Letter From Home: “Lessons From A Sunflower” 8/31/21

Last winter when the pandemic was racing across the nation I considered ideas that would alter the landscape of our gardens come summer. One way I coped with the sadness of news from hospitals and the ever-increasing number of people we lost to the virus was opening up seed catalogs and planning. Planning big!

Or in the case of my hopes with sunflowers, planning tall.

I love sunflowers, the brighter the yellow, the larger the bloom, the bigger the smile on my face.

When we first moved into our home I planted a long row of sunflower seeds alongside my neighbor’s garage, which abuts our property. The place was perfect with ample sunshine. They anchored themselves to the soil so securely that come fall there was no way to pull them out. Digging their roots out was the only way to remove them.

The glorious tall heads had a variety of birds darting about, with the goldfinches being my favorite as they pecked away while perched upside down. Blue jays were a part of my childhood, but the only time I have had a number of them in our yard was when the sunflowers seeds were ready to be plucked. Some say they are mean birds, but their grand color always gives them a pass in my book.

So with three large packets of a variety of seeds purchased via the mail, I awaited spring.

What I had not factored into my winter-time plotting was the growth of the nine trees we have planted since moving in 2007. One of them came to us our first spring, placed in a large bucket and carted in a wheelbarrow. The man lived a few houses down on our block.

“Welcome to the neighborhood!

That sugar maple was shorter than I was, but now it towers higher than our three-story home. That along with a red pine, spruce, two Pagoda Dogwoods, Pin Oak, Honey Locust, a crab apple tree, and a lilac bush pruned to look more like a tree means that when it came for staking out places with lots of sunshine…..well, I need more space!

So back to the now limited area where my memories of past sunflowers were raised. Alongside the neighbor’s garage.

I planted and watered and remarked to James each day the progress of their germination.

At this point, I should mention my soft-hearted nature when it comes to wild animals. Each winter I put out food for the bunnies. James even felt they needed a better place to stay so fashioned a large rose cone into a bunny home with a straw ground cover. I bought high-fat nuts and even a cheap metal baking pan so as to not just toss their meals into the snow.

I thought of all those little niceties we did over the winter each morning as I soon noticed the sunflower’s fresh green growth had been munched completely off! What to do?

I brought up some of the fencings we use for winter protection of plants and soon had the next freshly planted seeds–thankfully I had ordered large packets–protected from anything that could go wrong.

Right?

Wrong.

In our Catalpa tree this year we had a large squirrel nest with cute little tykes running about. The tree is not far from the sunflowers, or more to the point of this story, from the roof of the neighbor’s garage.

So as my seedlings now truly did grow and reach high up above my head with growth…

…the new squirrels would launch themselves off the roof and land on the top portion of a sunflower, their weight snapping the plant down and thus ending the hope of a bloom. The one pictured was soon taken down by a squirrel. None of those large plants in the back of the house would blossom this year.

BUT, there was a sunflower at our home that did bloom–numerous times in fact– and truly makes for a point about life.

On the front lawn is where we have some of our Adirondack chairs. During street updating several years ago the city constructed a stone wall at the edge of our property that at the corner point is 18 inches tall. It was at that spot in the landscaped portion of a flower bed that one of the animals dropped a sunflower seed. Perhaps it was one from the winter bird feeding, or perhaps one that was dug up on the backside of the house this spring.

The plant took off with ever-increasing growth. Higher, stronger, and then I noticed it was a variety with multiple blooms. Sitting on the lawn and looking straight ahead constantly places this wonder in view.

All my planning and work to create a garden plot had come to naught. But Mother Nature with ease and grace planted a seed, did not require a daily update, and placed it near thorny bushes that little animals are not very fond of.

The lesson from that sunflower is two-fold.

First, perhaps in life, we overthink things.

Second, life continues to be at its best with simple unexpected events.

And so it goes.

Letter From Home “The Dryer Is Empty!” 2/23/21

The past year was the most challenging of our lifetime. I can attest that at this home we were very pleased, due to the pandemic and harsh politics, to turn the calendar and start 2021. But then came January 6th which was dreadful.  The bitter cold seemed unforgiving with its duration. The pacing of the vaccines has caused consternation. While I am an optimistic person by nature it is not difficult to understand why there are times when I need to reach out for the things in life which make for a lifting of the spirit.

The other day in the midst of just random routine household tasks James shouted, “The dryer is empty!” I ran to the place where it seemed someone had absconded with our clothes to find my better half smiling as he placed the wet clothes from the washer into the other machine. “I can not recall the last time the washer was to be emptied and the dryer was not full.”

And we laughed.

That night James made the account his daily written record for something positive and amusing. Since January 1st he has used a Smithsonian Engagement Calendar to put in writing a daily uplifting moment that occurred in our lives.  The written summary now includes such nuggets as an eagle sitting serenely in a neighbor’s tree, a 10 month-old who climbed up on a low-rising rock wall on our property while looking like King of his world, or how we opened a door and the bitter cold air turned our indoor air to steam as it drifted outside…which made opening and closing the door a few more times essential! 

The point of this daily written exercise is to take notice of the small things in life that do go according to plan, or the events that just materialize in front of our eyes and create smiles. With the pandemic still in stride across the nation, there will doubtless be times when looking back on past entries will be required to put a bit of a lift in our steps.

Each day there are myriad examples of worthy moments on which to reflect and smile. Today, the first outside enjoyment of a cup of coffee for 2021 occurred as the temperature reached 50 degrees on our balcony. I had removed large chunks of snow that were compacted there only yesterday and the dropping of them over the edge was cathartic as they crashed and obliterated upon impact. Overnight the melting and drying continued to the point that James sat with his tea, while I drank java as the sun warmed us. The outdoor season has started!

Two weeks ago as the sun was setting and the sky was pinkish-orange I looked out towards the State Capitol. I had looked that way countless times from our top floor but it was only that day when I stopped and just stared as the fading light of day was visible through the windows at the top of the dome. For me, it was an impressive sight. And I just enjoyed it as the light dimmed and ebbed away.

As we move through this year the national and state headlines of the day will be daunting at times. On a personal level, the urge to get back to what was our routines prior to the virus will surely increase as the sun climbs higher in the sky. But it is our determination to see those little moments that exist every day around us and take note of them. We may not have the same outings and social gatherings of the kind we engaged in two years ago but we plan to have as many smiles and reasons to laugh.

And so it goes.

Letter From Home “Old-Timer’s Saying” 1/30/21

“Sure does feel stormy today.”

To me it was a fact given the brisk wind and moisture in the air, but also my way to break the ice as I gave my name to the young man who was to place the ordered groceries in the trunk of the car. He got my name but said he was not sure what I meant about a storm.

“You can feel the storm that is soon to arrive.”

He rather shrugged his shoulders and with a mask on there was no way to tell if he understood what I was conveying or just wishing to move along with his job.

As I stood outside my car, and some distance away to give him space, I heard the murmur of the winds in the trees that surrounded the neighborhood where the store is located. The fluffy snow that had fallen earlier this week was seeping off the store roof and blowing about so to make for a super-thin coating on a nearby sidewalk. I looked up at the cloudy gray skies as the occasional snow dusting from the roof landed on my hat and coat. It looked like and felt akin to the yesterdays of my youth.

That sifting movement of the snow was seen so often wafting off the roofs of our home and the ‘barn’ in Hancock. Hearing the wind in the trees I could almost see the tall pines of my youth, their snow-covered branches moving about as the winter gusts had their way.

And I thought about the young man, who was making the delivery of the groceries to the car, with my deep appreciation for his work during this pandemic. It probably did not register at all with him as to what a storm feels like. I have often encountered that people in an urban environment have a far different connection to weather than folks who live in the country. Having come from a rural upbringing that feel in the air, the clouds that are associated with the seasons, or the switch in wind direction were parts of our lives. Part of the reason for being so attuned was that decades ago people would follow the forecast and then shape their work projects around the weather.

I can recall countless times when weeding the garden was planned after the latest storm was to pass over as the wet ground would allow for the pesky plants to be ripped out with ease. Likewise, there was always a meal more suited for a stormy winter night where the warmth of the oven being on for hours would add to the comfort of the family home.

Those same patterns of living have followed me over the decades. Ham is slated for our home on the isthmus Sunday, and all the mundane projects–like picking up the groceries– are completed so that a nice winter day can be enjoyed. Though it should be noted, that in the past year of this virus driving to the store seems almost like an outing. That is either a mighty sad statement, or can be viewed as finding the upside in a different type of storm.

As a boy in winter, I loved to get bundled up and head outdoors. “Run around the house a few times and get rid of your energy” seemed to be repeated request from Mom. Or was that an order? One of the greatest thrills on really wintry days was to venture around the house and head in a southwesterly direction, from where some of the best winter storms came. Gathering moisture over the panhandle region and mixing with the cold air moving down from Canada were the essential ingredients for a massive snow event that might make central Wisconsin look like the perfect picture postcard.

I can still see the sky colored a grayish-dark blue and the horizon blurred with a foggy whitish hue. The blowing snow came in sheets and the blasts that drove them would take my breath away as I made the turn around the family home. I would struggle to reposition my head and gasp for a breath, and then again face the onslaught of wind and walk into the snow piles that drifted in the same place where summer picnics would have occurred the previous July.

It takes those types of experiences bundled over a lifetime that allows for a person to step off the front stoop, look upwards, feel the air, and know that it “Sure does feel stormy today.”

And so it goes.

Letter From Home “Grandma’s Storm” 6/29/20

I again read my letter penned to Grandma Schwarz in late winter 1977.   The multi-page missive was written over four days and covers a range of topics, but what strikes me these decades later is each day brought her up to date on the weather conditions from Hancock. I informed her “been having snowy, cloudy days” and that it “reminds me of when Mom talked about in Arkansas where it would snow and then be gone the next day”.

I alerted her three days later, much to the chagrin of mom, that I had passed a safety test for shop class, and was all set to run the machines for wood-working.   Oh, and of course that “the weekend sure is supposed to be nice and warm….”

What amuses me as I read the letter, other than my penmanship was pretty good long before the age of the computer ruined it, was Grandma was not on some faraway island needing to be updated on our weather.  She was only in Iowa with relatives!

I have been told by more than one person, who did not grow up in the Midwest, that we talk about the weather more than folks from other regions of the country.  I have never read any poll or anecdotal evidence to know if this is true, but I know that weather seems to never tire as a topic.  And for good reason.

Today Madison experienced what we would have called back home a ‘gully-washer’ as the skies simply opened up and sheets of rain dumped itself for about 20 minutes.   The homes next door were veiled by the intensity of the storm.  There is no way not to be awed by such weather or be pulled to the window or out on the back porch so to watch it.  Feel it.

During a hail storm of some duration in 2005, when James and I lived on the West Side of Madison, I took the umbrella and experienced the drama on our lawn.  The dotted appearance of the lawn is from the number of ice pellets, and the expression and hand motion clearly shows my glee with the storm.

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I came to know storms should be watched up close from Grandma, as I wrote in Walking Up The Ramp.

We find that often elusive sense of security in a loved one’s embrace. Mother felt safest when she had all of us tucked in under her wings in the basement. Her mother, my Grandma Schwarz, was a bit different. Weather phenomena were something she also enjoyed, but I need to state right up front that I never saw her willingly walk out into a rainstorm or a gale. I do recall standing with her, her arm around my shoulder, at the screen door of her home. She left the door ajar during what my childish understanding thought to be a massive storm. The crashing thunder and bolts of lightning were grand, but there was nothing to fear if Grandma herself was willing to be there in the midst of it all.

I had never experienced a storm in that way before, watching it descend all around, viewing it up close and personal. I absolutely loved the way Grandma watched it, and knew this type of fun could be had at our home too. The question became, of course, how do I convince Mom that letting me ride out the storm from above ground would be a good idea? I knew instinctively that the “But Grandma said…” path of argumentation would likely not produce the results I hoped. My plan would take more thought than that. Moments spent watching storms with Grandma demonstrated two things. The first was that weather was clearly something to be enjoyed, and secondly and perhaps most importantly weather can be viewed up close even when it is wild and unpredictable. That understanding is something I have carried with me every day of my life.

When I was a teenager, and with the aid of our state’s inter-loan library service, I read books about clouds and storms and all the things that made me continuously smile.  Over the past months, with a pandemic changing our daily lives, I have had extra time to explore topics that amuse me.  I pulled a textbook from one of my shelves about meteorology and have been taking my time to again walk through the reasons behind what makes me, as an adult, still smile.

After I had been working in radio broadcasting for a few months,  I was talking with Grandma in her house trailer.  She asked what I liked best about my job and I told her alerting listeners to the watches and warnings from wild weather was something to be very much enjoyed.  There were many parts of broadcasting that warmed my heart, but imparting some drama, and even a touch of the wondrous side of weather, was surely something that my listeners had not heard before.

As the rain fell heavy today on the isthmus and the lightning lit up the gray clouds I thought of Grandma.  She would have enjoyed the storm.  As such, I just had to write this blog post.

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Letter From Home “New Perch” 6/19/20

James and I could never have known a year ago how important it would be to finalize the purchasing of the rest of our home and then commence on the restoration, refurbishing, and updating that took place through the fall.  We were ecstatic that the pieces all fell into place last summer with the sale, and the electricians and folks with skills were available to make the needed changes.  The pandemic which struck this winter and has carried through into the heat of June means the additional space is of utmost importance.

I never had a treehouse as a child, and would not necessarily term the second-floor balcony as such.  However, being up among the nearby trees, green leaves, and strong branches does give me a sense of what many a child might have called a playhouse. The birds which dart about and land on the wooden sides of the balcony, while chirping incessantly does give a feeling of being in ‘their territory’. From time to time a hawk will arrive on one of the large branches of a terrace tree looking for lunch.  Sparrow type birds are always enjoying pecking around in the rain gutters, and orioles have nested somewhere near as they are always flitting about.

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A year ago the balcony was in dire need of repair and refurbishing. Following power washing and some replacements, we applied wood preservative. The two coats of white primer followed by two coats of New England Blue gave it that look and feel that was truly required.  In the previous summers we had sat on the lawn and participated with all those who pass by our corner lot, but with the virus about, and too few people adhering to the advice of medical professionals, we have moved our ‘outdoor space’ to the new balcony.  Still with a view of the lake and ample sun means that we have adapted to a new normal.

And there are new pleasures.

Today the catalpa tree is in full bloom on one end of the balcony. The humidity and closeness of the air allowed for the perfumed aroma of the blooms to hang and linger about.  I do not recall another season of these blooms to have been as fragrant, or as remarkable, as this one.  In part, that is due to being so much closer to the blooms and also having a truly humid day to hold the aroma around the house.  I noted even the neighbors were enjoying the scented blooms as they sat and talked.

Of those who live in my area, and that I chat with, not one has taken to eating restaurant food or getting caught up with the gleeful delusion that many of our fellow Madisonians seem too willing to be caught up in.  We know that the pandemic of 1918 was followed by 1919.  There were three serious blows at that time from the virus.  We are not even finished with the first round in the nation as I write this post.

Therefore it is incumbent upon those who decide to be safe to find places where life can continue.  And when that spot is found smiles will follow.

I write with the afternoon smile still on my face.

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Letter From Home “Togetherness” 6/3/20

Anna, the oldest woman in our neighborhood lives kitty-corner to us, remaining the quiet and reserved person I have known her to be since moving into our home.  She has lived her roughly 90 years in this area, and still speaking fluent Greek, refers to James and me with our Greek names.  Her husband, from an arranged marriage as done in ‘the old country’, just calls us “the boys”.  That homey expression always sounds comforting, and also seems to fit with my inner kid who has never grown up.

Anna was weeding her always bright and cheerful front garden beds as I mowed this week. Seeing her bent over pulling the weeds as the scent of freshly cut grass wafted about made me smile.  And think back over the decades to dad mowing back home at the same time mom would be making her flower beds free of weeds; looking good for the folks who drove up and down our country road in Hancock.

Sam and Anna have the type of marriage Paul Harvey would have given notice to on his radio broadcasts years ago. Strong, durable, based on common connections and a lifetime of shared memories.  As my mower was turned and headed back down the terrace James came into view, wearing thick gloves as he removed a few wayward rose shoots that had ventured off from the main plant.  His five-gallon pail was full of all sorts of weeds and clippings.   As I mowed, listened to music, and took in the sights while turning up one way on the lawn and terrace and then down another, I am sure a smile crossed my face.  No one could see it as I wore a mask.  But this is the life I always wanted.

In my late teenage years, and with firmer understanding in my early twenties, I knew I wanted a stable relationship, a home life that reflected parts of what I knew growing up, and a shared experience with someone who was truly interesting.  Unlike my siblings, I had many years for a dating life.  My brother got married soon after high school and my sister at age 25. They both moved within miles of the family home.  I sensed their resentment about my being free; following my dreams and moving away from the rural area of our youth.

Any gay person fully understands why we move away from rural communities. Let us count the reasons!  But for me, there was also the need to be caught up with new ideas and able to experience exciting opportunities that only a large metropolitan area provides.  For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame never visited my hometown.

By the time I met James I was secure with who I was and ready for the life I have known for the past twenty years.  We had our anniversary during the shelter in place orders as the pandemic continued.  We discussed the years that passed, my hairline that slipped away, and in so doing underscored why laughter is an essential ingredient in any lasting relationship, and why mutual priorities about life are key to decades of togetherness.

As gay teens, we were not sure the lives we wanted to live were attainable.  There was nothing to suggest for him in Maine, or me in Wisconsin, that it would be acceptable or even safe to live authentically.  So much has changed in recent decades, and from a historical point of view, it happened in a short time—though for me it never felt fast.  That desire for family life, the front lawn, neighbors, and just ‘being ordinary’ was so real and strong that now having it means we do not take it for granted.

I took the turns back and forth with the mower while scanning James, our home, the lady across the street, and meshed that all with the memories, dreams, and unknowns from over the years. When all is said and done, at the end of the day, there is nothing more meaningful or delightful than togetherness.

Letter From Home “Making It Through” 5/2/20

The past few months have been a historic stretch for the world.  As I write this blog post we are nearing 65,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19. Though we get up each day and know we have lived months of this crisis, there also at times are fleeting sensations that at some point we will just wake up from this nightmare. This can not possibly be real!  Others seem in denial and tell us that in time we all will just get back to normal.

We are not going to wake up from this, as if from a horrible dream, nor will we revert to living our lives as if this was last May.  Everything is different and will be for years.  Just as we can no longer, following 9/11, saunter into an airport and watch planes land with our loved ones on board, so there will be massive changes to how we live our lives as a result of this pandemic.

The weight of this crisis is overwhelming.  The misery and trauma from emergency rooms where nurses took video for national newscasts, to the refrigerated storage trucks that held an ever-growing number of corpses gripped us all.  We witnessed the implosion of the economy with statewide mandated shutdowns where tens-of-millions of workers were left stranded from their next paycheck.

I am by nature a very upbeat person, one that looks for a way to see how things can work out.  When hearing news of someone being sick I always ask about the appetite of the one under the weather and point out that having a desire for this-or-that food item is a good sign. When things are a bit more difficult, due to illness, I make the recommendation for a potato soup as it is perfectly suited for such times.  I just always have a need to let others know there is a reason to smile.  It is part of my DNA.

But there was no way to self-apply that same mental uplift for me over the past weeks.  Being a news junkie I had to keep up to date on events, had to check on the latest headlines countless times over the course of a day.  But I was not able to turn my feelings into energetic walks of the type we would normally engage in at the end of each day.  There was no lawn to mow or holes to dig for a tree or new plant.  I was mostly taking in the images and awful news reports and having no way to release my emotions which ranged from sadness to outright anger at how the national government failed our citizens.

It was then I made a determined effort to pull myself away from the news for the bulk of each afternoon, and instead put my attention into the life and times of Winston Churchill.  I juggled two books about his incredible life and also his masterful touch during the pulling of his nation together during the 50-plus day bombing by Germany.  The horrors of the bombing might seem an odd tonic in an attempt to lighten the stress of COVID-19, but I knew that Churchill prevailed.  That was what mattered the most to me.

There is no way to write about the man and not have countless stories that provide a fascinating view of his multi-dimensional persona.  In both (The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson and Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts) the authors left this reader laughing, such as when Churchill goes up on a roof to watch an air battle and took a seat on a chimney.  With a cigar in his mouth, he was watching and learning.  Soon, however, someone came up to ask if he might move as he had sealed the chimney and smoke was backing up into the building.

It was that story that left me not only smiling but also adding it to my mental list of other historical tidbits.  And then the idea struck me.

Over the past weeks, some people have used their stay at home orders to try new recipes and let us all watch.  Others have read a poem each day, or told a couple jokes, or introduced us to a new word.  With my need to focus on something new, and others clearly demonstrating how to use social media at this time, and with Winston’s latest smile in mind, it became clear to me.

I made a list of the stories shared with others who dined at our home or sat with us on the lawn. If you have come into this orbit you are sure to hear at least one amusing story from history before leaving.  After my list was made I did a bit of research to round out the story on an event or person.

Then I worked at making the 60-second videos.  It proved to be the tonic I was seeking at this time.  Through much of my life when adrift due to one cause or another, I have always found my anchor to be in a good book…..or a pile of them.  So it was with this project, as the stories all were accumulated from the pages I have turned over the decades.

Mental and emotional healing will take time for us all.  No one can just ‘move forward’.  We all have been impacted in ways that we have yet to grasp.  The medical world has been assaulted and will require funding and efforts to make sure they have counseling for their profession.  Families who lost loved ones will wonder why it happened in the fashion it did,  and workers will need to find ways to work in an environment of masks and self-distancing.

For me, the product of my path forward was in 60-second segments of great historical people doing amusing things that deserve to be told again and again.  The release of these videos will continue weekdays for the duration of Wisconsin’s shutdown order.  An executive order I very much support.

I trust that my readers each find their way to deal with, and heal from, all that has been seen and felt over the past months.

Letter From Home: “Hope” 4/3/20

It goes without saying there need to be moments in each of our personal lives that are truly uplifting in order to sustain us for the pandemic headlines that are simply dreadful.  This morning I awoke to the news from New Orleans, and it rips at the heart.  There are no words to adequately sum up the feelings of seeing so many infected and dying in one of our historic cities.

I ate a late breakfast Thursday, read the papers, had coffee and once fortified with carbohydrates and news of the day took to the lawn to continue springtime work.  Such activity allows my mind to calm down.  With my mp3 player lifting my spirits and putting a sprint in my steps the small tasks of the day were soon accomplished.  James and I had a splendid and productive outing.

In this time of self-distancing, we now call a productive outing escaping to the lawn, flower beds, and area surrounding our home.  It is there that today we saw the exact opposite of what greeted us all when waking and turning on the news.  The new growth, small colorful blooms, rabbits about to give birth, daffodils just hours from showcasing their grandeur, robins tracking worms and carrying off dead grass for home-building, and a sun that rises higher and warms more deeply.  All those things I noted.

But they were more than noted, but rather allowed to really enter my senses and take hold.  I did not just glance at things but stared for a while at new blooms.  I even bent to the ground to find if the scilla had a scent.  They did not but the ground had a moist mulch-like smell.  In this time when it appears that the earth has wobbled on its axis, it seems essential to slow down and take stock of what we are appreciative of and note it.

There is no way to predict what is to happen tomorrow let alone make plans for August or the fall.  The big plans in life are on hold.   Folks wonder now about how to get groceries safely and make sure they have plastic gloves in the car so not to touch the gas nozzle when at the service station.

But even with so much that we are scared by, and stressed over concerning the headlines there is also hope to be seen, if we just look for it.  But once seeing it we also need to take the time to allow it to enter into our being.  The new flower shoots and animal activity give us a lesson that we need to grasp now more than ever before, as we have never in our lifetime lived an event as we are now doing.

But there is always hope.  We may not think we see it right now.  But the blooms that now appear were from plants under crunchy snow only weeks ago, and the rabbits were huddled under bushes trying to make it through bitterly frigid nights.  They are small examples of hope, perhaps.  But they convey a big and important message.

There is hope.  There is always hope for tomorrow.

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