Simplicity's Theme

I was listening to the public ratio station this week, and I tuned in just in time to hear the introduction to a piece of music I had never heard of. The selection was Brahm's Academic Festival Overture. The PBS announcer gave the funny story behind the composition, and the story invited me to do a little Internet research. From Wikipedia:

Brahms composed the Academic Festival Overture during the summer of 1880 as a musical "thank you" to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate the previous year. Initially, Brahms had contented himself with sending a simple handwritten note of acknowledgment to the University, since he loathed the public fanfare of celebrity. However, the conductor who had nominated him for the degree convinced him that protocol required him to make a grander gesture of gratitude. The University expected nothing less than a musical offering from the composer. Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a "very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs," entitled the Academic Festival Overture. The work sparkles with some of the finest virtues of Brahms's musical technique.

What an amusing day that would have been at this public debut of Brahm's new masterpiece! As the radio announcer said, the medley of songs he used were well-known student drinking songs about "carousing, partying, and wenching," and I can imagine the expressions on the professors and university administrators when they realized what Brahms had done! Nevertheless, I really enjoyed listening to the piece, hearing the various themes of the drinking songs as they danced in and out.

I think that's the way with the journey to simplicity. Simplicity is our stated theme, but it dances its way in and out of our lives. Just when we think we have progressed on the road to simple living, our lives get hectic again, and we can barely hear its simple tune in all the commotion. But then after a while we recommit to our attempt of a simple lifestyle, and once again, its music soars. Our lives are constantly reflecting this precarious rhythmic dance.

These next few months are promising to be hectic for us. We have several birthdays coming up - son-in-law, Charlotte (turning 2), and Ed. I am sewing a Halloween costume for Caroline. Most of all, I am studying for the Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam, scheduled for November 16. Add to that the looming holiday season, and I have to make a conscious effort to create enough quiet time so that I can still hear simplicity's gentle melody:

Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,


'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.

It certainly is beautiful music.

Sweet Dreams, Mike

Everyone, they say, handles grief in his/her own way. After my cousin Mike’s death (see previous post), I cried for 3 days, and in the evening of the last day, I had no more tears. The crying stopped, the hysterical outbursts were gone, and I was just immobile with a powerful, heavy, numbing, overwhelming sadness. My mind certainly understood that life in its fullness would resume at some point, but to my heart, it seemed a distant and empty promise.

Then came the dream.

I learn a lot from my dreams. No matter how bizarre and uninterpretable they seem, I usually make at least a minimal effort to squeeze meaning from them. This dream, however, was self evident from the time I awoke in the morning.

I had dreamed that I was sitting in the house of the Wilsons, lifelong friends from my home church in Memphis, friends whom we fortunately were able to visit while we were down there in August. A child was beside me. We were looking at a plate glass window, the kind you see in department stores to display items. The only things in the window were many packages of M&Ms, which were floating here and there as if they were in water. The child beside me was unhappy. “All you can see are the backs of the packages,” he said sadly. “I want to see the front of the packages, the side where the colors are.” As I looked back at the window, I could see what the child meant. All the M&M packages were facing away from us, and all we could see was the brown side. No brightly colored candies were pictured there. The child then asked, “Can you fix them so we can see the pretty colored side?”

I said I would try. I took my index finger and touched the glass, and as I slid my finger around, as if by magic, each package followed my finger movements, and I was surprised to find that I could twist and maneuver them around until they all changed positions, until at last, the front of the packages with their brightly colored M&Ms were facing us.

That was the dream, and it was the turning point in my seemingly endless grief, for its meaning was clear to me. I had been in the Wilsons’ house because years ago they too had lost a son, who died in an accident when he was in his 20s. In the dream, I learned from the spirit child that I had been looking at the brown side - the loss, the pain, the sadness - and not only was it time to turn my attitude over to the color, the life, the warm memories of my dear cousin, but that I had the power to do it!

From that point on, I received the peace that had evaded me up until the dream. As my aunt said to me, “I have had my bad days, and I am sure I will have bad days in the future, but right now, I’m OK.” God is touching us, Mike is touching us, and we are touching each other with comfort.

The most intriguing thing about the whole thing was this: I was relating the details of the dream to my sister, and she murmured, “M&Ms. Mike McDonald.”

God and our brains both work in mysterious ways. Sometimes the message gets interpreted at exactly the right time. I hope now as the days turn into weeks and months and years, that we will gradually begin to remember Mike - the one who brought so much love and laughter to our lives - more with smiles than with tears. May it be so.

In Memoriam, Michael McDonald 1958-2007

Death has a lot of faces. Sometimes, in the case of a suffering cancer patient, it appears as a welcoming friend. Other times, it is an expected inevitable visitor to someone who has lived a long life and is ready for the next act.

Still other times, it strikes unexpectedly without reason or warning. Last week was one of those times.

Death and I have always had a strange relationship. I know Death is a necessary evil. I know Death has a job to do. I have no qualms with that. Once in an adult Sunday School class, Ed and I read a book by Leslie Weatherhead called The Will of God. In it, the author discusses the reasons for Death's existence, and asks if we truly would want to live in a world without Death. How precious would life be then, if it were unending? our class was asked. How precious would the sun be without the rain? How precious would good health be without sickness? Oh yes, he makes some good points for the necessity of Death.

The times when Death and I part ways are times when Death comes prematurely. In the normal scheme of things, the passing of one who has had a long, well-lived, happy life leaves me sad, but I am not angry.

This week and I am both sad and angry - because a few days ago, Death reached out and took a gentle soul a mite too early. We were not prepared to wake up to a world without cousin Mike. It just didn’t seem possible. He was only 49.

I’m getting angry these days with a plethora of lives taken under age 50. My best friend, Bernie, died before she turned 50. A woman who worked at my hospital died in a motorcycle wreck last week. She was 40. And all I can say over and over is my tired old mantra - “It’s not fair!”

And so I cry. I cry because I will miss Mike. I cry to think what his parents and brothers and partner and two sons will have to deal with every day. I cry because I am not able to attend the funeral in Arkansas. I cry because of the pain I hear in the voices of my relatives. I cry because I am totally helpless. I cry because I should be the one comforting my eldest cousin, and instead, he is comforting me. I cry because I wish I had been with Mike more. I cry because I know that other loved ones can be gone in the blink of an eye without warning. I cry because life is not fair.

For those of my readers who don’t know the story, it’s the tale of a brother (my uncle) and a sister (my mother) who married two wonderful people many years ago. My uncle and aunt had 3 sons. My mother and father had 2 daughters. And so were brought into this world 5 cousins who would be forever bonded in love. My sister and I, bereft of real brothers, looked upon these cousins as the brothers we never had. Most of our childhood and adult years, we lived in different states. But just the mention of an impending visit from the McDonald cousins, and our Saturday mornings would be totally immersed in glorious anticipation. A visit to Little Rock by us would awake the same excitement. Our cousins were a joy to be with. Our visits always came too infrequently and were over too quickly.

Mike was the youngest. He was quiet, shy, a little reserved, but had a delightful sense of humor. The camaraderie between the 3 boys was amazing. Of course, there was always that bit of competition and good-natured teasing, but their bond was unbreakable. They were always there for each other.

We 5 cousins all got together one last time during our trip to Tennessee, when we traveled to Little Rock to see everyone in August. We couldn’t resist an opportunity to get a rare picture of the 5 of us together. As you can see above, the picture speaks for itself. The smiles just show our happiness at being together. Life was sweet. Our dear Mike, on the far right, was relaxed and jovial, having just entertained me with stories about getting materials from his brother’s new house construction to build the most beautiful koi pond in his backyard. He had me laughing uncontrollably as he described the borrowed pickup truck getting lower and lower to the ground with each haul.

None of us knew that Mike would be gone in a few weeks. Oh, sure, in the back of our minds there is always the possibility of death, disease, accidents or some other catastrophe overtaking one in our family group. But that day, we banished bad thoughts and just basked in love. The world was ours!

I said that the bond between the brothers could not be broken. The bond between the 5 cousins cannot be broken, either. Their strength is carrying me through this horrible week. The bond is still very much alive. It stretches over distance and time and Death cannot sever it.

So after the tears and the remembering and the gratitude that we had Mike in our lives, in the silence as I sit here empty and drained, the words of this anthem come as a much-needed gift:
Open our eyes, open our eyes, O loving and compassionate Jesus that we may behold You, that we may be behold You, walking beside us, walking beside us in our sorrow.
You have made death glorious and triumphant. You have made death glorious and triumphant! For through its portals we enter, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the Living God, into the presence of the Living God. For through its portals we enter, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the Living God, into the presence of the Living God. Open our eyes, open our eyes, O loving and compassionate Jesus, that we may see to follow You, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus our Savior, Jesus our Savior and Redeemer. Open our eyes, open our eyes, oh Lord. Amen.


That he startled me is an understatement. We were in Christiansburg, Virginia, temporarily stranded on our trip to Memphis, the Jeep Liberty having been towed in to this dealership. And there he sat - cap on his head, legs crossed, with The Detroit News in his hands. As we were ushered into the waiting room, he was the first thing we noticed. The room was empty except for a few chairs, a TV, a coffee machine - and him.

I’m not sure why he was there. Maybe they put him there as a joke, to jolt unsuspecting customers. Maybe, on the other hand, he was placed there to keep customers company in the long hours of waiting for a car repair to be finished. Maybe he walked in one day, found a comfortable chair, and decided to stay. I never asked.

So there the three of us sat, Ed, me and this smiling "man," watching TV (which was surreal on its own to us, having had no TV to speak of since we moved in December), reading a very limiting collection of magazines (TV Guide and Popular Mechanics were the most common offerings), and trying to quell our mental cash registers ringing up the potential repair dollar signs. I kept seeing the “dummy” out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not talking about Ed. Nobody had mentioned his name, so I had to create one. I decided to call him Bill. Big Bill. Because that’s what we’ll have when we leave here, I thought grimly.

Big Bill never moved. He sat through our changing all the TV channels - weather updates on the record heat wave we would meet in Memphis, politics, the Disney channel morning kids’ shows, all the commercials - without a word of protest. Big Bill was easy to get along with. He didn’t complain about the volume or our channel choice or our bored conversation. He just sat there, with that satisfied grin on his face, and the whitest teeth I have ever observed in a mechanic.

We shortly thereafter welcomed more customers into our waiting room sanctuary. A young mother came in with two little girls, about 4 and 5 years old. She was getting her horn fixed. “My husband says,” she told me as she tried to entertain the girls, “that I’m the only one in the world who uses her horn so much that it breaks.” The girls were well behaved, armed with coloring books and crayons. For about an hour, we temporarily shared our world with these people, then would part and never see each other again.

When the three of them came in, I don’t know if the girls were actually frightened to see Bill there, or if the mother was worried that the girls might be frightened, or if the mother herself thought it was spooky, but she took a little pink raincoat from one of the girls and threw it over Bill’s head. “There!” she said briskly. “He can be kind of scary, so we will just cover him up.”

So there we sat - a mother, two little girls, and Big Bill with a pink raincoat over his head. I didn’t know about our new acquaintances, but to me, Bill was a lot more scary with his head hidden and his body sitting there than he was normally with his full head of hair and sparkling white smile.

Occasionally a mechanic would come in to get a cup of coffee and see if we needed anything. One mechanic seemed concerned about the raincoat and wanted to know if he should remove Bill while the girls were there. The mother said, oh no, he might have scared them at first, but the raincoat took care of everything. Yep - old decapitated Bill was not scary at all. Uh-huh.

When the mother and her little ones left, they forgot the raincoat. I had to grab it and run after them with it, catching them just as they were leaving the building. As I sat back down, I looked over at Bill. He seemed happy to be back to normal. I imagine it was hard to read The Detroit News in the dark.

I think in the end, Big Bill was there to reassure. Worried about a huge charge for your car repair? “Don’t worry. Be happy,” as the song goes. Your car will get fixed by cheerful mechanics who spend their free time reading up on the latest news from the car industry and brushing their gleaming teeth. Meanwhile, you will never be stuck in the waiting room all by yourself, as he will always be there to keep you company, pink raincoat notwithstanding.

The funny thing is that it was all true. Our car was repaired by cheerful mechanics who, although I did not inquire about their literacy or their dental hygiene, did keep us informed of their progress and even asked us to join them for their once-a-month cookout at lunchtime. Big Bill will always be in our hearts. And an even Bigger Bill on our credit card. Thanks, Bill, for the hospitality. You take care, now.

Playing the cards

The opera world lost two great voices this year. With everyone else, I mourn the passing of Luciano Pavarotti today, but my real sense of loss arises from the death of Beverly Sills in July. I had the pleasure of meeting her once in Memphis, where I had the foresight to bring along her autobiography, Bubbles, which she autographed, with a brief conversation and her trademark smile.

Tonight we watched a PBS broadcast featuring some of her performances. She was an amazing singer! I sat there in awe as she maneuvered her voice in the most intricate manner. Now, I’ve dabbled in opera myself, singing arias for my own pleasure, singing in a few church dinner theater performances, as well as enjoying couple of runs in the Opera Memphis Chorus, but I have never been able to sing like Beverly Sills, and never will.

When we get past the age of 50, we do feel as if we’re standing at the top of the hourglass with most of the sand on the bottom, and there’s a finality in admitting “I’ll never do this.” I’ll never sing at the Met, I’ll never climb a mountain, I’ll probably never get to Europe or go on a cruise or make a prize-winning quilt. I’ll never learn to play the cello or meet David Suchet or even completely learn PhotoShop. I'll never know what it's like to be really tan, I'll never know what it's like to have perfectly straight hair, I'll never know the feeling of being tall. I'll never be a world expert in anything. Some of this is because I don’t have the inclination, some because I don’t have the talent, some because I'm not blessed with certain features, and some just because I don’t have enough time left to really master anything. Some is just due to the fact that the odds are heavily against an occurrence.

But that’s OK.

Rachel taught me that lesson last year. She had given birth to Charlotte by C-section, her second. There is a renewed interest these days in VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), and a local TV station was doing a special report on these two birth methods. They had first interviewed a lady who had chosen VBAC, and then they came to interview Rachel about having a second C-section. My job was to keep Caroline occupied and out of the range of the interview, but I managed to see most of it. Rachel was articulate in defending her decision for repeat C-section, and then the interviewer asked her if she ever felt like she had “missed out on something” by not ever giving birth naturally. Rachel replied that there were a lot of things she would miss out on life, but that’s just the way it goes.

That’s true for all of us. Even Beverly Sills missed out on having a “normal” family - she had two children, one deaf and the other mentally retarded. We take life as we are given it, and make the best of it.

So my vow is to not concentrate on the things I’ve missed or will miss in my life, and to focus on the wonderful things I have accomplished and been privileged to participate in. I’ve also learned never to say never. I told my friend Audrey that I would never go sea kayaking, and look what happened. I’ve got a few good years left. I may never make the Met, but I can try to make a few quilts. We play our cards, but remember - a lot of the cards are still face down. Life awaits, and I just love surprises!


I first noticed it this morning. If I sat at my computer and looked out the window to my right into our woods, I saw a very bright, shiny object a couple of feet off the ground. I moved away a few inches and could still see it. It looked like a flashlight was pointed directly at my window. But with the sun out, I could see clearly there was no one standing there holding a flashlight. I called Ed in.

I call Ed in for a variety of things. When we get back from a visit to the grandchildren, I call him in to look at the pictures I took. He always balks. “I was there; I don’t need to see the pictures.” I make him look at them anyway. I call Ed in to kill bugs. I call him in to read him something funny on the Internet. I call him in if I have some sort of accident that immobilizes me, and he helps me get up off the floor. And I call him in for second opinions. This was a second opinion occasion.

“Look at that,” I said as I pointed my finger at the unidentified light. “What do you suppose it is?”

“It looks like maybe a can on the ground that the sun is shining on,” he said. Then he left.

I was determined to find out what it was, so Babe and I went out to the back porch, down the steps, and around the side of the house to look up close. At first I couldn’t find it. I had to keep checking my position against the left part of the office window to determine the object’s location. I turned back and forth, I bent over, kneeled, twisted myself into every imaginable contortion until I finally caught the light. I slowly made my way toward it.

It was some sort of spider web silk thread, very tiny, which had attached itself to a limb. It was a lot tinier than those shiny “icicles” you put on Christmas trees, just a thread, really, with a little sticky sap-like stuff, giving the thread just enough reflective material to shine when the sun reached it.

I couldn’t believe something that little could have made the shining light that caught my eye as I glanced out the window. Just to check, I removed it, then went back and sat at my computer and looked out again. The light was gone. I had solved the mystery.

I think Mother Nature was trying to tell me something today. I tend to take the tiniest, most superficial things and blow them up to gigantic proportions, exacerbating a lifelong tendency towards anxiety. The fact that something so little could reflect a light so big just fascinates me. Yet when I actually identified it up close, it was inconsequential.

I’m trying to get over my fear of flying, which was strong even before 9/11. Our latest trip to Tennessee made me wonder if we should actually consider flying instead of driving on our next trip down. After all, financially it makes sense, considering the 4 motels, road meal expenses, price of gasoline, and time off from work (and boarding Babe) to accommodate 7 days of driving round trip, not to mention wear and tear on the car (which did not cause, but certainly compounded, our recent repair bills). I know logically that flying is safer than road travel. Am I making a big shining can out of a gossamer thread? Perhaps.

Maybe this is one more thing to conquer. After all, I’ve kayaked in the Atlantic Ocean; maybe I’m more courageous than I think!