Lean into the wind in 2014

Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.
Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I never believed much in New Year’s resolutions. I prefer to view the big picture. Besides, by now, I may have already broken half my resolves.

This year, rather than aim to lose five pounds in a month, I want to lean into the wind. That should be easy for me. I’m known to be a little windy from time to time.

You can blame my young pastor for this idea. He’s young because he’s half my age. Pastor Patrick recently preached a sermon about making yourself available and vulnerable to lean into life’s daily situations, good and bad, the way you would brace yourself against a good gale.

bluebirdbybrucestambaughI liked that image a lot. I’ll share a few ways I plan to apply the concept. I want to challenge myself to embrace all that swirls around me, positive or negative, this year. We learn from either perspective.

Despite my loss of dexterity, I will lean into the wind and hold a child’s hand, steadying her wobbling stroll across a room. Though my hearing is diminished, I will listen attentively to what others have to say, even though I may vehemently disagree with their opinion or decision.

Though my eyesight is aided with bifocal glasses, I will look for the simplest pleasure nature has to offer. A breathtaking sunrise, a singular drop of water hanging perilously at the end a leaf, a brilliant wood warbler migrating north will all be part of my leaning into the wind.

doubletrunkbybrucestambaughEven though my cranky knees limit my mobility, I will do my absolute best to bend low to pick up trash thoughtlessly discarded by others. If someone else is leaning into the wind nearby, maybe they’ll help me back to my feet.

Leaning is an active verb, not passive. Life is a series of winds of various velocities that shift daily. We can only feel the wind. We measure it by the effects on everything the wind touches, whether it does so fiercely or persistently.

Regardless of the velocity, life’s winds affect us all. Leaning in enables us to practice gratitude and joy, the byproducts of vulnerability.

Life offers no guarantees. It is full of pitfalls and mistakes as well as abundant joy and beauty. I want to discard the rose-colored glasses, and recognize the good from the bad. I want to accept them for what they are, and lean into 2014 accordingly.

The blizzard winds of January will eventually subside. Before we know it, invigorating breezes of May, with their warm, sweet fragrances and life-giving rains, will arrive as a blessed balance for us all.

A friend of mine shared a picture of an old apple tree, trunk bent from age and time, some limbs broken and sagging. The caption beneath the old tree defined what I mean by leaning into the wind.

It read, “A little bent by time, shaped by the wind and the seasons, a few branches broken. Today I feel like that old apple tree. But I’m still reaching for the sky, and doing my best to take in what the world gives me and turn it into something good and useful.”

By leaning into the wind, I can anticipate enduring, absorbing and embracing all of the various breezes that life blows my way in 2014.

Who knows? I might even lose five pounds in a month.


© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Christmastime is gathering time


By Bruce Stambaugh

Christmastime is gathering time. The very origins of the holiday make it so.

Though we may not think about it, those who gather in celebration replicate the inexplicable cast of characters that assembled for the first Christmas. Paying homage for this special birth, their lot represented a cross-section of social, political and religious backgrounds, not unlike today.

nativityscenebybrucestambaughTo be sure, they were a motley bunch, unassuming, even unaware of the tradition being created. Of course, we have no way of knowing the exact date or even time of year for the birth of the Christ child. We can only follow the story as it has been transcribed and translated for us.

Over time, the traditions of Christmas have been handed down and culturally adjusted to fit the changing times. There’s no documentation for tinseled evergreen trees or a jolly St. Nick in Bethlehem that ancient night.

An angelic troupe serenaded stunned shepherds huddled in a field, watching over their flocks. Astute individuals, long on the lookout for a messiah, offered praise and prayer. A ruler trembled. Later, wise kings traveled from afar to worship the boy, and offered precious gifts.

Mary and Joseph themselves were among the throngs reassembling in their hometowns on governmental orders of the day. Harsh as their journey may have been, they complied. History wouldn’t be the same if they had not.

snowbuggybybrucestambaughCenturies later millions travel by modern means to celebrate Christmas, and not always on Dec. 25th either. That fits the Advent model as well. Perhaps, because of schedules or availability, you have already gathered for the holidays.

Here in the largest Amish population in the world, both traditional Christmas Day and the more reverent Old Christmas, always Jan. 6, will find families and friends gathering and sharing food, fellowship, and gifts. You might know Old Christmas as Epiphany or Three Kings Day.

Our own families will make merry on several occasions. Christmas Eve morning two kinships are blended into one for a festive breakfast, a holiday custom spanning three decades.

On Christmas Day, we’ll repeat the family ritual of enjoying a tasty holiday meal, and opening gifts. Those traditions have been toned down a bit from my childhood days when my good parents splurged beyond their means to make Christmas merry.

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Some of us will eat tofu instead of turkey or ham, and the gift giving has been reigned in as well. We set a reasonable spending limit, pick a name out of a hat, and that’s that. Of course Santa still fills the stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel.

Later, the five Stambaugh siblings and any available family members will met at our little sister’s home to honor the season and our folks. After all, Mom and Dad instilled in us a fervent love for Christmas.

Myriads of global families will mirror my own, each in their own traditions and styles. Others have already gathered to bake cookies, or attended school programs, or a holiday concert. Still others packed food and clothing for the needy or served meals to too many homeless peoples around the world.

A curious collection of peoples was drawn to that original anointed Nativity scene. Once the event’s date was arbitrarily fixed as Dec. 25, families have been assembling ever since.

Centuries later, Christmas is still for gathering. The modes and means of doing so may have changed, but the reason has not.
In that, let us all rejoice and be glad that we can gather together indeed.


© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Appreciating the daily gifts we are given

A beautiful sunrise greeted these birders in search of a Snowy Owl.

By Bruce Stambaugh

For much too long already we’ve been enduring an avalanche of cutesy commercials and gimmicky advertisements foisting an assortment of products from A to Z on us. Each one is pitched as the perfect Christmas gift to give.

Snowy Owl.
Catalogues, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, even emails push various products for us to purchase for our loved ones. I do my best to ignore them. It’s a bold statement from someone who spent part of his career in marketing.

I understand why all the product promotions are done. Retailers often need productive holiday sales to ensure a profit for the year. I certainly don’t begrudge them for trying.

At my stage in life, I find greater joy in a brilliant but brief sunrise than a glitzy ad. Sometimes on the coldest rural Ohio mornings, the pinks and blues that quickly morph into warm oranges, reds and yellows stir me more than any new car wrapped in a big red bow could.

Joy comes in many packages if we just take the time to notice them, even on the grayest of days. Amid this entire holiday hullabaloo, I have to remind myself to stop and take a deep breath.

Advent is the perfect time to slow down our lives, not speed them up, rushing around trying to find just the proper gift. It might already be right in front of us.

I speak from experience.

When our daughter, now a mother with young children of her own, was two-years old, she would stand on the kitchen counter at our home in Killbuck, Ohio. Together we would watch the birds devour the birdseed we had put out for them. Young as she was, Carrie could correctly identify each species.

Teetering on the rim of the Grand Canyon is an awesome feeling. Sharing that incredible vista with a person who is viewing it for the first time is even better. When it’s your son, seeing his smile is priceless.

When my wife and I braved a frigid winter’s night with a dear couple to search the dark sky for a rare comet, I was cold but hopeful. We rejoiced when we found it, quietly celebrating the event together. No words were needed.

When you go in search of a Snowy Owl, a rare avian visitor to our area, your hopes are high. Even when the bird can’t be located, the camaraderie of other birders on the same search makes up for the whiff. There are no wild goose chases in birding.

When you receive a hand-made card that includes drawings of a cardinal, an eagle and a blue jay, all appropriately colored by your grandchild, you know you are loved. You keep and display that precious gift where you can see it daily.

The gifts of life are all around us. We just have to look for them.
When a long-lost relative unexpectedly contacts you, you rejoice and reconnect with someone you may have only ever met once or maybe never. Surprise gifts rule.

When you stand in line for an hour or more to offer your condolences to the family of someone you have never met, you are blessed by the grace and appreciation shown to you by the mourners. Even in grief, great gifts are exchanged.

Advent is a time for reflection, renewing, remembering. It is a holy gift, freely given, gladly embraced.

The din of commercials not withstanding, Christmastime models what it means to give and to receive. I wonder what gifts will unwrap themselves for you and me today.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Heading down Route 66

The Grand Canyon, one of the many destinations made more accessible by U.S. Route 66.

By Bruce Stambaugh

U.S. Route 66 is legendary. Built in 1926, the highway that connected Chicago with Los Angeles helped to open up the western United States, especially after World War II.

Officially tabbed “The Will Rogers Highway,” the concreted, two-lane road became so popular that it quickly took on another moniker, “the Mother Road.” The highway enabled many Americans to access locales they had only heard of or dreamed about.

Many took to the famous road to visit historic sites, national parks, or tickle their toes in the southern California surf. Hundreds of service oriented businesses, restaurants, gas stations, motels and the like, grew once sleepy towns into expanding cities.

After Bobby Troup took a trip from Pennsylvania to the west coast on the road, he penned a now iconic song about his experience. “Route 66” is still a familiar song.

Today tourists from around the world travel as much of the original route that remains, too. They want to relive what life was like before the road was decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1985. The establishment of the Interstate Highway System spelled doom for the romanticized route and the cities and businesses through which U.S. 66 traversed. Radiator Springs, the fictional town in the movie “Cars,” is used as an example of how the Interstate Highway System affected so many small towns across the southwest.

I have traveled on only a few sections of the famous route. My late father, however, had a very personal and memorable connection to U.S. 66. It was the road he and two other sailors drove home following their discharge from the Navy at the close of World War II.

I remember Dad telling me about a restaurant owner in Texas who helped them out. As they drove east along U.S. 66, Dad and his traveling companions kept seeing billboards for a restaurant that advertised serving “the largest steak in Texas.”

Of course the trio decided to check out the claim. Still dressed in their Navy whites, they had little money. Glad for their service to country, business owners often gave them discounts or even free food at places where they stopped.

This restaurateur was no exception. Never one to be bashful, my father approached the restaurant’s owner, and told him they had seen his many billboards along the road. Dad point blank asked him if his largest steak claim was true.

Impressed with their enthusiasm and their military service, the owner gave all three men a free steak dinner. Dad said it was indeed the largest steak he had ever eaten.

So why am I telling you all this about a road that doesn’t exist anymore? I blatantly used this nostalgia to make a simple, metaphoric point. I’m beginning my own journey on 66. I’ll soon be that age. Our birthdays are important after all. We only have them once a year.

Since I was a kid, I have wistfully declared that I would live to be 100. I had no way of knowing that of course. It was just my way of saying I enjoy life, and want to live it as vibrantly, as long, as well, and as purposefully as possible.

I feel very fortunate indeed to have completed nearly two-thirds of the way to that century mark along life’s bumpy highway. I don’t know if I’ll reach that lofty milestone or not, but I am going to give it my all trying. I still have a lot of living to do.

This year I’ll travel down my own personal Route 66. For in the masterful words of the beloved American poet Robert Frost, “I have miles to go before I sleep.”

Cathedral Rock from Oak Creek Crossing, Sedona, AZ.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Making an all too obvious discovery

The overlook on U.S. 33 near Gap, WV, is one of our usual stretch stops on the way to VA from OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t know why my wife and I couldn’t see it. It took the wisdom of our daughter to realize what was happening with her trio of kids, our three grandchildren.

My wife and I live in Ohio. Our grandchildren live in Virginia. We visit them when we can, and they return the favor when their schedule allows, which isn’t nearly often enough from Nana and Poppy’s point of view.

We understand their situation. At ages nine, seven and four, Evan, Davis and Maren are busy, busy, busy. This time of year, of course, their days are mostly filled with attending school.

Their summers are nearly as clogged, only with Little League baseball for the boys. The season seems to last and last, especially when it is extended with tournaments.

Along with their other grandmother, we did do a beach vacation with them in June, which we greatly enjoyed. But that’s not quite the same as being at their home or they being at ours.

Let’s just say that the ability to pile into the van with their parents and head northeast to visit us is rather limited. Which leaves us with one option. If we want to see our grandchildren other than in summer and at Christmas, we have to go visit them.

It only makes sense after all. Our schedules are much more flexible than theirs are. So we go when we can or when we are needed. Lately, it’s been more of the latter than the former.

The grandkids’ home in VA.
What a year it has been for our daughter and her family, too. After a three-year search for a new home, they finally found a lovely place that mostly suited their family’s needs. It is located in the same general area of town as where they had rented.

What a plus that was for them, too. The boys didn’t have to change schools, and there was no major adjustment to a new neighborhood. The new neighbors might have to adjust to them, however. They are one of the few families with young children in their stable neighborhood.

The problem was that our arriving always seemed to signal a red flag for the grandkids. The sign was plain as day to them. When Nana and Poppy, or one or the other arrived, a new wind blew. Mom or Dad or both were about to exit the scene.

The kids saw the consequences and reacted as children do. For whatever reasons, we didn’t get it. We do now.

Our grandkids watch most home volleyball games and few away games like this one at nearby Bridgewater College, Bridgewater, VA.
Our daughter and her husband are as busy as their children. Our son-in-law has his professional career with the nearby university, and our daughter helped coach the university women’s volleyball team, not to mention her many duties at church.

On top of all of that was the unexpected purchase and remodel of the house. Throw in the transition of the youngsters, and the arrival of the senior division of the Ohio cavalry for babysitting appearances, and you get the picture.

So there it was. When Nana and Poppy arrived, something drastic was in the works in the lives of our three grandchildren. Kids being kids, they each showed their youthful angst through various bold behaviors. Nothing serious, mind you, just disconcerting.

The solution is straightforward. Nana and Poppy simply need to visit and enjoy time with the entire family, no babysitting, no rule changing, just plain family fun.

That’s the ideal role for Nana and Poppy for which all can be thankful.

Granddaughter Maren helped Nana make baked oatmeal for the volleyball team.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Cozying up to that time of year

The lane to the cottage.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s that time of year again, and I’m not referring to the general election. A dutiful citizenry casting ballots is critical to maintaining our democracy, dysfunctional as it sometimes is. I relish a more personal season now.

The Chimney Swifts are gone, and I can once again stoke up a roaring fire in the family room fireplace. It’s my favorite leisurely pursuit of the colder months, and one that I eagerly share with family and friends.

This year I had to wait longer than usual to build my first fire. After the resident nesting Chimney Swifts flew south a week after Labor Day, another family of migrating swifts promptly moved in and basked in our fine early fall weather.

I didn’t mind at all. The affable little birds daily devour scores of insects.

I enjoy hearing the flying cigars, as birders affectionately refer to them, chatter as they dive bomb into the stubby brick chimney. I find it fascinating that these birds seem to never sleep. Their powerful swooshing into the chimney rattles the hearth’s damper day and night.

The cottage fireplace.
After the chattering subsides, I usually wait a while before building a fire just to be certain no slackers are bringing up the rear of the annual southerly trek. I need not have worried. They all had gone before the first hard frost.

That said, my first fireplace fire this fall wasn’t at home. That honor went to the main fireplace at our getaway cottage in southeast Ohio. Since the fireplace is faced with Briar Hill sandstone, I didn’t feel far from home, however. The stone is mined in the county where I live.

Like my folks who built the cottage, my wife and I embrace autumn there. Set on the north slope of a steep hillside that runs down to a peaceful flood control lake, a forest of mature hardwoods surrounds the family cottage.

The day we arrived was overcast and damp. A cold front was forecast to push rain through Ohio and gradually cool the temperatures enough to warrant a fire.

The soothing warmth of a fireplace fire adds to the cottage ambiance. I gathered the kindling and well-seasoned logs and with one match, my fireplace season began.

The dancing and laughter of the consuming flames, the invigorating pungency of the burning logs, and penetrating heat mesmerized and inspired me. In an hour the inside temperature of the cottage had increased seven degrees.

There is a satisfying routine in my fireplace ritual. Kindling and logs are assembled on the grate. A match is struck, and a transformation from mostly smoke to flames ensues. The fiery hardwood fuel spontaneously hisses, pops, and showers sparks. It’s a fireplace Fourth of July.

I like to let the fire die down to where the glowing embers throw out more heat than the small blue, orange and yellow flares themselves. That’s when marshmallows toast golden brown.

As the wind picked up, a golden shower of leaves rained down.
After a few nudges of the shrinking logs with the poker, more cordwood is added, and the process begins all over again. Over time, the accumulation of the glowing coals means less wood to keep the room comfy.

The conditions for this year’s first fireplace fire couldn’t have been better. Just as the flames reached their peak inside, outside the wind gusted, and golden leaves and a drenching cloudburst rained down together.

It’s that time of year again. Home or cottage, I’ll rejoice and be glad in cozying up to the captivating charisma of a fireplace fire.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Enamored by names

I am honored to report that today I received the University of Akron’s Wayne College Regional Writers Award for non-fiction. Since I’m naturally too modest to say much about myself, friends and colleagues encouraged me to share this winning essay with you.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have always been enamored by names.

By names, I mean the title affixed to something, someone or someplace that transcends the given moniker of the object, the person or the place.

When I moved to Holmes County, Ohio many moons ago, I immediately picked up on the custom of speaking in this sort of colloquial code that was neither an accent nor a dialect.

People spoke of names for places as if the entire world knew to what and where they were referring. Often times, most of those names could not be found on any official document, including a county map.

Still, people used the names as reference points, meeting places and settings for stories, imaginary and true. With apologies to Stephen Colbert, the “truthiness” of the tale didn’t really matter.

In my teaching days, my elementary students matter-of-factly offered up perfect examples of what I mean. When I asked the students where they lived, I got answers like “on French Ridge” or “next to Dingle Brown” or “ beside Blackbird Croskey.”

Once I caught on to this provincial name-dropping, I tried turning the tables on the kids through the lessons. They found it down right sacrilegious to learn that Glenmont had once been Napoleon and Killbuck was first Oxford.

Nor did they believe me when I told them that Fort Fizzle had really been a fort, and the cause of its rebellious caretakers actually did fizzle. It was an insignificant skirmish in the American Civil War. But it was our own.

The cute terminology wasn’t confined to the schoolhouse either. Once, when I reported to the fire station after the alarm had sounded, I found the first two trucks gone and the station empty. I checked the chalkboard where the type of run and its location were hastily scribbled. “Grassfire, Baddow Pass” was all it said.

I was stumped. I had no idea where that was, and had to wait until another volunteer showed up to find out which way we should go.

The name game even spilled over to church. When the youth group wanted to go on a hayride to Panther Hollow, I again had to ask about the exact location. When we got there, it was so spooky I thought it should be named Ghost Hollow. But I soon learned that was actually on the north side of the nudist camp. And no, I am not making up any of this.

When I moved to the eastern part of the county, I discovered the local names just as prolific, if not more so. Amid the Amish and Mennonite culture, several people have the same name. But there was only one Bicycle Dan and one Toothpick Andy.

We had our church picnic in Troyer’s Hollow. The Stink Plant sits on Weaver Ridge. Good friends live on Joe T. hill.

In the western, more Appalachian area of the county, the hills are steeper and the valleys are wider. In the east, with its more gently rolling hills, the tranquil valleys are referred to as bottoms.

A young woman was once talking with a small group of people about what each valley was called. She said she lived in Bulla (or Bull) Bottom, and that the valley on the north side of Walnut Creek was called Genza (or Goose) Bottom.

She promptly turned to a young man who lived over the next ridge, and innocently asked him, “And what is your bottom called?”

Like I said, I love these earthy, rural names rich in traditions and full of life, goodness and virtue.

© Bruce Stamabaugh 2013

At my age, “old” is a relative term

Reflections by Bruce Stambaugh
Reflections in a farm pond near Benton, Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Soon I’ll be 63. I used to think that age was ancient. I probably was 36 then.

Of course, there was a time when I viewed 36 as old. I was probably 18. When I was nine, 18 was old. You get the pattern. “Old” is a relative term.

I am not saying that I don’t feel my age. I do. I say that because whoever said 60 is the new 50 must have been 50. They sure weren’t 60.

Ever since I hit the big 6 0, an invisible physical switch seems to have been flipped. I eat less and gain more. I tire too easily, but find consistent restful sleep evasive. I have far less hair than five years ago, and what’s left is mostly gray.

My memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, my dexterity not as nimble. Aches and pains seem the rule rather than the exception they once were, even after only moderate exercise.

I might feel the various bodily effects of aging, but my mind says I’m still young at heart. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I sometimes act like I’m still 18. But after a half dozen tosses of the baseball to my grandson, my arm feels like it will fall off.

I recently spent an inspirational afternoon with a handful of young people, all in their 20’s. The outing was intended to be an opportunity for quiet reflection and introspection.

When it was time to share at the end of the retreat, I told those assembled that I really felt for them. Here they all were, young, talented, each one much smarter than me, and yet, they were struggling to find jobs that fit their training, experiences and dreams.

I shared how it was so much different for baby boomers like me when we were their age. We graduated from college, and we could basically name our price and place to work. They all laughed when I said, “And I chose Killbuck, Ohio.”

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Killbuck Elementary School was where I began my teaching career. I was 21, right out of college with a degree in journalism. The only education class I had had was driver education.

That didn’t matter. There was a teacher shortage, and since I had a bachelor’s degree and heartbeat, I was offered a contract 20 minutes into my interview. I made $6,000 that first year, and $186 more the second.

But like most educators, I clearly didn’t teach for the money. I taught because I loved the kids, the personal interaction, the daily battle between routines and spontaneous interruptions, the classroom characters, and the challenging instructional process. In all that, I felt welcomed with open arms and loving hearts.

Sure there were things I detested. Every job has that. That’s where age has an advantage. I have found it more convenient, healthier, and safer to let the good memories override the bad.

I told that crew of young people that I never ever expected that we would be in a situation where good jobs would be so scarce. In hindsight, I realize just how fortunate I was back then, salary not withstanding.

My birthday is my personal reminder that time is short. I want to be as productive, as positive, and as purposeful as possible. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

I want to get up everyday with a spring in my step, a song in my heart and an audacious hope that I will remain forever young regardless of how “old” I am or will be.

One room school by Bruce Stambaugh
The one room Beechvale School near Benton, Ohio has been abandoned for several years.

Summer solstice sunrise and sunset

Summer solstice sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh
This picture of the summer solstice sunrise was taken at 5:13 a.m. on June 21, 2010. - Bruce Stambaugh

I have absolutely no idea why it took me so long to post these pictures of the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice, which occurred on June 21, 2010. Nevertheless, here they are, finally.

These pictures were taken at our home in Ohio’s Amish country, four miles southwest of Mt. Hope in Saltcreek Twp. – Bruce Stambaugh

Summer solstice sunset by Bruce Stambaugh
The last look at the sun at 8:24 p.m. on June 21, 2010 as it sank behind my neighbor's barn. - Bruce Stambaugh
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