About hopesquires

I've left behind the daily grind to write full time and to figure out what my own flourishing tree looks like. I'd love to help you flourish and grow along the way, so that you, too, can cultivate a life that pleases God.

March madness

This tough winter just doesn’t seem to want to leave. Yesterday the trees and early flowers were coated in ice, and today a cold rain dampens the earth and my spirits in equal measure.

Even the usually cheerful UPS man was down when I saw him. When I called out to ask how he was, he said, “I’m ready for the sun to come out!” Me, too. How about you?

I know spring is coming, and it will defeat winter in the end, but the lingering bad weather brings with it its own kind of March madness as my friends and neighbors try to put on brave faces about the weather (“It could be worse!”) and more school closings (“Maybe we won’t lose another day of spring break.”). We’re trying to carry the bliss of beautiful hints and spring and warm, sunny days scattered in with slick roads and wintry mixes and general cold grayness.

At least there’s college basketball to distract us, right? I grew up in a place where this time of year is sacred – not only for Lent and Easter approaching – but also for conference basketball tournaments and then the NCAAs. It was perfectly normal from elementary school through high school to watch basketball at school, occasionally writing essays about the game in French to justify the TV on in the classroom.

There are many who believe tournament time is at the very least worthy of its own national holiday(s). That’s the place I come from, the place where March madness is a perfectly acceptable disease, and you’re the odd outlier if you don’t suffer from it.

There were games last night, and there will be more games to come, but today, to escape the other sort of March madness, I ventured out on this cold, rainy day, looking for signs of spring. Here are some of my favorites to share with you:


Witchhazel is already blooming.


Peach blossoms getting ready.


Another kind of peach tree, ready to welcome spring


Buds on a weeping smoothleaf elm


More peach blossoms — they were my favorites today.


An empty trellis waits for spring.

You may remember my post a few summers back about the passion flower. This trellis is where their vines will reappear when the weather is right. If you need a shot of summer right now, revisit the post.

I’m clearly not the only one suffering from March madness, given some of the art installations I discovered on my journey:




A new monster has emerged from the soil over the winter.


Turned mad from a prolonged winter?


The tail end of the mad monster

I hope these photos bring you some smiles, along with the knowledge that nature knows it’s time for spring to arrive. In the meantime, scroll down for another way to beat the madness that March brings.


Tread carefully around those whose eyes are filled with any variety of March madness.

It’s hard to turn anywhere without seeing a March madness bracket of some sort (favorite Southern city, favorite rock songs, favorite desserts). I’ve been thinking that if the four seasons were each brackets, how on earth would winter’s bracket have sixteen things? I mean, I could see the other seasons needing play-in games, but winter? I struggled, but here’s my list of winter’s 16 (I hope you’ll fill in the lines yourself):

(1) Christmas
(16) Snow days (The lowest seed this year for being the obnoxious Cinderella team that won’t quit)

(8) Sledding
(9) Fires in the fireplace

(5) Hibernating snakes
(12) Soup

(4) Camellias
(13) Fuzzy socks

(6) Less chafing while running (Non-runners have to trust me on this one.)
(11) Low humidity

(3) Hot chocolate
(14) Indoor track

(7) Down comforters
(10) No poison ivy

(2) No mosquitoes
(15) Fewer gardening chores

So who would win winter’s bracket? What did I leave out that you think should be in this bracket? Is there any winter team that could take on spring and therefore meet the autumn/summer winner in the final match-up? Which season would win it all and why? Jump in the game with your thoughts below.

Late bloomers (flowers and people)

Right after Christmas, my camellia looked ready to bust out in gorgeous blooms too numerous to count. One perfect bloom had even opened up. But then came the coldest weather we’ve had in years. The buds stayed tightly shut and browned a little at the tips.


I thought the camellia buds would stay like this until I plucked them off.

Slight warming and then bitter cold repeated again and again until I had given up hope that any of the buds would open. But then, this past weekend, we had a glorious stretch of spring weather, and my camellia bush embraced the change:


Just one of the open camellia flowers

The one above, tucked toward the house and away from the harshest of the winds, managed to avoid browning much at all. Even the ones with browner tips, though, make me happy as I see them open one after another. I think they’re all beautiful, brown bits and all.


A little brown around the edges, but beautiful nonetheless

I can relate well to these late bloomers in my garden. I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer. My teenage years felt like torture while I waited to catch up with my friends. I’ve had a few career starts and stops and redirections while trying to discover what path I was supposed to be on. My marriage came later than most of my friends, though not as late as some (I had a great aunt who married for the first time just before she turned 60!).

I was even a late bloomer when it came to running, an integral part of my life now that I hope to continue for the rest of my life.

I’ve been quiet on the running front on my blog lately, mostly because of a nagging injury which is healing after I finally admitted I needed to try something different. A great physical therapist, discipline when it comes to the stretches and exercise she gives me, and a new way of running seem to be the right recipe. I am improving, and I am getting faster in the process (bonus!).

I often wonder how my running life might have gone differently if I had started when I was younger and thinner and free of injury. By the time I started running in my early thirties, I had already sprained a toe (for which I blame Riverdance and my barefoot attempts to follow along in my carpeted living room), and I had struggled with weight gain.

But what if I had used the injury and extra weight to keep me from trying to run at all? What if I had let myself believe I was too old to pick up a new activity? I might never have started running, and then, I might never have discovered the beautiful things in me that running has helped me see. The discipline. The courage. The stubborn streak (oh, wait, I think I knew about that one before running.). The mental toughness. The physical strength.

I might never have understood the community – and the camaraderie – of runners. I might never have visited some of the beautiful places I’ve encountered on my runs. I might never have shared my love of running and the ways it has made my life immeasurably better with the girls I coach. I would not have been the me I am now.

So to those of you who feel like late bloomers, who feel like that tightly closed bud on the camellia bush that may or may not open, I say to you: Let yourself bloom. Don’t ever let anyone convince you it’s too late to bloom, or that you’re too damaged or imperfect. When you bloom, you’ll see: you will be beautiful.

As a little gift to you today, to encourage you to bloom, here’s a little something I made to share with you:


Are you a late bloomer in some area(s) of your life? Are you afraid of what might happen if you bloom imperfectly? Did this post inspire you to try something new? I’d love to hear from you in the space below.

Ashes and 30 pieces of silver

I had a lighter post planned, but it somehow didn’t seem appropriate for Ash Wednesday, a day of ashes and penance, the beginning of Lent, the time we set aside in the Christian calendar to remember the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, the weeks we set aside to draw closer to God in advance of Easter.

Last night, I became restless and couldn’t sleep, instead pondering the ways we live in ash heaps and sell our lives and dreams short for 30 pieces of silver. We settle for less than what God has planned and even resort to forcing events in our lives that were not what God hoped for us.

Judas Iscariot did this when he betrayed Jesus. Scholars say he was hoping to force Jesus to finally take up his sword and become the warrior Messiah that Judas and others had been awaiting. Judas betrayed Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver, an amount that equaled four months’ wages. Not worth much, considering the outcome for Judas, who tossed the money back at the high priests before going out to hang himself.

One of my favorite stories involving betrayal is The Great Gatsby. Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald considered naming it something entirely different: Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires? Fitzgerald recognized, and wanted his readers to see, too, that the separation between millionaires and those living among the ashes isn’t as great as our society might want us to believe. Jay Gatsby was popular and enigmatic but couldn’t escape the ash-heaps and betrayal in the end, despite all that his money could buy.

Sometimes we all end up covered in ash. And whether it’s the freeing ashes of penance or the weighed down ashes of our past, we rarely feel comfortable or comforted when covered in ashes.

And maybe that’s why we’re quick to sell out, to dust ourselves off for a mere 30 pieces of silver, to think it’s so easy to grab hold of our dreams and get to a shiny, clean place. But is the place we end up as clean and as shiny as we expected?

I’ve felt a disconcerting seismic shift in my life in the last few months, as if God is moving the underlying plates in my life, and last night, I wrestled to name the shift. I think it has to do with being covered in ashes from the past (not just my own past but others near me, too) and not wanting to take the 30-pieces-of-silver, forced way out. So I’ll wait to see what God has planned for me next. The waiting here is hard.

Just because I’m pondering ashes doesn’t mean I should leave you there, too, right? So if you recall last week’s post and my joy of an orchid bud, here’s what happened this week.



I couldn’t resist sharing it, even if it has nothing to do with ashes and 30 pieces of silver. It does have everything to do with embracing life, though, and that’s what I plan to do while I’m waiting for God’s next move.

Flurries and flowers

This morning started with the lightest of flurries. I may have rolled my eyes as I saw the snowflakes flutter down. Spring paid us a visit last week, and some early flowers have started to bud, and after this week’s cold snap, warmer weather is on its way. I’m ready.

Though today started out cloudy and dreary, the sun has come out – not enough to chase the cold away but enough to make the day less dreary.

I wanted to share some of the early spring flowers with you for the same reason. These pictures may not drive the cold away, but maybe they too will take away some dreariness we may feel in the lingering winter.

Because today is a bittersweet day in the calendar for me and several I hold dear – a day that would have been the 12th birthday of one of the sweetest girls I have ever known, a girl who loved purple and wore tiaras as much as possible and turned everyday moments into celebrations, a girl who left us too soon at six years old – for her memory, I want to start with this purple Lenten rose.


A purple beauty

I find these early blooms a solace, a promise that winter will soon leave. And I thrill to walk out in the garden and see what new flower is pushing its way up out of the cold ground.

The crocuses usually come first, and they must have really enjoyed the colder-than-usual winter. They’re showing off more than they typically do:


Dainty crocus blooms are usually the first whisper of spring

The other Lenten rose varieties also seem to have thrived through this winter, and I’m enjoying the different varieties.


Pink Lenten roses, the happiest of my Hellebores


I love how this one looks like a tiny inverted tulip.


This variety is producing flowers for the first time, and I’m excited to see them open.

Just yesterday, I noticed my hyacinth bulbs poking up through the mulch. They were a Valentine’s gift from my husband several years ago, and I’m always happy when they come back in February.


New life among the squirrels’ winter leftovers

Orchid babies!
Even inside the house, there’s new life abloom.

On Saturday, we had some friends over, and one of them wandered in from the room where I keep two orchids – one a gift from my husband and the other a gift from my mother-in-law.

My friend is great with plants, but she enthused about how well my orchids are doing. “I always kill mine, but yours have babies!” she said, wanting to know my secret.

My secret is that I’m following my mother-in-law’s advice and spraying them with a bottle filled with water and orchid food. These are the first two orchids I’ve managed to keep alive for any length of time, and I was happy a few weeks back when I noticed the one from my husband had sprouted new leaves. I’m optimistic, but even if there are no new blooms, I’m content that it’s still living and growing after more than two years here.


Maybe this one will bloom again?

I was looking at both of them again later that evening and noticed something new on the other orchid, the one from my mother-in-law. I don’t know how I had missed it, but there it was:


Getting ready to bloom

This will be the first orchid I’ve ever had bloom from “scratch.” And considering that I usually commiserate with orchids when they come into my home, sad that they couldn’t go to a better home for their own sakes, I’m pretty darn excited about the prospect of this one opening up.

For all you orchid growers out there, any tips on repotting? I’d love to transplant both into permanent pots instead of the plastic ones they came in, but maybe I should just leave well enough alone?

For the rest of you, what flowers signal the promise of spring? Do you have a favorite that you look for each year? What ways have flowers given you solace?

Mandela’s sketches of prison

This past weekend, a friend and I went to the lobby of a building, looking for its exhibit of Nelson Mandela’s sketches from his time in prison on Robben Island. The exhibit was elegant in its simplicity, nothing boasting or grandiose, all the better to draw out the same sense of elegance-in-simplicity that Mandela’s sketches evoke.

The exhibit drew connections between South Africa’s time of apartheid and the American south’s own Jim Crow era, and lining the entry were dates and comparable events in South Africa and in the southern United States, not that many years apart from one another.

Etched into cool, frosted glass, this view greeted us before we stepped into the exhibit room – really just a pass-through area from one building to another – as if inviting us to enter into the prison itself:


A cold, stark greeting for visitors

The rest of the window that looked back toward the lobby was filled with two doors that had been salvaged from old tobacco warehouses. These, too, hint at an oppressive prison of sorts.


Jim Crow era doors that marked separate entrances

I’ve seen pictures and movie depictions of such doors, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stood in front of actual doors marked with that era’s shame. It was a relief to turn away from them to encounter Mandela’s sketches, writings and own thoughts everywhere, even on the floor:



Mandela returned to Robben Island with a photographer to capture a small part of what he had experienced there, but Mandela didn’t want to use the photographs or his own sketches incite anger. Rather, he wanted to inspire and give courage and show that this place had been unable to break his spirit or his resolve or his hope or his character. He accompanied each sketch or series of sketches with carefully written words that help the visitor step into Mandela’s shoes.


Nelson describes his desire for these sketches.

In these sketches entitled: My Robben Island, I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it. This is what I would like to share with people around the world and, hopefully, also project the idea that even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges. NMandela

The colors Mandela used in his sketches were cheerful and bright, and I was struck in this first series that he had drawn windows without the bars that are so clearly there in the photograph:


The hospital offered a different sort of freedom in prison: the exchange of information.


Bars on the windows

Mandela wrote of political prisoners feigning illness to go to the hospital, as it was the only place where they could get word of what was going on in the outside world. Imagine the hope that sustained them on these hospital visits, as they heard of a world changing outside their island prison. Perhaps that’s why Mandela left the bars out of the windows in his sketch. It was a room of some small freedom.


The stark prison yard

Mandela wrote about memories of marking a tennis court in this yard and of planting a small garden. These activities were not allowed at first, but eventually the prisoners were able to convince the guards to let them use the space for something other than sitting and marching.

He wrote of the wonderful outlet of the physical activity, and though the gardening brought life, it brought poignant and painful reminders, too:


The memory of a cherished tomato plant

A powerful memory that I have is of a beautiful tomato plant that I coaxed from tiny seed to tender seedling to a strong plant that gave plump bright red juicy tomatoes. Despite my efforts the plant began to wither and die and nothing I did would heal it. When it died I took it carefully from the soil, washed its roots and buried it in a corner of the garden. I felt sad. It once again reminded me of where I was, and the hopelessness I felt at being unable to nourish other relationships in my life. My wife, my children, my family and my friends. It made me realise the beauty, simplicity and sacred value of family, of loved ones and friends. I swore to myself that I would never take another human being, their friendship or their love for granted ever again.


An inescapable reminder

Mandela featured the prison tower prominently in several of his sketches, and he wrote of returning from grueling work outside of the prison walls that at least enabled the men to do something physical. The prisoners talked as they walked back to the prison, but Mandela noted that they became quiet as the tower grew closer.


My favorite sketch

The prisoners found ways to remain hopeful, in spite of their bleak circumstances and surroundings. Though the prisoners weren’t allowed inside the church, it served as a beacon to them.


Mandela’s cell, with his possessions colored, another element of the hope he found in the prison.

Mandela’s jail cell was small: he could walk it in three paces and said that when he lay down, his feet brushed one wall and he could feel the other wall against his head.


An 8×8 outline of a Robben Island jail cell. Mandela’s account suggests a slightly smaller space.

Imprisoned for 27 years, it’s no wonder Mandela felt his was a long walk to freedom.


a long walk …

The curators for the exhibit grouped Mandela’s sketches under four headers, and it was then that I understood the ellipsis in the exhibit’s name.


… to freedom

Mandela’s journey was a long walk … to justice … to equality … to opportunity … to freedom. And somewhere along the way, he was able to shed any bitterness that might have conquered lesser men.


What strikes you most about Mandela’s sketches? What inspires you most about his long walk?