Holidays and friends are a natural combination

Shenandoah sunrise, Harrisonburg VA

Sunrise over Harrisonburg, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I read an article recently about the importance of having friends. The timing couldn’t have been better.

It was one of those bright and beautiful mornings when I should have been exceedingly happy. American Robins welcomed the frosty day with glorious and varied song, a rare occurrence this late in the year. Having done their duty, they continued their exuberance by mobbing the heated birdbath in the backyard and guzzling the refreshing water, perhaps to soothe their rusty voices.

As often happens in our too busy lives, I forgot this welcome distraction all too quickly. We had early morning business in town. Sign here. Sign there, and we were off to a favorite coffee shop that also happens to offer gluten-free scones. But there was a first world problem. I couldn’t find a parking spot, and I didn’t want to do the drive-thru.

holiday food tray, holiday gatherings

A tray of simple foods beautifully decorated by my creative wife.

I had hoped to enjoy quality time with my wife, sip a mocha and nibble at a tasty treat. Because reality didn’t meet my expectations, I punted and drove home. I know. It was silly of me. Typical man.

Back home I found the article in an email I receive daily. The thrust of the story forced me to immediately readjust my stubborn attitude. The piece presented nothing new or earth shattering but redeemed me with just plain common sense.

In a nutshell, here’s what the writer said about friends. We need them, and they need us. He wasn’t talking social media friends either. As human beings, we need real, live, face-to-face friendships.

Numbers aren’t the point. Connectivity is. The keys, the writer suggested, were having friends who are dependable, enjoyable, and easy to talk to. It was that simple and yet that hard.

That kind of intimacy can only happen with so many people. The suggestion was to gather together a few friends who share that trio of characteristics. When it comes to friendships, quality should always outweigh quantity. The writer said the group should meet regularly to help bolster the relational bonds.

Now in our busy, bustling 21st-century lives that effort takes time and planning. It also requires commitment. That’s the dependable part.

holiday gatherings, friends

Our small group before we ate a simple holiday meal.

If you aren’t already a part of such a friendship circle, the holidays provide excellent opportunities to start. Food is a necessary common denominator in sharing with friends. It’s the equalizer, the icebreaker, and the unifier of people. Food transcends all human hesitations.

Once the group is created, it’s important to set a regular time and place to meet. Each party or couple should be responsible for some aspect of the meal. It doesn’t have to be a feast. A simple dinner will suffice.

In living in the same locale for nearly 50 years, Neva and I had all of that. We knew what we were giving up when we decided to move to the Shenandoah Valley to be near our grandchildren.

We hoped it wouldn’t be long before we would be gathering with new friends, and that’s precisely what has happened. We’ve joined a like-minded set of former Ohioans who have also resettled in the area. We meet once a month, and food and inspiring conversation are always given elements of our evenings.

Find the folks you enjoy, who are dependable, and who are affable. Begin with a holiday party. It just might be the start of a routine that will fill your life with unexpected joy, just like robins suddenly singing on a chilly December morning.

robins, birdbath

Gathering around water hole.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Dusk at Pleasant View

Old Order Mennonite church, sunset in the Shenandoah Valley

Dusk at Pleasant View.

Photography helps keep my mind sharp. It motivates me to see the beauty that is all around me, to photograph scenes that I couldn’t even imagine existed.

With a few wispy clouds in the evening sky, my intended mission might be to capture a lovely sunset, only to be disappointed as the sun sinks below the horizon with unremarkable results. Nevertheless, I stick to the objective, looking for opportunities for creative shots as I traverse the countryside.

I arrived at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite churchyard shortly after sunset. Baren deciduous trees and a few evergreens populated the property, planted in part to shade the horses during the Sunday morning worship service. This was a weekday. I had the place to myself.

I could see the Allegheny Mountains to the west outlined by the evening’s golden light. When I came to this particular spot, I was transfixed. The trees seemed to guide my focus through the opening in their canopy far above and beyond the lovely skyline. There was no irony here whatsoever. The modest, horse-and-buggy driving Old Order Mennonites were spot on to declare this vista a pleasant view. For me, being in this moment was a spiritual experience, one of those spontaneous happenings in life that catches you by surprise and stirs your soul.

“Dusk at Pleasant View” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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This birthday is a big one and I’ll enjoy it just like all the others

birthday, birthday cake

A previous birthday with the grandkids.

By Bruce Stambaugh

When I was a youngster, I never liked having a birthday in December. From my perspective, my day always seemed to get caught up in the hubbub of the holidays. I suspect that was just my juvenile selfishness surfacing.

Fortunately, I eventually got over that attitude. Unlike others I know I thoroughly enjoy birthdays. If they get hidden in the holiday hoopla, so be it. I’m still determined to embrace each and every one. That wasn’t always my attitude even far beyond youthful facetiousness.

I remember when I turned 30. It wasn’t pretty. I got depressed. I couldn’t believe I was that old. I look back at that experience and chuckle. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’d trade that day for this one in a heartbeat if I could.

Christmas tree

The tree went up right in time for my birthday.

After that, birthdays became more or less routine celebrations unless someone pulled a surprise on me like some teachers did once. They thought it would be cute to post a larger than life sign in the front yard of the school announcing the principal’s 39th birthday. I played along and tried to be as good-natured about Jack Benny’s perpetual birthdate as I could.

Based on the comments of others older than me, it was turning 50 that I really dreaded. As it turned out, the watershed date proved a dud. I had already lost most of my hair by then anyhow.

It was turning 60 that really got me. It was as if a switch had been flipped and my body suddenly screamed at me to slow down, take a rest. My knees ached. What muscles I still had disappeared just like my hair had long before that. It was my body’s way of saying I really wasn’t 39.

There was one ironic quality about hitting the big 6 0. It bothered my son more than me. He had turned 30 seven months earlier. Nathan rightly recognized that he was exactly half my age and that would never happen again. That thought alone agonized him and energized me.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, I recognize and accept that I’m heading down the homestretch. I look back on my life with smiles aplenty. I’ve enjoyed this long ride and have many wonderful folks to thank for getting me to this point.

My wife leads that pack. Behind her are my son and daughter, their significant others, our three grandkids, my siblings, and a host of other family, friends, and coworkers. I’d be remiss to forget my late parents and in-laws. Regardless of our achievements, none of us passes through life alone.

birthday celebrations

Celebrating birthdays on a recent visit to Ohio.

As I look back, of course, I also recognize a few of my imperfections and mistakes. Others are better suited to identify those faults. Thank goodness that heartfelt apologies can create lasting lifetime friendships.

I’ve tried to learn from my errors. Now that I’m 70, I want to keep that learning process moving so that my old brain remains sharp and curious for as long as possible.

I recall much that has happened in my seven decades of walking this marvelous planet of ours. Both personal and universal, joyous and calamitous events have filled those years.

Birthdays are hallmarks of individual lives no matter the age or when they occur. I’m just grateful to be 70. That said I’ll aim to redouble my daily efforts to serve as wisely and productively as I can. At my age, that’s all that can be expected.

70th birthday, rosy sunset

Hoping for a rosy road ahead.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Not the Loch Ness Monster

Silver Lake Dayton VA

Not the Loch Ness Monster.

Given all of the fake news that has made international headlines lately, I won’t deny the thought didn’t cross my mind. But this photo is not the infamous Loch Ness Monster. It does resemble the famous picture that purported the Nessie sighting.

No. This is the silhouette of a Pied-billed Grebe that I shot (with my camera) last evening at Silver Lake near Dayton, Virginia. I went there to photograph the reflection of the sunset but came away with this gem instead.

“Not the Loch Ness Monster” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Relearning the rules of the road

long and winding road, Shenandoah Valley

A long and winding road, typical for the Shenandoah Valley.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve had my driver’s license since I was 16 years old. I’ve loved driving ever since. City, suburban or rural, it doesn’t matter. I just enjoy being behind the wheel of a vehicle.

I consider myself a decent driver, too. Please don’t ask my wife to confirm that opinion. However, she’s more than happy to have me do the majority of the driving on any trip, whether of short or long duration. I once was even certified to teach driver education.

Other than vacations and business trips, all of my driving experience occurred in Ohio. Imagine my surprise then as we settled into living life in the Shenandoah Valley. I have learned Virginia’s driving styles radically differ from those of Ohio, not that drivers in the Buckeye state model exemplary highway etiquette.

Here’s what I’ve discovered so far about driving in the Commonwealth:

1. Using your turn signals is optional. Since you already know where you want to go, why bother to turn them on?
2. When traffic lights turn yellow, accelerate through them. If you stop, you run the risk of being rear-ended.
3. Only use your headlights when absolutely necessary, even well after the sun has set. Apparently, Virginians use this technique to conserve the vehicle’s battery.
4. Pull out in front of approaching emergency vehicles even though you can easily hear the blaring sirens and clearly note the flashing emergency lights. Having previously driven both ambulances and fire trucks, I ignore this rule.
5. Speed limit signs are posted to let you know that you are traveling too slowly. In other words, go faster than it says.
6. Double-yellow lines that separate opposite flow lanes and delineate no passing zones are really used to guide your vehicle down the center of roadways.
7. Pedestrian crosswalks on public highways are the equivalent of middle school dodgeball games. If you hit someone, they most definitely are out.
8. Bicyclists are an illusion. They are not really there, so just keep driving.
9. Texting and talking on your cell phone while driving is expected. Those who don’t do so make those who do look bad.
10. If your license plates have expired, just paint the words “Farm Use” on them, and you’re good to go. However, it helps to have some old corn shocks sticking out of your trunk.
11. Stop is southern slang for “slow.” This is especially true when making a right-hand turn at a stop sign or red traffic signal.
12. Cutting the corner at intersections is mandatory. It obviously helps you save significant time getting where you want to go.

Though I’ve tried my best to adjust my driving habits to the local travel traits, I still get the evil eye in certain situations. Like when I go to turn left on a green light, I pull into the center of the intersection until traffic traveling in the opposite direction clears. Then I make my turn. Apparently, only ex-Ohioans do that. The proper procedure in Virginia is to stay at the painted line ahead of the light and go left when the signal turns red. Note that several other vehicles may follow you.

I have also learned that on country roads it is entirely kosher to just stop in the roadway and talk with someone you know. The others will eventually go around you. Just make sure that when you do pass that you follow another local custom. Please wave and smile, too.

horse and buggies, Dayton VA

Down the center line.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Happy Thanksgiving!

driftwood tree, Little Talbot Island State Park FL

Standing strong.


A straggly driftwood tree on a lonely beach might seem like a strange symbol with which to say “Happy Thanksgiving.” From my perspective, it’s just right. The stalwart tree, battered by wind and sea, still stands. To me, it serves as a reminder of all those in the world today who have so little, who daily strive to just find food, water, and shelter. Likely, we don’t have to really look too far to find folks who lack at least one of those most precious life necessities.

It struck me that the tree dramatically overshadows the person walking the beach looking for seashells and sharks teeth. Of course, this is due to distance. That perspective, however, serves to highlight just how small we are in relationship to all of the world’s human problems.

My point on this Thanksgiving Day in the United States is for all of us to be extra thankful for all that we have. It’s too easy to take for granted the gathering of friends and family around a bountiful table of your favorite Thanksgiving offerings. As we partake in the meal, let us remember in prayer and in decisive action those who have so little.

“Standing Strong” is my Photo of the Week.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Thankful for a colorful fall

autumn leaves, fall colors

Splotches of color.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Autumn’s extended dryness definitely took its toll in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The peak leaf coloration never arrived. With only a splattering of exceptions, the generally dull, brittle leaves just tumbled down with little assistance from the wind.

While the leaves mostly faded, my wife and I found color in a multitude of venues and activities that more than made up for the unusually muted landscape. If our calendar of events, duties, and responsibilities were displayed on a color wheel, we wore every hue, shade, and tone available.

Volleyball was the prime coat to most of our Picasso of busyness. Our daughter is the head coach of the women’s team at Eastern Mennonite University. Practices and games filled her fall time. Throw in scouting future players, meetings, and travel, and the coach had little time for family household chores. Nana took her place.

It’s a good thing Nana likes to cook. She made many, many evening meals for our grandkids and their parents. On occasion, she even cooked up specialties for the entire team. To many, that might be a bit much. But my wife is up to any challenge, especially when she can rule in the kitchen, her favorite creative place.

We served as chauffeurs in loco parentis for our three grandchildren. Sometimes both Nana and I were on the road simultaneously. She picked up Davis and Maren from school. I took Evan from baseball practice to fitness workouts. While the weather was still warm, we all attended Evan’s traveling team baseball games. Now the temperatures are much colder, and that sport is but a memory.

At her piano recital, our granddaughter Maren made her hours of practicing count. She did a marvelous job tickling the keys playing her two little ditties. So did all the other young performers. Smiles radiated all around the hall from glowing parents, grandparents, and teachers. The young students got all gussied up for the special event. Their outfits stylishly complemented the lively music that filled the hour.

Maren had violin lessons Nana shuttled her to and from as well. Once after school activities started on Tuesdays, I would gather Maren there and drive her straight to soccer practice on the other side of town.

Davis, the middle child, found his own recreation on his bicycle or just enjoyed his own private time. We also gladly cared for Millie, our granddog, when no one else was available.

Of course, Nana and I did our own things, too. I enrolled in a college history class. Nana sewed and quilted to keep from being bored as if that were even possible. We took in joyous concerts, life-long learning lectures on current events, plays, and visited museums and art and photography galleries.

red maple, fall colors

Red maple in the morning.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the many people beyond our family with whom we interacted this fall. We gathered with new and old friends alike. They warmed our souls better than autumn’s most brilliant golden sugar maple. We especially appreciated brief visits from friends and relatives passing through The Valley.

Despite the season’s leafy letdown, Nana and I have definitely had a colorful, fulfilling autumn. I don’t mean to be trite or contrived with this metaphor.

I am glad that our first fall as residents of Virginia has been an absolute joy. This Thanksgiving season, we count ourselves fortunate, grateful, and happy. I will admit one thing, however. As autumn winds down, just color me tired.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Artificial Tree

tree shadow, fall colors

Artificial Tree.

Maybe I’m trying too hard. But I loved the way this tree’s shadow fell to the little forest of nearby blazing saplings, forming a false crown for the now-naked tree.

“Artificial Tree” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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In honor of the day and my father

Richard H. Stambaugh by Bruce Stambaugh

My father, Richard H. Stambaugh, achieved a long-time goal when he was able to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on September 12, 2009 thanks to Honor Flight. As part of a photographic review of the 21st century's first decade, this picture appeared on the front page of the NewYorkTimes.com on December 24, 2009, three days after Dad died.

The original article was first published on Nov. 11, 2011. I am republishing a revised version today in honor of Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and for all those who work globally for peace.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The very first sermon I heard preached in a Mennonite church 40 years ago was on nonresistance. That was precisely what I was looking for spiritually, and I embraced it. My father, a World War II veteran, was skeptical, but eventually accepted my decision.

Now years later, I was to accompany my 89-year-old father on a special excursion called Honor Flight for World War II vets. Dad was dying of cancer, and he had long wanted to make this trip to Washington, D.C. Regardless of physical condition, each of the 117 vets on the plane was required to have a guardian for the all-day round-trip. Given his physical situation, Dad needed extra care.

Given my nonresistance stance on war, I was reluctant to go. I likely would be the only conscientious objector on the packed plane. But this trip wasn’t about me. It was about my father fulfilling one of his dreams. To help him accomplish that, regardless of my personal convictions, I needed to go with him.

Bruce Craig and Dick by Bruce Stambaugh

My older brother, Craig, and I with our father, Dick, prior to leaving Akron-Canton Airport. Craig served as guardian for two other vets on the day-long trip


As anticipated, the vets received their patriotic just due. Upon arriving at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., fire trucks sprayed arches of water across our arriving jetliner. This ritual was usually reserved for dignitaries. As we exited the plane and entered the terminal, a concert band played patriotic music. Red, white and blue balloons were everywhere, and hundreds of volunteers vigorously greeted us.
Handshake by Bruce Stambaugh

Another veteran was the first to welcome Dad to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.


At the circular, mostly granite World War II memorial, strangers came up to the vets and shook their hands and thanked them for their service. I emotionally took it all in, focusing my attention on caring for my elderly father.

The entourage visited several other war monuments in the U.S. capital that day, too. Back at the airport, we had left in the morning, the vets received a similar patriotic welcome home. Dad said this experience ranked right behind his 67- year marriage.

With that comment, I was exceedingly glad that I had had the chance to experience that day with my father. I felt honored to have been able to accompany him on his most significant day and glad he had gotten to go. Dad died three months later.

Despite all the hoopla of that day or perhaps because of it, the futility of war became all the more obvious to me and had actually reinforced my nonresistance stance. To a person, the vets with whom I spoke said they hated what they had had to do. I

Welcome home by Bruce Stambaugh

Hundreds of well-wishers greeted the vets upon their return to Ohio.

also remembered the words of Jesus, when he said to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile and beyond for your enemy.

For a day I had had one foot on the foundation of God and country, and the other on the teachings of Jesus. The trip with my father was an inspirational reminder of the commitment I had made as a young man to a different way of making peace in a hostile world.

Mailcall by Bruce Stambaugh

Each vet on the Honor Flight received letters to read during mail call on the flight home.


Because of this experience, I had bonded with my father in his time of need, and I greatly respected what my father and the other veterans on the flight had done. And yet, I knew I could not have done what they had, not because of cowardice, but out of conviction.

I had participated in the Honor Flight out of love and respect for my earthly father. I had held fast to my peace convictions out of love and devotion to my father in heaven. In that paradox, I had found no conflict whatsoever.

Bob Dole, WW II Memorial

When Dad spied Senator Bob Dole, who forged the way for the World War II Memorial, he rose out of his wheelchair and shuffled and squeezed his way beside the senator.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

This first article appeared in Rejoice!, the daily devotional for Mennonite Church USA.

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Russet Rainbow

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park

Russet Rainbow.

The scene just blew me away. The afternoon sun highlighted every hue and tone of russet that Big Meadows had to offer. Grasses, leaves of wild blueberries, reeds, scrub oaks, and even the red oak trees all glowed some shade of reddish-brown. The subtle differences all blended together made an impressive sight.

Big Meadows is a large mostly open bowl-shaped area along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Surrounded by thousands of acres of hardwood forests, why this fantastic meadow is there is a mystery even to the park guides and scientists. I’m just glad it is.

“Russet Rainbow” is my Photo of the Week. Click on the photo to get the full effect.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia