Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today is my Dad's 90th birthday.  I miss him every day and on this day I honor him.  He passed away in January, 2002 following a stroke.

He was born in 1920, to loving parents who doted on him and treated him like a little prince. His Mother died of complications of asthma when he was six and he was left in the care of a loving aunt, who moved into their home to care for him and was about the best substitute for a real mother that a young man could have. It was from her that he learned to be a perfect gentleman, generous in every way.

Dad was a public servant, a county hospital administrator in the sleepy Florida town where I grew up with my siblings and our Mother.   Dad wasn't an athlete and had no interest in sports; I grew up in a house where we watched news and police action shows if we were allowed to watch tv; we watched the Rose Bowl Parade, not the game.

One of the values instilled by Dad was his love of living things.  He was an impatient gardner who loved flowers and landscapes and a beautiful garden setting, but he liked things just so - plants needed to bloom or they were replaced and he had a tendency to over-water and over-feed, a habit that extended to child rearing.

Dad didn't have much experience with other children.  As an only child, he spent much time with adults.  But he learned a lot of valuable lessons about the importance of communication, taking care of others and giving unto others.  He was a very generous person and taught us that it is more important to give, although he also demonstrated again and again the thrill of receiving.

Dad was a very proud grandparent and loved the boys so much.  He bought them special gifts, took them on outings and followed all of their activities with interest.  We spoke by phone often and Dad ended every call with "we love you sweetheart". How I miss that.

I will always be grateful to Dad for giving me the appreciation for written communication and encouraging me to write.  I remember the first year I got to help address the Christmas cards and the fountain pen I received to help me with the task.  It felt very important to sign the cards for the family and most of all I loved the encouragement and the time with just the two of us.  It was special and all ours.

What a gift my Dad was to so many people.  He was also an inspiration with his faith in God.  It is fitting that he's watching over us from heaven now, waiting for us to join him and smiling, knowing we will all get through our individual challenges and in the end it will only really matter that we were faithful and, as he was, loving and caring to those around us.

Happy Birthday, Dad.  I miss you every day and especially today.


PS We still laugh about the day Dallas the dog stole your enormous brick of Stilton cheese and you ran through the house yelling "give me back my cheese."

This blog also appears on The Washington Post website

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lessons of the Bonsai

Trident maple at the US National Arboretum
in training since 1895
My sons gave me a bonsai for Christmas.  Jennifer Juniper is 17 years old and grew up in Texas.  Along with Jennifer came an array of supplies – food, books, clippers and wire.  It was all very confusing at first, but I took the adoption seriously, read the manuals and tried to tune in to her special needs.
Jennifer Juniper on Christmas Day, 2009
My eldest told me that I needed a new hobby because I was spending entirely too much time talking to the birds that visited the suet feeders on our deck.   I think he was most bothered when I referred to  Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal by name and went on about how well put-together her colors were.  Maybe I got a little more excited about the birds and their attire than I would have had my life been filled with more human interaction like one gets when employed and around people all day.
Soon after Jennifer’s arrival, the three of us visited a local nursery that specializes in bonsai and got Jennifer a sister, Serissa.  It seemed fitting to have a tropical plant to round out the sisterhood and provide more things for the unemployed to be obsessed with.

Each day since, I have watered and misted the sisters, plucking dead leaves from Serissa and until recently have let Jennifer to just rest until it was time to go outdoors.

Last month, when it started getting warmer, I put Jennifer out on the sunny deck and she experienced rainfall and real sunshine and cold nights and warm days and had quite a variety of experiences.  It must have been overwhelming at first, but she responded with lots of new growth.  Because she arrived in the dead of winter from a much warmer climate, she lived indoors until the spring.  But from now on, she will live outdoors and enjoy the change of seasons, as junipers generally do.

The only way to keep a bonsai a bonsai is to keep it trimmed so sadly I had to clip the one tiny pinecone on Jennifer’s boughs and Serissa also requires regular pruning.
 Serissa 2
Earlier this month, my eldest and I took a bonsai class at Wolf Trap Nursery.  We were very excited about it and arrived eager to plant our very own bonsai and learn more about their care and feeding.  It was held outdoors and surprisingly cool that morning, so we huddled around the wire mesh-topped tables after anxiously choosing our plants.  He chose a Serissa with interesting exposed roots and I chose a ficus.  Making a selection of pots was difficult as there were many colorful choices and we each wanted the one was that was perfect for our adoptee.
 Frank Ficus
We carefully trimmed and shaped our trees, planted them with utmost care and each ended up with lovely small plants to care for.  The instructor was very complimentary of our work and we felt extremely proud that we had followed instructions carefully and were not afraid to heavily trim our adoptees down to nearly half their size. 

We brought Jennifer and Serissa to the class so that the instructor could counsel us on their care.  He told us my care of them had been nearly expert and they were very healthy.  He suggested giving Jennifer a good haircut and exposing more of her trunk and branches.  On the way back to the car, my son gave me a high five and a hug and said “Mom, we rock at bonsai.”  It was a special moment.
 The Serissa Sisters, Jennifer Juniper and Frank Ficus
Since then I have felt a bit more of a burden as the adopted mom of now four plants.  I am starting to feel like this could get to be just a little bit addicting.  Every morning I care for them and fuss over them (and yes they do get verbal encouragement, as well).  It takes more time with four than two.  But it is a healthy hobby that gives me a great deal of satisfaction and you see up close every day the results of your love and attention.  Raising other living things, be they children or animals, is like that and the rewards are great. 

I am still actively seeking my next career move.  Truth be known, I am also adapting to the pleasures of being home and learning lessons from the bonsai, the old yellow dog and the robins that must be planning a bumper crop of babies this year.  In honor of the Serissa sisters, Jennifer Juniper and Frank the Ficus, I share these lessons.  It is a list in progress.  Every day I learn something new.

Life Lessons from the Bonsai

  • Waiting is part of the experience.  While you wait, you watch and attend to all the other things in the environment and experience things you wouldn’t have taken the time to absorb before.  That is probably the most important lesson of unemployment and the one I struggle with the most.
  • Good things happen slowly; you are in it for the long haul.  Bonsai live for hundreds of years with proper care.  Finding the next career path is not a fast process when you are making drastic changes.
  • If you discard excess you will see what is beneath. Trimming excess growth from the trees involves careful use of the shears to eliminate the unnecessary and expose the beauty of the shape.  When you are making a major career change, you need to throw off the excess, such as generalizations, fears, old baggage and things that hide your branches and trunk. 
  • Nutrition is very important.  In a tiny little pot, a beautiful thing grows slow and healthy with the proper balance of food; fighting the tendency to overfeed is a constant problem.  Like the bonsai that has been repotted or had its roots and branches trimmed, people under stress need to consume balanced meals and fight the inclination to overeat.
  • If you dry out, you will die.  The bonsai depend primarily on water for their nourishment and neglecting hydration for only a few days can damage or even kill them.  People can live on water alone for some time, although we are not designed to subsist that way for extended periods.  But daily consumption of plenty of plain old H2O is key to survival and good health.
  • Sun is very important.  Many bonsai need considerable sunlight to promote healthy growth, prevent disease, do the photosynthesis thing and dwarf  (ultraviolet life dwarfs leaves and ideal conditions are to give them almost too much light); but with too much sunlight they will dry up, sunburn and be damaged.  In the throws of a major job search, people have a tendency to isolate, stay indoors on the internet and telephone and not get enough vitamin D (produced when you are exposed to ultraviolet light), which is important for preventing osteoporosis, some kinds of cancer and even depression).  Likewise, if we spend all of our time outside playing in the sun, we don’t accomplish our goals and have other health problems.
  • Resting in the shade is important too.  Too much sun is not good for the bonsai; they get too dry or too hot and deters proper growth and nutrients are diverted to fight the overexposure.  Resting in a quiet, shaded spot is good for the soul and body of the unemployed who cannot search for a job nonstop without the proper rest.
  • Cutting back promotes growth.  Eliminating branches and leaves and allowing the bonsai to focus its energy on developing young, smaller growth is important in its development.  As we face major life changes including job searches, it is often necessary to cut expenses and reassess priorities and necessities; in the process we gain strength and wisdom . 
  • It is more interesting to have diverse friends.  Jennifer and the Serissa Sisters and Frank Ficus mix well together; they look fantastic as a foursome and yet each have their individuality.  Particularly during a career change and job search, we need to have many friends and contacts to support and help us see ourselves in different lights and strengthen our outreach.
  • Trust your master that you will be well cared for.  As long as I am the keeper of these bonsai, they will be well tended and their growth will be according to a plan.  God has a plan for us, and the seasons of growth, cutting back, resting, basking in the sun, waiting, and waiting some more are all part of it.  We must trust, and comply, give all we can and at times grow weary, while we allow our master to do his work.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Like the robin

I have been watching those crazy robins all winter.  They hang around in groups and swoop too close to cars, get caught by nasty old cats, bathe in my fish pond and then begin doing what robins do in spring ---- get ready for babies.

You know something is going to happen when you see robins everywhere because they are  curious and drop in just to see what's going on or to take advantage of the situation, such as after a hard rain when all the worms rise to the surface or are washed onto the sidewalk.  When there is about to be a big weather change, you can be sure the robins will be out in force.

One particular robin, who I have named Rory, beats his head and wings against my dressing room window for hours every morning.  He and I share some of the same frustrations and I have some sympathy for his situation.

Rory has a purpose in life but just hasn't quite figured it out.  He knows he needs to protect his family and himself no matter what.  He is loyal and strong and wants to do his very best.  He just isn't quite so sure how to go about it.  Because he is insecure, when he sees his reflection in my window he attacks it with a great amount of enthusiasm - over and over.
When the sun rises higher and the reflection changes, he thinks he has successfully fought off another predator and saved his family.  His head and his beak hurt, and one wing might be just a little bit tender, but he feels accomplished.  He probably doesn't remember that he did the same thing yesterday, or even just a couple of minutes earlier.   He has no clue that the intruder in the window will reappear tomorrow with the sunrise.

Why does this have particular meaning to me this spring?  Because I feel a little like Rory only with more insight.

I beat my head against the wall sending out resumes, following up with people who say they will help me with networking (many have, others make promises they don't follow through on), meeting with new people, following leads, making uncomfortable cold calls, and dealing with a fair number of oddly irresponsible potential employers.  And some days the only thing that happens is that my wings and beak and head hurt and the same problem occurs all over again the next day, with the rising of the sun.
Some days I don't want to get out of bed, even though I set the coffee pot to wake me up with a fresh pot of coffee (this week it is a nice German Chocolate flavored coffee from Ybor City, Florida).  When I do get up, I am reminded that it may be another day of beating my head against something.  But now that it is spring, I am also reminded that life can be glorious!
I have a couple of things going for me that Rory doesn't.  I have faith.  I know as sure as the sun shines that God is good and I will be ok.  I have choices and I know that tomorrow will dawn with new possibilities.  But Rory and I share that head-banging nonetheless.  I guess mine just has a little more purpose and intelligence, and if I choose not to spend my day sending out resumes, like today, I can go out and enjoy those fabulous cherry blossoms and the amazing Spring weather.  Rory, on the other hand, is still driven to attack his reflection.

I have the same hope Rory does - that the intruder will go away and tomorrow I won't have to do that all over again.  I sometimes wish I had Rory's bird brain so that I couldn't think ahead and rationalize, or have that sense of dread of more of the same thing happening the next day.

Unlike Rory, I know that my head banging is not a fight to the death (Rory is clearly ready for that).  Instead, it will go on until the right thing comes and hopefully I have my beak intact and am not comatose from the head banging.
Meanwhile one of Rory's cousins is doing the same thing with the outside mirror on my car.  Only he perches on top of the car and admires his enemy, then poops all over my car before banging his head into the mirror.  Every morning I rinse the side of the car with a pitcher of water, trying to erase the remains of all those digested worms.
Soon the hormones of the robins will settle down and they will be watching over nests of eggs and teaching fledglings to fly, all the while watching for hawks, crows and other enemies.  And maybe by the time those baby birds are learning to fly, I will grow some new wings, my beak and head will heal and I'll be soaring off to a new adventure and eating something better than worms!