A Grief Observed

Soundlessly the door opened as a father and his two young sons emerged from a small side room, and into the vacuous lobby of the Animal Emergency and Trauma Center. The boys’ red blotchy cheeks, downcast eyes, and slumped shoulders telegraphed the sad story that had unfolded on the other side of that door. Their father led them over to one of the hard wooden benches that lined the walls of the waiting area where I too was sitting, and waiting. Two days earlier, my dog, Chuckles, had been admitted for a life-threatening liver infection and I was hoping to bring him home after meeting with the doctor.cristina-lavaggi-21229

The room was quiet at 7:00 o’clock in the evening, except for the television that ran incessantly like a kind of “white noise” in the background. I imagined it as a ridiculous soundtrack to all the traumas and dramas that flowed in and out of that space, like the one I was witnessing now, like my own, too. I couldn’t help but watch and listen as this father offered comfort to his sons, each in their own turn. Gently, he cradled the first boy’s face with his hands, and spoke words so softly that I could not catch them, but the sentiment could not have been more clear. With tenderness he kissed the boy on his forehead. Then to his other son he did the same.christopher-harris-57366

I sensed that he wanted to capture the significance of the moment for them, and to honor its solemnity. He did everything with such intention, as though to say, “yes, this is what grief feels like. This is how badly it hurts to lose someone you love. I cannot shield you from the pain but I can reassure you of my love. Today we are bonded by our grief, but also by our love for each other.”

roman-kraft-421410As witness to such compassion, I felt the tears welling up in my own eyes. It didn’t take much, with my own recent fear of loss so fresh and close to the surface. How tender our own grief makes us! How universal the bond! Sitting there in that waiting room, in that time, I felt a part of their story and they of mine. Just then, an attendant came around the corner and called out “Chuckles!” I jumped up to see what awaited me behind another closed-door.

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Winter Gets Down to Business

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In January, winter really gets down to business. Just ask any of us here on the east coast, from Florida to Maine, who endured last week’s vicious attack of ice, snow and obscenely cold temperatures. We are just now emerging from our dens with a shaky confidence that life above ground will go on.

Listening to NPR, I learned that we were the victims of a Bombogenesis, an apocalyptic- sounding, meteorological term for when the barometric pressure drops steeply in a short period of time and so creates a “bomb cyclone.” Indeed it felt like a bomb, disrupting life wherever it hit.

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Photo by Nathan Wolfe on Unsplash

Now, everyone experiences a bombogenesis in her or his own way. As for me, icy roads are my kryptonite. I feel a sudden onset of paralysis and can’t leave home. Apparently, so too, do most Southerners. At the mere threat of inclement weather schools close before the first snowflake falls, sometimes as early as a day before. This same rationale grounded garbage trucks from their rounds last week, prohibited the mail from delivery, and left many businesses shuttered early.

To non southerners this behavior may seem paranoid, ridiculous and downright silly but I think it’s actually pretty ingenious. Southerners just know how to nuance a snowstorm better than anyone else. We have an unspoken but tacit agreement amongst ourselves that it’s okay to cancel all sorts of activities using the weather as an excuse to play hooky, and not just from school. There is a collective sigh of relief when the team practice, the

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Photo by Alex on Unsplash

book club, and the church committee meeting are all suspended until further notice too.

Because modern life is a sea of constant activity, we adults long for a chance to stop and rest. An opportunity to come in from the cold, to acknowledge and respond to our primitive instinct to hibernate in winter. Forecasts of snow and ice provide an excuse to stay home, to withdraw from the outside world and to draw near to the warmth of our own hearth. Witness the people all rushing to the grocery store to buy not only the obligatory bread and milk, but the hot chocolate, the wine, the popcorn. We are all planning and hoping to be captives in our respective dens and we want the larder well stocked.

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Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

And, if only for a few brief days, we want to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a good excuse to cancel school and other obligations and just stay home and sit by the fire.

 

Expectations

There is a familiar and unhappy gap between our expectations and reality, and that gap is called disappointment. Sometimes disappointment is created by circumstances beyond our control, but more often than is comfortable to admit, it is of our own making. 

Here is a case in point.

x5dufb40Q0O%uCgBp4D5YAAbout a month ago I was in Chicago with a close friend to celebrate my birthday. My mother, daughter of Czech immigrants, was born and raised in the city and, if possible, I wanted to find some connection to, or some “taste” of Czech ethnicity that might still linger there. Our first night we discovered Bohemian House, at 11 West Illinois Street, a restaurant that features authentic Czech cuisine and beer in an Old World atmosphere. All was excellent and did not disappoint.

Buoyed by our success at the restaurant, the next day we set out to find Vesecky’s, a IMG_1185traditional Czech bakery in Berwyn, the once ethnically Czech neighborhood where my grandparents had lived. The recent reviews on Yelp were promising; “one of the best bakeries in Chicago,” said one writer. “great old school bakery,” “my Grandma loved it,” wrote another. Riding the “L” and then taking a bus for the hour long trek to Vesecky’s, my mouth began to water with anticipation of the goodies we would find within.

By the time we arrived I could already taste the apricot kolache and hoska bread I remembered eating as a kid. Predetermined to love it, I noticed, but failed to consider certain clues that cautioned a different reality. Anxiously I bought a box of treats and dived into them right then and there. With one bite, that reality became apparent, the only thing Czech about Vesecky’s was its name.

OIwIUf9jT0uPnTdbsaPDpgAs I stood there sorely disappointed I attempted to reconcile fact with fantasy. Upon entering the bakery, there was no delicious aroma permeating the air characteristic of  baking bread. On the contrary, there was a cold and sterile feel about the place. At first glance of the cookies and pastry behind the glass, my eye sent to my brain an image that did not match what I knew to be authentic, artisanal bakery. I realized that in my rush to conform reality to match my preconceived expectations I had set myself up to be disappointed.

Okay, so no real harm was done me. I wasted a mere $13.00 and I’ve enjoyed a laugh at my own expense in hindsight. What brings this story to mind is twofold. I cannot imagine a better time of year than the Christmas Season to talk about unrealistic expectations and their inevitable consequences. The happiness hype, the love and good cheer can ring hollow about now. And of course, some disappointments are much more devastating than eating bad pastry. I have lived that reality too.

But disappointment can also be our teacher and guide if we let it. So, by way of redemption and a happy ending, over the Holidays I taught myself how to make Vánočka, Czech Christmas Bread. (It is named after Vánoce which means Christmas in Czech.)  I kept my expectations within reason for a first effort and I’m pleased to report that it turned out great and was enjoyed by many.  I’m sure I could give Vesecky’s a run for their money!eJE4a9h3RUmNDgLDClp68w

Dear Readers, you can find the recipe I followed for Vánočka, and more great Czech recipes at www.czechcookbook.com 

ILLUMINATION

It is the season of illumination. Photo by Lena Orwig on UnsplashIn every town, large and small, on land and on sea, on foot or by car, through historic houses, gardens and even battlefields, you can experience a candlelight or electric light tour sure to get you in the Christmas Spirit. If the tour is by purchased ticket, they sell out weeks in advance. If it is open to the public, like our town’s Holiday Flotilla along the inland waterway, you must set out hours in advance in order to navigate traffic, parking and jostling crowds to claim a vantage point. As one advertisement for the Flotilla read, “80,000 people can’t be wrong!”

What feeling, or emotion is everyone seeking to experience through these hugely popular events? I believe the answer lies back in time and in our communal humanity. Photo by Davidson Luna on UnsplashThe appeal of light in darkness is as great with modern Peoples as it was with our Neolithic ancestors who celebrated the Winter Solstice. With the onset of winter, with it’s shorter days and longer nights, we are drawn to the light.

Ancient Peoples may not have understood the science behind the Solstice but they understood that all life depended upon the light of the sun. Taking nothing for granted and assuming nothing as certain, they paid homage to the sun and beseeched its return with rituals and celebrations. Naturally, those rituals revolved around the light of the fire rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnapwhich symbolized the sun and its life-giving energy. Eventually, Christianity superimposed their Christmas celebrations onto those familiar ones of the Winter Solstice incorporating many pagan rituals of illumination which we still recognize today.

In essence, nothing has really changed except for the multitudinous number of ways we humans can now create light. But the appeal and the sense of well-being light brings us, as we draw near to it, contemplate it, or surround ourselves with it, remains the same. As Moderns we may understand the astrological science behind the Solstice and we may not fear a never-ending winter, but we still feel winter’s cold, especially in a hostile and angry world such as the one in which we now live. Now more than ever we need the warmth and good cheer of colored lights, candles gleaming, and a roaring fire on many a dark night.candle-light

Dear Readers, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day be sure to raise your glass and say a word of good cheer for the return of the sun!

One Very Brave Cardinal

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By Heather Katsoulis from Southern NH – Vertigo, 

I’m holding my breath. Will he or won’t he? A handsome male cardinal is perched on a low branch near my bird feeder and he seems to be considering sampling the black hulled sunflower seeds that it contains. I recently hung the feeder and have been watching it expectantly for days but have yet to witness any takers. He would be the first, and hopefully an example for other birds to give it a try.

As I watch, he leans forward in lift-off position and makes the short fly-hop over, lighting on the spindly perch. He plucks out a seed and cracks it open with his strong beak, a perfectly designed tool for such a purpose. I can see the little dribble of hulls fall below him. Success! And I’m thrilled!

I pause to think about why this gives me such pleasure, such delight? I guess it’s knowing that I have no power to coerce this beautiful wild creature to take what I am offering. He deigns to accept my hospitality on his own terms, in his own time. In that moment I make one small connection to the Natural World bigger than Humanity. Will he come again? Will others follow suit? I hope so. But in the meantime, it is enough for me to watch and wait.

Dear Readers: Are you a bird enthusiast? Please share your bird watching story here!

When You Have More Skeletons Than You Know What To Do With

 

Dusan in the Sedlec Bone Church

I took these photos when I visited the Bone Church in 2007

It’s a dilemma. What do you do when you are the caretaker of the skeletal remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 people? Such was the legacy and dilemma left to a small chapel, now known as “The Bone Church” in the town of Kutna` Hora in the Czech Republic. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and The Bone Church, is certainly testimony to, (at least one man’s), inventive creativity.Sedlec Bone Church from 14th Century

 

Originally part of the Sedlec Abbey which was founded in 1142, the Bone Church sits atop the site of the Abbey’s old cemetery, a very popular spot in which to be buried in the day. Its popularity was due to the fact that the cemetery was rumored to possess an unusual Holy relic soil from Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s execution.Sedlec Bone Church

After many centuries, including the unprecedented ravages of The Black Death in the mid 14th century, the cemetery became filled to capacity and overflowing. When the present day Bone Church was built around 1400, thousands and thousands of skeletal remains were exhumed and stacked as there was no other place for them.Sedlec Bone Church

The task of bringing order to the “bone yard” fell to a wood-carver named Frantisek Rint, in 1870. Apparently, left unsupervised and to his own devices, Mr. Rint utilized his artistic talents and arranged the bones into the interior decorations and adornments that we see today. 

 

Dear Readers, please share any macabre places you have visited!

Sedlec Bone Church near Kutna Hora

This chandelier contains at least one of every bone found in a human skeleton!

 

 

Are You Missing Out?

The psychology of “The Fear of Missing Out,” is not new, but it may be reaching epidemic proportions thanks to modern technology. “FOMO,” (its acronym), is the belief that somewhere else, a rewarding experience is being had by others but not by you, and thus, you fear that your own life may be lacking in some way, a fear that must be as old as the human race itself. We are by nature curious creatures and our human brains posses the ability to imagine how things could be different. Both a blessing and a curse.

Capitalizing upon this aspect of human nature has fueled the rise of Social Media. Its creators openly acknowledge that their products have been designed to exploit FOMO  and therefore, they seed the rankle and discontent of always imagining a different and better scenario than the one we are living at that very moment.

Awareness of the many dark sides of the Social Media Medusa, including psychological dependence upon it, (a byproduct of FOMO) has been steadily growing and even sparking a backlash. Countless articles and books by psychologists, behavioral scientists, economists and professors of every stripe are sounding the alarm, if only to alert you to the fact that you are ultimately not the consumer but the product itself.

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote about the FOMO he witnessed in his own century saying,

“Hardly a man takes a half hour nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘what’s the news?’ After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast, ‘pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe.”

Fast forward to 2017 and I can only imagine his amazement and dismay to see modern peoples’ obsession with a certain small handheld device. But possessing a keen understanding of human nature, Thoreau would quickly “get” the allure of incessant news feeds, status updates, live streaming, and the billions of “tweets and likes.”

His response today, I believe, would be the same he gave his readers in his lifetime.

“What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old! When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

From his writing I glean: Seek out those things that are foundational, that never lose their value, that are ever fresh and relevant each time you encounter them. Look past the shams and delusions, the superficiality of what popular culture says is valuable. Discover, read, and study the classics in philosophy and literature. Stop looking down. Instead, look up and around and place yourself under Nature’s tutelage. Develop friendships that you maintain with the investment of your physical presence.

I know FOMO is real because I have felt its nagging prick. As a single person, without the benefit of a ready-made travel companion, I have felt it most often reading about the travels and adventures of all my coupled friends. But I shake off FOMO knowing that the life I’m living isn’t inferior, it’s just different, and it’s a great life. I am pursuing my dream of a life of Deep Work that rewards with a deep sense of well-being as I wrote about in my last post. And I’m trying to live as Thoreau suggests, consciously and with intent.

Dear Readers, when have you experienced FOMO in your own life and how have you processed through it?