Thursday, February 23, 2012

A change of heart

As a writer, I suppose I have a few favorites among all the words there are to choose from. You may have even noticed some of them if you read my columns a lot more closely than most people--including me. Usually, I "adopt" a word because either I like the way it sounds or I like what it means. Sometimes, I like both both, which makes it even more special.
Here's one now:
Don't feel bad if it's not one you're entirely familiar with, as it's a trifle obscure in some circles. It's of Greek origin, and claims several, slightly differing meanings, including repentance, changing one's mind, and a sense of spiritual conversion.
But here's my favorite meaning of all:
A change of heart.
That change is on my mind right now because yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and it is now the season of Lent, the 40-day period that leads us up to the celebration of life, joy and miraculous resurrection we call Easter.
For many, it's a time to simply give things up. My determined spouse, for instance, turns her back on a plethora of snack foods, like cookies, cake, candy, crackers, chips and chocolate, which makes me wonder how, in the evolution of our language, the names of so many good things happen to all begin with the letter "c." For other folks, it's a time to make a yearly run at giving up more serious vices, like smoking and alcohol. And for me, it's usually a time to try--among other things--to ignore my seemingly unquenchable personal lust for all things chocolate, a fact that manufacturers like Hershey's, Mars and Fanny May should pay attention to when making their yearly sales projections.
But here's the thing,
While a few weeks without bon-bons and Bud Light are certainly worthwhile for anyone, there are even more important things we can give up, and add, too.
Lent is truly a time for us to examine our attitudes, our habits and the priorities we set. And while my context may seem and sound strictly spiritual, we don’t have to be religious to believe in the need for conversion and change. We only need to see the value of being better.
We can sacrifice impatience and distrust, and add compassion and understanding.
We can give up on our grudges and try forgiveness.
We can trade pessimism for hope; cynicism for wide-eyed belief.
While we're at it, let’s turn our backs on war, and pray for peace.
And what say we give up hatred and add love to our lives and all the lives around us.
Metanoia. A change of heart.
It sounds simple.
Maybe, just maybe, It can be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New seasons of change

We took our first good, long hike of the 2012 beachwalking season the other day. We've visited the Atlantic shore that lies just across from our North Carolina place almost daily since we returned just over a week ago, but we hadn't made the time to get much further than the immediate beachfront we consider "ours." Partly, that's been because of the bunches of errands and happy visits that always await us when we first come back to Topsail Island, plus we seem to have managed to drag some semi-wintery conditions with us that have briefly interrupted the early spring that had already produced a few blooming trees and small dots of blossoming flowers.
So we were glad to finally get a warmish, not-too-breezy day that would allow us to work our way down the shoreline, past the thousand-foot fishing pier that lies a mile south and beyond.
"It's changed," she said. "It's changed again."
I think that's the way of Atlantic beaches any time of year, especially during the times when seasons change, when breezes switch and swirl, and waves and tides wash higher and higher along the shore. It's especially that way on barrier islands like this one, which are, after all, nothing more than narrow spits of sand attempting to stand up, year after year, to the relentless action of the wind and sea. More than a thousand miles of the southeastern and Gulf of Mexico state coasts are lined with offshore barrier systems similar to Topsail, where a ridge of dunes and beach is separated from the mainland by wide expanses of shallow marshes, waterways and inlets. When storms slam ashore, the sand and wetlands act as natural shock absorbers. Dunes blunt the energy of tidal surges pushed by high winds. Grassy marshes and their spongy soils then soak up floodwater and slow down storm-waves before they hit the mainland.
But despite knowing all that, It's still a bit of a surprise every time I realize that the solid-seeming land that holds houses, condos, hotels, businesses, streets and playgrounds is actually a fluid strip of sand that only exists because the ocean built it and allows it to stay.
Sometimes not, as when the big storms in the 90s swept the north end of the island nearly clean. Bridges were buried, some houses and roads had to be rebuilt repeatedly and others were put permanently under water. In fact, the homes right across our street were actually in the second row of cottages, bungalows and other beachfront dwellings fronting the seashore. Nowadays, there's just one road serving our end of Topsail, but at one time, there were three, including one that now rests under the waves yards offshore, appearing only on certain low-tide days as a wet, black, slick-looking mass of shiny macadam that my grandsons love to play on. Other white-lined sections of old road pop up through the sand on parts of the island from time to time, reminding me a little of the post-apocalyptic scene in the original "Planet of the Apes," when Charlton Heston discovers the arm of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand. Further up the beach, commercial fishermen still steer clear of the upper reaches and wreckage of once-fancy beach homes that lined the very edge of that shore before they paid the price of getting a little too close. Even a "minor" storm, like last fall's Hurricane Irene, caused serious damage to some property near the water on the northernmost end of the island, and destroyed property and closed roads further up the coast.
But most of the changes we saw that day were not caused by hurricanes and other major events, but simply by the passing of time and circumstance.
The beach seems a little narrower in sections, with dark waves lapping and crashing at high tide against the beach stairways that top the eco-fragile sand dunes. Bulldozers have been at work, rebuilding the dunes in some places, while talks are taking place about the need to "replenish" areas of beach with sand trucked in from other spots.
Even the view offshore has changed.
The fleets of shimpers that plied the cooling end-of-year waters last time we were here have been replaced by the magnificent sight of massive naval vessels on the near horizon, as the Camp Lejeune area celebrates the return of members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit after a 10-month deployment at sea. The ocean itself has a deep green cast, shifting to lighter shades of green and blue as the warming sun hits and and the process of growth and renewal begins again.
The sea birds that fish our coast are gathering once more and feathered strangers make a brief appearance on their way to springtime grounds. Out back in the inlet, the herons and egrets swoop to protect their nesting sites. Soon, the season will start in earnest, with the sounds, smells and sights brimming with life and death.
Yes, it's changing around here.
Count on it. It happens all the time.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another February day to love

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

For most people, February represents gloomy skies, snow storms, ice-encrusted sidewalks and streets and, of course, LOVE. Because February fourteenth is St. Valentine's Day, the favorite holiday of greeting card companies, chocolate manufacturers and, of course, sweethearts around the world.
But not me.
While I admit that I've given and received my fair share of bon-bons and heart-shaped greetings over the years, Valentine's Day is not my favorite February holiday. Instead, my high point comes right at the beginning of the month.
February second.
Ground Hog Day.
Now, why, you might ask, does an otherwise sensible chap (that's me, of course) give a hoot about a holiday that celebrates nothing more than the questionable meteorological skills of a large, sleepy rodent?
Well, that's a good question. And the answer comes down to one simple thing:
Hope for the end of winter. Hope for another spring. Because, as legend goes, when the groundhog emerges from his burrow on the big day, if he sees his shadow, he dives back in, signaling six more weeks of winter. But if he doesn't, hallelujah! He ends his winter-long nap and spring is here!
I suppose this year is a poor example of the hopes and dreams I have for the day. We have, after all, seen a summery November, a balmy December and a first week or so in January that set a few high temperature records until winter finally came a-calling midway through the month. But in most years, we've just about had it with the dark, cold days and nights of winter by the time the second month of the new year rolls around. And no matter what the weather, I suspect most folks--except, perhaps, fans of winter activities like snowmobiling, skiing and sledding--might not be too upset if spring came bounding forth once and for all.
Like many secular holidays, Groundhog Day has its roots in the traditions of the this case “Candlemas,” an old, traditional name for The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and, also, a day when priests blessed candles to be used through the year. Lyrics to an old English song said:
"If Candlemas be fair and bright / Come, Winter, have another flight / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain / Go Winter, and not come again."
A more cynical view of the Groundhog goings-on appeared in the movie "Groundhog Day," when the lead character, played by Bill Murray, explained it this way:
“They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back and then they tell us what's gonna happen.”
But no matter how you feel about my favorite February festival, here's the thing...whether it arrives now or in six weeks or more, even, spring will always come.
And with it will come another sweet season of light, warmth, renewal...and hope.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Let there be music

Music has always been a big part of our lives, though we kind of got there from distinctly different directions. She grew up in what always seemed to me to be more of a highbrow environment, with a piano-playing mother and a dad who knew his way around a variety of genres, including symphony, jazz and the more intellectual varieties of folk music. Some of her best childhood memories include trips to hear the Chicago Symphony and the Fine Arts Quartet, while the city's classical music station, WFMT, was blaring in the kitchen most of the time, day or night.
We loved music in my house, too, though our tastes and experiences ran more towards "Sing Along with Mitch," and whatever was on the radio at the time, plus the show tunes and folk music my sister and brother brought home from college.
I'm pretty sure we shared our love of music with our own kids, and we're doing our best to give our youngest grandsons as much exposure to different kinds, as well. Most of the time, that means the songs we sing together, which range from the old Beatles tunes and folk songs that make up a big part of my repertoire, and the kids' songs we listen to in the car, like "Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom" and "Really Rosie."
But as a extra-conscientious grandma, she's always looking for ways to broaden the horizons of the little guys, feeling that it's never too early to get a firm foundation in the classics and other grown-up musical styles.
Like the North Carolina Symphony's Holiday Pops concert we attended in early December, before we headed to Illinois for the holidays. I thought it was kind of a pricy performance for a five- and three-year-old, but she assured me that it would be well worth the double-digit ticket price.
"It's something they'll never forget," she proclaimed.
Thinking a little proximity would enhance the experience, I led us down to the third row, where we were lucky enough to find front-and-center seats with a great view of the orchestra and its flamboyant, European-trained conductor.
"This ought to get their attention," I said.
It did.
For a minute.
I guess I should have been glad young Cyrus and John didn't wiggle and giggle their way through the performance. Instead, they simultaneously fell into a deep and enduring sleep that lasted from the middle of the first song until the very end of the two-hour performance.
"I think they just found it relaxing," said grandma.
"Kind of an expensive nap," I grumbled.
We gave it another shot once we arrived in Illinois, when the Kewanee Klassics presented their annual Christmas concert at the First United Methodist Church in Kewanee. The little boys were well-rested and bright-eyed, and the price of the performance--a free-will offering--was more to my liking, so I figured we were all in for a holiday treat at the hands of the talented trio.
"They ought to like this," I said.
They did.
For a minute.
Again, they slipped into a profound slumber, dozing through the entire concert. Heck, they were even sound asleep when frontman Brock Tumbleson presented them with a prize for being the youngest fans in attendance.
All the kids and grandkids returned to their respective homes after the holidays, but we stuck around for all of January and into February, all the while enjoying the wide variety of live performances that make our area a pretty nifty little music venue, if a somewhat unknown one. We were knocked out by the Jansson Five, the featured act at the January Galva Arts Council Coffeehouse, who blasted their way through a hot rockabilly set that compared favorably with the acts we enjoyed in the Nashville club scene last fall. We were treated to an evening with the incomparable Mike Baum, a Galesburg-based musician buddy, who warmed the hearts of friends and fans alike. I was disappointed to be out of town for the Kewanee High School production of “Guys and Dolls," but heard they did a fine job. And we were both glad to hear we'd be able to make it to the News Room Bistro in Toulon for an annual performance by Knox-Galesburg Symphony maestro Bruce Polay and some of his musicians. The Bistro concert is one of her favorites, featuring small-group performances of some pieces that are familiar to her and her culturally-rich childhood. Though not as well-versed or refined, I find the classics as performed by Polay and company pretty darned engaging, as well, plus there are always cookies on hand to ensure my good behavior.
The music was excellent.
But something was missing.
"I wish John and Cyrus were here," she whispered. "They would really enjoy this."
I looked at her to see if she was kidding.
I wondered if she was talking about the cookies.
Then I realized she was right.
What with school and soccer and all the other things those little guys are involved in,
they can always use a good nap.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What's all that stuff in the box, dad?

In last week's column, I wrote about the fact that we'll be leaving soon for our beachfront digs in North Carolina. It's an idea that seems increasingly attractive as we receive a steady stream of photos from out there showing folks strolling and shelling, dolphins leaping and splashing, and--wait for it--a really rare sighting of an actual harbor seal basking himself on a nearby beach and looking a lot like me in a similar situation and position.
The move southward will happen soon, though the balmy Illinois weather we've been experiencing almost matches the current Carolina conditions, minus the waves and swells of the Atlantic Ocean and, of course, that seal.
Meanwhile, we've progressed with some of the things that needed to be done before we could depart in all good conscience, though in all honesty, we'll probably never be completely finished with the housekeeping tasks that always linger in the backs of our minds.
Like the everlasting bone of contention we call the basement, an area of concern I also mentioned last week as it was just picking up speed.
"We can't just leave all this stuff for our kids to deal with some day," she said in the sweet, stubborn tone that has always made me want to give her a big hug before pushing her into a mud puddle.
Some of the things almost 40 years of marriage have taught me are that certain chores can't be avoided, some arguments are wholly futile, and that if I ever did push her into a mud puddle, she'd just push me back.
But I just want to let you know that the boxes, bins, bags and baskets down there are slowly--very slowly--receding.
Slowly, in case you didn't notice, is truly the operative word.
I'd like to blame my forebearers, and hers, too, for the piles and piles (and piles and piles) of pictures, letters and documents that must be sorted and anguished over in the arduous pitch-and-save process we suffer through from time to time.
Especially the pictures.
Some historians will tell you that it was photography, not moveable type or the internal combustion engine or even peanut butter, that was the most important invention of the past couple of centuries.
Our ancestors apparently agreed, as they took pictures of just about everyone and everything in sight. They apparently didn't feel, however, that the art of writing was nearly as important, as virtually none of the photos we sifted through had a name, date, place or any other identifying indicator.
But I can't just blame them. I, too, was a fairly ardent amateur photographer back in the day, with a pretty nifty 35mm camera outfit that included bunches of extra lenses and filters and other photo-geek accouterments. Heck, I even had my own darkroom once upon a time, where I churned out an endless stream of pics depicting trees, dogs, cars, lakes, mountains and virtually every move, cute or otherwise, that our two sons made before the age of three. Add to that the towering mound of report cards, hand-made Mother's Day cards, crayoned refrigerator art, school essays and other invaluable treasures awaiting us, and you begin to get the picture.
But we dug and dreamed and sorted and mournfully pitched in an aggressive distillation process that reduced our holdings by about two-thirds, with even greater reductions ahead as we distribute as much as humanly possible to our hapless children and other unsuspecting family members.
Finally, we were done.
For now.
She vows that she will continue the process of examining, discarding and distributing each and every treasure trove. I'm hoping I'll get lucky and slip into a coma before I have to look at one more dusty document or fuzzy photo. I don't think we've uncovered anything of any interest to Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars or even the American Pickers yet, though the pickers are hereby invited to come down and take a look.
Meanwhile, we are beginning to share the wealth.
Last weekend, we made a quick run to son Colin's house in northwestern Minnesota, near the Red River of the North and the great plains that stretch westward from Fargo.
We came bearing gifts.
We brought Kitchen Cooked potato chips, bread from the Bishop HIll bakery and even a snowblower to help fight the blizzards that haven't arrived up there, either.
Oh, and one more thing.
A large plastic tub, filled to the brim with the first installment of his inheritance, so to speak.
"So, what's all that stuff in the box, dad?" he asked.
I just smiled.
Tag, you're it.