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, December 29, 2013

The way we were

Elementary school picture
I have had this picture in my possession for a long time, but I don't know how I came to have it. Did my mother give it to me long ago, or when both of my parents were gone and we were going through old pictures, did I ask for it? I'm one of the little girls sitting on the ground in front, eighth from the left, cocking my head to the side, much like I do in pictures today.

Although it was more than half a century ago, I still remember some of these children, who must have been my playmates. The girl in the front on the extreme left was a tomboy and never wore dresses. She was shy but strong minded, I remember. The girl standing in the back with the coat and scarf on was one of my favorites, and I can almost remember her name. The little boy on the ground, third from the right, was always teasing everyone, and you can see it in his demeanor. I wonder what happened to all of them. Probably the teacher is no longer living, and I would guess that several of us are also gone by now. But some of us are still around, I'm sure. There is no way to find them. We were all military dependents attending elementary school at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

In our journey through life, we change so much from year to year. I couldn't have been more than eight or nine in this picture, I'm guessing, but still the essence of me shines through. My memories are more intact for this school picture than makes any sense to me. It's interesting to note that the school buildings behind us were all very temporary, even though at the time I didn't notice. Another thing that I observe is that not one child is overweight, in comparison to a school picture taken of children today: you would more than likely see several who are fat, even some morbidly overweight. What has changed?

Well, we all know part of the answer to that question: our diet has changed drastically over half a century. I remember we carried lunches to school in paper sacks or lunch pails, a white-bread sandwich with (for me anyway) usually peanut butter and jelly or maybe bologna. Maybe an apple or banana and not a bit of vegetable anywhere to be seen. A homemade cookie and a container of milk rounded out my lunch. Not a lunch I would be willing to eat today, but it was normal for the time. The difference is that nothing in my lunchbox was processed, other than the white bread and the jelly. I'll bet the jelly was sweetened with actual sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup.

Today's kids are fed pizza and tater tots, and soft drinks. I learned recently that even milk has sugar added to it, to make kids more likely to drink it. I remember that there were a few days, not many, that I bought lunch from the cafeteria, but I know for sure it was nothing like what is served to kids these days. Processed foods have taken over every aspect of a child's life. Boxed cereal, usually filled with chemicals and very sweet, starts the day, and it goes downhill from there. No wonder there are so many kids who don't even know what a vegetable looks like.

I recently learned about food deserts. They are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead, there are only fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. I feel fortunate to live in a place where I can buy locally grown veggies at the Farmers' Market. It's closed at this time of year, but if I am willing to pay a higher price I can buy greens during the winter months that are shipped from California. They may not be as tasty, but certainly better than having to rely on Taco Bell for my dinner. Fast food may be cheap in the short run, but in the long run it's really bad for your health.

How did I get off on that topic? I intended to write about how much we change over the course of a lifetime. I was once a little girl, then a young mother, and now an elder looking at a decade or two of living still ahead. Time is not a linear trajectory, but we think of it that way because we can remember who we once were and imagine who we will become. Pictures give us something like a time machine, looking back and projecting who we will be in the future. But in reality, all we really have is this very moment. Last night I dreamed of my son Chris again, and he was, as usual, a teenager. It was as real as me sitting here in my bed with the laptop, but when I woke and I returned to the reality of this actual moment, I realized that Chris has been gone from the world for a long time. But not from my own individual reality. He will always be part of me.

That little girl in the picture will always be part of me, too. When I first looked at that picture and studied the faces, the memory of that time long ago came back to me as if it happened yesterday. It is a mystery to me, how time and memory work inside my internal world. If I were able to imagine myself frozen in time, what/who would I be? Certainly not that prepubescent creature in the picture, and not the young mother, or the secretary and administrator who worked for so many years. Not the senior citizen I have become today, although there are aspects of them all who make up this person composing on her laptop. When I think of the expanse of my life, I'm all of them, but I am unable to pin down to any single moment when I stopped being one and morphed into the next.

This is, of course, true of anybody who thinks about life's trajectory from birth to death. But still I am fascinated by it all, wondering about the miracle that brings us forth, aware of ourselves, and grateful for the journey that is life. For it truly is a journey, isn't it? I'm glad to be here right now, today, writing this and thinking about you, my reader, who joins me on my path today. Be well and I'll see you next week. Most likely, anyway.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas week

Our front porch
Often, when I arrive back home after my workout at the gym, I see this scene: Smart Guy standing outside watching for me. He knows when the bus will let me off, and that's pretty predictable. It was snowing a little when I took this picture. Usually he's got a cup of hot tea in his hands, but not this past Friday. You can also see the holiday wreath I recently purchased on the left side of the railing; it doesn't show up all that well, but it did get quite lovely with fresh snow on it.

Yesterday, after my usual Saturday walk with the ladies, I braved the crowds and went Christmas shopping for some last-minute items. I like to buy little edible treats for people I see every day but with whom I don't exchange gifts. It's just something to let them know I appreciate them. I was really amazed at how busy it is out there. I wouldn't even think of going near a mall, considering what a madhouse it was in the places I did visit. This is good news, I guess, for the merchants. Last weekend before a mid-week Christmas Day. I am not sure what I'll do on Christmas, other than talk with my sister in the middle of the day, and perhaps visit my other siblings in the same way. I just downloaded Skype onto my new Kindle, and this means I can talk with anybody who has a camera on their phone or laptop—if they have Skype on theirs, that is. Technology has changed everything: now that I can actually SEE people when I talk to them, I much prefer it.

Everything will be closed up tight on Christmas Day, which is as it should be. Except for needing a place to get my coffee, I'm happy that all the people who work in those 24-hour stores will be getting a break. Except for my caffeine fix!! We do have coffee and a coffeepot if we must make it ourselves, but I really enjoy espresso much more than coffee. One thing I learned when we moved here: people in the Pacific Northwest know their coffee. Most of it in the places that I frequent is also free trade and on the expensive side, but it helps me to know that the quality I receive has not ripped off the growers. I know I'm not making a huge impact in the world, but I do think it's important to know the origin of my food.

I'll most likely head out for a nice walk in a local park on Christmas, since I won't have any other options for exercise unless, again, I decide to lift some weights here at home. It's funny to realize what a social exerciser I am: I need company to enjoy working out, while others prefer to exercise alone. I wonder if that is because I'm an extrovert. Smart Guy is introverted, and he much prefers solitary activities, including exercise. Perhaps I'll get him to join me on Christmas Day, however. The weather looks like it will be overcast in the low 40s, but without any rain. A perfect day!

I've got a couple of new worries to occupy my mind: my youngest sister Fia just got home after having spent four days in the hospital with severe asthma. She is staying home from work while she's recovering. And my other sister PJ, who had a heart attack a few months ago, is making peace with the fact that she will be disabled for the rest of her life. Her husband has been updating me with text messages, and I've got my fingers crossed that the tests she just had done will show something—anything—positive. At least, he said, they didn't keep her in the hospital, so that's a plus.

Norma Jean and I have discussed our apparent addiction to exercise. We are similar in our desire to get a workout daily, but when I think of the fact that our parents didn't make it out of their sixties, and that we've got a younger sister who is already compromised by heart problems, it makes us more convinced that staying fit is our only option for staving off heart disease. It also helps to eat the right kind of foods, and we both do that most of the time.

It's not easy at this time of the year to keep sugar and wheat out of my diet. I do my best, but I am also not willing to rigidly control my food intake when I'm at a party or enjoying a fine meal. But those are the exceptions, while healthy food is the norm. Yesterday was the last day for the Farmers' Market, and I'll truly miss the kale we enjoy from Rabbit Fields Farm. Organic kale from the Food Cooperative will take its place in our diet, but it's not the same as eating locally grown food.

I will be thinking of my blogging family on Christmas, and giving thanks for our connection, as well as for my other family members. In my mind's eye, you will, one and all, be enjoying the holiday in whatever manner is best for you. If you have kids and grandkids, I know you will be seeing the holiday through their eyes. The rest of us will be enjoying the holiday in our own ways. Be well, and I'll be seeing you next Sunday when we meet here again. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Closing in on year's end

Lost Lake outlet
I took that picture last Thursday on our hike to Lost Lake. I wrote about our adventure on my other blog, which is my usual Thursday activity. I looked at that crossing, covered with ice, and wondered how in the world I would get across it. And then I noticed that everybody else had found an easy crossing over to the left. My worries were groundless, as they usually are.

If I knew how to keep myself from worrying about things, I would. Perhaps it's time to turn back to meditation. It served me well in past years, but I just don't seem to be very motivated right now. My inclination to lie awake and worry, though, is not conducive to a good night's sleep or good for my health. My latest worry is having to go to the Social Security office tomorrow and find out why they have taken so much money out for Medicare. My notification of Social Security for the coming year came in the mail yesterday, but something is awry. There is nothing to be done except to go down to the office and get in line. I'm sure I won't be alone, so I'll skip my usual workout routine and spend the day there hoping to fix the problem. It looks like they think I am signing up for the first time, although I've been on Medicare for almost seven years. This is the first year I've had a problem, so I will dutifully smile and try to remember that the poor clerk who will be at the window is not the reason for the problem.

What I notice about my thought processes these days is that I tend to bounce something around in my mind, going back over and over the same ground, getting nowhere except having worked myself into a bad mood. Things happen to people all the time, that is the constant; how one deals with adverse events is up to each of us. In so many ways my everyday life is good, so when something untoward occurs, you'd think I would be able to take it in stride. Perhaps it's the fact that as I'm getting older, I keep expecting the axe to fall: how can I presume to continue indefinitely this way?

One of my blogging friends, Linda Letters, is going to have surgery on her back soon. The link will take you to her post entitled, "Decision Time." I have thought about what I would do in the same situation. She will have rods and screws inserted into her L-4 vertebra to fix the problem. I know that area well, since when I shattered my pelvis and lost the artery down my right leg back in 2000, the surgeon had to put some permanent pins in my back at L-5. When I was recovering, he told me that perhaps a third of patients have continuing pain, and he hoped he would not need to remove those pins because it might cause more nerve damage. I'm one of the fortunate two-thirds, with no pain from them. Everyone is different, and I hope all goes well for her. I'll be worrying about it  until she recovers (of course).

This past week I took my car in to have the timing belt replaced. It's a Honda Civic, and I was overdue for having the work done. The mechanics who work on my car kept telling me it was past time, but I hesitated because of the cost. Then a friend of mine had his car's timing belt break, and it means much more money in the long run if that happens. I took it as a sign and scheduled the work. The engine must be pulled to replace the belt, and the mechanic worked all day long on my car, but now it drives just fine and I'm pleased. I put the expense on my credit card and will work to get it paid off over the next few months. I was told the belt was in bad shape; he pointed to a pile of some greasy metal, which I guess was the old belt.

Credit cards are nice if you use them wisely; I used to carry a balance on mine, but when I retired I paid it off, and now I enjoy seeing it at zero. It'll be awhile before I see that again, since I seem to have gotten into the holiday spirit and bought things for myself and Smart Guy. Once our TV died, a new one was a necessity (to me anyway), and I recently purchased a Kindle. I've enjoyed learning how to use it, and I'm currently reading a John Grisham book suggested by my sister Norma Jean. They sure do make it easy to buy stuff, don't they? I thought about the book, looked it up, and pushed one button to order it, and within a few seconds I was ready to start reading it.

It's already the middle of December, which amazes me when I think about it. All the leaves are gone from the trees; we encountered snow and ice last Thursday, remnants of the extreme cold we experienced for two long weeks. Now it's really nice outside, well above freezing, even if it's cloudy with occasional rain. It feels much more normal than the wan sunshine and freezing temperatures. And the winter solstice will occur at 9:11am PST on Saturday, before we meet again. These days the sun goes down just a little after 4:00pm up here in the Pacific Northwest, and these short days and long nights will soon begin their three-month journey towards spring. So here I am: going to Christmas parties, eating too much, hunkering down against the weather, and spending time in end-of-year activities. Maybe dusting off my meditation pillow is in order and seeing if I can worry a bit less, what do you think?

By the time we meet again, the days will be getting longer, by a few seconds at least. By the end of January, I will be making plans to visit my sister in Florida and looking forward to a change of scenery. Ah, palm trees! Sandals and shorts! But I'm getting ahead of myself. I've got six weeks before then, and I intend to find a way to live in the moment. Be well, dear friends, until we meet again.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A frigid but really good week

Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan
Since we last visited, I've seen two wonderful movies, both of which have AIDS figuring into them in one way or another. Philomena is a movie about a woman who had a child out of wedlock when she was very young and was taken in by nuns, who gave her three-year-old son away, without her being able to do anything about it. Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, a real-life person who has become her friend.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I am one of those people who will go to any movie Dench is in, because I know she's going to be magnificent. In this one, she plays a rather frumpy older woman who is given a chance to find her long-lost son by a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan). He learns that many of the children at that convent were adopted by Americans, and they fly off to America to find him. When they learn that he died in 1995, she is devastated, but Sixsmith continues to dig, finding out that her son was gay and died of AIDS. He had gone to Ireland looking for her, and she finds he is buried at the convent in her home town, where she lived all those years ago.

In many ways, you feel pretty awful for the way she was treated, the arbitrary manner that people were treated by the nuns, but throughout, Philomena is never angry or bitter; instead, her faith carries her through. In Ireland, there has been quite a kerfuffle over the movie, with the New York Post branding the movie as anti-Catholic and "a sugary slice of arsenic cake." Philomena Lee responded with a letter that was printed in the New York Times, USA Today, and the LA Times, saying, "Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story."

When I see a movie I really enjoy, I always get on the internet to research it, not just what other people think of it, but when it is based on real life, I want to know how much they altered the facts to make it into a movie. I'll know more when I read the book written by Martin Sixsmith, called "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." I found an article in the LA Times that interviewed 80-year-old Philomena Lee about how she feels about the movie. It's quite touching, so I linked it for you to enjoy if you wish, too. Before I move on, just one more link, this time to an interview with Judi Dench about the movie, where she talks about what it's like to be such a sought-after actress at 78. She says she feels "like a tall willowy blond of 43 with long legs." What a role model!

The other movie I saw was the Dallas Buyers Club, with Matthew McConaughey playing another real-life role, that of Ron Woodroof, a hard-living rodeo cowboy in Texas who finds out he has AIDS and is given only 30 days to live. McConaughey lost 50 pounds to play this role, and at the end he is so gaunt he doesn't look like himself at all. I read an article that explained how he lost the weight, trying to make sure he didn't injure his body in order to portray a man dying of AIDS. His co-star Jared Leto also lost 30 pounds; I saw him interviewed on the Daily Show last week where he explained that he just stopped eating for a few weeks in order to lose weight.

I never warmed up to the Ron Woodroof character, although the movie portrays a homophobic man without a conscience who morphs into someone who becomes friends with many of his fellow AIDS sufferers and who manages to make a difference in many of their lives. The name of the movie comes from a club he created in Dallas where AIDS patients could buy a membership and be given drugs he smuggled in from all over the world. Back in the mid-eighties, the FDA didn't allow any of the drugs that other countries had found effective against the virus to be sold, and these buyers clubs began to form all over the country. Woodroof lived for another seven years before finally succumbing to the virus. McConaughey's performance is worthy of an Oscar, for sure, and I hope he will get the recognition he deserves. I highly recommend the movie, but I left the theater with sadness for all the suffering caused by corporate interests.

It reminded me of my friend Robert who died of AIDS in July 1990. I wonder if he had belonged to one of these clubs if he would have lived longer. He was only 47 when he died, and he took AZT, which I've learned did not help people when given in large doses, but it was the only FDA-approved drug available at the time. It doesn't do any good to look back and wish things were different, does it? But I wonder.

All the while that I was going off to movies with my friend Judy, it has been incredibly cold and windy for our part of the country. The low temperature last night was 12 deg F. Although I didn't curtail my outdoor activities by much, I am actually beginning to look forward to the change from freezing temperatures and sunshine to relatively warm, cloudy, and wet. It's been hard to stay warm, but in the process of being out and about, I've learned how to keep my fingers and toes warm, so that's a plus. The forecast says that we have endured the worst of it for now, and my next Thursday's hike might even have some rain. Right now it would be snow.

If you get a chance to see either one of those movies, please let me know what you think of them. I'm hoping that we all stay warm and cozy until next week. I do have some readers who live in the Southern Hemisphere, so I can also wish some of you cool breezes, until we meet again.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Happy birthday to me

I took this picture of myself to document what I looked like last week, when I was just a young thing of seventy. Today I turn 71, and I begin my seventy-second year of life on the planet. That seems almost incredible to me, since it seems like just yesterday that I entered my eighth decade of life, turning seventy. What magic is involved in making the earth's revolution around the sun hurry up like that?

Every stage of my life except the final one has already occurred. Now I will spend the final few years enjoying every last little bit of it, and I'll even lick the bowl, if God gives me the chance. Even though the end of life can be challenging, it can also be very satisfying, if my peers are any indication. Those people with whom I hike every week are right around my age. A few of them are youngsters in their early to mid-sixties, but most are my age or a few years older, and since we spend so much time together in various weather situations, I get to learn how they deal with the vagaries of growing older. Most of them work hard at staying fit, eating right, and maintaining a healthy weight. These are some of the key ingredients, I think.

When I saw that Robert Redford movie last week, I couldn't help but notice how much he has aged since his pretty-boy days. He's still a good-looking man, at 77, and being able to make that film and perform his own stunts was pretty amazing. He is still slender and obviously fit, and I know from experience that doesn't happen by itself. Even though he can afford it, he obviously has not had any "work" done (plastic surgery) that shows itself in those older celebrities who go that route (think Dolly Parton and Cher, for example). Judi Dench is 78, with a birthday next week; Vanessa Redgrave turns 77 in January, and neither of these magnificent women has chosen to go under the knife.

It makes me wonder if I would, if I could afford it. The thing is, we don't actually get any younger when we do this, and any kind of surgery tends to be physically demanding. I remember my mother standing in front of a mirror and tightening her jaw line, studying the effect. Now, on occasion, I do the same. Sometimes when I'm dressing in the morning and lean over to put on my clothes, the loose skin on my arms catches my eye: when did that happen? It's such a slow process, but one day you notice that your skin looks like your grandmother's did. In the coffee shop the other day, little Leo was sitting next to me and was stroking my arm below the elbow. "Your skin is so soft!" he exclaimed, obviously enjoying the feeling. I smiled and realized there was no way to explain to him why. He is one of my grandchild surrogates, along with those I enjoy in my blogging friends' pictures and stories. Leo knows I will play with him when he arrives at the coffee shop, and his dad enjoys the respite from the constant child care. Dad drinks his espresso and reads the paper while we play. Leo invited me to his birthday party this month when he turns five.

And today? What will I do with my own special day? No birthday party, that's for sure. I'll probably spend the majority of it with my partner, puttering around the apartment. The weather is supposed to deteriorate during the day, giving us lots of rain and wind, making any outdoor activity much less appealing. I might head to the gym for a bit of time on the treadmill. Even though it's not much fun, listening to a podcast on my iPhone makes the time pass quickly, and by the time I'm finished I'm really glad I did it. I've worked my way up to a 13% incline and burn a lot more calories, walking at a brisk pace. I also look out the window, since I can see the activity on the street, and I watch the abundant gulls and crows as they wheel through the sky. Bellingham Bay is visible as well. It's a nice view, even if in my walking I'm not going anywhere at all. Once I break a sweat and my heart rate has increased, I am glad to be there. By the time I've showered and head home, I feel great.

Yes, happy birthday to me! As I mentioned on my other blog, 71 is a prime number. Therefore, I am entering my prime, don't you think? One thing I know for sure: it's good to be alive, even with all the wrinkles, aches and pains that accompany the aging process. I hope that whatever you find to do with your week, it will be a good one, until we meet again, right here next week. Oh, one thing you can do for me, to help me celebrate my birthday: do something nice for yourself that you wouldn't otherwise have done. I will consider it to be my birthday present.