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 24, 2011

Easter Sunday 2011

St. Walburga nuns, 1992
As I wake in the darkness on Easter morning 2011, my thoughts are of the community of nuns that I knew in Boulder.  I spent at least five Easter mornings with them. Meet the Benedictine Sisters of St. Walburga, a small group of contemplative nuns who used to host retreats at their abbey just outside of Boulder. They moved from Boulder to the farming community of Virginia Dale in 1997.

When I was growing up, moving frequently from place to place with my family, we never attended church. My parents were not religious in any sense. My father had been raised in a family that followed no faith that I am aware of, and Mama was raised as a Catholic. To marry my father she left the church and never spoke of it to me, that I remember anyway. My grandmother lived with us for a time and she never mentioned going to church. It was only the secular holidays of Easter and Christmas that we celebrated in the fashion that so many do these days: Christmas is presents and shopping for gifts to wrap and put under a Christmas tree, wondering what those presents with your name on them contain; and Easter was pretty dresses, baskets filled with hard-boiled eggs that we had dyed in pastel colors. There was never any mention about the meaning behind these two holidays.

In my late teen years, just after having graduated from high school, I discovered religion. My father was stationed at an air base near Albany, Georgia, and when we moved into our rented house, a priest from the nearby Episcopal Church, Fr. Shipps, came to welcome us to our home. He also was interested in finding out what church we belonged to. I don't remember what was said to him, but I remember promising to come and visit the church. It must have been the right time, I'm not sure what triggered it, but I became intensely interested in learning everything I could about Christianity and was baptized and became a member. I just looked on line to see if I could find that church from all those years ago, and I think it was St. Paul's that I joined. But what I remember more than anything is that I was like a hungry person sitting at a banquet table. I could not get enough information fast enough, reading the Bible every day, studying everything about my new religion and becoming convinced I was meant to join a convent. (I have never done things half way, but this new tangent was a bit extreme, even for me.) My parents were very concerned but would have allowed me to follow whatever direction I chose.

I know I wasn't really all that serious, looking back, because I perused information about several different Episcopal convents and looked for the most attractive habit to guide my choice. When fashion is your guide to a convent, you can't be all that serious. But instead of joining a convent, I met a young airman who caught my eye, and we began to date. You can't have both of those things, apparently. But all of that information and what happened to me is another story.

The religious conversion was real, however. I have called myself a Christian and attended several different churches over the years, but as I have grown older I realize that the internal journey is still in progress. Prayer has always been something I've received great solace from. My life has not been an easy one, and so many times there was nowhere else to turn. In the years I lived in Boulder, I found it important in my life to find times to spend in concentrated prayer and meditation. St. Walburga's convent gave me that opportunity.

I would take a vacation from work and head to the Convent on Wednesday of Holy Week. The nuns provided me with a little cabin of my own, furnished with a bed, a writing desk, and a chair. If I chose to have a completely silent and private retreat, they would have left a meal for me outside the door, but I decided to take my meals with the other retreatants. The Benedictine nuns have designated times for all things, following the offices of St. Benedict, and strict times for meals. When I entered the little dining hall, a place was set for each of us, and we ate in silence while we were read a passage from the Bible. We were allowed to chat after the meal was concluded. This was the only time I spoke to anyone for the entire five days. I went into the chapel to listen to the nuns gathering to sing their offices several times during the day.

On Thursday, the nuns washed the feet of the retreatants, and I was quite moved to find how this affected me. It was humbling to have this lovely cloistered nun performing the ritual, one of so many she followed every day of her life. Since I was spending my time in solitary prayer and meditation, perhaps this is one reason why it seemed so meaningful. Everything, including walking quietly on the grounds of the Convent, took on a different light.

Saturday before Easter was like no other day. It is the only day of the entire year that Mass is not performed. No one takes communion that day. Christ is dead and has not yet risen. The feeling of the nuns on Saturday was mournful and quiet. But just the opposite occurred on Sunday morning: they had been up all night baking cookies and breads, and each of us was presented with a beautiful basket filled with these freshly baked goodies. Not your traditional Easter basket of jelly beans and hard boiled colored eggs, but one that was filled with lovingly prepared treats.

The Sunday service was packed, with all the faithful residing in nearby Boulder pouring in, and it truly felt like a celebration. I would pack up and leave after the Sunday service, filled with gratitude and spiritually renewed. Each year for at least five in the mid-1980s I spent Holy Week with the nuns at St. Walburga, and I have thought of them with fondness many times during the following decades.

Today, sitting in bed with my dear husband gently sleeping next to me, with the sun's rays beginning to come through the window, I realize how blessed I am to have the life we share today. For Easter this year, we will dress in nice warm clothes and drive to a nearby lake and walk around it together. I will have time to take pictures and we will discuss things going on in our lives. We will both be contemplative in such a beautiful setting, listening to the birds sing and watching the ducks and geese swimming on the lake. It is the church I attend these days, and it's a good one.

But I am also aware of what the nuns are doing right now, how joyful they are, and what they gave me that will never leave me as long as I'm alive.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Getting older and wiser

From Wikipedia entry on Sugar
This morning's New York Times Sunday Magazine has a fascinating article about sugar. You can read it here, but be forewarned: it's scary stuff. If you compare what is written in that article with the Wikipedia entry under the picture, you will first notice that Wikipedia has many references regarding the debate about whether sugar really is bad for you. The article has tipped me over the edge to write about it here. Maybe I can save the life of someone who is dear to me (my family, my loved ones, my readers).

Sugar and fat are such wonderful comfort foods, we all know that. I can think of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and feel associations of love and happiness surrounding many events at home, work, and numerous social occasions. It's so deeply ingrained in me that I am not sure I can separate the two: eating the sweet cake and the cherished memories.

Every once in awhile over the years, I have gone on sugar fasts, dieting and watching everything I eat so that I can lose weight. I've always been a regular exerciser, or at least I have been as an adult. I took up jogging in my mid-thirties in order to lose weight and quit smoking, and it certainly helped. No one was more surprised than me when exercising became an indispensable part of my life.

Everything works when I put my mind to it and apply willpower to start down a path toward health. But it's impossible to keep up because it's just that: an external pressure exerted upon my willingness to attain some goal. It's not coming from within but from a desire to be healthy or thin or more socially acceptable. And so it falls away and I slip back into old habits. We all know the routine.

I finished reading Mindless Eating last week and gave the book to my friend Judy. This week I have a another book on my nightstand: The End of Overeating by David Kessler. Both of these books talk about why it's important to become aware of what we are doing when we put food in our mouths. What happens to us when we eat comfort foods mindlessly is hard to ignore.

Yesterday I must have seen at least two dozen morbidly obese people on the streets here in Bellingham. I remember being shocked when I first got here from Boulder over the sheer number of them, because people in Boulder tend to exercise more and eat better than they do here. I wondered why at first, but after having passed through a dreary and cold winter and springtime, there's no doubt that many of these people have grown so huge because of mindless eating, as well as eating lots of sugar and fat. One of the things the article in the NYT pointed out to me is that eating the wrong foods causes us to want to eat more of those same foods.

When I went to my doctor's office in January and found that I had gained ten pounds since last year's visit, I was not only surprised but puzzled, because I exercise regularly and watch what I eat. I decided I had to lose the weight because my cholesterol numbers were elevated, but I also noticed that my triglycerides were lower than last year's number, which is a good thing, I thought. Knowing that both of those numbers are related to one another, I asked the doctor what level of triglycerides is considered to be healthy. He explained that the lower the number, the better. There is no healthy level of triglycerides. This surprised me, because I assumed that it was only high triglycerides that are unhealthy, but I've learned that they are not usable by the body and must be broken down by pancreatic enzymes in order to be absorbed. When triglycerides are elevated, they cause all kinds of havoc in the body.

What I did was to begin writing down everything I eat on a calorie counting website. I did that for two months and lost the excess weight and now am trying to stabilize my weight by applying what I learned about how much food 1,800 calories actually is (the amount I need to eat to keep from gaining or losing). It's not much, really, but I've also changed the kinds and quality of the food I eat as well as limiting the calories. One thing I am certain about: empty calories of any kind should not only be prohibited, but any time I eat them I put myself at risk for disease. It's a strong incentive, not imposed from without, but from deep inside me that I feel the desire for change coming. I've seen too many friends and family suffering from something that can be relearned: what we eat is definitely under our control.

But first we have to gain awareness that something we have done mindlessly all our lives can be recognized as actually being under our control. If you read that article in the New York Times about sugar, it might be all you need to give you that incentive. I hope so.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Do you learn happiness?

Allison and Lexie, March 2011
When I look at this picture of the beautiful smiling Lexie, it reminds me that she seems to be a naturally happy person. She doesn't fuss very often, loves to smile and laugh, and makes everyone around her smile, too. Not all babies are like that, I remember. I am now at the age that when I visit family, like I did last month, there are babies and little kids everywhere, usually two generations removed from me. I notice the difference in temperament between all of us, and I wonder whether some of us are born with a contentment gene.

I saw a movie yesterday that triggered this question in my mind: Another Year, a British film made last year that follows the life of a couple and their friends and family through four seasons. It's not a movie that could have been made in this country, as the plot is nonexistent; it just portrays the people and their relationships to one another. There were long moments without a sound track where we just watched the play of emotions across their faces. One of the characters, Mary, is a middle-aged co-worker who kept imagining that her life would take off and be different if only some imagined event (a new car, a new man) could transport her there. Her lack of self-awareness as to how much of her unhappiness is of her own making is something I recognize, both in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

Perhaps it has something to do with having been thrown into the crucible of family last month, but I couldn't help but think about how differently my relatives approach life. I guess this is to be expected, but we rarely have such an opportunity for reflection. And how much of what I see is real, and how much of it is my own projection onto my family? I cannot get outside of my own head, my own family dynamics, to see things as they might appear to outside observers. All I can do is examine how I feel and contemplate the inner workings of my own mind.

I think I was a happy baby and am a naturally happy person. But if something occurs in my life that causes me pain (either mental or physical), that event becomes the center of my existence for either a shorter or longer period, and everything else going on fades into the background. I suppose this is normal, but it amazes me how often I change my internal focus from one thing to another. Most of the time it is outside of what I think I can control, but sometimes I wonder. Watching Lexie or watching Mary (in the movie) in their differing approaches to life, I wonder if there is something I'm missing that would be obvious if I could only gain a different vantage point.

When my son was little, I read him stories from Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I especially liked the character of Eeyore, a sad donkey who always sees the world through the eyes of a confirmed pessimist. It always made me smile when I encountered his character, because it seemed that nothing could ever happen in Eeyore's life that wouldn't be terrible, and it wasn't the event, but the observer, who determined the outcome. Reading those stories gave me perspective enough to realize I might be able to change my life by changing my viewpoint, and that nothing outside of me would change until I changed my attitude.

This is one of the reasons I love to read well-written novels and memoirs, because reading gives me a different perspective through which to view the world, my own life, and the lives of those around me. When I think back to my twenties, I remember being transported and fundamentally changed by some of the books I read at that time. Going back and re-reading some of them was like reading them for the first time, because I was different, changed by the earlier reading of the story, and no longer either as receptive or innocent as the young girl who was my former self.

Happiness may not be a learned behavior as much as a choice one makes. Just as I bring my mind back again and again to one point in meditation, perhaps the trick to happiness is to choose it over and over.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Still in recovery mode

The Sixlings, in order by oldest to youngest
It's Sunday morning, sitting here in my own bed with my cup of tea and laptop, preparing to write my usual Sunday post and thinking about the past week. Last Sunday I was sitting propped up with this same laptop in my brother's office on a very comfortable air mattress. The entire household was asleep, and this morning Smart Guy, the only other person in my apartment, is quietly sleeping. It's the best time of the day for me. The birds are beginning to wake outside but even they are mostly still asleep and the sun won't be coming up for another hour.

Last Wednesday was pretty grueling, starting out in Texas at 6:30 am and traveling home for the next fourteen hours, before Smart Guy picked me up at the Bellingham Airport. The shuttle bus took three hours from Seattle, and I saw standing water everywhere, from days and days of rain. Once home,  I ate a little dinner and went to bed early. It felt so good to sink down into my own bed and fall asleep. I slept ten hours with nary a stir. Every night since returning home, I've needed more sleep than usual. The very first full day home, Thursday, I went hiking with the Senior Trailblazers and covered nine muddy miles, which I wrote about here.

Thinking about my family, who we are to each other, and how fortunate we are to continue to be well and with enough means to gather together as we did last week, brings two distinct and opposite feelings to mind. One, that it's already behind us and that moment in time may be captured in pictures and memories, but it's already past. The second feeling is the timelessness of being together. Even though I had not been with some of my siblings in years, as soon as we were together we connected as though no time had passed. Twenty years separate the youngest (Fia) from the oldest (me), and whether or not we are blessed with another gathering like this last one is yet to be seen. Fia already began discussing with me tentative plans for another gathering to celebrate her 50th and my 70th birthday in less than two years.

Frankly, that is almost too soon for me to contemplate! It seems like tomorrow, and I'll need at least a year to recover completely from this last one. That will change, though, as time passes and my life picks up as usual here in Bellingham. My first visit to the coffee shop on Friday was wonderful, with little two-year-old Leo seeing me arrive and rushing over with Thomas the Train for me to read to him, and Gene giving me a hug and letting me know how glad he is that I've returned. My usual spot in the aerobics class was still there, and this Sunday brings me closer to what has become normal. This post is included in the mixture.

My parents have been gone for a long time now, but their offspring are still alive, hearts still beating with our family's tendency to develop coronary artery disease (which took both Mama and Daddy) seemingly held at bay by statin drugs, which were unavailable to our parents. But still, when I think of it, something will cause the six of us to finally be unable to gather as we have done over the years. Just as last week's picture has two of our numbers missing, the fact of life is that it is ephemeral, everything born must die someday. But today, in April 2011, I feel the presence of my incredible family here in the same universe, and for that I am eternally grateful. I leave you this morning with a picture of the five sisters, taken last week by my brother Buz.
PJ, Fia, Norma Jean, Jan, Markee