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, April 29, 2012

When lilacs last bloomed

I went looking through my posts from last year, thinking I had written something about the lilacs in bloom. Nothing came up. That poem from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass keeps coming up to me these days, as I walk past the blooms bursting forth at the end of the driveway.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
This is just the first part of Whitman's long poem, which I just reread, to remind myself why it moved me so much when I was a young woman who had never personally known the loss of any loved ones. In the poem he breaks a sprig with the flower on it and as a funeral procession passes by, he lays the lilac on the coffin. As he listens to a singing bird, he writes the poem (to my mind at least) as his elegy to his loved one who is gone from the earth, as well as to the movement of life and death that carries us all within it.

Not only the lilacs, but the flowers are everywhere in bloom, blossoming fruit trees, bursting tulips and unidentified fragrances waft through the air these days. It's April, almost May, and I wonder about the melancholy that I keep feeling in the morning when I wake. It also seems to be present in a number of the authors of the blogs I read regularly. Does spring do that to everyone? Or is it just me and a few others? Whitman speaks very eloquently of his sense of mourning that is brought on by the ever-returning spring. Perhaps that's what is causing this feeling: the bursting forth of the riot of life that happens after the sleeping winter.

Two weeks ago when I forgot to write this Sunday post, I was bursting with excitement about going to the Drop Zone in Snohomish to play with my friends. Eventually that morning I got my post written, because I am driven to follow my own self-imposed rules of weekly activity, and every Sunday morning I sit in bed with my laptop while my partner sleeps, and I write a post that usually begins to flow out of my thoughts, sometimes easily and other times, like this morning, haltingly as I find my way into my creative muse.

Two weeks ago I made two skydives and had a wonderful day, driving home in the sunshine, well spent afterwards, making my way north the 75 miles that separates Snohomish from Bellingham. Today I am also hoping to get down there, but the weather is nowhere near as promising, with light rain falling at the moment and overcast skies down south. I may or may not end up going today, but two weeks ago when I drove away from my friends in the early afternoon, I felt the beginning of the season and the certainty that we would spend many days this summer playing together in what might be my last skydiving season. It's either this summer or next, I can feel it coming, and it also makes me mourn for that which is changing and falling away.

Even though there is nothing to keep me from continuing to skydive until I end up getting injured, it's not the way I want to end my career. People get more fragile as they age, and I can feel the aches and pains of life in my body that warn me not to overextend myself. Although I can still walk ten miles with the Trailblazers every week, it's not without moaning and groaning afterwards. I'm just grateful that everything still functions as well as it does, but I also know that pushing myself too far is counterproductive. Nobody has to remind me on Friday mornings (we hike on Thursdays) that I am almost seventy. I feel every minute of it.

But as the days go by, each day I feel less stiff and sore. Yesterday I got an hour-long massage, which I schedule every third Friday. I would get one every other week if I could afford it, but as it is, I look forward to the ministrations of dear Sarah as she helps my muscles to relax. It's also very nice to feel the integration of my body after a good massage. I began to get a regular massage after the skydiving accident I suffered in 2000. Now I cannot imagine going for too long without one. It's a kind of healing touch that feels essential to my overall health.

If I don't get to go skydiving today, I think I'll go for a nice walk and take along my camera to capture all the beauty around me today. This is the fourth spring I've experienced here since we moved to the Pacific Northwest, and there's really nothing like it. The cherry tree in the front yard is in full bloom, which only lasts one short week before the white blossoms fall and the green leaves take over. I am very content with my life, but stopping to remember those I love who are gone is never far from me during this beautiful spring season. Remembering them, loving the birdsong, the heady scents in the air, and the transitory nature of it all, it's all of a piece.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Attitude of gratitude

A few nights ago I woke up with a phrase in my mind, and it wouldn't go away. It must have come from a long time ago, back in the days when I was a hippie and went Sufi dancing a couple of times a week. I had to look it up to find out what it means:
Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate Bodhi svāhā
It is a Sanskrit mantra known as the Heart Sutra and means "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond; Hail the goer." Where did that come from? It feels like a lifetime ago that I learned it, and very little memory surrounds the experience I had. Two memories emerge as I poke around trying to find out why this has come out of the corridors of my mind: one, I am in a room with low light, along with maybe thirty or forty others, and we are in two concentric circles. The inside circle faces out, and the outer circle faces in, so that two people are facing each other. As we chant the mantra, we stop and look into the face of the person across from us as we say the words. Then there is the sound of a chime, and we move to the next person and repeat the mantra. We do this for a long time.

The other memory that I have is being in a huge gymnasium type room with hundreds of people, and we were Sufi dancing together, which is very simple movements, not really dancing at all. Then we began an exercise of throwing ourselves rather violently onto the floor as we shouted, "There is no God!" As we picked ourselves up off the floor, we chanted, "But God." I remember being very sore from doing this for hours. I don't know how I got myself involved in all this, but it must have made a strong impression (in more ways than one), since suddenly both of those long-forgotten memories have emerged.

It all started with a post I wrote a while back. One of my commenters (I don't remember who and I just spent a while trying to find it, with no luck) suggested that I start each day by thinking of five things I'm grateful for. It's an interesting exercise, as it forces me to look past my aches and pains and think about the positive aspects of my life. I know I am a fortunate person, but sometimes I focus on the negative and lose perspective. Everybody does it, but what amazes me is how powerful that simple little exercise really is. As I enumerate the five things, they expand and I think of many more things than just five. My mood goes up, and I feel a spring in my step.

As the days have gone by, little memories like that mantra have begun to pop up, like little spring flowers poking their heads out of the ground. And they are flowering in my dreams, my everyday reveries, coming to me at the most curious times. Walking to the bus, I heard a new bird song and recalled the first time last spring I heard that song. Oh, the white-crowned sparrow is back! His song sounds like he's saying, "me, me, pretty pretty me," followed by a trill. Maybe the sparrow's song scrubbed out an old section of my memory banks, who knows? Whatever, my spirits lifted and I couldn't help but feel grateful for the gift of that song. I noticed the myriad sounds around me.

At the present time, I have three books I'm reading all at once. One is a heavy tome, "How the Mind Works" by Steven Pinker; another is a Jodi Picoult book ("The Pact"); and the last one is an old science fiction story I first read long ago by Isaac Asimov about robots. It's on my iPad. Usually I don't have three going at the same time, but since I requested the electronic book weeks ago and it showed up unexpectedly, I only have two weeks to read it before it disappears. The Pinker book is fascinating, but it takes a bit of concentration and I only spend a short time with it every day. It's also a library book but I can renew it until I'm finished. Not so with electronic books; other people want to "borrow" it.

The Pinker book has also been responsible for me pondering the amazing organ that sits inside my cranium. Perhaps that's another reason that my memory corridors have been jostled. Having learned how our eyesight developed is interesting (I just finished the chapter called "The Mind's Eye"), and I keep finding myself looking at the world with what seems to be new eyes. What I have noticed lately is a desire to get out of my ingrained habits and spend some time each day just looking. It's not hard to do that, when everywhere I look some new flower has emerged from the soil.

To think that it all started with an attitude of gratitude. I know I will fall back into my old habits, because it's what I do, but this little exercise is always available to me, as long as I remember that what I focus on is not all there is. Not even a tiny little bit of all there is.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What did you write about?

Our tenth anniversary, 5 May 2004

"What did you write about?" That's what Smart Guy asked me as I started to get out of bed this morning, after having read the news, checked Google Reader for the latest entries in the blogs I follow, and wondered why I was ready to get up and start my day and it was still so early. The truth is, I was so focused on going skydiving today with my friends that I completely forgot my Sunday post!

Skydiving is such a powerful activity that it knocked me right out of my usual morning routine. I had already decided to skip getting the Seattle Times and head right out the door at 8:30am to get to the Drop Zone by 10:00am. All during the fall and winter I get breakfast to go at the Swan Cafe and a latte for me, come home and read the hard copy paper before I do much of anything else. Although by that time I have spent an hour or two with my laptop and usually have some idea of what I am going to write for my Sunday post. Not today. I was completely taken by surprise when he asked me that question, because it never even occurred to me! Sometimes I begin to write this post the night before, thinking about what's on my mind and conceiving the opening paragraph. The rest usually follows from that opening.

About the picture. Since we were married in freefall on 5 May 1994, we celebrated our tenth anniversary in 2004 by jumping out of the same airplane together and hiring one of the videographers to take a video and pictures for the occasion. This next decadal anniversary, our twentieth, will be celebrated some other way, since our skydiving activity is beginning to wind down, and that's another two years away. I don't expect I will still be jumping then, or if I am, it will still not be possible since Smart Guy has pretty much stopped jumping because of various shoulder injuries. Our last jump together was last season, when he realized that during the skydive he was unable to assume a normal freefall position because of serious pain in his shoulder joints. At least it was a jump we made together and when he landed, we both decided he wouldn't make any more jumps that day. It hasn't improved much since then. A small careless movement can cause him serious pain. Certainly not what you want to happen when you are needing to pull handles to deploy your parachute, or to deal with a malfunction!

Everything has its season, and I am grateful that we are both as healthy and happy together as we are. By the time you turn seventy, it's perfectly okay to take up activities that are not as, well, exuberant as jumping out of an airplane. He has taken up calligraphy and is learning how to write Chinese characters. It's amazing to me to see how it's done, the precise brush strokes with thickness and direction paramount in transferring meaning to the page. He also walks daily. I am a social exerciser, and he is a solitary one, but we do sometimes go on walks together.

Although I am still skydiving, and I work out almost every day, it doesn't separate me from my partner. He is still the most important person in my life, and we share our days and our nights in true harmony. Who would have ever believed it? We met when we were both fifty years old and married a few years later. We are as different as night and day, but we have learned so much from each other. Although skydiving brought us together, and it was a necessary ingredient in our ability to meet, it's not the center of our existence. The richness of our present lives is a result of the blending we have created out of our differences.

We are both changed from living together and learning how a complete extrovert can accommodate a complete introvert. How a morning person can live with a night person. Temporal versus spatial orientation. You name it: we are a miracle. And to be so happy together: that's the true miracle!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Renewal and rebirth

Thank you, Jonathan
Yesterday, I asked a friend (Jonathan) to take some pictures of me as I made my first jump of 2012. This is the result: that's me just microseconds from touchdown after that first skydive. It was a beautiful day, and my dear friends I've made at the Snohomish Drop Zone and I played in the sky. That doesn't mean I wasn't petrified; it had been five months since my last leap out of an airplane, and I felt butterflies all morning long, checked my gear obsessively, and knew that I had felt this way before and that it would pass. As the plane rose into the air, circling over our landing area and we prepared to exit, my focus was on performing and there was no room for fright. I had to leave my fear behind so I could do it. Sometimes you have to do the things you think you cannot do.

When I left the airplane and felt the incredible sensation of being in freefall, I was focused on my five friends in freefall with me, on the formation they were making and where I was supposed to be. Being a little rusty, it took me longer than usual to fly into my spot. Then we broke our grips and formed another pretty pattern in the sky. It worked just as we planned, and when it came time to separate, we tracked apart (which looks a bit like a flower opening, if you are watching from the ground). This gives the skydiver clear air in which to open a parachute, bringing the skydive to an end. I threw out my pilot chute to catch the air, which opened that beautiful canopy over my head.

At that point, I looked up to see everything was perfect, and my canopy was flying flawlessly in the bright blue sky. I grabbed the toggles and set my course back to the place where we had boarded the plane twenty minutes earlier. I took the time to look out at Puget Sound and at the snowcapped mountains, Rainier to the south and Baker to the north. What beauty! Hanging under the canopy and seeing the gorgeous place where I live, experiencing the incredible gift of skydiving, I thanked God for my life and all that I have been given. My landing was also perfect, just a tiptoe down onto the ground. Jonathan caught the moment when body and shadow connect once again.

Last year on Easter Sunday I wrote about my experience of Holy Week when I would go on an annual retreat at a nearby Benedictine convent. One of the really wonderful things about keeping a blog or a journal is the opportunity to go back and see where you were a year, two years, a decade ago. Because of yesterday's activities, skydiving and its place in my life is much on my mind, as well as the significance of all that angst and fear that I went through. Every skydiver will tell you that the nerves you feel after a layoff, even of a week's time, is normal. The first skydive of every day is a bit more anxiety producing than one following right after. Why is that?

My thought is that skydiving is not a normal everyday activity. If I change my focus to other pursuits, it begins to recede into the background and becomes a memory, something I do but not right then, not right now. My feet are on the ground and gravity connects me to the earth. Many, if not most, of my readers will never experience freefall. I have tried before to describe it, but it's not something that you can explain. Since you are able to "fly" in a vertical perspective, using the air as a cushion and deflecting it, you have a minute-long sensation of flying your body. But then you need to stop doing it before you lose track of the fact that you are actually plummeting towards the ground!

Some fear is healthy and keeps us alive. But it's not helpful to be paralyzed by fear, it's important to move through it, because it can keep you from experiencing life fully. After all, life is finite; everything that is born will die. We all know this. Some of us believe that this life is not all there is, but I won't know whether I'm right until I wake up after having taken my last breath. There is no doubt, however, that one day I will indeed take that last breath. On this day of renewal and rebirth, Easter, I am filled with optimism and hope that one day I will be reunited with my loved ones who have passed through the veil. There are many; it will be quite a reunion.

Sometimes they visit me in dreams that feel as solid as this waking moment. Their spirits just aren't bound to gravity any more, and in my dreams I often fly from one place to another. I am smiling as I remember one dream where I flapped my arms and took right off, just like a bird. Since none of us knows for sure if the spirit world is around us or not, I choose to believe that they are with me: my children, my parents, my beloved friends, and I am the one who has yet to join them.

Until then, I hope to spend my remaining days living life with passion and joy. Last week's post was pretty morose, I feel, but this week I am filled with infinite possibilities. The passage of time from one week, one year, one decade to the next, leaves me right where I started: here and now. The present moment is really all that we have. Someone said that the past is history, the future is mystery, and today is a gift. It's really true, isn't it?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

What is the world coming to?

From KIRO TV, Bellingham marina fire
I remember hearing that phrase, "What is the world coming to?" from my parents when I was growing up.  My father would read something in Time Magazine and then stomp around in the living room complaining about the state of the world. Or my mother would be at the store and a strange new fashion (such as miniskirts) would cause her to utter that exclamation. I wonder what they would think about today's world. I heard that phrase in my mind last week as I followed the news, with the Supreme Court questions about Obamacare, the incredible mania over the Mega Lottery drawing, and several of the world's leaders continuing to kill their own populace. And then, to top it off, we had an early morning fire at the marina on Friday that caused several luxury boathouses to catch fire. When the roof of the structure where they were moored caught fire, several boats were completely destroyed. Two people who live there full time are missing and the couple's family is grieving, although no bodies have yet been found. It's still too dangerous to search under all the debris in the water.

I watched the pundits on the PBS Newshour discuss the possible fate of Obama's healthcare package and tried to quell the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at the possibility that the Supreme Court might take us back to Square One, or worse. Frankly, I simply had to look at other news, like what is going on in Afghanistan and Syria to put what is happening here into perspective. At least I don't have to worry about being shot in the street here. Oh right: it's not safe here either in many parts of the country, where you could be walking home from the store and lose your life. I finally had to turn off the TV and stop watching.

However, the news I follow on my computer gadgets kept me interested in the lottery drawing, which had reached over $600 million by the weekend, and people were lining up for hours outside stores in order to pour out almost $2 billion in exchange for the possibility of becoming a jackpot winner. On Facebook, I saw that my niece spent $20 on the lottery, which she could afford, but what about those poor people who couldn't afford it and spent every dime they had for the chance to win? I find it interesting that, after weeks with no winner, three winning numbers were drawn (one each in Kansas, Maryland, and Illinois). I think the odds of winning are something like one in 176 million, but still people spent all that time standing in line hoping they might be one of them.

What happens to people who win the lottery? "After they win the jackpot, most of them self-destruct and they end up much more unhappy than they were before," says Dr. Tom Manheim, who offers financial therapy in Solana Beach, Calif. "It's really kind of a sad state of our economy where we think that money, once again, is going to bring us happiness and it doesn't." Yes, having a lot of money, especially suddenly like that, is not all it's cracked up to be. I suspect that my niece would have spread it around and probably would not have been harmed by it, but she's got a very level head on her shoulders.

On Friday, when I went to the coffee shop before heading to the gym, the talk was about the fire that had erupted at the marina. On the way to the bus, I saw helicopters overhead and wondered about them, but I couldn't see any reason for their presence. Once I got to the coffee shop and learned about the fire, my fisherman friend Gene suggested I pull out my iPad and see if there was any news about what was happening, and I found a local news station explaining that the 2-alarm fire was still blazing. After the roof caught, it caused the fire to spread rapidly. Gene told me that most of those kinds of boats have fuel on board that can explode, which seems to have happened. Nobody knows yet why the fire started, maybe they never will know. It had been raining for days and everything was saturated, but still the fire raged uncontrolled. The city of Bellingham had decommissioned their old fire boat last year and had not replaced it because of the cost.

Finally, I gave up and decided to spend my time reading novels. But what did I choose? The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, since the buzz about the movie has me interested in going to see it. The books (three of them) are "young adult" fiction about a dystopian future where teenagers' names are drawn from a lottery and they are sent to the Capitol to fight to the death. What in heaven's name makes these books suitable fare for young adults? I, however, couldn't put the first book down, and of course I wanted to know what happened to the protagonist, Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie), and I'll be heading to the theater sometime this week to see it. And I have to admit that I devoured the second and third books in two days (I do that sometimes), finishing the third one yesterday evening. I read all three books on my iPad, and I was pleased to find how easy it is to use the Kindle for iPad feature.

By the time I closed my iPad and contemplated the ruins of Panem (the Hunger Games world), I was saturated with both real AND fictional worlds, ready for dinner, and curious about what my dreams would tell me last night. I woke this morning after having struggled in my dreams for what seemed like days trying to make the perfect flan. I almost had it ready for the oven when I woke up.

My usual Sunday morning activity is writing in this blog first thing, while the news of the world awaits publication of this post. Before long, I'll know what the world of today, 1 April 2012, is coming to.