Category Archives: writing

Winter’s variable paint palette

Amish farm, Holmes Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country, snowscape

No matter where you live, winter offers a wide variety of colors across its changeable landscapes.

Often, the colors transform with the weather’s latest tantrum. Given the global climate’s bipolar dysfunctions, winter’s color palette has expanded far beyond its usual earth tones and neutral hues. Wetter and warmer winters convert lawns from frosted brown to April’s greens.

Living in Ohio for nearly seven decades, I intimately learned nature’s dormant color schemes. She usually painted under steely skies, which perhaps limited her range of color options.

burnished leaves laden with snow

Growing up in a blue-collar suburb in northeast Ohio, my memory is filled with a canvas of white on white. We sledded down steep hillside paths beneath stately evergreens laden with inches of snow.

Clumps of yellowy prairie grasses waved in the icy wind as we zoomed by shouting and laughing like the kids we were. Our wind-chapped cheeks and red noses were proof of our gold, silver, and bronze successes.

Besides the fun, we relished a good snow cover that blanketed the grit and grime that most winters brought. The fluffy whiteness enlivened the quiescent landscape, the leafless trees with their non-descript brown, gray, and black trunks and branches. The pure white snow on piney coniferous bows highlighted clusters of chestnut pinecones.

eastern bluebird in winter

Heavy wet snow provided a stark color contrast of white on black. That all shifted in a flash when a wicked winter wind whipped nature’s artwork into layered snowdrifts crusty enough for adventuresome children to walk on.

Ohio winter weather being what it is and always has been, not much changed as I grew into adulthood. Browns and whites alternated dominating the lay of the land with temperature playing the role of the artisan. A mundane scene became a Currier and Ives gem with four inches of overnight snow.

A January thaw altered all that in a hurry. The snow melted into a mushy, muddy mess, and brown soon became the primary color and texture, much to my mother’s chagrin. Usually, though, our inattentive father rightly got the blame for the sticky indoor tracks.

Amish farm, Wayne Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country

Dealing with both the gooeyness and the frozen precipitation as an adult tendered an entirely different perspective than as a youngster. I hated how everything wore the dirt and grime of winter. That was especially true of driving a filthy automobile. Wash it one day, and it was dirty again the next.

Warm, attractive colors in winter did and do exist of course. Think red holly berries against glossy green leaves powdered with fresh snow.

Each new day brings opportunity. Catch a showy sunrise that may last only a few seconds before succumbing to layers of gray clouds. Sunsets are equally stunning, especially if reflected by lakes and streams, which double the orange, yellow, red, and pink pleasure.

Amish, Holmes Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country

Bright colors come alive literally. Is there anything prettier than northern cardinals perched on evergreens waiting their turn at the bird feeders? If eastern bluebirds also arrive, the winter day becomes all the cheerier.

Moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has lessened some of the sting and bland of winter. We tend to have more sunny and warmer days than we did in Ohio. When it does snow, the aesthetic results are still the same. However, the white stuff doesn’t last as long.

Winter’s radiant sunshine enhances any locale just as it can brighten all human spirits.

January can be lackluster if you let it. Just look a little harder for any hint of color wherever you live. Like many TV commercial disclaimers, your results may vary.

white-throated sparrow, Shenandoah Valley,

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Let’s make 2019 the Year of Kindness

sunrise, sea oats

A new year, like a new day, has dawned.

A New Year has begun. 2019 is underway.

In many ways for many peoples, 2018 was an unpleasant year, a year not worth repeating. Both natural and human-induced catastrophes dominated the mainstream media. Tsunamis, wildfires, mass shootings, political turmoil, earthquakes, horrific hurricanes, snowstorms, and devastating wars filled every media source imaginable.

Among folks I know, 2018 brought too many illnesses, deaths, personal tragedies, and heartbreaks. Scores of others experienced the same devastating human ramifications with equally dire consequences. Human suffering seemed to know no end.

Regardless of the origin of the hurt, we can do something to help. Acts of kindness, random or intentional, help overcome the most feared, painful physical, mental, or climatological injuries we encounter as individuals or as members of the corporate global human race.

Psychological studies have long proven that being kind to another person helped the giver as much as the receiver. I am not talking NFL football here either. Besides providing for the other person, being kind or generous rewards you with a positive feeling.

I’m no psychologist, but it only makes sense to have a positive outlook on life to be observant and responsive to others in need, whether it’s a relatively minor deed or a significant commitment. So be kind to yourself so you can be kind to others.

The studies show that generosity is contagious. We are all touched when we see someone help another person. It encourages us also to do something altruistic.

That fact should energize us to be generous to others in any situation. And by others, I mean anyone, any race, nationality, or religion. After all, a founding principle of our country is that all people are created equal. Though injustices dot our history into the present, that entreaty has nevertheless stood the test of time. We, too, must make it last. We do so by being kind.

Our neighbors shoveled our driveway just because it needed to be cleared. They did other drives in the neighborhood as well.

Your generosity doesn’t have to be opulent either. Bigheartedness can take only a second, or you can spend quality time with others. You choose.

How can you help? If you encounter someone with a homemade sign asking for any assistance, please don’t ignore the individual. At the very least, offer the person a bottle of water. Know someone who has experienced trauma? Send them a card or a text message. Offer to sit with them. Hold their hand. Listen to their needs.

We all know someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, loss of a loved one, or a terminal illness. The list could go on and on. Just knowing that you care can mean the world to that person or family.

I know personally that in such situations it’s no time to hesitate. As an example, I so appreciated unexpected visits from friends while in the hospital years ago.

In this fast-paced world of instant messaging, smartphones, social media apps, we become vulnerable. If someone hurts you, instead of revenge or avoidance, try a different approach, keeping your own personal safety paramount.

Ask questions. Listen thoughtfully. Be present in each moment. Keep your mind in the here and now instead of anticipating the absolute worst. Breathe deeply. Step back. Wait before responding angrily.

I don’t mean to trivialize deep physical or mental distress. Always keep yourself safe. But in a secure environment, perhaps with neutral, trusting people, reconciliation can reign.

If we all work together, our controllable behaviors can be transformed into tolerable and acceptable acts of kindness. It’s a New Year. Let us together make it a better, kinder one than 2018.

Let 2019 be the Year of Kindness.

rural scene, kindness

May your life’s path in 2019 be one that brings and receives kindness.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, friends, history, human interest, news, writing

News you may have missed in 2018

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s been another strange year on Planet Earth. So much craziness filled the headlines that some serious faux pas got overshadowed. Never fear. I kept track for you.

Jan. 12 – A British butcher who got locked in a walk-in freezer used a frozen sausage to batter his way out at his store in Totnes, England.

Jan. 16 – Eyelashes froze when the temperature reached 88.6 degrees below zero in Russia’s remote region of Yakutia.

Feb. 9 – An Alliance, Ohio kindergarten student took a loaded handgun to school for show and tell, but had the gun confiscated by his school bus driver when the boy showed the weapon to the only other student on the bus.

Feb. 23 – A third-grade student fired a police officer’s revolver by reaching into the hostler and pulling the trigger during a safety demonstration at a Maplewood, Minnesota elementary school.

Feb. 27 – Entrepreneur.com reported that the three fastest growing franchises in the U.S. were Dunkin Donuts, 7-Eleven, and Planet Fitness.

March 13 – A study by Bar-Llan University showed that the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors was transferred to their children and grandchildren.

March 14 – A Seaside, California gun safety teacher’s weapon accidentally fired in class, injuring a student.

March 23 – Orange snow fell on much of Europe due to the combination of sandstorm winds mixing with moisture in snowstorms.

April 5 – A report that studied the Sahara Desert from 1920 to 2013 revealed that the desert, defined by areas that receive four inches of rain or less annually, had expanded by 10 percent in that timeframe.

April 9 – Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois became the first sitting U.S. Senator to give birth while in office.

April 13 – A photographer in Madeira Beach, Florida captured a shot of an osprey in flight carrying a shark that was eating a fish.

May 2 – A new report indicated that Americans ages 18 to 22 were far more likely than senior citizens to report being lonely and being in ill health.

May 3 – According to federal research released, the rate of people infected by ticks and mosquitoes has tripled in the last 13 years.

May 9 – A new study by researchers at MIT indicated that fasting could dramatically boost stem cells to regenerate.

May 15 – A Gaylord, Michigan couple opened the hood of their car to discover a squirrel had stuffed 50 pounds of pinecones in their engine compartment.

June 7 – A study showed that seven out of 10 Americans were experiencing news fatigue.

June 25 – A kangaroo bounded onto a Canberra, Australia soccer field, interrupting the play between two professional women’s soccer teams for 32 minutes.

July 3 – Mark Hough of Altadena, California found a black bear bobbing in his backyard hot tub and that the bear had finished off the margarita Hough had left behind.

July 10 – Costa Rica became the first country to ban fossil fuels.

July 21 – After receiving a ticket for speeding, an Iowa woman sped away from police who clocked her at 142 m.p.h. and gave her another citation.

July 27 – A pawn shop in Somerville, Massachusetts bought a stolen violin for $50 and discovered from police that its real value was $250,000.

August 1 – A State of the Climate report indicated that 2017 was the third warmest on record globally after 2016 and 2015.

August 5 – Right-handed reliever Oliver Drake became the first Major League Baseball player to pitch for five different teams in the same season.

August 10 – A new scientific study reported that insect-eating birds consume about 400 million tons of insects each year.

September 10- The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported that 600 million birds are killed annually in the U.S. by flying into buildings, most often at night when they are lured by illuminated office windows.

September 14 – New census data reported that Social Security, food stamps, and other government programs kept 44 million Americans out of poverty last year.

September 25 – A record 1,260 dogs attended the baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox during Chicago’s promotional Dogs’ Night Out event.

September 26 – The United Nations Refugee Agency reported that an unprecedented 68.5 million people globally have been forced from their homes.

October 15 – A report by the University of Missouri indicated that honeybees stopped flying during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017.

October 31 – The journal Nature published a report that showed over the past quarter-century the Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat than previously believed.

November 6 – The World Health Organization listed depression as the leading cause of disability in the world, with the U.S. leading the way with 13 percent of its population on anti-depressants.

November 9 – The Center for Disease Control reported that smoking rates in the U.S. at an all-time low, with 14 percent of adults who smoke cigarettes.

November 25 – A Bank of America ATM machine in Houston, Texas dispensed $100 bill instead of $10, and the bank allowed customers to keep the extra money.

December 8 – A 29-year-old Summerville, South Carolina man was arrested for arson after he allegedly burned several of his neighbors’ outdoor Christmas displays.

December 12 – The CDC listed fentanyl as the deadliest drug in the U.S., causing 18,000 deaths from overdoes in 2016.

December 14 – Snopes.com reported that the busiest day of the year for Chinese restaurants in the U.S. is Christmas Day.

Here’s hoping 2019 is a better year for our planet and all its inhabitants.

Happy New Year!

Let’s let the sun set on 2018.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Year-end Shadows

shadows, snow, bird feeder
The end of 2018 is in sight. Given the state of the world today, perhaps we all need a fresh start in life, no matter our age, our situation, our status. A new year brings new hope.

I reflected on all of that during a recent snowstorm that blanketed much of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Shadows of the tree, its limbs, and the bird feeder they held played upon the newly fallen snow in our front yard. The contemplative scene gave pause to my birdwatching, to my reading, to my writing, to all that was happening near and far.

The long shadows cast by the late afternoon sun that had finally broken through gave hope that neither the winter’s frostiness nor the world’s cold calamities could keep us down long. For in the abrupt transition between the snowy brightness and shadowy darkness, light prevails.

Here’s hoping that light will shine warmly for the approaching New Year. “Year-end Shadows” is my Photo of the Week.

Happy New Year!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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

A Christmas Poem: Do Not Fear

Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg VA.

“We live in fearsome times.” My father told me that when we uselessly practiced nuclear bomb drills by hiding under our school desks, when with trepidation I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of our black and white when JFK called the Russians’ bluff on Cuba, then when Dallas happened, and assassins shot Martin and Bobby, and cities burned, and a president resigned, and revolts occurred, and we always seemed to side with the bad guy, when we chided dictators for gassing people only to bomb the survivors in their mourning.

“We live in fearsome times.” My grandfather told me that when he silently remembered his own gassing in the war to end all wars and died at the age that I am now coughing and coughing and coughing because there were no records that he was poisoned 100 years ago on the western front.

“We live in fearsome times,” I tell my grandchildren in failed efforts to shield them from the constant volleys of lies and accusations and nonsense spewing forth into their innocent world by powerful people who lost their decency, compassion, and empathy long, long ago.

“Have no fear,” I reassure them to ears deafened by headsets and screen time. Still, I think they get it all, the nonsense, the truth-telling, and the untruth-telling. That is my hope in this season of hope. On this darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, there is enough oil now to keep the candles burning. But we have to keep pressing on like those Hanukkah days of old. We must pour new wine into new wineskins, not old. We don’t want to waste the wine by bursting.

We live in fearsome times. We must be patient in the season of waiting. We must choose clarity over certainty, though certainty it is that we too often choose, only to be disappointed, and blame circumstances and others for our wrong choices. Those in the Old and those in the New reported the same. Therefore, in this season of light, hope, peace, patience is the rule as “we live by faith, not by sight.”

Love Advent banner, Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg VAWe live in fearsome times. This is the season of anticipation, joy, love, forgiveness, wonder, when blended, a recipe not to fear. We look for the brightest star to lead us forth, but stars are in heaven, not on earth. Behold the heavenly host is near. Do not fear.

We live in fearsome times. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, not on our terms, but Yours and Yours alone. Our fragility and our insecurity overcome our logic, excite our emotions precisely opposite of what the good tidings proclaim, why the angels yet rejoice. They know the true Ruler is the Lamb, not the lion.

We live in fearsome times. Humans always have, always will simply because we are human, unable or unwilling to listen, to hear, to comprehend the goodness, the freedom, the surety bestowed on us to bestow on others, especially during these dark days.

We live in fearsome times. What will we do? How can we go on? Awareness is enough.

“In the beginning was the word… The serpent was more crafty than any other… Everyone who thirsts… Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah… In the sixth month… In those days a decree went out… In that region there were shepherds… And the Word became flesh… Fear not…” Hallelujah.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under Christmas, family, history, holidays, human interest, news, poem, poetry, writing

Holiday lights illuminate seasonal darkness

holiday lights

Our modest Christmas display under a waxing crescent moon.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I always found it ironic that we celebrate the season of light and hope at the very darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand why.

We are in the midst of the season of hope and light. The eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah has just concluded. Advent, the Christian pronouncement of the coming Messiah, ends on Christmas Day.

Menorah candles (Getty Image).

It is no coincidence that holiday lights shine the brightest during the season’s darkest hours. Isn’t that the purpose of Hanukkah and Christmas? The Menorah has nine candles while the Advent arrangement has five.

Aligned by tradition and calendar, the two holidays usher in the season of hope and peace through miracles and light. They are intricately and purposefully interwoven.

The darkness challenges us to survive and thrive. To that aim, we ponder, wonder, and imagine all that is both good and wrong with our immediate world as well as the world beyond our personal life space.

During the darkest time of year, the seasonal contrasts are stark. Too many earthly citizens are in despair. They search for the basics of life: food, shelter, water, and safety. Many face loneliness, financial hardships, family disputes, or significant health issues. These are indeed dark times for them.

Dissimilarly, flashy TV and online commercials urge us to delight others via elaborate gift giving. They tout that the holidays aren’t complete without a new car or pickup sitting in the driveway or a glittery diamond necklace dangling around your sweetheart’s neck.

Wouldn’t it be more fitting in this season of hope to bestow blessings on those in need of life’s essentials? Such generous acts would undoubtedly help brighten the dark season of life if only for a few.

Advent candles.

Advent candles on Christmas Day.

The festive seasonal lights shine far beyond the reach of the Menorah and Advent candles. Hope means more than the sparkling, flashing, flickering lights of Christmas, more than the glittery cards and lavishly wrapped gifts beneath a festive tree.

The music of the season should spark a spirit within us to reach far beyond our circle of family and friends with whom we gather to celebrate. Perhaps like me, multiple year-end appeals for funds from bona fide charities that help the poor, the orphaned, the hungry, and the homeless have besieged you.

It is easy to be numbed by the sheer volume of needs. It doesn’t have to be. It would be both prudent and appropriate for those of us who share the Judeo/Christian experience and heritage to shine that warming light to others in whatever way we can. That would both help brighten their potentially dim holidays and create a real sense of personal satisfaction.

Christmas tree

Christmas tree.

As people of faith, shouldn’t we be the light that those in need seek? In the spirit of the season, that is something to ponder and do.

The luminaries of Hanukkah and Christmas remind and challenge those of each faith to reflect on the past and the foundations of their shared customs. The lights also illuminate those in our midst who are hurting and downtrodden.

If each one of us would reach out to help at least one person, one family, or donate to one charity, the holidays would be a little brighter for them and us. Doing so would be reason enough to light yet one more holiday candle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under Christmas, Christmas deocrations, family, history, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, writing

Birds and trees signal inevitable change

ice storm, male cardinal

Icy red.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The annual migration of birds has been going on for some time now. Fall in the birding vernacular doesn’t equal calendar fall.

There is a logical reason for that. Different species of birds begin their migration at different times. Shorebirds and songbirds often lead the winged entourage to warmer climes. Others trail along alone or in giant flocks to the delight of avid birders. To account for these time travel variances in the birding world, fall is the most extended season, running from August through November.

backyard birds

At the suet feeder.

The same concept is valid for trees and deciduous plants. Some species begin their winter hibernation sooner than others. Their various changing colors can foretell this annual transition. Poison ivy leaves often turn bright red before September arrives, while the glossy leaves of shingle oaks fade from emerald to russet and hang on until early spring.

For me, I welcome these transitions, especially the birding varieties. As the leaves of the red maples in our yard began to fall, birds I had not seen before began to arrive.

Storms brought down many of the remaining leaves. They also blew in flocks of birds, some temporarily. Others seem here to stay.

Last fall, our first in the Shenandoah Valley, birds were scarce at the feeders. The numbers and variety of birds were well below my expectations. I longed for the many beautiful birds we had had in Ohio.

Optimist that I am, I hung the feeders again right after Labor Day and attracted a few regulars. I can always count on chatty house finches and boisterous blue jays. Once the weather cooled, the suet feeder went up in the backyard.

backyard birds

An inquisitive Carolina Wren.

I was contented with the usual suspects, happy that even the Carolina Wrens made regular appearances. But I could not have anticipated what happened next. About six weeks ago, I noticed some birds that resembled the numerous house finches that frequented our feeders. A closer inspection with the binoculars told me that we had a small flock of purple finches with a few pine siskins thrown in for good measure. I was ecstatic.

I had never had purple finches at the feeders and only had had passing pine siskins that took a break to refuel during migration. I hoped beyond hope that the birds would stay. So far they have.

These are gorgeous birds, each in their particular plumage. The reddish hues of the male purple finches appear iridescent, especially if the sun reflects off of their foreheads where the winter colors are the brightest. Though much duller and muted, the rich browns and creams of the females’ feathers are equally stunning.

backyard birds

A rare visitor, a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

The more demur pine siskins tend to feed with the purple finches and the American goldfinches. Their brown stripes and flash of yellow at the wing tips make them striking birds as well.

The departure of the leaves and arrival of the birds mimic life. We can’t do anything about the past and try as we might, we can’t predict the future. Dull leaves and the arrival of purple finches are proof positive.

To be most productive, I strive to be present in each moment regardless of what change occurs. The mystery of it all sparks a spirit of gratitude.

I’m thankful the birds and trees keep reminding me that change is inevitable. If we pay attention, we can enrich our lives by embracing each subtle transformation, seasonal or otherwise.

For good or for ill, change happens. It is the way life is.

Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, House Finches, American Goldfinches

Finches feeding.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Learning to be thankful for life itself

Lewis Falls, Shenandoah NP, hiking

Cascades above Lewis Falls.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The holiday season is here. Thanksgiving Day has come and gone. Christmas, Hanukah, and New Years will be here in the twinkling of an eye.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement, hoopla, and glitz of the extended festivities. After all, the big box stores, TV, radio, online ads, and printed fliers have been pushing their holiday wares for weeks now.

I try not to pay too much attention to all that holiday hype. In my retirement, I have, instead, come to enjoy each moment, anticipate the day at hand, and celebrate the unfolding daily events.

I have also learned that that is much easier said than done, given the state of the world, the conniving of greedy people and corporations, the unsettling of Earthly events, natural and otherwise. Still, we must carry on. So I did, and I do.

This particular day I joined a senior citizens’ hiking group led by a retired banker, a most trustworthy man. Our destination was Lewis Falls in Shenandoah National Park.

Our group of nine wound its way down the trail through the shedding deciduous trees, brushing against mountain laurel whose berries the forest birds and bears had not yet devoured. We crisscrossed several small streams, all of them rushing to plummet the 83 feet of Lewis Falls.

These cascading ribbons join just as they tumble into the Shenandoah Valley. We stepped gingerly across the last of the wetted stones and finally made it to the shaded overlook of the falls themselves. We refueled at that lovely sight on the snacks we each had brought along.

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I climbed over the protective stonewall to get a slightly better view of the falls. It nearly cost me my life. I pitched the last handful of peanut butter cracker crumbs into my mouth and tried to swallow. I couldn’t.

I tried to breathe in. No air made it to my lungs. I didn’t want to die this way.

My EMT training kicked into gear. I got the attention of the nearest person and pointed to my throat. She asked me if I was choking and I nodded my head frantically. She hollered for the others and started to jump the wall to help me.

In these 20 seconds or so, I continued to try to swallow. I couldn’t speak. I thumped my chest with my fist twice, made a growling sound, and attempted to swallow again. Just as this courageous woman was about to apply the Heimlich maneuver, I felt the mountain air tickle my lungs. I took a swig of water, waved off my would-be rescuer, and spoke a few raspy words of thanks.

The woman was heartily relieved, but not nearly as much as me. As we backtracked up the zigzag trail, everything looked brighter, the colors more vibrant, the air sweeter. The trek back to the cars seemed much shorter, easier even until someone noticed that Herb was missing.

The tallest member of our pack, Herb had headed back ahead of the rest of the group. But he wasn’t at the parking lot. The retired banker quickly formed a plan, and once again my firefighter/EMT training instinctively activated, only this time for a search and rescue effort.

Though frustrated for nearly two and a half hours, the search ended happily. Herb was found safe and sound. We all headed for home in thanksgiving and wonderment of creation and life itself.

In the midst of all the mundane marketing and holiday cheer, I have a suggestion. Let’s remember to be thankful for life itself.

The view of the Shenandoah Valley seemed even more pristine than usual despite the muted colors.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, holidays, human interest, nature photography, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, weather, writing

Why are you thankful?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Thanksgiving is upon us. This year in the United States, the annual day of thankfulness arrives as early as possible, November 22. Our Canadian friends to the north celebrated their Thanksgiving on October 6.

It is only right and proper to pause as a people to reflect and give thanks. We can be grateful for so many things in our abundant living.

A friend on social media posted a list of items for which he was thankful. Given his life of service to others, I wasn’t surprised at how simple and ordinary the conveniences were that he listed.

Sometimes it’s the familiar, everyday activities and routines that are most meaningful to us. With my friend’s permission, here is his top 10 list of thankfulness:

1. Drinkable tap water
2. Flush toilets
3. Working septic system
4. Washer and dryer
5. Electricity in the home
6. Clothes to wear
7. A house to live in
8. Shoes
9. Floors that aren’t dirt
10. Ample food

Keeping things simple helps us think beyond ourselves, consider the plight of others who don’t have even those most basic necessities. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 780 million people globally do not have access to clean water, and 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation. That’s billion with a B. Think about those numbers for a second.

Food, water, and shelter are the basic essentials for living. My friend set a good example. He recognized just how fortunate we are to be able to go most anywhere in our country and turn the tap and be able to drink the water without worry of contamination. I realize that folks in Flint, MI would differ with this comment. As dangerous as their situation is, I’m glad it is an exception.

And when it comes to waste products, I’ve always respected folks who make their living dealing with the muck of life. Farmers, public utility workers, garbage and waste haulers all have tough jobs. I am thankful for them.

Granddaughter's new shoesBefore we moved from Ohio to Virginia, Neva and I significantly reduced our individual wardrobes. I had too many shoes and too many shirts and pants I seldom wore. Off they went to the thrift store. I’ve been to locales where decent clothing was hard to come by, if only for economic reasons. I, too, am thankful for affordable clothing and footwear.

Housing is indeed another luxury we too often take for granted. Many moons ago I encountered students I had in my classroom who lived in a house with dirt floors. I had a hard time getting over that when we were more than halfway through the 20th century.

Now here we are well into the 21st century, and poverty and inadequate housing are still rampant in our society and globally. Neva and I do what we can to help the homeless through trusted charitable agencies. I am also thankful for the home we share together, and for my gracious wife’s willingness to use her gift of hospitality.

Before the guests arrived.

Finally on the thankfulness list is food. Food is a universal need and reason for jubilation. Food takes center stage at Thanksgiving. Roast turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, salad and pies all bedeck Thanksgiving Day tables in Canada and the U.S. alike.

When we say grace over this Thanksgiving Day meal, I’ll also be mindful of those who would love to be gathered there with us. Perhaps we should ensure that happens by inviting others not generally in our family circles.

When you think about it, doesn’t my friend’s list about cover what Thanksgiving is all about? What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, food photography, human interest, photography, writing

Finding gratitude where least expected

Rockingham Co. VA, rural farms

Where some of the local food is grown and where some of the food pantry clients live.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Life never ceases to amaze me. In my long years of living, I’ve learned that gratitude often emerges in the least likely of places.

My wife and I were asked to volunteer one evening a month at a local food pantry near downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Friendly City is home to 55,000 people in the center of the Shenandoah Valley. The pantry operates once a week, providing foodstuffs for those who don’t have enough income even to buy basic grocery necessities.

Participants are only permitted to visit the food pantry once per month. Individual records are kept to ensure the rules are followed. That has never been a problem, however.

tomatoesbybrucestambaugh

Locally grown produce like these tomatoes is often donated to the food pantry.

The pantry receives its supplies from two sources. A regional food bank provides federal government USDA commodities, while local supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers donate their surplus food to the pantry. A few farmers even grow extra produce to help supply in-season fresh foods.

Those who depend on the food pantry for their sustenance must qualify by income for the USDA items. Pantry participants receive the locally provided food without qualification. The pantry offers a few healthcare products, too.

Neva and I have settled into our roles of interviewers. Our job has multiple responsibilities. We have to ask many invasive, personal questions before we can check off the USDA food preference list with the clients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to write down $0 for a monthly income. It’s a humbling experience both for the clients and us.

With all the “workers wanted” signs around, a logical question might be, “Why don’t these people get a job?” The answer to this question is two-fold. Many of the clients do have jobs. Their meager incomes and family sizes qualify them for the federal subsidies.

William Penn quotation.

From my observations and interactions, those who receive aid and don’t work are not employable for a host of obvious reasons. Some stay at home with small children. Some are senior citizens whose productive working days are long past. Some are disabled with no financial support of any kind. You get the picture.

Amid the discomfiting officiousness, one quality consistently shines from month to month, person to person. Everyone we encounter expresses gratitude for any help provided. Some are effusive while others say a quiet thank you.

As humbling and perhaps even embarrassing as the experience is for the clients, they are all thankful. Without being prompted, a few share heartbreak stories with us. They seem glad to have someone with whom to converse. We listen intently and thank them for sharing. A hardy handshake sometimes ensues.

I have yet to meet anyone who feels entitled to this food. Just the opposite is true. The clients’ glow of exuberant gratitude outshines any hint of disparity.

The joyous expressions and cheery thankfulness for whatever assistance they receive more than reward us for our collective efforts. Every client is especially appreciative if the list indeed includes healthcare items like diapers, shampoo, or toothpaste.

It takes courage to admit you need help. But if your child is hungry and the cupboard is bare, courtesy, gratitude, and thankfulness vanquish pride.

A disconcerting trend has developed, however. Each time we serve at the food pantry the number of clients tends to increase. Nevertheless, humility, smiles, and expressions of relief also grow exponentially.

Who would have thought that we would find and receive abundant gratitude from those who can’t afford daily food? Who would have imagined that serving in such a manner would reward us with humankind’s most heartfelt thanks?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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