The Power of a Smile

   Recently I gave a presentation to my Swedish Lodge ( for people of Swedish descent, who like to stay in touch with their Swedish-ness) on this subject:  “A Mystery:  The Life and Paintings of Carl Larsson.”  Larsson is remembered for the watercolors of his 8 children and his wonderful wife, Karin Bergoo, their happy life together in a warm cottage-like setting, outside picnicking in the woods, swimming and fishing, celebrating events, a happy family living a natural healthy simple life.  They actually began the movement of Swedes towards interior design based on wood, textiles, lots of light and simple design.

    The life Carl painted was truly happy for him.  But his life before Karin was just as truly terrible – a childhood of deep poverty, in housing surrounded by other suffering people of all kinds, an abusive drinking father, poor education, and the normal struggles of a young artist trying to find a way to make a living. I called my presentation “A Mystery” because I find it fascinating to try to understand how some people with terrible childhoods are still able to grow into normal functioning and HAPPY adults.  I read Carl Larsson’s short and beautifully written autobiography looking for clues as to how he managed to bring his life around.        Here is just one of the interesting clues I noted.

   In his early twenties he was ready to give up.  Here I’ll let him tell this little memory:

 “Once I was so sad, I had finally had enough of life, and in this mood I walked with heavy steps up the hill on Riddargatan.  But right then I met these two.  They were walking arm in arm, almost dancing downhill, she leaning against her beau with a tender smile, and he!  It cannot be described!  A broad gutta-percha face with the corners of the mouth each hooked onto its own ear, round glasses, and through them everything cheerful and joyous in life was glittering.  …I had never seen such genuine, unshakeable, real joy!  For me, that was a turning point.  I said to myself:  “It must be possible that earth is lovely.”  …Since then nobody has ever seen me exhibit a clouded face in the street.  I became convinced that it is the damn duty of each and every one to spread cheerfulness with a sunny face in public.  Even though…”  (p33)

   Even though – one carries terrible burdens and sadness inside.  The smiles on these two people had perhaps saved his life!  It seemed the least he could do, should do, to keep a cheerful countenance himself for the sake of others.

     I remember some touching moments in my own life that taught me something similar about how the smallest gesture to another can have much more power than we could guess.

    My small rural high school did not have enough students to offer tracked classes for “gifted”, “special needs,”  and such, so all abilities were glopped together.   My graduating class was 44 in number, some having dropped out immediately when they turned 16.  There were various students who kind of slept through classes, never did homework. I never judged them; they were just there with us all.   There was a boy named Jim Evans who was a “drugstore cowboy,” in our parlance – they wore their hair slicked back with sideburns, smoked behind the bank at lunch, but they didn’t do anything criminal.  Jim generally didn’t seem to do homework at all; he sat across from me, back one seat.

    One day the English teacher called on him with a simple question and he didn’t know the answer.  Red-headed chubby Phil sat in front of me and liked to put himself up with the know-it-alls whenever possible.  Phil turned around and said something snide and demeaning to Jim.  I just said something simple to Phil like, “Phil, turn around and mind your own business.”   That he did.

    At lunch I went with my friend Shirley to the town park; we were sitting on the grass under a tree talking when I noticed something fall into my lap.  A dandelion!  I looked up and there was Jim hurrying away but looking back at me briefly with a slight shy smile.  I was so surprised!  And I knew it was his way of saying “Thank you!”

    “Thank you” for what?  I hadn’t felt like any hero, hadn’t even mentioned the meanness in Phil’s comment, although it was true that I spoke because Phil was purposely being mean.  I often wondered after that what Jim’s life was like that such a small gesture in his defense could mean so much to him.  I knew that in the back country around our small town there was great poverty, parental neglect and abuse, so much hidden from the view of others.

   Another similar high school memory:  one day I went into the girls’ washroom; there were only two girls there, at the mirror.  Barbara and Sandra were somewhat “plain” in their looks and the clothes they wore spoke of serious poverty.  Sandra walked around with her head down and hanging forward most of the time; Barbara walked erect with her head up but all her movements were slow and quiet, like a person already tired and discouraged in life.  There was no one else in the room (Honestly, this might have affected me had someone else been there!) I never “hung around” with these girls, but they were okay to me and I just decided to speak to them.  I said something simple like, “Hi!   How are you?”  They both opened their faces into surprised smiles and nodded, mumbling back to me something like “Good,” still with their shy smiles. 

   I was mystified by their reaction.  When I thought about it later I realized that I was smart and generally liked and from a respectable family, the “other” part of the world to which they had no access.  For me to greet them like they were normal people seemed to change their feeling about themselves, like they were okay after all. 

    In my rural public school I missed out on academics that felt challenging enough but my heart received an education, over and over.  I dated one of those guys who slept through class and never did his homework.  His parents had died in a car accident when he was six and he went into the foster system where a local farmer took him in to help with farm work.  He got up at 4 am to do chores and therefor slept through class; the farmer was kind but no one cared if he did well in school.  His face was pockmarked from a rifle going off.   Now there was a guy with a good heart though.  When he turned sixteen he went into the army to find a life for himself.

   Another boy had been in my class for several years, doing poorly, and then about 12th grade I noticed he had dropped to the class below us; I realized this passing him in the hallway one day and he put his head down so maybe I wouldn’t see him.  Later in life I learned his father had been an alcoholic and ranted and abused him and one day had smashed a watermelon on his head. /  I remember also walking home in elementary school on the dirt road behind our house and realizing that a boy from my class was  living with his mother and 4 siblings in a chicken coop!  It literally still had chicken wire all around it.

   Well, my little missive was to encourage us all to share a smile or kind word wherever we go, regardless of what sorrows we carry inside. There is so much we do not know about why others appear as they do, what great burdens and limitations others live under, and smiling is so easy!  A quiet grin, a “Hi,” – the very least we can do and perhaps exactly what someone needs.

January 14, 2022

Honoring the Dead on All Souls Day

Today, November 2,  is All Souls’ Day, the Catholic equivalent of the Day of the Dead.

   I have a little stool in my bedroom where I place photos, funeral cards, newspaper articles of people I knew who have returned to spirit.  It’s a “Pile”, not neat as it should be, but covered with a beautiful shawl.  Today I took it out and went through “The Pile”, and one by one remembered and thanked each person.  I surprised myself as I began prioritizing them according to how deeply each person has affected me. Occasionally I explained this to the one in spirit.  I realized that quite a few VIP’S were not represented here so I’m gathering a list of these and will find a photo or letter to put appropriately in The Pile.

   A few I did not know personally but they’ve inspired me a lot, e.g. Harriet Tubman, Jacques Lusseyran, Pete Seeger, Helen Keller, John Woolman. Many writers of books have affected me deeply.  Once I saw in the Indy newspaper an article about an Afro American woman writer who lived an inspiring life and had passed to her rewards. I called a writing friend (Gail Mehlan) and we went together to her funeral, as complete strangers, but we felt moved to honor her.  I guess I eat people – they’re food for my soul – when they’re really meaty!

   I know I “should” do this with more care, maybe put all in a scrapbook.  But the river of my life flows on so fast!  This seems the best I can do, and it’s kind of “me.”  I mean – imperfect!  I appreciate all who have helped me be a better person, by their love or example, occasionally by their challenge or mistakes.  Everyone who touches me puts something in the pot for my rich life.

Go Where You’re Sent

                 Salty Snippet, August 2021     

  As news of problems all over the world becomes as available to us as our daily bread, perhaps others feel like me that we wish we could augment our influence to “make a better world,” to take away some of the endless unnecessary suffering, improve structures, eliminate greed, leave the world a better place when we walk on.  From the time I was an idealistic teenager, this is what I wanted to do.

  And yet, Life has its own weird ways.  As I stepped forward on my path, I found myself doing things similar to what my mother had done – raising a small family, helping neighbors and relatives as needed, I occasionally held jobs that influenced a few for the better in a larger community.  I’m tempted to feel disappointed in my small accomplishments against a large desire.

   By chance I’ve discovered the life of a Civil War hero named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and find him inspiring.  Joshua Chamberlain seemed ordinary but was raised with a fine combination of caring for others, thoughtfulness, and self-discipline in the service of whatever seemed his highest duty. When war called him to serve in the cause(s) of concern in the Civil War, he left his job as college professor and quickly became a leader of a small group of soldiers from his native Maine. Under his leadership of courage, spontaneity, and complete service of their lives, altogether they did extraordinary feats which saved the day at Gettysburg and later left the South with honor and respect in the final surrender at Appomattox.  Actually, the whole picture of what ALL soldiers were giving in this extraordinary and costly war is an inspiration to me.  Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor; some of his men just died a terrible death.  The image I see is of duty wherever it leads one, discipline, courage to do as asked to the utmost.

  I also think of the amazing life of Nelson Mandela.  Twenty-seven (27) of the best years of his life were spent in a small prison, hidden away from the world, suffering much with a few friends.  Mr. Mandela stepped up to the plate and lived those years with the best strengths he could find inside himself.  When this test was finished, he stepped out strong, with enough self-discipline and dedication to duty to lead an entire country.  To CHANGE an entire country’s direction to the better.

   A third image guides me through my life– my grandfather.  He served his local small town in rural western Michigan running the local grocery store, founding a bank, serving on the School Board and the County Welfare Board, teaching adult Sunday school.  The local Republicans (including Gerald Ford) asked him to run for the state Senate during the Great Depression because they wanted someone who would stand up for education.  He agreed, ran, and became a State Senator. I was told that as chair of the Senate Education Committee he saved both Eastern Michigan University and Western Michigan University from being shut down by the Governor because of the depression.  At that time Senators were paid $2 a day and only when in session, so he continued to work in the family store when at home; but his brother who shared the store had begun drinking.  His brother said he would stop drinking if Grandpa left the Senate, and so – Grandpa did this (after 10 years as Senator).  There was no complaint as he returned to being a small-town grocery store owner.  There are many other stories I could tell you of seeing his humility and gladness to serve and help in any way that opened.  My mother told me that he took (free) groceries every week for many years to an old Black man who lived alone somewhere and no one knew he did this but my mother.  All his life, Grandpa kept himself in service to something larger than himself.

   Lastly, I am always awed at the life of Dag Hammarskjold, probably the greatest Secretary General the United Nations has had. Mr. Hammarskjöld suffered a great deal of loneliness in the diplomatic service to which he felt called. But in his diary, Markings, he expressed his commitment uniquely:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.  But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.  (Whitsunday, 1961)

    I hold onto the images of these people as I turn back to my own “duties.”  I have an immediate family to nurture forward in their lives.  There are various people who look to me for support, encouragement, some people suffering or lacking resources.  There are organizations I can participate in to help my local community.  Service to a few individuals, a small area, does not seem like it will change the course of history, but this is what My Life assigns me to do.  If I were or will be called to do more, I will hope like Mr. Mandela and Grandpa and Joshua Chamberlain and Dag Hammarskjold to step forward and be as big as asked.  Or else to trust that what I do that appears small is still an important part of a larger movement of the world toward better and kinder and healthier for all.

   In my Quaker meetinghouse I love our very old carpeting:  The pattern is of beautiful octagons of a variety of designs, all touching each other, building a whole.  As I scan it all before me in the silence of worship, I see how we are each individual but are all a part of Something Larger that’s going on.  All we are required to do is to step up to whatever our life brings to us; this is our part in making the whole beautiful.

                      *******

Post Script:  Another life story comes to my mind that inspires me; she is the polar opposite of these above great people – Helen Keller.  You know who I mean, right?  Every American knows her. In the depths of our souls we carry her image of just Being what we are born to be, and sharing what we can.  Living her life heroically, she has affirmed the least among us.

The First Step in Writing Your First Book

Salty Snippet, July 16, 2021     

     What a plush job!  All I had to do was think of subjects to talk about so he could practice his American pronunciation.  His last name was Gustafsson, his sister’s last name was Gustafsdotter, which caused problems when they arrived at immigration to visit here together.  But I cannot remember his first name.  His grammar was perfect, and I learned many amazing facts about Iceland.

   For example, I was intrigued to learn that the actual religion of Iceland, underneath the façade of being Lutheran, was “The Dead” – they believe in the dead, and one in three Icelanders will go to a séance sometime in their life.  He had many intriguing stories on this…

      But he really caught my attention when he said that one in four Icelanders will write a book sometime in their life.  As a would-be writer myself, all kinds of questions jumped forward in my mind.

    “Well.  Who reads all these books?” I began. 

    “Oh, de valls of our houses are lined vid books,” he said.  “De vinters are long;  ve read a lot.”  (Many years later, in a trip to Iceland, I saw this was true!)

    “Well, what kinds of books do people write?”  I continued, questions stumbling over one another.

   “Vell,  whoops, WELL,” he said carefully, “Some people write ‘bout science or nature.  Or history. Or love stories or novels.  Lots of people write der own life stories…”

   Hmm!  Surprising to me.  How many life stories would publishers publish?  I asked him about this – “How do they all get their life stories published, and who wants to read endless life stories?”

   “Oh, if someone cannot find a publisher, dey print it demselves in der basement,” he described.  “And everbody who lives in der valley vill buy it ‘cuz dey vant to know de gossip in it!”

    Now I was really stopped.  Here in the U.S. of A., I had the impression that if you don’t know that your book will be a best seller, attract a big New York publisher, there’s no point in writing it at all.  You must somehow be sure that you’re going to be a success; then you write the book! It is a bit of a conundrum for a beginner.

    Young Mr. Gustafsson had given me a new platform to stand on:  Just write whatever interests me, or whatever I’ve learned in my life and want to share.  It doesn’t have to rock the world.  But if I’ve found it interesting there may be others who will, too.

   I have learned that there is a craft to telling a story in a more (or less) effective way.  As with all crafts, one learns it by doing it, accepting feedback, and noticing how others do the craft.  But the first step is to not worry about final “success.” Writing is, above all, a learning for the writer.  What has interested me most in my life and experience?  If something grabbed me, all I have to do is write it much the way I experienced it, honestly, humbly, completely and sensually, and then others may find it as interesting as I did.

Just go for it, make a stab. We can try to share what we have to share; then let that sharing have its own life to find others who may also be enlivened by it.

Walking in One Place

    Salty Snippet for June 2021    My Pal, The Red Geranium

  My giant red Geranium plant has lived probably longer than most house-gardeners would expect.  Back when I lived in Oak Park Illinois I planted her in the ground along the path to the garage.  That must have been just one summer, as her kind don’t last outdoors through winter. So – six summers ago she attracted my attention and I took her into my life.  As I prepared to move to Indianapolis, it seemed that she leaned towards me whenever I passed. I loved her in her spunky wild beauty and decided to bring her with.  I carefully dug her up from the ground, potted her, and she became part of the menagerie that I schlepped along to Indy.

   Geraniums are not strong physically; their arms and leaves break easily.  She was about a foot high at that point of her life, considered mature, and she made the 200-mile trip alright without much trauma or loss. Now six years later she is a good yard high and wrapped around supports, she’s maybe two feet in diameter.  I’ve fed and watered her, given her the best light available as she continued to grow.  I talk with her, kiss and hug her (largely), and she’s continued to raise my spirits by popping out with bright red blooms. I address her as “Pal.”

   Of late, each morning when I raise the shades and greet her, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of dried dead leaves on her; I pull them off and toss them.  I worry at the increase, but all seems well if there are also new leaves appearing – which there are!  And she still blooms, especially when she’s had plant food.

   Picking off the dead leaves, cutting off the dead flowers, seems healthy so she can focus her energy on the present moment of her life. And I’m surprised to see myself as in a mirror here.  I notice these days how the past seems to fade! Being a sentimental person, I hold tenaciously to memories of people, events, experiences – these are the treasures of my life!  I can’t believe how far behind and fading are memories that were so vivid and carried power for so long.  It’s as if I were walking a path and inevitably getting farther and farther away from the city of Oz. 

   Yet I feel I’m circling around.  I see Oz come up again as I walk along the yellow brick road, as if Oz is also my destination, plus its presence accompanies me. A place, with the same munchkins, to which I come and go and will return.

  But – right now there are things happening to attend to!  New people, unexpected events, always occurring around me. Also, surprising helpers magically appear, and I must pay attention to all.  Many little brown leaves of the past are best dropped by the wayside, experiences that enabled my growth “back then.”  They are now inside the bigger me. I don’t need to carry and feed their physical presence while I pay attention to what feeds my life right now.  My Pal and I – we keep “walking” on, even while we appear to stay in one place. We grow and bloom where we are – right now. 

How to Make Good Choices

Salty Snippet, May 2021    

“Each step leads to the next in our lives.”  -Ambrose Worrall, in The Gift of Healing 

   All my life I’ve had difficulty making decisions.  I consider too many things – how will this affect others? will I be happy with this choice? what if it’s too difficult?  what if what I want isn’t what “God” wants? what will people think?  Maybe I can’t even see how to proceed towards something I want – it looks impossible.  The best book I ever found on this topic, a book that changed my life, was/is called Elegant Choices, Healing Choices, by Marsha Sinetar.

   Here is the line that helped me most:  “As we are able to stay centered on the present, as we focus ourselves in all purity and with full attention on the now moment, we can see that one thing is better than another.”   Using this as a guide, I began changing what I was saying to myself.  Instead of saying “I don’t know what to do,” I would say “I DO know what to do,” and I’d see what arises inside.  I do know what I want to do, what I feel would be the best choice, but there are factors influencing me. 

    Ms. Sinetar has a nice quote from Augustine of Hippo:  “the only difference between the happy and the unhappy is that happy persons love their own good will.  They enjoy doing what is good and what is good for them.”  As Augustine was big on the sinfulness of human nature, I’m not sure from the quote alone what he meant here; it brings up one problem in decision making: trying to impose ideals on ourselves – oughts, shoulds, etc. and calling them the good.  Ms. Sinetar’s position is that “willpower” is something we can choose to use gently, step by step, to increase our freedom in choosing.

   For me, the very notion that it is okay to seek happiness took some learning!  I was raised in a religious atmosphere which taught that suffering is good!  We demonstrate to God that we love him by courageously suffering!  Perhaps this is a kind of Puritan stoicism that says “too much happiness goes with not being serious enough, with self-indulgence.”

   Actually, suffering takes a toll on our bodies and spirits; it does not feed vitality, the impulse Mother Nature puts in us to stay alive and thrive.  Nothing in Nature tells us to choose a dangerous and difficult path for the mere sake of being noble.  Occasionally a life situation calls us to sacrifice but generally we see in Nature that the impulse inside each life is to take care of itself and thrive.

“If we are to be happy, we must first decide what we want to do with our lives, intend to make it happen, and then we must begin to work on our intention,” says Sinetar.  Sometimes we use worries, concerns for others, distracting thoughts, to keep us from seeing and doing what we want!  That is because happiness is not the same as pleasure.  Making the vital choice, going with the deep enthusiasm inside, might require the work of clearing out the garden bed so the dream of our life can grow.

   Choosing momentary pleasure, e.g. feeling good by consuming a substance to feel good, is not a choice that gives long life and ongoing vitality. True happiness is the same as enthusiasm, the Greek word for the breath of the gods inside us.  Enthusiasm gives us the energy to do even difficult acts.

   “We have the power and the responsibility to choose on our own behalf,” says Ms. Sinetar.  This is the love we look for outside ourselves!  Taking care of our life is our own first responsibility, and choosing what gives us vitality and enthusiasm blesses the life force inside us with peaceful long-lasting happiness.