the popular PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”  I thoroughly enjoyed descending the staircase, pretending to be Lady Mary; sitting in the library imagining I was having tea with the Dowager Countess, or relaxing on the beautiful grounds of “Downton,” fantasizing we were Lord and Lady Rock. 

 

 

 

These diversions enabled me to once again relax and accept the fantasy and fun, as well as the beauty and history—and yes, driving rules—of Britain.  Or perhaps I was beginning to adapt.   Whatever the reason, “Miss Crazy” no longer accompanied us on our travels—she had been given “the boot”!              

                                                                                    

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THE VETERAN

 

I met Thelma Williams at a Silver Sneakers class at the local gym.  Her quiet dignity and erect posture, matching workout suits and beautifully coiffed hair, caught my attention from the first day.  One morning at the beginning of class, this agile, active woman made a brief announcement:  “Today is my 96th birthday,” she proudly declared.  Jaws dropped in disbelief, even as we applauded her.  After class I approached her to ask how she would celebrate.  “It’s Monday,” she replied matter-of-factly.  “I’ll do the laundry.”

Two months later, she broke her dress code and attended class wearing a tee shirt with “VETERAN” printed on the back in large black letters.  I wanted to learn more and invited her to lunch. 

Thelma was 24 years old when the United States entered World War II.  “Everyone was involved in supporting the war effort,” she related.  “Housewives collected fat and aluminum foil, children collected rubber bands.”  She wanted to help too, but her weight didn’t reach the minimum requirement to enlist, so she got a job at Middletown Airport (now Harrisburg) in central Pennsylvania, stocking supplies to ship to air bases around the world.

But the urge to contribute more directly refused to go away.  She preferred the Navy’s uniforms, but the Army offered a better chance at an overseas post.  She went to a recruitment office and applied.  I asked if she put rocks in her pockets to add weight to her slender frame and received a gently reproving look.  “No,” she admonished.  “They accepted me as I was.”  And so she entered the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).

Basic training was delivered at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia—an old cavalry post with large parade grounds surrounded by barracks.  A smile flirts at the corner of her eyes as she remembers all the marching they had to do on those beautiful grounds.  The fitness and discipline required by the War Department still informs her modus operandi as she marches to the beat in our class.

After basic training, she was assigned to a motor transport pool training company. “I seem to have been in the right place at the right time all my life,” she exclaims.  After she arrived, two incumbents moved on, in quick succession, and our feisty bantam-weight recruit became a first sergeant!  All she needed now was an overseas assignment.

In April 1945, the war was winding down and bases were being consolidated.  Even so, she pursued overseas training and soon received orders to report to France.  She set sail in August 1945 and was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the news broke that Japan had surrendered.   The somber military ship briefly became a party boat as standard restrictions were lifted and everyone celebrated the welcome news.  At the relocation depot, she received her assignment:  Bremen, Germany.  Since the railroads had been bombed out, she traveled by windowless military air transport.

In Bremen, the angel on her shoulder continued its watch.  The first sergeant left for a civilian post and Thelma got the position—title, stripes, and all.  She remembers working hard but also having time to explore Europe via Special Services trips.  In December 1945, she spent a cold week in Denmark.  By April 1946, the trains were running again and she enjoyed a trip to Switzerland—each for the grand sum of 25 dollars.

By June 1946, her years of service and overseas duty had earned her enough “points” for discharge.  The famous GI Bill had passed and she could return home and go to college for free.  She enrolled in a business college but didn’t like it.  A notice that the Army was recruiting a battalion of WACs to go to Japan caught her attention.  She was reinstated—stripes intact—and assigned to the Office of Quartermaster General in MacArthur’s Headquarters.   Her WAC detachment drilled in the gardens of the Emperor’s Imperial Palace.

In Tokyo, a friend introduced her to a young serviceman in the newly created US Air Force.  Within three months, they were married.   In November 1946, her husband was transferred back to his native Texas, so she once again applied for discharge.  When they landed on US soil, she almost wasn’t allowed entry—she didn’t have a passport.  All her previous travels had been as a WAC and it never occurred to her to provide what was required for travel as a civilian.  Within a year they were ordered back to Japan—this time she brought a passport.  She and her husband now had a one-year-old son.  While in Japan, a daughter was born.

Eventually they returned to the States and to civilian life, but life took a sudden turn when “Tex” had a heart attack and died.  He was only 63 years old.  Family connections ultimately brought her back to her native Pennsylvania.  She doesn’t seem impressed by her longevity.  “It’s all in the genes,” she explains.  “My mother was 106 when she died!”  Even as she acknowledges her good fortune and good health, a shadow passes over her features.   She recalls all the crossed out names in her address book, as family and friends predecease her.   

I ask for one of her most outstanding memories, and November 2, 2013 is quickly recalled.  Thelma was selected to participate in “Honor Flight”—a VIP experience for veterans held in Washington, DC, complete with motorcycle escort, memorabilia packet, and visits to all the war memorials including the Women’s Memorial.  “It was one of the most memorable days of my life!” she enthuses.  One of the gift items she received was the tee shirt with “VETERAN” emblazoned on the back.  

Another highlight occurs every May, when Thelma marches with fellow WACs and other veterans in the local Memorial Day parade.  That’s one Monday when the laundry just has to wait.                                                                                                                               

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"Of Baseball and Battlefields"--an essay from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed."

OF BASEBALL AND BATTLEFIELDS

Part I:  Baseball

Lured by the call to “Play Ball!”, my husband and I decided to go to Cooperstown, New York, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  It was March and freezing cold, but baseball was in the air everywhere.   Abner Doubleday, often cited as the “inventor” of baseball, lived in Cooperstown during his school years.  His role in baseball history has since been disavowed, but Doubleday Field in the center of town still proudly carries his name.

The museum hosts baseball memorabilia both old and new.  It is an awesome space to explore and a wonderfully nostalgic excuse to travel to a quaint upstate New York town.  The experience starts with a film—in a theater designed as a baseball stadium—followed by a self-guided tour of intuitively flowing exhibit spaces.   As we meandered through the unfolding of baseball history, I began to understand that baseball is not just a game—it is an intrinsic part of our history as a nation, incorporating themes of immigration, integration, and even war.  (Many players served in the military and, during World War II, Roosevelt thought it important that the games continue, to bolster national morale.)

The Baseball Museum is filled with more memories than grandma’s attic.  In one display, I encountered the iconic Yankee team of the 1950s, and was immediately transported to my childhood living room where my father and I cheered every run and bemoaned every out, from one World Series to the next.  We laughed at Casey Stengel’s grumpy demeanor and duck-like extension of his neck and head.  Wham!   Like a well-struck ball, I suddenly realized baseball was part of my personal history too.

“Hey, I remember that!” I exclaimed to no one in particular, on seeing the jersey Doc Halladay wore when he pitched his perfect game.  My husband and I laughed in glee spotting Wilson Valdez’s cap, remembering the May 2011 game when Valdez became only the second ballplayer (the other was Babe Ruth in 1921) to start the game in the field and end it as the winning pitcher—during the Phillies’ incredible 19-inning marathon against the Cincinnati Reds.  Ah, good times.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is really two museums in one:  a museum of the history of baseball (and the American experience), and a separate Hall of Fame lined with brass bas-reliefs of key people in the sport. The plaques are beautiful art as well as history, and the serene Hall exudes an aura of sacred space.  All conversations, as if on cue, became subdued and whispery as people entered.   Plaques commemorate owners, managers, and others who have served.  One is for a black woman, Effa Manley, a Philadelphia-born co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles of the Negro League.  She was a trailblazing owner and tireless crusader for civil rights.   She made her team a social force off the field and a baseball force on it, and the fans loved her for it.

Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League ball, is acknowledged for not only his baseball achievements, but also for his pivotal role in the future course of the game and American history.  “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern Major Leagues in the face of intense adversity,” reads his plaque.  Across the Hall, Pee Wee Reese, a white player from Kentucky, is similarly honored and acknowledged for being “Instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black performer.”

These plaques serve as a reminder that we all need courage to create a more just society.  These institutions demonstrate that baseball is more than a diversion and its greatest heroes did more than just play the game.  They were catalysts who changed our lives and wove themselves into the diverse tapestry that is American culture and history.

Ball fields and battlefields may not seem to have much in common, but a key figure links them both.

***

Part II:  Battlefields

In his recent book, The Joy of Old Age, author Oliver Sacks notes that as one has an ever longer experience of life, “[one gains]…a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”  Perhaps that explains my ever increasing penchant to visit museums and historic sites and meander my way through all sorts of memorabilia.  I have always enjoyed history, but today museums offer insights that didn’t manifest for my younger self.   Museums and significant sites help concentrate my understanding of the big picture, and focus my attention on the humanity of individual stories and legacies.

Part I of this article explores American history through the lens of baseball.  More than just a game, it was also a symbolic battlefield of social justice and integration.  Soon after visiting Cooperstown, we traveled to central Pennsylvania and explored an actual battleground.  The famous Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle of our Civil War and the largest battle ever fought in North America.  The Union Army of the Potomac numbered approximately 85,000 men while the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia commanded 75,000.  At the end of three days of fighting (July 1–3, 1863), total casualties exceeded 23,000—a horrific loss of life and limb sustained by both sides.   As the armies retreated, the people of Gettysburg were left to deal with the carnage, and to try and understand what had happened and what their lives had now become.

Our pilgrimage—and indeed it felt as if it were just that—started in the new Visitors Center and Museum.  Impressive scholarship, curation, and multimedia offerings provided a macro perspective that brought forth the grand scale and historic sweep of all that transpired on those fateful days over 150 years ago.  It gave us pause to think of the high passions on both sides that led to such a battle and such a war.  The human cost sobered us as did the historic impact.  Although the war would continue for another two years, Gettysburg is generally considered a key turning point for the North which led to the ultimate preservation of the Union and the abolition of the institution of slavery.

On day two, we hired a private guide to drive us to key sites and explain their significance.  As we moved from place to place, he masterfully recreated what transpired there.  Even without actual re-enactors, we could envision the ferocity of these engagements.  I was unprepared for the vastness of the landscape and the dispersion of conflicts strung out over miles in every direction.  The logistics of moving men and animals, artillery and ammunition, food and supplies boggled my mind.

We learned of communication challenges and miscues and how they often became a determining factor in success or failure.  We marveled at how unimpressive Little Round Top appeared from below—and how imposing from above.  Day two provided us with a field-level view of the miscues, operational challenges, and intensity of battle faced by both sides.

Gettysburg has over a thousand markers and monuments.  There were several we wished to see on our last day.  The misty rain and low clouds evoked the cannon smoke of battle.   In this eerie fog, as we read names listed on markers, long-ago emotions became palpable, rising as ghosts from the once blood-soaked fields: fear, frenzy, fury, hope, despair, disappointment, determination, exaltation, defeat, pressure, apprehension, relief, confusion, camaraderie, isolation, agony, and anger—a panoply of human feelings swirled around us in the haze.

Statues came alive.   We felt Buford’s anxiety as he surveyed the oncoming Confederate forces, Lee’s agony as he watched the devastation of Pickett’s charge, and Meade’s mental gear-shifting on being named commander of the Union’s largest army only three days before the battle ensued.  Meade was a military engineer who only wanted to design and build lighthouses.  Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey is one of Meade’s designs.

We spot Abner Doubleday’s statue—the same Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown fame.   His commander, John Reynolds, provided the reinforcements Buford so anxiously awaited, but was killed 20 minutes into battle.  Doubleday was called up to lead the corps.  Although badly outnumbered, he and his soldiers acquitted themselves honorably and fought ferociously—until the corps to his right collapsed and forced retreat. Unfortunately that commander filed a false report to Meade, absolving himself and blaming Doubleday for the defeat.  Meade subsequently replaced Doubleday, a career US Army officer, with a more junior officer, creating a lasting enmity between the two men.

We position ourselves in front of the monument and look up.  Doubleday stands tall on his marble base, gazing into the woods where he and his men fought with such tenacity.  And yet, one senses his disappointment and rage.  Unlike Meade, Doubleday longed to be a military leader, but chicanery denied him his due.

In an ironic twist of historic proportions, we remember Meade as a military man rather than a designer of famous lighthouses.  And we remember Doubleday not for “gallant and meritorious [military] service,” but for a baseball field in upstate New York, honoring him for a game he never invented.

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October brings up so many different memories. This essay from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed," describes a visit to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.

LAND OF ENCHANTMENT

At first there was silence; then, a hissing sound.  Then, the roar of fire as waves of heat and expanding air rolled out around us.  Huge fans bellowed, towers of flame rose up, and slumbering giants gradually stirred and awoke all around us.  They pulled mightily against their tethers and fought the strength and force of their handlers, dichotomous forces battling against conflicting desires.  They wanted to be free, to fly and shoot tongues of fire.  They wanted to float over the Land of Enchantment, and lure all who saw them to succumb to their spell.

This dragons’ lair is actually a huge field in central New Mexico, home of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, the world’s premiere ballooning event.  This year, 600 balloons were registered, from all over the globe.  As we walked amongst the sounds and struggles, surrounded by light-as-air behemoths, we felt magic as we watched the metamorphoses of these gorgeous inflatables being readied for a special evening event known as “Balloon Glow.”  As the balloons expanded, we saw many in the traditional Brussels sprout-shape, festooned in beautiful patterns, colors, and flags.  Others were fanciful special shapes that included a scuba diver, a trio of bees, a white cow, a pink pig, an astronaut, and a huge Wells Fargo stagecoach.

Our night was crystal clear.  Venus was shining brilliantly as the darkening sky gradually filled with stars.  The barest sliver of a moon rose over the 5,000-foot-high desert horizon, dangling like a precious pendant.  I couldn’t decide if the heavens were the perfect backdrop for the balloons, or if the balloons were the perfect foreground for the sky.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment—a place made to enjoy the magic.

As the balloons won their identities and the crews subdued their desire to take flight, the master of ceremonies began the countdown over the loudspeakers.  Soon the eager crowd joined in, like a premature New Year’s Eve celebration, shouting “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1: ALL BURN!”  The dark outlines of shifting shapes suddenly transformed into a riot of color, noise, and novelty, as the pilots simultaneously engaged their burners and filled the translucent forms with light and magic, over and over and over again.  We were enchanted.

 When I was 11 years old, I saw David Niven play Phineas Fogg in the star-studded film, Around the World in 80 Days.  I have been fascinated by hot air balloons ever since, and attending this fiesta is the fulfillment of a bucket-list dream.  In addition to the “Glow,” we also attended a sunrise Mass Ascension, with hundreds of balloons from many nations lifting off in orchestrated waves.  They filled the dark, chill morning air like bubbles from some Brobdingnagian soap machine.

As the sun rose over the craggy crest of the Sandia Mountains to the east, its rays pierced directly through the ropes of an elegant balloon emblazoned with the legend, “Defy Gravity.”  It was a mystical moment.  Was it a reminder not to let things weigh us down?  Or perhaps a prod to find our fire and rise up?  As more and more balloons filled the sky, I decided maybe they weren’t bubbles after all, but rather ascending prayers.  New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment.  This Balloon Festival is just one of its magical spells.  I am in its thrall.

 

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