I got out of bed earlier than usual this morning and went for a walk before 5:00 AM, the first time I’d done so in far too many months. I enjoy not only getting my exercise out of the way for the day but the solitude and quiet of walking my normal route before first light and being able to see the stars (Orion was especially vivid this morning) all the while getting serenaded by the symphony of sound made by birds roosting in every tree I pass by.

Because I have been sick much of the summer this particular routine is one I simply was not able to enjoy the way that I did this morning. As I reflected on that while I walked I considered the meaning and significance of the routines and rituals we partake of – and are subjected to as well – in our lives.

Webster defines routine as ‘a regular way of doing things in a particular order’. Many people, myself included, take comfort in the familiarity of following a set pattern of activity or methodology. My husband and I take delight in how nice it feels to share certain routines together, even things as mundane as sitting at Starbucks enjoying our hot beverages or watching our favorite programs on TV and Netflix. There is also the attention to detail (okay, this one is more me than Bill) of how the bed is made or dishes are put away or clothes are folded. I actually find ironing, which many people think of as a chore, to be a relaxing activity, a routine that I don’t mind doing at all. Bill and I also appreciate the visual delight and calming effect of sometimes taking a longer route to work – bypassing additional albeit faster travel on the interstate in exchange for a longer route laden with those pesky stoplights simply because it offers us the opportunity to perhaps catch sight of deer or turkey in the woods and fields on the edge of the city. It’s a pleasant routine we both enjoy.

An alternate definition of routine provides an opposing, somewhat gloomy view of the word: A boring state or situation in which things are always done the same way. Images of being forced to sit through Mass each Sunday when we were growing up or waiting in the car for hours while Dad ‘looked at trees’ for the sawmill or having to do the dishes after the noon meal in the summer – always a major production with six kids at home and hired men to feed. None of these things were particularly difficult or painful. They were just dull and monotonous and these activities were routinely required as part and parcel of being a member of my family. Routine used here takes on a negative connotation. And is perhaps why something being described as a ‘ho-hum routine’ gets a bum rap.

One’s perspective or outlook on life can go a long way in determining whether it be the yin or the yang when it comes to that which is routine.

This afternoon at work I stepped up to one of the two sinks in the restroom to wash my hands. Another woman followed suit and remarked that usually she washed her hands in the sink that I was using and wasn’t it odd how we get used to using one thing instead of another and when forced to use something else it feels so different. It got me thinking further that we often follow a set routine and when we waver from it in any way we may feel anxious or tense, out of our element, maybe even uncomfortable, awkward or embarrassed.

Routines can be cherished or loathed. They can provide warm fuzzies or feelings of dread. They can be reassuring or sleep-inducing.

Are there any routines that you find pleasant, that bring you joy and comfort? Or do your routines cause heartburn and angst or feelings of trepidation? Please – do tell!

tal·ent·ed: having a natural aptitude or skill for something

One of the few TV shows that my husband and I watch each summer is America’s Got Talent. It is incredible – and very entertaining! – watching so many amazing individuals taking the stage and sharing their talents and skills. Some of the acts are simply fantastic, some are just okay and many fall into the what-can-I-do-to-get-myself-on-TV category – some of which are entertaining, others not so much. The season begins with a panel of judges who decide if the act is worthy of moving on to the next stage of competition. If any of the judges dislike what they’re seeing they hit a button and a red ‘X’ lights up above the contestant accompanied by the sound of one very loud (and annoying!) buzzer. If all four judges give them the ‘X’ the act is over and the competition moves on to the next contestant. Later on in the season it’s up to the American people to do the judging and ultimately select a million dollar winner in the fall.

To encourage talented people everywhere to apply for next season the host of the show, Nick Cannon, proclaims that everyone has talent. Everyone? Everyone has talent? Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. I cannot think of a single thing that I’m able to do that even remotely falls into the TALENT bucket especially as defined above. At least nothing of merit that might win me a million dollars let alone get me past the original audition without sending each judge to slap his or her hand on that button to boot me off the stage!

I’ve never been athletic or musical or artistic. While some might say that I have a good sense of humor, showmanship and a solid sense of delivery is not my strong suit. I cannot sing or play a musical instrument. I’ve performed in community theatre but I fear my acting skills tend more toward the melodramatic than anything theatrical.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. Something a little less obvious perhaps?

I am double-jointed. Does that count for anything? The middle toe on my right foot is shorter than all the others, prompting my dad to jokingly ask me once ‘what are you – a freak’? I make a mean cheesy potato casserole and my nephew loves my cowboy beans. My ciabatta bread is to die for and my sister Theresa thinks I have great taste in movies as well as music from the 70’s. But can I take any of this to the bank?

I better not quit my day job – at least not yet.

Not unless I can come up with a really killer act where I knead the dough to make ciabatta bread with my fingers bent in the double-jointed position while Pulp Fiction plays on a large screen just over my shoulder in time with Norman Greenbaum singing Spirit in the Sky. Now THAT just might be the ticket!

I’ve been told if you’re planning a trip overseas you should begin preparations a year in advance. Perhaps this is so but in my mother’s case her recently completed trip to Ireland (‘twas “wonderful” she sighed!) was booked barely three months prior. In any case we’re contemplating just such a grand adventure ourselves for 2015.

So. Where to go? For the last several years we’ve had serious discussions about visiting Germany. We even went so far as to contact a travel agent to learn about our options. In the beginning we seriously considered backpacking our way across the region, traversing into neighboring countries via Eurail carrying our travel necessities with us along the way. I still find this hugely appealing but perhaps only after an initial trip or two to the continent are firmly entrenched under our belts.

While Germany is still on our bucket list other countries vie for our attention (and travel dollars!) as well. With ancestral roots in Norway, Ireland and England in addition to the Deutschland we have several options to choose from. Not that lineage will be the final arbitrator in where we might go. Italy, Scotland, France and even Istanbul beckon. Disclaimer: That last option is on my list, not Bill’s. I read a fascinating book a few years ago called The Historian. It is a story rooted in the Slavic region of Europe telling the brutal tale of Vlad the Impaler, the basis of the Dracula character as we know it today. Some of the story’s action takes place in Istanbul and I was curious to learn more. After a little research and seeing some incredible photos Istanbul secured a place on my travel To Do list.

We’ve got our work cut out for us but this is my kind of labor. The planning is half the fun (or half the battle depending on your perspective). Having something to look forward to is, for me, the very spice of life: sage, cinnamon, ginger, anise, basil, coriander, cardamom and nutmeg. I love them all! And, so too, do I enjoy the dreaming, the research, the planning and the anticipation of any kind of travel expedition whether it’s a weekend getaway or a trip half way around the world.

We’ve still got a few years left before our passports expire and the Life Clock is ticking away! Stay tuned for further developments.

What is on your travel To Do list? Where do you want to go? Where have you been that you’d return to in a heartbeat? I’d love to hear from you!

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The world is a bad place, a bad place. A terrible place to live. Oh, but I don’t want to die. ~ Reflections of My Life, Marmalade

The news stories that we have been bombarded with for far too long are sobering indeed. Reminders that there are some very bad things and people and places in this world. Although we’re often told that “life isn’t fair” this little pearl of wisdom sometimes seems to be staggeringly true. I recall being told when I was a kid that despite any hardships or difficulties I may have to encounter there is always someone who has it worse than I do. I suppose the reasoning behind this is so that I might put things into perspective and not complain because somewhere out there is someone who is worse off than me and that I should be grateful for what I have. True, so very true. However, my youthful mind took this rationalization a bit further. If this statement was true and there is a person out there, say Person X, who has more problems than me then you could extrapolate that to say there is someone out there who is worse off than Person X. And then someone who is worse off than that person and so on and so forth.  That means (my youthful – and not so youthful – mind is really humming now) there is that one person, that poor schmuck, that miserable wretch who has it worse than every single gosh darn person in the whole entire world. And that is just too much unfairness for this mind of mine, however old, to take in.

While we acknowledge the brutality and horror and unfairness that does, unfortunately, exist in this world there is also much beauty and goodness and light and majesty as well. My oh-but-I-don’t-want-to-die list looks something like this:

  • Children: Their laughter, their inquisitiveness, their energy, their little hands and feet, the way they run and squeal with delight, the way they react to music even when they’re just toddlers, how they learn to talk and reason and think and mimic what they see around them – basically how they are able to LEARN is utterly amazing.
  • My husband: His smile, his patience, his sense of humor, the way he so fiercely loves and cherishes me, his goodness, his green eyes, the gray in his temples and beard and mustache, his can-do attitude, the way he’s been such a good father figure for my son (who thinks the world of him) and well, just pretty much everything about him!
  • The fresh growth of spring: Green buds on the trees, flowers poking up through the soil (incredible!), the light airiness of it all, the promise in the breeze, the wonder of new life all around us.
  • My son: His creativity, his absolutely unique sense of humor, his dedication and love of science and his motivation to learn more and more including how to be a better teacher, his love of music and the way he’s thrown himself into learning to play the drums (which he didn’t pick up until his early 20’s), the way he has always been able to make new friends even as (especially as!) a child, his way of calling me Mother and how, despite the many mistakes I made in that role as he was growing up, he has always been my ally and most ardent defender.
  • Nature: If ever there was an element of this world for which the adjective majestic was intended, the gifts that Mother Nature has provided for us would be it. The changing of the seasons, awe-inspiring mountains and deserts, glorious rivers and lakes, lush forests and mysterious oceans, all teeming with a diversity of creatures. To be still and silent in the midst of such grandeur is to know what it’s like to really breath, to truly live, to just BE.
  • Kindness: This element of the world, when it makes itself known to you at unexpected moments, is perhaps one of the most beautiful things of all. Whether you are the recipient of any act of caring, generosity or warmth or you are merely an observer, to know or experience the beauty of kindness in any of its many forms can move even the most hardened individuals to tears. The best example of kindness? That which is done anonymously, totally without mention to anyone else – ever – in any way, shape or manner, is true kindness for it comes directly from the heart and as such it reaps its own reward. Or rather it doesn’t require anything for its efforts. The doing of the deed is all that truly matters.

So yes, while there is much to lament and grieve for in our world today, much that causes anxiety, pain and fear there are many more causes for joy and celebration. We, too, must remember that we don’t live in a vacuum. The things that touch us are often the result of our choices even while we are sometimes at odds with the platter that was placed before us by way of where we were born, how we have been raised, our genetics and our heritages. But we can choose, we can do, we can decide.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. ~ Desiderata, Max Ehrmann

What a wonderful treat!  My work day is slightly delayed today – I have a training class offsite that starts later than normal for me – so in addition to getting to sleep in a little we woke up to a smattering of lightning and gloriously loud thunder boomers all around us.  Rain is pouring down at a rapid rate and the fairway that borders our property to the north is a small tributary.

I have always enjoyed thunderstorms but I know they frighten some people.  I recall a childhood friend – always much more rough and tumble than I ever was or hoped to be – who I discovered in high school was terrified of storms.  To say I was surprised to learn this would be an understatement.  I also have a few relatives who dislike thunder and lightning and a recently acquired blogging friend who recently reported her fear of them.

It’s been a little dry lately so the rain is most welcome at this time.  What won’t be so pleasant later in the day is the heat and humidity so much moisture in the air is sure to deliver.  The next few days here in central Iowa look to be upper 80s, low 90’s.  Our local news channel forewarns of ‘big heat’ ahead on their website.

For now though as thunder continues to rumble in the distance I’m enjoying a few moments of calm, dashing off this quick post, before we head into the city to begin our day.  As usual I struggle today trying to figure out what to wear – it will be stifling hot and sticky outside but sure to be frigidly cold indoors (blasted A/C!) – so as always I’ll dress in layers, make sure I have hot tea or chai on hand to keep me warm and hope for the best.

Have a great day everyone!

IMG_0037 I don’t know about other areas of the U.S. (or other countries for that matter) but here in the Midwest bike trails have been developed to run along pathways formerly used by old railway lines. This weekend my husband and I walked one of these bike trails, the High Trestle Trail where we began our brief excursion at the trailhead in the small Iowa town of Woodward.

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The path we travelled was pleasantly wide enough for bikes to pass by easily and was lined on either side with lush green vegetation, wild flowers and ivy climbing over anything in its path. It somewhat reminded us of the kudzu we’d seen once during a visit to North Carolina. Bunnies ran across the trail and into the brush while butterflies and birds swooped in and out of all that beautiful greenery. It was beautiful and peaceful and invigorating all at the same time!

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As the name implies this bike trail makes its way to an old trestle bridge. Unfortunately this particular visit did not allow us time enough to explore and photograph it further on what was turning out to be a very splendid summer day; we did, however, hike this trail on my 55th birthday two years ago in February.

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It was relatively warm for a winter day, sunny and just a little breezy. Bill and I hiked out to the bridge late that afternoon (coming from the opposite direction than we did this past weekend) and since it was our first visit there we didn’t know what to expect. My husband likes to tease me about being ‘high maintenance’ (I’m not. Really. Well, okay. Maybe a little…) but this is my kind of day and my kind of adventure! The fresh air, the open vistas, walking through nature. I love doing this sort of thing. After about a half an hour trek we finally made our way to the bridge itself.

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The view was incredible — all that wide open space — and we were up so high. This was, remember, a former railway line and we were on top of a trestle bridge that, according to their website, is 130 feet high. With such a grand viewing platform it was only a little surprising when we caught sight of several deer running out into the clearing from the woods nearby. It was the highlight of an already wonderful day!

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Readers familiar with the area will be quick to point out that my photos fail to include what is best known, perhaps, about the High Trestle Trail and that is the view after dark. Unfortunately, we have yet to visit the trail for a nocturnal hike (definitely on my Local Bucket List!) and there are no words I can employ to adequately describe the bridge at night. Please check out the website and their photo gallery for a grand array of photos — including those taken in the evening — to get an even better idea of what this wonderful Iowa treasure has to offer!

Some Iowa natives grumble about the weather here (our winters can be brutal and the summers dreadfully hot and humid). Others complain of nothing to do and being stuck in ‘fly over country’. Some young people are often anxious to leave the area for ‘greener pastures’ only to return to the comfort and tranquility of life here in the Midwest after a few years. Count me, however, as one proud Iowan. We may not have grand canyons or great lakes but I think the beauty and peacefulness of places here in Iowa such as the High Trestle Trail have a charm all their own and I am glad to call this place home.

As adventures go, my foray into The Land of Blog has been fairly low key. No racing pulse, no sweaty brow nor dangers posed to life or limb. Instead of physical exertion or a challenge of stamina, employing words and images to convey the musings of my mind in a way that inspires and entertains is a summoning of intestinal fortitude on an entirely different plane.

I don’t know when the seed was first planted but for many years I have given thought to writing a book. The problem I faced was lack of a story. I knew that I enjoyed writing. Sometimes thoughts and phrases would pop into my head and I wanted to create a vehicle in which these random words could travel. I’ve given thought to writing about growing up in a family of six daughters and even came up with the literary names I’d give to each of us in the fictionalized account I might someday write. That, however, was the extent of it.

Then I began to learn about something called a blog. Wikipedia defines a blog as ‘a discussion or informational site’ on the internet ‘consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order’. There are several posting web sites and web publishing tools available to get started with the process and for hosting your blog. As I started to research the mechanics of creating and assembling a blog I also pondered what it was I wanted to say, what I wanted to write about.

Just as there is a learning curve to the intricacies of blog development within the hosting tool of choice it is perhaps even more of a challenge trying to figure out writing style, blog statistics and methods for reaching out to (and retaining!) new followers and increasing the number of views and visitors to your blog let alone deciding what it is you want to post about every day.

One thing I’ve discovered in just these short three months (to be precise two months, twelve days)  is that it sure is difficult to know what will ‘connect’ with my readers. I’ve written some posts that I am certain will elicit several views, ‘likes’ and comments and get nothing but crickets. On the flip side, other posts send my site stats soaring and while I am always ecstatic to see my numbers going up, up, UP it is sometimes puzzling to understand why this post and not the other. Go figure. Lesson One: You write for yourself and not for the kudos and congratulatory comments that may (or may not) come your way. I have several posts on my blog that, while I was sure they would trigger positive reactions but didn’t, I am nonetheless quite proud of them and happy with the results.

Writing is scary. You’re putting yourself out there – proverbial warts and all – and really exposing yourself in an entirely new way. Many people post on Facebook and other social media but writing on a blog – and saying what it is that’s on your mind in a more expanded fashion – opens you up to rejection, reader comments that can be either welcoming or bruising, and perhaps worst of all indifference.

Still, we bloggers continue on because we love the words, we love the images and we enjoy the writing. Whether it be the clunk and growl and rattle of the written word or the luster and shimmer of a well-orchestrated symphony of letters arranged in a precise manner to convey the stories we wish to tell we blog because it makes us happy. Perhaps our pulses do actually race a bit. And while our brows may not be sweaty, at times our palms are! To us this is adventure of the highest order. This we must do.

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During the last several weeks and months, in just my own small world alone, there have been a number of untimely deaths. The startling news of each passing is always totally unexpected. All of them individuals in their 50s and 60s with retirement and travel and grandkids and exciting new adventures either already underway or on the not too distant horizon. Hopes and dreams shattered, the very existence of loved ones reeling with loss put on hold.

Whenever lives are cut short as a result of health-related problems it always gives me pause. There is, of course, the heaviness of tragedy – the hardships, grieving and loss to be endured by those left behind but also the reminder for all of us of our own frailties and vulnerabilities, our very mortality.

Fittingly – with the sad, stunning demise of Robin Williams still all too fresh in our minds – the battle cry of ‘Carpe Diem!’ which his character encouraged his students to embrace in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society is one we should carry in our hearts if not on our tongues as well. We should strive to live and love with abandon with an eye toward keeping ourselves healthy in the process. With the memory of these recent deaths I’ve become more cognizant than ever that I want to remain healthy. I want to live a long, happy, productive life with my husband. I want to travel and enjoy leisurely sunsets. I want to climb mountains, linger along the water’s edge, hike in the woods, fly kites, drink good wine with friends and family, groove and sway to the blues, kayak, go camping, play board games and go golfing with my life partner. I want to see my son married someday and perhaps start a family.  I want to cook and bake and snap photos and write and read and laugh and love!  I want to create memories of special holidays and milestones with friends and family.  But mostly I just want to cherish the everyday joys of life.

Life-sustaining, life-enhancing diet and exercise, mood and attitude and life-affirming, nurturing relationships should be our highest priority. Somehow knowing and acknowledging the payoff of caring for self through a positive lifestyle makes the goal of good health appear easier to attain, doable.

The alternative is simply, utterly unthinkable. Seize the Day! It truly is all we have right here, right now. Make it happen.