Fifteen years ago, I hiked the state and national parks from the Indiana Dunes to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I remember my delight at discovering this place of tranquility in Ludington State Park. I don't remember sitting on the bench. I was younger then. I’d sure sit there now! A pause every now and then is essential—for my aging body, ever-chattering mind, that restless spirit, and as a conduit for prayer.
In this season of Christmas, Hanukkah, this week of the winter solstice, I thought I would share a prayer I say every morning. This morning I say it for you. For us. For the world.
May we be at peace. May our hearts remain open.
May we awaken to the light of our own true nature.
May we be healed. May we be a source of healing for all beings. *
I will resume posts in 2024. Thank you for your bench stories, comments, emails, continued support, and encouragement throughout the year. Merry Christmas.
* A prayer first seen in Joan Borysenko's Pocketful of Miracles.
Sharing Multiplies the Joy
Nearing the end of my summer morning walk along the shores of Little Traverse Bay, I came upon an SUV parked along the narrow road. One woman carefully picked her way along the narrow rocky beach. Another, leaning forward in what we have come to call the beachcomber's "Petoskey Pose," was completely focused on the stones in her direct path. A third, gingerly lowering herself from the curb and onto the boulders bordering the shore, stopped and nervously awaited my address.
I had seen it before. They were working too hard, searching for treasures where they were unlikely to find them. Smiling, I said that they might find it much easier to search for Petoskey stones on the southwestern shore of the bay, where they were more plentiful and the beach was more easily accessible. Given directions to the public parks, they immediately gathered back at the car, and with many thanks, mentioned that going to a more easily accessible park would allow their mother, who was waiting in the car, to join them in their family time. Our conversation shifted immediately to paved paths, close parking, seating, proximity to the beach, and good views. Magnus Park, with its wide, paved pathways, picnic tables, and dedicated memorial benches edging the shore was the first option that came to mind. Bayfront Park West, with its newly completed, amazingly designed walkway that provides wheelchair accessibility, seating, and shoreline experiences for all, was also a perfect answer.
Their delight at including their mother in finding treasures had all three back in the car and off to make memories together before I even made it back to my car! The glow of their love for family followed me home. Beauty and happiness shared, is beauty and happiness multiplied.
ESEM of Michigan
It was Mother who suggested photographing her standing next to the saguaros while hiking the trails in the Rincon Mountains. Who would believe they can grow so tall?! Be so majestic?
For the twenty-plus years Mother lived in Arizona, she introduced her many visitors to the unique wonders of the desert and nearby mountains. She did not know spending time outdoors could improve short-term memory loss, reduce inflammation, recharge immune systems, diminish a sense of isolation, and lower the overall risk of early death. She knew only that the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the unique prickly texture and colors of the vegetation, the chance sightings of wildlife, and the breathtaking sunsets over the mountains were essential to her every day.
The Day the Desert Rejoices*
When one pauses to notice the Mockingbird spinning cartwheels above his throne atop the palo verde; hears the deep-throated gurgle of a Cactus Wren, the high-pitched call of the Gila Woodpecker, the mournful song of a lonely Roadrunner, or the rapturous serenade of a Curve-billed Thrasher, the desert rejoices.
The moment one sniffs the honey-like fragrance of the Brownfoot; spots the tangerine color of the rare Desert Mariposa, the fire-orange tips of the Ocotillo, the golden sunlight of a Desert Marigold, or the wispy pink petals of a Fairy Duster, the desert races to shower the prickly thorns of winter with its boldest splashes of spring.
And when mother and daughter don walking shoes, brimmed hats, sunglasses, and hiking sticks to wander paved paths or sandy trails arm-in-arm, never have the birds chattered with such enthusiasm, the bees hummed with more vigor, or the flowers beamed with such exuberance as on that day.
*A collage of photographs to accompany the Arizona chapter of the book, Miracle Within Small Things: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Loss and Aging. "The Day the Desert Rejoices" is an excerpt from that book. Photos Left to Right: saguaros, ocotillo, male pryrrhuloxia, sunset over Tucson Mountains, buckhorn cholla, fairy duster, desert mariposa, American goldfinch, Parry's beardtongue, curved-bill thrasher, strawberry hedgehog, desert marigold
In the autumn of 2012, I lost my dad, Rubin’s dad, and Lady, my parents’ dog and my best dog-friend ever. For the next two years, while mother remained in Arizona, I spent many months with her, often accompanied by Rubin.
For over twenty years I had visited my parents in Tucson without knowing scientists consider it part of the Sky Island Region, 70,000 square miles where mountains tower over 6,500 feet and jut above the desert floor like “islands on the ocean.” I saw a desert valley of windswept browns and muted greens; a skyline defined by ragged, seemingly impregnable mountains. I did not consider it a place I might find nourishment, an environment in which I might heal.
I was wrong.
While Mother rested and Rubin played pool with the pool sharks of Sun City Vistoso, I hiked the trails of the Rincon, Santa Catalina and Santa Rita Mountains. I explored the Tucson Mountains west of the city, not tall enough to technically be labeled one of the Sky Islands, but a familiar backdrop to the blushing skies of sunset. While I preferred to photograph the exuberance of spring, I could not ignore the charred skeleton of the saguaro, the feathered remains of the coyotes’ feast, the lifeless rodent dangling from the beak of a roadrunner.
Life is not always the strawberry pink of the hedgehog petals.
Like the seeds of the brittlebush scattered across the parched sand, the lessons of the desert sprouted roots within the dry crevices of my heart. Life struggling, persevering, blossoming, dying. I was part of that desert story. With each click of the camera, I began to heal. And when mother joined me on the trails, nature showered us with its finest treasures.
Next week: “The Day the Desert Rejoices” in prose and photographs
I looked for the wren singing from its perch on a nearby cactus, braved gale winds to photograph waves crashing over the harbor light, crawled along the earth’s floor to photograph wildflowers. When my shoulders are heavy with sadness, troubled with the weight of pending decisions, or worry steals night’s necessary slumber, I have always found respite in nature.
It is why we titled our book, Miracle Within Small Things. Life is filled with those things of which we have little control. Aging. Death. Conflict. War. For us, nature is the thread of light that guides us through the dark times, that creates the miracles within us needed to live with joy.
Our words tell our stories.
But for almost fifteen years, I have slung a camera around my neck or tucked one in the pocket of my jeans. And so, people ask, why no photographs in our book?
Originally, I submitted a collage of favorite relevant photos for each of the chapter headings: Arizona, Michigan, The Pandemic, and Chair Chat. However, the cost of including those pages was prohibitive and the quality of mass-production questionable. As a result, the collage pages were removed.
But these are difficult times. And so, over the holiday season, I’ll publish the collages—along with a favorite poem/story. It’s my way of shining light on the many turbulent clouds visible on the horizon.
How can one not smile at the sight of the wren greeting the dawn?
Before the Castle
Geysers can be temperamental things. Sure, Old Faithful can be counted to erupt every 75 minutes or so, but when it was named, it was going off every hour almost to the minute. Its sisters are less predictable, and even though the visitor center posts windows of spouting opportunity, to observe your favorite geyser requires patience.
And a good bench surely helps.
Perhaps my favorite of Yellowstone’s thermal features is Castle Geyser. It has a prominent cone, and its steam and water display can last up to twenty minutes. The catch is that Castle only erupts every fourteen hours or so, and even then, there is a plus or minus of forty-five minutes around that predicted time. And so it’s just the luck of the draw when you visit the Upper Geyser Basin. If Castle last went off at 3:00 am, you might expect to see it again at 5:00 pm. Or 4:15. Or 5:45. Or any time in-between. But if you happen to arrive in the vicinity near the predicted window, you might as well take up occupancy on one of the benches to the west of the geyser. And if you bring a book and a bottle of water, the wait isn’t too bad at all.
The benches are simple. Planks and supports, no backrests. Functional in the rustic spirit of the national parks. If you’re looking for comfort, you’re probably back at the Inn having a cocktail on the rooftop patio, but you want an up-close and personal moment with a geyser, you’ve got to hike out and hope for the best.
I have a special Castle memory. One afternoon we were waiting for it to pop up and say hello when across the way to the right, Beehive Geyser erupted. Beehive is not always active, and when it is, it goes off twice a day. There it was, however, steaming high into the air. Just as we started to cheer, Castle began to spray. Then to the far right, Old Faithful started its cycle. To top it off, to the left, Grand Geyser, one of the tallest in the world, shot toward the clouds.
Four geysers. One bench.
Two grateful and amazed watchers.
E.S. and T.S. in Yellowstone
Last week, Mother and I braved winds howling over 20 miles per hour and a windchill of 31 degrees to visit Windmill Island on her 97th birthday. We walked out to the “Jane Tree Corner” to see the Jane Magnolia and the bench commemorating the life she shared with her twin brother. I am so grateful I did not wait until Mother passed to fund a bench honoring her and her twin. The bench is a never-ending invitation to be in conversation with a woman who is my mother and friend. On this day, the conversation was all about her twin. While he died almost three years ago, she had no doubt he was right there with us. It was an honor to be in their presence.
A gift to the city has become a gift to myself.
Benches matter: benches with full back support, arms that help lift one off the seat and under trees that protect paper-thin skin from the sun, eyes increasingly sensitive to light. Is there an opportunity to add a senior-friendly bench in your favorite park?
A Quiet Spot in a State Park in Minnesota
A few weeks ago, I was with my daughter’s family to help them following her surgery. Our two grandsons and I would walk each day in their neighborhood. One of the days, our son-in-law told me we were leaving at 11:00 for a state park an hour away, and he would have a picnic ready for us. We said goodbye and good resting to Allison, and off we went on our adventure.
After hiking downhill to a creek and splashing all around in it, we hiked way up to the top of another hill. There were benches throughout the park and the one near the top of the hill really beckoned us to make a stop. There was a sign nearby that said, “For only by listening with a quiet mind, can we ever fully experience nature.” ~Joseph Cornell. We all stopped and listened. Our two boys, ages 9 and 4, really listened with great intent. One said, “I hear the wind moving the trees” and the other one said, “I hear the wind rustling the trees”. We watched the trees swaying with the wind, and it was such a peaceful spot to rest.
I am pretty sure we would have missed the beauty of the swaying trees and the word “rustling” if we had not made a stop at the intentionally placed bench. May we all take the time to listen with a quiet mind and find a good bench wherever we can.
J.W. of Wisconsin
A Potpourri of Photography, Poetry, and Passion
Join me in Three Rivers, Saugatuck, Hastings, or Holland to hear our story “A Bench, a Tree, and a Flower”
Mother, Jane McKinney, and I are members of the one in six described in the 2020 census. We are over 65. While research shows that regular contact with nature can improve short-term memory loss, reduce inflammation, recharge immune systems, diminish a sense of isolation, and lower the overall risk of early death, for Mother and me, there was more. Nature brought us together on our respective journeys to find inner peace, to live with joy. But gaining access as one ages can be a challenge—for those living independently as well as those who are homebound. Often it boils down to a bench, a tree, and a flower.
Come hear our story this autumn at the Club of Little Gardens in Three Rivers, the Saugatuck Woman’s Club in Saugatuck, and the Thornapple Garden Club in Hastings. Titled “A Bench, a Tree, and a Flower,” the talk is a potpourri of photography, poetry, and passion. Admission is free and the talks are open to the public.
October 18th at 11:00 a.m. sponsored by the Club of Little Gardens
First Presbyterian Church
320 N Main St, Three Rivers, MI
October 27th at 2:00 p.m. sponsored by the Saugatuck Woman’s Club
303 Butler St, Saugatuck, MI
November 9th at 6:00 p.m. sponsored by the Thornapple Garden Club
United Methodist Church
209 West Green Street, Hasting, MI
Members of the Hope Academy of Senior Professionals (HASP) in Holland are also welcome to join me on November 29th at 1:00. Details are available from HASP.
Benches come in all shapes and sizes. So do the benefits of sitting on one. Give it a try and see what happens!
From briefcase to pen, paper and camera, one woman's journey to influence
how we care for the environment, our seniors, each other.
from your local bookstore
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The Ideal Gift
Tiny Treasures, a collection of wildflower photographs and poetic prose, available by contacting me.
The 2nd Edition of Tiny Treasures is designed for use on PCs, tablets, and phones and is available at online stores. To learn more, click on the Ibook/Ebook button below: