The Magic of the #2 Pencil – A Tribute to Lee Burgess

I don’t remember meeting Lee. I’ve just known him for so many years and had so many experiences with him that it seems like he has always been part of my life. Lee and his wife Barb were the kinds of people that made you feel like family. They each had the same rare gift. They were truly interested in other people. When they asked you how you are, it wasn’t like the kind of dialogue you speak in a beginning language lesson. “How are you? Fine, and you? No, they really wanted to know how you were doing. They listened in their own ways and not like someone that was just keeping quiet until it was their turn to speak. They really listened.

Lee would always follow a question with another question and soon you found yourself sharing at a deeper level than an average conversation.

Lee was a writer and his tool of choice was a #2 pencil and whatever was at hand to write on like a napkin, a tiny notebook, or a piece of 3-hole paper. He took notes, made observations, and he asked questions. He was always on the lookout for story ideas for his weekly newspaper column, He was never without his pencil. I asked him about and he told me he liked the physicality of pressing pencil to paper, the motions that made letters on the page, and how it slowed down his mind. He wrote a weekly column which the community looked forward to reading because we never had a clue what he would write about next.

He wrote a piece on my son who had just returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail from one end to the other. Lee took him out to lunch and hung on his every word. It helped my son process his experience and he has the column framed and hanging in his house.

He was a witness to the lives he observed. He listened and he wrote. We all need a witness, especially someone who values our experience and will help us frame it through his unique perspective. We will miss his take on life.

I was fortunate to witness his life as well. What struck me was the depth of his passion and enjoyment of his family, writing, and baseball. I told him I didn’t enjoy baseball and he spent time explaining why he found it so captivating. There was so much to it, he told me. So many strategies, details, and statistics. You’ll like it if you spend some time really watching a game. Get into the strategy he said.

In the summer, Barb and Lee would show up at our house and we would sit on the deck and watch the sunset on Lake Ontario. We called it the summer sunset series. I asked Lee how he would describe the sinking of the sun into the water and the resulting display of brilliant colors. He thought for a moment and said “some things just need to be experienced. I’m profoundly grateful that I experienced the wonderful man who was Lee. He encouraged me to write. He read and commented on some of my pieces gently leading me to become a better writer through his curiosity and questions. He did that for a lot of people.

The Rev. Lance Robbins shared a beautiful meditation at Lee’s service from Henri Nouwen. It talked about how a person’s spirit abides in us once they die. I believe it. I will hold that spirit that is Lee close to my heart. I can see him scratching his pencil across a napkin, looking up with that grin on his face, happy to have captured an idea before it got away. Go with God, Lee, and don’t forget to give Barb a kiss for me.

Rhinebeck – NY Sheep and Wool Festival – A Fantastic Fiber Extravaganza!

Joy permeated the autumn air at Rhinebeck this year. Everyone was in a festive mood moving about the Duchess Fairgrounds in their most beautiful knitted and crocheted garments. Saturday was a massive river of knitters. The line in the book area extended past my table that I shared with Margaret Huber who has authored over 45 books. She started in 1978 with her first book “One Piece Knits That Fit”. While the rest of us were knitting sweaters in pieces, Margaret had already written the book on how to make a sweater on round needles. She remains ahead of the curve. Margaret’s current book is how to create a lace jacket from crocheted doilies which is her version of upscaling (see the beige jacket in the picture) and free form crochet (see the blue and purple jacket) as well as her beloved granny squares which have come back in style. There were several young women with their granny square inspired sweaters making the rounds.

The line of knitters hovered around Patty Lyon’s table ( the women standing in the green jacket) all weekend to get her latest book “Knitting Bag of Tricks: Over 70 sanity saving knitting hacks for better knitting. She sold out!

Those of us behind the tables gawked at the myriad of sweaters worn by the chatty crowd that eagerly asked what pattern and yarn the creator had used.

Look at this knitter!!!!!! She finished the Marie Wallin wrap This represents countless hours of knitting. She proudly modeled it while we took her picture. I’m working on the same project and I have about 2 inches done. She encouraged me to continue and gave me some hints. She was elated that she found another person who understood what the extent of her accomplishment.

I talked to hundreds of people and saw countless sweaters that I wanted to run out and make. It was exhilarating and exhausting. Knitters are passionate and eager to share.

I’m glad the knitting community is a kind audience. It is humbling to stand and watch as people pick up your book, skim the back cover and thumb through the pages. They either put it back or they raise it up and ask for an autograph. I could never guess what the person was going to do.

Waiting for the first sale is like waiting to see if anyone is going to show up at your party. It’s agonizing. Hours and hours of work are represented in the pages of the book that a person glances at and then looks away. It wasn’t too long into the day on Saturday when a kind woman saw me at the table, and told me she had read the book and how much she liked it. This caused another woman to stop and look. I think the book found the right people to take it home.

I will treasure the stories that I heard and the friends that I made. I hope those who bought the book find it helpful in their spiritual journeys. Thank you to all of you!!!!!!!!

Stop, before you look around

The best advice I got trekking through the Dolomites was to stop walking before you look around. It’s important to focus on each step. The trail was wide and there was plenty of room to maneuver but the exposure made it seem dangerous. It could have been easy to let the unwelcome thoughts of tripping and falling take over my mind, but the exposure reminded me of the time when my elementary school gym teacher put a balance beam two inches from the ground. Everyone in the class could do all of the tricks. When he moved it two feet off the ground, we all froze.

The snow that fell unexpectedly on the third day added another element to the difficulty of the steep exposed trails. The wind had caused the snow to drift and sometimes it was above my knees. I felt myself focusing on just the next step. My eyes searched out the footprint ahead of me measuring the depth, looking for ice, judging if the rock was going to move, and looking for a spot to put my pole. My concentration on the trail was augmented with an immense feeling of gratitude for Dario, our guide who was breaking the trail, and Jill who was following him creating a clearer and easier path by placing her foot on top of his prints. I realized that Dario was taking short steps instead of his typical long strides to accommodate me. Both people walking ahead of me made my journey easier.

We made progress, step by step. Each of us had to take our own steps but we were doing it together.

I never felt frightened. I knew all of us could physically do it.

I trusted our guide.

Hiking is an obvious metaphor for life. There are moments in our journey when we struggle through some unexpected obstacles. It takes an enormous effort on our part but when we have a guide, when we have someone willing to walk in front of us and someone willing to follow us to ensure that we are taking the steps we need to take, we make progress.

It is important to stop and look around not only in order to see progress and the beauty of the scenery, but to be reminded that we are following in someone’s footsteps and we don’t walk this journey of life alone. Someone has walked a similar road, had similar problems, similar aches and pains, similar thoughts and may just be willing to share their experience.

It helps to know we are not alone even though we have to take our own steps. It’s helpful to know there are others on the road ahead of us and behind us. When we take time to stop, look around, and notice them we can give thanks that they were willing to forge ahead, take the lead, and make it easier for those of us who follow.

I have had some great mentors in my life. These are people who took the time to show me the way and to break a trail so my walk would be easier.

Thank you.

What’s next?

It was a Wizard of Oz moment. Our guide pulled a heart-shaped rock out of his bag and presented it to me as a parting gift.

Six days earlier my husband and I started a hike through the Dolomites with two strangers, our guide and our hiking companion Jill. Now we were saying our goodbyes as four people who had bonded together during the steep climbs, the knee-deep snow, the strong winds, and the time spent together every day and evening. Our shared experience created a trust that allowed us to open our hearts and express some of our deepest thoughts about life and death in the context of the most spectacular scenery – a breathtaking part of creation that could only be reached on foot.

The trip underscored what is most important in life – relationships. We need each other. We needed our guide to show us where to go, how to hike, and to break trail in the snow and he needed our life perspective to make sense of his experience of losing his father when he was nine years old.

It was a life-changing journey. I’m still trying to figure out how I have been changed and how it has affected my perspective. I can’t quite seem to motivate myself to run or work out with no trip looming in the future. I had trouble restarting this blog and my writing. I’m still processing what was an incredible and almost indescribable trip. What’s next after a trip of a lifetime? What does it all mean?

One thing I know, I left a piece of my heart in the Dolomites.

Fresh Flowers

A friend bought me fresh flowers nineteen days ago and I just threw them out. It’s amazing how cut flowers can transform a space. They are a constant reminder of the beauty that exists in the world. I marvel at the variety of colors, shapes, and textures. It’s the details like the tiny white antenna poking up from the intense pink petals and the subtle shade changes of the red rose petals that call out the creativity of nature.

The beauty and joy of fresh flowers only lasts so long. It’s hard for me to watch the beauty fade, the browning of the edges, the wilting of the petals and the scattering of the flower shrapnel on the counter.

It’s a short life cycle once the flowers are cut from their food source.

Fresh flowers mark time. They are a reminder to enjoy the moment and to notice the beauty in the details because beauty and moments are fleeting.

Today is labor day. We rest from our labors, stop, and look.

Fresh flowers are a spiritual practice. Watching them change helps keep our priorities in order.

People Have Moved On

It’s been just over a week since my aunt died. Her two children traveled to Florida to be with her but now they have left to return to their lives. My uncle is left behind.

One of the most difficult and challenging parts of the grieving process is when the initial shock wears off, others resume their lives (as they should) and the person who endured the worst loss, the death of their spouse, has to face it alone. Even those of us with the best support systems in the world, the most thoughtful friends, still have to climb into bed and stare at the empty pillow. Reality sets in and there is the realization that life has changed.

Grief is exacerbated by our unmet expectations. We grieve not only the loss of the person but the loss of our future trips together, the experience of enjoying our children and grandchildren together, and the vision we had of growing old together.

As a priest, I always try to reach out to individuals two to three weeks after a death. I want to make sure the person understands that even though people have gone back to living their lives and it may seem that there isn’t any more acknowledgment of the tremendous loss they have sustained, I am still praying for them to have the strength and courage to meet the days ahead. Sometimes an encouraging call or text can help someone through a bad day.

Grief takes the time it takes and often I have heard people grumble that so and so needs to move on, they need to get over it, do something and not wallow in their sadness. This is dangerous. It is healthy to allow ourselves to feel the sadness and talk about our loss. We can’t push people to feel differently. We can help them express what they are feeling and not judge.

Finding a therapist or a grief group is invaluable. Instead of feeling totally lost and alone, we can be with people who are navigating the same waters and know what course to take. Some burdens are too great to shoulder alone.

You can be sure I will be reaching out to my uncle on a regular basis, just to let him know that I have not forgotten and that I love him.

Waiting

My aunt is in the process of dying. I heard the doctor said she may have a few days. Cancer. She is only 73 and the youngest of my aunts.

I remember her wedding day. I was eleven. She had a beautiful ball gown wedding dress that made her look like a Disney princess. It took four of my aunts to bustle the train so she could dance and sit down. At nineteen she was an exquisite bride, youthful and full of joy.

I was jealous of her. Not just because she was beautiful but because she had stolen my uncle’s attention. He was the youngest of seven children and he was a favorite among the grandchildren. He snuck us candy and let us read his “Mad Magazines” that he kept hidden in the closet.

She was the perfect foil to my goof ball Uncle and they had a comedic repertoire that made us laugh.

She was unable to get pregnant.

They adopted one son and then a few years later another son. Our kids are similar in age. She devoted herself to raising her children. They are on their way to her bedside as I write.

My aunt is a devote Catholic. She volunteered her time at her church and her faith has never wavered. She converted to Catholicism when she decided to marry my uncle. She found her spiritual home in the liturgy and practices of the faith. Her mother-in-law, my grandmother, was a devote Catholic and we both loved her. My aunt gave me my grandmother’s china a few years ago. She knew I would treasure it.

My heart is breaking for her and for my uncle. The death of a long time spouse is onerous.

I will always remember the beautiful bride, the sparkling laughter, and the love she freely gave to all of us. May her transition be peaceful and may all her love ones welcome her home.

Why It’s Important To Make Mistakes

We know that we will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But I don’t want to make mistakes and that desire to avoid mistakes can be paralyzing.

I don’t consider myself a perfectionist. I’m okay if I stumble into a mistake but my problem is spending too much time figuring out how to avoid mistakes to the point where I become paralyzed.

Let me give an example. I have been agonizing over if I should use this new linen yarn to make a sweater pattern I have been wanting to make for years. First of all, who agonizes over a decision like that? This is supposed to be a fun hobby, not something I agonize over. By agonize, I mean constantly thinking about it in the back of my head. When I retired, I told myself I wouldn’t spend time worrying about minor things!

It all comes down to how I spend my time. I didn’t want to spend time knitting this sweater only to find out it won’t fit. I have done the steps to ensure that I have the right gauge but there are other factors. How much will the yarn stretch? Will my gauge be different in the round? I don’t want to spend time working on a garment I will just have to rip out but the only way I know if it will work is to try it.

I jumped in and cast on the sweater. We usually watch two shows at night which gives me about 90 minutes to knit. I could just be sitting there watching tv so I told myself I wasn’t wasting time.

I’m glad I took the leap. I actually enjoyed the process of knitting the pattern and I’m ok if I have to rip it out. I’m learning about how linen behaves and it’s interesting.

Jumping in is the way to go. It’s the “Just do it” philosophy. Since I get concerned about how I spend my time, I have adopted this strategy.

Mistakes are just information. I was a science major. This is what I was taught. Experiment and learn. I love that I’m still learning after all these years!

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