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, February 26, 2012

Another Sunday rolls around

And this one is Oscar night! I almost always turn the TV onto the channel and watch while I'm doing other things. Tonight will be the same. This year, my friend Judy and I have tried to see all the movies and performances and I've got my own ideas of who SHOULD take home the Oscar, but we all know it has little to do with who deserves it. Like everything else, taking home an Oscar has as much to do with politics as anything. I enjoy all the dresses and jewelry, and I imagine that the past weeks of preparation for tonight's gala have people glad that the time has finally arrived.

It seems such a distant and unreal event to me as I sit here in the dark on this Sunday morning. Having read the news of the world, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to wake to the sunrise over Baghdad, or Tehran, or Homs. As terrible as things get in my part of the world, I simply cannot envision what living in the middle of one of these places would be like. The juxtaposition of the news and the Tinsel Town glitter is almost surreal, like something made up for a novel.

Where am I going with this? I don't usually let myself get too involved in politics of any kind, because it tends to make me depressed. I can't change what is happening in the world, although my laptop brings every little piece of it into my consciousness. Actually, that's not true. It brings that part of the world's happenings that the news media thinks I'll be interested in. There are so many things happening everywhere, and we only glimpse a small little portion of it.

My favorite news channel on TV is KBTC Worldview, part of the PBS offerings here on cable. It gives me news in English from Russia, Hong Kong, France, India, Al Jazeera, and much more. It's very interesting to see the world news through the eyes of other country's newscasts. The local news here in Washington state usually brings me nothing but the latest shootings, traffic accidents, floods, and other local disasters. You could get really depressed if that was the only television you watched.

One of the best things about the digital revolution is the sheer volume of information that is available to me at my fingertips. As I pondered what to write about this morning, as nothing earth-shattering is happening in my own life right now, I visited Google a few times, one to grab that picture of the Oscars, and another to look for a picture of pretty gold-glitter shoes. This week I saw a young girl wearing a pair, and they brought back a memory of some shoes I once owned. It's like falling into a whirlpool when I look at a hundred images of glitter. Not to mention that it makes it difficult for me to focus on writing this post.

I've set it up so that the schedule of writing this on Sunday morning feels like a deadline I must meet. Obviously the world wouldn't come to an end if I didn't post this morning, but my own internal world needs structure, whether imposed from within or from without -- so here I sit, thinking about all the many mornings I've sat with my laptop propped up in bed, partner asleep next to me, going inside the interesting corridors of my mind. Who knows what will emerge? I have spent 120 Sundays doing this, and it may not feel like much of a deadline to anyone else, but to me, it's solid.

This particular blog was begun so that I could write about how I got here, to this place in my life. If you were to go back to the first posts, you would see that I journeyed through my life story in chronological order, discussing my early years, marriages, losses, and when I got to the present time, I gave myself permission to write whatever comes into my mind. A few months ago (I went looking and can't find the post), I wondered out loud if it might be time to end this blog but was encouraged by my commenters to allow myself to roam and wander. I remember Whitney reminded me of the words I put in the "Why This Blog" box, to write for myself. You know, that's all well and good, but I am very aware of the fact that this is a PUBLIC blog, the whole blogosphere could read it if they knew about it and cared. It's public, and that restrains me in several ways, not the least of which is that I don't want to offend anyone or embarrass myself. Therefore, when I write I keep in mind the myriad friends and acquaintances I feel I know well: you know who you are.

The blogging world is an amazing development in my life. I follow around a hundred blogs, and most of the authors are like me: they like to write and share a bit of themselves and their lives. It's created something new in the world: a community of bloggers who care about each other. Some have even made an effort to meet in person, and I've done so too. I've talked on the phone, exchanged personal emails, met a few, and I realize that my life would be so much less full and varied without the daily exchange I have with them. Each blog has its own flavor, and some are guaranteed to make me laugh; others to challenge me to think about life in a different way. It's become an integral part of my social calendar.

I see that the sky is beginning to lighten, and I hear the first birds waking and beginning their morning serenades. And another Sunday morning post is almost finished. I feel content and fulfilled.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Adventurous spirit

Who is this cutie? Well, if you guessed that it's me, you're right. I spent yesterday afternoon looking for pictures that haven't been scanned into digital format, and got to work with the scanner so they can be used in blog posts. I looked and looked at this picture, wondering about the differences between people and what makes us each unique. Certainly the care we receive as infants and children has an impact on who we become, and this little imp obviously felt cherished and happy. As the firstborn I also had my parents' undivided attention for two and a half years, before Norma Jean came along to disrupt my happy role as Queen of the Universe. Fortunately she didn't stay uncommunicative for long and we eventually became inseparable.

From my earliest recollection, there was a distinct difference between us: I was outgoing and willing to take risks, while Norma Jean was shy and diffident, always willing to let me take the lead. As we grew older, it became obvious that we characterize the classic extroverted and introverted personalities. Of course I didn't learn the labels until much later, but as we grew up, I am pretty sure that we continued to make decisions based on our own natural inclinations.  Even though we have been through a full lifetime of experience, we continue to follow entirely different pathways to fulfillment.

It's fascinating to talk with Norma Jean about shared childhood experiences and realize how different our memories of the same event can be. Since Daddy was in the military and we moved around a great deal, I developed a "new girl" persona so that when we moved to a new place, I picked up mannerisms that I would use to cope; I never minded it, but she agonized over leaving her old friends and the necessity to be singled out. I never looked back or missed anybody. Consequently I also never learned to develop long-term relationships and ended up going from one partnership to another until I had the good fortune to meet my life partner at the age of fifty. Norma Jean and Pete were married for almost half a century before he died last year.

Smart Guy and I are coming up on our twentieth anniversary, but we will never see a half century, since we got a rather late start. In some ways I am amazed that we have managed to find such a rich and satisfying life together, since I had to develop some new skills, ones which at first I didn't believe I had the ability to develop. It took many years of effort to find our way, but it happened, and I am now able to write from my favorite Sunday morning spot: in the darkness before the dawn, a cup of hot tea within reach as I struggle with my thoughts. He's still asleep next to me. On some level he must hear the tapping of the keys, but the sound is not unfamiliar and doesn't disturb his rest.

We met as skydivers. If I had never started skydiving, I would never have known him. If the internet had not come into being, we would never have encountered each other. Our spirits were attracted to each other before we ever met in person. (I wrote about it here, if you want to know the details.) My life trajectory has been permanently altered by several events in the past, as all people experience throughout life. But I continually thank my lucky stars for those two: skydiving and my life partner. Without those two incredibly important occurrences, I cannot imagine who I would have become.

That's the way of life, I guess. Things happen to us that cause us to take a fork in the path that lead us to places we can't even imagine. I finished re-reading "Of Human Bondage" yesterday, and I now believe that the reading of that book in my twenties was one of the events that opened my eyes to new ways of perceiving life. It's certainly not life-changing to the Me of today the way it was then, but now that I have read it a half century later, I can understand why it affected me so deeply. I was accustomed to living my life in a rather superficial manner, not delving very deeply into the meaning of life, and Somerset Maugham was able to write this book in such a way that I began to examine my reactions to life events in a much deeper fashion. It deserves its place as one of the best novels of the twentieth century, and as I re-read certain passages, I felt stirrings of my old quest to understand the meaning of life.

Although I still spend a few days every spring and summer with my skydiving friends, it no longer occupies the central place it once did. Everything has its time and place, and as I begin my eighth decade (yes, that's when you turn seventy) on the planet, my adventurous spirit is now looking towards new challenges, new ways to feel excitement without throwing myself out of an airplane. I would never have thought that it would become a familiar feeling, but after more than 66 hours of accumulated freefall time, it has indeed become old hat. These days, I look forward to the intellectual adventures that my spirit still craves. The writing of these Sunday morning posts has become a part of that adventure. Who knows what will emerge?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revisiting the past

This past week I've been re-reading a book I read long ago, about the time that this young woman was taking care of her newborn baby boy. That's me fifty years ago. Chris is dressed for his christening, with his godparents and the Episcopal priest Fr. Shipps surrounding us. It's a bit overwhelming to realize that I was once that young. My husband Derald was still in Puerto Rico, and I was in Georgia visiting my parents for a short visit when this picture was taken. Fr. Shipps eventually became a Bishop, and the young man Charles on his left became an Episcopal priest as well. I don't even remember the names of the couple, I'm ashamed to say. I think they were active in the church, which I wasn't, and they were probably chosen by someone other than me. Fifty years is a long time.

One of the things I did to pass the time as a young mother was to read books. I would visit the library and choose several to take home and would lose myself in them. It wasn't a particularly happy time in my life, so entering into the world of various authors would lighten my spirit and give me something to think about. I remembered reading "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was written in 1915 and was considered to be a classic. It's long but easy to read, although I didn't remember much about it, other than that it followed the life of a young man. When I finished the book, I thought about it a lot, and over the years I considered it to have affected me profoundly and that it was one of the best books I had ever read.

I suppose it's true that you can never re-read a book, since the person who read it long ago has changed through life experience enough that the book is being read by an entirely different person. I'm about halfway through the book and find myself quite surprised that it affected me so deeply. Perhaps the protagonist's search to find himself was what the young mother identified with. Life was so different for me in those days, but the struggle to become your own person is one that goes on from one generation to the next. I think I felt trapped into motherhood and an unhappy marriage, and that would have certainly colored anything I was reading. But I remember so well that this book stood out from many others, and I decided to find out why, this me of today.

That Wikipedia link above tells me that the Modern Library ranked this book as one of the best 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. Well, I guess I wasn't alone in thinking it was good. But I'm curious to know if I will feel that way when I reach the end of it in a few days. The world is not only very different today than it was fifty years ago, but the book was also written a century ago, and the inhabitants of the world of 1915 could hardly imagine what 2012 would look like. Who could have visualized the Internet?

I have probably spent as much time this week on line, reading the news, blogs, commenting, reading emails, as I would have spent at my job during my working years. Several hours every day find me peering at a computer screen, and the connection I feel with people I've never met, will never meet, consumes much of the time I once spent reading hardback books. In fact, I'm reading the aforementioned book on my iPad!

Another event of this past week has me thinking about how much our lives have changed. I finally got to the movies to see Albert Nobbs, where Glenn Close plays a woman who lives her entire life as a man, a butler in 19th-century Ireland. Both Close and another woman who masquerades as a man in the movie, Janet McTeer, have been nominated for Oscars for their performances. Although the movie hasn't been very successful at the box office, seeing the performance of these two makes it entirely worthwhile. I myself thought the movie was very good.

The reason they dressed and lived their lives as men is because in that era, if you were a woman without a husband, means, or the prospects of marriage, your options were extremely limited. When she was fourteen, Albert (the Close character) answered an advertisement for a butler and dressed herself up as one, got the job, and ended up working her entire life as a butler. No one suspected, and if you get a chance to see this movie, you'll see why. Albert found a way to survive in that world.

The young modern women of today have no idea how different the experience of being female in a male-dominated world can be. Of course, it's not the same everywhere in the world, but because of the Internet, because every corner of our world is easily visited on line, we know so much more about virtually anything that interests us, with just the click of a mouse.

Although the woman in Kabul who lives behind the walls of her home, unable to walk on the street alone, has no Internet, I suspect that there are leaks into her life of the wider world. I wonder if she has books to read, like the young woman I was a half-century ago, that spark ideas she wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My little corner of the universe

Unknown women at airport in Skopje
I took a picture of these women while I was waiting to leave Skopje, Macedonia, in April 2009. I didn't ask their permission (I'm sure we didn't speak the same language anyway), and I pretended to be focusing in another direction and snapped it. They enchanted me, just thinking about the focus of their lives, how they spend each day. They must be Muslims, from their head coverings, and matrons, probably mothers or grandmothers. Going from Skopje to somewhere else, obviously friends or relatives, and probably have not traveled much in the world. I was eavesdropping with my camera.

There are so many people in the world, so many different experiences of life, and I've been fortunate to have traveled a fair amount into many different environments. From the mountains of the Andes, to China and Vietnam, I have met people as different from me as one could imagine. And yet, we all have lives that matter to us and our families, with each of us trying to find our own little corner of the universe where we belong.

I was fortunate to have lived in Puerto Rico for several years and learned to speak some Spanish. Although I don't practice it much, when I traveled to Peru I was able to study it again and use it pretty well. When I knew I was going to be traveling to Paris, I took a French class but my Spanish kept clogging up my brain when I tried to learn to speak French. In Paris I was at a tremendous disadvantage being unable to speak the language and was treated as a bothersome tourist, and many servers took advantage of it, charging me more and ignoring me. I felt out of place, and of course I was.

Learning to communicate with other people who don't speak the same language is not difficult in most places, and given enough time, most of us learn the essentials and accommodate each other as best we can. I have had people communicate with me through pantomime and knew exactly what they were telling me. Although most Americans believe that in most places there is at least a little English, I have found that not to be the case. Although in China most people study English in school, they never hear it spoken and consequently have a difficult time communicating in the language. I carried a business card with me when I entered a taxi in China, showing my destination to the driver; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to get around that way.

This past week, I noticed a trio who have been taking the bus at the same time every day, when I am traveling home after going out for my morning coffee and class. An older woman and a younger couple, and they were speaking to each other in a foreign language. I thought I understood it to be Russian, so I asked the man (who was sitting next to me) where he is from. Speaking with a heavy accent, he said, "Russia." When they arrived at the technical college (their destination), I said, "Do svidaniya!" (I learned to say goodbye and thank you while in Russia, and I was pretty sure this was the correct salutation.) The younger woman turned and flashed me the most brilliant smile as they disembarked.

The next day, there they were again, and this time the woman came up to me and said, "You speak Russian?" I explained that I only knew two words, other than Da and Nyet, that is, and she told me how to say hello:  Zdravstvujtye. When I got home, I explained to Smart Guy about my adventure, and he taught me how to say hello in a way I could remember (he took Russian in college). I also got on YouTube and listened to the pronunciation over and over. The next day I greeted Irina with it (I discovered her name that day), and she was so pleased. This time, she sat next to me and we "talked" together. I learned that she and her husband have been in the United States since mid-November and are from Siberia. She told me the name of her town, but I couldn't even begin to remember it. The older woman is another Russian taking the English class, but they are not related.

Before we had arrived at the college, I ascertained that her daughter lives here and has been in Bellingham for six years. Her daughter has an 18-year-old son and an infant daughter, which I assume is the reason that Irina came here, to help with her newest grandchild. Her grandson went to Russia for two years when he was nine and learned quite a bit of Russian but has forgotten most of it. Irina is practicing her limited English with me, and we are now friends. I look forward to our interaction and I know she does, too. Her husband smiles at me, but she is the one who makes a tremendous effort to speak English with me. She told me she is fifty (she doesn't look it at all). She knew no English when she arrived and is learning quickly, but we use pantomime and laughter to bridge the gap when communication breaks down.

I myself have been helped by strangers to navigate a strange country, and it makes me very happy to listen to Irina's first attempts at speaking English. Knowing that there is no substitution for interaction, I am pleased to have made a new friend from Siberia. Irina has her own little corner of her universe, but she has stepped out into the wider world, and hopefully she will be treated well and will have a good impression of my chosen home town. I realize that she must miss her home and her own country. She hasn't even been here three months and she's already taking classes and interacting with strangers on the bus.

When I contemplate the vast number of people in the world and the number of languages we speak, it's amazing that we can communicate with each other so well. Each of us also feels most at home in a place where we can understand the conversations swirling around us and know the names of the streets and towns nearby, but getting out of our comfort zone and traveling the wider world makes us all better people. That's what I think, anyway.

Now that I am older and have most of my foreign travels behind me, I find comfort and reassurance in reaching out to those fellow travelers and realize that I am at home right here, my own little corner of the universe. I've traveled around and chosen my place, rather than having it given to me. Growing up as a child with no home town, since we lived wherever my father was stationed, I chose Boulder for my first home town, and Bellingham as the town for my retirement years. I think I've chosen well.