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, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday 2013

Forsythia in spring
I'm a little later than usual getting started on my Sunday morning post, since I slept in for a bit. I have absolutely nothing that must be done on this beautiful day, with full sunshine predicted and a high temperature approaching 70 degrees F possible! Last year the final day of March was rather miserable, as I remember. But we in the Pacific Northwest have been graced with the most beautiful weather imaginable for the end of March.

First a quick update on my sister PJ's situation. She is still in the hospital, and while they initially thought her heart attack caused no damage, once she tried to resume her activities, it was apparent that this is not the case. Further tests revealed that she's sustained damage to her heart, as well as having all the stents that were placed there in previous years found to be occluded. Surgery is not an option, so she is going to be sent to a rehab facility to help her learn how to cope with her new situation. She will be going on disability and possibly early Medicare, since she is only 63 and was working right up to the time of the heart attack. She is in no immediate danger, as I understand it, and Norma Jean has returned home after having spent five days in Texas to be with her and other family members.

Because of today's technology, I was able to visit with PJ via FaceTime on our phones. PJ didn't want me to see her, so I only had a few quick glimpses, but we were able to talk, and I was able to relay to her my love and concern for her. And I learned yesterday that the facility where she will be moved to has been identified. We are all hoping that the time when she will be able to get home to her beloved dogs will not be far behind. She has her husband and sons to support her.

Yesterday I finally got my knees in the breeze for the first time in 2013. It was a perfect day in the Pacific Northwest, and Smart Guy and I headed south to Snohomish. By the time the fog had burned off to reveal nothing but blue skies, we had arrived at the Drop Zone. I had to have a quick conversation with the DZ owner, Tyson, because I was one week past the time limit to have made a skydive to be considered current in the sport. He suggested that I make a solo jump and open my parachute high to get reacquainted with my canopy.

I wrote about it on my other blog here, complete with pictures. But since I like to keep those posts brief and give myself permission to examine my feelings on this one, I'm going to let you know how it felt to be inside my head. Although I have made thousands of skydives over more than two decades, it never fails to amaze me at how quickly I forget the intense sense of fear and dread that consumes me as I move closer and closer to that moment when I will leap into another world. Butterflies in my stomach don't really tell the story, but they give you an idea of the state of anxiety I was in. When I was an instructor, I dealt with the fears of my student and was able to put it into perspective. One thing I always said is that it's normal to be afraid; we are doing something rather unnatural, but those butterflies will be transformed into ecstasy if you just take it one step at a time.

In the airplane on the way up to altitude, there were two tandem students with their instructors, along with some young jumpers who are so addicted to the sport that they jumped all winter long from whatever altitude they could reach. I remembered being like that, but that was a long time ago. Now it was my turn to talk to myself about what I was doing. By the time the door was opened and it was my time to exit the airplane, I was following old patterns: I looked down at the ground, locating the place where I would be landing my parachute, and I just... leaped out.

The rush of air on my body, first from the forward motion of the airplane and then the push of the air as it whizzed past me, was exhilarating. I had done it! I was in freefall! Having more than 65 hours of accumulated freefall time, it was a familiar place. I exulted in the views, the feelings, and the sense of freedom that I feel in that special place between being in an airplane and being under a canopy. I did a few 360s, a little tracking, but mostly I just waited until I reached opening altitude. It lasted an incredibly long time in my mind, but it was actually around a minute. Then I reached back and pitched my pilot chute, which opens the main parachute. Whump!

I felt myself come to a gentle stop as my parachute opened. It had been packed by Smart Guy on Friday, since he is an exceptional packer and having him inspect everything and then pack it up made me feel much better. Two sets of eyes on the equipment is a good thing. I looked up at my pretty canopy and grabbed the brakes, releasing them so I could control the parachute. I turned to the left and to the right and stalled it a couple of times, which is what is called a control check.

Then I located my landing area and guided myself to the proper place to begin my approach. I had plenty of time to take in the view of Puget Sound and the beautiful mountains as I played under my canopy. There were no other canopies in the air with me other than the two tandems way above. (The other jumpers landed in another field.) It was divine, simply divine. I landed right where I wanted to, making a tiptoe touchdown. Sometimes when I misjudge the timing of my flare it's not so perfect, but yesterday it was just right.

As I gathered up my canopy, Smart Guy came out to meet me. I was wearing a grin from ear to ear, no butterflies, only the ecstatic feeling of having been able to be in freefall once more, and ready to pack up and go again! Which I did, I made a second jump with my friend Cindy who was able to make her skydive to stay current. The season has begun.

In the early years, a skydive would be enough to give me energy for days, and the sense of accomplishment and excitement would surround me until the next weekend. It's not that way any more, since it is now a more muted pleasure. But I feel very different today, this morning, this beautiful Easter Sunday.

The dawn has broken, there is light in the sky, and I know that everywhere on the planet there are people who got up in the dark and gathered together to watch the sun rise this Easter morning, reminding us of rebirth and renewal. I am blessed to have my life, and to share it with you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

That was then, this is now

Me after a skydive in the mid-1990s
This morning the most important thing on my mind is getting ready to start the skydiving season again. It's been almost six months since I made my last skydive, and a couple of weeks ago I attended Safety Day at the Drop Zone where I've been jumping for the past five years. I visited with my friends and sat through a day of seminars, reviewing emergency procedures, canopy control, aircraft safety, and more. It was very thorough and well worth doing. I knew I wouldn't be actually making a skydive that day, because as beautiful as the day was, all the staff members were busy with the seminars. Over a hundred skydivers showed up.

In this part of the country, skydiving is seasonal at best. Today is the first day so far this year when I might actually be able to do it. I just checked the weather in Snohomish: clear and cold, with the possibility of a beautiful sunny day ahead. Although it's only an hour and a half away, the weather there can be completely different than here in Bellingham. We have lots of little micro-climates in the Pacific Northwest. It's a beautiful place to live, but planning anything outdoors in March is a dubious proposition. Or April through June, for that matter.

I am filled with trepidation, because it's been long enough for me to wonder about the wisdom of my chosen avocation. Once upon a time, after that picture was taken, I became an instructor and made hundreds of skydives every year. I couldn't wait to get to the Drop Zone and begin my day. I would return home after a weekend of making anywhere from six to ten skydives. If they were good ones, my level of satisfaction was huge, both being able to help others to learn, and having spent so much of my time in the process of skydiving.

But that was then. This is now. There is a certain hubris in believing that everything stays the same from one year to the next. This is dangerous thinking, since time has a way of bringing imperceptible change to everything, including knees, health, and flexibility. I work hard at staying fit, but one can only do so much. So now as I sit here, early on a Sunday morning, I'm thinking about the upcoming skydiving season, and today.

For the past couple of years, I've thought about quitting, and I even decided that once I reached the grand old age of seventy, it would be time. But now I'm seventy and I cannot quite face the idea of never again getting my knees in the breeze. There's something incredibly powerful about the idea of skydiving. I just now looked back to last year (one of the great benefits of a blog) and found the post I wrote after my first jump of the season in 2012. I read it again and realized I would most likely feel just the same today as I did then. My health and fitness level have not changed significantly in the past year.

But then again, that was then, this is now. I cannot rest on my laurels without the possibility of considering that it would be a completely different experience today. At some point in the future, and the not-too-distant one at that, I must make that decision. I notice that I get something of the same feeling every Thursday when I get ready to go on a ten-mile hike with the Senior Trailblazers. Although it's not in the same ballpark as skydiving, perhaps, I still make a decision to push myself and possibly get injured in some way. If I break a leg out there in the wilderness, it would be quite a feat to get myself back to safety. I think about that, too, as we are all in our late sixties and seventies.

The reward for doing these activities is tremendous. I have recently begun a new class at the Y, something called "Aqua Boot Camp," a 45-minute-long activity of going all out in the pool. I've done it four times now, and the first time I didn't hold back at all. By the time I dragged myself out of the pool, I could barely walk. But after a shower and a bit of a rest, I walked out of the gym feeling better than I had in ages. I've learned how to pace myself and take a breather if I need it, with the goal next week of making it a bit longer before I reach that state next time.

Okay, news flash. I just had a flurry of text messages with my family in Texas. My sister PJ has had a heart attack and is in ICU. Norma Jean has made the decision to fly there to see her, and I am now standing by to see if I need to do anything as well. It's PJ's birthday tomorrow. I am feeling all up in the air and will not be going anywhere today, it seems, just in case the worst happens. How quickly everything can change. Just another reminder that I must take each day as it comes, hoping for the best.

Until next time, stay safe and healthy. I will be putting any updates on my other blog (a link is on the sidebar). Otherwise, I'll be visiting you here next week, which happens to be Easter Sunday.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Another week rolls around

Today is St. Patrick's Day, so I had to find a bit o' green for the picture. This was taken last Thursday in the forest; moss is everywhere here in the Pacific Northwest. And what has been on my mind this past week? Other than the usual trips to town for my daily workouts at the Y, the coffee shop crowd along with the obligatory latte, I just finished the third book in a trilogy of memoirs written by Jennifer Worth. She was a midwife during the 1950s in the East End of London and captured a time and place that exists no longer. She was only a few years older than me, and she died at the age of 75 in 2011. She wrote the books towards the end of her life. A BBC series based on the books, Call the Midwife, captured my imagination last season, and I look forward to the second season.

Jennifer was able to capture not only the essence of the period, with characters who sprang to life on the page, but she also managed to reproduce the Cockney accent in dialog. The first book has an appendix explaining the way she worked to portray it in the written word. I learned about the "glottal stop" which typifies the accent. In one story, which has shopkeepers testifying in court, a translator is required to allow the judge to understand what is being said. My friend Peggy told me that she used the subtitle feature on her TV when she watched the series, so she could understand the heavy brogue. It's funny, I have no problem at all understanding the Cockney accent, but sometimes the words themselves are puzzling.

Although I enjoyed the books tremendously, as Worth is an outstanding author, I must admit that I also had a few sleepless nights over some of the more traumatic events that occurred in the books. The hard lives that East Enders endured, and especially the awful circumstances of many of the girls and women, hit me hard. I had nightmares about some of the workhouse stories and the exploitation of young girls. I guess the fact that this was not fiction, but her recollection of actual events, was part of the reason I found it difficult. Not to mention that she is a brilliant writer.

It has also made me think of how the written word gives us a chance to leave behind us a legacy that is unique to each of us. I know how much I love to read certain blogs that are written about the daily lives of my virtual friends. Sometimes nothing much happens in them, but I am given a chance to peek into the hearts and minds of those different from me, people who look at life from a different perspective, and I am enriched. But blogs are not permanent records, as books are. Or are they? And what difference does it make? Anything "permanent" is only a difference in degree, as all written words will eventually fade into obscurity.

Years ago, when I came down with infectious hepatitis, I spent months flat on my back in bed. I was so weak and feeble that I could only manage to walk a few steps every day. The doctor told me to honor that weakness and not try to push my way through it, or I would be in danger of becoming chronically sick. So I read a lot and discovered my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. My caretaker, Robert, introduced me to her and filled me with biographies of this very singular person. She has been gone for more than a century now, but her poems live on. There are scholars who still ponder her poetry and make entire careers out of its study. She lived in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, and her poetry was not understood back then. The few poems that were published during her lifetime were altered to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time, and she refused to submit any more. It was only after her sister discovered a chest filled with them when Emily died at 55 (in 1886) that the breadth of her work was known. It wasn't until 1955 that her works were published without any alterations.

I have always been fascinated by the way the passage of time changes things. To gain a little perspective on my life today, I will sometimes think back to those days when I was a toddler, when my parents doted on me, and I wonder, was that truly me? The person who sits here in the early morning dawn, tapping away at my laptop, thinking these transitory thoughts, is this any more me that the toddler I envision in my mind's eye? Perhaps the process of trying to define my own essence is the error in my thinking. Although I know that Jennifer Worth and Emily Dickinson are no longer on this planet, are they really gone? In Emily's own words:
Long Years apart — can make no
Breach a second cannot fill —
The absence of the Witch does not
Invalidate the spell — 
The embers of a Thousand Years
Uncovered by the Hand
That fondled them when they were Fire
Will stir and understand —

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spring has sprung

Crocus outside the YMCA
That picture of the beautiful crocus in the sunshine was taken on Friday after my morning class at the Y. I had a couple of hours to wander around and take pictures before my noon swim class. It was such a beautiful day, full sunshine and smiling faces everywhere. And this morning, we set our clocks back to "spring forward." The sun will set tonight after 7:00pm here in Bellingham. The first official day of spring is just over a week away. I made it through another Pacific Northwest winter.

I've lived here for five years now, after more than three decades in Colorado's sunshine and high altitude. Here I experience short, often gray overcast days with little to no sunshine during the three long months of winter, when the sun sets early and rises late. It's very green here, in contrast to Boulder in the wintertime, but the constant sunshine in Colorado caused me to take it for granted. Here I rejoice in the sunshine and the few days of full sun during the winter months.

Yesterday I headed south on a gorgeous sunny day, no clouds in the sky at all, to the Snohomish Drop Zone. Not to make a skydive, but to attend the all-day-long Safety Day that Skydive Snohomish provides for its skydivers. It was the first weekend day since the beginning of the year that was so beautiful, but the owners made the decision months ago to have Safety Day rain or shine, and so they did. I attended five different seminars and pretended to have a malfunction and pull my handles as if I needed to deploy my reserve parachute. I was reminded how to inspect my gear and even learned a few tips I didn't know.

In the old days in Colorado, it was me who gave those seminars and taught young jumpers how to be safe. I had forgotten things I didn't think I would ever forget. This year, and now that I am a seasonal skydiver, I needed Safety Day. But it was not easy to wander around outdoors between seminars in the full sunshine and see those aircraft sitting idle on the ground. This particular operation is committed to safety, and I really needed a refresher. Today the weather is not so good, with the clouds and rain having moved back in, so I will need to wait until at least the upcoming weekend to "get my knees in the breeze" for real.

I thought last season would be my last one to skydive, but I'm not ready to give it up quite yet. Perhaps this will be my last season, as my aging gear and physical body keep reminding me that there will be a day in the not-too-distant future when it will not be a choice; it will be time. I hope I make that decision wisely, not after having hurt myself on landing or otherwise. Keeping myself fit and eating right has delayed the inevitable moment when I hang up my gear for good.

My regular jumping companions were all there yesterday, and we commiserated about the beautiful weather but enjoyed Safety Day. After five seasons of jumping together, it amazes me how close we have become. I have developed a family at Snohomish, and we are all looking forward to playing together in the sky, for at least one more season.

Back here in Bellingham, I have my other virtual family, those seniors with whom I hike every week. For five years now, I have explored the wilderness and experienced the good days and the bad ones with another group of like-minded people. My life is full, and spring is here, with the promise of sunny days when I can pull out my sunscreen and put away my rain gear. Now that's one kind of gear that I don't mind hanging up for awhile. Again, it's seasonal; there are hardly any more beautiful summers than we enjoy here in the Pacific Northwest, with all the shades of green to contrast with those gray days of winter.

It's again dark outside as I sit here with my laptop. This time yesterday there was light in the sky, but we lost an hour of sleep overnight, and I will notice how long the days have become tonight when the daylight lingers in the sky and the sun takes its time to set. By midsummer, it will be the long days that feel like they will never end. I wonder what it's like to live even farther north, when the sun never sets in the summer and never rises at all in the winter.

I'll probably never find out what it's like, since this home I've made here in Bellingham is just right for me in my later years. Now it's time for me to post this, but first I'd like to make a toast to you, my dear readers: I wish this upcoming spring and summer season to be memorable to every single one of us for all the right reasons.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Living a long life

Early March winter scene
I remember once learning that a human life span is three score and ten. The meaning of a "score" of years is twenty, so that means a normal life would last seventy years. Here's the quote from the King James version of the Bible (Psalm 90):
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
Only ten years separate me from eighty, but the progression from my youth has been gradual, so gradual that I mark the days and years with amazement. It's definitely true that as I look backwards through my life, it seems impossible that the twenty-year-old mother I was then is the same Me of today.

Before I had reached my first score of years, I had married and given birth to my first son, and I felt that I was an adult who knew everything. I looked at old people like they were from another planet. I would NEVER be that old, I thought. It seemed that the person I had become was the person I would be from then on. Change comes on little cat feet, like fog.

Remember that Carl Sandburg poem? (The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.) That's the way the imperceptible change that brought me from young mother to old woman has been. Silent and invisible, touching my life and moving on. And now here I sit, pondering my Sunday morning post, and thinking about all those years and how I got here, where I am today.

I'm happy with my life, glad that I still have the ability to play on the earth, although there are many modifications I've had to make as the years go by. I can no longer run, since my knees won't take the pounding any more, but I did run for more than thirty years. I have learned to be more careful with my aging body, although I stretch myself to the limit, in order to find what that limit is in the present moment. Tomorrow it might be different, I know. But I don't live in tomorrow; I am alive and breathing right now. I'm not ready to fly away quite yet.

When I was a young woman, I was afraid of dying. Once I realized that life is fragile and there are no guarantees of any kind, I spent many nights thinking of the inevitable end of life, not knowing whether I would ever get the chance to grow old, or even if I would live through the night. And as I lost loved ones through illness and accident, I stopped concentrating on my own mortality. That fear  that came on little cat feet, looking at life on its silent haunches, moved on.

If you are still young, you may not yet realize how the passage of years can mellow a person. Although I am not looking forward to the end of my life, the fact that I've been blessed with so many good years, even decades, of a full life, has given me a breadth of understanding that I could not have even imagined at twenty. There is something about the simple fact of living that has changed my outlook and given me a sense of peace about the way things are.

I hear birds singing, and the dawn is coming earlier and earlier now. Spring is only a few weeks away, and the crocus and daffodils are making their way through the earth. The long winter is releasing its grip, and we begin the journey into summer. Observing the march of the seasons is one of my favorite pursuits, and it helps me to remember that although nothing stays the same forever, today and this moment is enough. In fact, it is really the only thing we have, this everlasting instant in time.