There’s no better time to express your gratitude than during the holiday season

I am grateful for sharing holiday traditions across generations.

A familiar aroma wafted all the way from the kitchen to my office. Joy overwhelmed me as I inhaled the welcoming whiff of Christmas cookies.

I had seen my wife mixing the ingredients and rolling the dough earlier in the morning. Just imagining the taste of the gluten-free Moravian ginger snaps and cookie crumbles made my mouth water.

Neva loves to bake, and the dynamo that she is, she did so even though not feeling the best. After nearly 50 years of marriage, I knew not to intervene.

Baking is only one of Neva’s many gifts for which I am grateful. During the holiday season, she goes into overdrive, providing goodies and other pleasantries for friends, family, and even strangers. That’s in addition to taking the lead in decorating our home for the holidays.

(Please click on each photo below to enlarge them.)

We decorated for the holidays earlier than usual in an earnest attempt to counter 2020’s double-barreled doom and gloom of pandemic and politics. We plan on letting the festive lights shine well into the New Year, too. Hopefully, that effort will soothe our souls and those of others as well.

Strings of lights, wreaths, and trees said “Christmas” even before Thanksgiving. It was our way of being grateful as this long and tedious year winds down. We all need the holiday spirit now more than ever.

We are determined not to let the negative news negate the hope, peace, joy, and love of the Advent season. We weren’t immune, after all. There was nothing fake about family and friends who contracted the virus. We are most thankful that all have recovered or are in the process. Too many others here and around the world can’t say that.

Neva and I are grateful for leaders who do the right things for the common good, whether it concerns the pandemic, raging wildfires, or assisting hurricane victims long after the storms have departed. We rejoiced with the announcements of effective vaccines that will soon arrive, starting with those on the frontlines of COVID-19.

Gratitude always helps the one who shows it. The more you give, the better you feel. Perhaps that is what motivated Neva to bake in the first place. Being productive is in her DNA.

No matter our circumstances, expressing our gratitude, serves as a healing balm. I have often experienced that, sometimes in the least likely of places.

I was fortunate to have traveled to Honduras multiple times on short-term work trips. Our groups usually helped local residents build churches and houses for the very needy.

I vividly remember one situation in Gracias, Honduras, the country’s old Spanish colonial capital. The six of us worked side-by-side with community members to help construct their church building.

Each workday, the women of the local congregation that we were assisting prepared lunch for us. In the cooling shade of her adobe home, the pastor served us chicken noodle soup and refreshing fruit juice. We were most grateful for the food and hospitality.

When I learned that the pastor had killed her last chicken to feed our small group, I was genuinely humbled. Given her gracious sacrifice, we all thanked her profusely.

Showing gratitude works both ways. Study after study has shown that expressing gratitude through productive actions benefits both the recipient and the giver. Our Honduran experience indeed verified that.

Perhaps author Ami Campbell appropriately summed up the purpose for appreciation. Gratitude is the birthplace of generosity, she stated. To that, I say, “Amen!”

In what ways will you express your appreciation to others this holiday season?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Scalloped Sky

Clouds have fascinated me since I was a kid. Clouds affect our moods and inspire our imaginations with their unique shapes and various colors. These rippled altocumulus clouds appeared in the eastern sky just as the sun rose over the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The sun’s low angle helped accentuate the wrinkles in the cloud layer.

Though it looks like a black and white photo, this is actually a color shot. “Scalloped Sky” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Why I wrote my own obituary, and why you should, too

I haven’t been bored during all of these stay-close-to-home pandemic months despite my limited times of being out-and-about. I have had plenty to do, and even then, I haven’t completed everything that I had wanted or needed to do. Just ask my wife.

I did accomplish one important goal, however. I wrote my own obituary. I don’t mean to sound morbid, especially during the holiday season. I don’t want to be a prophetic scribe either. I know my humor can be strange sometimes, but I am not kidding on this solemn note.

I was fortunate to celebrate another trip around the sun recently. I still have a long way to go to match my folks’ longevity. Mom lived to be 90, and Dad died a month short of his 90th.

I have been retired from my first career as a public school principal for 21 years already. Those years zipped by as I toiled in my second career as a writer and marketer.

Where has the time gone? The answer to that question inspired me to get busy on my private to-do list before my final day arrives. Consequently, I took the time to eulogize myself. I wanted to ensure appropriately mentioning all the essential points.

As my friend, author, and naturalist Julie Zickefoose recently wrote, “Life is a limited time offer. We need to make the most of it while we can.” She shared that about having lost her husband, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law all within a year.

Her point was that life is short. We can only live in the present moment. Will we waste away our time worrying, fretting, paranoid about actions and events over which we have no control? Or will we be productive citizens, helpful to others, friends, family, and strangers alike?

Obituaries should summarize a person’s life once they have ended their physical stay here on earth. A good obituary will reflect both the chronological benchmarks of one’s life and the individual’s personality.

Who better to do that than the person themself? We each know the good, the bad, and the ugly of our individual lives. But unlike others, we also know the why of each event, most of which we had no control over.

Besides, I like to write, and I want my obit to tell my story correctly. Don’t we all desire that? After all, I won’t be around to read it if some else writes it.

I love to make people laugh, most often using myself as the butt of the joke. Why shouldn’t that also be the case in my obituary?

I don’t want the litany of my life to read like a biographical resume: seed-seller, newspaper boy, gas station attendant, newspaper stringer, teacher, principal, marketing consultant, blogger, and wannabe photographer. I was and am so much more than that. We all are.

I wanted my obituary to tell the meaningful but less obvious threads of my day-to-day living. The memories that popped up surprised me. Like why I never learned to swim or how growing up near a volunteer fire department influenced the rest of my life. You might have the same experience.

By writing my own obit, I also wanted to make it easy on my survivors. All they have to do is fill in the blanks of when, where, and why. I hope and pray they are in no hurry.

With the pandemic still raging, none of us can be too careful. Daily newspaper death notices tell that tale all too often.

I suspect you indeed want to know some of the stuff that formulated who I became. When the time comes, you can read it in the paper.

Ridgeline Sunrise

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a year since my wife and I last visited our former stomping grounds in Ohio’s Amish country. That’s when I took this shot at dawn of a distant ridge. December’s bare deciduous trees on the rolling hilltops provided a foreground silhouette for the glowing morning sky.

“Ridgeline Sunrise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Let’s make the holidays as cheerful as we possibly can

I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for the holidays. It’s been a long year with all that has happened, and we still have a month to go in 2020.

What a month it is, though. Holidays of all sorts fill December. For Christians, Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season, the four Sundays before the big day on December 25.

For our Jewish friends, Hannukah runs from the evening of December 10 to the evening of the 18th. The winter solstice is December 21.

Orthodox Christians, Amish, and other faiths extend the season into the New Year with the celebration of Epiphany or Old Christmas on January 6. That’s the date fixed for when the three kings found the Christ child by following the bright star.

All of these special days revolve around the idea of light. That is most appropriate in these dark days, figuratively and literally.

Each celebration puts the onus on us. We need to be the light that brightens these bleak times. That is especially true given the resurging coronavirus. The tightened restrictions on group sizes will undoubtedly alter our traditional holiday gatherings. That’s as it should be to keep us all safe.

Consequently, we will all need to be on high alert for ways to brighten the holidays for others. We need to contemplate how to spread that cheer, directly and indirectly.

Packing school kids for children overseas sent through Mennonite Central Committee.

I see the holiday season as an opportunity to finish out this unimaginably horrific year on a better note. Amid the gloom and doom that permeates our daily lives, we each have chances to make this holiday season extra special. The secret is in our daily actions.

That’s true every day, of course. But during these next few weeks, we will likely have multiple occasions to overshadow the social angst and dark news with the shining light of kindness, generosity, and compassion.

To keep the cheerful holiday spirit alive throughout the season and into the New Year, we need to stay alert for every opportunity to spread goodness to others. We may not be able to counter all the dark news that swirls around us. We certainly should not add to it, however.

I’ve noticed that some people already have gotten into the spirit. They have their Christmas trees up and doors decorated with wreaths. Towns and cities have erected their holiday banners, lighting, and trees, too.

As a child, I always enjoyed the holiday lights. I suppose I have my father to thank for that outlook. Every Christmastime, he would load his progeny into the family car, and off we would go looking for decorated neighborhoods. Sometimes we would drive to other cities to see the holiday lights and department stores’ decorated display windows.

I’ve never lost that passion. My wife and I have continued our family tradition of displaying candles in our windows. It’s our way of sharing the bright holiday spirit. We intend to leave them up longer than usual this year. You just never know how such little things can positively affect others.

Our sharing the light with others doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. Send a card to someone you know but haven’t communicated with for a while. Drop your loose change in the red kettle. Secretly send someone a gift card from a local small business.

In what ways can you help brighten the holiday season and still keep yourself and those around you safe? How can you help others improve their life, even if it’s only a simple gesture?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Day is Done

Showy sunsets have been hard to come by recently in the Shenandoah Valley. Either the skies have been clouded over, or there have been no clouds at all. When friends invited us over to view the sunset from their backyard, I was hoping for the best. I got my wish.

As we sat around the fire pit in the coolness of the early evening, the day’s high, thin clouds hung around long enough to provide a colorful show to the waning day. In the foreground, the silhouettes framed the reddish clouds hanging over the Allegheny Mountains, which mark the boundary between the Commonwealth of Virginia and West Virginia.

“Day is Done” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Birds of winter are returning

A male Purple Finch eyed the black oil sunflower feeder.

I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window, enjoying my favorite pastime. Several winter birds have returned and are feeding on and under the feeders that I hang each fall.

In this case, it’s a flock of chattering pine siskins partaking of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. I mix the two varieties in a tube feeder that dangles from the lowest red maple branch in our front yard.

That’s what the sociable pine siskins were devouring. They are a dainty bird with a pointy little beak. Unlike other species, the siskins don’t seem to be too competitive. They dine cooperatively. The pesky house finches could learn a lesson from their smaller cousins.

I consider the siskins a real treat, an honor to have them partaking of my offerings. They tend to move around a lot in the colder months. They can be here one day and gone the next. So, I enjoy them and the other birds while they are here. I do hope they stick around.

The purple finches have returned, too. Like the siskins, I never know how long they will stay. I just keep filling the feeders and appreciate their beauty. Birders ogle over having purple finches, and the glorious but unpredictable evening grosbeaks even more so.

The white-throated sparrows have also arrived for their six-month hiatus from the Canadian provinces and the northeastern forests. They are marvelous birds to both watch and hear. I never tire of their hop and kick approach to feeding on the ground.

The song of the white-throated is the delight of winter. Neva and I hear their distinctive, lyrical whistle when we walk in the morning. Their cheery call quickens our step on chilly mornings.

The dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows have just begun to arrive. More will likely appear as the weather grows colder.

I enjoy the year-round birds, too. Is there anything more beautiful than a bright red northern cardinal perched on an evergreen branch? If it happened to have snowed, it creates a Christmas card moment for sure.

I can always tell when the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk is on the prowl. Stealth as it is, the songbirds can’t always fly for safety. So, they freeze in place by staying still and low or press tightly against a tree trunk, hoping not to be spotted.

I don’t mind if the sly hawk captures one. It has to eat, too. However, my preference would be to snag a few of the noisy, hoggish European starlings. They devour the suet cakes like they are candy.

I enjoy the various antics and interactions of my feathered friends. The Carolina wren’s repertoire of songs alerts me to be on the lookout. Sure enough, it bounces around our front porch, checking nooks and crannies for any dead insects.

The wren also partakes of the seeds and suet. Birds need their protein, too. That explains why American robins peck beneath the suet feeder while the starlings sloppily gorge themselves. The robins gobble up the dropped suet pieces from the unruly gang overhead.

I always am pleased when the northern mockingbird makes an appearance at the suet, too. Even the starlings yield to this aggressor.

I marvel at the various woodpeckers that make infrequent stops. The downy is the most faithful, followed by the red-bellied and northern flickers. I’m still waiting on the pileated to make its initial appearance this year.

That’s half the enjoyment of being a birder. You never know what to expect next. You just have to keep watching and appreciate what arrives, starlings excepted.

This Pileated Woodpecker got the last of the peanut butter suet on March 24, 2020.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Cirrus Clouds

Like many other locales in the eastern United States, the Shenandoah Valley has been experiencing some marvelous, unseasonably warm weather. After morning fogs burn off, clear blue skies have dominated most days.

Imagine my surprise when I stepped outside one recent afternoon to enjoy the amazing weather. What appeared to be an army of wispy cirrus clouds hung in the eastern sky. Cirrus clouds are ice crystals that form above 20,000 feet in the atmosphere. They often appear bright white and in unusual formations, sometimes resembling human hair or feathers.

I thought their bright white against the deep blue sky created an inspiring scene. “Cirrus Clouds” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Hello darkness, my old friend

October’s Harvest Moon rises over Massanutten Mountain near Harrisonburg, VA.

Many moons ago, I remember clearly seeing the Milky Way for the first time in ages. I stood starstruck at the twinkling, gem-like brilliance overhead.

In the evening chill, I gazed transfixed, awestruck. Of course, the setting alone provided that opportunity. I had just stepped out of the historic El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon’s edge in northern Arizona.

I felt like a child again, my mind racing back to forgotten summer nights when I would lay on my back in the coolness of the grass and watch the stars and planets. My family lived in a suburb of a blue-collar steel town in northeast Ohio. We could still see the heavens above.

Back then, light pollution was not an issue. Street lights were fewer, and their incandescent bulbs radiated soft light. I even remember being able to track satellites from our front yard.

Somehow, somewhere we North Americans became afraid of the dark. More and brighter street lights and security lights multiplied, all in the name of blotting out the darkness. Now, light pollution prevents 80 percent of the U.S. population from seeing the stars.

The evolution of lighting up streets, buildings, and entire cities has grown exponentially with urban sprawl. In today’s world, most people have to travel out into the country to see the stars.

Residents of cities like Jacksonville, FL, have little chance of seeing the night sky.

Seeing the night sky was one of the benefits of living in a rural area like Holmes County. The air was so clean that Amish buggies rode by at night with no lights on at all until they heard a vehicle coming. Though it wasn’t a safe thing to do, the point was that the horse and driver didn’t need lights to guide them.

We chose the house we now live in near Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the daytime. Being able to see the night sky on a clear night came as a bonus. Our expansive housing development has no street lights.

Light fills our modern night lives, too much of which is bright, blue illumination from all of our electronics. Cell phones, computers, and TV screens stimulate us rather than relax us before bedtime.

Humans need dark nights to get proper sleep. Some people have to use black nightshades to cover their windows to shut out external, artificial light to get some sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to too many negatives for us humans.

Excessive night lighting disturbs wildlife, too. More than 60% of invertebrates and 30% of vertebrates are nocturnal. Each year, millions of migrating birds die by flying into urban windows illuminated at night long after employees have gone home.

Newly hatched sea turtles crawl to the brightest light, which used to be the stars and moon twinkling over the sea. Now, the turtles turn the wrong way and perish unless the artificial lighting is turned off.

Nighttime photos taken from space of urban areas may look pretty, but such massive lighting causes problems and is extremely expensive. Imagine the money and resources society would save by simply turning off all those unnecessary lights. Plus, too many of the lights point skyward instead of down.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. Nighttime is good for our rest, our bodies, our souls, our ecosystem. As we enter the winter’s season of darkness, we should embrace it, not try to either eliminate or illuminate it.

Yes, darkness arrives early now and will continue to do so into the New Year. Until then, I’ll just steal an opening line from Simon and Garfunkel: “Hello darkness, my old friend…”

Halloween’s Blue Moon and Mars in the abstract, taken from my backyard.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020