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 25, 2010

My son Chris

My husband at the time, Don, took this picture of Chris and me sometime in the 1960s. Chris was born in November 1961, so I figure it's around 1966 or so. He was just a little boy, and I was a young mother. Who knew what we had ahead of us?

I want to write about the guilt I have around my son Chris. When this picture was taken, I was only a year or two away from the trauma of having lost his brother Stephen, who was thirteen months old when he died very suddenly from spinal meningitis. Sick in the afternoon, dead that night. I wrote this post about it, so I don't need to go there again. But what I still feel bad about is how Chris' life was shaped so drastically by that experience.

I was never really able to be there for Chris for so many years of his young life. And then when he was 12, he went to live with his dad in Michigan, I was in California, and I basically pretended to myself that I was without any children, as I became enamored with the loose life of a hippie, traveling to Mexico and basically spending a few years bumming around until finally moving to Boulder in the mid-1970s and beginning to have a more stable life again.

Chris came back to live with me then, when he was around sixteen. He was like a stranger in many ways, because we never got over the rift of those years of separation. And I hate to admit it, but he reminded me so much of his father than I couldn't get past that. How awful is it when he would just be himself, and I would cringe at the image of his father staring right back at me through the years?

Once in Boulder, I'll never forget it, I was impatient with something he was telling me and I said, "you sound just like your father." He stood up in the coffee shop and at the top of his voice, he said, "when you can see me instead of my father, maybe we can have a conversation!" And he walked out. I sat there, embarrassed, but also stunned into reality about how little I knew about my own son.

He managed to make a pretty good life for himself in Boulder, and he lived with me at various times, sometimes for a short while when he needed to get on his feet, and sometimes for longer periods. He had jobs that gave him enough money to get by, but he never had much. He didn't seem to care, and there were times when he brought his latest girlfriend by the house. He finally went back to live with his father in Michigan when he was in his early twenties and worked with Derald, his father, in the construction business. We saw each other intermittently during those years. He would call me on Mother's Day and his birthday, and we would talk about our lives.
This is a Chris I never knew very well. He always seemed to find girlfriends who had children, usually one boy, that were not his. He loved this little one, and he raised this child with the mother until the baby was a year or so old, and then he and the girlfriend (sorry I don't remember her name) split up and he never saw the baby again. He was pretty broken up about it, when he called me and told me about it. The soft look, the heavy beard, these aspects of my son were foreign to me.

His father died suddenly when Chris was 29, and for a few more years he tried to make it in Michigan but decided finally to join the Army while he still could, before he got too old to be eligible. It was the best thing he could have done for himself, because he was starved for structure in his life, and the Army provided it. He came to Boulder for a few days before he headed off to Basic Training, and he crashed in our living room not long after Smart Guy and I had married. It was a tense time, with me trying to make everybody feel okay. It didn't help that Chris brought a fellow recruit with him. After that experience, any time Chris came to visit, or even other family members, I would put them up in a nearby hotel, and that way I could feel more comfortable with both sets of family.

The last time I saw Chris was before he shipped off to Germany, and he came to visit with his latest girlfriend, an older woman (not as old as me but darn close) who obviously loved him very much. They stayed in a hotel at my expense and we got together after breakfast, and Chris and I spent a lot of time together for a few days. He was a heavy smoker at the time, and he would need to go outside every twenty minutes or so for a cigarette. The girlfriend was left behind when Chris left the country, and she would call me, despondent, every few weeks for half a year. There was nothing I could do.

Then Chris called me, after he had been in Germany about a year, to tell me he wanted to get married to a German woman named Silvia, who had a young boy from a previous marriage. He didn't have a certified copy of his birth certificate and he needed me to get him one so that he could marry her. It took quite a while, but I was able to finally get it and sent it to him, and they were married and provided me with pictures. I never even spoke to her on the phone, because Chris said her English was not great and she was embarrassed to talk to me. But he was happy and fulfilled, and for the first time in his life he was really happy when we talked. This made me feel much better about him, his upbringing, my inability to launch him into adulthood the way the Army could.

He was in his early thirties when he joined the Army, so he wasn't exactly a youngster. He became a respected member of his unit, and he gravitated into duties in the Mail Room. I learned plenty about how important a position he felt this was. When he died of sudden cardiac arrest, just like his father had when he was 51, Chris was forty years old. He had quit smoking four or five months before that.

When I traveled to Germany to meet his friends, his wife Silvia, and to say goodbye for the last time in this life, I learned many things about Chris I never knew. He was known for standing up to the brass, far above him in the chain of command, if he felt it was an important issue. Once he walked right into the Base Commander's office and demanded that a wrong be righted. It was, and the Commander told me this story about him that impressed him, and me. After his death, the Mail Room was dedicated to his memory, and I attended the ceremony where a plaque and his picture were placed on the outside hallway.

I learned that he read palms and impressed many friends with his ability to predict the future. This amazed me, because he had never mentioned it to me, and he never gave me any indication of his interest in any area of the occult (if that is what it was). Just writing about him, remembering him, brings up such pain, because I never got a chance to tell him how much I loved him, not his father's image, but Chris himself. I think he knew it, but I'll never really know until the day comes when we meet each other again.

Perhaps this post will relieve me a little of the burden I carry around with me, every day, wishing I had been a better mother to my son.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Solo backpacking

This picture was taken of me in 1985, 25 years ago. I'm in one of my favorite places in the Rocky Mountains, the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I volunteered for more than a decade for the Forest Service in what was then known as the Indian Peaks Working Group. I started as a volunteer trail host and eventually ended up training the volunteers.

My solo backpacking didn't start until the early 1970s, when I was in my early thirties, after three failed marriages and my 12-year-old son had gone to live with his father. Being completely at loose ends, I decided to drive to Bear Valley, an hour or so away from Sacramento (where I was living and working at the time). My friends thought I was crazy, and I was completely unskilled at what I was attempting, but I kept saying it was only men who said women can't do this, and besides, what could go wrong?

I bought a backpack and a sleeping bag. No tent, no stove, I don't even think I had a water bottle. Someone had told me about this place that winds down from the trailhead to the river below and, while beautiful and inspiring, was not well traveled, so I would be able to be by myself. I went on a three-day weekend. As you might imagine, I learned a great deal on that hike. First, I got lost, once I reached the river below and walked along the bank, I saw no other people and was quite alone. No map, no compass, none of the things I now know are essential when hiking, alone or otherwise.

I spent the first night sleeping on the sand near the water, and I learned quickly that snakes are attracted to your body heat! I didn't get much sleep that night and I would have left if I knew where the trail back up was. I didn't. So I just hoped I would see someone else. I remember climbing over rocks thinking I saw the trail and almost stepping on a huge rattler that was sunning on a rock. I backed off and went right back down to the river. I wandered around for miles in the riverbed looking for the trail back up, and finally I did find another hiker who told me where it was.

Not knowing how hard it was to hike uphill for such a long time with a pack on my back, I remember being so thirsty on the trail back up that I thought I would die, when I saw a stream. Burying my face in the water and slurping it up, not thinking of anything except how good it tasted, is a memory burned into my brain.

You might think that, having made such a terrible blunder, I would have been turned off to hiking, and you would have been right. I didn't attempt such a thing again for a long time. But after I had moved to Boulder and met new friends who loved to camp in the mountains, I began going on trips with them. We went for as long as a week, and I learned to love it. Once I joined the Indian Peaks Working Group and went on two- and three-day-long hikes in the wilderness, I found that I was addicted. Nothing is as wonderful as packing everything you need and going for a long trip away from everything into the beauty of the mountains.

After I knew the wilderness very well, I decided to start solo backpacking again. Now I knew the trails, had a tent, everything that I needed. In the picture above I see the water bottle and the part of my backpacking stove that contains fuel. One favorite trip was starting at one end of the wilderness area and hiking over Pawnee Pass at 12,000 feet and then down to a beautiful lake below. That was where I would spent the first night. The trail then took me back up into the High Lonesome area, and down to Caribou Lake. I would spend my last night in the wilderness at that lake before heading back up over the Fourth of July trail and down to the parking area. The trip was about 40 miles in total. Since I got a ride to the first trailhead, I hitchhiked home to Boulder from this parking lot. I never had a problem getting a ride, because this area is very well used on the weekends and I always made sure I arrived on a Sunday.

I found this entry from one of my journals, dated August 16, 1984, after my first night in the wilderness:
I slept well last night, even though I was on a slant, and woke up to rain on the tent twice during the night. And again the moonlight slid through the tent as I got up to pee in the early morning before dawn. There were a few light clouds, the waning moon still very bright, and the stars so bright the moon hardly dimmed them. Everything was wet, however, when I packed it up. I had a fine slow day, walking through breathtaking fields of wildflowers, pink, blue, violet, magenta, red, yellow -- sometimes it was almost too much. The wet foliage and flowers put the most incredible fragrances out in the air. At one point I got a whiff of pine trees, and I had to stand there and just smell for a while. So clean, so pure, so alpine! But now I have descended to about 8,500 feet, and there are more bugs, fewer flowers. But it's still so lovely.
Every time I read in my journals about those days, I remember so well how much I gained from these trips. I also would camp with others, because by then I had become an expert in the wilderness. One very important thing I learned: always tell at least one or two people what your route will be, when you will return, and stay on the trail! I saw at least a few other hikers every day, but after a while I felt so peaceful that I swear it was communicated to others. We were all there for the same reason: we loved the wilderness.

Those days are gone now, and since I am much older these days, I enjoy day hikes but haven't gone on any overnight trips for a decade. I of course got caught up in skydiving in the early 1990s, and that pretty much kept my weekends and vacations elsewhere. The Pacific Northwest where I live now is so different from the high country I grew to love in Colorado.  I'm happy to re-create my spirit with like-minded friends, and come home to Smart Guy and sleep in my own bed.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

World Freefall Convention

Since I have been thinking about the years when I was a really active skydiver, I thought I'd tell you about the World Freefall Convention and all the years I worked there as a Load Organizer. This picture above shows the tent that was assigned to me, with Paul, one of the jumpers who came back year after year to jump with my organizers and me.

The way it all began was back in 1994 when Smart Guy built a website for the owner of the WFFC. In those days it was not a given that every business around had a website, and in payment for his services, we were both offered the opportunity to organize loads at the Convention, with the compensation that your jumps are all paid for. This is not exactly a free ride, however, as you need to take a bunch of disparate jumpers and organize a skydive for them and make it work so that everyone is happy and safe when they land.

Well, I was terrified. I didn't know how to do that kind of thing at all. All of the other LOs (load organizers) didn't like to take the lower experienced jumpers, so I asked if I could take them myself. I realized early on if you took them and made smaller, easy jumps (which I could do), that everybody would be happy, and that's exactly what I did. Plus some of them were just a step above students, which I worked with all the time at my home Drop Zone.

By the time the second year rolled around, I had my own tent, separate from the other LOs, and I was able to provide an inviting and non-threatening environment for those who wished it. If they wanted to jump with the more experienced crowd, they could. I had about ten other organizers working with me. For eight or nine summers, this was what I did in August.

The WFFC was held in Quincy (and the last few years in Rantoul), Illinois during the first part of August, covering two weekends and the weekdays in between. Anyone who has been in Illinois in August knows that it can be very, very hot. Most of the time the temperature hovered in the lower to upper 90s, with the humidity very high, making it sometimes very enervating. We also had occasional thunderstorms that would come through, drenching everything and sometimes even blowing the circus tents down.

During the ten days at the WFFC, an entire town sprang up from the cornfields. The owner of the WFFC, Don and his wife Susie, worked hard to see that all needs were met, from acres of cleared land where you could pitch a tent when you arrived, many food and equipment vendors, large landing areas, and aircraft from around the country. There would be as many as five Twin Otters and three tailgate aircraft running to carry the jumpers from the ground up to 13,000 feet, with many specialty aircraft such as helicopters and even a 727 jet to jump from! At its busiest, more than 5,000 skydivers from all over the world came to the Convention. I worked very hard all those years and loved it. In ten days I would skydive an average of anywhere from 30 to 50 times! Tired and sore at the end, but filled with great memories and lots of fun.

Even today, in 2010, when I head over to the local Drop Zone, I will meet people who thank me for taking time with them when they were "young" jumpers. I don't miss those days, though, because I was younger then, and just reading the logbooks and reminiscing reminds me of how hard it was to put out that much energy, day after day. When I returned to work, I was ready for a break.

Probably the most exciting skydive I made was on August 9, 1999. I found it in my logbook, hoping that I could remember the names of the people who were on the jump with me, but I didn't think it was important at the time. Another LO organized a noontime naked jump. This was advertised over the loudspeaker a couple of days before, and once enough people had signed up to make a King Air load, Bill, the organizer (who had done this before), brought the 13 of us together to talk about how to do this jump safely. First, we stripped down and put a big t-shirt over our naked bodies and then donned our skydiving gear. Bill suggested we wear our shoes (everybody did) and some carried a small fanny pack in front to put the t-shirt in for after landing.

We then headed for the King Air, which holds 13 people and was waiting for us, with plenty of our fellow jumpers aware of what we were getting ready to do. Lots of looks at those of us rather large-breasted women who were not wearing bras, but everything was covered. We got into the plane and took off, after deciding that we would not make a group larger than five when we exited. I was in a four-way, Bill, me, and two others. Once we got off the ground a little ways, we all loosened our chest straps and wiggled out of the t-shirt. Bill carried mine in a pack along with his, after promising that he would land away from the main landing area with me. Some of the more exhibitionist skydivers would land right in the middle of the main landing field, with the person on the loudspeaker alerting those on the ground interested in watching.

We were very careful to make sure that all the chest straps and equipment were in place, and when it was time to exit, the four of us climbed out and took grips on each other's harnesses so that we could exit as a group. (Usually you grab onto what are called "grippers" on jumpsuits, but we didn't have those!) Once we were in freefall, we concentrated on our skydive, and I felt the cold wind at altitude whipping my body in a very unusual way. Once we separated and I opened my parachute, I felt like I had been in a bath filled with stinging nettles, I itched all over! My parachute looked so pretty above me, and I found my landing area away from all the others and saw my targeted spot. I came in to land and, after having had 43 standup landings, I managed to slide in on my butt. Ouch! I had grass stains where I have never had grass stains before!

Bill had already landed and handed me my t-shirt, and we walked back to debrief the jump. It was quite an experience, one I'm glad I did once, but never again. Now when I go skydiving, I am very happy to have all my equipment with me!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

This picture was taken on Easter Sunday, 1948 or so. I think Daddy was as proud of that car as he was of his two beautiful daughters. Norma Jean is in pink and I am in yellow, both of us the picture of spring. The picture is faded now, but the Easter baskets are still appropriately filled with eggs and candy. That tar-paper shack in the background was the Base housing where we lived at the time. I remember that dress, so I must have more memories rolling around in my head that I can no longer access.

Today is Easter Sunday 2010. Fifty-two years have passed since that picture was taken. I am still here on this earth, now living in the Pacific Northwest with Smart Guy. I have a routine that takes me through my days, and I look forward with optimism to the future. But now I am old, and although I am still fit enough to hike in the mountains with my friends, the operative word there is "still." Once you get to a certain age, you know it's a blessing to STILL be able to do these things, but the body breaks down, little by little.

And so does the soul, unless it is watered with grace. I woke this morning not feeling the happiness I usually feel, but feeling the loss of so much that matters to me. My parents, children, many of my dear friends, my youth -- they are all gone forever. I feel the weight of the years I carry around with me now. That child in the picture, with her whole life ahead of her, that was me then. The me of today no longer wonders what her life will be like, because most of it is behind me.

So much of my life I have sought for solace through temporal things that don't last. On my journey I have studied many different religions, joined some, but now I don't attend any church regularly. I tried a few here in Bellingham after moving here, but none has yet moved me to join. I just now wondered what Easter was like in my early journals, picked up one and found an entry from April 2nd, 1983, while I was on retreat at the St. Walburga convent in Boulder:
Now I want to offer thanks. I was given answers to all the questions I have been asking since I got here. Father Von Zeller, the priest here at the Convent, has written a book, "The Trodden Road," which was mentioned to me by a woman who was here last year and appeared again today. She mentioned this wonderful little book and just before I sat down to meditate, I picked up the copy that Father gave me a while ago. He said just to take one -- the chapter called "Love of God Makes Us Self-Forgetting" is where I opened it and began to read.

"The addiction to perfection trap is shown yet again: It is the souls who are trying desperately to run along the way to sanctity that are tripping over themselves. They hate themselves, encountering self hate every turn, but have not reached the degree of detachment which rises above self-hatred and the desire to make an impression on others."

"What do other people's reactions matter anyway? We are not what we are in the minds of others but what we are in the mind of God. It is a pretty poor sort of existence which lives only in another person's imagination. It is to become a ghost, a character in fiction. Either to strike attitudes for other people's benefit or to belittle ourselves from a false concept of humility is to offend against the truth. It is to live in front of a mirror, and distorted reflections only cause trouble in the end. Vanity has to be punished somehow."
I wrote down those words 27 years ago. I am still working on recognizing God's love in my life, and I suspect that it will not be until I have passed through the Valley that I will truly know the extent of it. But today, Easter Sunday 2010, I am still here, grateful for the birds I see outside my window that visit me, the friends I have made in my life here, and the friends I have made on line. And my sleeping partner next to me while I write in here, I am so grateful.

Every Easter is an opportunity to be thankful that this life is not all we will ever know. As surely as the summer follows the springtime, those buried buds of longing will one day bear fruit. My soul is being watered by grace, still today. I wish all of my loved ones blessings on this day, and all the days that follow.