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, November 24, 2013

Blue skies and a movie

Mt. Baker and the Sisters
We've had a spate of wonderful blue-sky weather in the Pacific Northwest for more than a week. And there's no rain in the forecast until Thanksgiving Day. Pretty unusual for this time of year, and along with the clear skies we've also had temperatures at least ten degrees colder than normal. Our local ski area, Mt. Baker, opened for the season last Thursday, with lots of fresh snow in the mountains. We often have snow up high with little to no precipitation at sea level. It's been perfect for my taste, if a bit on the chilly side.

Thursday's regularly scheduled hike was when I took this picture from Chuckanut Ridge. As I wrote in my other blog, it was a long hike, 11.5 miles, with lots of elevation gain and loss. Even though I consider myself to be relatively fit, I was pretty sore after that one. But today, Sunday, I feel just fine and am glad I can still manage such a difficult trek. It's one of the hardest that we have on our annual schedule; I knew what I was getting into, but it had been a year, and I'm a year older now.

Speaking of getting older, I went to see a rather unusual movie yesterday, with one of my favorite actors, Robert Redford. My friend Judy and I were a little nervous about how we would like the movie, since it's almost two hours long and has no dialog and only one person in it. The movie is titled All is Lost, about a man alone on a sailboat in the Indian Ocean who endures disaster after disaster. I woke in the middle of the night thinking about the end of the movie, which I won't share with you, but it's a stunning film, in my opinion. Redford is no longer young (he's 77); the man I admired in those movies he starred in decades ago doesn't look anything like the weatherbeaten guy in this movie. But gosh, he's an amazing actor, a consummate professional, better than ever.

When I got home, I went to Rotten Tomatoes to read what others are saying about this movie, because I found it to be almost unbelievable that they were able to make it, or think that anybody would be willing to even go see it. I saw Tom Hanks in Castaway, similar in premise but really nothing like this one. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and this excerpt is taken from the link above (written by Greg Kilday at the Hollywood Reporter):
Chandor [the movie's writer-director] approached the movie's debut at Cannes with some anxiety. It would be the first time Redford would see the completed film. The two were seated side by side at the Palais. About halfway through the film, reacting to a particularly vivid moment they had shared on set, Chandor spontaneously squeezed Redford's knee. "He looked at me and smiled a little bit, and I could see he was proud," he says. "We looked around, and we could see people leaning forward in their seats. At the moment, I knew, whether the movie goes on to success or not, people were getting what we were trying to do."
 Without giving anything more away about this film, the reason I think it resonated so deeply within me is that I identified with this man (he's never even given a name in the movie) who was presented with incredible obstacles and kept on trying to find a solution. The only dialog in the movie is at the beginning, which we realize later is the text of a message he has placed in a jar and released into the sea, in hopes that it might one day reach his family.

Last night as I tossed and turned, with the image of the movie's final scenes playing in my mind's eye, I tried to understand why I couldn't let it go, why I kept going over and over that ending. I think I finally figured out why (but I'm not going to tell you, in case you decide to see it yourself).

Life is never something we escape. It's something we live, we endure, as well as enjoy each precious moment we are given on this earth. But one day, it will come to an end. Watching Robert Redford's beautiful, craggy face as he lives his life, on and off screen, is both a testament to our willingness to endure incredible difficulties, and a reminder that even those people we admired in our youth still continue to grow old, die, and (in this case) continue to inspire us. The link to the Hollywood Reporter is about the making of the movie, which is fascinating in its own right.

Yes, that's it. In writing this down and thinking about it, I now feel released from the hold that film had on me. That said, any time I will have a chance to see Redford in anything at all, I'll go and watch this man who still owns my heart. I've seen lots of movies, but there are only a few that I will think about hours or even days later, and this is one of them.

In this upcoming Thanksgiving week, I'll ponder the things I am grateful for, and one I won't forget is that we are never ever really truly alone, no matter what. Never forget that, dear ones. I wish you an abundant and wonder-filled week, until we meet again.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Warts and all

Winter wonderland
I hope the fact that I cannot think of a title for this post is not indicative of how it will go as I try to write my Sunday morning post. I'm not sure what you will see up there when I'm finished, but for now it's "Post title is escaping me." I woke just before my regular time, with the feeling that I need to organize my thoughts. That picture? It was one I took by accident last Thursday, when my camera clicked unexpectedly as I was putting it away. The picture was 45 degrees off level, but I learned that my new operating system, just installed, also upgraded iPhoto and where before it would only correct about 15 degrees, I was able to straighten this one all the way.

I use the "straighten" feature on iPhoto all the time, since it seems I almost never take a picture without a two-degree list to the right. Once I download my photos, I make the horizon level and fix the exposure if needed. Pictures taken with my cellphone are a little better, but even though I use the helpful grid to indicate level, they still list to the right. About the only time I don't have to correct is when someone else takes the picture, so it's something about the way I hold the camera. Is my right arm attached lower than the left? I doubt it. I notice in pictures of myself, I often have my head tilted, so the world must not look normal to me straight on.

I'm reading two books at once right now. Both of them are really fascinating but neither one is the kind of book you can't put down. My sister was reading one and another blogger recommended the other. I've seen Neil deGrasse Tyson on TV before, but I had never picked up any of his numerous books. This one is Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. It's a collection of essays written by an astrophysicist; who would have guessed that it would be interesting? But it really is, and he makes me think and occasionally smile as I read it.

The other book, completely different, is written by Dan Koeppel, To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession. I started reading it yesterday and find it very fascinating to learn about the world of birding, or "listers" as they call themselves. My blogging friend Red wrote a review of the book on his blog, so I went right over to my online library app and placed a hold on it. Someone else was obviously reading it, because it took a couple of weeks. When the email appeared in my inbox, I had forgotten why I had ordered that particular book, but once I picked it up, I remembered Red's book review. I haven't gotten to some of the parts Red mentions, which he refers to as "warts and all." If you describe or show someone or something warts and all, you do not try to hide the bad things. I wonder if Dan Koeppel's father is still alive and has read the book.

Ah, there it is: the correct title of this post: "Warts and all." That's what you get when you read this blog, because I don't think I've hidden any of the uncomfortable facts about myself. Of course, this blog has been going on now for several years, and nobody goes back and reads old posts, not very often anyway. When I first started writing here, I began by chronicling the events of my life that have led me to this place, to right here, tapping away on my laptop in a small apartment in Bellingham, Washington on a dark Sunday morning. I distinctly remember cringing as I composed some of the early posts. Warts and all. But there is so much more than the bad and the uncomfortable, which are part of every single person's life.

I was walking somewhere yesterday, and I felt myself smiling for no good reason. I just felt like smiling, the sun was even peeking out every now and then from behind a cloud, and it felt good to be alive. But it was a little surprising to find myself walking along the street (I was on my way to the library, I remember now) with a spring in my step and a smile on my face without any particular reason for it. There are times when I feel low for no good reason, too. I like this side of the equation better, but if I could only remember that it's all ephemeral and ride the waves, the ups and downs with equanimity, maybe this state of ebullience would last longer.

One of my warts is my tendency toward worrying about every little thing. My sister has often told me, when I would be recounting to her some nebulous concern or other, that worry is a misuse of the imagination. While that may be true, and I can attest to the fact that most of the things I worry about never come to pass, is it possible to simply stop? I doubt it, but maybe that's because I consider myself to be a world-class worrier. I come from a long and distinguished line of worriers, after all. My sister herself is not immune, but it's different when you're listening to someone else's concerns. It's easy to stand back and see the larger picture.

However, the worry that I had when I began this post has evaporated. I've been able to find a balance between what I have to say and what comes out of my brain so that I can get it all down, and my Sunday morning routine has begun. First the tea, then the post, and soon I'll get up and start the rest of my day. Thinking about all my blogging friends and how much you add to my life reminds me that I've got a few new posts to read, to find out how my online community is faring, warts and all.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

It would have been his birthday

The two of us
Had he lived, today my son Chris would have celebrated his 52nd birthday. Once, so very long ago, this picture was taken of us in Boulder, Colorado, where we both lived. It was painful looking for a picture of him to post, but this one makes me smile, rather than feel really sad. It's been eleven years since he died, and he was forty then. I was only nineteen when he was born, but here I am, still alive, thinking about him and who he was. Part of what makes me smile when I look at this picture is his hair: longish, with sideburns and a mustache.

Chris died while jogging. He was stationed in Macedonia, serving in the Army, and had just completed a two-mile run that was slower than he wanted, so he asked for permission to do it again. When this was granted, he took off, probably faster than his heart wanted to take him. He experienced what is known as "sudden cardiac death." He was observed falling over, and by the time his fellow soldiers reached him, he was dead. It comforts me to think he didn't suffer for long before losing consciousness.

I had not seen him since he left stateside, but in the meantime he had made a life for himself in Germany and married a young German girl, Silvia, who had a five-year-old son by a previous marriage. Chris was very close to him. Until I arrived in Bamberg, Germany, I had never met either one of them. We spent a very emotional week together. Chris and I used to talked on the phone and emailed each other as well, but I had not seen him in years. Today we would have Skyped and texted each other, but those things didn't exist then.

He had been sent on a three-month stint in Macedonia as a border guard. It was in August when he died, and it was probably a combination of heat, altitude, and effort that caused his heart to fibrillate. His father died of the same thing at the age of 51, although Derald died in bed, retiring early because he didn't feel well. Chris got heart disease from both sides of his family and was being treated by the Army for high cholesterol. He had recently had a physical, which didn't discover the possibility of the event that took his life. He was pronounced healthy.

It's been a long time now. I look at that picture of us and realize that he must have been around 21, and me around forty. My hair doesn't have any gray in it, but he had begun to turn gray himself by the time he turned forty. When he died, he was the age that I am in that picture. Time has moved on. He has not, but his remains lie buried in a grave in Bamberg, where I will never visit. If it had been up to me, I would have had him cremated, but Silvia was the one who got to make that decision, not me. It simply astounds me that marriage made her his closest relative, although I was his mother.

But never mind. I don't intend to ever return to Germany, and Silvia and I are Facebook friends, although she writes her posts in German and I don't speak the language. Now that Chris is gone, her limited English is probably never practiced, and the Army base where he was stationed has been closed. Chris worked in the mail room, which was dedicated to his memory, but now the entire place is gone. It's just as well. Dwelling in the past is not something I like to do very much, but today I am making an exception in honor of Chris' birthday. Do you still celebrate birthdays once the person is gone? He was forty when he died, and forty he will remain forever.

When he returns to me in dreams, he is inevitably a teenager or a little older, around the age he is in the picture. He's filled with laughter and energy. Chris was an optimist, like me, and he was very well liked by everyone he met. When I met his fellow soldiers in Germany, many of them took me aside to express their condolences and tell me how much he meant to them. It was very touching. When I think of that week when we all said goodbye to him, the part that stands out the most are the heartfelt conversations I had. We were grieving, missing a soul who was taken away from us in his prime.

And here I am today, living in a place he would have loved, living a life he would have appreciated. Tomorrow is Veterans Day. It is a day when we remember those who have served in the military. In my family, that includes not only Chris, but my father and brother as well, and several nieces and nephews, many of whom are still serving today. It's a federal holiday, and I had forgotten it was coming up until I saw a TV scene, and every single person in the picture was wearing a poppy. That's what they do in Canada. Yesterday on my Fairhaven walk, Terry, who is a Canadian, was wearing one and we had a chat about it. We should do something like that here in the US. Another veteran, JFK, once said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

I will always be grateful for the veterans in my life, and I will always be grateful for the gift I was given of my son, Christopher Eric Heath, 1961–2002. One day we will be together again, and we'll laugh and cry and hug each other, and time will be no more.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Spring ahead, fall back

Fog, ferns, and stones
I woke this morning at the usual time, but the usual time had changed. Last night our clocks, those that are automatic at least, like my computer and radio-controlled clock next to my bed, all lost an hour. That phrase, "spring ahead, fall back" helps me to remember what will be happening. It seems like we spend very little of our days in PST (Pacific Standard Time) these days, with most of it in PDT. We will change back to PDT the second Sunday in March 2014. That means four months of "standard" time and the rest in Daylight Saving Time. I'm all for saving daylight, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, where our days shorten to just over eight hours in midwinter.

I checked all the automatic clocks as soon as I woke, since if they don't move, it's time to change the batteries. They all made the change. I awoke on this night last year and realized it was almost time for the change, so I got out of bed and went into the living room at midnight. The clock's hands started moving fast, going forward, until they had traveled 11 hours. I wondered if the hands might move backwards, but of course they can't do that; they, like us, only travel one direction in time.

I have more trouble adjusting to having an extra hour in my day than losing an hour. I don't know why that is, other than the fact that I get up early and go to bed early. I can't be going to bed at 7:00pm, so I'll try to stay awake tonight. And my eyes popped open at 4:00am instead of 5:00 this morning. I tossed and turned and decided what the heck, I'll just get up and start my day.

Of course, my days don't start with me having to do anything other than fix myself a cup of tea, bring it into the bedroom, climb back into bed, open my laptop and start reading the news, blogs, and (on Sunday) write this post. In the summertime, I can hear the birds singing and there's light outside. But in the dark days of fall and winter, everything is quiet. Other than the faraway sound of the occasional train whistle, nothing is stirring at this time. I like it this way; it's my favorite time of every day. Around 6:00-ish, I'll get out of bed, dress, have breakfast and during the week, leave the house right after 7:00 to catch the bus into town.

The activity gives my days a structure that provides me with a great deal of satisfaction. I guess it all started with those years when I had a job and was required to be somewhere at a particular time. In those days, I woke at the same time and was at my desk before anyone else in the office, because that was the time I got the most work done. Once other people arrived and the phones started ringing, it was much harder to stay focused on the task at hand. I was usually working on at least one manuscript or gathering references, something like that. I just realized that I don't miss working one bit. Not that I didn't enjoy my job, but I have substituted other routines into my days, and it works just fine.

Nobody is keeping track of what I do with my days any more. I don't get a paycheck, and nobody is forcing me to catch the 7:22am bus. But it gives me pleasure, and I enjoy being a regular at the coffee shop, a regular in the gym class, and a regular on the bus. I suspect that everyone else at the bus stop on a dark rainy morning is going to work or class, not going somewhere because it gives their day a structure. By noon, I have returned home and will putter around, sit down with a good book, or climb in my car and run errands. By 4:00pm, it's time to have a glass of wine and start the evening part of my day. Somewhere during these days, I spend several hours talking with my partner or watching favorite TV shows together. He lives his life the way he wants, and I live mine, but we really enjoy our together times, too. It works out great, and we are both very grateful to have found each other. Sometimes I am amazed at how free of friction our life together is.

I do spend more time that I should with my electronics. I like being connected to the wider world, and I will read the blogs I follow and the news, a few editorials that I like, and (as always) the comics. I have one laptop window dedicated to them (Doonesbury, For Better or For Worse, Zits, Baby Blues, Pickles, and Monty), and once I've done everything else, I open that window and usually have a chuckle or two. That's the signal that it's time for me to close the laptop and move on to other things.

I suppose if I were to look closely at the way I structure my days, I might wonder if I should be spending time volunteering to an important cause, or perhaps making a difference in the world around me. The news sometimes causes me anxiety, because this world we live in needs people who are willing to make it a better place. I've got the ability but not the willingness. Am I wrong? Should I be living my life differently? Sometimes I really wonder about this.

Well, this day of falling back, rather than springing ahead, has become one of contemplating my daily life. I've done that today, using my extra hour to think about where I'm going and sharing it with some of my favorite people: my regular readers. That reminds me of one thing I haven't mentioned: writing blogs, especially this one, gives me so much satisfaction and a purpose to my days that I almost forgot to notice it! How I would miss it if it were not here. And how I would miss you if you were not here, either.

But you are, today. And so am I. Be well, give your loved ones a special little hug for me, and I'll see you here next Sunday, if all goes as planned.