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, May 30, 2010

How travel changed me

One of the things I sometimes forget is how much my outlook on life changed as a result of my international travels. One of the things I had to do in my job was to set up 3- and 4-day-long gatherings of scientists from around the world in exotic places, such as Urumqi in western China. I got to experience places that other people rarely visit, as well as learning to cope with language barriers and cultural differences. This picture is taken one day in 20005 after our meeting had finished, and we were taken by our hosts to this bustling neighborhood of ethnic Uyghur, who came into the news not long ago because of an uprising against the Chinese government. An excerpt from Wikipedia about these people:
The Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China. An estimated 80% of Xinjiang's Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin.
We held two meetings in Urumqi, and this last one was held in 2005. It was not easy getting people from around the world into Urumqi, but I found that the people we worked with were incredibly accommodating and willing to go the extra mile to help me. I learned also most Chinese people never travel to this part of China. They think of this region in the northwest of their vast country as being the way we Americans must have felt about the "wild west" a century ago.

There were two reasons my boss wanted to hold these meetings in faraway places: first, to show scientists what different environmental problems exist around the world, and also to tempt them to take the time out of their busy lives to come to these places, funded by the United Nations or other similar groups. As the "worker bee" who arranged these visits, I spent months getting everything ready, working long hours making sure nothing was overlooked (although inevitably there were glitches), and then traveling to the place a day or two beforehand and staying a day after, getting everybody back out of the country.

For a long time, I loved this part of my job. It started in 1997 and continued until I retired in 2008. During that time, we held meetings in Budapest, Bangkok, Paris, Geneva, Havana, the Galapagos, Moscow, Macao, Saigon, Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing, and Macedonia. They were held mostly in Europe and Asia, and I was enchanted to learn how different the world is, how different and alike people are, in these myriad places.

What I took for granted as being normal or usual, I found to be a conceit of my American bias. I was often reminded of my provincialism when checking to a hotel room, to find unfamiliar beds, or bathrooms, and mysterious instructions in foreign languages. One thing my boss Mickey refused to do was to stay in an upscale hotel that caters to foreigners, which basically are the same in whatever country you are in. When we were in Moscow during a heat wave, we had no air conditioning and the windows had no screens. The outdoors came in while I slept.

Each country was always both hard to navigate, and exciting to experience. I would set up these meetings and travel to these places usually once a year, and sometimes twice. China became my most visited place: six trips over the years, once for an entire month. Many people envied my job, but I have to say it was stressful and demanding, and by the time I got ready to retire, I was ready to stop. International travel became much harder after 9/11, and sometimes I would spend two full days traveling to get from one place to another. Jet lag is very real, although Mickey never seemed to be bothered by it as much as I was.

Because of these travels, though, I think I am much more tolerant of the differences that exist between people. Some of my favorite memories entail "conversations" with people who spoke no English and I spoke not a word of their language. The desire and ability to reach across the cultural divide to the humanity that unites us now permeates my world view.

I am now content to stay in my new home here in the Pacific Northwest and get to know it better. Canada is just a few miles away, and if I want to visit Vancouver it's only an hour away. Being a large international city, Vancouver has vibrant ethnic communities, which I intend to explore over the next few years. That will be enough for me.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a changed person because of my international travels. These experiences are now a part of me, part of the way I experience my everyday life.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I have been fascinated by the concept of "truth" for many years. In thinking about this post, I found that Wikipedia has a very thorough article that describes all the different ideas of what that word means (or has meant) throughout history. An excerpt:
There are differing claims on such questions as what constitutes truth; what things are truthbearers capable of being true or false; how to define and identify truth; the roles that revealed and acquired knowledge play; and whether truth is subjective, relative, objective, or absolute.
When you watch a show that has a person being sworn "to tell the truth," you see (at least in this country) somebody raise his or her right hand, look sincere, and swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." What does that mean

When I was young, I thought it was a simple thing, to tell the truth, but then I realized that what I thought was the truth was not the same thing my mother meant. Or what my teachers meant. What has brought the idea of this post to me is the realization that I spend a fair amount of my time trying to figure out what truth, beauty, and goodness really are. I want to be good, to be truthful, but I'm not motivated by the same desire at all times. I also want to make people feel good about me, about what I say to them. Sometimes I might think about saying something to a friend but think it might be seen as being unkind, so I don't say it.

When I was a young woman, I believed that I was compelled to "tell the truth" no matter what. If a friend was wearing a dress that was unflattering, I would tell her so. If one of my classmates did something I thought was wrong, I would confront him or her. This trait of mine was noticed and commented on throughout the years I was growing up, and I remember very well being proud of my adherence to the "truth." I felt I was better and braver than those who kept silent.

The real truth, as I know now, is that I wasn't telling anybody's truth but my own. I was a pretty self-centered young adult who had learned through my life experiences that I could make other people feel that I was smarter than they were, that I was the final arbiter of what was right and true. Little did I know that I was deluding myself.

When I was in my thirties, I was confronted by a close friend about this conceit of mine, and I didn't believe him, at first. Then as time went by, I allowed myself to absorb his message and other related events that had happened to me during my earlier years. Slowly, imperceptibly, the message began to filter into my consciousness. I realized, reluctantly, that what I had considered one of my strengths was my greatest weakness: that I what I considered "constructive criticism" was disguised one-upmanship, my attempt to gain superiority over another.

I lost many friends when I was young for that reason, and it only filtered into my consciousness slowly that the reason I needed to feel superior to others was a deep inferiority complex that permeated my existence. I saw myself only as I wanted to see myself, and I didn't listen to other well-meaning friends who tried to tell me that my desire to mete out brutal honesty had nothing to do with truth.

Discovering religion and the concept of forgiveness gently filtered into my mind, my soul, over the years. I began to think maybe I wasn't so bad for having been so thoughtless to others, but that I just didn't know any better. I realized, not all at once, that I am just a plain old flawed human being who meant well.

It wasn't until I was in my middle years that I allowed myself to be who I really am. When I met Smart Guy I was fifty, and our relationship put the final chink in the armor I had wrapped myself in, and I think that now, today, in my late sixties, I am a pretty authentic person. Today I now see young people caught in the same trap I fell into long ago, and I hope that they will one day realize that we are all capable of change, to grow from seeing ourselves as better than, or less than, our fellow travelers on the journey of life.

And today I also believe, with all my heart, that on the day I get ready to cross over to the Other Side, I will know Truth in all its glory.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Smoke and mirrors

When I was a very little girl, well before my tenth birthday, my parents took both my sister Norma Jean and me to see The Wizard of Oz. My distant memory of it was of being amazed by the change between the black and white portion of the movie and the red shoes with subsequent technicolor. Before the movie had ended, however, my parents told us, when we were grown, that we had to be taken out of the theater because we were both so frightened by it. We didn't stay long enough to see the Wizard's smoke and mirrors, as in this picture. Of course, I've since seen the movie dozens of times and enjoyed it, especially the premise of it: that somewhere behind all the smoke and mirrors is a harmless little man who wants everyone to believe that he's strong and powerful. He used these devices to make himself seem larger and more frightening than he really was.

I remember once, talking on the phone to my mom about what was happening in the world at the time (she died in 1993, so it must have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s), her saying to me that big awful changes are coming to the world. She said that she wouldn't live to see it, but I would. That was twenty years ago. What major changes have come about since then?

The first one that comes to mind is how small the world has become. Because of the internet and the changes in the speed of connectivity, cellphones, iPhones and the like, we are constantly connected to the world and what is occurring all over the world. And the world is constantly changing. I tried a few weeks ago to stop reading the news, but I couldn't. Thinking it would make me feel better to take a "news fast," I tried but failed to become disconnected to all that's going on. I'm sitting here at 6:30am on a Sunday morning, still in bed, drinking tea and writing on my laptop, connected to the larger world.

This particular blog was started because I wanted to find out what I still want to accomplish in my life, find out who I am by looking at how I got here. Well, I think I've done that, and I'm looking for a reason to keep on writing here. I've got a few ideas, but the one that keeps coming back up to the surface is the whole idea of the change that's coming, that Mama warned me about, that I feel in my bones.

Part of what's driving it, other than knowing instantly what's happening in Bangkok or Baghdad, is the sheer number of people on the planet today. When I was born, the world population was around 2.5 billion. Next year, the world will pass the 7 billion mark. That's three times the number of people! I can feel it, too. I remember a world that didn't have strip malls as far as the eye can see. In the United States, the population has more than doubled since I was little. Since the change has been gradual, I haven't got any way to measure when it began to feel crowded, but now everywhere seems that way.

In the 1980s, I remember being disgusted at all the beautiful places in Boulder being torn down for apartments and houses to replace open space. I thought it was just in Boulder that it was happening, and I could move somewhere that was more like it used to be. But that's just not true. All those extra people had to have jobs, somewhere to live, places to shop. That is everywhere in the world today.

This all brings me back to the idea of the Wizard of Oz. Although he was in the end a benign entity, I always believed that somebody, somewhere, was in charge. That behind the smoke and mirrors we would find a reason for the insanity that we are going through, worldwide. Today there is a huge catastrophic oil leak that will change my world forever. People are being blown up because of an idea that I just don't understand. There is nobody in charge, and we are all just trying to survive from one day to the next in the best way we know how.
Perhaps this is why so many of us turn to the solace that is within us, because returning to the Emerald City, looking for the Wizard, can only be found there. The good parts of life are intermingled with the fear that we all feel for our future.  I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and I'm not sure where to go from here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day 2010

This picture is hanging in my bedroom, painted long ago by my grandmother of my mother and me. Mama's hair was red from henna. I remember when I was a little girl watching her put henna onto her long luxuriant hair. First she would mix up what looked to me like mud and slather it into her hair in big globs, working it deep into the roots. Then she would wrap her head in a big old stained towel she reserved for this process. And finally she would dab some of the "mud" onto her eyebrows. For hours she would read or cook while the process went on. Lastly, she would wash it all out and towel her hair vigorously until her shining, abundant mane was dry.

Mama at one time had the most beautiful hair, and the henna gave it a reddish cast (nowhere near as red as in this painting) and I can still remember her brushing it. Norma Jean inherited that same luxuriant hair, but mine has always been sparse. When I had hair long enough to put into braids, they were always anemic looking. My mother at one time would plait her hair into one long braid and coil it several times around her head, making it look like a crown. She secured it with bobby pins (remember those?).

Memories are funny, aren't they? I remember these things so clearly, but they don't exist any more, except in my head. Where did they go? What is this thing called memory? I remember long ago wondering where the little girl I once was went. If we do indeed survive this life of the flesh in some afterlife, what does our spirit look like? The baby I once was, the young mother Mama once was, do they still exist in some form?

I find myself wondering now, in retirement, having done all the things I can think of that might be on my "bucket list," what's next? Is the next great adventure the one where I pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, confronting my fears and letting go of all I know? Part of the gift of life is its ephemeral nature. Poof, six decades of living: gone. A couple more ahead of me, maybe, just a moment in the temporal scheme of things.

Sitting here, contemplating my two sons who died before me, but still giving me motherhood as a permanent state; my mother and grandmother who still live radiantly in my memory, where are they now? In my dreams, it seems so natural to hug and kiss them all. I wrap my arms around them and feel their warmth, solid and real as life itself.

One thing I do know: as I pass through the stages of life and ready myself to leave late middle age and enter old age, I feel less fear about the future and more equanimity and serenity about the way things move and change. I think I am preparing myself for the next phase. I can't yet work up any excitement about it, but fear and dread also seem to be fading into the distance.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

My sister Norma Jean

Since I know Norma Jean reads my blog sometimes, I'm using a picture of her for this post that I know she likes, since she used it as her profile picture on Facebook. Standing next to her is her daughter Allison, who is a career officer in the Army, shown here in full dress uniform.

But this post is about my relationship to Norma Jean. Although there were six children in my parents' family, I was the firstborn and Norma Jean the second. We had two-and-a-half years separating us in age, so we grew up together. We could not be more different in many ways, and I think that our relationship has shaped many important ones in my life.

I have always been extroverted and outgoing, making friends easily as we moved from place to place, following our father's military postings. Norma Jean was not like that, since she has always been shy and introverted. It tore her apart to move, leave friends behind, and try to make a new life in a new place. I felt a little superior to her, thinking that my way was more natural. Of course it was to me; it was all I knew! I've learned that we are born with ways of dealing with life that shape our personalities, and I suspect that these characteristics can be managed but not fundamentally changed.

When we moved to Puerto Rico in the 1950s, living on the air base, I was an insufferable teenager, and Norma Jean attended what would now be called middle school. Nothing existed to me outside of my life with my friends, and after I discovered boys, I became obsessed with having just the right clothes, even coming home from school at noon to iron my dress! Norma Jean thought I had lost my mind, and in a way she was right. I remember this period as one where we had become involved in our own lives and didn't hang out in the same circles. What stands out to me is the distance that had come between two sisters who were otherwise very close.

This all changed when we moved back to the States and were thrown into our family life again. Whenever we moved, we became best friends again, partly out of necessity, and partly because it was our natural state. I have always been attracted to introverted people, which I believe began with the symbiotic relationship I developed with Norma Jean. Plus there's the inconvenient fact that other extroverts don't make the best audience, since they are too busy wanting to be the center of attention themselves!

When I married Derald and lived in Michigan in the early 1960s, Norma Jean came to live with us in a big house we rented. It was a time when none of us had very much money, but we were so happy together. We also had another friend of Derald's who lived there, Pete, and I had just had Stephen, so it was the family of four, along with Norma Jean, and Pete. I guess it really was my first communal living experience, and we supported each other in many ways.

This was where Norma Jean met Pete, who would become her husband and the father of her two children, Allison and Peter. As we made our own lives apart from each other, the bond between Norma Jean and I ebbed and flowed, but it was always there in the background. If I had some kind of problem, I'd call her, which I still do, even today.

Although our parents are now long gone, some aspect of them lives on in their children, and I can sometimes hear Mama's wisdom coming out of Norma Jean. It's funny how each generation carries a little something, maybe a combination of nature and nurture, that endures of our parent's way of looking at the world. It's not too far-fetched a statement to say that Norma Jean is the rock of stability at the center of my life. We have spent more than sixty years now sharing first our dolls, then our hopes and dreams, and now our enduring love for each other across the miles. When we call each other, our conversation picks up where we left off, as though it was just yesterday when we last talked, and I can feel her presence in my life, always.

In a few months, Allison will make Norma Jean a grandmother. Allison will have a girl, and she is likely to be an only child, since Allison is already in her early forties. This child won't have a sister like I did, close in age, unless Allison chooses to adopt, which she might do. I cannot imagine life without Norma Jean, but many people are only children and grow up just fine. My son Chris was pretty much an only child after Stephen died. Each family dynamic has something positive going for it.

We have other sisters and a brother, all of whom are important to me, but the relationship with Norma Jean is unique in my life, cherished and indispensable. I know she is only as far away as my phone, and for that wonderful gift, I give thanks.