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, April 23, 2017

Becoming older but better

Tulips, sky, tree
Last Monday my friend Judy and I headed off to the Tulip Festival in Skagit County, something we've done many times before. This is the latest I've been to visit the tulips and we were still early, with the majority of the tulips either at the beginning of their bloom, or not even open yet. It didn't rain on us, but it threatened to all day, giving us plenty of dramatic shots like this one.

We strolled through the gardens and enjoyed the early morning light playing on the tulips. W arrived at the tulip gardens just at the gates opened to the public, and perhaps fifty people where there with us. By the time we left, just after noon, there were long lines waiting to get in, even on a weekday, the Monday after Easter. I was really surprised, but it was partly because we've had so much rain lately that I think people were doing just what I was: taking advantage of a break in the weather.

I'm really getting tired of the incessant rain, and that's saying something. I can usually do just fine with a bit of rain, but we have had the wettest winter since I moved here almost a decade ago. I've learned to enjoy and appreciate the rain, the cool and glorious summers, and the lovely change of the seasons. In Colorado, where I used to live, sunshine was a given on the vast majority of days year round. When we moved here, it was wonderful to enjoy the difference. But this year, I'm ready for a change from dreary skies and mud puddles.

One thing I've learned to do well is exercise in the rain. My closet is filled with rain gear of every sort, and I make use of it all: raincoats, rain hats, rain pants, gaiters, waterproof boots and walking shoes, you name it, I've got it. One thing I am not willing to do is stay inside because of the rain, as I am one of those people who is addicted to exercise. It turns out that this may be a really good thing to be addicted to.

Recently I read an interesting New York Times article about how to become a superager. A "superager" is defined as someone whose cognitive brain functions remain youthful, rather than declining, in old age. The author of the article, Lisa Feldman Barrett, studies superagers to figure out what makes them different from other people. It turns out that part of the difference is the degree of effort they expend, either physical or mental, helps to keep the brain from deterioration. From that article:
The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment.
I have experienced that "yuck factor" of having pushed myself to my physical limits on many a hike with my fellow Senior Trailblazers. It never occurred to me that it might be good for my brain to do so, but it seems to be the case. I'm hoping that in pushing myself I'll keep my mental faculties sharp (or sharper than they would be otherwise). I doubt that I'll be solving many math puzzles or taking up tournament bridge, because I don't have the desire to do so. The article, though, closes with this intriguing line:
If people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it. So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.
The one thing that really scares me about getting older is losing my memory. I follow a couple of bloggers who are dealing with dementia or Alzheimer's with their life partners, and their struggles are very enlightening. How would I deal with it? In this country we don't offer many options for our loved ones, other than caring for one's spouse at home, or eventually sending them to a nursing home until they finally pass away. Anybody who has been to a nursing home knows how awful they can be, although they vary in quality, often depending on what one can pay.

Recently I have been following Carole, who writes about her struggles with her husband's dementia on her blog, One of Life's Little Surprises. She is a gifted writer who brings to life the daily difficulties that she faces. At the end of this month, she has an intake session with a gerontologist, and I hope that there will be some medication that might make Carole's life a bit easier. I can't help but put myself in the same situation she's in, because it just might happen, either to me or to my own partner. What would I do? I used to think it was easier for the person who is mentally slipping away, but her blog has convinced me otherwise. It's hard no matter which side you're on in this awful scenario.

Years ago, I mentioned to my regular doctor at my checkup that I was concerned about forgetting things, about whether my cognitive decline was normal or not. She gave me a series of tests to see how I did, and I was surprised by some of the questions she asked. One thing she did was to recite to me a list of five things and asked me to remember them for later. I was able to recall four of the five at the end of the session, but it surprised me how hard it was to dredge them up out of my memory, after only a few minutes. She showed me a picture of a clock and asked me to tell her what it was by the hands of the clock. The hardest of all, for me, was to count backwards from 100 by 7. That was so hard for me that I went home and figured out how to do it: I could count backwards by 10 (easy) and then add 3. Not that it did any good for the test at the moment I was taking it.

She told me that, although I did have some problems, basically my memory seemed intact. It was a relief, but now it's been more than a decade and I figure I should probably do those tests again. I'll bet they are available online somewhere or other. It is hopeful to me to remember some of the difficult hikes I've been on lately and think that maybe they are benefitting me in ways I couldn't even imagine. Now that I think about it, all of my hiking buddies are pretty sharp mentally; maybe it's a side effect of our trudging up a mountainside, grumbling all the while.

One thing is certain: that every day that goes by is one more day to either enjoy one's life or experience regret for not having lived it to the fullest. I intend to spend some time every day giving thanks for all that I have received, and spend some time spreading it around. I do hope that you realize your own importance to your loved ones, and I'm hoping you count me among your virtual family. I certainly feel that way about you, dear reader.

Another post written, another day about to begin. I wish you all good things until we meet again next week.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday 2017

Easter Sunday 2009
Eight years ago, I was in Skopje, Macedonia on Easter Sunday. Although I had retired by then, my old boss Mickey talked me into working for him one more time, for a conference he wanted to have in Macedonia, and I reluctantly agreed. It was pretty wonderful to be able to travel to such a distant country and have it all paid for, and the work I was doing was something I had done for so many years for him that I wasn't worried about whether I could do it.

We organized it for the week after Easter, but we had neglected to realize that in this part of the world, the Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter at a different time, since they figure the date using a different method. However, by some fluke, this year, 2017, Easter is celebrated on the same day by both Orthodox Christians and the Catholic and Protestant churches.That means that at this moment, everywhere in the world the commemoration and celebration of Easter is in full swing.

In preparation for the trip, I had to figure out just where in the world Macedonia is, since I knew it was in Europe somewhere, but where exactly I didn't know. It is just north of Greece, surrounded by Albania, Kosovo, and Bulgaria. Arriving in the airport in the capital, Skopje, it was a bit of a culture shock to see how dilapidated the airport was. But once we traveled into the town, it was quite an adventure to be exposed to a new culture. The one thing I really enjoyed about my job was that I traveled to many exotic places in the world. Perhaps that's one reason why I no longer have any wanderlust left at all. I'm happy to stay right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Looking back over the past few decades, I am struck by how much my life has changed and settled down into a comfortable routine. I was thrilled to be able to travel to many parts of Southeast Asia numerous times, as well as Europe and even Russia once. I think my favorite place of all was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) many years ago. I have fond recollections of a trip we took to the countryside, and I was simply amazed at the sight of oxen-led carts sharing the street with cars, and the sense of happiness I felt from the people themselves. Everyone treated me with respect and curiosity, even though my country had waged a terrible war against them. I visited the Củ Chi tunnels during a tour, which should not be missed if you get a chance to get there. From that link:
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
It was simply amazing to see whole hospitals and living quarters underground like that, which I saw after crawling through several tunnels (widened for tourists) and going down to other deep levels. I have never forgotten that unique experience. It's easy to see why it was so difficult to conquer the Vietnamese people. And in my short visit there, they captured my admiration through their gentle spirit and willingness to forgive. I think that spirit of forgiveness is in short supply these days.

On this particular Easter Sunday, I am filled with foreboding when I read the news from around the world. We are apparently going on a path toward war, once again, this time with North Korea. It's difficult to fathom how this will be avoided, but on this day I want to concentrate on the resurrection of the light, of hope, and of joy, not on fear and dismay. Therefore, I am turning my eyes away from all the rumblings of conflict and instead concentrating on the positive side of life. The sun is shining today, the trees are in bloom (making me grateful for allergy medication), and at this moment my life is good, very good.

One thing about getting older is that it becomes easier to take a long view of history. When I was born in 1942, the world was so incredibly different than it is today, in so many ways, that I would never have believed it could change so much in a single lifetime. So when I take the long view, whatever happens in the world today will not be insurmountable. The world turns, the seasons change, and nature reasserts itself and heals the scars of humanity's folly. Eventually. Although I won't be around to see it, just knowing that helps me to find serenity in today's chaotic world.

Although I won't be attending church as I don't actually follow any particular denomination these days, I am very aware that Easter is a time for new beginnings, for me to find love and joy in my surroundings, my loved ones, and my daily life. I'll be heading off to the coffee shop and will truly enjoy my interaction with the people there. My friend John and I will share a bagel, and I'll laugh and carry on with him and Gene until it's time to go, and I'll step out into the magnificent sunshine and feel it on my face before deciding what comes next. One thing about living in a place where it rains much of the time, when the rain stops and the sun comes out, it's fun to see the faces around me break into smiles. You don't get that when you live in Florida or the desert.

My patent-leather Mary Jane shoes and Easter dress belong to another Easter, long ago, another time that only lives in my memory. I've got several months of Easters to look back on and as well celebrate the moment of today, Easter Sunday around the entire world. Hallelujah! Or, in today's vernacular, Woo-Hoo!

I just took the last swig of tea, my partner is still fast asleep next to me, and the sun, which is coming up earlier every day, is lightening the skies outside. I hope however you celebrate this day, whether Easter, or Passover, or Wicca, or nothing at all, it will be a good one, and one that you share with your friends and family in marking the coming of another season of love and joy. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Sunrise from my front porch
I spent way too long looking for a picture to put up on my post this morning. I got lost in memories as I looked for something that would be a fitting picture for my state this morning. Yes, I've been lost in the past in recent days. I read a very good book by Annie Proulx that covered three centuries of life in the early days of logging (Barkskins is the book). I was glad, though, when I finally reached the end of the book so I could pick up my own life again. The book is more than 700 pages long!

For the past week I've been thinking about how much of my own early life I've forgotten. I suppose this is normal, but years ago I kept journals, and yesterday after finishing that book, I began to wonder when it was exactly that I traveled with my friend Donna on a bicycling adventure from Boulder, Colorado, to San Francisco. It was in the mid-1970s, it turns out. I had been living in Boulder for a few years but had not yet begun my career at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, starting in 1979. In the fall of 1976, the two of us decided to bicycle across the country together. I had a ten-speed bike that I loved. We prepared for the trip by taking day-long treks into the nearby mountains and thought nothing of biking thirty or forty miles in a day, so we felt we were ready.

We had panniers (saddlebags) on our bikes, with camping equipment pared down to next to nothing, along with lightweight sleeping bags. We decided to go without a tent because of weight, and figured that if we ran into much rain we would buy one, or hole up in a motel until it passed. Incredibly, in the six weeks we were on the road, we never had any rain at all!

We headed north from Boulder, hoping to make Medicine Bow, Wyoming, in a few days (175 miles away). We had no problems, and we camped in city parks on the way. It would be our first time in a larger city, and we weren't sure where we might stay once we got there. I had the idea of calling the police department and asking for their advice. This was in the days before cellphones, and I remember standing in a phone booth calling the police department, and while I was on hold, a woman cut into the call and said she was the switchboard operator and that we could stay at her place! Apparently whenever there was a call to the police department, she would listen in to see what the story was. And that's just what we did: I hung up from the call and followed the directions she had given me to her home. We stayed with her overnight and she made us a big breakfast the next morning.

This was the sort of hospitality we experienced all across the country. We took back roads because we wanted to avoid the traffic of the interstates and saw all kinds of wonderful sights. We went through Yellowstone National Park, and I remember well having to climb the passes and then whizzing down the other side. I think we went over five passes in Yellowstone, if my memory is right. We traveled through eastern Oregon, which I remember being very dry and unappealing. Other than a few flat tires, our bikes and our bodies functioned quite well. I remember realizing one day that my thighs were hard as rocks from all that biking.

By the time we reached Eugene, five weeks after we began, our friendship was beginning to fray at the edges. Too much time together, I guess. We decided to separate and go our own ways from that point. I traveled down the coast on Highway 1, and I will never forget the sound of the logging trucks approaching behind me. I would always stop and pull off the narrow road because of the size of those big rigs. And I learned how hilly that highway is: hardly ever doing anything but going up and then down on that road.

When I reached San Francisco, I called my parents to let them know I had arrived safely after six weeks on the road. And I learned that my grandmother who lived in Santa Monica was ill and she needed someone to care for her. Was I willing, since I didn't need to return to Colorado right away? I decided to do it, but nobody prepared me for how tough it would be to spend all my days in a small little house with my grandmother and her three cats, after having been outdoors constantly for well over a month! I managed, but I chafed at having to be inside for so long. I ended up taking long walks to the Santa Monica pier and around the area, but I was pretty unhappy. Grandma didn't need much care, just someone to shop for her and take her to the doctor for her treatments. Although she wasn't expected to recover, she did, and eventually I took the opportunity to move back to Boulder.

I still remember seeing her in the doorway as I left. It was the last time I saw her, and she really didn't want me to go but I had my own life to live, and she understood that. Donna had also made it to San Francisco, and she got a job as a bike messenger, with her strong biking legs carrying her up and down the hills of that city. Eventually we both returned to Boulder and moved into an apartment together, our relationship much better for having taken some time apart.

I have only a few memories of that six-week-long adventure, but they are strong ones. Often we stayed at established campgrounds in order to shower and clean up. Once we couldn't find a place to camp and bedded down in an orchard not far off the road we had traveled on. I put down my sleeping bag, with my water bottle within reach on my trusty bike. I woke in the middle of the night to see the stars so brilliant and thick above me that it took my breath away. My bike was my companion, as I turned over and went back to sleep, I felt blessed to be there right then.

Of course, that was more than forty years ago, and sleeping on the ground, even with a thin pad underneath my sleeping bag was something I could do then but have no interest in repeating! But it was an adventure well worth having, back then. I wish now that I had kept a daily journal during that time, because I would be curious to see what I wrote. Reading my old journals from more than three decades ago seem to be written by another person entirely. Much of what I wrote I have forgotten completely, and I mention names of people who are also gone from memory, but when I wrote it back then, I thought I would never forget. One cannot retain it all; there are too many hours in the days and months that pass to remember everything.

My life has been filled with adventures, and thinking back to those days when I was a young woman are rather delightful to remember, but I'm happy in the life I have now. Yes, things change, and activities that I felt I would always enjoy have passed away. That's the way it works, but there is an old saying that never does one door close than another one opens. I've found that to be true in my own life. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Today is the oldest you have ever been, and the youngest you'll ever be again." So I'll just keep on with the todays that I have left, and enjoy every last one!

And now I've finished my post, and it's time to get up and move into the rest of my Palm Sunday. It's the beginning of the final week before the Easter celebration. I hope it will be a good one for you, and for those you love and cherish. Partner is still fast asleep and I'm ready to get going. Be well until we meet again next week, dear reader.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My circle of friends

Sunshine on my shoulder
One of the best things that happened to me when I moved here from Colorado was the chance to meet new friends. It was hard to leave all the people I knew and loved in Boulder, but I am the kind of person who makes friends easily. It probably comes from my early nomadic life, when I moved from place to place as an Air Force brat, with a close family and lots of siblings.

I moved here in April 2008, and the first thing I did was join the YMCA and the Senior Center. I started taking classes every day, and I bought myself a bus pass and would sometimes just ride the bus for fun, to see where the different routes would take me. I found that if I didn't have a car, I could get just about every place in town I needed to go. At that time, though, I was still skydiving, so I needed to drive more than an hour south to Snohomish for that activity. Now, however, I rarely venture out of town myself, as we carpool on our various Thursday hikes. I will drive my fifteen-year-old car now and then, but mostly I pay my share for gas and let somebody else drive.

In late summer 2008, my sister Markee in Canada decided that she would like her family to join her in a half-marathon in Texas, and she invited all of us and of course I accepted the challenge. I had been going to the Y faithfully, but since this was a distance event, I needed to find some way to get longer hikes into my repertoire. The Senior Center offers several different hikes, so I decided to join one. In September 2008, I made my first hike with the Senior Trailblazers.

I was not a neophyte when it came to hiking, so I had a backpack with extra clothing, rain gear, a lunch, snacks, and water. I had learned long ago that when it comes to hiking where you'll be sweating a lot, you need to avoid wearing cotton, and I didn't want any of these veterans to think I was not aware of that. The synthetics I wore served me well. We drove for more than an hour to the High Country and once we got to the parking lot, a park ranger approached us to let us know that a storm was coming our way, and we needed to be prepared for wind and rain.

Once we started the hike, the weather was overcast but dry and rather pleasant. There were a dozen of us, and I chatted with those hiking nearby, learning names and finding out how long some people had been with the group. Before long, however, it began to rain lightly, and the fog moved in. We kept going, and every once in awhile someone would inform me that right here there would have been a wonderful view if we could only have seen it. The one thing I didn't have that everyone else did was trekking poles. I had never used them before but I quickly saw their usefulness on steep, uneven terrain.

Well, by the time we headed back to Bellingham, I was hooked, and from that day forward I have been a regular with the hiking group. The following week I borrowed Al's second pair of poles, and the next week I had purchased my first set of trekking poles. They make a huge difference for me in hiking downhill, since I can lean on them and save my knees. That was nine years ago, and I'm still going every week unless I'm sick or injured. Needless to say, I've made some fast friends from spending so many hours with these fine people every week.

I haven't made as many friends during my classes at the Y, but instead have many acquaintances who greet each other as we make our way to the classroom. Everybody has a "spot" that they prefer, and I've gotten to know several people around me quite well. One fellow, Joseph, who stands next to me is a retired professor from the local college and is exactly ten years older than me. Although I never see him outside of class, I miss him when he's gone and usually find out when he returns that he'd been traveling. The instructor of this class, Joanne, has been teaching it for well over twenty years and has quite a following.

Another class, Strength and Tone, taught every Tuesday and Thursday rounds out my exercise routine at the Y. Usually I don't make it to the Thursday class because I'm out with the Senior Trailblazers, but this class is where I met my friend Judy. She and I began having coffee together after class, and before long we would take trips together. In 2009 we traveled to the Tulip Festival in Skagit County, and we've taken day-long trips to various parts of the state. Now we see movies together and go out to dinner afterwards. She's become a very good friend.

And then there's the walk on Saturdays with the ladies. It was Peggy and Linda from the Senior Trailblazers who tried to get me to join them on this walk, and finally I did. At first I wouldn't go when it was rainy, but after awhile I got so I really missed the walk when I didn't go. This is the only exercise every week that still hurts my ailing hip: we walk really fast and I find that my hip will hurt me as I push hard to keep up. Yesterday was the first time since I hurt it that I was able to complete the entire five-mile walk. But I see the same women every week, and now it's been so many years that we ask where someone has been who misses several weeks in a row.

So this is the core of where I've made friends in Bellingham since moving here nine years ago. Of course, since these groups are filled with like-minded people who are around my age, the makeup of the group changes from time to time. People get injured or move on, and some people stay for the duration. If I am not going to attend, I find it important to let Al (our leader) know so people won't wonder if I'm all right. And I'm constantly making new friends, as people join and become regulars like me. You just cannot spend that much time with people without getting close to some of them. At least I can't.

The coffee shop I visit every morning also has its regulars that I have come to love and cherish. It makes me laugh to think that those old fogeys have wormed their way into my heart and that I miss them if I don't see them regularly. Plus it helps that we all have excellent coffee to enjoy. So that's my circle of friends who enrich my life every single day. My life partner also fills in the gaps, as he's my go-to guy when I need to have a good long talk about anything that's on my mind.

This morning I didn't have any idea what I would write about, and it's just become a soliloquy about my circle of friends, those who enrich my life in so many different ways. And I've somehow written to my other circle of friends, my virtual friends, who I visit every day on the web, and who also visit me. They say that keeping yourself surrounded by friends and family will help you to live a richer and longer life. And I can attest to the power of friendship to keep me looking forward with excitement and delight to each day as it comes.

I hope that you will take the time to think of those around you who enrich your own life, and if they are present, let them know. And if they are not, talk to them anyway. If they have passed beyond, I believe they will still hear you. But that's just me. Until we meet again, dear friends, be well.