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, February 24, 2013

The art of contemplation

One beautiful part of the Flower and Garden show was a display of various ikebana student work. I looked it up when I got home and found that the word ikebana means "the art of flower arranging" in Japanese. A quote from that link:
Silence is a must during practices of ikebana. It is a time to appreciate things in nature that people often overlook because of their busy lives. One becomes more patient and tolerant of differences, not only in nature, but also in general. Ikebana can inspire one to identify with beauty in all art forms. 
For many years, I meditated on a daily basis, and I've tried to pick it up again and again, but it doesn't seem to be happening. I've got a nice place for it, and I look at the spot and try not to feel guilty about not using it more often. I do still spend time every day contemplating life in general, usually at this time, early in the morning before dawn, when the world is quiet and my mind is, too. As the day goes on and I get involved in activities, I get caught up in the day-to-dayness of life. I think it's important to take some time every day to look at the larger picture of our lives.

I just finished a very good book yesterday, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. I saw the BBC series and loved it, and I have to say that the book is even better. Many things that were dramatized for the series are better explained, and I also discovered that it is the first book in a trilogy of stories about her memoirs of being a midwife in London's East End during the 1950s. I look forward to reading the others; the second season of the BBC series will be coming to my local PBS station soon. I hope you will look up the first season if you can, to introduce yourselves to the characters.

Many years ago, I read another book that impacted me strongly, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. Written in 1939 about a Welch family, I remember being struck by the opening passages, written through the eyes of an old man who had decided to leave the valley after so many of his loved ones had passed away. What I remember thinking at the time was how sad it is to be the last surviving member of a close-knit family. I was a young woman then, who had experienced no losses of my own. Now that so many of my loved ones have gone, that recollection of the opening passages of that book is felt even more keenly. How did I know that in my early twenties? I should re-read that book, I guess, but I've found that the experience will be totally new, and I am reluctant to disturb those strong memories.

Today my friend Judy and I will see a documentary entitled 56 Up, which is a chronicle of the lives of fourteen Britons who have been followed for 49 years, since 1964. Every seven years, director Michael Apted interviews them and adds to their stories and issues a new documentary. The initial premise behind the series was to see whether a person's socioeconomic class determines one's livelihood in the future. Judy and I saw the trailer for this documentary at our local independent theater and decided we just had to see this one. I found this very interesting review from the New York Times while looking for more information about it. I learned that three close friends from London's East End are in it, and I couldn't help but wonder if they might have been delivered into this world by the midwives from Jennifer Worth's book.

The days are getting noticeably longer now, and we are gaining three-and-a-half minutes every day. Soon now I'll be waking to the sound of birds singing and seeing light in the sky at this time. It's still dark out at the moment, a little after 6:00am in the morning. The magic of this time of the day will not disappear with the light, but if I choose to go outside and walk in the early dawn, I will be able to do so.

I am learning that the art of contemplation does not need any particular venue, but it's the state of mind that is the key. Even writing on my keyboard in the dark, with tea and sleeping partner beside me does not disturb the contemplative moment. After having written this, I think it has left me with a most wonderful and satisfying consciousness. I am content, and the completion of my task on this nascent Sunday morning leaves me feeling fulfilled and happy.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Before and after

Before puberty   <--->  After menopause
Two sisters who grew up together, and who recently spent two weeks together having fun and remembering. There is only one person in the world who shares those memories with me, and it's Norma Jean. Those two pictures were taken more than six decades apart, and I am so thankful that we are still sharing the planet and getting the chance to make new memories.

I am even more grateful for our wonderful time together after pondering the movie I saw yesterday with my friend Judy. We went to see Amour, a French movie that is up for several Academy Awards. I spent the evening and last night thinking about it. It's the story of two retired music teachers in their eighties. Anne suffers a debilitating stroke and Georges cares for her as she descends deeper and deeper into her illness. Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne and has already received much-deserved recognition for her performance. She is 85 and if she wins the Oscar (as she should), she will be the oldest ever.

When the movie ended, I sat there in shock. This is no movie to make you feel good, or even to appreciate at the moment. Judy and I went home to our respective husbands, and I relayed the gist of the story to Smart Guy. We cried over it together, and I hoped the catharsis of telling it would release me from it, but it was not to be. I woke several times in the middle of the night and thought about old age and debility and... love.

You can never know if the life you have together with your loved one might change into something worse than death. That's what this movie is about. How do you cope as you watch someone you loved all your life turn into a trapped creature who can't even communicate or do anything but hurt? I have thought about the ancient ways of handling this, when the afflicted person would be taken to a mountaintop and left to die. In some ways it seems more humane than being spoon fed, changing diapers, and getting bedsores until the inevitable end comes anyway.

It happened to my paternal grandmother. When I was not very old, she came to live with us after having suffered a stroke. She wasn't confined to bed, but I'm not sure that was actually better. She didn't talk, wandered around all day in her housecoat, and she would take on kitchen tasks that would make my mother very unhappy, I remember. She once ruined one of my mother's favorite pans by scrubbing it until it was no longer usable. I remember my parents dismay about what to do with her. Although I don't think the situation lasted all that long, she disappeared one day and I was told she had gone to a nursing home. Not long after, they told us that she had died, but the old lady who stayed with us for that short time was not the same grandmother I remembered from earlier days.

I am doing all I can to prevent the same fate for myself. When I was in my thirties I gave up cigarettes and began to exercise. Now my sister and I exercise more than most people, but there are no guarantees in life that the same thing might not happen to one or both of us. Or to our loved ones. If I could make a wish and have it come true, I would wish that this situation would never happen to me. Or anyone, for that matter. A clean exit seems so much more merciful, not only for the one who dies, but for those left behind.

I'm a little sorry to be writing such a morose post this morning, but here I am in my usual place, before dawn with my cup of tea, my partner softly snoring next to me, and my mind still wrapped up in what that movie said to me. I wanted to write about my relationship with Norma Jean and its importance to me, to tell you a little bit about why I love her so much. She's as much a part of me as my own body, and there is no better time than the present to appreciate our connection. We are whole, we are healthy, we are active seniors sharing our lives.

There is much to be thankful for, and much to cherish. My ability to walk in the sunshine, smile at passersby, and revel in the moment... I will pass those right on to you, my dear reader, and wish you well on this early Sunday morning.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Highs and lows of life

Beautiful Florida bougainvillea
It's Sunday morning again, and I'm back home in my normal place, before dawn with my partner sleeping beside me as I begin my Sunday task. It's good to be back home, but I miss my sister and feel a bit sad that I probably won't see her again in person for awhile.
The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.   ~Carl Jung
I ran across this quote from Jung sometime this week, and I pondered its meaning in terms not only of happiness and sadness, but of health and sickness, gain and loss: all the highs and lows of life that we all experience. You cannot be fully alive without having a first-hand understanding of the fragility of our existence in its present state. In the twinkling of an eye, things change.

The last two days of my visit in Florida were marred by suddenly being unable to hear anything out of my left ear. It seems to be a small thing, but my head felt like it was wrapped in cotton, and it was the focus of my days, trying to find some way to remedy the situation. Nothing worked. I'm going to the doctor's office tomorrow morning to have my ears flushed of wax and I will most likely return to my normal state. I've gotten used to it now, and I'm able to think of other things, but at first it was all-encompassing.

As I read about the lives my fellow bloggers are living, and as I sympathize with their trials and tribulations, my own seem small in comparison. Having your knees give out on you, without much hope of relief; dealing with surgeries you and your loved ones must endure; meager financial means and no way to change a bad situation — the list could go on and on.

But there are also the highs: the birth of a beloved grandchild, children growing up and successfully heading out into the world, sharing the beauty of a sunrise, or finding relief from pain and suffering. It's all part of being fully alive. We rejoice together when times are good, and we grieve together when things get rough.

My own friends and family have expanded to encompass the universality of the world of the virtual acquaintance. There are dozens of people scattered throughout the world whose lives mean as much to me as my birth family, and I share their highs and lows. In the old days, before blogging, my world of people whose lives matter to me was constrained by distance or by the lack of a shared activity. That has all changed, and I am grateful for the ability to reach Down Under in an instant and send a message of love to a dear friend, someone whose real name I don't even know. But I share the vicissitudes of life with her in a very real way. We care about each other.

And things change in an instant. As I was writing the opening paragraph of this post, thinking about having left my sister's world in Florida, I realized how quickly we might end up being together again, if something were to happen to one of our family members and we needed to gather for a life event (or death). As I grow older, these things are inevitably going to occur more frequently. We weren't made to last, were we? At my time of life, a decade passes more quickly than I thought possible when I was younger.

Inevitably, major life events mark the passage of time. The death of my son Chris is one of those markers. The birth of my grandniece Lexie is another. My world is divided into the time before and after I began skydiving. Major illnesses and accidents are events that change our lives. When I met my husband, when we got married, and when we moved to the Pacific Northwest: these are all events that cleave my days and years into Before and After.

In the meantime, as my life resumes its regular trajectory for the moment, I think if I can just remember that everybody has highs and lows, that stopping to smell the roses, sending and receiving messages of encouragement and commiseration as we move through life, these are some the best things any of us can do for one another.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Today I'll tell the tale of how this cute little Papillon dog came to find his forever home with Norma Jean. It all started two years ago when I came to stay with her after she lost both her husband Pete and her little long-haired chihuahua within five days of each other. Both of her grown children Peter and Allison, along with me, came to be with her in her Florida home during those awful days.

First Peter returned to his job in Michigan, then Allison and her infant daughter left to resume their lives in Virginia, and I stayed an extra week past that time. Allison had checked all the pet rescue places, hoping to find a replacement dog for Norma Jean before she left. On line, she found an older chihuahua slated for euthanasia within the week if no home could be found for him. She started the process but, as many of you know, it can be a long drawn-out process to make your way through the red tape. Nothing had been accomplished by the time Allison left.

In the meantime, I convinced Norma Jean to go to the Humane Society and look for a dog. While there, we were shown a very tragic-looking dog who had endured hernia surgery the day before and was in dire condition. We took her home with us and named her Babe, as her name on the card was simply, "Me Too." In the meantime, the paperwork for Chester, the chihuahua, came through, and we suddenly had two dogs on our hands.

I believe sincerely that if Babe had not been adopted that day or the next, she would have died. Within a few days we had taken her to Norma Jean's vet to have her checked out and found that she was dehydrated and badly constipated. After treatment, she spent most of her time curled inside the pet carrier Norma Jean had in the living room, not interested in anything but sleeping. She was estimated to be perhaps two years old and nobody knew anything about her previous history.

Chester, on the other hand, had been turned in to the Humane Society by the family of his previous owner, who had died. Nobody wanted this wonderful dog, so to save him from being euthanized, Norma Jean adopted him. She had never before had two dogs, but now she did. Before I left, she told me she was afraid of the vet bills for two and wondered how she would manage.

After I returned home, we began the process that continues to this day of talking via video chat two or three times a week. I learned that Norma Jean was desperately unhappy, trying to find a way to recover from her loss, and the dogs were keeping her from being able to make the decision to travel to Virginia and stay with Allison for awhile. Although it was an agonizingly difficult decision, we decided together that she should return them to the rescue organization, now that Babe was healthy and Chester was saved. So she did and went to spend some time with her daughter and granddaughter.

But when she came home, her life was very empty. Enough time had passed that she felt it was possible for her to adopt another dog and started looking. While on Craigslist for something else, she saw a column advertising pets and checked it out. One caught her eye, a listing for "Papillons Neutered and Un-neutered." She called the number and found that an eight-month-old neutered puppy was available for a small fee, and arranged to meet the woman in a coffee shop. In walked the woman with this tiny adorable nine-pound furball, and Norma Jean was smitten. The lady told her that she already had two other dogs and he wasn't getting the attention he needed. Norma Jean walked out of the coffee shop with him.

The first thing she did was make an appointment at her vet's office to have him checked out, although he seemed healthy enough. The vet quizzed her about how she had obtained him, and suggested he might have been stolen. He was checked for a microchip and none was found, but the vet asked Norma Jean why she thought he had been neutered. Norma Jean said because of what she had been told, and because of the obvious lack of testicles, but the vet said they were still there, undescended. They might cause problems in the future if left as they were, so Norma Jean made an appointment for surgery. We speculated that he had been sold by a breeder who had no use for him.

The dog still had no name, and her son Peter suggested the name "Icarus," because the puppy has enormous ears, as most Papillons have. The myth of Icarus is one of a young man who made himself wings of wax to enable him to fly. Well, those ears are this dog's most prominent feature, so it seemed appropriate. The only unfortunate part of the name is that it is shortened to "Icky," which does not describe him at all!
Icarus is now more than two years old, and Norma Jean can travel with him, if needed, and spends her quiet days together with him. He is a charmer, and Norma Jean is happy, although the decision to turn the other two dogs back to the rescue organization was a hard one. She was meant to be with this little guy, and now she is. That's the story of how they ended up together.