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, January 27, 2013

A lifetime together

Norma Jean and Jan
Norma Jean has never known a world without me in it, since she's two-and-a-half years younger. We grew up as siblings who, until I was seven, had no other children in the family with whom we had to share our parents. Daddy was in the Air Force and traveled often, leaving the two of us together with Mama, and these two sisters spent a shared childhood growing up and learning about the world. Considering all this, it's amazing to me how differently we remember events. Since that picture was taken 65 years ago, we have grown old, of course. When we reminisce about our childhood, it's evident that memory has changed our recollections so much that an event I remember can be rendered almost unrecognizable by Norma Jean. And there is nobody to say which is closer to reality.

Although the past has real weight and meaning to me, my memories are definitely faulty. There are some things I will never forget, but the recollection that burned into my brain long ago may bear little resemblance to what actually transpired. I've learned that in my lifetime, I can recall only a very small bit of it, and when something stands out it is usually because of an emotion that helped to distinguish it from other events.

I remember when Daddy took us on a roller coaster ride. We were both terrified, and I have a strong memory of the two of us screaming in terror while Daddy laughed at our fear. In those days you weren't strapped in; I recall a bar that came across our laps that we gripped, but in those days roller coasters were even more scary! I think I have ridden them only a handful of times since then; I have never enjoyed them. Memory is fascinating. When Norma Jean and I discussed the event, she remembers it very differently than I do, but we both remember being frightened.

There is nobody left alive today who shares those childhood memories with me, except for her. We have spent a lifetime together, but we both went our separate ways, for the most part, after we grew up and left home. When I was a young mother, Norma Jean came to live with us. My husband and I had rented a large home and had room for several people to share it with us. We needed other people to help us make the rent, as I recall. My husband at the time, Derald, also had his friend Pete move in with us. We spent at least one Christmas together in the same house.

It was a very auspicious time in our lives, since this is where Norma Jean met Pete, who ended up being her husband of more than 45 years before he died in 2011. I am now sitting in their home, writing this post in the dark before dawn in the living room where they spent many years. Norma Jean is now a widow, and I live on the other side of the country from her. Although we have kept in touch during most of our lives, the three weeks that I spent here with Norma Jean after Pete died changed our relationship, bringing us much closer than before. Actually, the closeness was always there, but she had become part of another family. When her partner died, her two grown children and the sister she grew up with all converged in Florida to support her.

But then we took up our lives again, and I returned to my own partner; her kids went back to their own lives, and Norma Jean stayed on in Florida in the home she shared with Pete since 1998. Last month I made a decision to come and visit her, to leave drizzly Washington state and enjoy both the Florida sunshine and a visit with my sister.

We spent Thanksgiving with our family in Texas, and Norma Jean and I were together then, but there were all the other family members and we didn't have much time to spend alone. Norma Jean picked me up at the airport this past Friday night, and we will have two entire weeks just to be together.

It's been almost two years since I was here, and the home has changed significantly. Pete is everywhere, but not in the same way. His outstanding artwork graces the walls; she has a living frame (where pictures rotate constantly) of their lives together over decades that is displayed prominently in the living room. But what was his office is now a spare bedroom. She says it is now sparsely furnished compared to what it was like when he was alive. He had his computer setup in there and surrounded himself so that everything was at his fingertips. He spent many hours in there every day. Now it is totally different.

Norma Jean's home reflects her inherent neatness. Everything has a place, and the feeling of the home is one of serenity. She shares her home with her little dog Icarus, a nine-pound Papillon. I'll share more about him next Sunday. Yesterday was a beautiful SUNNY day, and as I look at the weather forecast for the coming week, there will be many more days spent in the Florida sunshine together. On Monday I'll go with her to the YMCA, where I can sign up for ten days free of charge (as a current YMCA member in another part of the country). Then I'll be able to swim in the outdoor pool and attend her yoga and Pilates classes with her.

We are busy making senior memories together, at least as long as I can remember them. We have laughed at the number of times I walk from one room to the next, forgetting what I was going to say, or where I was going. It's part of my life these days. It's so nice to be sharing our memories together, and making new ones.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sisters of the heart

DJan and Judy at Manresa Castle last summer
Last night my friend Judy and I went to the movies and then to dinner. It's so nice to have a friend with whom I can spend time and never feel like we have quite enough of it. She's got a full life and family, a husband and two grown children who have children of their own, but she always carves out a piece of her life for us to spend together. We enjoy sharing books, movies, and occasionally exercise. The things we do together are things our spouses don't have much interest in doing with us, so it works out perfectly.

We met in an exercise class at the YMCA the first year I was here, so we've known each other almost five years now. When we first met, her daughter who lives on the East Coast had her only two grandchildren, but now her son and daughter-in-law who live here in Bellingham have had three kids, so she is very busy helping out with the little ones. I feel fortunate there is still time left over for her to get out and enjoy things with me. She's my go-to-the-movies partner.

Judy recently shared with me a book I just finished by Abraham Verghese, a memoir about the time he was an infectious diseases doctor in Tennessee at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. It reminded me that there was a time, which I remember very well, before the onset of that awful virus, and how much the world has changed since then. Millions of people have died; some of them were good friends of mine in Boulder. It was more than thirty years ago, but much of that time period is still fresh in my mind. In our country, gay men have suffered more than any other demographic from that epidemic.

The movie we saw last night was called Any Day Now, a movie set in 1979 about a gay couple (a drag queen and a lawyer) who face enormous prejudice when they try to adopt a Down syndrome child who has been abandoned by his junkie mother. Although it's very clear that he wants to stay with them and nobody else cares about this child, he is shunted off to an institution. They cannot win against the legal system. It doesn't have a happy ending, and I kept waking up during the night thinking about life and wondering whether the world is any better off today than it was then. A family is certainly not always comprised of a traditional nuclear family. I had the feeling that, given half a chance, this family would have been unrivaled in love and caring for each other. But it was not to be. Is it any better today?

Love is an elusive emotion, but when you feel it, it's not to be denied. There are many related emotions that people sometimes confuse with love. I remember a short poem by Emily Dickinson that has always stayed with me. The first two lines are, "That Love is all there is / Is all we know of Love." When you allow yourself to love someone or something, you take a chance that it will be taken away through the circumstances of life. I have tried unsuccessfully at different times of my life to wall myself off from feelings when I've been hurt. Being heartbroken because of a loss is a part of my life that can cause my eyes to fill with tears before I've even identified the specific cause. Just put me in a movie theater and have an actor depict lost love, and I am weeping. I wept as I read the book last week. I cry easily, and it makes me glad, to tell you the truth, because once I've spent some time crying, I feel better. Am I weird or what?

Partly it's because I realize that life is fragile, and the people and things that I love will not always be with me. I know this because I've experienced it. Life is filled with hard knocks. Some people build a shell around them, but it doesn't really help. It's called denial, or stoicism, or something. No one would ever accuse me of being a stoic.

Life, however, is also filled with Love. In fact, if I listen to Emily, Love is all there is. She implies that love is impossible to define and that it transcends the need for definition. Is she suggesting that we can recognize love either because it fits our souls perfectly, or because we can endure the suffering it brings? I'm asking a lot of questions this morning, aren't I?

Maybe it's because I'm beginning to think about my upcoming travel to visit Norma Jean in Florida, but I'm feeling the time flowing by quickly these days. I've got a day of travel before I can spend two weeks in the sunshine. I am looking forward very much to spending time with Norma Jean, and when I come back home to Bellingham I will spend time with Judy, my sister of the heart.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


By Margit Lisa
While searching around the internet for something that would evoke the idea of perspective, I found this picture on Fine Art America. It's perfect, since it's an image of clouds taken from an airplane. I've spent many an hour staring out the window at the beauty underneath me as I let my mind wander. At first I thought this was a picture of ocean waves, and when I realized what it actually is, it took my breath away.

I'm having trouble getting started on this morning's post. I woke last night thinking about it, realizing I didn't have anything percolating around in my mind, other than a background worry about health and the flu. I'm careful when I open doors and touch surfaces used by other people, since I realize that I am now officially classified as "elderly," and we are especially at risk for the flu and related illnesses. My ex-boss Mickey is 73, and he came down with it and is now in the process of recovering. He didn't get a flu shot this year, so he got really, really sick. I've learned that one of the two strains of flu going around right now is well matched to the vaccine, but the other one isn't. The Center for Disease Control has a really good website here.

I've got a doctor's appointment on Tuesday, which means I have to go to the place where I will be mostly likely to unwillingly pick up the flu: a medical facility. I'll be particularly cautious while I'm there. It's for my annual checkup, so I went in for a fasting blood test last week. PeaceHealth, my wellness clinic, has an online feature so that I could see the results within a few hours after the tests. I am always nervous about my cholesterol numbers, since I take a statin and don't want to have to take any more of it than I already do. The numbers were good. In fact, all of my results were positive, so I was very pleased. The doctor also wanted to see how I'm doing with Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), and even those numbers were good. That is only because I take 2,000 IUs of Vitamin D-3 every day. Even so, I was still on the low end of the normal range.

It's an inevitable thing that we all will grow old and die of something, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't take as good care of myself as I can, right? I am addicted to exercise, so it isn't hard for me to make myself work up a sweat. I avoid sugar and wheat products and work hard to keep my weight within bounds. Twice a week I talk with Norma Jean on video chat and we compare our routines and reinforce each other. Two weeks from today I will be writing this Sunday morning post from her home in Florida. I have no doubt that when I return home I will have some new ideas about exercise and eating well. Norma Jean is the only person I know who is more addicted to exercise than I am. It makes me wonder if it is a genetic thing. No, our other siblings don't seem to have caught the exercise bug.

Now that's a bug I don't mind catching. Yesterday I walked with twenty other women in the frigid air on our latest walk. Once the clouds cleared away earlier this week, taking the wet drizzly days with them, the temperature dropped precipitously. For the last three days it's been very cold (well, for us: highs in the mid-30s). Outside before dawn the temperature is 20 F (-6.5 C). That makes me very happy to be warm inside. Our heat source is completely electric in this apartment, which means we would need to find shelter somewhere else if suddenly the power went out. Even worse, there would be no internet! (I'm being flippant; please forgive me.)

I realize that I make choices every day that impact my environment and consequently my health. It would be safest to stay inside and avoid contact with the outside world, only drive my own car instead of taking the bus, shop online instead of mingling with others in stores. But my quality of life would be so much less desirable, so I will take my chances out there in the wide, wide world. I found a quote from Susan Elizabeth Phillips that says it all:
I finally figured out that not every crisis can be managed. As much as we want to keep ourselves safe, we can't protect ourselves from everything. If we want to embrace life, we also have to embrace chaos.
And maybe when I fly to Florida in a couple of weeks I can get a different perspective on life when I look out at the clouds. I'd better keep my camera handy.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Change comes one step at a time

The art of Simon Beck
I'm sitting here in the dark, laptop and tea as usual, but this morning I'm feeling all pensive, thinking about the beginning of another year. Yesterday I discovered Simon Beck's snowshoe art and could hardly fathom what I was looking at. He created this three-dimensional piece by stomping around on snowshoes in an area about the size of three football fields. If you click on the link, you can learn more about him and see some of his other snowshoe art.

Although this picture illustrates what I consider to be a masterpiece, it's no longer there. The creative process that brought it out of Simon, to imagine it and accomplish his vision: that's the nature of art. I remember being in a large square in China watching an artist write a poem with a large brush on the pavement... with water. People gathered to observe and appreciate the art as he drew the graceful Chinese characters. Some snapped pictures to preserve it, but the artist didn't seem to care. The poem lived in his head, just as this snowshoe art was created in Simon's. It makes me feel very good to realize that things like this are going on all the time, everywhere across the planet.

It also makes me realize that whatever I concentrate on colors my world. It's true that there are also atrocities and horrors happening everywhere, too. If I allow that to become my focus, that's what I experience. Sometimes I have to turn off the news, since it seems to cover little to no positive, uplifting stories but instead only death, disasters, mayhem. It doesn't have to be that way. But they do cover what interests people, don't they? I'd like to begin to change my focus toward beauty and art, and I'll start by skipping the news for awhile. Instead, I'll pick up a book or two that inspire me to look toward the better angels of human nature.

There's quite a bit on my mind, but I can't seem to get a handle on what I wanted to write about this morning. I made airline reservations to go to Florida for a visit with my sister Norma Jean at the end of this month. Thinking about the Florida sunshine and spending time with her makes me very happy. Although I was with my family over Thanksgiving, it was not possible to have much quality time with Norma Jean. For me, the best part of the holiday was after everyone went back to their normal lives and I had a few days to spend with my brother Buz and his wife Phyllis. Quiet moments without an agenda. That's what I hope I'll get to have with Norma Jean.

I just realized that this behavior, wanting to share quiet moments with my loved ones, is a fairly new development in my life. It's probably because of the life I share with my partner; he's taught me so much over the years about how nourishing quiet time can be. It was obvious when I was surrounded with so many family members that it's impossible to do that in a crowd. One begins to change imperceptibly, and then something happens to make you realize that you are different. I wonder if I still fall on the extreme end of extroversion, or if I have changed enough to see the difference on a test.

This afternoon I will go to the movies with my friend Judy. I always enjoy our time together; she fills a definite need in my life, but it is separate from my home life. Going out on Thursdays with the Senior Trailblazers fills another need. Having our modest little apartment makes it easy to step into the wider world, knowing I have this quiet place to return to. Yes, I've definitely changed, but it hasn't been easy to see it for what it is. Although we all change, it's so gradual that it's only when I step back and take stock of my life that the change begins to emerge.

It makes me wonder about Simon Beck's art. Did he see it as it is in the above picture, or did it emerge a little at a time, one footstep after another? Did he allow it to come out of himself and little by little it took form? I wonder.