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, June 30, 2013

Pacific Northwest is hot, too

From lower-than-normal temperatures for weeks now to hotter-than-normal is what's happening right here in my area of the country. I've been reading about all the hot weather across the country. Pretty normal for summer (maybe hotter than usual), but we don't usually get any really warm weather around here until after the 4th of July. In the past, I've had to wear a sweater and carry a raincoat at this time of the year. But not now. It's getting pretty darn hot. Yesterday Bellingham reached 80 deg F. That may not seem warm to some of my readers, but trust me: we really feel it, not being used to warm humid air.

I spent the day yesterday at Snohomish, making four skydives and having a really good time with my friends. But as I was packing up my parachute after each jump, drops of sweat fell from my forehead onto the container. The dew point is also higher than usual, meaning that the humidity is high. After the fourth jump, I decided to bring it home unpacked and asked Smart Guy to pack it for me. He agreed, but it's just a pile of nylon sitting in the living room right now.

And it's just going to get hotter for the next few days. I read that several places in northern California broke temperature records yesterday. We don't have air conditioning in most of our homes here, because there are so few days when we really need it. We had the fan going all night, and that will probably be the situation for the next week or so. The only good part is that my garden will be happy, as long as I keep it watered (which I will).

I remember the second summer we were here, there was another heat wave. It got really really hot, and I was acclimatized after over a year when we didn't experience anything over 80 degrees. We broke lots of records here in the Pacific Northwest in late July 2009. We are not likely to break too many this time, since it's supposed to be short-lived and much worse on the east side of the Cascades. But that doesn't mean we won't complain mightily. Today I'll spend some time in a movie theater with my friend Judy, where it'll be cool and comfortable.

I am not looking forward to the upcoming holiday. I don't know what it is about fireworks that attracts so many people to set them off for days. Although the Fourth isn't until Thursday, I suspect that we will have to endure nights of hot weather along with bursts of rocket fire. With the windows open, the sounds are even worse. Plus the buses won't be running, and the Y will be closed for the holiday. In retirement, the holidays are my least favorite times. My entire routine is disrupted. When I was working, I appreciated having the time off to enjoy myself, but now it's just the opposite. I'll get my bike off the front porch and go for a spin, maybe take a bit longer ride than usual, find some new bike routes. Just got to get a little creative.

Well, I just read over what I've written so far and realize I sound really grumpy! I guess I am a little, since I didn't sleep well last night, tossing and turning and never cooling off sufficiently. I just looked to see what the temperature was yesterday in Boulder, my old home town, and it was 91. I would have been grumpy there, too. Is it getting hotter everywhere, or is it just my imagination? Many of my blogging friends have been complaining about hotter-than-usual weather lately, with plenty of damaging storms. I should count my blessings instead of concentrating on the downside of my current situation, don't you think? I could be living in Texas, where most of my family lives, sweltering in really hot conditions.

Is it part of the human condition that I compare my life to others to make myself feel better? There is a woman that I see on the bus every now and then who is in a wheelchair and must be paralyzed from the neck down. She uses one of those mouth controls that gives her amazing agility. I watch her drive her chair up the bus ramp and turn 180 degrees and back into the space where the bus driver then straps her chair in. I just looked up the way it's controlled, and it's called a "sip-and-puff" system. Inhaling and exhaling to control the movement. She also has another person with her at all times, but he doesn't seem to do anything to assist her and seems to be there just in case. As I've thought many times, there but for the grace of God...

I hope if I am ever disabled that I will get out and enjoy life to the best of my ability. I've had my share of accidents and have screws and pins that are permanent parts of my body, but it works just fine, with only a twinge of discomfort now and then. Heck, most people when they get to seventy have aches and pains, so I will concentrate on the good parts. I feel gratitude for being ambulatory and still able to jump out of airplanes just for the fun of it.

Well, now that I've given myself that attitude adjustment, finished my morning tea and am now looking forward to the day, it's almost time to get out of bed, dress, and water the garden before it gets hot. I hope wherever you are today, you will take care of yourself and look for the blessings that may be hiding in unexpected places.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Decades behind but still looking ahead

Sun breaking through the mist
"You can't have a hundred jumps forever," Smart Guy once reminded me, as we discussed the changing nature of my skydiving experience. It was long ago, and I was lamenting the loss of that initial feeling of excitement, the knife-edge awareness that colored my days and weeks and months when I first took up the activity. When I met him in late 1992, I had already been jumping for almost two years, and it permeated my entire existence. I lived for the weekends when I could go to the Drop Zone and hurl myself out of an airplane. My old non-skydiving friends began to stop calling me, as they tired of hearing about it. New friends were fellow jumpers. I met Smart Guy on the internet through skydiving and wrote about it here.

That was more than two decades ago. It simply amazes me to realize that I am seventy and still skydiving. I was 47 when I made my first jump, and now here I am at seventy and still at it. The intensity and excitement has faded to a gentle appreciation of a familiar activity, and even that amazes me. How can jumping out of an airplane begin to feel that ordinary?

I suppose that jet fighters who have thousands of flying hours must begin to have that same sense of familiarity, a routine sortie into danger. But for those who don't know what skydiving is all about, that it's much more than the sense of falling into the air from a great height with no control, it's very scary. But you see, I know better. I know that I have two parachutes on my back, and that once I reach terminal velocity (after 9 seconds), I can fly! Usually we skydivers play together in the air for close to a minute before we have to separate in order to have clear air in which to deploy our parachutes. If for some reason the main parachute fails, we have a backup. I've used my reserve only twice (knock wood) in more than 4,000 skydives, so it doesn't happen all that often.

But that isn't what I wanted to talk about this morning. Yesterday I met a young skydiver, Chris, who has 35 jumps and is still learning to pack a parachute. I remember how confusing it was myself, and he stood there uncertainly and was asking other people to check his work. It's terrifying to go through the process of learning, because everything seems very complicated. But it's not, really. There are only a few techniques that require attention to detail, and now I don't even think twice about it. I was able to impart some of my techniques to him, but he seemed dubious that it could actually be that simple. As he began the last part, stuffing the parachute into the deployment bag, it began to get away from him. In the midst of packing my own parachute, I turned around to see him giving up, thinking that he would need to start all over again, from what looked to him like a real mess. "No, no! Don't give up now; you've almost got it in the bag!" I said.

I went over to him and showed him that it was possible to wrestle it into the bag from that point, even if it seemed like a lost cause. I knew that the important aspects of packing had been followed, and that the recalcitrant nylon was the only part that wasn't under control. All the lines were not being disturbed. So he continued, with my help, and then went out to jump it. I watched him busy practicing his reserve procedures, just in case.

Well, I was packing up from yet another jump when here comes young Chris, a grin as wide as the sky on his face. He said, "It was perfect! I pulled and looked up, it opened on heading and soft, just... perfect!" I was happy, too, as I remembered being afraid to jump my own early pack jobs. I had to learn what was important and what was not, just as he is learning. He was very grateful and thanked me for my help. He didn't realize that it made me feel really good to boot. A young skydiver who is just like I was, long ago, although I was already middle-aged when I began. Chris was probably born somewhere around the time I started.

As I was walking through the Drop Zone yesterday, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a window and thought in passing that I sure don't look like most of the other skydivers. I'm old and wrinkled with white hair, but that is another aspect of this sport that most people don't realize: if I jump a large forgiving parachute and take care of my body with exercise and diet, there's nothing to stop me from enjoying a pastime that gives me such pleasure. Of course, all that could come to a screeching halt with an injury, but that is true in every aspect of my life. None of us live lives that are free of that possibility. Who would even want to?

So I'll take my chances and make sure I do everything I can to increase the odds of maybe skydiving for another few years. Maybe. There's an old saying I've heard many times: "You don't quit skydiving because you get old, you get old because you quit skydiving." These old bones sure had fun yesterday.

I wish, sincerely wish, that you have something in your life that gives you pleasure, and that you follow it today to wherever it takes you. After all, today is all we really have, isn't it?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

Tiny toes safe in daddy's hands
I don't know where this picture came from, but I remember being knocked out by it when I first saw it on the internet. Today I will use it to remind myself of how lucky I am to have been loved by my dad. Not everybody had a happy childhood, but I sure did. Firstborn and doted on by my young parents, I came into the world surrounded by love. I'm sure I was very strong willed, because I still am, and I come by it honestly. When I look at the rest of my family, I realize it's a trait I cherish.

Daddy was a gentle giant to me. I have a memory from long ago when he was holding me in his lap and I looked at my hand next to his. It seemed impossible to me that the enormous hand and mine might ever be equal. Of course they weren't, but I didn't know then why they were such different sizes. It made a deep impression on me, though, and I can still see it in my mind's eye. It made me feel safe to have such a protector. Daddy was my hero and I worshipped him.

When I was not yet three, my sister Norma Jean came into my world, and things changed, as I was no longer the center of my parents' universe. I have memories of jealousy and tantrums and remember being punished for hitting the little interloper while she lay sleeping in her crib. I'm sure Norma Jean's memories of childhood are not the same as mine, since she had me to contend with. But before long, we were constant companions, me her big sister. She looked up to me, which is just as it should be.

Daddy would sit me down and talk to me about things; I remember that he would sometimes start out by saying, "when I was a little girl," and I was happy to know that one day I would grow up to be a big strong man like him. There's even a little memory when I learned that it didn't work that way, a tiny sense of betrayal. After all, girls didn't grow up to be anywhere near as big and strong as boys did, so I wanted to fix that.

I remember being asked by grownups what I wanted to be when I grew up. Do you remember what you said? I suppose somewhere when I was very young I must have said a ballerina or whatever little girls wanted to be back then. But what I most remember wanting to grow up to become is a daddy like mine.

He was in the Air Force and traveled on TDY (temporary duty) occasionally. Our home was not the same when he wasn't there. Mama fixed meals for her girls, of course, but I remember that we often had pancakes or scrambled eggs for dinner instead of the regular meat, potatoes and vegetable that we always had when Daddy was home. My childhood memories revolve around the head of our household, and everybody else was a bit player. When I was about ten or so, I remember writing down my secret that I hoped Mama would die and Daddy would marry me. I slipped the little envelope where I wrote these thoughts into one of our encyclopedias. Remember when we had volumes of them on their own bookcase? I went looking for the letter years later and never found it.

I was only eighteen when I left home and married Derald, my first husband. I was pregnant with Chris and was forced to get married by my mother. I learned much later that she had kept the fact of my pregnancy a secret from my father. These days, nobody would even care if you were pregnant when you got married, wondering if perhaps you might have had a "shotgun wedding." Well, I did have one. How times have changed.

Daddy was only 62 when he died of a heart attack. Mama called me at my home in Colorado and said he was in the hospital and not expected to survive, and if I wanted to see him again, I'd better get down to Texas as fast as I could. Before the day was over, I was on a plane to Texas, along with my sisters and brother who did the same from their homes. We all made it there in time, so many of us that we had our own room to congregate in. One by one we got to see Daddy, and I remember him looking just like he always did, he was sitting up but had IVs and tubes everywhere. His lungs were beginning to fill with fluid and they wanted to put him on a respirator, but first he wanted to say goodbye to each of us. His last words before they sedated him were, "I love you all!"

We got to see him once more after it was all over. My sisters and I went into the room where his body lay, after they had taken all the tubes and stuff away. (I don't remember why my brother didn't go in with us.) Daddy was still warm and I saw beads of sweat on his forehead. We stroked him and cried and said goodbye. The memory I have is precious beyond compare, a moment when his five girls, the ones he had loved and laughed with and cherished, came together over the man who gave us life.

Now I am sitting here in my bed, laptop perched on my legs, tea finished, and partner softly snoring beside me. It's no longer dark outside, since the sun comes up now very early, and it's light out before I even awake. The birds, which have been singing for hours, are suddenly silent, and I feel the hush of the day before it begins. My garden needs to be watered before I head south to Snohomish, but I can feel the moment slip away, the one where I was transported through my memories back to the time when Daddy was with me.

I can say a little prayer, though, that everyone who still has their father alive will have a chance to be together with him in some way, on this day when we remember our fathers. I got to be with my dad through writing this post and kindling the fire of memory.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Life goes on, whether I notice or not

How old was I? Maybe ten?
When I look at this picture of myself, taken long ago, several things catch my eye right away. The first is that dress. Do you have clothes that were so special to you that you can almost feel the texture, even if that piece of clothing hasn't existed in decades? This pink dotted swiss was an Easter outfit that both my sister and I were dressed in, a tiny one for her, this one for me. It's funny to think of Easter, since we didn't go to church, so I guess it was only for dressing up and taking pictures, maybe going to a family gathering. I just don't remember, but I sure remember the dress.

I also notice that Mama must have fixed my hair, which was pulled back with barrettes and obviously had been curled, as my hair barely had any natural waves. That would have meant bobby-pin discomfort the night before, then brushed and styled for more discomfort. Mama would have been proud of her little girls (three of them by the time this was taken; PJ was born when I was seven). She was not a patient mother, but she sewed many of our dresses and made sure we were well dressed when we went to school. How times have changed! I see the way kids dress today and wonder what Mama would think.

It was a much better week, since I was able to get many of the activities in that make me feel exercised and not too tired. After I wrote last Sunday's post, I drove down to Snohomish and spent the day with my friends and made a couple of skydives. Although the drive home was longer than usual because of the I-5 bridge collapse, it was worth it. I also got the story about the young skydiver who died at Snohomish the week before. He was jumping a very small canopy and made some very bad choices. Many people had tried to talk him out of the path he was following, but he wouldn't listen to anybody. Usually a person will make hundreds of jumps on a canopy before going to a smaller size, but he went to smaller and smaller ones way too early. It's equivalent to moving from a car that has plenty of safety features but little pizzazz, to a top-of-the-line Lamborghini, with no idea how to handle it.

I finished several books this week, since it seems that when you put them on hold at the library, there is no way to tell when they will show up, and I have an abundance of reading materials. Another two arrived yesterday, so I'll continue this week to spend time sitting in my favorite chair with a book. Many of the books that show up were recommended by fellow bloggers, and I head over to the library website and add them to my stack. Sometimes I don't even remember what the book is about, or who suggested it. Yesterday I finished Wave, a memoir written by Sonali Deraniyagala, which is one of those books.

Although last week when I wrote this post I was reading Picoult's book about the Holocaust,  and this week a memoir about Sonali's loss of her entire family in the 2004 tsunami, I am no longer feeling depressed. Sonali has written a book about the experience that brings her family back to life.  From the book review linked above (William Dalrymple):
This is possibly the most moving book I have ever read about grief, but it is also a very, very fine book about love. ... And while in Wave love reveals itself by the bleak intensity of the pain of absolute, irreplaceable loss, it is in the end a love story, and a book about the importance of love.
In between these two books, I read Proof of Heaven, a story of the journey that Dr. Eben Alexander took when he was in a coma with a deadly virus that pretty much gave him no chance of survival. He not only survived, but he felt it important to share the journey of his NDE (near death experience). The book is riveting. In it, he says he has learned that consciousness is the most profound mystery in the universe. It was also a perfect counterpart for the other books and life events that threw me for a loop last week.

It also made me feel that perhaps it's true that my loved ones who have passed beyond the veil really DO visit me in my dreams. The mystery of consciousness has fascinated me all my life, and the passage of time that is distorted in dreams takes on a different meaning after having read his book. That young girl in the picture above is still here; her body looks different, but her consciousness is the same one she's carried with her all through this life. In my dreams my son Chris is always a young adult, and my parents are always young and vital. I think I'd like to believe that is who they really are. The truth of the matter is that none of us will ever know for certain in this life if anything of our consciousness remains after we leave our bodies behind.

But I can dream, can't I?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A tough week in many ways

First bloom of the season
I took that picture two months ago, and there have been an abundance of flowers blooming everywhere ever since. Look at that blue, blue sky. We haven't seen anything like that for several weeks now, and whenever we have a chance to see the blue sky appear amongst the clouds, we here in the Pacific Northwest feel happy. I'm in a down cycle right now, though.

It's been a tough week for the skydiving community. Last weekend we lost three notable men, all of whom I knew about, and one whom I knew personally. I last saw Larry Elmore at the SOS record attempt at Lake Elsinore last month. He was just arriving as I was leaving, since I was there for the skills camp but not for the record attempt. He asked me why and I told him I'm just not skydiving enough to feel confident with so many other skydivers in the air. He admonished me to get lots of skydives this season and he would be seeing me here next year, wagging his finger in my face and smiling. Well, he won't be there. He had a canopy malfunction and tried too long to fix it and when he finally went to his reserve parachute, it was too late for it to inflate. He was a retired airline pilot and had more than 6800 skydives. It was very upsetting; if Larry could make such a mistake, anybody could.

Another skydiver, Cliff Schmucker, was the president of the Parachute Industry Association (PIA) and was extremely well known and current. He was struck in freefall by another skydiver and was apparently knocked out cold. His automatic opener deployed his reserve parachute. He landed in a tree but was unresponsive, probably killed by the impact on his head. Ken Oka was entangled in a canopy wrap and was unable to get free in time to save himself. It was an awful week for the skydiving community, as you can see.

Not to mention that there was another famous skydiver, Mike Truffer, who had an opening under his canopy that was hard enough to break his neck. He is now a quadriplegic. All four of these incidents happened over the Memorial Day weekend, and I was reeling from the news. I haven't been able to put these out of my mind.

And then a book I had on hold turned up at the library, which I have been anxiously waiting to read for months: Jodi Picoult's new book, The Storyteller. I started it two days ago. Not knowing anything about it, it is not one of her usual books, but an incredible story written about the Holocaust. In typical Picoult fashion, the story is told from the point of view of all the characters in the book. Here's a blurb from Jodi Picoult's website where she discusses the subject:
Naturally, this research was among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done. I met with several Holocaust survivors, who told me their stories. Some of those details went into the fictional history of my character, Minka. It was humbling and horrifying to realize that the stories they recounted were non-fiction. 
There was a period in my life when I read everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust. I was a young mother and unable to wrap my mind around the whole idea of it. I've seen movies that haunted me, such as Schindler's List and Shoah. Since Picoult has just written the book this year and she deals with this subject, it's horrifying to me to learn that there are really people out there who believe that it never happened. How can that be? This book is essential reading, if you ask me, since most of the people who lived through it are very old now and will soon have passed away. Their stories must never be forgotten.

All this is just to let you know why I am writing about this here, today. I still have half the book to read, and I am not going to have a chance to do it today, since it looks like the weather will cooperate for me to go to Snohomish and play in the air with my friends. I really need to dispel the angst that permeates me right now. It means driving for a longer time than usual, since I will need to deal with the bridge that is out on I-5 on the way south, but it really seems important to gather with my friends and discuss the events of last weekend. It's my therapy group in a way.

I'm sorry to be in such a depressed state while I'm writing this, since I fear that many of my readers come here on Sunday morning for an inspirational hit. Perhaps it will be there next week, after I've gotten my knees in the breeze a time or two, and my usual optimism returns. Life has its peaks and valleys, and I seem to be cruising toward the place where you begin to go up again.

On a positive note, which I feel I should leave you with, the birds are singing, fluffy white clouds dot the sky, and the days are continuing to get longer and longer, which means the nights are shorter.