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, June 26, 2011

Random Sunday morning thoughts

This portrait of very wet flower, taken a week or so ago, evokes the feeling I woke up with this morning. Tossing and turning during the night, I wondered what I would write about and considered skipping it altogether. I've gotten used to writing something here that I am proud of, that makes other people think, and that generates positive comments. In other words, I've become self-consciously aware of what I'm writing about, and my spontaneity is in danger of drying up in that environment. I'm just going to feel the raindrops and let them soak into me for a bit.

Yesterday my friend Judy and I went to the local art theater and saw The Tree of Life. I had heard all kinds of things about it, since it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Most of what I had heard was positive, but one of the reviews from someone I knew didn't like the film at all. The link above (from Wikipedia) tells you about it, what it is, and there is no danger at all in revealing the plot, because there really isn't one. From that link:
The film chronicles the origins and meaning of life through the eyes of a 1950s Texas family, while also featuring sci-fi and surrealist themes and imagery through space and the birth of life on Earth. ... It opened in limited release on May 27, 2011 to positive reviews on its technical and artistic merits, yet also received polarizing reactions in response to Malick's directorial style and, in particular, with the film's fragmented and non-linear narrative.
There were moments when I was absolutely overwhelmed with the film's imagery, and other moments when I wished the movie would end soon so I could be released from the theater. Brad Pitt is perfect as a stern father and evoked all kinds of emotions within me, as did the other performances. They were all pitch-perfect, but the death of one of the sons when he was nineteen, never explained but a central part of the story, is one of the reasons I spent last night in turmoil. It brought up all those thoughts of loss that dwell within me, within any person who has lost a loved one, and what it all means in the larger perspective of life.

We are such insignificant little specks in the vast universe, and no film I've seen before this one has ever brought that concept into such vivid focus. When the lights came on at the end of the movie, nobody said a word, and we, the audience, filed out of the theater in silence. Coming up from what seemed to be the bottom of a well into the bright late afternoon sunlight on a June day, we went our separate ways with our separate reactions.

Judy and I were planning to have dinner, and a sign strategically placed in front of the theater pointed us to the Mount Bakery restaurant right across the street, so we headed over there. Another couple who had seen the movie also came in for dinner, and I asked what they thought of it. It turned out that the wife knew from the reviews she wouldn't like it, so she sat in the car and read a book while hubby saw it. He was as confused about his feelings as I was. Judy was obviously disappointed in it, and I just didn't know what to think. But last night as I lay in bed, tired and ready for sleep, images and messages from the movie kept coming back to me. A sense of rightness about the love we carry for those who are gone before us, for those parts of ourselves who are no longer here but exist in our memories, kept entering my thoughts and somehow comforting me. That's the only way I can describe it.

I feel sometimes that I've spent way too much time here on this blog lamenting my losses, holding onto them as though they define me in some sense. The feeling I got from this movie is that in the very fact of being alive and conscious, we are all destined to experience loss and grief, as well as incredible beauty. Universal forces are so vast and so far beyond our understanding that it is truly an impossibility to make sense of it. Our world, our own private universes, are infinitesimal specks in the cosmos, but somehow this movie gave me the feeling that it doesn't matter, or that it all matters the same as the vast nebulae that we peer at through our telescopes. Or as the microbes we view through our microscopes.

In the final analysis, we are each one of us alone and separate from one another, but our activities bring us into community with those who matter to us. My electronic reaching out to you, dear reader, connects me to you in a way I don't pretend to understand. But you matter to me as we send out our thoughts to one another. The sharing of our hopes and dreams, our sense of loss and love, and acknowledging those connections is as real as any of the other magnificent facets of our lives.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My daddy's knees

Yet another picture from the bunch that Pete had gathered and which now reside on my laptop. This one was taken when I was somewhere around a year old, and I imagine Daddy balancing me on his shins, telling me to hold on tight, while he worked with the camera to get me in focus and make the picture just right. He did a good job. I wish I could remember that moment, today, on Father's Day 2011. But of course I don't.

My earliest recollection of my father was sitting in his lap and seeing my small hand placed on top of his much larger one. I remember the difference in the color, his brown and masculine, mine creamy white and smooth. Whether I truly remember it or not, it's clear in my mind's eye. That amazing eye, it sees things as it pleases, whether or not it matches reality. But what is reality anyway, when thinking of times and people long gone? There is no objective observer to recall what once was, and my sister Norma Jean and I will recall a long-ago memory, with both of us remembering it completely differently. Time has a way of doing that.

Daddy was only 62 when he died of a heart attack, and although he seemed old to me then, he was six years younger than I am now. If he were alive today, he would be really old, almost a hundred since he was born in 1917. All six of his children were present when he died, since he lingered for a few days after a massive heart attack and we all had the chance to get to the hospital. He was on morphine for the pain, and I remember how his pupils were little pinpoints in his still-brilliant blue eyes. I was told by someone that was caused by the drugs.

He had a good life, and I know that he and Mama loved each other, even if they sometimes fought. After I became an adult, Mama would complain to me about his faults. But basically I would say they had a better than average marriage and they raised six kids together, with twenty years separating me from my youngest sister Fia. These days I know only a few people whose parents stayed together; it seemed to me during the sixties and seventies that almost everyone was leaving long-time partners, thinking somehow that life would pass them by if they didn't go out and grab it. I hope they found what they were looking for, but somehow I doubt it. One thing I've learned over the years is that I carry my illusions from one situation to the next, still intact.

Daddy had a very soft heart, he was sentimental about everything. I remember him being brought to tears over what seemed, even to me at the time, insignificant things to get teary over. He read to us when I was little, and I recall him crying when in a story some injustice was done, or someone or something died. Cinderella or Lassie moved him to tears. He hated that about himself and felt somehow that it wasn't manly behavior. It's too bad that he lived in a time when he couldn't appreciate his ability to feel things deeply. Is it still that way with men? I would hope we have grown and changed at least a little.

His voice was strong and deep. If he wanted to, he could use it to intimidate others. Norma Jean told me recently how scared her son Peter was of Daddy, who would tremble in fear when Daddy would raise his voice at him. Her daughter Allison, however, would just look at Daddy, smile and say, "Oh, Grandpa," and he would melt into smiles himself. Consequently, they have completely different memories of their grandfather.

Both of my parents were avid readers and had very large vocabularies, with an ability to express themselves fluently. When you are surrounded by something like that, you don't realize it's not that way with everybody, every family. Daddy would sometimes sit in the living room after dinner and pontificate about the world, the universe, life in general. I was enthralled, a willing audience, and believed that kind of expansive eloquence was simply the way every adult communicated. Even though he never went to college, Daddy had a natural intelligence that was obvious to anyone who held a conversation with him.

I miss him, I just realized with a shock. Writing about him makes me feel the loss of his presence, and it's been a long time since that has happened. I have been sitting here trying to get the feel of him, who he was, and darned if that's not just what I did.

Daddy, it's been a long time since we talked. If you were here, maybe you would have some words of wisdom for me today, and it's my loss that I don't know what you would tell me if you could. If there is any justice in the world, maybe the universe will channel your spirit and send it to me in a dream...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Understanding passion

This picture was taken in 2006 of Nanjing Road in Shanghai, where I had traveled for work. We held a conference there, and I would follow Mickey, my ex-boss, into the streets every evening after we had finished work for the day. It was how he decompressed and got ready for the next day: he would walk the streets for hours, looking into store windows and observing the people in whatever city we were in. I learned quite a bit, but for me it was an exercise in endurance; I was usually exhausted but knew I would sleep better if I joined him.

During the last two decades of my job, I traveled internationally and had the opportunity to be in so many parts of the world: China (six times in various cities), Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok, Moscow, Paris, Budapest, Macao, and so many others that escape me at the moment. What's important is not the number of places, but how much my life was filled with adventure and what was packed into those years. I remember once when we organized three separate meetings in a single year, and I was so busy I could barely keep up. There was no room in my life for boredom.

During those same years, I also managed to spend every weekend and every vacation skydiving, making as many as 400 jumps annually! When I look back at my life, it is rather amazing that I accomplished so much without noticing. And those years were also spent in a relationship that went from being very rocky to rock solid, which it is today. We have accomplished what seemed to be an impossible task. Perhaps it helped that I was so busy, but for whatever reason we learned to be together and appreciate each other for who we really are.

My life has been a full one, but now I am living in Bellingham, Washington, and retirement has settled around me like a warm blanket. In the three years we have been here, my life has taken on a completely different tone from its earlier passionate involvement. My skydiving journey has dwindled from 400 to 40 jumps in a year, and even that much smaller number is beginning to fall away. Travel is from here to Vancouver or Seattle, unless I am forced to travel by plane because of a loved one's passing. I realize that my life is full in a completely different way that it was during my working years. Passion is fading to contentment. This must be a natural progression, but until now I haven't realized what is happening. Am I okay with it?

The passion I felt for skydiving was akin to falling in love. I remember those first years, when I would wake on the weekend and jump from bed to see if the sky was blue. It didn't matter whether it was July or December, I would head to the Drop Zone just in case I might be able to make a jump. The staff expected to see me, and I now see other skydivers who are just like I was then. But I'm not there any more. I come home from a day at the Drop Zone, as I did last Sunday after three jumps, and the old passion is missing. It was fun, but it wasn't nourishing like it once was.

After I traveled to Colorado in December to attend Emily's memorial, I remember feeling so glad to be home wrapped in the arms of my life partner and snuggled in my own bed, with travel being a burden rather than an adventure. It was Christmastime in Boulder, and I saw my old city all lighted up and decorated, but it was no longer my home. My place is here in the rainy and sometimes dreary Pacific Northwest.

At first, I thought it behooved me to find a new passion, to fall madly in love with something new. I looked for it in volunteer work, exercise, hiking into the mountains, but it was not to be found anywhere. When I was a young woman, I would fall in love with someone and it was magical -- for a time. But it didn't ever stay that way, so I would move onto another person and would fall in love again. I thought I just hadn't found the right one yet. One day I realized that I only knew how to be in a relationship in its beginning stages and hadn't learned how to have a mature love. I am reminded of the saying "familiarity breeds contempt." I thought that was real.

As I move towards my eighth decade, which hopefully will start in a few short years, I am beginning to realize that the passions of the body have begun to dim and the passions of my heart are flaming into life. Today I feel things so much more deeply than I did when I was young, and the loss of a fallen wild bird strikes deep within my heart. My passion has mellowed like a fine wine, into something that allows me to enjoy it slowly, and with deep gratitude for the opportunity to be here, alive and present.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Going skydiving today

Yes, it's been a month since I last went skydiving. Although we have had a day here and there with blue skies, it's not been on a weekend, until today. This picture was taken years ago in Arizona when I was vacationing at a skydiving boogie. I'm over there on the lower left (purple, white helmet) and Smart Guy is the white one behind me, barely visible. It was an organized skydive, meaning that the sequence and placement of each participant was predetermined.

When I was making frequent skydives, five or six a day at these events, the scariest part of each jump was performance anxiety. Since you have all those other people all paying for their own ticket, everyone wants the jump to be successful; i.e., to complete what we set out to do. I trusted my gear and was quite familiar with the entire process, but I was never sure that I would not screw up in some way that would make me feel like I let them all down. Everyone felt the same.

One problem that happened often was misjudging the distance to the formation, which must build from the inside out. If you were on the outside, like we were, it was a frequent occurrence that someone might approach too quickly and "go low" -- be unable to slow down and approach carefully in order to take your grip. Then you would just sail past the formation and look up at it helplessly. It is a fragile formation and any forward momentum when you dock can be seen on the video camera as a ripple moves through from one side to the other. The cameraman who took this picture also is wearing a video camera.

After the skydive, we would all meet in the main hangar and debrief. Other skydivers not on the dive who were finishing packing or waiting for their load would also gather around. If I made a mistake, it would be shown over and over on the huge video screen while my burning cheeks flamed away. This would happen to each of us whose performance was not as planned, and you hoped that no comments would be directed your way. Since we were doing this for fun, we would be given a chance to go up on another skydive and try again. It was always exciting to learn how to correct a mistake and put it into practice.

But many skydivers are very competitive and want to make jumps with people who are much better than the rest of us. They knew who they were and stayed out of the organized jumps, which would take anyone who gave a ticket to the organizer. If someone screwed up repeatedly, the organizer would take him or her aside and suggest joining another group that would be making easier skydives. After a few days, you knew where you belonged. Year after year, I would see my fellow skydivers showing up at the Christmas boogie in Arizona, for instance, and we would happily jump together. A group of jumpers from the UK are in this picture and were regular fun jumpers. We looked for each other every year, and I only see them on Facebook these days. My boogie days are behind me.

Today my anxiety is not about performance, but about getting current again. When I haven't made a jump in awhile, I review in my mind all my emergency techniques and mentally picture myself opening my parachute and flying it in a landing pattern to the ground. I know that my friend Linny will organize an easy skydive because none of us is terribly current, with the weather having been  uncooperative for so long. Butterflies and mental review are my friends. The 75-mile drive to Snohomish and back on the freeway are also nerve wracking, and I pay close attention to my speed and the drivers around me. But I do it, because I know the payoff is a day well spent playing in the sunshine with my friends, doing something I know how to do well, even if it has been awhile. After 4,000+ jumps, it's a familiar environment.

And today, Linda Myers, who has the blog "Thoughts of a Bag Lady in Waiting" will be driving to Snohomish from a nearby city to watch. I've never met her in person, but I feel like I know her. She retired from her job a year ago and has been going through her bucket list, with plenty of travel and helping to build a Habitat for Humanity home in New Orleans. She posted her plans for today on Facebook so I know I'll see her for sure. I'm looking forward to it and I'm making sure I don't forget to take my camera.

So that's the news from Bellingham, where all the men are good-looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average. (That's a ripoff from Garrison Keillor, for those of you who wonder where the heck THAT came from!)