GratiTuesday: The ripple effect of simple acts of kindness

In my last GratiTuesday post, I wrote about my first grade teacher and how a group of her former students had honored her at a luncheon. We all had fond memories of having her as our teacher and were grateful to have the opportunity to thank her in person so many years later.

There’s actually a little more to the story that I’d like to share. It is a detail that taught me – in two very important ways – how simple actions can still have a profound effect many years later.

Soon after my mother passed away in 2000—when I was still rocking from my grief and loss—I came home to find the message light blinking on my answering machine. The call had been from my first grade teacher, Miss Miller, who I hadn’t seen since elementary school. She said that she had read my mother’s obituary and wanted to let me know how sorry she was… then she shared a story.

Letters1

Miss Miller told me about a letter my mother had written to her almost 40 years prior, just after I had completed the school year in her class. In the letter, my mother said what an inspiring teacher Miss Miller was and that the positive experience I had taught me that learning could be both fun and gratifying.

In Miss Miller’s message to me, she shared how much the letter meant to her. When she received it, she was new to teaching and my mother’s kind words gave her much-needed acknowledgement and encouragement.  She said the she had kept the letter and re-read it many times over the years. After saying good-bye, she hung up without leaving her contact information or any hint of how I could return her call.

If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve loved, you may know how much it can mean to hear stories about how they made a difference in someone’s life. More than all the well-meaning “I’m sorry for your loss” and “Please let me know if I can help in any way,” these personal stories help to ease the sorrow and keep the memory of your loved-one alive.

Since it was pre-Google when Miss Miller left her phone message, I was unable to locate her. The phone book didn’t have a listing for her and my former elementary school wasn’t any help. I wanted so badly to let her know how much her message meant to me but I was at an impasse in my search.

So, that is a big reason why—over 50 years after being her student and 15 years after her phone message—when I found out that not only was Miss Miller alive and well, but that a classmate was still in contact with her, I jumped at the chance to re-connect. I finally had the opportunity to tell her how much I appreciated her phone message and how grateful I was that she took the time to make the call. It was a thank you I thought I would never be able to deliver, and I admit there were a few tears when I did.

My gratitude to Miss Miller goes beyond her being a great first grade teacher, it extends to two important lessons she taught me years later by making one simple phone call:

  • Never miss an opportunity to write a letter of appreciation or encouragement. Your kind words will mean so much to the receiver and can lift them up well beyond the first reading. An email will do in a pinch, but nothing has the impact of a hand-written note.
  • When someone passes away, if you have a positive story or remembrance about them, share it with their loved-ones. Tell them how the person made a difference; share a funny story; express your admiration. Sharing how that person impacted your life—and the positive outcome it had—will help to buoy them in their grief.

Thank you Miss Miller. Lessons learned.

GratiTuesday: Happy National Teacher Day, Miss Miller!

Today is National Teacher Day, a day set aside to honor those who make special contributions to the education of our society every day. Although I have had many wonderful teachers over the years (including those who teach the adult learning classes I attend now), one of the most inspirational teachers I had was my first grade teacher, Miss Miller.

Miss Miller was the kind of teacher any kid would be lucky to have. She was energetic, creative, patient, challenging, loving, and so much fun. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be faced with a classroom of 7- and 8-year-olds, most who hadn’t mastered the ability to sit still for any length of time, few who understood the concept of using their “inside voice,” and even fewer who had any idea what to expect and what was expected of them. Because our class had a combination of first and second graders, her job must have been even more challenging.

First Second 1963a

Although we entered her world with different childhood experiences and varying skill levels, on that first day we were all lumps of clay. Over the school year, Miss Miller skillfully worked her magic and slowly molded us into 30 young humans who, in addition to our academic lessons, learned to do our best, be nice to others, play fair, and to find joy in the process of acquiring knowledge.

I met some of my life-long friends in Miss Miller’s classroom. We made our way through grade school together and many of us went on to attend the same junior and senior high schools. Although our individual circumstances have changed over the years, the bond is still there.  One was my Maid of Honor, I was a guest in another’s home in Hawaii for 3 weeks, and I recently traveled to La Paz with still another.

From one of those friends, I was thrilled to learn that Miss Miller was still living in the area and was as healthy in mind and body as ever. I asked my friend if she could set up a lunch for the three of us so I could see my favorite teacher again and tell her how much she meant to me.

Out of that lunch came the germ of idea: we would gather together as many students from our first grade class as we could for a Thank You Miss Miller celebration. We figured that we couldn’t be the only two who remembered Miss Miller with a special fondness.

We reached out to as many of our classmates as we could and asked each one if they were in contact with any others. Pretty soon, we had about 20 email addresses. Out of those 20, we were able to get commitments from 10 – not bad from a class of 30 students who, over the 50+ years in between, certainly had moved on, both figuratively and literally. Happily, we discovered that we all still shared an appreciation for our teacher.

Group 2

The luncheon was a splendid success. Miss Miller (who will always remain Miss Miller to us even though she tried to have us call her Cynthia) was thrilled and touched by our show of gratitude. Her students—most of us now in our early 60s—had a delightful time catching up and sharing memories. As a special memento, we presented her with a book that contained thank you notes from each of us and our pictures, from first grade and now.

I am so grateful not only that I had the privilege of having Miss Miller as my teacher, but that I was able to thank her in person so many years later. How many 60-year-olds get to hang out with their first grade teacher?

Happy Teacher Day to all the amazing and dedicated teachers out there. You have made a difference in our lives and we are forever grateful to you!

GratiTuesday: My book club

Apparently, I’m not very good at pre-scheduling posts… so this GratiTuesday is being posted on a Wednesday. I’ll be grateful if you can overlook my ineptness.

Finding a good book club was on my list of things to do once I retired. I had sampled various clubs over the years but none of them really resonated with me. Some had core groups that were so thick I didn’t think I could ever penetrate them and feel at ease. Some were much more about the social aspect than the literature so few members actually read the books, much less wanted to discuss them. One was so strict that missing even two meetings was grounds for being expelled.

IMG_4330I was looking for a club that had just the right mix of social interaction and intellectual stimulation. I wanted to feel like a welcomed member of the group and to be comfortable that most of the club’s reading selections would be books that I would enjoy. Being retired, I also needed it to be OK if I missed more than a meeting or two because of travel.

Then, out of the blue, a new friend mentioned that her book club wanted to expand its membership and asked if I’d be interested. She assured me that the club meetings were lively and fun but also the members were serious about the books. Since I knew her to be friendly, smart, funny, and interesting, I figured that her friends would the same.

Now, after six months, I am grateful to be able to say that I’ve found my book club. I have met a group of terrific women who made me feel welcome from the start. I have enjoyed books that I may have otherwise missed and discovered a couple of authors I liked so much that I have read more novels by them. Not all of the selected books have been great—we all have different tastes and interests—but the discussions have been lively and insightful. Each month, a different member chooses a book and hosts the meeting at her home. The atmosphere is always cozy and comfortable, and, because we enjoy breaking bread together, there is always good food and wine.

Just the right amount of serious and social.

GratiTuesday: Wild parrots thriving in Southern California

Image from sdnews.com
Image from sdnews.com

First we hear a frenzied screeching in the distance. As the noise gets closer, it is more distinguishable as the riotous squawking of birds. Then, we see them. Sometimes they fly in a small group of 6 or 8, but most of the time, they are in flocks of 30 or more. They often fly together in an unorganized mass, then split apart in a raucous burst of energy because… whatever. Whether they arrive in a small group or a large one, it’s hard to ignore when a flock of urbanized parrots invades our neighborhood.

There are several theories as to why these birds, whose natural habitat are the jungles of Mexico, and Central and South America, now call coastal Southern California their home. Some say that they—or their ancestors—were probably caged birds released into the wild either accidentally or on purpose. Some say that the changing climate and decimated tropical forests are the reason. Ironically parrot species that are threatened or endangered in their native environment are flourishing here because our ubiquitous palms and backyard fruit trees provide the food and nesting habitat they need.

These naturalized parrots include blue-crowned conures, lilac-crowned Amazons, cherry-headed conures, mitred conures, red-crowned Amazons, and yellow-headed Amazons. I’m not sure which of the dozen or so naturalized parrot species frequents our neighborhood, but they are wonderfully colorful, incredibly loud, and a delight to behold.

Not everyone is as charmed as I am with the urbanized parrots – they have been known to decimate the flowers or fruits growing on ornamental trees—but I am so grateful for their presence. They are exotic, unpredictable, exuberant, and, when I hear them coming, it’s almost impossible not smile at their unbridled joy.

GratiTuesday: Making travel plans in the digital age

My parents were great travelers and encourage us kids to follow in their footsteps. Although I’ve visited many of the places they traveled to—and several they didn’t—I feel as if I’ve just dipped my toe into the deep well of possibilities.

Because they traveled so much, my parents had a close, personal relationship with their travel agent. Helen knew my folks’ likes and dislikes, preferred way to travel, destinations of interest, and budget considerations. Although they seldom encountered any problems while traveling, they knew that they could call Helen if they needed help and she’d work things out.

Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.
Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.

I am currently firming up travel itineraries for two upcoming trips, and making some preliminary plans for a few more that are on our radar. Like most people in today’s digital age, I am not using a travel agent to help me plan and book our trips. The resources available to me online are vast, powerful, accessible, and, sometimes, a little scary.

I can research our destinations using multiple travel websites and helpful blogs. I have reached out to blogging buddies who live in the areas we are visiting for first-hand recommendations (and, hopefully some meet-ups). Using mapping apps, I am able to chart our route and look for points of interest along the way.

Once we know where we will stop on our journey, I can book our hotel rooms (after reading extensive reviews) online. For the first time, we are also going to try Airbnb, whose website is robust and pretty easy to navigate. Tickets for attractions can be purchased in advance and I can often load them to my smartphone so I don’t need to worry about misplacing pieces of paper.

And, of course, any airplane and rental car reservations are completed with a few keystrokes and a credit card.

There are pluses and minuses to planning travel this way, of course. Using a travel agent provided my parents with valuable peace-of-mind and allowed them to tap into Helen’s professional knowledge and years of experience. Since she did most of the work (and, as I remember, the service was provided for no, or very little, cost), my folks didn’t have to spend hours doing research. Helen’s agency was a one (or two)-stop-shop for planning, finalized itinerary, and tickets.

By making our travel plans online, I have a lot of control over our itinerary. I don’t need to rely on someone else’s preferences or affiliations. I can spend time looking at different options and search-out deals and off-the-beaten-path opportunities. Once on the road, we can take advantage of apps that will help us to find places to eat and points of interest to visit. I can read about the history of an area, check out the weather, and even avoid road construction and accidents up ahead.

Although we may not have someone like Helen to provide travel assistance and hand-holding, I am so grateful that the internet has given us the power to design our individual journeys and create our unique adventures.

GratiTuesday: Flexibility

This past Sunday, I wrote a post about feeling a bit of ennui in my retirement. In general, things are going pretty great but I had started to feel that something was missing or incomplete, and I wondered if I needed to… I don’t know… do more.

I was heartened by the response my post received. It was nice to know that what I was feeling wasn’t unusual, in fact several commenters who are also retired shared that they had similar feelings, either now or in the past. I received lots of encouragement, advice, and some good suggestions.

One element that flowed through many of the comments was flexibility: to be open to opportunities that might present themselves, and to be willing to try out different things (and walk away if it isn’t a good fit). But, in addition, to appreciate the flexibility and free time that retirement provides.

Our 7 bridge hike began in beautiful Balboa Park.
Our 7 bridge hike began in beautiful Balboa Park.

Today, I had one of those days that reminded me of the how lucky I am that I my life affords me great flexibility and how important it will be to protect that luxury no matter what else I might choose to do.

When my husband and I woke up this morning and looked outside, we saw that the day had presented us with the perfect weather to go on an urban hike we had read about. There was a little bit of fog that would probably burn off as the day went on, but there was also some cloud cover that promised to keep the temperature from rising too high.

So, out went any plans we had made for the day and we started to get ready for our big adventure. At no time did we have to worry about schedules, obligations, or deadlines. No one was expecting us to show up anywhere or complete a promised project. We were free to do what we wanted.

I still want to look for opportunities to bring more balance into my retired life because I believe that it’s important to contribute and to challenge myself. But, I am very grateful that I have the freedom and flexibility that allows me to take advantage of a beautiful spring day and go for a walk.

GratiTuesday: Choosing kindness

phonto

A few days ago, I was driving my car to a familiar destination. Because I had driven the route many, many times, my mind was on autopilot. My husband and I were chatting about this and that and I was thinking about that and this. In other words, I wasn’t paying attention.

All of a sudden, I realized that I had taken the wrong route. I was generally headed the right direction, but the street I was on wouldn’t get me to where I wanted to go. I needed to make a right turn, then a left to get back on track. No problem, except there was a line of cars in the right-hand turn lane and, in order to move into it, I needed someone to let me in.

Now, I have to admit that I usually get irritated with people in that situation: those jerks who don’t think they should have to wait their turn like the rest of us so they drive alongside the line of cars, then try to sneak in towards the front. When I see this happening, I’ll be damned if I will let them into the line and I get perturbed when someone rewards their jerky behavior by allowing them to merge.

Except, that wasn’t what had happened. I was just trying to recover from a momentary brain lapse and get back on the correct route. The road I was on wasn’t very busy (which, had I been paying adequate attention, should have been a clue that I was on the wrong street) and there wasn’t anyone in my rearview mirror so I slowed down and switched my signal on so I could move over into the turn lane.

Then, two things happened: a driver come up quickly behind me, honked his horn in irritation, and swerved around me so he could continue going straight, and another driver in the right turn line made room for me so I could merge in ahead of her. One chose to vent his frustrations at me by honking, whereas the other chose to be sympathetic and let me in ahead of her. One probably felt a moment of anger towards me for being in his way and causing him a two second delay. The other reacted with compassion and a smile.

I was a bonehead and the first driver was completely justified for honking at me. The second driver was by no means obligated to let me in. But, she chose to help me out; she chose kindness.

That little bitty, almost inconsequential interaction got me to thinking about the choices I make every day. Do I act with irritation, or do I act with understanding? Do I notice and respond when someone could use a hand, or do I remain unaware and go about my business? Do I attempt to ease someone’s path, or do I put up barriers? Do I choose indifference or do I choose caring?

I hope I make the right choice more often than not.

I am grateful for acts of kindness – both big and small, and whether it is directed at me or not. Kindness makes me hopeful and optimistic. It’s so easy to focus on the negative and painful but it’s important to remember that if I want more kindness in the world, I need to put it there.

GratiTuesday: Spring has sprung!

Even though most of us in Southern California hoped the predictions of a wet El Nino would come true (and we still have our fingers crossed), the rainfall we’ve experienced has been underwhelming. Except for two memorable days of torrential rain in early January, our winter – overall – has been pretty mild.

On Sunday, when it officially became spring, we were enjoying the same blue skies and mild temperatures we’d had been experiencing for a long time. Regardless, seeing “First Day of Spring” on my calendar made me almost as happy as someone enduring a winter of freezing temperatures and snow would feel.

We’ve been seeing evidence of spring all around us for several weeks. Flowering plants are announcing the new season with cheerful colors and gentle fragrances and trees are starting to burst into clouds of blooms. The bees and hummingbirds are buzzing frantically from one flower to the next as if they are worried it could all suddenly disappear under a pile of snow.

Our Grevillea Long John’s whimsical pink blossoms are a favorite of bees and hummers
Our Grevillea Long John’s whimsical pink blossoms are a favorite of bees and hummers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks like we’ll have another bumper crop of blueberries this summer
It looks like we’ll have another bumper crop of blueberries this summer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even Tiki Mon is displaying spring flowers in his hair
Even Tiki Mon is wearing spring flowers in his hair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am so very grateful for spring’s arrival. It is a magical season bursting with promise, inspiration, and optimism.

 

 

GratiTuesday: Daylight Savings Time

This past Sunday, I preformed one of my favorite rites of spring; I adjusted all of our clocks forward one hour. As I made the change, I didn’t mind in the least that I instantly lost one hour of my day. For me, it was a very small price to pay for the extra hour of light I’ll enjoy each evening until November 6, when I have to turn the clocks back.

Daylight savings sunrise
Daylight savings sunrise

When I was working, I remember that at first it was a little hard to adjust to getting up in the dark. But, slowly, the summer sun would work its way toward the equator and, in a few weeks, my 6:30 am wake-up time would again be bathed in light. What made those dark mornings well worth it was knowing that it would be light out when I left the office and that I’d still have a few hours of daylight when I got home.

Now that I am retired you might think the time change wouldn’t be as exciting for me as it was before. After all, I can get up whenever I desire, spend whatever time I want to outdoors, and then go to bed when the spirit moves me. While that is true for the most part, I still live in a world of appointments and schedules, and sunset at 7:00 or 8:00 pm feels very different from sunset at 5:00 or 6:00 pm.

I realize that not everyone is enamored with daylight savings time. Some people don’t like the hassle of changing their clocks twice a year. Others have schedules that benefit more from having the extra daylight in the morning. Those people might be happier living in one of the several states or territories that have opted out of observing daylight savings time, including Hawaii, most of Arizona, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

I was horrified recently to learn that one of our state senators has introduced a bill that would affectively end daylight savings time in California. Noooooooooooooooooooo! I’m not sure whether there is any threat of having the bill pass, but I would be happy to buy the senator a oneway ticket to Arizona so he can enjoy standard time year-round and leave the rest of us alone.

Switching to daylight savings time makes me happy. It signals that spring is just around the corner, and summer is not too far off. It means baseball and barbecues and drinks out on the deck. I am so very grateful for the extra sunshine at the end of my day, where it belongs.

GratiTuesday: The beauty of succulents

Several years ago, my husband and I decided to ditch our traditional lawn and the water-thirsty plants that surrounded our house. Southern California has a dry, Mediterranean climate, and it didn’t make sense to maintain landscaping that really didn’t belong. At the time, we were just at the beginning of our multiple-year drought but we could read the writing on the wall: watering restrictions were coming.

So, out went the turf, agapanthus, and day lilies, and in went the succulents and other plants more suited for our climate. No more regular mowing and fertilizing; no more brown spots dotting our green lawn as a result of neighborhood dogs doing what dogs do.

Agave 'Blue Glow' have watercolor-like striations and red-orange margins
Agave ‘Blue Glow’ have watercolor-like striations and red-orange margins
IMG_3715
It’s easy to see how ‘Sticks on Fire” got its name

What we now have in our yard is a rich tapestry of colors, shapes, and textures. The bright reds, pinks, and oranges of the appropriately named ‘Sticks on Fire’ (Euphorbia tirucalli) contrast with the deep burgundy of the ‘Zwartkop’ (Aeonium  arboreum) and the silver-blue Senecio mandraliscae. The fat, jelly bean shape of the sediums play nicely with spiked-leaved Agaves and Aloes.

And, just when I think my succulents are quietly behaving themselves, one will suddenly produce a flower so garish and spectacular it can take my breath away.

Dark burgundy 'Zwartkop' produces a bright yellow and chartreuse flower
Dark burgundy ‘Zwartkop’ produces a bright yellow and chartreuse flower

Because succulents don’t require regular watering and they are amazingly easy to care for, they are the perfect plants for our lifestyle in retirement. I can putter in the garden… or not, and we can travel for weeks at a time and not have to worry about arranging for their care.

As I walk around our neighborhood and see front yards landscaped with the standard plantings and boring grass (often which has turned brown due to our drought), I am so grateful when I return to the lush growth and dazzling pallet of my succulents.