Thankful Thursday: Practicing What I Preach

Just thinking about the cabin brings me joy.

For several years I’ve read about Gratitude Journals, have talked with my students, friends, and family about this, and have practiced this strategy very casually—meaning I never actually write things down.

Here’s what I know: focused writing has the ability to reap many positive benefits. It can improve our sense of well-being, increase our feelings of satisfaction and happiness, even elevate the quality of our life and longevity. Who wouldn’t appreciate these outcomes?

I love to write, love to brainstorm ideas for writing pieces, love to read and revise, so I am not intimidated by a blank page. And I am usually a contented, happy person—I’m that glass-half-full friend who will offer some positive comment (and, unfortunately, an occasional platitude) that didn’t seem annoying (to me at least) until it hangs in the air above someone else’s cloud of sadness or frustration.

But the research on the benefits of this activity is so clear, that I’m committing to gratitude writing  at the end of each day.

I found this book, Three Moments a Day, to help me begin. The book’s setup seems very manageable: a quote appears on the left page, and spaces for three things “that brought me joy” appear on the right. (no need to fill a whole page, just create a list)

Joy, for me, is usually simple things that I pause and notice. Sunshine on my face, coffee with my mom, a child’s laughter. When things aren’t going well in my life or for people that I love, I try to find ways to slow down and to recognize some event or interaction that I can appreciate or be thankful for.

Sometimes it’s hard to find—especially during crisis or some kind of loss—but I have found that if I think about gratitude long enough, something positive—however small—will bubble to the top. Perhaps joy might be a bit strong—but if I substitute , “three things from today that I am thankful for”—I think it will work, even if I am not feeling particularly joyful.

I encourage you to buy a journal, find a spare notebook, or even use an index card to start the experiment with me: discovering (or rediscovering) joy through gratitude.

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: The Gardening Blues

Brunnera and fragrant hyacinths from tonight’s garden. The blue is so vivid that I can see the flowers from the window above my kitchen sink.

I love this plant–Brunnera–which I introduced to my garden probably ten years ago. The foliage is a lovely green (some varieties have a variegated green) and if I water a bit during a dry spell, the green lasts through the summer. Besides the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, the Brunnera blossoms are one of the first in the spring garden.

They began blossoming this weekend–somewhat like a forget-me-not, but the blue is even more vivid. The flowers will last for about two weeks and then fade.

Brunnera is a excellent choice for a shade garden.

They naturalize beautifully, and their offspring have moved to other shady areas of my garden. They are not aggressive and make a beautiful ground cover. They are so quiet and polite that I often forget about them until they bloom.

I am not bothered by deer as we live in the middle of a small subdivision, but several horticulture websites indicate they are deer resistant. If you have some shade in your garden, I recommend them.

They can be purchased at most local nurseries and are even available on Amazon.

It’s a Fine Life.

May Day

Daisies appear in our Michigan gardens in later May. Photo by seavercreative.com

When we were in first grade, my friends and I sat cross-legged, watching the sixth graders sing and wrap ribbons around a makeshift pole in the tiny Fulton Elementary School gymnasium. Our patient music teacher, Mrs. Morley, played some brisk, cheerful number on the old upright piano, and the smiling, pony-tailed girls and the embarrassed, blushing boys ducked and wrapped and circled in time to the music as they sang their springtime song. It was the first time I had heard of a Maypole, and we were mesmerized by this May-Day-Drama. It seemed so intricate—the boys circling one way, the girls the other. And how I loved those May Day ribbons, and how I longed to be old enough to join in this dance.

I had no idea this tradition existed: May Day to me was all about flowers and “surprising” my mother and grandmother with little May Day nosegays.

A lovely cottage garden in June.
Photo by seavercreative.com

Flowers can be scarce in Michigan on May 1st. Some years we have heavy snows the first or second week of April. Spring frosts can nip tender flowers, and cold weather can delay even the buds.  Some years it was a challenge to gather enough blooms. My tiny bouquets were mostly wild purple violets, perhaps crab-apple blossoms, sometimes sweet Lily-of-the-Valley, and, of course, brilliant yellow dandelions, which quickly wilted in my little hands.

Perched like a queen on top of the hill, my grandmother lived within sight of my bedroom window.  I loved walking to her house—quail hid in the tall grass at the end of her driveway, a pussy willow bush awaited the pinch of my fingers, and the gravel crunched delightfully under my shoes. Up her driveway was the only place I was allowed to walk alone, and my grandma’s smile—and sometimes a raspberry-filled Archway cookie–waited.

My brothers were never interested in leaving flowers on Grandma’s doorstep, knocking sharply, and running to hide behind a nearby tree. (If it had involved rigging water-balloons above her doorway they would have been all in.) I remember my grandmother’s exclamation (loud enough so that I could hear it around the side of her garage) “What is this!” and my excitement in surprising her.

My bouquets for my grandmother never contained anything this lovely.
Photo by seavercreative.com

I didn’t pass this tradition on to my own children, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps, as a society, we aren’t as comfortable running on property uninvited—even if the homeowner might be a relative or close neighbor. Perhaps, there are more things children are involved in today. Or perhaps, I simply forgot.

But I just might encourage my grandchildren to embrace this forgotten practice. Oh how I love a dandelion bouquet collected by sweet little hands. Don’t you?

It’s a Fine Life.

Thankful Thursday: Conveniences

Today I am thankful for three specific things: working indoor plumbing, helpful neighbors, and my handy-man husband.

Last Sunday, the pump in our basement sprang a leak and began spewing water into the basement. So for twenty-four hours, we were without water in the house: that means no showers, laundry, or functioning toilet. (Working plumbing is something I just take for granted. It’s only when I don’t have it that I realize its convenience and importance.)

My happy handy-man last summer at a family wedding.
Photo by AnthonyLindemanPhotography

I am thankful for neighbors who offered their shower facilities–which we gladly accepted.

I am also thankful for my handy-man husband who stopped the leak before significant damage occurred, diagnosed the problem, and fixed the pump.

Life is normal again.

Thankful Thursday.

Monday Musings: Setting the table

Tonight, I ready our home for the monthly meeting of the Lake Effect Writers Guild, and tomorrow I will light the candles and welcome my writer friends to my table. I love the preparations: the laying of the tablecloth, the polishing of the glassware, the arranging of each place.

My grandmother’s pressed glass and my parents’ wedding china.

There is something spiritual in this for me–a deliberate focusing on these relationships and an honoring of our friendship through the planning of this time together. I use my special things–table linens, my grandmother’s pressed glass, my parents’ china–and I think about each of my beautiful friends who will sit in the candlelight, enjoying a glass of wine and fellowship.

I love to set the table.

My Hometown

Winter on Main Street in my hometown, Vicksburg, Michigan.
All photos by seavercreative.com

It’s a fine life. It’s true.  No, it isn’t exactly Mayberry, but living in Vicksburg, Michigan is mighty fine. We are surrounded by rich farmland, small lakes, and carefully tended hardwoods. We grumble about the winter weather, but we love hunkering down for a snowstorm which closes schools, brings neighbors together, and encourages family dinners.

No, it’s not perfect, but with the blessed arrival of warmer weather, life in our village is close to it.

One of the first blossoms of spring, captured by my dear friend, Leeanne Seaver

Dear Spring is here, and she’s always worth the wait.  She unpacks her unique fragrances, early flowers, and blissfully longer days. She calls to us, inviting us to shed our warm coats and our thick sweaters. We enter her sweet season, squinting and yawning from our winter hibernation. The red-winged blackbirds trill in my yard, and I watch for the bluebirds’ return to the boxes in our neighborhood. Soon my neighbor’s children will chirp happily, riding their bikes, running in their yard, and learning to work it out as all children must do. Twenty-five years ago, those were the cheerful voices of our children. Kickball, soccer, and tag games flattened our grassy yard, while the sandbox and playsets occupied the shady corners.

My four brothers and I grew up on our family farm, with the daily “you kids need to get outside” directive from our mother. Once outside, we played enthusiastically, exploring the fields and woods without much—if any–supervision. We spent our summers finding frogs in the reeds of the ditches, collecting fire flies in the June grass, and building straw forts in the old hay barn. Exhausted by day’s end, we slumped drowsily in old lawn chairs on the screen porch, listening to Ernie Harwell.

Freedom. Innocence. Simplicity.

It’s hard to explain my emotions when I see our empty elementary school.

We attended Fulton Elementary School, which still stands, abandoned and neglected. The same swing sets and concrete tiles stand vigil, alone and aging in the wild grass. I imagine the echoes of my friends’ laughter in the old hallways, the swish of the jump rope at recess, and the savory smell of Mrs. Harrison’s school lunch as it seeped under classroom doorways. Here I made my first friends, learned the playground rules, and raced through the math workbooks to re-enter the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Anna Sewell’s National Velvet.

How can it be that fifty years have passed?

Each changing season reminds me of this fast-forward of time and nudges me to slow my pace, to put away my technology, and to reconnect with the people I care about. I am determined to take a break this spring and to be thankful for simple things–the crocus’s stretch towards the sun, the warming of the sweet earth, the swans’ parades on Sunset Lake.

And to appreciate the most important things: family, friends, and our little hometown.

It’s a Fine Life.

(This column first appeared in the April edition of the South County News. You can follow them at southcountynews.org)

Thankful Thursday: The Wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh

Saying goodbye to my dad was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My mom, brothers, and I surrounded him as he left this life–it was gentle, quiet, and intimate.

We knew that he wasn’t going to get better, and he clearly was ready—tired of the physical pain and struggle he experienced in the last months of his life. He looked at me directly, took my hand, and spoke of this. I honor and respect that.  He had lived a great life, maintaining and farming the land he loved. He and my mother had created a strong marriage and family, and he had enjoyed many, many friendships. 

Dad in one of his favorite places–the cab of a tractor.

I know all these things, yet this passage into a life without my dad is painful and hard to navigate.

But I am reminded of gratitude with words of wisdom from our dear Winnie the Pooh. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” How true. I am lucky to have had such an amazing dad, to have been born into a family with such a commitment, and to have had my dad’s unconditional love and guidance for nearly sixty years.

Yes, Pooh, I am lucky, so very lucky.

Thankful Thursday.

Monday Musings: Spring is here!

We made it! Spring has arrived!

As I walk the yard this Monday evening, the grass is suddenly greener and a few of my spring bulbs are blossoming.

Hallelujah!

The birds are “twitter-pating” and collecting nesting materials, I hear the spring peepers in the marsh on my way to the grocery, and we will sleep with our windows slightly open tonight.

No, we can’t put away the sweaters and wool socks yet, as by Wednesday they predict a high of forty-five here in Southwest Michigan, but it feels like we survived winter, that we’ve come out the other side of the darkness.

My northern Michigan family and friends are still waiting for a day like this. Know it is coming, dear ones!

It’s a Fine Life

Grace

My dad was a tree guy.

He planted them, admired them, and appreciated them for the firewood he cut to heat our farmhouse. In our yard, we always had shady trees, planted by my great-grandparents in the early 1900’s. To the west of the house stood old, knobby pear trees—overgrown and shaggy—whose fruit bounced to the ground with the late summer winds, attracting all kinds of stinging insects. In the front and back yards, we had big maples which we climbed like monkeys, fearlessly scaling the highest branches. We read books in the branches, pretended to take naps, and gave my mother fits when she emerged from the house, realizing how high we had climbed.

Two old trees stand vigil along the road. When I was a child, there were three, and my brothers and I played and built forts beneath them. (all photos courtesy of Oswalt Family Farms)

“Expand! Expand! Expand!” was the farm lending mantra during the late sixties and early seventies, giving confidence to my parents who purchased an adjoining eighty-acre parcel just to the west of our home place. This acreage was divided neatly by fence-rows into four twenty-acre fields. My dad planned to remove the fence-rows, full of sumac and various determined seedlings, to accommodate the farm implements which were growing vigorously larger and larger with the ag-industry’s push for more production.

Dad bought a small used bulldozer and began his demolition work with enthusiasm. We could hear the bulldozer’s engine and the cracking of the fence-rows’ brush as we rode our bikes back and forth, monitoring his progress. Dreaming of running his corn planter smoothly down long rows the following spring, he uprooted trees, burned huge brush piles, and worked steadily to create a large field.

The Angus are pastured on part of the field my dad cleared. While you see many cottonwood trees here, the year before my dad died, he was working daily to clear the dead and damaged trees from this area.

Once the dust settled, the smoke cleared, and the roaring bulldozer’s engine quieted, one tree stood alone in the middle of the huge, cleared field. I imagine it grew firmly in a fence row when my father and Uncle John were boys. It may have been an anchor for fencing, possibly a mark for a previous neighbor’s gate, or even a visual aid to help set a pattern for corn planting. It most certainly sheltered birds, housed squirrels, and supported the buzzards.

Somehow my dad’s grace allowed this old fellow to co-exist in our farm operation. It stood solidly in the middle of whatever my dad planted: corn, wheat, soybeans, even hay. Why did this one tree survive the bulldozer and chainsaw? I’m guessing my dad just couldn’t bring himself to cut that old gentleman down.

Here is the old tree, still surviving and enduring the winter, as the Angus move around him.

When I was a child, the tree was regal and handsome—his trunk thick and healthy, branches strong and many, and leaves lush and green. He became our favorite “secret spot.” Some breezy summer days, my mom would give us permission to pack our lunch and eat wherever we wanted. The tree wasn’t far—probably a quarter mile up the road on our bikes, then a quick hike through the field to picnic beneath his branches. It was cool in his shade, and around his base my dad had piled many loads of stones we gradually picked from the surrounding field.

I’m now a tree gal—influenced, I’m sure, by my dad’s passion for them: I admire the lone Gingko tree on the empty lot north of the bank, whose history is now forgotten; I am amazed by the massive beech tree on the east side of the Sunset Lake, whose totem pole trunk is carved with bark faces; and I notice the local tulip tree population, whose teacup blossoms grace their cool springtime arms.

And every time I visit my mother, I salute the tree, that tough old veteran, a reminder of my past and my dad’s impractical, sentimental side.

It’s a Fine Life.

Vintage Sisters

Here we are on a Spring Break outing. We went adventuring in Kalamazoo that day.

We are vintage gals. Sisters of the heart. Friends who love the hunt for vintage treasures. Several times a year we have an adventure. We hit the resale and antique shops, visit a micro-brewery or two, and enjoy our friendship. On these days, I don’t think there are three happier women anywhere on the planet.

How these adventures began:

Annette and I began our junking tours ten years ago by paying for a day-long bus trip. We paid nearly $200: this fee included a bagged lunch and breakfast, coffee and on-board cocktails, dinner at a nice restaurant, and arranged visits at antique malls and shops. We loved the time together, and we were treated like queens. It was awesome! The following year, we again handed over our $200 and went along for the all-included jaunt. But when the third summer approached, we decided the two of us could manage this without the bus service. And we did–less the cocktail sipping during drive time. And by the fifth year, Krista joined us.

How we plan our day:

I often do the planning and drive. I guess I like doing that (perhaps it’s the bossy big sister in me) and my friends don’t seem to mind. While we enjoy our traveling conversation, road time is not where we want to spend the majority of our day. Southwest Michigan has many wonderful antique malls and shops–so we can create a 2 1/2 to 3 hour loop, and within that route we can visit multiple villages or outlying antique stores. If we take the adventure in the late summer, farm stands (and pies) wait at roadside.

Enjoying a day together several years ago at a regional brewery.

Wonderful micro-breweries and distilleries which serve a delicious meals are also plentiful in our area. No Vintage Sister adventure is complete without brew sampling and sharing delicious foods together.

Also, many small towns feature unique little cafes and restaurants (which feel rather upscale without an upscale price). Their menus feature local produce, meats, breads, desserts, and wines. All three of us are foodies, and we love trying some new flavors and combinations.

What it costs:

Granola bars, nuts, and water. ($5)

Lunch at a brewery ($20-30)

Supper at a brewery or local restaurant ($20-40)

Gas $25

Vintage and Antique Treasures: We might spend whatever is in our budget that day, but we have saved probably $125 from the cost of the bus trips Annette and I began with ten years ago.

But by far, the best deal is the time spent together.

What we look for and find:

We each collect and admire different things, which is part of what makes these times together so much fun. Krista is a true artist and art teacher. She sees color and possibility in items I often overlook. Annette is a master gardener and also very artistic–her tastes run towards rusty metals and unique architectural pieces, which I have never considered before.

I love the ease of decorating the holiday tables with these vintage vanity trays. There are several styles and shapes. I prefer the oval.

I have started collecting, using, and gifting these vintage vanity trays. I first realized their potential at a niece’s wedding where each table was decorated with these lovely old trays, filled with tiny clear vases, small blossoms, and sparking votive holders. The effect was stunning. I can usually find them for $10-15 at resale or antique shops. They are imperfect–dinged and worn–but who isn’t? These imperfections add character.

If you want to try decorating with a tray and don’t have time to vintage shop, there are beautiful new vanity trays available on Amazon.

The Benefits:

My dear Lake Effect Writers Guild friends at our retreat last summer. We have been meeting monthly for five years. It is something we all make a priority, and we look forward sharing an evening together.

The research is clear: supportive relationships contribute positively to our longevity and overall sense well-being. We are simply happier when we have “people” and times with our people to put on our calendars. We all need activities to look forward to. This can be created in many ways: service groups, hobby groups, clubs, or sports groups are a few ideas.


Looking Ahead:

Summer is nearly here, and I have a new route in mind for our next adventure. (I do welcome a suggestion from you, dear reader, if you frequent a vintage or antique shop!)

We haven’t yet set the next date, but I will have the tank filled, cooler packed, and a heart full of happiness.

It’s a Fine Life.

A Resource: Clicking the image will take you to Amazon.

Here is a book I’ve read about longevity and happiness. It was quick and easy to read, helping me appreciate the value and importance of relationships. I recommend it.