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, September 28, 2014

Falling into fall

Leaves are changing
Today I am most likely going out to the Drop Zone to make a few jumps with my friends. It's not certain, however, since the fog might not lift as early as it did yesterday. I saw pictures of Seattle from my friend Linda's blog, which showed beautiful clear skies for most of the day; here, we never did get full sunshine. I just looked at the satellite picture, and the fog in the Puget Sound area does look a little heavier than it did yesterday. We'll see.

I'd like to go, even if I only make one skydive. My season is fast coming to a close. The Drop Zone will only be open one more month, October, and there is never any assurance that the weather will cooperate. Most years I've been able to jump until mid-October, so there's hope. I know it sounds like I'm still waffling about whether or not to make this my last season, but I'm not, really. It's just been such a big part of my life for the past twenty-five years, and it's hard to think of not ever flinging myself out of an airplane and playing in freefall again. Plus there's that beautiful canopy I love to fly.

Last night I had a dream that I had a malfunction. I looked up at my deploying parachute and it was not fully inflating. I tried to wiggle it around and finally made the decision to cut it away and use my reserve parachute. Well, I successfully went back into freefall, but my reserve did not come out! I tried to punch it with my elbows, wanting it to come out of the bag, but I woke up before I figured out why it didn't work. And before I hit the ground. It was an unsettling dream. I lay in bed for awhile thinking about it, wondering if it was an omen, something I should pay attention to. I had done everything correctly and still it didn't look like I would survive.

What I think the dream was telling me is just that: no matter what I do, how carefully I make sure everything is done properly, I'm still going to die. My mortality has been on my mind lately, as I get closer to my next birthday, and as I continue to learn of dear friends who are very sick and not expected to survive, fighting that last battle. My friend Steve who has liver cancer is waiting for a transplant. He was only given six months to live without one, and it's getting close. The pictures I see of him make me very sad, but he has asked us to be positive, and I'm trying, I really am. But it's hard to imagine wishing for another person with his same blood type to meet an untimely death just so Steve can go through another type of misery. But he's strong and vigorous and wants to live, so I'm determined to stay positive, for his sake.

I've been enjoying the Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts. I've finished five of the seven two-hour-long episodes. I know the next one will take me through Franklin Roosevelt's four elections to the presidency. I was amazed to learn through this series that Teddy Roosevelt only lived to be sixty, and that Franklin only lived to be sixty-three. They both accomplished an incredible amount in what seems to me to be rather short lives, but then again, sixty years is a long time. It's only that I've gone past that number myself and now more than a decade has passed since that milestone. I've changed my idea of what defines a long life. I wonder if I'll feel the same way when I reach eighty.

I doubt it, for several reasons. It's incredible how quickly a year passes these days. Even a decade passes rapidly. When I was a young woman, it seemed like a decade took almost forever. Now, I look back ten years and feel it was just yesterday. This is, I'm convinced, an aspect of aging that we all come to realize, if we live long enough. Every year becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of my life, and every one of my paltry eight or nine decades of life finishes way too soon.

Okay, I've done enough with that bit, haven't I? What I would like to do with the rest of this post is count my blessings. It's way more fruitful and worthwhile than grousing about the brevity of life. First of all, I count the blessing of my environment, which includes the magnificent Pacific Northwest in general, and my little corner of the universe in particular. While this tiny apartment with little furniture wouldn't satisfy many people, it's quite enough for me. Sharing it with my partner, who loves me immoderately and who has taught me so very much during our quarter of a century together, that's on the top of my list.

My blogging universe is right up there towards the top of the list, too. It was only five years ago that I began to write a blog, and it satisfies some deep need in me to communicate my thoughts. Years ago I kept a journal, but it was a different time, and my journal had no audience. I still re-read parts of those volumes, but it was a complete surprise to me to find like-minded people who also write blogs. That universe of virtual friends has become a source of continuing delight. I look forward to reading about the daily life of many of my friends, most of whom I will never meet in person. Some, though, I have.

Next month I will travel south to join five other blogging women to have our annual retreat on Vashon Island, our third such gathering. We all followed each other's lives on line and when one suggested that we get together, I never realized how much I would enjoy getting to know them in person. Another friend lives in Seattle and we met at the garden show, quite by accident. Well, not quite: her husband recognized me from my pictures on line. But you know, I have many other virtual friends who live far away from me: Hawaii, Australia, London, Maine, Minnesota, and many other places I'm not likely to travel to. It doesn't matter: they are my virtual family and I cherish them all. If someone doesn't show up on line for awhile, I begin to worry and try to find out if all is well, or whether they just decided to stop blogging for awhile. It's a part of my universe that is new and exciting; it keeps me connected and engaged. I'm very grateful for it.

Next comes the rest of my family. Although PJ is no longer with us, I think of her often. I am very grateful for Facebook, which puts me in contact with members of my family that I would otherwise miss. My sister Norma Jean and I talk by video chat every other week, and I see pictures of my brother, sisters, nieces and nephews and their goings-on through our Facebook connection. Which brings me to the reason for all that: internet connection! It is so much a part of my life today that I almost forgot to mention it, but without that, I wouldn't blog or have joined the virtual world of today.

Last week I was missing my partner, but he's dozing next to me right now. I know the sounds of his breathing and realize that a few minutes ago he turned over and is probably listening to the sound of the keyboard and pondering his day. Yep, I'm sure of it now. I think I'll finish this so I can close the laptop and snuggle with him for a few minutes. He'll ask me what I wrote about, and I'll say I wrote about gratitude. Mostly.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Looking back: today and fifty years ago
I was looking at the picture of myself as a young woman the other day, and I wondered if I took  picture of myself today, now, and compared it to that old photo, would I be recognizable as being the same person? I put it on my iPad and took it to the coffee shop and showed it around. Nope. I might have been the grandmother of that younger self, but nobody recognized the person I have become today as that young woman.

That's the way of things, though, isn't it? We are all moving through our lives from birth to death, and everyone is dramatically different after half a century of life; it has changed us, aged us, as we traverse the many cycles of life. That young woman had already been married twice and divorced once, lost her younger son to spinal meningitis, and so was already acquainted with suffering. But little did she know who she would become, although she thought about it.

When we are in our twenties, thinking about ourselves growing old seems impossible. We look at our parents and grandparents and their friends and acquaintances, and we see what we think we will be like when we reach their age. But it's rarely like that, it seems. My mother never did become a septuagenarian; she died at 69. Both of my grandmothers died in their seventies, but they seemed much older in those days. In the 1960s and 1970s, by the time women reached the age of 70 they were certainly not expected to do much more than sit in a rocking chair and knit, read mystery novels, and perhaps cook. This is reflected in the films and television shows of the era.

Somehow it began to change, and by the time the new century rolled around, it wasn't unusual for older women to be given a different role: that of active, involved citizens who challenge themselves to strive for fitness. I don't think I ever heard of a seventy-something woman running a marathon in 1965. I suppose they did, but nothing like you see today. Times have definitely changed in fifty years, and the expectation that someone in their seventies and eighties could still be very active has become commonplace. I found this article on line, with some really inspiring stories: 10 People Over Seventy Who Are Fitter Than You. These ten people range in age from 70 to 102. I have difficulty reconciling the expectations of half a century ago with the reality of today.

As most of my readers know, I work at staying fit and exercise regularly at the gym, walk and hike with my friends, but even so, I have begun the process of trying to stay ahead of my infirmities. A bad knee (tore my ACL and had subsequent ACL replacement surgery in 1994), some Achilles tendon pain, and other aches and pains keep me from doing more. Most of my hiking pals, all of us seniors, have to deal with some chronic condition that needs to be managed. At the party we had on Friday, our dear friend Amy came to visit. She stopped hiking with us earlier this year because of a knee replacement and intractable back problems. She will probably be unable to join us on the trails any more. Ross had two knees replaced in the spring and is doing much better, and may even be able to hike with us again next year. He's working on it. But there's no guarantee.

Last night I awoke thinking about this post, what I would write about this morning, and the word "cycles" kept running through my mind. I realize that this coming spring will mark seven years since I retired and moved here. That got me to thinking about how many seven-year cycles I've marked in my lifetime: a full ten, and I'm working on the eleventh. By the time I reach the end of this cycle, I'll be 77 years old. A lot can happen in those five years, especially as we get into the higher reaches of our seventies. Perhaps I won't be able to continue my activities at that age, but maybe I will. It depends a lot on maintaining my fitness level and gradually advancing it, keeping myself at a good weight, eating right, and staying involved in my community.

I read an interesting article yesterday, written by E.J. Emanuel, entitled Why I Hope to Die at 75. Of course, he's only 57 right now, and that advanced age looks to be a long ways in the future. Well, he makes the case that it's only after we reach that age (75), that we begin to think we can prolong our lives by constant vigilance, working harder and harder to stay at the same place we were when we were younger. He thinks that bypass surgeries and other measures to stave off our inevitable decline are counterproductive. He might be right: I know my father was terrified of having to endure such a thing, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 62, even though there were options that might have allowed him to live much longer. He didn't want to go through it, and I don't blame him. But gosh, how much I would have loved to have him in my life for longer.

As Emanuel points out in the article, quality of life is crucial to continue the enjoyment of our later years. It's normal to want medical science to help out, but I've discovered that the more time I spend in the doctor's office, the less healthy I seem to be. Allopathic medicine looks to give one a prescription to help with sleep, constipation, chronic pain, and the other myriad ills that we all face at one time or another. And they all come with side effects. Well, another pill can help with that acid reflux that is caused by the other medicine, says the doctor.

I take a lot of vitamins and two prescription medications, one for high blood pressure and the other for high cholesterol. Sometimes it can be burdensome, but I think they have helped me to keep from having developed chronic heart disease. With my family history, I feel justified in trying to stay as heathy as possible. When I have my blood drawn, my numbers look pretty good, and I intend to keep it that way for as long I can. I will complete this cycle, my eleventh seven-year cycle, in 2019. I will strive for good health and do what I can to keep going. My philosophy is that if I take care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

This is an unusual morning: my partner is out of town, and the spot next to me where I usually hear him stirring at this time is quiet. He will return today after being gone for four days, and I am looking forward to having him walk in the door and return to our daily routine. His absence for a few days has made me realize how much I need him around. It's like breathing: you take it for granted until you can't catch your breath. He's my fresh air, and once he's home I will breathe easy again.

I wish you all good things in your life until we meet again next week.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Living large and living small

The view of Mt. Baker from my living room
Yesterday I was looking out my front door when I saw this contrail cloud pointing almost directly to the tiny little view I have of Mt. Baker from my living room. After two years in this apartment, I've grown very accustomed to the variety of looks the mountain has. When I can see it, that is. It's much more likely that I look out my front door and see grey skies, maybe with a bit of moisture. In this part of the country, I've heard people say "the mountain is out" when referring to Mt. Rainier showing its face from Seattle. Well, for me it's Mt. Baker, and the mountain has been out much more this summer than I remember from years past.

I've been thinking about what it means to "live large," hence the title of this post. If you look up the definition, it refers to being wealthy and using that wealth in extravagant and ostentatious ways. But there are many ways to look at what it means to live large, in my opinion. Maybe it means using your wealth to buy multiple homes and houses and needing to have all that money to sustain your lifestyle. Those who let their needs mushroom along with their money never feel wealthy, but just stuck in the need to acquire more and more stuff.

For one thing, if you don't have your health, it doesn't matter at all how much money you have, since you don't enjoy it. That's one thing you can never buy, that and peace of mind. It seems to me that having too much money can be counterproductive to happiness. And after all, isn't that what all of us really want? To be happy? The consumer culture that permeates our lives here in the United States, perhaps everywhere, makes us want what someone else has. If I had that new car, the big house filled with the latest appliances, I would be happy then, right?

I don't think so. But then again, I'll never have to worry about having too much money. I've never had the acquisitive gene, and I was fortunate to marry someone who has even less of it than I do. I may not acquire expensive and fancy things, but I tend to hold onto things I don't need or use any more for way too long. Smart Guy, on the other hand, regularly purges his closet to rid himself of those items he doesn't wear or use any more. He also does the same thing with the food in the refrigerator. Before I met him, there would be little containers of leftovers in there that I would finally throw out. He doesn't allow that to happen, and if there is something I don't remember I left in there, he strategically places it in front so I can't help but see it. He's thrifty, and I guess you could call that living small.

Although I don't have much money, I feel as though I live large, since I always had enough of everything I ever wanted to have. I remember years ago when I first went to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It was in 1979, and I considered myself to be a hippie, back in the days when we were ubiquitous, and the only clothes I owned were jeans and t-shirts. Fortunately for me, there was no dress code at NCAR, so I didn't need to change my clothing habits to work there. The other secretaries dressed up much more than I did, but even they didn't seem to mind. In fact, I realized that the PhD scientists dressed just like me! It was only the female hourly wage earners who looked well put together.

When the weather turned cold, I went to Goodwill and got myself a down jacket, which didn't look all that good, and my boss decided I needed a better looking jacket and gave me a purple down coat he didn't wear because of the color. (It was perfect for me, though.) That began our relationship of him giving me things he no longer wanted. I was always happy to receive them, but that old habit I had of accumulating stuff required me to begin to give away things to others. It worked well, and I still get a great deal of enjoyment by giving away something I don't use any more to someone else who needs it.

I suppose if I were to win the lottery, I'd be forced to change my lifestyle. Or would I? Could I still be happy living the way I do if I had millions of dollars in the bank? I recently learned that Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people on the planet, still lives in the same house he bought in 1957. He also once said that his children will not inherit great sums of money when he dies, because he wants them to have enough to believe they can do anything, but not so much that they believe they don't need to do anything at all.

When I am feeling good, the world looks bright and filled with promise. There's that same old problem of health being more important, at least to me, than any other kind of wealth. When I'm feeling sick, or start to worry about my health because of some new ache or pain, it wouldn't matter at all how much money I had in the bank: I'd be unhappy. So, therefore, it makes sense to me to concentrate first and foremost on doing everything I can to keep my physical and mental self as healthy and happy as possible. Of course, we all get sick, we all get older and more and more infirm. It's the way of things. And that doesn't change with money in the bank.

The most amazing thing has begun to happen as I get older and begin to feel my age: I'm beginning to accept it all, in ways I could never have even imagined when I was fifty, or even sixty. There is some kind of gentle tolerance that comes to me sometimes, and I think about how fortunate I am to be in my seventies and able to indulge in so many activities that give me pleasure. I can still skydive, although I choose not to do it for much longer. I go hiking with my senior buddies every week; I walk and read and have great conversations with my friends and family. There are many things that have fallen away because of age, it's the way of life. But I'm still living large, to me, and I've been blessed with relatively good health, a good mind, and people who love me and who I also love.

The brilliant sunshine just began to pour into the room as the sun rises, reminding me that it's getting to be time to get out of bed. My partner still sleeps beside me, although I see some stirring. My tea is gone, and my post is almost written. It's not what I thought I was going to write about, but it almost never is.

I'll pull out my skydiving gear and head to the Drop Zone today for another chance to jump out of perfectly good airplanes for no reason at all except that it's fun. And I will wish you, my dear reader, another satisfying week before we meet again.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Taking risks

Crossing a stream last Thursday
Last Thursday, I went on my usual hike with the Senior Trailblazers, and we knew that we would have to cross several fast-flowing streams to get to the great view of the glaciers on Mt. Baker. Once we got to this roaring stream, Al, our leader, tried to cross first. (There were ten of us.) He thought it was possible to get across without falling in or getting your feet very wet, and he did it. I did notice as I watched his crossing that his pants had gotten wet almost to his knees from the splashing water, but his waterproof high-top boots kept his feet dry as he picked his way from rock to rock. Then several of the others went across with varying levels of success, and I hesitated, unsure of whether or not to try it. The water is not only crashing over the rocks, but the current is also very strong and the chance of getting hurt high, if I slipped and fell in.

Al came back over to talk with those who were unwilling or reluctant to cross, and gave them a walkie-talkie; they backtracked a short distance to an alternate route to a nice view without having to cross the stream. While they were talking, I decided to see if I might be able to make it, and Mike snapped this picture of me as I carefully made my way across. My waterproof boots and gaiters kept me dry, and I was very pleased with myself for having done it. Actually, little Noriko, one of the hikers who is shorter and smaller than me, had gone across easily, and that was enough for me to give it a try. Nobody fell in, although not everyone's feet were exactly dry.

This has caused me to ponder the differences between people, with some being risk-takers and others being risk averse. I think we are born with tendencies one way or the other. My sister Norma Jean has never been a risk taker, while I have always been willing to try new and exciting adventures. Our entire childhood growing up together, we functioned as a team, with me charging on ahead and her offering reasons why we shouldn't rush in. There were times when I listened to her, and other times when I would convince her to give something new a try.

Since my father was in the Air Force and we moved frequently, I was often having to start attending a new school, most often in the middle of a school year, rather than at the beginning when many other children would be new. I remember having to stand and introduce myself more than once to a classroom filled with strangers. As an extrovert, I managed it much more easily than my shy and introverted sister. But it was still not an easy task.

As I became an adult, I went through some pretty harrowing experiences as I lost my little son and went through a terrible divorce, and then another. I found employment over the years, because I was a skilled secretary, a position that was ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s. It stuns me to realize that there are fewer and fewer jobs like that these days. Times have definitely changed.

As the decades passed, I had many adventures with friends. My sister married, had two children and was living in another part of the country, and we lost touch for many years. I knew that she had settled down in Michigan and had no desire to move any more, happy to be stationary. At the same time I was still a wanderer, first living in California, then traveling for a couple of years before discovering Boulder, Colorado. It was the first time I had found a place that I wanted to make my own home town. I ended up living there for well over thirty years and had finally settled down.

But I still found ways to take risks. I met some people who loved to climb fourteeners (peaks in the Colorado mountains that are at least 14,000 feet high) and ended up climbing 26 of them, sometimes more than once, over the years. I fell in love with the mountains. There were many harrowing experiences, close calls, and chances of getting hurt, but I had learned a few things from my sister and often thought of what she would do. Other than a sprain or two, I never got injured.

And then 24 years ago last week, I made a tandem skydive that changed the trajectory of my life. Before a full year had passed, I had made more than 300 skydives and spent every waking moment lost in the thrill of becoming a proficient skydiver. That thrill lasted for thousands upon thousands of skydives. I became an instructor and over the next twelve years taught more than a thousand students. I met my husband in 1992 through skydiving, and we were married in freefall two years later.

And now I am living in the Pacific Northwest as an active senior, having become a septuagenarian almost two years ago, but still looking for ways to take risks and enjoy myself to the fullest. This year I've almost stopped skydiving, with the weekends more likely to take me outdoors in all kinds of weather than traveling 75 miles south to Skydive Snohomish. That Drop Zone has become home to me, the place where I like to play in the air with a few good friends. I suspect that by the time the new year rolls around, my skydiving years will be behind me.

But the risk-taking aspect of my personality is still intact. I guess it will always be that way. I realize that the thrill I get from accomplishing a stream crossing or traversing a sleep slope with lots of exposure is as familiar to me as breathing in and out. As I age, those challenges will still be there, but they will be pared down to be more in line with the ability of my body to take me from one adventure to another. And there are the challenges of aging, which some wag has said "ain't for sissies." Finding ways to deal with staying active in the face of old knees and other well-worn body parts is challenging in itself.

I found this quote by Hunter S. Thompson, who lived his life to the fullest. The sentiment is dear to my heart and he deserves to be credited for coming up with this philosophy.
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"
I'm working on it, Hunter. I hope that this week finds you, my dear readers, in a good place, surrounded with whatever joys in life give you happiness, whether it be outdoor activities, reading good books, or your children and grandchildren. I will never have that last particular joy, but I've found plenty of others in my life. Sending you blessings from the vantage point of a risk taker.