The Lesson of the Very Short Leash

I received an ad from a local take-out eatery recently. And if the menu alone wasn’t enough to send you scooting to their parking lot, the photo of the family picnic should have been.

It’s a shot of a family gathered around a picnic table under a big, old tree. Everyone is smiling. No one is slinging food out of butter tubs and whipped topping containers. In fact, there is no plastic silverware in sight. Did I mention everyone is smiling, and the focus is on the youngest kid at the table, who looks to be about 10, and he’s talking with a big smile spread across his face, and everyone is blissfully listening to him. Even the older sister across from him.

I have slightly different memories of family picnics.

For instance, I vividly remember my cousin Ryan’s eighth birthday party. We lived just up the hill from him in a little cabin in the woods built by his parents, my aunt and uncle, when they were first married. We’d recently acquired a very large brown chocolate lab/hound dog mix, and at the appointed party time, we leashed Yugger (that was the name the dog came with) and walked down the driveway to my aunt and uncle’s home to join the celebration.

It was late June. An outdoor picnic was in full swing. Meat on the grill, a table spread with yummy side dishes, and a beautiful cake ready for slicing and serving. Everyone was scattered in lawn chairs and on blankets around the yard, chatting and eating. Someone handed me a slice of birthday cake and a fork on a paper plate. The dog lay quietly at my feet while I visited with relatives and nibbled the cake.

A couple of uncles were filling small water balloons and the younger cousins were having a fine time running around, playing and shrieking and getting wet. One of the water balloons broke as it was being filled, and it sounded almost like a shot echoing through the woods.

Now, you would think that a dog that’s at least part hound would be accustomed to hunting, and to the sounds that go along with hunting. You know, like gunshots. But this dog? Well, he had other ideas.

At the sound of the balloon exploding, in one fluid motion he was on his feet and moving forward. Quickly. I did some very fast calculating. If a dog scared by what he thinks is a gunshot is moving at x mph and his six-foot leash is wrapped around my 22-year-old wrist three times, y equals the amount of time it takes for him to reach the end of the leash which, I might add, did not even remotely approach slowing him down. I looked at my dad, abruptly dropped the cake, fork, and plate, and said, “Bye!” And immediately I was launched wrist-first at an impossibly high rate of speed through the woods.

I am not anybody’s idea of an athlete. I don’t run. I don’t really even walk fast. However, In this instance, I was motivated by several factors: the leash around my wrist, the dog who had morphed into a chocolate bullet ricocheting through the woods, and the obstacles like stumps, bushes, holes, and low hanging branches that appeared in front of me without any warning whatsoever. I suppose for a brief time we were our own version of a video game, Yugger bolting through the woods and Deb leaping like a possessed gazelle just a few less than six feet behind him. I was told later that my strides were unbelievably long. Again…I was motivated.

Yugger finally had to stop and relieve himself about a quarter mile away from the party site. At that moment, we heard a sound from behind us unlike any we had ever heard before. It was a solid roar of laughter, seemingly endless, coming from the partygoers. Apparently we’d been the impromptu entertainment for the birthday party. Yugger hung his head in shame when he heard that, and he walked slowly up the driveway, and I trailed behind.

To this day, my Aunt Jean swears she has never laughed as hard as she did that day. I’m sure had I been in her shoes, I would have done the same. It was one of those moments that doesn’t make the cut for the photo shoot, but gets indelibly imprinted on the fabric of family memories just the same.

A hilltop picnic with Grandma! Looks a little chilly, but it's never too cool for a picnic.

A hilltop picnic with Grandma! Looks a little chilly, but it’s never too cool for a picnic.


The Touchstone of Courage

Asking for courage is like asking for faith, or patience – you don’t get a magical infusion of the thing. You get opportunities to develop it.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”  ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I think maybe, just maybe, courage is determination wrapped up in persistence. Courage is not knowing the outcome, or knowing the odds are not in your favor, and trying anyway. It’s facing an unknown, unsettling, hard, scary, sometimes even dreadful thing. Taking its measure. Refusing to be defined by it. Formulating a plan. Stepping out. Seeing progress, which feeds more progress. Getting that sense of having turned a corner, and feeling the euphoric rush of certainty that you will see it through.

Courage is a touchstone.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” ~ C.S. Lewis

What is a touchstone? It’s a test for determining quality, authenticity, or genuineness. Why does this matter? It means this: the source of our greatest fear can become the touchstone for our greatest courage.

A tangible reminder of my days with Cheryl.

A tangible reminder of my days with Cheryl.

I have a touchstone. It is a heart-shaped stone, polished and etched with a single word: STRENGTH. I carried it with me a few years ago when I traveled to Tallahassee on weekends to spend time with my beloved cousin Cheryl when her breast cancer, five years in remission, spread to her bones. It was a journey she did not want to take, because in going toward her future, she had to step away from the people and the life she loved wholeheartedly. Choosing to do that, to accompany her in that intimate way, as her physical health failed and her faith shuddered and groaned, was at once the hardest and easiest choice ever. How do I do this? Better to ask, how do I not? She taught us so much in her suffering: how to be graceful, eloquent, and concerned with the well-being of others, always. How to let herself be loved and reassured and cherished. And how to love and reassure and cherish those of us who gathered around to accompany her on that private, noble journey. It was a time of continually giving and receiving permission to let go and accept the reality of what was happening not just in Cheryl, but through her in us. It was an exquisitely sweet time, one in which our world became very small as we sat with her, and held her, and cried with her, and reminisced and laughed and knitted our very souls together in one comforting blanket of love and memories. The stone still represents the strength she both gave and received.

“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.” ~ Alan Cohen

What are we most afraid of? I believe it is precisely that place that will be the source of our courage. And encouragement? To me, it’s sharing our courage with others who need it. Stepping into their journey with them. Sitting with them in their storm. See, when we ENCOURAGE someone, we are actually infusing them with courage they can’t generate within themselves. They are on the inside of the storm looking out and feeling overwhelmed. We are on the outside of the storm looking in, and we see its limits. We are seeing beyond their storm. What a gift.

For more on the subject of courage, and encouragement, please visit:

Beach House Bones

A few years ago, when my husband was working with a real estate investor, one of the properties he was tasked with rehabbing was a hurricane-ravaged beach house at Fort Morgan, Alabama. It was listed for sale at about a million and a half dollars. This house would have made a fabulous bed and breakfast; built on tall pilings to raise it above potential floodwaters, it had three bedrooms with private baths upstairs, two bedrooms with an adjoining bath downstairs, and a huge open kitchen, great room, and dining area with soaring cathedral ceilings. A wide, sweeping stairway graced the front of the house. At the back of the house, a wall of French doors topped with tall transom windows opened onto a wide, weathered deck overlooking Mobile Bay. With all the doors and windows open, whether the breeze was from the south off the Gulf of Mexico or from the north off Mobile Bay, there was always a sea breeze stirring.

We stayed there right after the contractors had finished replacing drywall and rehabbing bathrooms, cleaning the house thoroughly over the course of several days. The first night we all slept on air mattresses in the great room. Even when everything was closed up, we could hear the muted roar of waves crashing on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. We were on the opposite side of the narrow strip of barrier island, overlooking Mobile Bay, which was calm by comparison. We scrubbed dried salt spray from the window exteriors, polished about a mile of hardwood floors, scoured recently renovated bathrooms and swabbed the kitchen cabinets and appliances, inside and out. The pleasant scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap mingled with the fresh salt air. It felt a little like primitive camping in a luxury condo with great “bones” but no luxury accessories. If we wanted towels and toiletries in the bathrooms, we had to bring them ourselves. Ditto for mints on the pillows….and the pillows!

In the evenings we ventured out to a small market nearby to buy fresh seafood, bread, milk, and ice cream. Simple meals allowed us maximum time outside on the water or exploring the grounds. At one time the landscaping must have been beautiful, but everything had gotten overgrown while the house stood empty. Trimming back big ligustrum and azalea shrubs, we discovered stone patios, benches, and tables and chairs hidden beneath low-hanging branches. In the front bedroom, the arms of an ancient, twisted live oak tree reached up past the windows, making the room feel like a treehouse. Another bedroom, the girls’ favorite, had a cozy window seat with hidden storage cubbies underneath. The large master bedroom was warmed by a double-sided fireplace and opened directly onto the deck overlooking the bay. The master bath seemed huge and endless, with a beautifully tiled, walk-in shower that was big enough for entertaining and a bathtub the size of a hot tub.

From time to time, a great blue heron would appear at the edge of the bay, wading along the shoreline in the shallow water. My daughter Marley promptly named him “Carl.” He was alone, and seemed unable or unwilling to gather food for himself. One evening after we’d peeled a pound of shrimp, we took the uncooked trimmings outside and tossed a few in Carl’s direction. He was timid at first, but eventually came close enough to retrieve the shells and tails floating on the water. A neighbor saw us doing this, and I was concerned we were doing something wrong. She said no, it was okay, the heron had been injured at some point years before and he had trouble finding his own food. She, too, fed him on a daily basis, and he seemed to expect it now.

What I remember best about that time is the simple, unstructured way the days and nights fell into place. We had no real agenda or schedule, other than getting the house clean and minimally furnished. We ate when we were hungry, worked while we had energy and tasks ahead of us, slept when we were tired, and it was enough. Restorative. Satisfying.

Slingshots and Indelible Reminders

We are a slingshot family these days. Imagine a map of the United States. Picture a point in the farthest reaches of the Pacific Northwest. That’s my daughter and son-in-law up there, in country once explored by Lewis & Clark, with its misty forests, soaring mountains, and legendary traffic. Then picture a second point way up in the northeast along the Atlantic coast. That’s my other daughter and my husband, the Grass Master and the Great One, collaborating with a team of talented creatives to bring the world’s largest outdoor retail experience indoors.

If that’s the “sling,” that leaves me, the “shot,” down here perched on the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico, almost as far west in Florida as a body can physically go without crossing into Alabama. And there we are, scattered across three time zones, almost 2500 miles from east to west. I’m 2700 miles from one part of my family and 1200 miles from the other.

But instead of moaning about how far apart we are, I prefer to dwell on how close we are despite the miles and time zones between us. Thanks to the wizardry of technology, we can text, FaceTime, Skype, instant message, e-mail, or (sometimes) call any time we are so inclined. I can set up a CopperCam so my daughter can see her beloved Golden Retriever. I can watch her make a fabulous dinner. I can’t take her to the mailbox due to the limitations of wi-fi, but who wants to make a family outing to the mailbox anyway?

An airman escorting the body of a fallen hero stands at attention.

Earlier this week as part of our family journeyed northeast after a visit home, they snapped an airport photo (above).

At first glance, it looks like a scene you see every single day, at airports everywhere. Plane at gate. Luggage carts. Supply and fuel carts. Jetway in place. Check, check, check.

But look closer. Look at the nose of the plane, and then look to its left, on the runway, on the ground itself. See him? Standing there? A lone airman, standing at attention. Waiting to render honors as a yet-unseen flag-draped casket slowly rolls by.

And suddenly you realize what is unfolding in front of you. With no fanfare whatsoever, you understand that this man is escorting a hero home to his or her final resting place. And the background noise of a busy airport fades away, and the silence inside you grows into something large and almost tangible. You are on your feet, at the window, hand over your heart, tears in your eyes, grieving the loss of someone you never got the chance to know, honoring their service and their sacrifice.

At the end of most flights, people wait impatiently, eager to welcome friends and family at the end of a journey home. At the end of this flight, passengers waited while the airman escort disembarked first, to respectful applause. And at the end of this trip, a grieving family waited with a peculiar mixture of dread and anticipation to welcome home a beloved family member who gave their life for their country.

If you haven’t seen it, I highly, highly recommend watching the movie “Taking Chance.” Based on a journal kept by Lt Col. Michael Strobl as he escorted PFC Chance Phelps to his home in Wyoming, it is a powerful, compelling tribute to our fallen heroes and their journey home.

I especially like this journal excerpt: “The Marine Corps is a special fraternity. There are moments when we are reminded of this. Interestingly, those moments don’t always happen at awards ceremonies or in dress blues at Birthday Balls. I have found, rather, that they occur at unexpected times and places: next to a loaded moving van at Camp Lejeune’s base housing, in a dirty CP tent in northern Saudi Arabia, and in a smoky VFW post in western Wyoming.” And, I might add, on a hot, humid day beneath towering thunderheads in Pensacola, Florida.

Watching the airman today, I am sure that the Air Force is an equally special fraternity. Today’s snapshot is one of those indelible reminders.

Summer Evenings in Old Seville Square

During the summer, weekends don’t begin on Friday – they arrive casually escorted on the arm of Thursday evening, as thousands gather in downtown Pensacola’s Seville Square to eat, visit, and enjoy open-air concerts. “Evenings in Olde Seville,” a free concert series that began in 1987, features local talent ranging from bagpipes and bluegrass to big band and beyond. The setting is unmatched – towering heritage oaks spread their broad, Spanish moss-laced branches over the park, once a parade ground for British and Spanish military troops. Historic structures like Old Christ Church and the exquisitely preserved Dorr House and charming eateries with names like Hub Stacey’s, Dharma Blue and Moreno Café surround the square. Each week there’s a drawing for a dinner prepared and served in the square by a local restaurant.

The real magic happens as the sun sets. Street lights and stars begin to twinkle through the massive tree canopy. A patient horse pulls a carriage filled with beaming riders around the park’s perimeter, the sound of its hooves echoing on the pavement. The music entices dancers of all ages to take to the brick pavilion near the park’s gazebo. An occasional breeze off the bay carries the scent of magnolia blossoms, citronella candles and the delicious fragrance of the nicest picnic dinners anywhere. Beer and wine flow freely, and as the evening progresses, everyone loosens up.

Some people make quite an occasion of the evenings. They arrive early to secure favored spots, circling lawn chairs around folding tables, sinking citronella torches into the ground, and clustering bright balloons or maybe a colorful pennant as a landmark for their location. I’ve seen snowy white linen tablecloths and napkins, crystal wine goblets, fat candles in glass hurricane globes, and tableware that’s “the real thing” – no paper or plastic in sight. Someone has spent hours planning and preparing a meal that’s able to be transported and served outside, and eaten almost exclusively with one’s fingers while standing and mingling with others – typically it’s a mouth-watering selection of “little bites,” tortilla wraps filled and sliced thin, crackers and minty cucumber dip, fruit and vegetable platters, two-bite sugar cookies, and impressive mounds of freshly boiled Royal Red shrimp on ice.

And I’ve seen people just show up, nothing at all in their hands, drawn to the music and the atmosphere like moths to a flame. They’re the ones whose faces are alight with the discovery of this event tucked into a pocket of downtown Pensacola. “And you do this every Thursday night?” they ask. Just one of the perks of life in Pensacola during the long, hot summers.

Celebrating our Nation’s Independence, Pensacola Style

Each Fourth of July, we’d make a patriotic pilgrimage…we’d load the old Red Flyer wagon with collapsible lawn chairs and the ever-present wood slat-topped table, a favorite old porch quilt for sitting or sprawling on, a cooler filled with ice and popsicles and sodas, and summertime snacks like sliced watermelon, cucumber sandwiches, thick, crunchy Zapp’s potato chips and cakelike sugar cookies slathered with creamy icing and sprinkles. Time was, when the kids were small, we’d outfit ourselves in newly acquired Old Navy patriotic tee shirts purchased just for the occasion.

Arriving downtown while it was still daylight, we’d trudge through the Gulf Power parking lot past the Wall South Vietnam memorial to a spot along Bayfront Parkway where we were sure to have a good view of the fireworks overhead. Police closed off the road in both directions. Thanks to the dry weather, personal fireworks were banned, but little flameless “poppers” still punctuated the heavy, humid air.

We’d spread the quilt on the grassy median and stake out our territory with lawn chairs. Frisbees were tossed back and forth and we settled in for several hours of the finest people watching anywhere. Occasionally we spotted familiar faces in the gathering crowd, and our numbers swelled as friends joined us.

Darkness settled, and as nine o’clock approached, radios around the park tuned in to stations broadcasting the patriotic music that accompanied the fireworks. A few tentative test rockets were launched, their bright flash and loud “boom” echoing across the calm waters. Children flinched and clutched their ears tightly. A glance across Pensacola Bay revealed the pretty sight of lights sparkling on dozens of boats gathered for the show.

The music and the first “real” fireworks launched simultaneously, and for thirty minutes we were entranced by the impressive light show high over the bay. Every one seemed larger than the last. A thin haze of gray smoke drifted on the almost-nonexistent sea breeze.

A thunderous, spectacular finale signaled the end of another successful show. Applause broke out and a chorus of horns sounded from the boats on the bay. We lingered, in no hurry to join the traffic gridlock accompanying this holiday. After about an hour, when the police informed us they were ready to reopen the road, we gathered our belongings, reloaded the wagon, and headed back toward our cars. Just before midnight we were home, tired and satisfied, another successful celebration of our nation’s birth. Ironic, wasn’t it, that a nation born through conflict and struggle and determination would celebrate with some of the same sights and sounds generations later. A reminder of our beginnings, perhaps.