Tea Leaves and Other Sources of Knowledge

Some believe that the future can be forecast by reading tea leaves; I believe there is much knowledge and wisdom to be learned by breaking leaves.

My kin on my father’s side were Mississippi farmers, chicken raisers and toilers of the land. A person learns a lot by planting, growing, harvesting and raising, and by paying attention to signs revealed in weather, dirt and leaves. I recall my grandmother walking through our backyard and pulling off sample leaves from a variety of plants as I am sure she did throughout her life. She would then break them in half or crush them slightly before sniffing them. It was as if she couldn’t not perform her routine. She always had an observation to share after taking a sniff, though I remember none of the specifics. It wasn’t until much later in life that I began to somewhat understand what and why she did what she did.

The other day I walked to the gardens and greenhouse at work. My inclination was to take some leaves, break them in half and take a long, slow inhale of the scents from the split photosynthesis machines. It was more than an inclination, it was an instinct. The aromas were marvelous.

I’m sure that grandma got a lot more out of her leaf sniffs than I do. She could also differentiate between plants of similar leaf shapes and I suspect she re-kindled her special relationship with the land by taking in the scents of various plants in our backyard. She would call out plants by leaf shape, bark texture, vine characteristics, and so on. I get pleasure and a sense of connection to a lifestyle that I’ve never experienced, but I don’t have the experience-borne knowledge about life with earth.

There is much wisdom and knowledge required to live amidst nature, particularly when working with it for sustenance as my, and many of your, relatives did. Their lessons were learned with back-breaking labor, not the labors of classroom study; their knowledge was gained by surviving challenges of weather and soil, not the challenges of finding parking spaces at university; their wisdom was developed by persistence and judgment, not over reactions to the conditions of the moment.

As I learn more about plants, specifically the herbs and vegetables in my garden, I further those connections and my knowledge. While some seek tea leaves to see the future, I will try to tap into knowledge and wisdom from the lessons of the past through leaves. I will learn patience, stewardship, symbiosis and much more. Let the lessons continue.

Wisdom from the One-click Portrait Session

I always enjoy providing portfolio reviews for members of photography clubs. My approach is different than most reviewers. As one recent photographer told me, “Other reviewers focus on the photograph, but you focus on the artist.” Amidst my comments about the images, individually and collectively, I also try to share and gain wisdom from the photographer. There are technical aspects, but creating images is a human endeavor above all else. Invariably, for whatever wisdom I share, I receive more. A recent review opportunity was no exception.

Jerry had a selection of about a dozen images of a series of portraits he captured on the streets in Italy. He shared how he asked in limited Italian with a Texas drawl if he could take each person’s photo. His first two requests were declined in grouchy ways, but then he got a positive response from a woman who sold soaps and lotions as a street vendor and the portrait project was underway. His motivation and his approach provide great insights into life and people. The portraits were great; the wisdom was priceless.

Each image showed great rapport between Jerry and his subjects, evidenced by their expressions and the looks in their eyes. It is easy to tell about the relationship between a photographer and the subject by looking at the subject’s eyes. He clearly connected to each person with glimpses of their personalities on display.

When I asked what attracted him to the people who chose to photograph, Jerry replied, “I think people are interesting.” We could all do well to see people as interesting instead of as adversaries, looking for things we can appreciate in others instead of things that differentiate us.  Jerry’s images show the power of such a mindset.

A talented portrait photographer must build trust and rapport to create an atmosphere where the subject can relax and reveal their true selves. Each session is like a mini-relationship. When I asked Jerry how many images he created of each person of which he chose to show, he said, “One.”  One click of the shutter.

Instead of following all the “rules” and “guides” of how to create portraits, Jerry took the risk to reach out to people because he believed them to be interesting, asked permission to take a photo and then pushed the shutter button once. He did not presume to consume their time for his intentions. He was unselfish in his approach and the results revealed interesting people who were rendered in images that revealed human spirit, personality and connection. We could do well to follow Jerry’s example as we see and interact with others.

Dad’s dimes…and other signs of love

My dad collected dimes.  Just dimes.  He was not a numismatist. The coins’ value did not come by holding onto them for a long period of time and he was not selective as to which coins he kept. The value of the coins, collectively and individually, peaked every year around the same time…my mom’s birthday.

I don’t recall being as old as to be in my teen years when dad began keeping dimes from his change. He would occasionally ask if my sister or I had dimes he could buy from us. Ten dimes became a dollar bill, which was a pretty cool transformation to a kid. Instead of loose change, we had paper money. Grown up money.

As I recall, it took a few years before the secret came out. Dad gathered dimes throughout the year, pulling them from his other coins to a special holding place. Later, they were put into coin wrappers, and we got to help with that, too. “I use them to buy a birthday present for your mom,” he shared.

Looking back, it seems that he took this path when family finances were challenging. As conditions improved, dad maintained the practice though he didn’t need to find funds for presents in this loving way.

Dad was an imperfect man, as all of us are, but he loved his wife and family. There was never any doubt about that.  Born early in the 20th century, having grown up in difficult conditions during difficult times, he was not an outwardly expressive guy. He communicated his love in a variety of ways, and my mom was wise enough to see love in action.

Dad was self-employed as an accountant. He put in whatever hours it took to take care of his family and his clients. During some times of the year, dad would be up by 4 in the morning, getting ready in the darkness to head to work. Mom shared that he would use a flashlight to go through the drawers in the bureau and navigate the bedroom and bathroom. She said that, despite his efforts to be quiet and to keep the darkness, he bumped into things and cast his light around. “He wakes me, but I don’t say anything. I know he is trying and is being thoughtful.”

Trying does matter, as does generosity of spirit when interpreting others’ actions.

Dad had other ways of communicating, too. I recall often how he would hold mom’s hand while in the car. I see how my hand holds my wife’s while we are going somewhere, and I see mom’s and dad’s hands.

We can’t have too many ways of saying “I love you.” Often the whispered actions are more clearly understood than the loudly proclaimed words. Try. Trying matters.

“Slow down, I’ll…”

My dad loved to take impromptu trips to the hardware store when I was a kid. His business had stabilized enough by the time I was a young teen that he could pick up a tool or gizmo or gadget whenever he wanted it. The trips would usually start with him picking up his keys, walking by me and saying, “Come on, let’s go to the store.” His call to action was always accompanied by a smile.

I loved those little jaunts to the nearby Wagner Hardware or Handy Dan Home Improvement. I never knew what we’d walk out with. The walk in often resulted in the same comment. Dad’s words have stayed with me for 50+ years.

Dad was 43 years old when I was born. He walked crisply with perfect posture, and I was young and energetic. What dad had in posture, I had in pace.  It would only take a few steps after getting out of the car before I was ahead of him, heading to our shopping adventure.

“Slow down and I’ll walk with you,” he would say.

His message was a simple reminder. It serves as a reminder to this day.

Slow down. Slow….down.

Slow down the pace of living, working, planning, measuring success…slow down. You might find that you’ve been missing more than just seeing things; you have left people behind. Some are friends, some are strangers and some are people you love. Slow down and see the opportunity to engage with and listen to people while in line at the store, or when looking at the same items on the shelf as the person next to you. Slow down and see the opportunities that you encounter everyday at work, at the gas station, at church, at chamber luncheons, in waiting rooms.

Before you head out the door again, pause. Slow your pace. Notice throughout your day who you might have otherwise left behind had you not slowed your pace and heard the world say, “Slow down and I’ll walk with you.”

Why do we hide?

Our backyard neighbor’s truck had not been in its usual place for a few weeks. My wife and I wondered about what might be going on with this man we never met over the nearly four years we’ve lived here. Our curiosity was cut off by our bout with COVID.

As my wife’s recovery progressed, she checked the neighborhood directory to determine our neighbor’s name. Who was this man that was hermit-like and never returned a greeting wave? With his name, she then checked the obituaries. There he was.

He died at the age of 78. His obituary read like a Texas tale that included cowboying, running an oil company that his dad started, and a reference or two about personality traits that some people might find abrasive but others would see as elements of a character developed in a life fully lived. Count me in the latter group. I regret not having had at least a chance to speak with him.

I wonder if he felt that he was missing something by staying in his home.  The only times that I saw him were when he took garbage or recycling to the curb. I had more chat time with a man who cut the neighbor’s yard than with the man who lived there.

I’m a solitary guy by nature, so I think I understand some of what might have motivated the neighbor. I’ll never know since he and I never had a chance to chat and share, and the time for sharing is now gone.

And that’s the point. Share.  I wouldn’t recommend telling your complete life story to someone who says “hi” at the grocery store line, but there are myriad ways to say hello. Some comments will start conversations; some comments will start a monologue by the other person, in which case…listen. I have learned much about life and people (and myself) by listening instead of talking. There is a lot of wisdom and entertainment in the stories of others.  I don’t believe that everyone who is cloistered in some way or another intends to stay that way, nor are those who seem to be extraordinarily connected and social truly so. Converse with someone today. Every day.

Can you write a six-word story?

According to lore, Ernest Hemingway was in a bar with fellow writers when they challenged him to write a six-word story. He picked up a napkin and wrote the now-famous, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” History is unclear whether the legend is legitimate or urban, but so it remains. …and so it remains.

Maybe I need to bring a pen and a napkin with me to an appointment my wife and I have this week. We are shopping for land. About 80 square feet of it—two grave plots.  Our recent COVID experience, particularly her leaving the hospital after a four-day stay the same day that I was admitted for a week-long term, has placed the need for preparations front and center in our minds. All of which calls the question, “What do I want written on my gravestone?” Those will be the words that remain.

I was in my 20s when I sketched a simple version of a gravestone and what words I hoped I would earn for it. Four decades ago my stone had, “People knew he loved them” inscribed on it. I have come to realize that that is/was my aspiration but may not necessarily be my story. Perhaps the epitaph story should be written by those who remain, by those who will find comfort in the words after the grass has covered the bare dirt, and for those who might see the verbiage that remains years and decades later. Maybe their perspectives as observers of my life are more accurate reflections.

My mom and dad would never have chosen the words that now appear on their gravestones. My mom, sister and I chose the words for dad’s epitaph – “He has left for us a most noble pattern” – and my sister and I chose mom’s 13 years later, “A tender mother and a faithful friend.”  I don’t think mom and dad would have chosen those descriptions because they were too close to the story, and they were essentially humble people. I cannot help but think they are pleased with what is etched in their granite, even if it was ghost written.

Hopefully many years from now, someone is going to have to decide on what to put on the stone above my head. Those words will bring comfort, insights or memories to those who remain. But, I ponder whether the six-word story in stone is what I want to say or what others want to say about me?  I will, after all, not be around to read it.

I am going to need a lot of napkins. More than likely, none of the napkin drafts will be “published.”

Lessons from a “First”

Within a few months of turning Medicare age, I experienced a first. I was admitted to a hospital. A week later, at 1:00 in the morning, I returned home.

Every opportunity in life is a chance to listen, pay attention and grow. There was a lot of growing going on this past week, plus the time ahead of that before an ambulance took me in. 

  1. Gratitude. And appreciation. For everything. I had the benefits of great care from the tireless efforts of folks with roles ranging from doctor to custodial crew, and everything in between. I tried to thank each visitor (and they came at all hours with IVs, blood tests, therapies, and so on) for their efforts. I asked that each take care of themselves. Several commented on how rarely they hear “thank you,” “take care,” etc. There is not a moment that we draw breath that is devoid of the opportunity to have gratitude for the moment and appreciation for every person you encounter.
  2. Listen to stories and all that comes with them.  I heard about career/profession decisions, faith, love and loss, kids…life. The insights helped connect me to those who worked hard on my behalf. There was humor. I will carry with me forever the story of the woman who said she was going to empty my multiple urinals. “We don’t want you to get your wee wee in the pee pee.” Her humor was disarming. I chuckled. “Hey, I have $30,000 in student loans where I learned to talk like that,” she said with a smile. Humor – as in “sense of” and “attitude” – is a possession to hold onto.
  3. Lung health. Inhale. Exhale. “Easy peazy, lemon squezzy,” as one young tech reminded me. How your lungs function is quite remarkable. Here are a few tips they shared with me about lung health and good habits that would be remiss if I didn’t share:
    • Sleep on your belly/chest. This helps empty the lungs of the “junk.” If you can’t sleep on your belly, sleep on your side. Don’t sleep on your back.
    • In through the nose, out through the mouth. Exhale for twice as long as you inhale. This habit helps to inflate the lungs. “Blow over the soup,” one respiratory tech reminded me as an example of how to breathe.
    • Pay attention to occasionally stretch out your arms while breathing to help open the lungs, clear the pathways and allow for what are truly, “cleansing breaths.”

Sweet Sauce of Nostalgia

They say don’t look back, but the sirens sing there; my mom and dad are there; more and more friends fall into the “in the rear view mirror” category; and the sweet sauce of nostalgia seasons my moments and memories.  Melancholia sometimes becomes part of the moments, but Van Morrison assured me years ago not to fear it.

Watching the movie Field of Dreams alone, remembering watching it with my oldest son when he was a teen, and recalling how often he has watched it into his adult years, brings on a mixed drink of nostalgia and melancholia that I must sip gently because any movie that includes the opportunity for a son to have another chance to interact with a now-deceased dad brings me to tears. I must be careful on these baselines.

All of which reminds me about listening to life. Had I not listened so carefully and absorbed so much, I would not have the keen affection for, and attention to, the past that I have now.  It illuminates and enriches my moments and my hope for the future. Treasuring the past is perhaps the only good investment I’ve ever made; the returns are available to me in all aspects of my life.  I hope to pass that investment advice to others along the way, for as long as I get to play on this field of dreams…life.

We all have secrets and wisdom to share with others, secrets learned in the trenches (and on the field) of life.  Little things and big things. It is incumbent on us to share. It is important for us to go to well of our wisdom and dip out what we can to share. For the nostalgia well, I go to movies, music and photographs. We all have sources available to use. Share with others what you get from your sources.

Happy Daddin’ Day

Almost 11 years ago, I received my author’s copy of my book, Daddin’:  The Verb of Being a Dad and gave the first copy to my oldest son a day later as we all waited in hospital waiting room for the birth of his first born. A torch was passed.  Actually, it wasn’t.  Just like a match moves from candle to candle on a birthday cake, the torch of daddin’ moves from son to son, continuing the light, not passing it off. And for those men who are not daddin’, they are father figures to others whether they know it or not.

Daddin’ is a verb covering the things that are done in the moments, not just the title of “father.” I came up with the verb in my journal in 1998 because dads needed a verb. Mothers mother.  Their verb connotes tenderness, nurturing and caring; however, “fathering” merely connotes procreation. I used the verb in a story in my book Listen to Life:  Wisdom in Life’s Stories in 2005. From those perspectives, I look at today with three sons, six grandchildren and all carry a bit of the light that my dad passed to me.

My dad didn’t get much, if any, good light from his father. It seemed to me that dad made his own match, lit it in his marriage to my mom, and together they created a family where the match could move from candle to candle. He wasn’t perfect. No one is. He fought demons borne in the challenging conditions of growing up very poor, and that was before the Great Depression exacerbated tough times. The death of their first-born daughter at the age of five to leukemia right after World War II added more pressure. His gravestone reads “He left us a most noble pattern.” Despite it all, a noble pattern.

Fathers of then, fathers of now and fathers in the future will face challenges, demons and forces that can blow out the match. They face times when it is “easier” to spend time doing other things than daddin’. I can’t think of anything more rewarding though.

For whatever light a man can pass along to his children, be thankful. Light chases away darkness. Doing in the moments the things of daddin’ is to carry the light. Happy Father’s Day to all dads, past, present and future. May the light guide the path to the future.

The Grass Was High…Thank Goodness

Between a full schedule, a problematic lawnmower, recently applied fertilizer and a rainy season that would have encouraged nostalgic reminiscing among Noah’s family members, I had not gotten to the lawn for a few weeks and the grass was in desperate need of being mowed. I contemplated taking to it with a machete, but my backfiring lawnmower (obviously I did not get all the issues resolved) was my weapon of choice as I tackled the grass that happens to be on a 45-degree angle (more or less) lawn. As with all experiences in life, great lessons came of the time.

Go Slow…Smell the….St. Augustine

A neighbor drove by and struck up a conversation as I edged the sidewalk.

“Gonna cut the yard, huh?” he said. “It’s going to hard since its wet,” he added.

“Yep, and it’s going to rain again soon. But I have to cut it now that I have a chance.” After a couple of minutes of small talk, he drove off, obviously pleased with having shared his wisdom about wet grass being hard to mow, especially when it is jungle high on a 45-degree angle (more or less).

There is another truth about high, well-fertilized St. Augustine grass when cut in thick, humid conditions: the aroma is rich and it hangs in the air to be consumed, feeding memories of little league practice, mowing lawns for extra money, and teaching young sons the suburban tradition of weekend mowing.

Go slow in tasks, chores … in life … and let your senses feed you.

Don’t Give Up

I probably didn’t mention that I have a good ol’ push lawnmower. An until recently reliable Briggs engine powers the blade but not the wheels. It goes nowhere unless it is pushed. Now seems like a good time to bring up the point.

While cutting the grass in a pattern that follows the length of the yard instead of using an up-and-down pattern on the 45-degree angle (more or less) would be easier, it would not look as good. It’s worth it. Good outcomes are worth time, effort and exertion, no matter to what goals the effort is expended.

In the interest in transparency, I just turned Medicare age, so tackling the project in the conditions of the day required a few breaks but I believe that I had a better outcome than in the old days of youth when success was measured more by the speed in which I finished than by the final look.

Take breaks. Recharge. Don’t give up. Never, ever surrender, as I tell my sons frequently. Some goals are not reached in hours, days, weeks, months or years…sometimes the desired outcome takes decades (that will be a story for another day). Never…ever…surrender.

Drink Fluids

Hydration matters. If I counted correctly the number of 32-ounce tumblers my wife filled for me, as well as those in the evening, I figure I drank almost a gallon and one-half. Recharging my fluids was a good thing, but, as with all things, the main purpose is not where all the benefits reside. With each refill, I got a wink and a kiss; with each break, my body felt the cooling, calming of ice water; at each pause, I reviewed the progress of my efforts; with each swallow I got a sense of “I got this.” And I did.

As much as your body needs the hydration, your spirit can benefit from the refreshing pauses if you enjoy the time and not just the fluid.

This morning, I looked through the blinds at the grass that was cut 18 hours before. I think it had grown. So, too, is life; it is never over until it is over. And that is a blessing if we see it as such.