The bench

“Seated here in contemplations lost, my thought discovers vaster space beyond, supernal silence and unfathomed peace”
Giacomo Leopardi

The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
Wendell Berry

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(remnants of a red cedar picnic bench / Julie Cook / 2015)

Fifty years ago it came to be.
The red cedar picnic table, along with the accompanying two benches, just appeared one hot summer afternoon out back on the fenced green lawn, sheltered under the shade of the tall pine tree.
It was long before central air-conditioning.
Every window in the house was wide open.
It was cooler out rather than in.

These were the days before every home had a two, three or even four car garage.
Despite cheap gas, frugality reigned.
It was a time when everyone was home more often than away.
A time when families and neighbors would gather together outside in order to cool off, simply sharing the riches of one another’s lives.

Backyard cookouts, neighborhood block parties, a time of lazy summer days. . .
Life was delightfully slower back then.
Most moms were home, as dads were at work and the kids whiled away the hours outside.
Kick the can
Hide-n-seek
Stickball games
Collecting evening fireflies
Catching crawfish in the creek
A single voice calling out “Marco. . .”
while a handful of youthful voices echoed back “Polo. . .”

This was the time before toxic waters, child predators and electronic this and thats. .
There was no need for cell phones. . .parents knew kids would be home at dark.
High fashion consisted of tee shirts, cut offs and a new pair of keds.

Popsicles dribbled down chins,
As everyone shooed the flies aways from the platter of ice cold slices of watermelon.
Winning the seed spiting contests always went to those who still had their front teeth.
Mothers were insistent on everyone wearing their tennis shoes while youthful feet clamored to be free
“I don’t want to hear it when you get a splinter or step on a yellow jacket. . .”

A neighborhood full of youthful energy each took their places at the table, sliding onto the benches oh so gingerly so as not to rub bare legs carelessly over the red cedar wood.
“Everyone look this way and smile”. . .
As the Kodak flash cube blinked and clicked with the advancement of the film.

The paper plates were ladened with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Lays potato chips and fritos along with freshly washed green grapes. . .however it was to the ice-cream sandwiches and fudge bars that all eyes turned.
“Now ya’ll wait a while after eating–I don’t want you running around making yourselves sick. . .”
As the moms sipped iced coffee and puffed on their cigarettes.

Yet sadly, time always has a way of catching up with Life.
The children grew up and one by one, grew away.
With each passing summer there were less and less members gathered around the table.
The joyful chatter of youthful exuberance grew silent
The pine straw fell, covering the table as the benches remained empty and bare.
Abandoned and finally forgotten. . .that is until today.

Fifty years later, a lone bench is found hidden deep in the woods.
Time and the elements have each laid claim to the table and fellow bench, but the lone single bench remains much as it did—waiting and inviting any and all who might wish to sit a spell while spending a summer’s evening listening to the sound of the whip-poor-will and the distant echo of the laughter of children.

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The magnolia tree

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.
Hermann Hesse

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(magnolia bloom / Julie Cook / 2015)

Growing up, we all have a measuring stick.
A benchmark of growth.
A point of reference for progress.
A door frame, a yard stick, a section of wall ripe with the marks of hoped for and greatly anticipated advancement.

Even when I was still in the classroom, my kids marked their various heights along the doorframe of the classroom’s door.
Who was taller this year verses the heights from year’s past.
Ever onward and upward. . .

Today was not easy.
Another trying day.
Sweet Dad.
Yet Gloria is struggling.
Transition and growth, that was once exciting, is now painfully dreaded.

Funny how we are always in such a hurry to “grow up”
yet suddenly one day we wake up,
wanting nothing more to do with it, preferring simply to stop it all–
Racing frantically backwards to the blissful days of youthful abandon.
When nothing hurt, nothing mattered and everything worked as life was nothing but good.
Where did the time go. . .

Looking out the window from the sunporch, I noticed a lone bloom on the massive magnolia out back.
I know this massively tall tree.
I remember when 50 feet was just a tiny sapling.

I excuse myself to go out back to take a picture.

When do those things which once seemed so expansive and endless
become small and constrained?
Standing in the backyard, my presence fills the space that once seemed so vast.
Vegetation has moved closer to the house.
The monkey grass use to be further back. . .
I don’t remember that carpet of ivy. . .
Where did the pine straw islands disappear to?
And the magnolia tree. . .

For whatever reason, my grandmother who I had spent the weekend with, decided to bring
me back to mom with a magnolia sapling in tow.
The sapling was tiny and leggy.
At 7, I towered over the plant.
“And this was to become a tree,” I mused,
Not impressed I “humphed” away rather uninterested.

The tree now towers over the landscape.
It’s out of place.
Not harmonious with everything else in the yard or surrounding yards.
It dwarfs everything around it.
It’s far out lived both my grandmother and mother.
At this rate it might just outlive me.

I marked my life by this tree.
We played backyard football around this once tender plant,
Making certain we didn’t hit it with the ball.
It was a reference point or boundary during many a childhood game.
“Don’t go past the magnolia tree”. . .
“The base is the magnolia tree”. . .

It was mother’s tree.
A gift from one mother to another mother
As oddly I now seem to be a distant guardian.

So on this most difficult of days
Finding the lone bloom beckoning me out,
Out to the yard, to a place I’d not simply wandered through in years,
As it’s really no longer my space to wander. . .
I felt a deep sense of comfort.
As perhaps both Mimi and Mom were somehow still standing there,
Wondering where in the heck to plant a tiny little sapling in a vast backyard. . .
Which in turn would greet me these 50 years later in a now seemingly small backyard
With the gift of welcomed comfort from a single lone bloom.

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Pretty little redhead

“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair.”
― L.M. Montgomery

Everybody thinks I’m crazy.
Yesiree, that’s me, that’s me.
That’s what I’m cracked up to be.
I chop a hole in every tree.
Knock on wood.
Well, knock on wood.
So, I’m crazy, so what?
What can I do?
So are you!

Woody Woodpecker 1941

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(red headed woodpecker / Julie Cook / 2015)

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(1947 Woody Woodpecker illustration)

One of my favorite birds to visit the yard. . .
Along with one of my favorite cartoon characters when I was little. . .
Here’s to colorful and very happy May Monday. . .

Pests and pleasantries

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
Epicurus

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(dangling sweet gums balls / Julie Cook / 2015)

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(a tent caterpillar / Julie Cook /2015)

Busying myself with yard work a few days back, I rounded a corner of the house when I spied
this fuzzy little stripped fellow clinging to the brick.
Suddenly I was 8 years old again. . .

Spying the first caterpillar of the season, or it could have been the first lightening bug,
I made a mad dash inside frantically searching for a jar.
And since I couldn’t find any empty jars sitting around, I scoured the cabinets and the refrigerator.
Begging my mother to scoop out all of the mayonnaise from the jar that was sitting in the fridge, as I was in desperate need of that particular jar as it was the perfect size you know, just big enough to reach one’s 8 year old hand down into in order to place the necessary sticks and straw. . .
I could never understand my mother’s overt reluctance to give up the jar.
How hard could it be to scoop out the mayonnaise putting it in a bowl??

I needed it washed and dried.
I would then need the icepick.
“What?” I can still hear my mom shriek followed by a resounding “NO.”
Much to my mother’s fears. . .did she not understand that
I had to poke holes in the top of the jar.. .
Even caterpillars, or fireflies, needed to breathe, I thought everyone knew that.

My collected caterpillars, much to my chagrin, never turned into butterflies.
How was I suppose to know that these guys were not of the butterfly variety?!
Sadly I was attempting to raise moths.
And not the beautiful lunar month mind you but more like a devastating pest.
For my caterpillar was known as a Tent Caterpillar.

Tent caterpillars.
Have you ever seen a tree with a mass of white webbing covering large sections of limbs?
As in, there are hundreds of these ravenous critters inside that white gauze,
waiting to come out as moths. . .yet it is the caterpillar who is very hungry. . .
as in no leaf is safe. You know, as in everything you’d prefer to keep in tact and whole,
gets consumed by hundreds of creepy crawlies.

While way up high, nearly touching the sky
resides the sweet gum ball.
Currently a brilliant light green ball which dangles, like a thousand little earrings, from the branches of the tree.
As time passes, come the Fall of the year, these tender green balls turn spiny and brown, falling to the ground.

A sweet gum tree can grow as tall as 100 feet and is a most hardy and prolific tree.
It is a rapid grower and actually possesses a rather pleasant sweet aroma discovered
upon crushing a few leaves between one’s fingers.
And. . .it is a favorite tree of the tent caterpillar.

Eradication means cutting the wrapped up limbs and disposing of them before it’s too late.
The caterpillars are also very dangerous to horses who graze in areas where tent caterpillars roam.
Mares who consume tent caterpillars are likely to become infertile and pregnant mares are at great risk for losing folds.
Who knew?!

The happenstance of seeing this single caterpillar immediately transported me to a different time and place. . .a place full of wonderment and joy. I wasn’t thinking that I was gazing upon a pest who needed to be immediately disposed of before he and his thousands of minions, wherever they may be, devoured a tree. . .

Rather I was back at a certain place and time relishing the simple pleasures of life. It was a time when Nature, with all that she had to offer to an 8 year old child, was something to be savored and enjoyed.
For it was through the lens of a child that I looked upon this current-day pest—
I was seeing it not as a ravenous creepy crawly but as the fond recollection of youth.
Happily, for that brief moment in time while busily working in the yard, upon this momentary encounter, all that came flooding back in that single moment was a warming sense of contentment as happiness washed over me like welcoming wave on a hot summer’s day.

Here’s to childhood, caterpillars and the joy of Spring. . .

The gift of a special bond

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
― Mother Teresa

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(resident crow / Julie Cook / 2015)

My husband grew up in a small west Georgia town during the 1950s. It was a wonderful time and place in which to relish in the joy and innocence of youth. He often fondly recalls a rather peculiar friendship he formed with a most unusual individual during this particular youthful time of his life.
It wasn’t exactly the sort of friendship one would imagine for a young boy.
It was a friendship and bond forged with a crow.

My husband was a boy who loved being outdoors. The freedom to roam through the woods, wade in and out of creeks and climb up and down trees were all simply vital components of his life and this magical time of innocence of which he never gave a second thought. Leaving home at sun up and not returning until the sun had long set was a common occurrence.

Sadly for a generation of children today the desire to venture out, as often as previous generations had, is no longer as alluring. And as today’s adults, we simply don’t feel good about allowing our kids to “take off,” going to parts unknown as our parents had with us. Much to our sorrow, the world is no longer safe.

It was during this exuberant time of childhood exploration and adventure that my husband found and subsequently took into his care a young fledgling crow that had fallen from a nest. Caring for the young bird, feeding it cereal, keeping it safe and interacting with it daily as only a young boy would with a new found, albeit odd, friend, the baby crow thrived.

Each morning, as he walked to school, his new friend / pet would flitter along over head. As my husband ventured into his school and up to his classroom, the crow would fly to the exact classroom’s open window, flying into the classroom over to my husband’s desk where he’d grab the pencil always sitting on the desk before flying back out the window and eventually home with the pencil. The teacher telling my husband that he would have to keep the crow at home because he was becoming too much of a distraction.

Always marveling at his tale, I was sweetly reminded of his story this week when I read an endearing story on the BBC about a young girl in Washington State who has befriend several crows. .
I hope you’ll enjoy the story as much as I did. . .

The girl who gets gifts from birds
By Katy Sewall
Seattle

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(Gabi)

Lots of people love the birds in their garden, but it’s rare for that affection to be reciprocated. One young girl in Seattle is luckier than most. She feeds the crows in her garden – and they bring her gifts in return.

Eight-year-old Gabi Mann sets a bead storage container on the dining room table, and clicks the lid open. This is her most precious collection.

“You may take a few close looks,” she says, “but don’t touch.” It’s a warning she’s most likely practised on her younger brother. She laughs after saying it though. She is happy for the audience.

Inside the box are rows of small objects in clear plastic bags. One label reads: “Black table by feeder. 2:30 p.m. 09 Nov 2014.” Inside is a broken light bulb. Another bag contains small pieces of brown glass worn smooth by the sea. “Beer coloured glass,” as Gabi describes it.

Each item is individually wrapped and categorised. Gabi pulls a black zip out of a labelled bag and holds it up. “We keep it in as good condition as we can,” she says, before explaining this object is one of her favourites.

There’s a miniature silver ball, a black button, a blue paper clip, a yellow bead, a faded black piece of foam, a blue Lego piece, and the list goes on. Many of them are scuffed and dirty. It is an odd assortment of objects for a little girl to treasure, but to Gabi these things are more valuable than gold.

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(Gifts given by the crows)

She didn’t gather this collection. Each item was a gift – given to her by crows.

She holds up a pearl coloured heart. It is her most-prized present. “It’s showing me how much they love me.”

If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them”
John Marzluff
Prof of wildlife science
Gabi’s relationship with the neighbourhood crows began accidentally in 2011. She was four years old, and prone to dropping food. She’d get out of the car, and a chicken nugget would tumble off her lap. A crow would rush in to recover it. Soon, the crows were watching for her, hoping for another bite.

As she got older, she rewarded their attention, by sharing her packed lunch on the way to the bus stop. Her brother joined in. Soon, crows were lining up in the afternoon to greet Gabi’s bus, hoping for another feeding session.

Gabi’s mother Lisa didn’t mind that crows consumed most of the school lunches she packed. “I like that they love the animals and are willing to share,” she says, while admitting she never noticed crows until her daughter took an interest in them. “It was a kind of transformation. I never thought about birds.”

In 2013, Gabi and Lisa started offering food as a daily ritual, rather than dropping scraps from time to time.

Each morning, they fill the backyard birdbath with fresh water and cover bird-feeder platforms with peanuts. Gabi throws handfuls of dog food into the grass. As they work, crows assemble on the telephone lines, calling loudly to them.

(There is a lovely video clip of Gabi feeding birds in her garden–please follow this link to the original article in order to be able to see the video
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026)

It was after they adopted this routine that the gifts started appearing.

The crows would clear the feeder of peanuts, and leave shiny trinkets on the empty tray; an earring, a hinge, a polished rock. There wasn’t a pattern. Gifts showed up sporadically – anything shiny and small enough to fit in a crow’s mouth.

One time it was a tiny piece of metal with the word “best” printed on it. “I don’t know if they still have the part that says ‘friend’,” Gabi laughs, amused by the thought of a crow wearing a matching necklace.

When you see Gabi’s collection, it’s hard not to wish for gift-giving crows of your own.

“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He specializes in birds, particularly crows and ravens.

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(Crow on feeder)

What food is best? “A few peanuts in the shell,” he says. “It’s a high-energy food… and it makes noise when you throw it on the ground, so they hear it and they quickly habituate to your routine.”

Marzluff, and his colleague Mark Miller, did a study of crows and the people who feed them. They found that crows and people form a very personal relationship. “There’s definitely a two-way communication going on there,” Marzluff says. “They understand each other’s signals.”

The birds communicate by how they fly, how close they walk, and where they sit. The human learns their language and the crows learn their feeder’s patterns and posture. They start to know and trust each other. Sometimes a crow leaves a gift.

But crow gifts are not guaranteed. “I can’t say they always will (give presents),” Marzluff admits, having never received any gifts personally, “but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people.”

Not all crows deliver shiny objects either. Sometimes they give the kind of presents “they would give to their mate”, says Marzluff. “Courtship feeding, for example. So some people, their presents are dead baby birds that the crow brings in.”

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(Crows at the birdbath)

Gabi has been given some icky objects. Her mother threw out a rotting crab claw, for example.

Gabi points out a heavily rusted screw she prefers not to touch. It’s labelled “Third Favorite.” Asking her why an untouchable object is in the favourites, she answers, “You don’t’ see a crow carrying around a screw that much. Unless it’s trying to build its house.”

Lisa, Gabi’s mom, regularly photographs the crows and charts their behaviour and interactions. Her most amazing gift came just a few weeks ago, when she lost a lens cap in a nearby alley while photographing a bald eagle as it circled over the neighbourhood.

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(Gabi with Lisa)

She didn’t even have to look for it. It was sitting on the edge of the birdbath.

Had the crows returned it? Lisa logged on to her computer and pulled up their bird-cam. There was the crow she suspected. “You can see it bringing it into the yard. Walks it to the birdbath and actually spends time rinsing this lens cap.”

“I’m sure that it was intentional,” she smiles. “They watch us all the time. I’m sure they knew I dropped it. I’m sure they decided they wanted to return it.”

Writer and broadcaster Katy Sewall is co-host of The BitterSweet Life podcast.” She’s been a journalist and radio professional for 12 years.

Innocence and sorrow

I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles. And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees.
Williston Fish, “A Last Will,” 1898

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

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(the forgotten antique toy soldiers of a long ago childhood / Julie Cook / 2015)

Who among us has not known his or her fair share, or perhaps overtly unfair share, of sorrow and grief? Who has not railed angrily, with fiery fist raised while wearing tear streaked cheeks, cursing the unseen God to whom is lain all blame and guilt?
Who has not known the pain of suffering—either physical, emotional, mental or spiritual?
Who has not experienced the anguish of loss, the torment and frustration, as well as the helplessness, of having life totally out of ones control—unable to prevent or stop the suffering and anguish of sorrow?
Who has not demanded answers, the revealing reasons as to why the misfortune, coupled by the agonizing torment of the hows and the whys. . .

How many of us have looked recently at the news, only to see the face of the teddy bear browned-eyed young girl of idyllic youth and hope sweetly looking back at us and finding ourselves wondering how could such a joyful youthful soul fall victim to the madness half a world away— and suddenly finding that what was “over there” seems eerily now over here, effecting us all. . .all the while pondering how the God of all things past, present and future could allow such a seemingly gentle child, a girl who could have been the daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, friend of any one of us, to be snatched away in the height of her youthful quest for goodness at the hands of those who are cold, calculating and void of any sort of empathy?

The night after the story of Kayla Mueller’s death at the hands of IS, with stories swirling that she had been married off to one of the ISIS leaders as a prize of war, there seemed to be more questions then answers that were met with the overflowing grief of a family which was shared publicly Tuesday during a press conference. Yet many of the more cynical and jaded among us have been heard to wonder out loud “what foolish individual in their right mind would go over there right now. . .?”

But what we must know about human beings is that there are those among us who run to the sound of fire rather than from it. . .those who selflessly and unequivocally rush in to offer help, support, ease and comfort to those individual who are stuck in the midst of misery. They go with little to no regard of self—and if the truth be told, we are all glad they do.

Whether we agree that that region of the world is simply too dangerous for the Kayla Muellers among us to venture. . .be it the middle east, many parts of Africa, Ukraine, parts of the far east, and even the Philippines—that such places are only for the military and well trained to traverse, the truth of the matter is that where there are people and children who are caught innocently in the middle of conflict–those who suffer grievously because of the madness of others, there will always be those among us who hear, as well as heed, the call to render service and help—be we Jew, Gentile, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc—the drive to offer empathy, compassion, aid and care for our hurting fellow human beings is a hardwired trait that hides deep within our psyche–it’s just that some of us are better at hearing and heeding it than others.

Tuesday night, after having spent much of the day glued to the news and having grieved along with Kayla’s family, having noted that she was the same age as my son, having wrestled with the position of the United States in such matters as hostages and war, I found myself settling in for the evening reading over the Bonhoeffer book I have previously mentioned Meditating On The Word by Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated by David McI. Gracie.

The evenings reading was based on Psalm 34:19 A Sermon on the Suffering of the Righteous
It was a meditation that Bonhoeffer had actually written down and mailed to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge while Bonhoeffer was a prisoner in Tegel Prison near Berlin—the first of three different prisons before his subsequent execution. Bonhoeffer had already been held by the Nazi’s for over a year, his future uncertain. He had just become engaged prior to his arrest, and with it now being over a year away from those he loved, the confinement was wearing on his soul.

Once again, as the created and not being the Creator, there are those events in life that we simply will never truly understand no matter how hard we try. We can write them off as this or that, we can grow bitter and cold or simply empty and numb but there are those moments when we will find ourselves at a loss for words, a loss of understanding. It will be there, in the midst of the suffering and sorrow, that we will meet God. . .

I want to offer the following excerpt of the meditation as I find its subject most timely and most enlightening. . .(the translator has chosen to mix up the use of the feminine and masculine pronoun)

Psalm 34:19
The righteous person must suffer many things;
but the lord delivers him out of them all.

1 Peter 3:9
Repay not evil with evil or railing with railing,
but rather bless, and know that you are called to this,
so that you should inherit the blessing.

The righteous person suffers in this world in a way that the unrighteous person does not.
The righteous person suffers because of many things that for others seem only natural and unavoidable. The righteous person suffers because of unrighteousness, because of the senselessness and absurdity of events in the world. She suffers because of the destruction of the divine order of marriage and the family. She suffers not only because it means privation for her, but because she recognizes something ungodly in it. The world says: that is how it is, always will be, and must be. The righteous person says: It ought not to be so; it is against God. This is how one recognizes the righteous person, by her suffering in just this way. She brings, as it were, the sensorium of God into the world; hence, she suffers as God suffers in this world.
“But the Lord delivers him.”
God’s deliverance is not to be found in every experience of human suffering. But in the suffering of the righteous God’s hope is always there, because he (the righteous person) is suffering with God. God is always present with him. The righteous person knows that God allows him to suffer so, in order that he may learn to love God for God’s own sake. In suffering, the righteous person finds God. That is his deliverance.
Find God in your separation and you will find deliverance!
The answer of the righteous person to the sufferings that the world causes her is to bless.
That was the answer of God to the world that nailed Christ to the cross: blessing.
God does to repay like with like, and neither should the righteous person.
No condemning, no railing, but blessing.
The world would have no hope if this were not so.
The world lives and has its future by means of the blessing of God and of the righteous person. Blessing means laying one’s hands upon something and saying: You belong to God in spite of all. It is in this way that we respond to the world that causes us such suffering. We do not forsake it, cast it out, despise or condemn it. Instead, we recall it to God, we give it hope, we lay our hands upon it and say: God’s blessing come to you; may God renew you; be blessed, you dear God-created world, for you belong to your creator and redeemer. We have received God’s blessing in our happiness and in our suffering. And whoever has been blessed herself cannot help but pass this blessing on to the next one; yes, wherever she is, she must be herself a blessing. The renewal of the world, which seems so impossible, becomes possible in the blessing of God.
As Jesus ascended to heaven, “he lifted up his hands and blessed” his followers. We hear him speak to us in this hour: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Amen

Traditions

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
― Gustav Mahler

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”
― L.M. Montgomery

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(a very old “ornament” / Julie Cook / 2014)

Each year it’s always the same.
As the musty dusty boxes are brought down from the attic, a grand anticipation, filled with the buzzing of electricity, sweeps throughout the house. And despite the fact that I am the only one usually around bringing the boxes down from the dark recesses of the attic, praying I don’t fall down the stairs breaking anything vital to life and mobility, as that is now not merely a remote possibility but a more plausible concern, the anticipation is still just as grand.

The decorating of Christmas, or any holiday for that matter, has never been the great family affair as I suspect it is for other households. No helping hands or delegating of assignments here. The trimming of trees and the placing of festive garlands and boughs of holly was first the responsibility of my mother, and now the task has fallen to me. Of which is just fine and dandy by me as I enjoy the oohs and ahhs of family once they venture homeward feasting their eyes on my handiwork.

Yet I should confess that often there can be heard a bit of fussing and cussing on my part as I labor to “make merry”—all the while mumbling “what is the point of this. . .why do we do this every year. . .I’m getting too old for this. . .yada, yada, yada—the litany of complaints goes on and on. . . that is, until I finally plug everything in and flip every switch, standing back to bask in the glittery, sparkly, twinkly wonderment known as holiday magic.

I suspect a very big part of the reason as to why we, you and I, continue on with traditions such as tree trimming and decorating has a lot to do with a much deeper and more intrinsic reason than merely the marking of a particular day on a calendar.

For me there are three tiny important pieces to the holiday decorating puzzle, otherwise known as ornaments, which must always be the first to be pulled out from their tomb–otherwise known as their storage box. There had once been a few more of these “puzzle” pieces but the ravages of time, heat, cold and humidity have all taken their toll.

Each of these remaining treasured ornaments are handled as if by a curator who might be cradling some ancient manuscript or long past treasure merely minus the white gloves. Delicately unwrapping each sacred piece from the tissue paper, which has tightly protected these heirlooms for the past 11.5 months of the year, lovingly removing and now freeing each one.

The first precious treasure is a fragile tattered yellowing piece of paper which had been “colored” orange by a certain Crayola toting 3 year old sunday schooler from very long ago. It is marked with the printed words “Christmas is Jesus’ Birthday”. This is the first ornament which must don the tree each and every year as it proclaims the very reason as to why there is a tree for decorating in the first place.

The second treasure is a tiny broken plastic manger complete with a little bitty teeny tiny Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus joined by a couple tiny sheep thrown in for good measure. The manger is accented with a small gold shooting star which is now haphazardly reattached with wire. It is the first “gift” I can recall receiving outside of family gifts. A small token of a long ago and far away preschool sunday school Christmas party.

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And lastly there is a small pink clay heart, complete with the prints of tiny fingers and thumbs now frozen for all eternity, topped off with a makeshift copper wire hanger.
My mother, in her inestimable wisdom, wrote my name across the heart along with the year, 1965 in a ball point pen. I was all of either 5 or 6 and we had made the clay ornaments at school as part of our Christmas festivities. It is a simple air dried old school brown piece of clay and therefore very fragile. As to why I would make a heart, painting it pink as a Christmas ornament, is beyond my soul, but the fact that it still survives is testament enough.

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After I had moved away, married and started my own holiday traditions, I asked Mother if I could take those couple of ornaments with me as they were my link to all of my Christmases past. The life line connecting what was, what I was and to the now growing present and future of who I am and who I was to become.

That’s what Christmas is. . .it is a tie that binds.
It is the link to our past–it is our heritage as well as our inheritance—as adopted children, adopted through and by Grace, Christmas joins us, unites us, binds us to and with the birth of our only hope, our future, our salvation. And because we are an often forgetful lot, we need reminding of this, year after year as the joy becomes overwhelmingly new, refreshingly clear and abundantly miraculous.

And so, as I continue placing these dear treasures and precious pieces of my holiday puzzle on our tree after tree, year after year, I continue by adding new links to this puzzle of my life, pieces both past and future. One of my favorites being the dorito chip shaped reindeer made by my once 4 year old son. Each year, as I gingerly place this happy little reindeer on our tree, I feel the presence of a little boy, now grown man, excited, proud and awed to have his little pieces added to our puzzle of life’s continuum.

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(Brenton’s dorito shaped reindeer ornament / Julie Cook / 2014)

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Ephesians 1:4-10

The power of Chocolate

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
― Charles M. Schulz

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(a decadent slice of chocolate heaven from Sprungli’s cafe Zurich, Switzerland / Julie Cook / 2012)

For Mother, it was an icy cold Coke.
For Dad, it is chocolate, any and all sort.

Yesterday, late morning, I ran into one of my family’s favorite places in Atlanta.
Henri’s Bakery.
Henri’s is one of the oldest existing bakeries in the city, that and Rhodes Bakery. And granted there are better tasting bakeries within the city, Henri’s has long been woven into the fabric of my life starting when my mother was a little girl. I’ve never really thought much about it but I suppose having a very french sounding bakery in the middle of “old Atlanta” is a bit odd, especially to those transplant yankees and / or visitors to the city.

Henri’s is in the exact same location it’s been in since I was a little girl. Tucked away on a small unassuming little side street and now prime real-estate corner lot, lacking adequate parking, almost cowering in the shadows of high-rise office buildings, uber chic condos and the elegant St Regis Hotel. . .in an area that is at the center of what one considers to be the heart of true Atlanta or more commonly known as Buckhead.

Today’s Buckhead area is known for its posh and ultra chic shopping, Michelin Star dinning, eclectic watering holes, and 5 star hotels—a playground and shopping mecca of the famous and not so famous.
I simply just know it as the place where I spent my childhood and my growing up as both my grandmothers lived in Buckhead. It’s where my mom and dad grew up. . . walking to attend school, riding bikes to the movies, eventually meeting on a blind date and lucky for me, marrying.

Buckhead’s humble beginning was a far cry from today’s scene of upscale prestige. There once was an old general store at the crossroads of what is today’s Roswell Rd and Peachtree Rd. A single dirt road diverged into two separate dirt roads exactly at the site of the general store, with the store being the stopping point on one’s journey up either of the two roads. On the front of the old general store, up above the door, was a mounted head of a buck—hence Buckhead. This was a time long before Sherman had even set his sites on Atlanta, burning it to the ground.

Henri’s opened up in Atlanta in 1929, owned and operated by Henri Fiscus–a man who immigrated to Atlanta from France where he had been trained as a classic Chef. The original location was actually in downtown Atlanta–the location where my aunt remembers visiting every Sunday evening, along with my mom and grandmother, as they would go pick up Sunday’s quick and easy, but oh so fresh and good, supper. To this day, when she comes back to Georgia for a visit, I have to take her over to Atlanta to Henri’s for one of their famous Po Boys on the savory house made French Baguettes. I happen to be partial to the shortbread cookies. . .

I had driven over to Atlanta yesterday to run a few errands before going over to see Dad.
I had told Dad that I would pick up lunch.
“Oh no you don’t have to do that, I think we have something here”
“Dad, just ask Gloria if she’d like for me to pick up lunch.”
“GLO”
“Dad, if she’s not close by just ask her later and call me back”
I think he was afraid he’d forget to ask her as he continued hollering her name.
I suppose getting up and going to see where she was would have been too much to ask.
“GLO”
“IT’S JULIE ON THE WIRE”
Wire Dad?
Long story of yelling short, Gloria said yes, she’d like for me to pick up lunch.

After running a few errands in town, I headed over to Henri’s.
The last place my grandmother had lived was across the street from Henri’s.
Her condominiums having long since been torn down, now making room for a sprawling modern upscale living and shopping development. As I fight off the sweeping cloak of melancholy and longing that always finds me when I drive past my memories, I fretted about finding a parking spot.
Henri’s gets very very crowded at lunchtime–so much so that they have an off duty Atlanta policeman directing traffic.

Today I was lucky, a spot at the front door! Woohoo!!
Walking in the door, I immediately grab a shopping basket and head over to the shelf containing the sandwiches. There is only a limited number of the “famous” sandwiches that are made up for the day–if you’re not early, you miss out but there is now a counter where you can have your sandwiches custom made if you prefer. I grab two of the Po boys and a regular turkey on white for dad, a couple of sacks of chips as I make for the most important counter in the store. . . the beautifully displayed pastries, cakes and cookies.

As I ogle the decadent goodies through the glass, a woman behind the counter asks if she can help me.
I ask for 2 dozen of the shortbread cookies, the ones with the little colorful sugar dot in the center, with each dozen going in a separate box. One box to stay with dad, one box to go home with me.
Next I ask for the most important item of all on my list—two chocolate bombs.
A most decadent conglomeration of chocolate cake, cream, chocolate ganache, a chocolate shell covered in chocolate shavings—for I know my father’s weakness. . .Chocolate.

Dad let’s me in the house as I carry in our lunch.
Like a little kid, he can’t wait for me to pull out the magic little white boxes.
“What’s that?”
“What’s in there?”
“What’s in that box?”
“Cookies Dad.”
“Oooo, I love cookies”
“What’s in that thing?”
“That Dad is your chocolate bomb–2 of them” I proudly proclaim knowing that I have just made his day.
“Oooooo”

Dad eats only half his sandwich before he asks for a cookie.
He chooses the cookie with the chocolate dot on top, opting the eat the chocolate center while leaving the shortbread cookie part behind. At 87 I’m thinking he’s acting more like 7 but I don’t say anything.
“Can I have my bomb now” as glee filled expectancy fills the room.
“You’ve got two of them Dad, you can eat them whenever you’d like!”
“I want one now” which is more of a demand than a polite statement.
In less then 10 minutes, the only thing remaining on his plate are a few chocolate crumbs.

Happy, chatty, friendly and the most attentive and focused he’s really been in a long time, Dad has had a good day, which in turn equates to my having had a good day with Dad.
There is often no substitute for the familiar, the tried and the true.
In this case a humble little outdated bakery which is still owned and operated by the founding family, throw in a couple of sandwiches, a box of shortbread cookies, a chocolate bomb or two, and you’ve got the making of a magical moment.
May we never under estimate the power of chocolate.

What does the Pink Pig and a messy refrigerator have in common?

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depths of some devine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.”

― Alfred Tennyson

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(a refrigerator is hiding under the tokens of a lifetime / Julie Cook /

I think it first started somewhere in-between childhood and adolescence.
This odd habit of adoring some blank canvas, in this case a refrigerator, with the important, and not so important, special mementoes of a life lived with some sort of purpose.
Perhaps it was actually earlier.
Perhaps it dates back to early childhood.
Maybe it started during the annual holiday trek downtown in order to visit and pay homage to Santa.

She was sporting a green velveteen dress, the one with the lacy white collar and tiny little holly leaves layered with the pretty red wool car-coat accented with the black velvet trim, dressed in the season’s holiday finest, the little girl was dressed to impress both Santa and grandparents alike.

The year was 1964 and the long awaited and deeply anticipated day of a very important yearly right of passage had finally arrived.
Jumping into the car, proudly sitting in between her father and mother in the front seat, as this was long before the time of required back seat riders, the little girl is more than ready to make the journey downtown.

Upon entering the massive and historic shopping mecca, proudly and hurriedly marching toward the escalator, the family ascends upward to that most special and anticipated appointment. Here they find a long snaking and winding line made up of fidgety children, crying babies and mothers and fathers who have sadly long lost any and all holiday cheer. Taking their place in line, they join the throng of humanity weaving in and out of the furniture and rug aisles on the tip top floor of the department store.

It’s a confessional line of sorts where the tiny penitent line up in order to confess all indiscretions in hopes of procuring the wealth of a heart’s desire.
Rather than a curtained lined booth where a man with a white collar sat waiting in the shadows, here a jolly old man, with long flowing white hair and beard, donning a red suit, sits perched upon a throne, beaming a broad cheek to cheek smile with arms wide open.

As grand as this moment was to be, this was not the true culmination of the yearly magical visit.

The crowning moment came when a hesitant young father escorted his now giddy 5 year old daughter to the waiting open door of the tiny pink car. Settling her in on the cold metal seat, a helper elf shuts the small door. Looking through the wire mesh of the tiny window, she waves the triumphant wave of sheer bliss to her parents as she prepares for a magical adventure. Slowly, yet determined, the long pink monorail train, known as the famous Rich’s Pink Pig, lurches into motion.

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Journeying out on to the roof top of the famous downtown department store, around the base of the giant anchored great tree, past the live reindeer caged in wooden stalls nibbling on hay and looking most out of place in this foreign southern locale, the Pink Pig slowly makes the entirely too short 3 1/2 minute circle along the track which had been in operation since 1953.

Following the ride and now proudly wearing the badge of honor, otherwise known as the Pink Pig sticker, which is strategically placed on the lapel of the red wool car-coat, the little girl, holding a crisp 5 dollar bill, enters Santa’s “secret shop” where helper elves assist children in the purchasing of presents for their parents.

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Finally arriving home late in the afternoon, after the long, yet wonderful magically full day, the little girl bounds from the car, proudly carrying the tiny wrapped Christmas presents, that of the typical tie and bottle of perfume, the same presents Santa’s elves had helped her pick out and wrap. She hurries to her room where she intends to hide the precious presents deep in the recesses of her closet–safe from any prying eyes.

Then lastly, in a final tribute to a very special day, with the deepest and most solemn reverence, fit only for the most regal and spiritual of occasions, the little girl gently pulls the sticker from the lapel of her red wool car-coat, which is now more fuzzy then sticky, and places the not so sticky sticker proudly on the antique mirror her grandmother had bought for her room, the mirror she never liked because it was much too girly and frufru, alongside the two previous Pink Pig stickers.

Stepping back, making certain the growing horizontal line of pig stickers was straight, a small smile of satisfaction crosses her face. Little did she know that she would eventually have almost ten stickers pasted upon that antique mirror before the importance of the special annual rite of passage had finally played out.

Little did any one realize that an annual adventure to a pink pig, with the resulting pasting of a couple of Christmastime stickers onto an old antique mirror, would begin the importance of commemorating and marking the oh so important remembrances of those magically special moments in life which began in a young girl’s heart—Which would eventually, in turn, continue to unfold onto an unsuspecting refrigerator in the life of a not so young woman . . .

I promise I’m going to clean it off of all the “clutter”, soon. . .

Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.
Rose Kennedy

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What? You talking to me?

We live in deeds not years In thoughts not breaths In feelings not figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels noblest, acts the best.”
― Philip James Bailey

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(wary eyed pigeon, Boston, Massachusetts / Julie Cook / 2014)

When my son was a little boy, he and I spent a great deal of time together. And not that it’s odd for a mother to spend a great deal of time with her child, my child happened to be only child with our living in a separate community from the one in which I taught, way back in the middle of 20 acres of woods. I was pretty much his only playmate, up until it was time to start school. His dad worked long hours so it was often just the two of us.

A favorite pastime would often find us curled up on the couch watching his favorite shows, with cartoons being a big part of our viewing. My dad had spent time with me watching cartoons so it just seemed natural for me to do the same with my child. And I must admit that those are some of the best memories I have of those simple easy days spent contently together–nothing special, no big deal–just he and I simply enjoying being together and laughing as we watched a silly cartoon

One of the cartoons we both enjoyed watching was the Goodfeathers.

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Goodfeathers was the cartoon’s world take on the movie the Goodfellas. I’d never seen the Goodfellas movie but I knew enough about the movie to know that it was a story about the Mob. The cartoon was so tongue and cheek and such a funny take on the stereotypical life of Italian Americans and Mob life that I think I probably enjoyed it as much, if not more, than my son–and if the truth be told, most likely on a vastly different level. That subtle little nuances that only I could pick up on.

The Goodfeathers even had their own version of Marlon Brando’s role from the Godfather–a role portrayed by the Godpigeon.

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And so it was, on an idle evening stroll, along a beautifully old victorian era street lined with the brownstones of days gone by, that I spied a lone pigeon lounging along the rim of a bird bath. My proximity to him seemed to make no never mind, so I stopped long enough to take his picture.

Later, when I was actually going through the myriad of pictures I’d taken throughout the day, I noted the wary eye this pigeon shot my way–with the immediate thought and words of a young Robert de Nero—“What, You talking to me?”
Which in turn immediately sent my thoughts tumbling back in time, many years prior to a delightful time of joy and innocence when a mom and her young son lived a simpler time of contentment. . .

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(cookie and little cookie, on his wedding day / June 7, 2014 –and it should be noted, he’s little cookie 😉 )