I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, May 29, 2011


This picture was taken of me with my little son Chris in the early 1960s. He was born in 1961 and would have celebrated his fiftieth birthday this coming November. I find that young girl holding him almost unrecognizable as my young self. Chris was born in Puerto Rico when my then-husband Derald was stationed at the Air Force Base. Derald must be on the other side of the camera, taking a picture of his family. Who could have told us what the future would hold? I wonder sometimes if we had a way to look ahead if any of us would have the courage to travel into the foreign land of our future selves.

Remembering on Memorial Day weekend, all of those loved ones who have fallen. Chris was in the Army when he died in 2002, but he didn't die in combat. He died of a heart attack. My father was in the Air Force but he died after he retired from the service. Derald was also in the Air Force, and he died at 51 of a heart attack. Heart disease took all three of the veterans in my immediate family, and the oldest of them was my father when he was only 62. It all seems to be so unfair, but fairness is not guaranteed anywhere in this world, it seems.

The people in the southern states who have seen their families, homes, livelihood all taken from them in a moment of time might be wondering why they were spared when their loved ones were not. I wonder that, too. Of course, the young mother in the picture no longer exists either. She is captured in an image on film that disintegrated years ago. It's only because my brother-in-law Pete scanned many family photos and put them into digital form that this picture exists at all. I have no memory of it and only saw it for the first time when visiting my sister this February after Pete's death. He and Derald were best friends and Derald must have shared that picture with him; a half century later it came into my life.

I have to admit to a little bit of envy when I read about the grandchildren my blogging friends share on their blogs, and even more of something akin to that emotion when a friend who is my age talks about going to visit her mother. How long my parents have been gone! Mama died in 1993 and Daddy in 1979. Although my siblings are all still here, and we all share the loss of our parents, I can see characteristics of my parents in them. But even more do I see them in the children of my siblings, so nothing is really lost. My nephew Peter will sometimes smile in a way that triggers a memory of my father. My sister will look at me over her glasses and I see my mother's expression on her face. Not having any grandchildren robs me of the experience of seeing Chris shining back at me through his children.

Even though he had no children, Chris was content with his life. I need to remember that and stop wishing for something that will never be. Yesterday I walked through the cemetery located adjacent to a local park, and flags were flying everywhere in one section. I realized that the cemetery has one place where all the veterans have been laid to rest. One of my walking companions told me she noticed that most of the cemeteries in our part of the country are segregated, with sections of veterans, Chinese, and Japanese all together. Much like they were in life, I guess. It never occurred to me but there it was.

Memories don't hold still, either. I realize when I read a book again that I read long ago... it's a new story, enjoyed today by another person than read it before. My memories are like that, too. Knowing how much my recollection is faulty when it comes to recalling past events, I have begun to think that might not be such a bad thing. I choose to remember my parents' best qualities, and I can look back on times gone by that are viewed through the lens of my love. Who cares whether they are factual or not? Certainly not me; I will remember my departed loved ones any way I please.

This reminds me how our life really does change when we concentrate on positive aspects. How different it would be if I chose to remember the pain and suffering that were also part of my past. The choice I have to make, every day, is to hold on to the beautiful memories and let the other ones drift lazily into nothingness.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Hooded mergansers, taken by Joe Meche
Spring is definitely in full swing here in the Pacific Northwest. I belong to a birder's email group and Joe Meche puts up pictures fairly regularly of birds he sees in the area. I thought this portrait of a hooded merganser and her babies was particularly sweet, but he also said that there were eight little "merganserlings" who quickly became four. These little hatchlings must be irresistible to many predators. That's just the way of life, I guess, so I try not to let it upset me too much. I also have hawks who are attracted to my front porch by the birds who come to my feeders. At first it bothered me, but it's just the way things are.

On my other blog I was complaining at the beginning of last week about the constant gloomy days, rain without end, it seemed, and almost immediately I was blessed with three days of sunshine that changed my mood from grumpiness to smiles. I noticed the difference everywhere, too: the expressions of my fellow riders on the bus; the exercise room filled with the sun's rays as we chatted before class about the beautiful weather; and the flowers opening up to the sun and seemingly smiling, too.

Then yesterday, just in time for Saturday and hopes to drive to Snohomish for a few skydives, the rain and low clouds returned. My day was changed from excitement to more of the same dreariness that I have become so accustomed to. Cliff Mass, my favorite weather blogger, explains here about the reason for what is called "June gloom" around these parts, which are caused by the transition between the cool weather of spring and the warmer weather to come in July. He explains it very well, but it appears that climate change will make it even more prevalent in the coming years. There are problems with the weather in almost every place I've ever lived, so I guess I'll get used to it and  be grateful that we don't have tornadoes or cyclones or other major disasters on a regular basis.

What has been on my mind this past week has mostly focused on the imperceptible change from one state to another. This is true in the progression of the season from spring to summer across the Northern Hemisphere as well as the change in my emotional state from serenity to dissatisfaction. One moment I am happy and content, just minding my own business, and it feels like it will always be that way. I don't notice the shift, but then I slowly begin to realize that every little thing is causing me irritation. What changed? And when?

It's beginning to become clear that as I get older I have developed some chronic pain here and there. Most of the time I don't even notice these little aches, but occasionally I realize that it's a little like having a pebble in my shoe: I don't notice it at first, but as I walk through my life, that little pebble begins to feel like a boulder. If I don't stop and remove it, nothing else makes it to my consciousness and it becomes my sole focus. The realization that the aches and pains of life cannot be removed so easily tells me that I need to change my attitude about those annoyances.

This must be why it's so important to get perspective on things by stopping to smell the flowers, listening to the wind in the trees, the sound of birdsong, and being grateful for having the ability to make the decision to look beyond the mist to the sun behind the clouds. In just the short time it took to write this, my attitude and perspective have shifted to peaceful gratitude from the grumpiness I felt when I woke, looked out the window and saw the low clouds greeting me.

I might not be going skydiving again today, but I will head to the Y and swim for a half hour instead. There is something very enriching about swimming laps. I usually sneak a peek at the other swimmers and notice their technique to learn something new. The only really hard part about swimming for exercise is making myself get there and begin, donning earplugs, goggles and swim cap.

Yesterday I walked in the rain with my friends and we chatted as we walked briskly enough to keep ourselves warm. The pebble in my shoe was forgotten.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Stopping to smell the flowers

I have noticed that several smells that were once very strong and pungent have become less so to my aging nose. This was brought to my attention just last week at the Senior Center. When I arrived early in the morning to meet my fellow hikers, I was forced to pass through a large room filled with plants, and one table was covered with blooming hyacinths. Although I well know the smell of these flowers, instead of the normal smell, I felt rather than smelled their fragrance. When Amy walked into the room, after just a few minutes of having been exposed to the flowers, her eyes were streaming and she couldn't stay. I was amazed to realize that my sense of smell is beginning to wane. It is not that my nose didn't react to the hyacinths, but it didn't react as I expected.

Ever since, I have stopped to smell the flowers, wondering how much of my sense of smell is gone. I know I can still smell certain things very strongly, but I began to wonder how much of my sense is really that I just know what something smells like in memory, and how much am I truly smelling. So of course I went to the magic box (my computer and Google) and checked it out. It turns out that all of our senses fade with age. This page on Aging Changes in the Senses was particularly interesting. It is a natural process that causes all of our senses to change, and not for the better. I already knew this about vision and hearing, but not about smelling. Another interesting page is from the Social Issues Research Centre called The Smell Report.

Hanging out with older people, as I do on my hikes with the Seniors, makes me aware that not all of us change and age in the same ways. But the older we get, the more our bodies begin to wear out. Not just our senses, but our knees and feet, our joints, the spring in our step. It's a natural process. I remember once on a hike when I was showing my friends a new app I had purchased for my iPod, with bird song to help identify the birds I have been hearing. Mike could not hear it at all, which amazed me, until I remembered that for some people, losing the higher registers of sound are the first to go. It made me grateful that I have not yet lost the ability to hear birds, since their songs give me great pleasure.

I found that I have indeed lost the ability to smell certain flowers that were once such strong fragrances to me. It turns out that allergies (which I have developed here in the Pacific Northwest) can be partly to blame, but after the age of sixty, our ability to smell begins to fade. It's part of life, so I am trying to come to terms with it. Since the lilacs have just come out in the past week, I've been going from bush to bush to see if I can get even a little of their smell. I found that when the sun comes out and warms the air, I can still smell them, but nothing like I remember from years past. I can still smell roses, but many hothouse flowers are deficient in smells anyway. Some odors are still very strong, and I have noticed that artificial smells like hair spray and powders seem stronger than ever. It's an unpleasant suffocating smell.

All of this introspection has caused me to think about what the future holds. Since it has been a gradual process, there is no demarcation line between being young and vibrant and old and worn out. In some cultures, age is revered. Not mine, though. When I see an advertisement on TV for a product, almost without fail the person in the ad is younger than me. The Febreze ad just came to mind, which tries to get me to purchase an artificial odor eliminator and replace any bad smells with their chemicals. In one ad, a man has just come home from work to a home to see Febreze on the table, apparently wafting a delightful odor into the air. It makes me wonder if the onslaught of all the chemicals we add into our environment is partly responsible for our sniffers wearing out prematurely.

Okay, I guess I can't actually consider that my faculties are wearing out prematurely. They are right on track, and when I look around at many people much younger than me, I can see they are not make the right decisions to be in good shape when they reach my advanced age. Seventy is just around the corner and I am making peace with it. But oh, how I remember loving to put my nose into a bouquet of flowers and be transported to heaven!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day 2011

Mama in Boulder, sometime in the 1980s
I realized, when I starting thinking about my usual Sunday post, that this is the third Mother's Day since I began this blog. In the beginning, I wrote a lot of posts about my parents, and this one is my favorite about her, which is simply entitled "My Mama." Everyone has one (a mother, I mean), even if she is no longer here, and that's what I've been thinking about. Sometimes on Saturday evenings, or during the night when I wake, I think about writing this post. It's usually something on my mind that I give myself permission to explore, and this Mother's Day it seems to be about the experience -- of having one, and of being one.

Just because your mother has died, it doesn't mean you don't have one. The experience of being mothered is deeply ingrained within us. I suppose some people who are raised in an orphanage or somehow separated from their natural mother might be an exception, but we are born into this world as tiny, helpless little creatures. It's true throughout the natural world. Last year I watched an eagle cam and peered into the nest at a loving set of parents feeding their infant chick, whose cries were answered by those doting birds. It aroused a deep emotion within me, and I cared for that infant and watched obsessively to make sure he was well taken care of. I know that my experience of having been cared for like that, caressed, fed, diapered, worried over, helped to shape me into the person I am today. Just because my mother is gone from this earth does not stop me from having had a loving mother and still benefiting from her love for me.

I was the oldest, and Mama was only nineteen when I was born; I was only nineteen when my son Chris was born, so Mama was a grandmother at what seems to me the incredibly young age of 38. She was still having children of her own then, and one of my sisters and my son were born only two months apart. That was a really long time ago now, and next year I will be the age Mama was when she died at 69. She seemed really young, and now that I am in her age ballpark, I know for a fact that she was both young but also lived a complete life. She was a widow with six grown children and lots of grandchildren when she died, and she is still missed and remembered with love by all of us. Two of my siblings changed their Facebook profiles in the last week to pictures of Mama. I thought about doing the same thing, but I have the luxury of this blog that gives me another outlet for this day. Happy Mother's Day, Mama, wherever you are.

And just because my two sons are no longer here does not mean that Mother's Day does not apply to me as well. Stephen died after only having been on this planet for thirteen months, and it was in the early 1960s, so long ago that the memory of him is lost to me. The pain that I bore for so many years is now gone, too. Today, I can rejoice in my beautiful grandniece Lexie and other small children. That was not the case for many years; I turned away from any infant because the pain was so intense. Now when I think back, the memory of that pain is like a scar on my heart. I can feel it was there, but it's healed over and has become a part of who I am today. It no longer hurts, but when I feel the edges of that scar with my mind, I can easily recall those years.

Even the more recent of my losses, my son Chris, is no longer so painful, but it's only been nine years ago that he died, so that emotional scar is still red and hurting. But today when I think of Chris, I remember his laugh; it was so uniquely his own that its sound comes to me across the depths of time. Just because your children are gone, you are still a mother. Everyone's child, if they are fortunate, grows up and away from their parents anyway. Things just never stay the same.

The nature of life is change, and the older I grow, the more I realize that trying to hold onto any moment in time is fruitless. We are both blessed and cursed by our memories, but I would never willingly give up mine. It's true that they may not be not the same events that actually occurred in the past, as they have been changed by my ability to recall them through the lens of my faulty memory. My mother's faults have fallen away and I remember her only with love and tenderness. Even when I recall something she did that gave me grief in the past, now I smile and wonder why it was such a big deal back then.

This is actually a gift, I realize now. Memories are not cast in stone and unchanging, just as all life is amorphous and unpredictable. We just have to ride the waves and remember the good times.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day Reflections

I took this picture on our last full day in Beijing in June 2007. That was the last time I was in China, but I was fortunate to travel there six different times during my years working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. This time, I was working there for a month doing a job for the Higher Education Press, checking the level of English translation for several different scientific journals. Smart Guy accompanied me. It was a wonderful month in many ways, but it was also very hard work. Every weekend we were taken by someone in the office to see the sights, which varied from the Great Wall to the Summer Palace. This last day, just the two of us went together to visit these gardens. It was a rainy day and if you enlarge the picture, you can see people in the distance with their umbrellas on the other side of the lake filled with lotus leaves.

I was able to travel a great deal during the latter part of my three decades at NCAR. When our administrator of many years, Maria, decided to retire, her position as the organizer for our boss Mickey's many conferences and workshops around the world fell to me. I was responsible for finding a venue for the meeting, making the arrangements to get the scientists and researchers to that place, and he knew that if it was a place that most people would otherwise not be able to visit, he could attract well-known and otherwise unattainable scientists to attend and provide their expertise.

It was also my job to take notes during the meeting so we could collaborate, he and I, on a report for the proceedings and get it onto the Web. These reports are all still available through his website now located at the University of Colorado. The meeting we held in Hanoi in 2006 is available here, just as an example of the work I did. I was especially proud of how this report turned out.

But now all that seems so far in the past, and I'm moving into new directions in my life. I no longer have any desire to spend my limited energy fulfilling another person's vision, as I did for Mickey during all those years. Even though I retired in 2008, Mickey talked me into going to Skopje, Macedonia for one last meeting in April 2009, and it was so much work that I realized I just can't continue doing it any more. I needed that one last push to realize it's time to move into another phase of life.

I want to find out what I might be able to develop within my own sphere of influence, and this blog has helped me find my way to another aspect in my life. I was so busy and preoccupied during my working years that I never had the time or inclination to even wonder about these things. Now, it's like I'm standing at another threshold and taking stock.

Yesterday while I was on my Saturday morning walk with the Fairhaven walking group, I met a woman who has just returned from 18 months in China. She was there learning Mandarin. Although I didn't find out much else about her, it was enough for us to make a connection and share our experience of the vast differences in the culture between the United States and China. It made me realize that even though I have little desire to return to that part of the world, I am permanently changed by those experiences and cherish what I have learned. The old adage about travel broadening one's outlook is definitely true.

But I realize that there must be a time and a place for travel, and another time to reflect and contemplate the here and now. I am fortunate in my many memories of places I've been and people I've known. As I begin this new month of May, I'm feeling pretty happy about the present moment and a poem of Emily Dickinson's comes to mind.
How much the present moment means
To those who've nothing more —
The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist —
Stake an entire store
Upon a Moment's shallow Rim
While their commuted Feet
The Torrents of Eternity
Do all but inundate —
I am always struck by Emily's ability to use words to their full advantage. Since she wrote this poem in the middle of the nineteenth century, some of the words are no longer used in quite the same way, but "fop" still means someone who is overly concerned with their looks; "carp" refers to someone who continually finds fault with others, and "atheist" is one who believes God does not exist. The essence of this poem hits me deep within my heart and reminds me to look beyond every day to the torrents of eternity.

I wish you and yours a peaceful and reflective May.