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, July 28, 2013

A very sunny week

Me and Jonelle after our skydive
Last Wednesday we finally got that skydive in, Jonelle's first and my 4,192nd. I wrote about it on my other blog here, but since it was one of last week's highlights I'd like to discuss it a bit more. She was cool as a cucumber, unflappable but excited. She was more concerned about a young man who was in the class with her, in his early twenties, who was so scared he was shaking. He was in the plane with us and did just fine, too. In fact, he was bouncing all around and smiling from ear to ear afterwards.

I was really afraid before my own first skydive, a tandem. I slept poorly the night before and worried about it, and I asked my instructor dozens of questions, trying to delay the inevitable trip to the airplane. I wrote a long post about it, How I Became a Skydiver. Seeing the difference between our responses to the same experience, it makes me wonder if it's necessary to get into a state of anxiety or dread to have one's feelings translate into their opposite. Over the years of working as an instructor, I noticed the difference between those who saw the experience as something on their "bucket list" and those who felt driven to work through the fear they were experiencing. If something terrifies you and you do it anyway, you gain an advantage over it. And it never turns out to be quite what you feared anyway.

In the book I finished recently, Hallucinations, the author points out the difference in how memories are processed when one is in an altered state. Although our normal memories are not fixed but fluid, those traumatic events that can cause a flashback or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are stored in a different part of the brain and are recalled in vivid detail. Oliver Sacks (the author) said it is almost impossible to alter those memories, and researchers are still working to find ways to help those who suffer from debilitating flashbacks. That said, there is a huge difference between being in a war zone and the manufactured fear of jumping from an airplane in a controlled setting. Your mind may know the difference, but it's a rather unnatural thing to do. One's body has a tendency to react as if it is not going to survive. And when it is all over, the strong emotions remain, translated into happiness. That's my theory, anyway.

Not only was it sunny on Wednesday, our Thursday hike up Welcome Pass was without a cloud in the sky. This is usually the beginning of the "dry season" here in the Pacific Northwest, but we have not had a drop of rain in this area for more than a month. And now it's going to get drier, it seems. When we were on the ridge line after gaining the pass, we commented on the dry state of the plants. Usually at this time of the year there is still quite a bit of snow at that elevation, but not this year. Instead, much of the ground cover was burned and crackled under our boots. Although this is good for  us, giving us access to our hiking areas, it must be hard on the critters who are used to abundant water sources.

I know this may sound strange to some of my readers, but I really miss the partly cloudy skies and marine layer that gives us fog in the morning. Fortunately for me, I see that we do have a chance of a bit of a marine layer this morning and tomorrow, although it's pretty weak. Now, at 6:00am, the sun is rising into a clear blue sky, and it's calm with no wind at all. Maybe it's cloudy on the coast south of us, but nothing here. Tomorrow is the first of our "extra" hikes, an all-day affair where we drive more than a hundred miles to the Mountain Loop Highway and spend the day going up a hard hike. I'm hoping for at least a little bit of cloud cover, but I'm not expecting much. I'll be slathered with sunscreen and using my new hat with a wide brim.

The Trailblazers decided two years ago to add these hikes so we can go to places we cannot reach on our usual Thursday outings. I've really enjoyed learning more about this beautiful part of the country. We head out every other Monday and visit some spectacular areas. It's not actually considered part of the Senior Center's schedule, so we usually meet in the parking lot and figure out the carpool logistics. The group is usually smaller, too, since we start at 7:30 and don't return until more than twelve hours later. We certainly do get to know each other pretty well! I've been going out on these excursions with some of the same people for five years now, and a few of them feel like family.

Maybe it helps to suffer together, too. Since some of these hikes are steep and challenging, we have been known to moan and groan together as we make our way through the switchbacks and unremittingly beautiful scenery. I'm very happy to be in good enough shape to keep this up, for now at least, and I'm enjoying this very sunny summer season. Since the days are getting shorter already, and we will reach the point in between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox in a few days, I intend to squeeze every drop of enjoyment out of the summer that I can!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Clouds from both sides

Hiking above the clouds
Last Thursday's hike with the Trailblazers took us from dense fog to this: rising up above the clouds to gaze down on them, where they look like whipped cream covering the valley. This is one of the most wonderful aspects of the Pacific Northwest: the clouds. They were missing from Colorado's skies, at least clouds like these. I have been here for five years and am still mesmerized by the view of trees rising out of the mist.

It has caused a few problems, though, as that marine layer has sometimes been slow to burn off the past few weeks. Last Wednesday I was scheduled to skydive with my friend Jonelle (who would be making her first skydive, a tandem), but the weather never cleared all day. Then we rescheduled for this past Friday, and the same thing happened. (We have rescheduled for this coming Wednesday.) Yesterday the clouds didn't leave the Puget Sound area until 3:00pm. This means that today's planned activity, skydiving with Linnie and friends, might not happen. The past several weeks I've gotten at least three jumps each weekend, usually four.  I get accustomed to things going a certain way, and when it changes, my schedule goes awry. The recent holiday on the Fourth messed up my internal clock for more than a week.

Last night I slept like a log, the first time in several nights. It sure makes a difference in the way the world looks to me when I'm well rested. And at my age, my body is harder to roust out of the doldrums when I'm physically tired. A decade ago, I took for granted that I'd have boundless energy for everything I wanted to do, but these days I need to pick and choose my activities. That's not to say that I am not happily continuing to play in the sunshine and rain, but I've definitely slowed down. My sister Norma Jean makes me feel like a slacker, since every day she swims, has a vigorous walk, and attends yoga and Pilates classes weekly. She is probably in the best shape of her life right now as she approaches her 68th birthday. We spend a couple of hours every week together on video chat, and I must say that she simply glows with health. She continues to inspire me.

We've got a new hiker who has joined us the last two weeks, Doug. He shows every sign of becoming another regular, someone who shows up every week. Of course, the weather hasn't been especially challenging, and it's only the hardiest of the hardy who show up for a hike in the rain. We'll see. Many of the people I have grown to love and appreciate in that group are not hiking with us right now, either because of health issues or, in the case of Fred, having taken on a full-time job. It was so nice to see him on a hike a few Sundays ago, and he promised that he would be coming back to join us as soon as he's trained someone to take over his job.

Some of the people I exercise with at the gym have become good friends, such as Judy, and although she has a very full life, we find time to be together. During the summer I see much less of her because of her family activity, when her daughter and grandkids who live in the East visit, but it's during the long winter that I really appreciate us doing things together. We have taken day-long bus tours as well as the usual "dinner and a movie" that is our usual fare. Just last week she snuck away for a quick movie with me, but I won't be seeing much of her until late August.

Sitting here propped up in bed, laptop on my knees and partner sleeping beside me: this has become the time when I think about my life, contemplate where I am today and where I might be headed in the future. There are not many of life's hurdles left to climb, like those that young people are facing right now, since I'm retired from the world of work. Social Security and annuities are deposited in my checking account monthly. We will never be wealthy, or even have enough extra money to take long vacations, but it's enough that we don't have to worry about how to pay the bills. That gives me an opportunity to concentrate on what I want to do with the rest of my life.

One thing I've discovered I need is intellectual stimulation. Reading and writing blogs has helped to fill that void. My blogging friends are like part of my extended family, and I know as much about the lives of several of you as I do my own flesh-and-blood family. I feel very blessed to live in a time when virtual friends can become this important to me, and it's because of the vast changes in technology that have emerged during the past decade. I read recently that more than half of all Americans now have a smartphone. I myself need a keyboard to write, but I see more and more young people writing texts to each other on their phones. I wonder if any of them have made friends that they only know through electronic media.

This morning as I ponder how to wrap up this post about nothing in particular, I'm thinking of that Judy Collins song that inspired the title:
Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
 Whatever you choose to do with yourself before we meet again, be well and, if you can, spend some time looking at those beautiful, mysterious clouds.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Remembering things right

Tiger lilies in the wilderness
I am in the process of reading Oliver Sack's 2012 book, Hallucinations, and it seems to be affecting me in ways I never expected. I'm having them, hallucinations, that is. Power of suggestion? I wonder. He explains in the book that there are many kinds of hallucinations, and I realized when reading it that I tend to have olfactory hallucinations. I smell things that aren't there. It happens fairly often, and I think it might be because I suffer from allergies and sometimes can't smell much of anything. And then suddenly, I get a powerful whiff, usually pleasant.

Yesterday I went to the garden store looking for an organic pesticide for the aphids that have begun to appear on some of my flowers. I bought some neem oil for my ailing columbines. While I was at the store, I stopped to smell the beautiful roses in the entryway, and I just loved their incredible odor, as they had opened and released their perfume in the sunshine. I also learned that many roses, hothouse ones in particular, don't have any smell. I wondered if it was my nose or what the story is. The ones I was smelling are bred for their scent, so it was very strong.

Then I went to REI to look for some new boots. (I'm not quite ready to buy, but I wanted to see what  version my current brand of boots looks like today.) I kept turning around looking for the rose scent I kept smelling, and there was nothing to indicate the source. After wandering around in the store for awhile, I realized it was my nose hallucinating the strong rose scent. Or was I remembering what I had recently smelled?

Another place in the book Sacks mentions the process of remembering, and how faulty memory actually can be. Some researchers have shown that people don't remember events in the same way as time goes on. Memories are not stored in the brain like photographs or audio recordings of events; memories are recreated when they are accessed. And when we access old memories, they are modified in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. I know when my sister Norma Jean and I compare memories of our childhood, our recollections can be wildly divergent. I used to think it is because we are different people experiencing the same events, but now I know that time has altered my memories, as well as hers.

It also makes me realize that eyewitness testimony is particularly useless. It's put innumerable people in jail for crimes they didn't commit, because the eyewitness was convinced their memory was correct, and it simply wasn't. Thank heavens for DNA evidence, which has cleared many innocent people. But I never considered how altered my own memory of events and people must be. I know that memories of my mother have altered through time, because I was never as fond of her in life as I am now. All the old hurts and resentments are gone, and all I have left are the wonderful memories, and even some hurtful memories are now affectionate recollections. The sting is gone, and the love remains.

I cherish the memories I have of my departed family and friends. Now that I realize that my memories of them are fluid, not fixed, it doesn't make them any less valuable, but after having been recreated within the chambers of my own mind, perhaps I can forget all the old hurts and resentments I've carried around by concentrating on the good parts and letting the rest be gently massaged into oblivion. Why should I haul out old grudges? They don't do anything but upset me.

Perhaps I can do the same thing with memories of shame and embarrassment I sometimes recall. In a way, I feel like I've stumbled on a technique that might give me peace and contentment about the past that I never considered. If memories are recreated every time I access them, I must also have some control over their effect upon me.

Today I am going to head down to Snohomish and play in the air with my friend Linny and whoever else shows up. I am intending to have a good time and come home tired and refreshed. I don't know how much longer I will be able to keep up this activity, but for now I am enjoying myself tremendously. And building up memories. On Wednesday my friend Jonelle from the hiking group is going to make a tandem, and I will go with her and jump out of the airplane at the same time. Not many people get to enjoy something like that together, so it's very exciting for both of us. Skydiving has given me many enjoyable memories.

It's time to get out of bed and start my day. I always begin my Sundays with this time together with the laptop and my blog. I think of what is most prominent in my mind and heart and try to capture the moment, as I tap the keyboard and read what comes out of my fingers. My partner is still asleep beside me, the tea is finished, and the birdsong coming through my open window is a harbinger of a wonderful day to come.

Happy Sunday to all, and one more thing: I ran across this lovely video on one of my blogging friends' website yesterday and want to share it with you. It's the shadow play of Raymond Crowe, an Australian entertainer (he calls himself an Unusualist on that link to his website). I found it to be simply enchanting. I hope you do, too. It's two and a half minutes of delight.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

My siblings

Me, Norma Jean, PJ, Buz, Markee, and Fia in 1983
This picture was taken thirty years ago, in summer at our parents' home in Ft. Worth. It simply astounds me to realize that we were all so young, but we were also pretty much grown into the people we would become. There is an almost exactly twenty-year age difference between the oldest, me, and Fia, the youngest. Now Fia is a grandmother and is about to remarry next month at the age of fifty. When I saw her this past Thanksgiving, she told me she was very upset about the half-century mark she just crossed. She still looks very young to my eyes, but she feels as though she's practically got one foot in the grave.

I remember my fiftieth birthday. It was a tough one for me, too. Reaching fifty is a true milestone, and one that is hardest, I think, for women. You stop thinking of yourself as the person that most advertisements are geared toward, for one thing. The mature woman begins her journey into invisibility. I don't think it's quite as difficult for men. But what do I know? I look at my life partner and think he looks pretty much the same as when we met, but of course he doesn't. I can look at an old picture to realize that time has changed him also.

Fia was married to Jim for well over 25 years, and he told her one day that he was in love with another, younger woman. They separated and Fia went through a very difficult period. She was absolutely taken by surprise, since she thought their marriage, with two grown children who had already left home, was solid. She is very close to Markee, the sister closest to her in age, and their relationship helped to carry her forward into a new life, along with plenty of other family support. It was a truly rough patch, but she came through it and met a wonderful man who will become her husband next month. I am so happy for her.

Markee met and married a Canadian many years ago and moved to Alberta with him. She and Bob have raised three children, twin boys and a girl who is now in college. The boys are still at home, but Markee was a registered nurse who worked for most of her life, eventually moving into management. When I saw her at Thanksgiving, she was quitting her job, which had become onerous, and now she teaches young nurses. She has taken some of them to India, where they are ministering to others. (She may be back home by now, I'm not sure.) I hope she is happy with her life now, and I know that she and Fia are incredibly happy to have one another. After Fia's marriage next month, she and Russ (her intended) will honeymoon in Canada with Markee and her family.

My brother Buz. Right in the middle of all his sisters, he is probably one of the most sensitive and caring people I've ever known. He and his wife Phyllis are the family members that I stay with when I visit Texas. Their home and their life together fills me with peace and contentment when I am there. Buz was married once before, and his daughter Trish has married and recently graduated from college. I know about her life with Matt mostly from Facebook, since they live on the East Coast and I only see them occasionally. Buz is very proud of her, but Phyllis is the center of his life. Their marriage is strong; you can feel it when you are around them. Phyllis is one of the sweetest people I have ever known.

My sister PJ and I have never been close. She has two grown children who live close by her, and she has grandchildren who are the apple of her eye. She and her husband Stewart have had several health issues this past year, but things seem to be better lately. When PJ had a heart attack this past springtime, it was touch and go for awhile, but she is on disability (last I heard) and has gone into early retirement. I hesitate to call her, because right now things are good between us and I don't want to rock the boat. She and I get into tangles every time we try to communicate, it seems. I love her but we are just very different people, I guess.

And next comes Norma Jean, who most of my readers know is the family member I am closest to. We grew up together and share so many memories. She and her husband Pete were married almost a half century when he died in 2011. Although he wasn't very old, he was a smoker who developed emphysema and still couldn't completely give up cigarettes. They fought more about that issue than probably any other, and Norma Jean came close to leaving him over it several times. But they stayed together, and when he died, I went to Florida to spend three weeks with her afterwards. Their two children could not be more different from each other: Allison is a Lt. Colonel at the Pentagon, and Peter is a multitalented computer whiz who has recently come to live with Norma Jean. He was laid off from his job in Michigan and went off to California to seek his fortune. When nothing panned out, he came to live with Norma Jean in Florida and is a real help to her. I frankly feel much better about Peter being there. I worry about her and come up with some real doozies when she doesn't answer her phone. I don't know how long he will stay, but I hope it's for awhile. The two of them returned yesterday from a visit at Allison's.

And me, here in Bellingham with my life partner, with my two sons long gone from this earth, no grandchildren in the picture, but a full life nevertheless. I made four skydives yesterday with my friends in Snohomish, and today I'll head off into the wilderness with some of my hiking friends. Monday I will go to the movies with my friend Judy, and now that the Independence Day holiday is behind us, my routine can be reestablished. On Wednesday I will have a nice video chat with Norma Jean; it's so much better than a phone call, and we will visit for a couple of hours and share what's going on in our respective lives.
Thanksgiving 2012
This picture was taken last Thanksgiving, in the same birth order as the first picture. None of us look much like we did thirty years ago, but we are still here, still sharing the planet, and I feel incredibly blessed that my parents gave us life, gave us each other, and that we are all still here to enjoy life together. I know that one of us will die one day, and it will never be the same again. So I rejoice to know that the time has still not come and fervently wish for many, many more years together.