Consider the Lilies

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27)

Normally I devote this space to lessons learned from the roses in my backyard garden. Today I want to talk about lilies instead.

Well, one Lily at least.

A cat.

It was a warm day in June when she came to us. Meandering through a local street fair, I noticed a tall cage equipped with a cat tree crowded with kittens. An older couple was offering them for adoption. “Barn rescues,” they said. Lily caught my attention immediately. Her tabby coloring was unusual – dark gray with a beautiful brown undercoat that was most prominent on her face and belly. When she looked at me with weepy green eyes almost too big for her tiny face, I knew she would be coming home with us.

My husband might have nixed the idea of a second cat if we had been at the street fair alone. But, as luck would have it, his adult daughter was visiting from another state. She and I conspired, he couldn’t refuse us both, and Lily rode home tucked inside my stepdaughter’s shirt.

A few days later she got a thumbs up from our local veterinarian, a round of vaccinations, and drops for her weepy eyes and itchy ears. To say that the follow-up care was troublesome would be an understatement. She wiggled and twisted and worked her way out of our grasp every time we tried to apply the drops. We didn’t know it then, but these wrestling matches were a glimpse of things to come.

Other than the health care squabbles, for the first year she was pretty much a normal kitten – chasing string and batting balls, cuddling up to our 2-year-old Siamese mix while he licked her face and ears, and trying unsuccessfully to make friends with our uninterested, elderly Springer Spaniel. She was so small that “Little Tiny” almost became her name. When I realized that she was beginning to respond to my repeated coos of “little, tiny kitty,” I picked a name out of the same mix of letters – Lily. Nicknames inevitably followed – Lily Pily, Silly Lily, and Lilyfer (the latter being an homage to my daughter, Jennifer).

By her second summer with us, she had not only grown into a rather hefty cat but also a decidedly independent one. She was a tank, she still didn’t like us to pick her up, and now she had more than enough strength to fend us off if we tried. We couldn’t catch her even if we worked strategically together. We wondered aloud how we would ever evacuate her if our high-risk neighborhood was threatened by wildfire or wrangle her into a carrier for a trip to the vet if she got sick. She refused to be managed. She was the manager, thank you very much.

And yet, despite all headstrong appearances to the contrary, she was literally a scaredy cat. She immediately ran and hid when anyone dared ring the doorbell. Most of our visitors never saw her, although a few caught a glimpse if she decided to momentarily venture out of the safe room we created in the large rear bedroom of our house. She bolted and disappeared at common household noises – an ice cube dropping in the freezer, the low whirr of the belt on my manual treadmill, a chord on the piano, a human sneeze. We never had to worry about her trying to get outside like our older cat. She instinctively knew even more dangers lurked beyond the doorway.

She was an enigma. Stubborn but skittish. Willful but wary.

After a while, we stopped trying to understand her split personality and embraced it.

The love Lily gave us in return was genuine but rationed. She preferred my husband’s attention to mine, I think partly because our older cat grew jealous and made it clear that I was his human. At least once a day she spent 15 or 20 minutes on my husband’s lap letting him stroke her and talk to her. Periodically I would hear the two of them chatting in the dining room about whatever she might have seen in the yard through the glass sliders. He would ask, “What,” and she would give a verbose reply about the visiting desert quail, cottontails, and lizards.

Occasionally she let me give her a lengthy chin or ear scratch but, normally if I wanted to pet her, she would walk slowly past my outstretched hand and just barely let my fingertips slide across her back and tail. Once or twice was enough. On the extremely rare occasion that she crept hesitantly onto my lap, it was only for a moment. I would ask, “Well, to what do I owe this pleasure,” reach out to pet her, and then she would be gone. It was like a peck on the cheek from a teenage child who didn’t want to be seen kissing her mother.

Because her affection was given sparingly, I think we appreciated it more. And, because she spent most of her time quietly minding her own business, we felt fiercely protective when her peace was disrupted.  Other than visitors and sudden noises, the most common disruption was perpetrated by our older cat. He bullied her for his own entertainment or, like a naughty child, to get our attention. I kept a spray bottle of water handy for these occasions, and my husband and I took turns admonishing him. With her dominant size and bulk, Lily easily could have put him in his place without our help. But she never did. She seemed to live by the old adage, “Pick your battles.” Obviously, his childish antics were simply not worth the effort.

She almost never got into mischief either. Her biggest offenses were joyfully clawing a few select pieces of furniture, while ignoring the many cat scratchers in the house, and making a mess in the guest bedroom after her curiosity led to accidental imprisonment for the better part of one day. She more than made up for these minor infractions by delighting us with her signature poses – sitting regally with her front legs crossed or laying playfully with her front quarters in a side position and her rear legs pointing skyward. She would typically let me take one or two pictures of her little performances if my camera was handy, then swish her tail and walk away.

“There, pesky human,” I could imagine her thinking. “I have entertained you. Now be off with you.”

If I had space to write just one memory of Lily, it would be that she was content living a simple, peaceful life. I think the widespread isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was probably her happiest time. My husband and I were both retired so there were no telephone calls or Zoom sessions to bother with, and absolutely no one visited. No out-of-towners with suitcases bumping down the hallway, no friends sharing raucous laughter, no family with rowdy dogs. During that time, with very little to frighten her, she was the most Zen cat I’ve ever known. A bit of a feline Buddhist, if you will.

Alas, our fears about catching her in a fire or wrangling her into a carrier eventually materialized. She got sick and nothing we tried to do for her helped. Our experience with other pets told us this was the end. We agonized about taking her to the vet as a Hail Mary or for euthanasia, but we knew exactly what would happen if we went down that path. Should we add struggle, terror, bewilderment, and betrayal to her last days?

No. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.

And so it was that we spent the last two weeks of Lily’s life ensuring that the house stayed calm and quiet, trying to coax her to eat, keeping water bowls all around the house for easy access, making comfy resting places that she unapologetically rejected, keeping a litter box near, and constantly reassuring her with as many soft words and as much gentle petting as she would tolerate. She didn’t seem to sleep; perhaps because she felt vulnerable and was determined to stay alert. But, through it all, she remained calm. She accepted the situation with more grace than any animal or person I’ve been blessed to be with in their last days. My husband and I grew more grief-stricken with each passing minute but, observing her, we somehow drew on her strength and carried on.

As her days dwindled to hours, her distress began to show. She cried when she moved and even more so when I tried to help her move. Yet, she continued to display her willful side by making her own decisions about where she wanted to rest. Long after it even seemed possible, she slowly made the rounds to her favorite places in the hallway, the guest bathtub, and the walk-in shower adjacent to our bedroom. We found it odd. Why not settle down in a cozy bed in a safe corner? But, in the end, who were we to argue with a cat who had always been the mistress of her own fate?

When our sweet Lily finally took her last breath in the early morning hours of Easter Day, my husband and I were both asleep – I on a sofa cushion on the floor beside her, my husband nearby in our bed with our older cat. It was as if she waited for a moment when all was quiet and calm … just the way she liked it. No drama. Just peace.

Now, as I remember our gentle girl, I can clearly see she offered us lessons in much the same way my rose garden does. Neither flowers nor cats can tell us what they think. Yet, it’s easy to benefit from their natural wisdom. One needs only to pay attention to the way they live. What did our Silly Lily teach us?

  • Be yourself no matter what others think.
  • Cultivate inner peace.
  • Choose your battles.
  • Endure difficult times with grace.
  • In your own way, show love to those who love you.

I’ll never forget you or the things you taught me, sweet girl. I promise, I won’t.

Remembering Who You Are

The gap between this garden post and my last spans 15 months of a global era charged with all the circumstances that make my kumbaya soul weep. It’s not inflation, the economy, the pandemic, the immigration crisis, or politics. No. In all things, it’s the pervasive anger, contempt, divisiveness, unwillingness to listen or compromise, and the refusal to forgive.

And so it was a humbling experience recently to find myself in a circumstance that stirred in me the kind of blistering anger and stubborn unforgiveness that I find bewildering in others.

Early on in the said situation, I admitted my shortcoming, explained myself, and apologized. In my mind, it was a relatively minor infraction; poorly chosen words said in the heat of a moment. I fully expected to get past it quickly, especially during the holidays. The other party didn’t see it that way, didn’t accept my apology, and was particularly harsh about it on Christmas Eve. Everyone else in the room pretended not to notice.

Forgiveness is something I value highly and always try to give freely. To have it withheld from me was hurtful. As often happens, hurt turns to anger. I retreated, allowed my resentment to grow, and vowed never to forgive the unforgiver. I stewed about it. I seethed. I allowed it to invade most of my thoughts for the next few days.

Then, on the Monday after Christmas, I received a coincidental reminder from a friend about not letting the heartless world rob you of your joy. It was a quote by writer Kurt Vonnegut that my friend just happened to post on social media. It said in part, “Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.”

Reading that, I realized I had relinquished my power over my inner happiness to someone else. Regardless of how that someone else chose to handle the situation, I had the ability to regain my own peace of mind. The ice that had so quickly formed around my heart began to melt.

“Feeling angry and unforgiving may be a comfortable state of being for someone else, but it’s definitely not for me. This is not who I am,” I said to myself and later to my husband who agreed 100 percent.

I began to look around me for more reminders of who I am. That same day I asked my husband to stop the car so I could take a picture of snowy, cloud-shrouded mountains that looked like they belonged in a fantasy film. The next day I marveled over a colorful sunset between winter storms. The next I found unexpected inspiration in some of the messages (two borrowed from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson) on the front of the Christmas cards taped to our coat closet.

Believe in the magic.

Every hour and season yields its tribute of delight.

Every moment of the year has its own beauty.

Peace and Love.

More wonder, more twinkle, more merry, more joy.

And at the top of the display, a Thanksgiving card that said only, “#blessed.”

The most important reminder, though, were my roses. No. There is nothing blooming in the high desert in the dead of winter. Yet, when I went out on the front porch on New Year’s Day to refill the water bowl we keep for stray cats, I couldn’t help but notice pops of red on the other side of the railing.

There, still clinging to the bramble bush, were several spent roses. The backdrop of snow through tangled canes framed them in a way that reminded me of the Bette Midler song, The Rose. Most people who know the lyrics remember the last lines about the progression of winter, snow, sun, spring, and the rose. But there’s another line elsewhere in the song that means more, especially today.

“I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.”

As this new year begins, I find that I’m oddly grateful for the humbling experience with anger and forgiveness (or lack thereof). I needed a reminder about the power of choosing how we’re going to feel, how we react to forces beyond our control, and how every one of us has the power to plant seeds of love.

We – you and me – are the only soldiers capable of combatting the animosity that is spreading ever wider in our world, our country, our communities, and sometimes in our own social circles. Take my hand and let us skip happily into 2022 with the expectation that we can make a difference by freely scattering seeds of all the goodness that lies within each of us. In the simple words of the holiday cards displayed on our coat closet …

Magic, delight, beauty, peace, love, wonder, twinkle, merry, joy.

With these seeds, we are indeed #blessed.

The Rose

I’m one of those offbeat people who think a Christmas card isn’t complete unless you stuff a heartfelt letter or perhaps a comical poem inside. It’s been my modus operandi most of my adult life. I know it probably annoys the heck out of some of my friends and family who have a hard time deciding whether to round-file it or read it on the off chance that it might come up in conversation, but a tradition once begun is hard to abandon. A few years ago I actually did take a break. This year I’m back at it. Here’s why … and, not surprisingly, here’s the letter.

“My heart to yours. Your heart to mine. Love is a light that shines from heart to heart.” (John Denver)

The long road to this year’s Christmas letter began last spring when a fellow writer said we ought to be journaling during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic for posterity’s sake. Who better than a couple of regular gals with a gift for words to tell it like it is/was for the masses? I agreed but never followed through. The words just wouldn’t come. Now suddenly – after all the laugh-out-loud jokes about how slowly time has passed – we are actually nearing the end of this cruel year. And I finally know what I want to say.

Looking back, I fared pretty well when the crisis first made home the safest place to be. As a retiree, it was all about stocking up on food and household essentials, hunkering down with the person I love the most, and immersing myself in cherished projects. Then spring came, and the dependable beauty of my rose garden kept me going through the summer. Never have I been more grateful for every promising bud and breathtaking blossom.

Too soon, though, the garden went dormant. Every day since, I’ve felt myself sinking. The surging pandemic, the merry-go-round of hateful politics and gut-wrenching division, the extended isolation from family and friends, and a handful of non-Covid deaths and health misfortunes in my personal circle collectively beat me down into near hopelessness. Even the encouraging announcement of vaccines didn’t seem to lift me up.

But just the other day, something finally pried open the corner of my heart where despair was growing. Like little wisps of smoke from a flickering candle, the hopelessness began to escape.

What was responsible? Why, it was a rose! A rose in freezing weather. A rose as big as my hand with petal upon petal spilling into a perfect sphere. A rose so fragrant that if you close your eyes, you would swear you were out in the garden in springtime. A rose specially preserved to last for months. I never even knew this was a possibility, let alone expected to possess one.

And who was responsible? Why, the dearest friend a person could ever hope to have. I’m not sure she imagined how much the rose would mean to me, although I have no doubt she went out of her way to get it. That’s her nature – endlessly kind, unapologetically generous, spreading love as if it was fairy dust, a true angel on Earth.

Which brings me to the real point of this story. It wasn’t the rose that climbed into my heart to ease my despair. It was my friend.

I so needed this gentle reminder. A kind heart — mine to yours, yours to mine — has always been the way to survive troubled times. I forgot for a while, but I’m more of a believer now than ever.

Believe with me, won’t you? There’s never been a better time to shine our lights and watch hope bloom.

Yours Never More Truly, Laurie Samsel Olson

Rose Rules

If you’re looking for the key to a fulfilling life, look no further than the garden.

It’s an intimate place, the garden. Personal. Cloistered. Out there, it’s just you and Mother Earth and the Good Lord working hand-in-hand to create your vision. Maybe it’s an impressive plot of homegrown vegetables, a bed of flowers filled with fragrance and color, or an apartment balcony garnished with potted plants. Whatever it may be, the garden is the friend that will tell you what you truly need to know.

My garden – the Garden of the Rocks and Roses in the high desert of Nevada – reminds me every day of the values that infuse my life with meaning. You’ve probably seen similar thoughts elsewhere. So have I. Pop culture is chock full of ready-made lists and generic advice. The difference is that I have a deep and abiding trust that these are my truths, born in the early morning chores and quiet contemplation that comprise my life as a rose whisperer.

* * *

Share Love. Every morning I gaze at my garden, or stroll through it, or putter in it. I bathe myself in the vibrance of the colors, the shape of the delicate petals, and the old world fragrance. Most days I’m so filled with love that I literally can’t hold it all. Gladly, I give the surplus back through devoted caretaking, kind words, and heartfelt prayers. The circular process reminds me of the quote on a ceramic plaque a dear friend gave me years ago. “Love. What goes around comes around.” It surely does.

Show Gratitude. This isn’t only about counting your blessings. It’s about feeling thankful for everything – the good, the bad, the in-between. Sometimes in the spring, when all the rosebushes are heavy with blossoms, I can’t help but raise my hands skyward in praise. It’s easy to be thankful then. It’s not as easy when pesky aphids or a stubborn fungus threaten all that beauty. In those moments, my commitment to gratitude is tested. More often than not, I come to a place where I’m genuinely grateful for the experience. From hardship comes knowledge and strength, and that better prepares me to handle or perhaps even prevent the next challenge. As for the in-between, when the roses are sleeping through the frigid winter, I’m grateful for the rest and for the joy of anticipating another glorious spring.

Have Hope. When I’m on my hands and knees mulching or turning fertilizer in the soil, I’m doing more than gardening. I’m practicing the art of hope. What is planting and tending a garden if it is not hope? Hope that the objects of your affection will survive and grow. Hope that they will eventually yield your heart’s desire. Hope that you are actually the wise gardener you aspire to be. Along with hope come faith, optimism, and cheer. You can’t really have one without the others. At least in my garden you can’t.

Listen. Although I talk to my roses, I don’t expect them to carry on a conversation. But I listen nevertheless. They tell me what’s happening in their own language. Lush, green foliage and abundant, colorful blooms speak of health and vibrance. Withered leaves and a disappointing flush send up a red flag that there are problems to resolve. Sometimes I don’t know the resolution. That’s when I seek out those with more experience and listen to their wisdom. Listening and speaking may be partners in good communication but, without a doubt, listening is the better investment.

Be Consistent. Gardening isn’t a sporadic hobby. Even when I don’t much feel like pruning or mulching or fertilizing, the work still has to be done. Gardens can go to pot, and the quickest route is neglect. A day off now and then won’t make a big difference. Take a month or a season off, and you’re buying trouble. Trust me. I’ve done that. Catch-up was more work than I ever bargained for. Consistency, it turns out, is the gold standard.

Persist. When consistency alone doesn’t produce the desired result, persistence is the next best tool in the box. I have a pair of climbing roses that taught me that lesson. After a particularly brutal winter, the canes were black with a malady called, appropriately, winter kill. When I talked to the local nursery, they were surprised I had even tried growing those particular roses in the dry desert since they are native to perpetually wet climates. The verdict was to dig them up and plant something else. I cut back the dead canes, but the crowns and the roots wouldn’t budge from the ground. A few months after I gave up trying, I noticed new shoots springing from those crowns. The roses came back with fiery resolve and the next spring produced more tiny, yellow roses than I had ever seen.

Respect. In the garden, I believe that every bush has an equal right to water, sun, and my attention. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small, spindly bush that produces a handful of roses a year or a large, resplendent one that produces dozens of blooms throughout the spring and summer. They are all deserving of my love and care. Likewise, I believe that every other living thing in the garden deserves respect. Generally I finish my morning chores before the bees come out but, if they start showing up while I’m still puttering, I acknowledge that my turn is over and give them the space. My husband feels the same. He is reluctant to finish off our paver patio for fear he will trap one of our many resident lizards in the hidey holes they’ve dug in his work area. It may seem amusing, even ridiculous to some, but the past few days both of us have waited patiently in our deck chairs while white-tailed rabbits chomped on apples that have fallen from our trees. We are no more important than the bees, lizards, bunnies, and other wildlife in our garden. Every life is God-given. Every life matters. Moreover, from the wildlife’s perspective, the garden isn’t ours anyway. It’s theirs.

Give Back. For all intents and purposes, you can re-read “Share Love” and understand the meaning of “Give Back.” Every bit of care I give to my garden comes back to me in spades. The same is true when I take the time to share photographs of my roses on social media. There are people – perhaps not many but some – who tell me time and again that my posts bring cheer to their day. Especially in these turbulent times, when our lives are restricted and our futures uncertain, making someone smile is not such a small thing.

* * *

I may have gleaned these insights from my garden, but it should be no surprise that values like these easily apply to every aspect of life. No matter what hat I may be wearing at any given moment, I can fall back on my personal values to guide me. They are, in fact, instrumental to me as a writer, amateur photographer, and family historian. They help me daily to be the best wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend that I can be. Perhaps most importantly, they lead me as a citizen of this amazing planet.

I am shamelessly proud of my garden and endlessly grateful for the role it plays in my life. It’s not just a spot in the yard where I grow roses. It’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

No Wrong Color

Persistently, I try to take photographs in my garden that capture the joy of standing in its presence. No matter how much I work at it, no matter which camera settings or angles I experiment with, a two-dimensional picture is never going to make viewers see it the way I see it.

I think that’s what it must be like for people of color. They desperately want the white majority to see the world from their perspective. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s entirely possible, but it shouldn’t stop me – or anyone else – from getting as close as humanly possible to a 3D view.

My first real experience with racism was in 1966 at the tender age of 12. Tony Bellson and his sister, the adopted children of legendary singer Pearl Bailey, were the only Black kids in my Southern California elementary school. One day Tony asked me to go steady. I didn’t answer right away because I liked another boy, and Tony seemed to have a chip on his shoulder that I didn’t understand at the time. I asked a girlfriend what she thought I should do.

“He asked me, too,” she said. “I told him no.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he’s the wrong color,” she answered as though it should have been obvious.

Writing this now, I’m still in that moment – sitting in a sixth-grade size chair, at a sixth-grade size table, looking up at the trusted friend standing next to me, trying to get my head around what was just said. Wrong color? Wrong color? What’s wrong about a color?

My next conversation with Tony was to say yes. It wasn’t because I liked him the way a little girl should like the boy she holds hands with on the playground. It was to prove to everybody who saw us together that there was no such thing as a wrong color.

Flash forward 13 years and suddenly I was a 25-year-old idealist looking for my first job in journalism. I applied at a small newspaper that served Portland, Oregon’s Black community. For whatever reason, the couple who owned the business decided to take a chance on me. I was over the moon to get my first writing job, and even more over the moon because it was an opportunity to do something I thought was important – help give a voice to people who weren’t heard nearly enough.

I was so excited, and naïve, that I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be. It wasn’t the writing that was hard. It was being accepted by the people I was there to write about. Simply put, I was the wrong color.

For once, I was the one who was suspect. For once, I was the only white person in a meeting room or an auditorium full of Black people. For once, I had to listen. Really listen.

Eventually, I earned the trust of our readers by producing high-quality work that shed light on issues I never would have fully understood without the perspective that particular job gave me. I talked to people directly involved in and affected by school desegregation, employment discrimination, suppression of human rights in prison, systemic poverty, the brittle relationship between the Portland Police and the Black community, the fallout of the Indochina refugee crisis, and so much more. I got to know men who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the streets of hostile southern states. I interviewed one of Dr. King’s daughters. I went to a National Urban League convention in Los Angeles and met national civil rights leaders like Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young. It was a heady time.

Four years after I was hired, and not long before I left to take a promotion at another newspaper, I invited my mother to a large community event sponsored by my employer. I’ll never forget a conversation I overheard between her and Charles Jordan, the first Black commissioner elected to the Portland City Council. He was unusually tall with rich, toffee skin. She was rather short with a milky complexion. He looked down at her, smiled broadly when she said she was my mom, and paid me the best professional compliment I’ve ever received.

“Laurie’s tough, but she’s fair,” he said.

He didn’t say, “She’s white, but she’s fair.” It was a color-blind statement. I was no longer the wrong color to be working on a Black newspaper. I was just me.

I’m pretty sure that most Black people who read this will nod their heads and think, “Welcome to my world,” because that’s what their entire lives are like – always trying to prove that they are more than the color of their skin. Nevertheless, I’m convinced my story of a young, white reporter living for a while in a Black world is worth telling at this critical point in American history. Speaking up is not an option for me. It’s an obligation … no, it’s a privilege.

You may not have the opportunity to walk down someone else’s path like I did. But you can take a lesson from my garden where nearly every bush produces a different hue. Among the roses, there is no wrong color. Just different colors. Each one is beautiful individually, but when growing harmoniously in one garden … well … they’re nothing short of breathtaking.

Be the Old Man

When I shared the first roses from this year’s garden on my social media page, a dear friend posted a comment that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. Call her a gardener. The seed she planted has germinated and is about to bloom right here on this page.

Referencing the beauty of my photographs, she said simply, “The reward for years of hard work in your garden.”

Well, yes. Hard work usually does result in a reward. In my garden, it’s roses. In my writing, it’s a book or blog that touches a reader. In my efforts to be kind, it’s a grateful smile on someone’s face.

Simple, right?

Well, it was … until my friend’s words began to mingle with a recent declaration made by someone else I know.

At the end of a rather long conversation, we got around to comparing our respective purposes in life. I explained my intent to make the world a better place by being a positive force. He thought that was nice and all. A pebble tossed in the middle of a lake eventually produces ripples that reach the opposite shore. But it wasn’t enough for my conversation mate. He has visions of making a bigger splash. Ideally, the pebble he tosses will be more like a boulder.

While cleaning out flower beds this week – an exercise that inevitably sparks rumination – I thought about the different ways each of us impacts the world. Some of us are content if our ripples encircle our family and friends. Some seek opportunities to improve their community. Some would love to see their name in the history books if only they could come back someday and take a look.

Wait.

What if we could come back someday?

Before you dismiss the possibility, here’s my disclaimer. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation or an afterlife. Or that aliens might whisk you away and later bring you home to a planet that has aged while you haven’t. Or that time travel is possible.

The theory of how it might happen doesn’t matter. All you have to do is imagine you’re here, let’s say 80 years in the future. What do you want to see? How do you hope to live? What do you envision is different?

Maybe your heart’s desire is to finally see the natural wonders of this planet. Maybe you want to live in a world where cancer doesn’t claim the people you love. Maybe you envision great leadership that brings people and nations together. Or maybe you just want everyone to have enough to eat.

Close your eyes for a minute and think about what would make life great in the 22nd Century. It doesn’t have to be something from my examples. There are a million other things you could choose. The only caveat is that your vision must be something that benefits some or all of us and harms none.

Got it? Now imagine you have the power to make it so. How? By planting the metaphorical seeds that will grow your dream.

You want to see the natural wonders of the world? Work toward preserving them. You want cancer to be curable or, better yet, nonexistent? Support cancer research. What about great leadership? Be an example of great leadership now or lend a hand to organizations that nurture future leaders. Food? The ways you can impact the availability of food are virtually endless.

Don’t spend a single second fretting that you’re just one person. Only a lucky few have ever changed the world single-handedly. Remember, in this exercise, we have 80 years for our visions to unfold. Eighty years for my ripples of kindness to merge with other ripples and become the gold standard. Eighty years for great leaders to mentor greater leaders. Eighty years for your heart’s desire to materialize.

Of course, it would be magical if all the good we collectively want could appear before our eyes right here, right now. But shouldn’t we be working toward the world we desire anyway? Shouldn’t we want future generations to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

You’ve heard the Greek proverb. “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” The unspoken message is that someday someone else will enjoy the shade.

Imagine you’re the someone else. Then be the old man. It’s that simple.

 

You May Say I’m a Dreamer

Spring in the garden is rolling out just as Mother Nature intended.

The daffodils, crocus, and tulips were the first to emerge from their winter sleep, dotting the landscape with pastel splashes of hope. As they took their last bows, the crabapple trees and lilacs burst onstage with showy displays of pink, magenta, purple, and white. Today the moonlight and lydia broom are happily hosting honeybees in their cheerful, yellow blossoms. Perhaps tomorrow the roses will bloom.

Every year I watch this gradual awakening in amazement. Every living thing in the garden knows its purpose and its time. It’s the most harmonious thing I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a fine orchestra playing a classic symphony. The woodwinds, strings, percussion, and brass all have unique parts in the arrangement but somehow manage to blend together in consummate crescendo.

I’d like to say that this picture brings pleasant music to my heart and my lips – perhaps Pete Seeger’s 1962 Turn, Turn, Turn or John Denver’s 1971 Sunshine on My Shoulders. Normally, I think it would. But today it makes me sad – sad that the same sweet harmony I see in my garden is not likely to ever roll across humanity and push society forward in a way that benefits all.

All the hate and fighting that has tainted our world for centuries is finding fresh, new battlegrounds every day. Whether the issue is politics, religion, disease, natural disasters, power or money, humankind uses it as fodder for more division, more blame, more discord. It seems there is no appetite in this world for peace, or at least there is not enough hunger for it.

Even I – a self-described Pollyanna – am having trouble seeing a way out of the darkness that’s enveloping every corner of the planet. Each day it gets harder to look at the bright side of life, harder to share the joy that can still be found if we care to look for it. It’s disheartening, to be sure.

And yet, I persist. Because that is my purpose. I’ve spent most of my life trying to make the world a better place by helping others, writing stories laced with lessons, and otherwise letting my light shine. When God assigned me to this Earth, He put a pen in my pocket, a smile on my face, and a kind word on my lips. This is no time to throw away my tools and give up.

Like the plants in my garden and the instruments in an orchestra, I will continue to play my part. I can only hope that what I do – and what others like me also do – brings some measure of peace to this troubled world. Even if I write only one story that inspires someone, share one smile that comforts someone, or say one kind word that encourages someone, it will be worth the effort.

Maybe I’m ready for a song now. With thanks to John Lennon … “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

Love Is Contagious, Too

In the garden, caution is sometimes the only strategy to keep your rose bushes healthy.

The best example involves pruning. You don’t prune one rose bush and then move on to the next without sanitizing your shears. If you do, a virus that has covertly infected one bush is almost sure to spread through the entire garden. Certain viruses like witches broom (officially known as rose rosette) are so insidious that removing diseased bushes is considered the only recourse.

Knowing this, when health and government authorities told us all to repeatedly wash our hands, diligently sanitize surfaces, and stay home as much as possible to interrupt the spread of the corona virus, I wasn’t inclined to argue. Self-quarantine of individuals who’ve contracted the disease, but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized, also made sense.

But what does this mean once you’re actually surrounded by the same four walls and (if you’re lucky to have housemates) the same faces day after day?

Despite what the calendar says, spring has not arrived in the high desert of Northern Nevada so, even on mild days, there isn’t a great deal of work to do in the garden. Saturday night dinner with the kids and grandkids is not an option. Television loses its luster when there is almost a constant stream of bad news and you’ve watched all the new episodes of programs you like.

So here’s what we’re doing in our household.

Every day we try to limit our daily intake of the bad news. Instead, my husband and I check in with family and friends via telephone calls, texts, email, and Facebook. Not only does that keep things in perspective, it helps us feel less isolated from the people we love. We can’t physically go through this crisis together, but we can go through it together emotionally.

Every day we spend time working on projects that normally we only wish we had time to do. For me, that means I’m suddenly making rapid progress on the historical novel I started two years ago. Rewrites I thought would take months are taking days or weeks instead. And what a joy it is that someone who regularly critiques my work is now my partner in isolation and can make suggestions in real time.

Most importantly, every day I try to think of something positive I can do for someone else. Admittedly, there’s not a lot. The last time we went to the grocery store I made a point of cheerfully greeting everyone I saw (from a socially safe distance, of course). In addition, I resisted the urge to buy more than we really needed so other shoppers could buy what they needed, too. A few days ago, I checked on our older-than-us neighbors and made sure they had our telephone number if they should need help. Yesterday, I left a “thank you” sign on the door for the UPS driver who continues to make essential deliveries while the world goes crazy around him.

Perhaps as we get deeper into the pandemic, it will become more challenging to tolerate isolation, be productive, and stay positive. But I’m personally going to try with all my heart and soul to persist. I invite you to join me in that mission. Collectively, let’s do everything we can to interrupt the spread of the corona virus and, at the same time, make sure patience, kindness, and love spread unchecked all over the world.

For Opal

Winter is generally viewed as the rose garden’s season of rest and, therefore, the gardener’s.

This may be true for roses. The physiology of their purposeful hibernation reminds me of the grizzly and the groundhog. But it is not entirely true for the gardener.

In the high desert, where precipitation isn’t dependable, we keep a watchful eye on the weather. If it hasn’t rained or snowed measurably for a couple of weeks, we’re outside with the hose and watering can. If the wind scatters the mulch we so carefully spread in the fall, we’re likely to throw on a jacket and rummage around in the shed for a rake.

The roses don’t ask for this help. But they need it just as surely as they need pruning and fertilizer in other seasons. The key for the gardener is to pay attention.

The same is true for friendships.

It’s easy to respond when someone reaches out for a helping hand or a strong shoulder. How many of us have gladly sat with a friend during the grueling hours of chemotherapy, provided care for children or pets, cooked a meal, run an errand, or joined in a prayer chain at church or on social media?

But what about those friends who don’t reach out?

This month I lost a friend who I didn’t even realize was gravely ill. Oh, I knew she’d been diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago. But the last time we talked about it, she was in remission.

Her occasional posts on social media in recent weeks didn’t hint that anything was amiss — an eagle atop a flagpole, an old photo of her and her husband on their anniversary, family memories. Not a word about her health. And I didn’t ask.

Then came the news she had passed away. On her 66th birthday.

My sadness was magnified by my unintentional neglect. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for silence even when hundreds of miles separate you. A text is as easy to send, a call as easy to make, when you don’t know someone needs you as it is when you do.

This is my apology to Opal for not paying attention, for not sending that text. It’s also my heartfelt thanks to her for living a life that reminded me and all who knew her that it is good to be cheerful and kind, calm and wise, and that hope and laughter are always in season.

Opal, your long winter is over. It’s always springtime in Heaven. See you there one day, dear friend.

One Beautiful Thing

George Burns is a lovely, striped rose my sister bought for me a decade ago during one of her visits to Nevada. At the time, she wanted one for herself as well. That is, until the owner of the local nursery said the bush wouldn’t produce the same colors in Oregon.

This past season, George Burns was among the first of my rose bushes to recover from a late freeze and produce a bloom. I almost missed it since the bud formed in a sheltered niche among some low, leafy canes. I spotted it on the 7th of June just after it burst.

To my surprise, the flower was not the splash of red and white I’ve come to expect from this bush. It was red and yellow – the colors the nursery owner predicted for Oregon growers.

It didn’t take long to figure out the reason. It was the rain – lots of it – that came to the high desert over the winter and early spring. Mother Nature changed the pigment of the petals much like an artist adjusts the pigment of watercolors by adding more paint or more water to the canvas.

I don’t presume to understand the science of how a flower reacts to moisture in such a stunning way. All I know is that it clearly does. When I looked at the same blossom after 12 days of clear skies, with only our drip system sustaining the bush, the yellow had given way to almost pure white.

Whether one prefers red paired with yellow or paired with white on a George Burns bush is of little consequence in this story. Rather, it is the simple understanding that what any living thing receives in the way of sustenance will surely color its existence.

Knowing this puts a profound burden on we humans, don’t you think?

If we understand that what we consume plays a big role in determining our health, doesn’t it follow that we should choose what we eat and drink carefully? If we understand that words and deeds make a difference in how we feel and whether we thrive, doesn’t it follow that we should be kind to ourselves and, likewise, speak and act with kindness toward others?

Yet, too often we don’t behave in a way that reflects this understanding. We don’t treat ourselves or those around us with the care we should. The upshot is that we don’t live the best life we can, and we miss opportunities to lift others up so they have a better chance of living theirs.

It’s not a failure per se. It’s human nature – especially when a thousand random things in a fast-paced, complex world affect our actions and reactions.

Still, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could slow down, if only for a little while each day, to make sure we do at least one beautiful thing for ourselves and one beautiful thing for someone else?

Like the colors of my George Burns rose, the result could be stunning.