Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Magic and Power of Surprise



“Surprise is not going to come to your house, knock on the door, and asked to be let in. To encounter it, you have to be out in the world and open to it.” Richard  

“Move a muscle, change a thought” Anonymous 

“You don’t miss your water ‘till your well runs dry”  William Bell 

    Tuesday did not start out as a good day. I had in my hands my property tax assessment from the Philadelphia Property tax division, and I was not happy about it. My assessment had increased quite a lot, and I was sure it was too much. So I went online and got forms for both a new look and re-assessment, and an appeal of the assessment. I filled them out and had to get them to two different city offices. I was going to mail them, and then I remembered that Post Office schedules had become unreliable of late, and that mail delivery in Philly had also been hit by a crew of mail thieves.  Reluctantly, I realized I had to go downtown and drop the two forms off in person. I was not looking forward to that at all. 

Then I went outside to walk to the train station. The sun was out and gorgeous cumulus clouds were high and puffy and expansive in the sky. It was a brisk fall day, and in spite of myself, my mood began to change. When I got down to the train, I saw someone I used to see regularly when I was working and taking the train daily and earlier. He, too, has retired and we had a great catching up conversation. When the train came, we went onto separate cars, and I got out my book to read. Then at the Tulpehocken stop, a friend boarded the train, and I had another great “catching up conversation. She got off at 30th Street station, and I suddenly found myself in a good mood. I wen to the Municipal Services Building, was seen relatively quickly, and I dropped off one of the forms. The other form had to be dropped off at 6th and Walnut. As it was a nice day and my mood had changed, I decided to walk there rather than take transit. Wow! 

As I was walking down Market Street, I realized I had not been on the East side of Market Street past Jefferson Sation in almost a year. I come to Jefferson Station on a regular basis, and I have visited my bank on 12th St and The Reading Terminal at 11th St. a number of times this year. But I hadn’t walked and traversed the east side beyond that in quite some time. And as I walked to the city office, went into my automatic “Downtown observer” mode. I love downtowns, and I really love downtown Philly. When I am in a downtown I am looking up, from side to side, and all around. As I walked east on Market Street, I saw both some post-pandemic changes that had happened to storefronts and buildings, and some things that hadn’t changed and brought back great memories I had not thought about in a while.  

The Lit Brothers and Strawbridge and Clothier buildings are now part of the Fashion District, and they contain an inter-connected underground mall with a variety of stores and eateries. There is also a Giant Heirloom Market in the Lits Buildng-a supermarket on East Market Street! I spent some time in the market and just walking around some of the shops. And as I continued on Market Street, I began reliving some of my young kid days when my family would go the Thanksgiving Day parade, watch Santa enter the Lits Building on a fire truck ladder, and then go up to visit him and give him my Christmas list. We did that for years, often following that up with a trip to the Horn and Hardart’s Automat on Arch Street. The Lits building still looks the same, and I am glad that through all of the changes they did not alter its grand block-long structure. Downtowns need to hold onto some of their architectural history and integrity. 

6th Street has the Visitor Center and the Independence Hall complex of historic buildings and museums for which Philly is so well-known. It was great seeing so many people visiting the area on a Tuesday and again hearing that mix of different languages that marks any downtown area in the country. I was able to give directions to a few tourists, and that always feels good. That is the teacher in me, and I love doing that. I also got to go inside the Visitor Center and see the displays there. I used to take my 7th grade classes there at least twice a year, and this felt like a sort of homecoming. 

Finally, I reached 6th and Walnut, and I saw that that city office was in one of my all-time favorite buildings in any downtown: the magnificent Curtis Publishing Building. It is now a combination office space, condos and hotel, but it still has the original design and interior layout of when it was built in the 1890’s. It is a solid block-long building with marble stairs on the 6th street side. The stairs lead up to the lobby where one of the most beautiful and magical welcome spaces in any building anywhere awaits. There before you are wide marble floors and the stunning Tiffany glass mosaic of Maxfield Parish’s” The Dream Garden”-a whole wall of multi-colored stained-glass pieces presenting an other-worldly paradise, complete with waterfalls, flowers, trees and more. It is stunning! The mosaic was slated to be moved several years ago, but Philadelphians and the Pew Memorial Trust raised both money and a ruckus, so it is now owned by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. It has long been one of my must-go to places in the city-I can’t count the number of times I have been there and taken out of town visitors to Philadelphia there. It has “wowed” me for over half a century, and it still brings a sense of wonder and peace to me when I see it.  

There were more wonderful things that happened, but I do not need to recount them all. Suffice it to say that Tuesday was an amazing and soul-satisfying day. I did not plan what occurred; it was not my doing. The important thing is that I was led to get out of the house and therefore get out of myself. That meant I could encounter surprise and let it lead me to re-experience some wonderful things in new ways. I could be moved and rescued from myself by the simple act of being open to what was around me. I had a great day in spite of myself. And I need to remember how that happened; being open to surprise. 


(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”    

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Joys of Fall



“The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into its winter wools.”  
Henry Beston 

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.”  
Jim Bishop 

    Fall returns this week, and as regular readers of this newsletter know, I am a big fan of seasonal transitions. Spring and Fall are my absolute favorite seasons of the year.  I am blessed that in this region of the country we get them for approximately the same length of time each year. It is a repeat treat each year. 

    Each spring I find myself thinking, “Ahhh..this is my favorite season of the year!”  And each fall I find myself saying the exact same thing.  As I was walking in the neighborhood this morning and feeling the coming fall in the air, I asked myself, “How can two seasons both be my “favorite”? How can that be?” And then, while looking around at the trees, bushes, and sky while standing in the Allen Lane train station, it hit me. They both do the same soul-warming thing that pleasures me. They just do it in different ways. 

    Both seasons bring changes in yards and lawns and trees and woods and sky and the weather. And all of those changes come at you in ways that are hard to ignore. All you have to do is slow down, open your eyes, take a deep breath or two, and look around. What both seasons do is reward you for paying attention; for noticing the wonder and miracle of nature at work. They make it so you almost have to pay attention and notice. But they work at that in different ways.  

    Spring is the more dramatic one. Snow and ice melt. There are longer days and therefore more sun. There is more “day "so more light. In the springtime, things literally spring into being-colors suddenly appear all over the place, and a block or a garden or a tree or a path you didn’t much notice a week ago is suddenly one which totally captivates you a week later. You come back to it again and again as it sprouts and grows and blooms and bursts forth. Spring is showy; it struts onto the stage, marches around, beasts its chest, and almost dares you to ignore it. And you can’t. 

   Fall Is more quiet and more subtle. That has its own appeal and charm as well. I begin to notice the fall when the weather gets a little cooler, and I have several days in a row when I have to decide whether to wear shorts and/or to put on a jacket. Then I become aware of the subtle changes in colors that are quietly happening. The goldfinches are less brightly yellow. The plants in the garden start to lose their brightness and become duller. Some lean over as they slowly fade away. The leaves on the trees slowly begin to change. Some of them start browning and falling; walking seems to gradually be happening more and more on a blanket of leaves. Some change their colors-the oranges and yellows and reds on the maples especially add a different mix of deep colors that make looking up gradually and quietly more exciting. The night comes a little earlier, and you can see stars and the moon and a little sunlight simultaneously. The clincher for me is the way fall weather outside the house starts to affect the weather inside the house. The AC and desk fans are used much less. And then not at all. The ceiling fan speed is slower and slower until it is also no longer needed. And quietly and subtly, snuggling into and being covered by that extra blanket makes sleeping at night extra special and extra comforting. It gets harder to get up in the morning. That is when fall is fully here for me, regardless of what the calendar says. And oatmeal and chicken soup will soon follow. 

  So they are both truly my favorite season. They both put me in touch with what that cycle of nature is doing, and they both help me notice it, feel it deeply, and take comfort in it. I have slept with windows open and under that extra blanket for the last few days. I think I will do those same things again tonight. Happy Fall! 


(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”  

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The 2022-2023 School Year



“Up in the morning and off to school...”  

Chuck Berry  

It is the week after Labor Day, and for many decades that meant the end of summer vacation and a return to school. Philly public schools opened last week, but all schools are now in session, be they private or public. For some of us as kids this was an exciting time; we were looking forward to seeing friends, working with new teachers, and being a year older than we were the last time we were in school. For others, though, all of those same things could mean fear and terror-being bullied, feeling inadequate as a student, still being too short or whatever. But no matter how well or badly we thought of it, it was always a key turning point in our year and in our lives. It always meant new challenges and opportunities, even if we did not quite see it that way. Our parents were also alternately excited and scared. It meant some return to normalcy, and perhaps sanity for them, but most of our parents worried about how we were doing as well.  

I retired from teaching in 2015, so this is the seventh year of not being in the classroom myself. My study, where I write these newsletters, overlooks Bryan Street, so this first post-Labor Day week is usually filled with the sounds of kids and parents walking and running to get to the Houston Public Elementary School 2 ½ blocks away. They have a great time, chatting, teasing each other and laughing and singing. There are also crossing guards up and saying a bright, “Good morning” to the kids and dramatically ushering them safely across Germantown Ave and/or Allen Lane. Eventually there are the rumbles of the three or four school buses that come down Bryan or Cresheim Road, headed for Houston as well.   

There are kids in the neighborhood who go to private schools, so buses to those schools also stop at the corner of Bryan to pick up their students. They added their rumbles to the mix. And the parents of those kids would often be out there talking with each other and then loudly wishing their children good days at school as the buses pulled off. This was what many an early morning sounded like in West Mt. Airy.  

The first four years of my retirement I loved hearing all of those sounds. They were the regular accompaniment to my early mornings, a pleasant little cacophony to start my day. I looked forward to them. This year, though, things have felt and sounded a little differently. The Houston students are still there, but they seem a little more subdued and quieter than usual. They are walking more than running, and their volume seems lower. There is not the same “kid-like” joy that I was used to hearing. There have also been fewer buses on Bryan. Part of that is because some of the private school kids are now old enough and big enough to take the public transportation that is in the area. But even taking that into account, there are fewer buses. It is noticeably quieter in the morning.  

The last two years have been a tough, tough time for all types of institutions, particularly schools. Having to deal with the intense unpredictability of COVID and all of the resulting fear, uncertainty, complications and changes in schedules and procedures has taken so much out of so many people, particularly children and adults on the frontlines. They have all been shocked and traumatized to an extent, even as they work to carry on. And it is tougher. There are shortages of teachers, bus drivers, school nurses, aides, cooks, and custodians. Many workers were tired of the stress, the mistreatment that some of them suffered, and the difficulty of trying to figure out what to do with their families even as they were caring for the children of other families. Many of them left their jobs. And schools are desperately trying to adjust.  

My prayer and hope is that this school year does not have anywhere near the stress and craziness of the last two. That there are ways found to support staff and students as they attempt to re-define what “normal” is and means. The students and workers have both been incredibly brave and resilient through all of this. Here’s hoping that the 2022-2023 school year is one that allows them all the time and help needed for them to begin to recover. I am holding them all in the light. I look forward to hearing those morning sounds again soon.  

(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog” )