“Tell Me a Story,” Aug. 20, 2019

Where do stories come from? Why do they surface in our memories at unexpected times and make us want to tell them to anyone who will listen?

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I grew up, storytelling is a part of life, like breathing air and swatting mosquitoes. It originated with the Native Americans, who lived there long before settlers showed up from faraway places and started telling stories of their own.

The storytellers in those mountains were sometimes known as “liars” — not because they were deceitful, but because their stories were often more fabricated than factual. Yet they were cleverly true of the human condition, intended not just to inform, but to entertain and enlighten and inspire.

I come from a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, my blind baby brother, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs — we all told stories.

Maybe you do, too. Most of us do. Every place I go, every state, every country, every culture, people will tell me their stories and listen politely to mine.

Why? Stories tell us who we are and how we’re alike. They let us connect and stay connected with one another and ourselves.

I told you all of that to tell you this. My husband I were talking with Henry, our 7-year-old grandson, who is an expert on all things animal. He was telling us about a “tanuki,” a kind of dog that looks like a raccoon.

“It’s one of my favorite animals,” Henry said. “It lives in Japan. Maybe someday I’ll go there and get to see a real one.”

“You will,” I said. “And it will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh. It sounds a lot like a weasel.

Suddenly I recalled a day that I never want to forget.

“Wanna hear a story?” I said.

Henry’s eyes lit up. He loves stories almost as much as he loves animals. So I told him how, years ago, while on a speaking trip to Nebraska, I put on everything I had packed in my suitcase and went out in freezing weather at 5 a.m. to stand in a duck blind and watch hundreds of thousands of birds wake up and take wing.

Not just any birds. They were big, graceful, ghostly gray sandhill cranes, 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet, and weighing 8 to 12 pounds.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Every spring, for what some say has been 9 million years, a 60-mile stretch along the Platte River (from Grand Island to Kearney to Overton) becomes a stopover for a half million or so sandhill cranes that take a break from their migration to fatten up in the area’s vast cornfields before the long flight north.

“Henry,” I said, “when those birds took off, all those wings flapping together sounded like a train! Can you imagine looking up at a sky filled with hundreds of thousands of giant birds?”

“Whoa,” he said, “that just sounds amazing, Nana!”

It’s fun to impress a 7 year old. I don’t manage to do it often, but when I do, I like it a lot.

While I was telling Henry that story, my husband found some TV documentaries on sandhill cranes and the three of us watched them together. They were stunning. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words. But seeing and hearing for yourself is believing. Even in freezing weather at 5 a.m.

Nature is a master storyteller. Birds and valleys and rivers and stars tell tales we need to hear.

Henry said, “Maybe someday I’ll go to Nebraska and get to see those cranes for myself.”

“You will,” I said. “And they will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh, adding, “And then I’ll go to Japan and see a tanuki.”

“A Junkie’s Confession,” Aug. 13, 2019

I am an excellent packer. And I certainly should be, given the number of times (and years) that I have needed to pack.

But the story I’m about to tell you isn’t really about packing. It’s more about the lessons we can learn when life doesn’t go quite the way we planned.

First, a bit of background. Long ago, I adopted a policy that has served me well, both in travel and in life. Basically, it’s a firmly held belief that the mark of a good outing — whether it’s a walk in the park or a marathon run on the rocky road of life — is how little you take along.

Think about it. Baggage (of all kinds) demands attention. It weighs you down. It makes you crazy. The more of it you carry, the less fun you’re likely to have. So I try to pack light and have as much fun as possible. Maybe you do, too. Aren’t we smart?

Recently I planned to fly to Los Angeles to spend a few days with my oldest and his wife and their 4-month-old, Jonah. I like my oldest and his wife a lot, but the main attraction was Jonah. It had been only a few weeks since I last saw him, but babies change fast. One minute they’re in diapers. Then you blink and they’re shaving and begging to borrow your car. I was hungry to hold him.

Maybe, while packing, I got distracted thinking of Jonah. It’s easy to blame kids for stuff. I used to blame my three for making the house a mess. But they grew up and moved out and the house is still a mess.

Packing for LA, I did my usual. I filled a small, carry-on suitcase with four changes of clothing (one per day, plus an extra for accidents); a spare pair of shoes; and a minimum of travel-sized toiletries stuffed in a quart-size bag that would allow me, I hoped, to get through security without being strip searched.

That was it. Plus my purse. And ticket. And ID. And laptop. And cell phone. And e-reader. And chargers to keep them charged. And a sweater, because airplanes are flying ice buckets.

I did one last check, threw in a pair of warm socks, zipped it all up and was good to go. My husband dropped me off at the airport. I waved goodbye as he drove away, then I headed for the security line. That’s when it hit me. I had left my cell phone on the nightstand by the bed.

In a panic, my mind raced to think of options. I could text my husband from my laptop. But he was driving and wouldn’t see the text. Or I could beg a stranger to let me use their phone to call him. But even if he answered, there wasn’t time for him to drive home, get my phone and drive back before my flight left.

I had never thought of myself as a cell phone addict. But there I was, a junkie in withdrawal.

My son was planning to pick me up curbside at LAX. I’d told him I’d call when I landed to say where (out of a zillion possible locations) I’d be waiting. Instead, I texted him from my laptop and he texted back: “No worries, Mama. I will find you.”

Have I mentioned he’s a really good boy? He said he’d meet me at baggage claim. And there he was, grinning like a mule eating briars. I was almost as happy to see him as I was when he was 5, the day he got lost in a mall for the longest hour of my life.

For four days, I was phone-less. I kept reaching for it only to find (argh!) it wasn’t there. But slowly I began to realize something important: Less time on my phone gave me more time with Jonah and his parents.

To me, no random, useless bit of cell phone trivia will ever be worth watching Jonah smile and seeing my boy and his sweet wife take such delight in him.

The next time I leave home, I hope I’ll remember to take my phone. But I will keep it shut off until I really, truly need it.

The mark of a good outing isn’t just how little we take along. It’s how well we choose to spend one of life’s most precious gifts — time with those we love.

“One Sweet Life,” Aug. 6, 2019

What will you do with your one sweet life? I was 18, soon to finish high school, the first time I heard that question. My English teacher, Mr. Prince, suggested it for an essay. Then he said to me, “You really are a writer.”

Huh? I didn’t know what “writer” meant. I knew writers wrote things, but I didn’t know any writers personally. Women in my family raised babies or worked in mills or waited tables. Some of them, like my mother, did all three. Those were hard jobs. Writing seemed easy. I couldn’t imagine getting paid to do it.

(Later, I learned that writing is actually hard and it can pay, but not usually very much.)

Mr. Prince was well named. I liked him a lot, even before he said I was a writer. I didn’t want to disappoint him. So I wrote an essay entitled, “What Will I Do with My One Sweet Life?”

I have no idea what I said in it. It was a long time ago. Never mind how long. I thought I might marry my high school boyfriend and raise babies, but I wouldn’t put that in an essay.

Maybe I said I wanted to go to college to study English (I liked to read) but I would never want to teach it to people who didn’t know what “writer” meant.

Mr. Prince gave it an A, with a note saying it could’ve been an A+, if not for the crack about teaching. When I asked him about that, he laughed.

“I love teaching,” he said. “I try to make the most of my one sweet life. I hope you will, too.”

Then I went off to college, and my high school boyfriend went to Vietnam. When he came back, we split up and I moved to California, married a teacher and started raising babies.

I also took a part-time job writing (it paid, but not much) for a local newspaper. I never doubted that I was making the most of my one sweet life. But in time I’d realize that for some of us, life isn’t just one life. It’s a series of lives told in chapters.

My children were in their late teens and early 20’s when we lost their dad to cancer. We were close as a family, but his death drew us closer. That’s one of the gifts that come with loss.

The kids didn’t need raising any more. But they needed me to make the most of that chapter of my life. I needed it, too. I wanted to be an example for them and honor their dad’s memory by moving forward and being fully alive. So I traveled, worked, wrote and played.

Years later, when I remarried, it was for all those reasons and more. Mostly it was for love. Love makes every life sweeter.

Then the grandbabes started showing up. Eight babes in eight years. Now, when I plan what to do with my day, the plan often includes one or more little people. And their parents. And a trip to the market for something my husband, bless him, will grill. And a big bottle of Biofreeze for my back.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that. Still, there are a few more things I hope to do to make the most of this chapter:

_ I want to finish a novel that I started and stopped some years ago. (I recently read about a 101-year-old woman who just published her first book of poetry. Yes, I am fired up.)

_ I’d like to visit places that carry my column and meet readers and editors and other friends I’ve never met.

_ I want to see my husband get really old and keep his marriage vows to always play his bass and try to be more like his dad.

_ I’d love to watch my children make the most of their sweet lives, raise their children and see all their dreams come true.

After that? Who knows?

If we’re lucky, you and I, we will make the most of not just one sweet life, but a blockbuster series, with a brand new chapter beginning every day.

What will you do with yours?

“Hope in the Heart of a Child,” July 31, 2019

(Note to Readers: I’m taking this week off to spend time with my family. The following column was published in Oct. 2012, when I lived in Las Vegas. Thanks for reading! _ Sharon)

One wrong turn landed us in a part of Las Vegas seldom seen by tourists who prefer to spend their time and money in the neon glow of the Strip. We were driving to Mount Charleston, an 11,000-foot peak an hour from Vegas. It’s a ski resort in winter and a respite from the desert inferno in summer. But in autumn, it’s a chance to see some fall color. Not like the autumns I knew as a child in the Carolinas, but better than no color at all.

I was homesick for fall. My husband knew it. When I said, “Let’s go,” he said, “Yes, let’s.” You have to like the kind of man who says that.

When a missed exit on the freeway put us, as life often will, on a slightly different path, we found ourselves waiting at a traffic light trying to avoid eye contact with people on the street who were trying hard to sell us things we didn’t want to buy.

That’s when I spotted her — a skinny little girl, 3 or 4 years old. Her hair was braided in swirly rows, pinned to her scalp with pink barrettes. She wore a ruffly dress with leggings and sandals, and a smile to outshine all the neon on the Strip. Even at a distance, I could see the light that danced in her eyes.

She seemed well-cared for and happy, skipping along, holding the hand of a woman who struck me, as my grandmother would say, like someone who knew how to raise a child right.

Minutes later, back on the freeway, I kept thinking about that little girl. Something about her reminded me of another child from a lifetime ago.

That long ago child grew up in the country, not the city, crossing cow pastures, not crowded streets. Her family had just enough, usually, to keep cornbread on the table, a tin roof over her head and hand-me-down shoes on her feet. At times she wished for things other children took for granted — lunch money or Christmas presents or parents who didn’t fight. But mostly, she felt lucky.

She had teachers who made her feel smart. Sunday school teachers who made her feel loved. Grandparents who made her think she could hang the moon and all its stars. And a small, caring community of people who believed in her, cheered for her, opened their hearts and their homes to her, helped her grow up and get a scholarship to go to college, and always prayed for her best.

Children don’t need much. But they need to know they matter.

That evening I sat on a balcony at Mount Charleston, with aspen leaves glittering like gold coins in the distance and a neon sunset spilling over the desert, and remembered the little girl I saw on the street. I suspect I’ll never forget her.

I hope she has all she needs — someone to make her feel smart and loved and capable of anything, even the impossible. Especially the impossible.

I hope her parents are happy, together or apart, and make choices based on her best.

I hope she has a good, reliable dog. A big sister to look out for her. A kid brother to bug her. And grandparents who swear she hangs the moon and stars.

I hope the women in her life stick by her, the men say “yes, let’s,” and her car always starts.

I hope she goes to college, lands a job she loves and keeps it for as long as she wants.

I hope she marries well, raises her children right and gets to spoil her grandchildren.

I hope she knows she matters.

And in the autumn of her life, if she ever forgets, I hope she’ll see a child on the street and be reminded of how lucky, how very blessed, she has been.

“Toys Are So Us,” July 23, 2019

The toys were taking over. Not my toys. I don’t have any. And not my husband’s toys, either, though he has plenty  — basses and guitars and ukuleles and plastic fruit noise makers.

He calls them musical instruments. I could talk about them until the cows come home. But I will save that topic for another occasion.

For now, I’m talking about all the stuff we keep to entertain our grandkids (five boys, three girls, ages 8 years to 3 months) when they come to visit:

Boxes of Legos. Games and puzzles and books and crayons and washable (thank you!) markers. A bag of cowboys and indians that are a huge hit with 6-year-old Wiley. Stuffed animals and puppets. Plastic dinosaurs and sea creatures. A set of dominoes handed down from my husband’s dad. And a box of checkers I use to teach my grandkids the game my grandparents taught me.

We even have a battery operated weasel ball. It’s a plastic ball that rolls around on the floor while a stuffed weasel flops back and forth, hanging onto that ball by the skin of its teeth. The kids think it’s a hoot. My husband does, too. He might deny this, but I think he plays with it when nobody’s around.

We also have a video game that he and the older boys play together. I’m no big fan of video games, but I love to hear the boys shriek, “Look out, Papa Mark, there’s a ZOMBIE!”

Anyhow, we had all this stuff and no place to store it. So I did a bit of research and ordered two 4-feet long faux-leather storage benches that I hoped would fit in our living room.

They were delivered a few days ago, minutes after my husband left to go play music. Wiley was spending the night with us. He wanted to open the boxes.

“Let’s wait, sweetie,” I said, “until Papa Mark gets home.”

“Nah,” he said, “let’s surprise him. I’ll help. It’ll be fun!”

So we ripped open the boxes and pulled out the benches, the legs, the screws and the lengthy instructions for assembly.

“Nana?” Wiley said. “Don’t we need tools? When my dad fixes stuff, he always uses tools.”

“Tools?” I said. “I hope not. Hand me one of those legs.”

Wiley helped a lot. Mostly he served as an excellent reason to  refrain from losing my religion.

An hour later, we attached the last leg, shoved the benches into place, wiped the sweat from our brows and stood back to admire our handiwork. The benches looked good. Best of all, they fit.

Wiley went to work organizing the toys in their new homes. And I went to take two Advil.

When Papa Mark came home, he was not just surprised, but amazed at what we had done.

I winked at Wiley. He grinned at me. Then we all took a dip in the hot tub and studied the stars over the mountains.

The next day, before Wiley’s mom came to get him, I told him he had done such a fine job of organizing the toys in those benches that from now on, when his brother and sister and cousins came to play, he would be the official Toy Master.

“Toy Master?” he said, wrinkling his nose the way he does when I burn his toast.

“They’ll help you put the toys away,” I said, “but you’ll say where everything goes. Deal?”

He gave me a thumbs up.

That evening, after Wiley had gone home and my husband left to practice with the band, I sat in the living room, admiring the new benches and thinking about all those toys that were now neatly tucked away out of sight, thanks to Wiley’s help.

Do you think toys get lonely?

Lifting the lid on one of the benches, I spotted the bag of cowboys and indians.

“Don’t worry, guys,” I told them, ‘Wiley will be back soon.”

And then, deep inside the pile of toys, I thought I heard the weasel ball whine, “What time will Papa Mark be back?”

“Surprises in Work and in Life,” July 16, 2019

When asked what I do for a living, I’m tempted to say, “I’m an entertainer. I stand half naked in public, baring my soul and juggling live chickens.”

It isn’t far from the truth. But instead, I say, “I’m a columnist. I write about life and whatever comes along.” It’s an odd way to earn a living, but I’ve done it for so long it seems almost normal. And it’s full of surprises.

For example:

1. I’m surprised I never run out of things to write about. I remember my first column, almost 30 years ago. I didn’t want to do it, but my editor insisted. So I wrote about how my grandmother and my blind baby brother taught me to see the world. I promised readers that in future columns I’d take a look at whatever came along and write about what I saw.

It didn’t seem very interesting, even to me. But people called the paper to say they liked it. So I thought, “OK, I can do this.”

Then I realized I’d have to do it again. And again. What on Earth would I write about?

“Make a list,” said my editor, “of every column idea you can think of. Then, if you’re ever stumped, you can write about something on the list.”

So I listed 100 ideas for columns and put the list in a drawer. And I have never needed to take it out. Why? I try to stay alive and pay attention. If you do that, things will keep coming along.

Some of those things might break your heart. But in writing, as in life, you don’t get to choose what comes along. You just take it as comes and give it your best.

2. I’m surprised to see how much we’re alike. There is surely no shortage of things we disagree on: Politics, religion, social injustice, what to teach, what to eat, what to wear. But to understand our differences, and to agree to disagree, I believe we first need to understand all that we share in common.

So I write about the things I care most about; my hopes and dreams for my children and grandchildren and for you and yours; things that make me thankful and glad to be alive.

The surprise is hearing day after day from readers around the country who say they care about those things, too.

When I visit places that carry my column, I meet hundreds of strangers who treat me as if I’m long lost kin. It’s like a family reunion without the fist fights.

Our differences make us interesting. But the things we care most about make us one.

3. Maybe the best surprise in my work and my life is getting to see, time and again, the amazing human capacity for kindness.

Soon after I began doing the column, my first husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he had six months to live. With the strength of his will, the grace of God and an awful lot of treatment, he turned six months into four good years.

I never planned to write about cancer. Or death. Or being a widow. Or watching my kids lose their dad. But I wrote about those things and more. Then I heard from countless readers who said they were sorry for our sorrows; that they had faced sorrows, too; they were praying for us; and their children were praying for our children.

The kindness of strangers — along with that of family and friends — kept me afloat. It changed me profoundly. I’m sure it changed them, too.

That’s what kindness does. It’s a gift to the giver, as well as to the receiver. It heals us and makes us strong. It persuades a broken heart to go on beating.

Life is a small boat and the world can be a troubled sea. But we keep each other afloat with loving kindness. And tender mercies. And a lot of laughter.

Be kind. Stay alive. Pay attention. Juggle chickens. You’ll be surprised at the things that will keep coming along.

“Let There Be Light,” July 9, 2019

Children are born to bring light into the world. They bring other things, too –worry and fear and hopes and dreams and total exhaustion.

But mostly, they bring light.

I was reminded of that recently by my grandson. But I learned it from my brother. My mother was always busy. She worked hard to put food on our table. I knew having a baby would give her less time for me.

So when she brought him home from the hospital and plopped him in my lap, I said, “Can’t you give him back?”

“No,” she said, “he’s staying.”

That’s when it happened. I poked his belly and he grabbed my finger and refused to let go. He was little, but he was strong — so strong it made me laugh. And suddenly the room filled with light. I don’t mean it seemed to do that. I mean, for me, my brother made the world a brighter, better place.

Is that hard to believe? Look around you. The world is ablaze with people who shine. You just might be one of them.

Months later, we learned my brother was blind. Doctors said he would never see. But they didn’t know Joe. All the things that he would never see with his eyes, he saw clearly with his heart and his soul. He made me see them, too. He still does.

When my children were born, I knew the moment I held them that they were a gift sent to shine light in my life. More than anyone — even more than my brother — they each in their own ways have brightened my days and taught me things I needed to know.

Sometimes those were things I never hoped to learn: How to put someone else’s needs and wants before my own; how to forego sleep, food, friends and personal hygiene for more days than I care to admit; how to hold a screaming toddler for a dozen stitches in the ER, and not fall apart until we got home and he was sound asleep.

They taught me patience and perserverance and humility and how to pray long and hard, like I had never prayed before.

But mostly they lit up my life.

They still do — they and the people they’ve married and the grandchildren they’ve given me. They light me up like Christmas.

That is what children, young and old, are meant to do. No matter how we know them — by birth or adoption or teaching or coaching or just being a good neighbor who doesn’t yell if their baseball smashes your begonias — children shine light in the lives of all who care for them. Some of them keep shining forever, even when they’re old.

My 7-year-0ld grandson, Henry, is a very old soul.

“Nana,” he said recently, “want to see my stick dance? I made it up myself.”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s see it.”

“First, I take a stick,” he said, “and I throw it up in the air.”

He grabbed a stick, flung it high and danced around to catch it. When he missed, I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

Three times he tossed it. Three times he missed. On the fourth try he caught it and beamed.

“Did you see that?” he said.

“Yep!” I said. “You caught it!”

“But did you see what it did?” he asked. “Watch me again.”

I watched him two more times. But all I saw was a little boy making his nana stifle a laugh.

Finally, he explained. “It’s a special stick,” he said. “When I throw it in the sky, it brings light down to the world.”

A hummingbird darted by and zig-zagged around his head.

“I don’t know about that stick, Henry,” I said, “but I think you’re pretty special.”

He gave me a hug.

“I think that’s why I’m here, Nana, to bring light into the world.”

I looked in his brown eyes. He was serious. I nodded.

“You surely bring light to my world,” I said. “Throw it again.”

So he did.

“My New Hairdresser,” July 2, 2019

Let me introduce you to my new hairdresser, Eleanor Rose.

I call her “El.”   She calls me “Nana.”

El is new to the hairdressing profession, but what she lacks in experience, she makes up for with style and flair and a major, take-charge personality.

“Turn your head this way,” she orders. So I turn to the right.

“No!” she shouts, snapping my chin to the left. “This way!”

It’s her way or the highway. I just say, “Yes, ma’am” and do as I’m told.

El is my granddaughter. She is 4 years old, going on “ready to rule the world.” Hazel green eyes. Honey brown hair. A smile that lights me up like Christmas.

I wish you could see her.

We’re taking turns doing each other’s hair. I took the first turn. While El was entranced in a “My Little Pony” video, I brushed the tangles from her waist-length curls, taking care not to yank on the snarls. Then I pulled it back from her face, gathered it up in a ponytail and fastened it with a pink elastic band. Perfection.

When the video ended, El snapped back to attention. 

“My turn!” she said, snatching the hairbrush from my hand.   She climbed up on the sofa and stood by my shoulder, studying the top of my head.

“Nana,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “your hair is hard!”

“It’s just hairspray,” I said. “It keeps my bangs out of my eyes.”

“But, Nana,” she said, looking as if she’d just discovered I had a really bad case of head lice, “it makes your hair hard!”

Wielding the hair brush like a machete, she brushed away the hairspray, leaving a few wisps of what had once been my bangs. 

“That’s better,” she said. “Now you need a haircut.”

I gave her a look.

“El?” I said. “No scissors, OK? We’re just pretending, right?”

“Right,” she said. “I’ll use these.” She held up two fingers, snapping them together, her own personal pair of pretend hair cutting shears.   Then she pretended to lop off every last inch of my not-pretend shoulder-length hair.

It felt surprisingly good. At some point, I began to nod off while El kept whacking away. Half asleep, I drifted back to a place and time when I was El’s age, playing hairdresser to my grandmother and my mother and any of my aunts who showed up for Sunday dinner.

They’d sit on the porch in summer or by the stove in winter, gossiping and arguing about everything and nothing, while I worked my magic from chair to chair with a hairbrush and high hopes of transforming them all into beauty queens.

My mother and my aunts were picky. No matter how great a job I did, they always had to redo it.

Not my grandmother. I could make her look like a cat that had just been flea-dipped and she’d smile and give me a dime.

Not everyone found her easy to please. But I did. And it made me want to give her my best.

My reverie ended with a whack on my head from a hairbrush.

“Sit up, Nana,” El said. “I want to curl the back of your hair.”

“You’re curling my hair?”

“Yes!” she said, “and you’re going to love it!” 

Her curling technique involved twisting clumps of my hair into coils and tying them in knots. It was not exactly the kind of look I was hoping for, but I decided to let her finish. 

After a few more twists and coils and knots, she grabbed my hand and dragged me to the bathroom mirror.

“Do you like it?” El asked.

I stood for a moment, staring at the mirror. I looked like a cat that had just been flea-dipped. 

“Yes,” I said, “I, uh, love it.”

She laughed and took my hand. “No, Nana, you look crazy! Come on, I’ll fix it.”

So she uncoiled the knots and brushed out the twists and kissed the top of my head.

She gave me her best.

And I gave her a dollar. 

Maybe next time, I’ll let her dye my roots.

“My Favorite Talking Tree,” June 25, 2019

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a tree. You might blame it on age. Or insanity. But I’ve always felt a kinship with Nature that is as real and as binding as anything I feel for flesh and blood.

Maybe you do, too. Maybe we are all born with a hunger to feel sun on our face and wind in our hair and dirt beneath our toes.

It’s not that we love Nature more than we love people. But we believe we’re all in this boat together, all of Creation. We’re all part of the family of God.

Sometimes I like to be with people. And sometimes I like to be alone. But once in a while, I just like to hang out with a tree.

In the Carolinas, where I grew up, there were more trees than people. Or so it seemed to me. Mountains grew thick with evergreens and were speckled with hardwoods that turned red and gold in fall. Valleys were quilted with acres of orchards that bloomed in spring to fill the air with a hailstorm of petals and a heavenly fragrance of apples and peaches and pears.

As a child, two trees were my favorites. The first was a tall hemlock that stood watch over my grandparents’ farm. Its long branches reached to the ground to form a giant umbrella under which I could hide for hours, sheltered from any storm.

My other favorite was an apple tree that grew in a cow pasture beside a railroad track next to the house where I lived with my mother, my stepfather and two brothers. It was a small house, noisy, and at times, unbearable.

Climbing that tree was like going on vacation. Not exactly Disneyland, but close. I’d perch on a branch, swaying in the wind, tossing apples at cows and waiting for a train. When the engine roared by, I’d pump my arm and the engineer would blow the whistle just for me.

But mostly what I did in those trees was just be still and listen. To the sigh of wind. The rustle of branches. The song of birds. The rumble of thunder. And, yes, the mooing of cows.

Trees like to talk. If we give them a chance, they’ll tell us things we need to know: That the world is a wondrous place waiting to be discovered and enjoyed; that there is shelter in every storm; that everything on the Earth is part of God’s family; and most of all, we are loved.

I learned those things from many sources — family and friends and life. But in some ways, I learned them by being still and listening to a tree.

My next favorite tree was a beckoning oak that wrapped its branches around the house where I raised my children. I helped the kids climb it when they were small and have since done the same for their kids. I loved that tree, and listened to it closely for almost 50 years.

Months ago, as I sat in an upstairs bedroom rubbing Flexall on my knees, I could swear I heard the oak whisper, “It’s time for you to move on.”

For one sobering moment, I thought it meant that I was dying. Imagine my relief to realize it only meant that my knees were tired of the stairs.

So we sold that house and moved to a one-level place in a nearby valley. It was hard to leave the old place and the oak. I’m hoping the new owners and their children (and maybe their grandkids someday) will love it and listen to it just as we did.

My new favorite tree is a flowering plum that welcomed us with a profusion of blooms the day we moved in. It’s a lot younger than my other favorite trees, but it likes to talk. I listen closely as the wind rattles its limbs and rustles its leaves.

It tells me things I need to remember, things I taught my children and hope to teach my grandchildren: That the world is a wondrous place waiting to be discovered and enjoyed; that there is shelter in every storm; that everything on the Earth is part of God’s family; and most of all, we are loved.

Listen. Can you hear it?

“Old (and Older) Friends,” June 18, 2019

I’m watching them across the table, two beautiful young women, deep in conversation. I wish you could see them.

Michelle and Joanna have been friends since they were born. They live miles apart now, but keep in touch with emails and texts and phone calls and occasional posts on Facebook.

When Michelle comes “home” to visit her family, she and Joanna try to meet for lunch, just the two of them. They always have a lot of “catching up” to do, and it’s easier to do alone, with no interruptions.

But this time they invited their mothers to join them. And not just because they’re hoping we’ll pick up the check.

Myra and I were friends before the girls were born. We met in church. She was a veteran mom with two young children, soon to have her third. I was a rookie, pregnant with my first.

I had a lot to learn. And Myra was born to teach. One day, I mentioned that a house on our block was for sale. Imagine my surprise when she and her husband bought that house and moved in across the street.

For the next 30 years, we were not just friends, but neighbors. The kind of neighbor who lets you borrow a cup of sugar knowing you won’t pay it back. Who brings you snickerdoodles at Christmas and a casserole when you’re sick. Who lets your kids run wild with her kids, or piles them in her station wagon and takes them to the park. Who can talk with you for hours in a circus of toddlers about hopes and dreams and faith and fears and how to stretch a pound of hamburger to feed a family of five plus four unexpected guests.

Michelle is Myra’s fourth child. Joanna is my second. They were born less than a year apart and grew up together more like sisters than friends.

In some ways, Myra and I grew up together, too, sharing recipes and children and life. Over the years, our lives took different directions. I worked for a newspaper. Myra taught school. The kids all grew up and moved on with their lives.

When I lost my husband to cancer, Myra wrapped me in her arms and made me promise to call her if I needed anything, or just wanted to talk.

In the long months that followed, it helped somehow just to look out my window and see the light in her kitchen.

Years later, when I remarried and moved to Nevada, Myra and I relied on our daughters to keep us posted on each other’s news.

Last year, after my husband retired, we left Nevada and moved back to the old house. And the next day, Myra and her husband welcomed us home with a plate of snickerdoodles.

Have you ever noticed how quickly a year can pass? Myra and I had been meaning to get together to “catch up.” But a year went by and it didn’t happen. So our daughters invited us out to lunch.

Now here we sit, talking and laughing and eating, the four of us, sharing news of our families and remembering old times.

I told them my favorite Myra story. It goes like this:

We were camping, Myra and I and our seven kids. We had put the kids to bed in a tent and stayed up late talking, when a raccoon big enough to play in the NFL climbed on the picnic table and started eating our snacks. Myra gave me a look as if to say, “Watch this.” Then she banged on the table with a stick. And the raccoon gave her a look, as if to say, “Seriously?” Then he bared his teeth and hissed in her face. And she dove into the tent.

We all laughed at that story, as we often have before. Then the girls went back to talking, just the two of them. And Myra and I picked up where we’d left off.

Our daughters can talk the chicken off the bone.

I wonder where they learned to do that?