Why I liked summer nights, and why I still do

Amish girls, Amish cart, Ohio's Amish county
Up the long lane. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

When I was a youngster growing up in a suburb of a blue-collar steel town in northeast Ohio in the 1950s and 60s, I loved summer nights.

Let me be clear that the foremost reason for my affection for summer was that school was out. But it was so much more than that, and still is.

Sure, summer days filled with warm temperatures, fluffy white clouds sailing by and gaggles of my peers running loose made for riotous times. We’d play ball, ride bikes, and explore for hours on end along the little creek that snaked through a woods down over the hill from our brick bungalow.

However, we knew when to come home for lunch and supper, or we wouldn’t eat. It was that simple.

It was a crazy, wonderful era to grow up. Times were changing. Right after supper, we watched the world unfold before us on the nightly news on black and white television. I had trouble reconciling what I saw then with what I had seen just before dinner on the Mickey Mouse Club.

Sputnik
Sputnik.
That might have something to do with why I enjoyed and enjoy summer nights so much. Things got quieter after 10 p.m. or so. The noises of life subsided. I escaped into the refreshing darkness, unafraid, in awe of creation, and in search of anything that moved in the sparkling sky.

Since we were on summer vacation from school, my siblings and I were permitted to stay up later. I loved the evening’s coolness, a respite from the daytime heat and humidity. The nighttime air was our air conditioning.

I took full advantage of those cooler opportunities. I loved to view the night sky. Streetlights were scarce in our neighborhood then, allowing us actually to see the constellations and the countless stars.

My folks must have noticed that interest, too. I got a telescope, and that allowed me to examine the heavenly hosts up close. It was the beginning of the space age, and once I even was able to follow Sputnik, the first-ever man-made satellite launched by the Soviet Union.

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Headlines announcing Sputnik’s launch.
Satellites were still so novel that newspapers published the time and flight path of their orbits. When I saw Sputnik, I couldn’t believe its simplicity, a round ball with four protruding antennae.

I liked simpler, natural things, too, like fireflies, the flash of heat lightning in distant storms, an owl hooting. Most of all, I embraced the solitude that summer nights afforded.

Here I am decades later, a grandfather instead of a grandson. I still love the quietness of early summer nights, before the crickets and katydids begin their concerts.

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Half moon. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Living here in the country, I lie awake at night listening to distant sounds far from our home, dogs barking, horses whinnying, and jetliners cruising high overhead. It’s that calm. If I’m fortunate, a Whippoorwill will wake me from my daze, or a pair of coyotes will howl from the hilltop behind our home.

An American Robin will startle me awake long before dawn, perhaps herself startled from her nest. Was it a cat, a flying squirrel, an owl, or did one of her babies grow restless and try an early morning fledgling flight?

I still like the nights before the crickets start choir practice. I still prefer summer’s air conditioning to artificial. I am most appreciative that lightning bugs don’t crackle when they blink.

But wouldn’t it be neat if they did?

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Night sky. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Hold on to the little things in life

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Corn crib sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Every now and then, my friend, Alice, likes to remind me to hold on tight to the little things in life. She sure does.

Alice, who is in her 90s, delights in periodically showing me a photograph that my wife and I gave her several years ago. The picture is simple enough. But it means the world to my friend.

It’s a shot of our oldest grandson, Evan, when he was a toddler. He’s 10 now. In the photograph, Evan is holding his baby brother, who was just a couple of months old. Alice always points to that photo, and giggles. She remembers an innocent moment, one that most of us would likely overlook. What happened was pure magic for Alice.

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All eyes. © Bruce Stambaugh
When Evan was a baby, he spontaneously grabbed Alice’s finger and held on tight. A decade later, Alice still won’t let go of that golden moment. She laughs about it every time she shows me the photo, and points to Evan and says, “That’s the little guy that hung on to my finger.”

Alice, who never had any children or grandchildren of her own, replays little Evan wrapping his warm, pink hand around her index finger, and hanging on for dear life. She felt loved.

It was just a brief moment in time. But it also was a gift that personally and literally touched Alice so deeply that she keeps the photo in a special scrapbook.

Isn’t that the way life should be? To remember some insignificant, spontaneous time or instantaneous incident that meant the world to you.

William Wordsworth’s classic poem, “The World is too much With Us,” perfectly sums up the current chaos of today’s world. Because of technology, we are inundated with tragic, shattering news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such negative deluges swamp us, dulling our sensitivity to everyday goodness.

Alice’s persistent reference to our young grandson’s firm grip all those years ago is a reminder to me, to us all really, to cherish the little things in life. We need to enjoy each moment.

A breath-taking sunset, a songbird’s call, the smile of a stranger, a fragrant flower, an inspiring poem, a few moments of absolute silence, finding a Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf, the sound of our own rhythmical breathing are all examples equivalent to Alice’s joy.

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There are many others to be sure. A boldly colored American Goldfinch enjoying the seeds of blue salvia; a coyote howling from a distant hill at dusk; a large mouth bass breaking the surface as you reel it in; the warm handshake of a friend; an unexpected note of appreciation from a stranger, a hummingbird working holly hock blooms all offer relief from the stresses of life’s routines.

The list is endless really. The only cost to enjoy these life pleasures is to simply notice them, no assembly required.

Too often I’m caught up in merely trying to survive. In so doing, I forget to live. Sound familiar?

When I recognize those times, I try to step back, take a deep breath, note my surroundings, and focus my all on that very moment that brings light into my life.

I’m glad Alice keeps reminding me about Evan’s firm clasp. Maybe that’s the real point. An unknowing innocent child brought a lifetime of love to a woman ready and willing to embrace and be embraced by a seemingly insignificant action.

Like a child’s tender grasp, hold tight to the little things in life. Those memories are the one’s that really count. Just ask Alice.

colorfulcontrastsbybrucestambaugh Colorful contrasts. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Food and photographs create great conversations

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A typical late summer scene in eastern Holmes County, Ohio. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Recently, I had the privilege of sharing with two different senior groups. They had asked to see a few of the many photographs I had taken.

Most of the shots I shared were captured within 10 miles of our home. I wanted to show that, though travel to exotic locales is nice, we don’t have to go far to see the real beauty in any season. That may be true no matter where you live.

I think I was preaching to the choir. Most in attendance were seasoned citizens of the kingdom, people who had lived through hard times, much more difficult than whatever the Great Recession has thrown our way.

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A Baltimore Oriole and a Red-headed Woodpecker shared opposite sides of the same backyard feeder. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
You could see the joy in their eyes, hear the love of life in their queries and comments, and sense their genial concern and caring for all creation. These were good folks for sure.

Colorful landscapes dotted with farm animals and farmhouses predominated the slideshow. I threw in some family photos and shots of birds that frequent my backyard feeders for a change of pace.

I have to confess that I did it for effect, too. The close-ups of Eastern Bluebirds sipping at the partially frozen waterfalls of my garden pond, and the shocking size of the Pileated Woodpeckers that frequent the suet feeders created a few muffled sidebars.

The presentations were dominated by slides of our lovely rural geography. Some of the same scenes were shown during different seasons. An Amish farmstead was featured in winter and summer from the same vantage point.

The photograph that meant the most to me wasn’t a beautiful bird or a lovely landscape. It was the shot of my late parents at their 65th wedding celebration. It perfectly summed up my parents in one click of the camera shutter.

Dad wore a suit and tie, his usual attire for any formal social gathering, be it a family Christmas dinner or an anniversary remembrance like this occasion. An outdoorsman through and through, his pheasant patterned tie reflected his life’s priorities.

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Mom was elegantly natural in her pose, too. Her eyes beamed what she longed to say but could not due to her advancing Alzheimer’s disease. She had long before expressed her appreciation for being in the world through her lovely landscapes and her abundant patience and compassion as a mother, wife, and artist.

I was sure to credit my folks for my passion to see things creatively and appreciatively. Dad gave me the love of nature, and Mom the ability to see it through an artistic perspective.

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Female Pileated Woodpecker. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
I never could paint the way Mom did, though she tried to teach me once. After several attempts, Mom kindly suggested I stick with writing and photography. And so I have.

I recognize that there are far better writers and photographers than me. Still, I am passionate about both, enjoying the attentiveness and inquisitiveness of people like these marvelous seniors.

My guess is their values and perspectives closely matched those of my folks. Familiar with several people in both audiences, I know they have and continue to share their gifts in their family, church and community.

These gathered folks formed their lives around the old adage, “It’s better to give than receive.” They gave me an opportunity to share, and graciously tolerated my lame attempts at humor during my presentation.

In both settings, these generous folks extended their warm hospitality around food. Food and friendship generate the best conversations.

That was genuine sharing, no camera needed.

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The view in fall from our backyard. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Appreciating the daily gifts we are given

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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.

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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.

lookingupbybrucestambaugh
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

All quiet on the home front

quietsunrisebybrucestambaugh
A spectacular sunrise on the “quiet” morning.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We live in a frazzled world, full of hustle and bustle and lots of noise. Even in the country, the noise of a busy world drowns out the normal peace and quiet.

Of course there are people that seem to prefer noise. They’re the ones that can’t stand a natural lull in a conversation, or dead silence in a room full of people, so they feel obliged to fill the air with idle chitchat. They’re happy as long as someone is talking, even if it’s them.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a bit long winded at times myself. But having lived in rural America all these years, I’ll take peace and quiet every time.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I enjoy music, though I’m no musician. I enjoy cheering for my favorite sports teams. I enjoy lively table talk, especially around a meal.

But age has a way of shushing you, quietly encouraging you to embrace the silence. I’ve learned to feel comfortable in absolute quietness, whether I’m home alone or with a congregation of contemplators.

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The normally bustling barn was even quiet.

Silence is good. I was reminded of that recently. Since it was a Sunday morning, the traffic on our busy county highway was minimal. In fact, only one car and one horse and buggy passed me on my regular two-mile stroll.

Normally I dodge construction trucks, straight bed trucks, semis, cars, bicycles, and several horse and buggies. This day was astonishingly different.

Less traffic meant less noise. And less noise meant the few sounds that I did hear really, really stood out. I heard a motorcycle accelerating far off in the distance, and a horse clopping on the county road a half-mile from where I was walking.

It was at that point that I stopped and realized the full breadth and depth of the stillness around me. The compressor from the neighbor’s barn wasn’t running. No cows were mooing. Not even a bird so much as chirped.

For a minute I thought the rapture had come, and I figured I had indeed been left behind. I smiled at the idea, and continued my lonely, but not lonesome walk.

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A quiet stream.

Walking affords me more than physical exercise. It clears my mind, fills my body with bountiful goodness, and sharpens my senses. Even my age-diminished hearing seemed more keen. I could hear crickets and the last of the season’s katydids singing in the tree-lined stream that meandered through the crops and pasturelands.

On the return trip home, I fully embraced the quietness. I felt richer, fuller, and more alive, all because of hearing nothing at all. I was reminded of the importance of listening, of paying attention, of appreciating the good earth of which we have been assigned to nurture.

Our world is filled with too much noise. Televisions and radios blast away with the talking heads, stirring up people when life’s recipe says to let the sauce simmer.

Even from my countryside home, I see too many people with cell phones pressed to their ears while driving their cars, or cords from ear buds leading to a denim pocket of a passing biker.

That Sunday morning walk instilled in me just how important a little quietness is in our clamorous world. That silent experience said stillness is more than golden. It is a priceless pearl to the soul.

I’m glad I’ve come to appreciate the quality and value of silence. Please kindly remind me of that next time I start to ramble.

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The Amish schoolhouse stood quiet in the morning light.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Loving fall: Let me count the ways

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A typical fall scene in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Plain and simple, autumn has her way with me. I’m in love with fall for so many reasons. Let me count the ways.

The dazzling leaves mesmerize me. I could sit and ponder the various color patterns and striations of a single leaf for hours on end, but only if my wife isn’t home.

I am captivated by how rapidly the leaves on some trees alter their colors, while the same species nearby stands pat as if it were still July. Still others give up the ghost altogether, and simply shed all of their leaves within hours. It’s both a marvel and a mystery.

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Leaves at various stages of color in Ohio’s Amish country.

Neighbors have a lovely sugar maple shade tree that holds a majority of its leaves verdant well into October. The rest blush blotches of fire engine red as if the tree’s perfect canopy had chicken pox. In the end, all the leaves succumb, temporarily covering the ground below with a warm blanket of red, yellow and orange.

The usually boisterous and bossy Blue Jays fly stealthily in pairs from one hardwood grove to the next. Back and forth they go in pairs, uncommonly silent. Are they storing acorns for the winter ahead? They wouldn’t say.

Not so with a gang of American Robins, long absent from our yard. They suddenly reappeared, chirping and chasing one another from treetop to yard to creek bank like it was spring again. I enjoyed their little entreaty even though, like the Blue Jays, I had no idea what they were up to.

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Black-capped Chickadee with sunflower heart.
I’m content to sit on the porch during fall’s balmy weather, watch the American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches devour the expensive sunflower hearts. So doing enhances my daydreamer image.

With windows open on temperate nights, the crickets and the luscious coolness lull me to sleep until my wife pokes me to stop the snoring, or the Screech Owl startles me from the backyard pines. I note both admonitions, roll onto my side and dream on.

The grass is spring green one week and dull and prickly the next. Blessed fall rains ensure the difference.

Fox squirrels and chipmunks scurry to find whatever they can to hoard for the coming cold. I wish they had better memories. Next May dozens of red oak and black walnut saplings will verify the varmints’ mental lapses.

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Canada Geese on the wing.

Flocks of Canada Geese sail in imbalanced V’s over burnished treetops, cackling their way from one farm pond to the other. Lore says that near-sighted and neurotic Puritans imagined them as witches flying on broom handles. It’s ironic that the religious runaway paranoia inadvertently created a very successful commercial Halloween tradition.

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Heavy morn dew reveals overnight cobwebs.
Foggy mornings bring cool moisture that transforms secreted spider’s webs into glistening gems. The stunning natural artistry leaves me speechless, which may be for the best.

A sudden gust blows through the fragile leaves of a poplar tree, cascading a golden shower onto an emerald carpet that had only been raked hours before. Eventually, heavy rains or perhaps an early snow will bring them all down, ringing in the barren times once again. It’s a necessary part of life’s endless cycle.

Fields of corn, once huge waves of tasseled emerald, now show more brittle brown. Corn shocks already dot fields farmed by those who distain machinery.

Hungry birds have devoured all of the bright red berries of the dogwood trees. In protest, the dogwoods’ crimson leaves have one by one fluttered to the ground.

I’m in love with fall. Can you tell?

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Autumn is upon us in more ways than one

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Foggy morning.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Fall is definitely in the air here in northern Ohio. The telling signs of autumn are everywhere.

A drive through our luscious countryside or a leisurely hike or ride along the Holmes County Trail or just a peek out a window all sing the same song. Fall has arrived.

The leaves have begun to change. Dense morning fog magically gives way to bright, sunny days, only to reappear the next morning to begin the misty process anew. The days cool, warm and cool again in alluring rhythm.

I marvel at nature’s humor.

I bask in the warmth of the morning sun high on a rural road. To the west, residents have to feel socked in. A thick, cottony cloud stretches the full length of the Killbuck Valley. The morning’s colder, heavier air spreads the wet blanket over the precious marsh teeming with its mix of migrants and year-round residents.

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Fog in the valley.

Fields of golden rod and patches of wild daisies bring a warming brilliance to the once verdant landscapes. The lessening sunlight and cooler temperatures tell the foliage it’s time to morph into the secreted richer colors. Once emerald stalks fade fast from a sickly yellow to a dormant brown even before the first frost of the season.

Wildlife sense nature’s urgings, too. Small flocks of Eastern Bluebirds, still flashing their azure brilliance, congregate, searching for both sustenance and winter cover. A few Cedar Waxwings still buzz from the tops of their favorite playgrounds, while the chatty Chimney Swifts have already checked out for the season.

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Changing leaves.
Despite having access to calendars and electronic device reminders, humankind seems to be in denial. Men and women clad themselves in t-shirts and shorts as if it were still July. Are they naïve or hopeful that fall will imitate summer? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

No matter my activity, I dress in layers or carry extra apparel with me. I suspect it’s more me than the weather. I’ve noticed that the older I get the colder the days seem, even though the temperatures remain near their seasonal norms.

Further reflecting tells me that I am entering the October of my life as well. Transitioning from the long summer of busy workdays mingled with family meals and overlapping activities have evaporated like those morning mists. My good wife seems to have made the adjustments better than me.

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The waning Harvest Moon.
I enjoyed my career as an educator. In the 30 years of serving youngsters and cajoling adults, I learned a lot. I embraced my second career in marketing and writing with equal zeal.

Now reality is finally setting in for me. My parents are gone. My wife’s parents are gone. Friends from the Greatest Generation are fading fast, not to mention acquaintances from my own generation. I must ready to face the fall.

This certain transition hasn’t been easy. At times I have emotionally struggled with entering life’s October time. Yet facts are facts. My diminished hearing, loss of nimbleness and achy knees tell me that my autumn has arrived, too.

However long I have, I want to live life out with zest, energy and productivity. Fall is in the air. The harvest full moon is waning.

Whatever your age, together let us greet each day with a song and a smile. Let us celebrate the goodness that surrounds us regardless of whatever circumstances or personal season we encounter.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013