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, October 26, 2014

The gift of time

My toy when I was two
When I was a little girl, it didn't take much to make me happy, and I got just as attached to those little stuffed animals or dolls to feel as though my life would end if they were lost. I can still remember the ache of longing for some long-forgotten item from the past. I may have forgotten what it was, but I can remember all too well the feeling of loss. That is something that goes right along with life: learning to let go of what I once owned, who I once was, and loved ones who will never return.

I saw a movie yesterday with my friend Judy. It hasn't gotten great reviews and was adapted from a play, and it has somewhat of that feeling. We enjoyed it nevertheless, and how could you not when the movie has Maggie Smith in it? The movie, "My Old Lady," also stars Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. It's been a long time since I've seen Kline in a movie, maybe since 1988 when he was in "A Fish Called Wanda," and I was struck by how much he has aged. You go along in life thinking that those people you don't see often are still the same as they were, and then when you see them again, you can hardly believe how much they've changed. I'm sure it's the same for other people when they see me again after decades have passed.

In the movie, Maggie has a line that I thought of several times during the night and inspired this post: in talking about wealth and fortune, she said, "You have the greatest wealth of all: the gift of time." As an old woman of 92, she has only a short time left, and she is aware of it every moment of every day. Although I am twenty years younger than that old woman, I can feel what she meant, since so much time has passed since I was that young toddler with my stuffed animal. Even if I have the gift of twenty more years, that is just not very long at all in the scheme of things. It will pass in the blink of an eye.

But I've been given that gift, as I realize when I stride quickly past an old man who leans heavily on his cane, shuffling carefully down the sidewalk. I've had such a good life already, and I still have more to come, God willing. For the time being, I also have good health. My loved ones who left in their forties, fifties, and sixties did not have the gift of time. Whatever else comes to pass in my life, I will not die prematurely. Or have my hair turn prematurely white, for that matter. I've written before about that "three score and ten" span of a lifetime, and I've managed to achieve it and am skating along through my seventies. I'm not ready to retire from life just yet.

Today my toys are a lot more expensive than that stuffed animal, and I am now looking forward to a new iPad to take the place of my old one. In three years, although it is still very functional, the advances in screen quality and speed have convinced me to upgrade it. I use it every day and carry it with me to the coffee shop or wherever I might be wanting to connect to the outside world. I'm looking forward to showing off my pictures to my friends on my newest toy. It's so new that it has just appeared in the stores. I went yesterday to the local Best Buy to take a look at it, and I am glad I've got my very own iPad coming in the mail tomorrow. It was supposed to have arrived Friday, but the delay has simply spread out my anticipation to encapsulate the weekend.

It has also made me very aware that it's that feeling of anticipation and joy of ownership that I desire. Just like the little girl in the picture, she's got her toy and feels no lack. But long after the toy has worn out its usefulness, the feeling I had when I first held it in my hands, that will be easy to remember. Of course, this is just what the advertisers have in mind: to feed that ephemeral desire to have the latest and greatest. I fell into their trap and I'm not sorry. I can also convince myself that I'm helping bolster the economy. Plus I'll sell my old one to a friend who is anxious to have her own toy, which will be new to her. I can't think of a downside to my purchase. I've already gotten quite a bit of emotional mileage out of it.

The weather has been pretty rainy and blustery all week, and it's no different today. I was hoping that perhaps I might have gotten a chance to make another skydive before the Drop Zone closes for two months, but it isn't going to happen. It's possible I've made my last skydive already. But then again, I'm not selling my gear, and I will keep it in date. That means that if I decide next spring that I want to make another jump or two, it will be possible. Rather than closing the door with a slam, I'll close it gently, and keep my hand on the doorknob for awhile longer. I know that many of you are not surprised that I might want to keep skydiving, but that is a toy that is almost worn out. I would never have believed twenty years ago that I would find myself in this place, almost neutral about whether or not to continue leaping out of airplanes, but that's where I am. And then I'll have a flash of remembrance of being under my beautiful canopy, looking out at Puget Sound, the mountains rising up from the horizon, the wind in my face, and I think well, maybe...

I have been blessed with the gift of time. I'm still able to partake in outdoor activities to my heart's content. Although I know that all things pass, I'll never forget the wonderful feelings that I've experienced in my life. Long ago, I remember thinking that one day I would be an old woman and hoping I'd be glad that my life took the twists and turns that it has. And you know what? I am.

Now it's time to start my day. My partner still sleeps next to me, the rain is drumming on the roof, and my tea is gone. I missed all this last weekend when I was not here; it's true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It's also true that taking stock of one's life and being grateful for the good things makes one happier. Because of this blog and my habit of writing here every Sunday morning, I have that gift, too. Until we meet again next weekend, I wish you nothing but good things, and the gift of time.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Vashon Island

Jann, Linda, me, Deb, Sandi: the Vashonistas
I am sitting in a bed at the old farmhouse on Vashon Island, where the five of us fellow bloggers have come for a retreat, This is the third time for this event, although Sally is missing this year. It's amazing to me that we all agreed so readily to get together once again, but now that I'm here, I'm already hoping that we'll do it next October as well. It's been wonderful to reconnect in person, although I keep track of all these ladies through their blogs, which is how we met in the first place.

I drove through the rain on Friday 80 miles south to Linda's home, and we took her car to the ferry across to the island. Jann drove by herself and Deb and Sandi traveled here together. Driving up to the farmhouse was like coming home. It's become such a familiar place, and we have now shared more than a week's memories here, combined from these last three years. I'm sad to think that today, Sunday, we will need to say goodbye both to this place and to each other for another year.

I am the oldest of the group and have been retired for longer than the others. Actually, Deb and Sandi are still teaching and have retirement to look forward to. They had to take a day off in order to come. I keep forgetting what it's like to be working until I listen to them and realize how much my life has changed since I was in that world. Deb, the baby of our group, needs to work at least two and probably three more years before reaching 65 (or 66) when she can access her Social Security and Medicare benefits. Sandi will work for the rest of this year and probably next as well, since she needs to find a way to live with a reduced income, and the longer she works, the easier it will be.

That's true of so many of us of a certain age: I know I had to wait until I was 65 and a half before I could retire and receive full benefits from Social Security. Medicare automatically kicks in at 65 in the United States. Although it doesn't offer what it once did, it's still something and very important to seniors, and is a big part of the planning we must do as we decide how we're going to live for the rest of our lives. It makes me grateful for having gotten into the system when I was young, since one's benefits are figured based on what was paid in during your working years. Although I couldn't possibly live on just my Social Security, it makes a huge difference.

We haven't had the wonderful weather we enjoyed during our first trip here, when we explored the beaches and some other parts of the island, but it hasn't mattered all that much, since we don't need to get out to have a great visit with each other. I have been in stitches listening to Jann tell some of her stories, and Linda has shared what it's been like for her to now live four months of the year (in the winter months) in Arizona. She suffers from seasonal affective disorder and this has made all the difference: getting away from the short rainy days that constitute the Pacific Northwest winter.

I think it helps me to get outdoors every week during the winter, when the Senior Trailblazers trade our High Country hikes for ones around town, which are just as challenging sometimes, and almost as beautiful, sometimes. The rain presents a challenge, but I do find that getting out into the weather makes it easier for me to appreciate having a nice warm, cozy place to return to. There have been times when I've wondered if I'd lost my mind, as I struggle to stay dry in the pouring rain, and trying to keep my hands from getting too cold when we stop for lunch. But I've got company, and that makes a huge difference.

Vashon Island is the only place off the mainland in this part of the country where I think I might be able to manage living on an island. It's got a very quaint and relaxed atmosphere, and there are plenty of things to do to keep one from boredom. But then again, as I look at the trees changing color and think ahead to the winter, I'm not so sure. I don't like being hooked to a ferry in order to travel places. As we waited to board the ferry on Friday, we saw what looked to be school children returning on foot, lots of them. It made me wonder if they attend school on Vashon and live in Seattle.

Because one of the women who arranges for visitors to come to the farmhouse also arranges tours to Italy, both Deb and Sandi have decided to join a small group of women in the coming spring. This two-week trip will take them to places in southern Italy off  the beaten path, before experiencing Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan. I'm envious, but because I'm retired, I just don't have the funds. Well, that's not entirely true: if I chose to use my savings, I could go, too. It's just a matter of choices. But as I listen to them and their excitement, I wish I could join them.

Today we will travel back to our respective homes and will probably all write about our adventure in our respective blogs. And next week I will have my partner next to me as I write. This morning it's been difficult, because I want to join the early risers and share more stories before we need to part. In fact, that's why I'm going to cut this short this morning. I don't want to miss out! See you next week, dear friends. Stay well and hug somebody for me, okay?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An attitude of gratitude

In the High Country in front of Larrabee Mountain
Al took this picture of me last Thursday. It was such a beautiful day that I think I will remember it as being one of the finest fall days I've ever had up in the Mt. Baker wilderness. I've just begun my eighth year with the Senior Trailblazers; I started hiking with them in late September 2008, and now the hikes and the way things change from season to season have become familiar and cherished.

Tomorrow, October 13, is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. They celebrate on the second Monday in October, while we in the US celebrate on the fourth Thursday in November. October seems reserved for Halloween on this side of the border. I see decorations everywhere for it, and I guess pumpkins and ghouls are appropriate displays for the season. I've got a blogging friend who decorates her entire house with spider webs and sparkly witches and posts pictures of them for the enjoyment of her followers. I'm glad she does it so I can enjoy it, since I'm not much for doing it myself.

Thanksgiving, however, is a favorite holiday, because I have the chance to contemplate all the things that I enjoy and am grateful for. First of all, I am grateful for my health and my ability to spend time in nature and then enjoy the feeling of being tired after a day in the wilderness. I am definitely hooked on it, and I look forward to my Thursdays, rain or shine, to play outside. The coming week, however, is bringing lots of rain to this part of the country, and in the High Country, the precipitation probably will be in the form of snow. That means the spot where I am standing will be covered with white and will become inaccessible in a few short weeks. Until next year, that is.

I am also grateful for the abundance and variety of foods I have available. Yesterday I harvested the last of the broccoli from my garden and began to prepare my plot for the winter. As I ate the steamed broccoli with my dinner yesterday, I marveled at the fact that it was grown right in my back yard and tasted better than anything I could have purchased at the store. It's taken awhile for me to appreciate vegetable gardening, since I was such a novice at it two years ago, but I've already got all kinds of plans for my little space next spring. I'll plant some garlic before I put it to bed, but otherwise I'm just about done for the year. I look around at my neighbor's plots to see what they've done to get ready for winter and I've learned quite a lot.

I am grateful for my community of friends. We just got a new neighbor in our downstairs apartment and will be learning more about the single woman who has moved in. I went down yesterday and introduced myself; she's just moving into Bellingham after living on a boat on Whidbey Island for the past several years. Her daughter lives here and is expecting; she'll be around to enjoy her grandchild. I already like her and am so grateful that I've got another "woman of a certain age" to get to know. That's a relief; I hope she stays for a long time.

Yesterday I enjoyed coffee after my walk with the Fairhaven walking group, and we laughed and carried on like a bunch of teenagers as we sat at the round table and talked about our lives. Two of the women are also gardeners, and they gave me some tips about how to prepare the garden for the winter. We discussed the pros and cons of planting a cover crop; I'll have to research that. When we arrived at the coffee shop, it was pouring rain outside, but when we left, all the clouds were gone and the sun felt strong and warmed us as we made our way to our individual cars. I love these women and know some of them from my hiking group, too. In fact, it was Peggy and Linda who kept encouraging me to join the Saturday walking group, but I resisted at first. I didn't think I could walk that fast and enjoy it, but now I look forward to it every Saturday. And I'm much faster than I was when I first started.

I'm also very grateful that I have the ability to write. Although the writing I do every Sunday morning is a bit "seat of the pants" stuff, I find that it gives me enormous pleasure to sit with my laptop in the early morning and pound the keys, with hopes that somebody will find what I write enjoyable. I never tried to gather followers for this blog, but more than a hundred people follow it, and I look forward to your comments very much. I learn something every week from you. What a fine community I share with my fellow bloggers! To think that a few short years ago I didn't even know that this community existed and now it's an essential part of my life. I am fortunate indeed.

I decided I'm going to write some short biographies of my friends here in Bellingham. It was an idea that came to me in the middle of the night, and I thought about how much I'd like to know the history of some of the people I only know in one context. I've already interviewed my fisherman friend Gene and my hiking friend Rita, and now I've got to spend some time distilling the information into just the right amount. Then I'll run it past them before publishing (probably on my other blog) to make sure they are happy with it. Just the week after I made the decision to do it, I got a call from the local newspaper to see if I would be willing to be interviewed about my skydiving career. It will be for their Prime Time bimonthly magazine that covers the activities of seniors in the area. Another one of those serendipitous happenings, don't you think? Anyway, I'm excited and looking forward to it. I wonder if they will give me a chance to see what they write before it goes public. It's the right way to do it, if you ask me.

Yep, I've got a lot to be grateful for, and I've only scratched the surface! There's my family and my partner, good books to read, my warm and cozy apartment, and much more that doesn't seem to be bubbling up to the surface right now. My tea is gone and I'm beginning to think about getting up and starting my Sunday, now that my self-imposed contemplation of life has been accomplished. I do hope you find yourself in an "attitude of gratitude" this week, as the fall season moves us ever closer to winter's dark days.

Remember we have each other, and on the other side of the planet, it's moving ever closer to summer! Another blogging friend has been posting pictures from Canberra of the daffodils sprouting in her garden. It's always wine o'clock in some part of the world, and spring and summer too. Be well until next Sunday when we'll chat again.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A lifelong habit

Blueberry bushes in the foreground, Mt. Baker in the distance
I laid in bed last night around midnight, when I woke up to visit the bathroom, and I didn't go back to sleep right away. Thinking about this post, what I would write about this morning, and nothing came to mind. Sometimes in the morning I toss and turn my words this way and that as I struggle to get started on something that might be of interest, not only to you, but also to myself. It helps to have a topic in mind.

As I lay in bed, I massaged my sore Achilles tendon and wondered when, or even if, it will get better. It's been a couple of months since it started to bother me, and although it's changed a little in its nature, it still hurts for a few days after my Thursday hike. I went so far as to purchase another pair of boots, thinking that maybe it is caused by my footwear. It's not bad enough to keep me from exercising, but it's worrisome. I would go to the doctor, but the treatment for non-acute tendinitis is fairly straightforward. I'm doing it all.

That picture: last Thursday, when the sun was shining through the bushes, which have turned red as they do in the fall, I wanted to get Mt. Baker behind. It meant laying down on the ground to get low enough to capture this shot, and I managed to struggle down onto the path and take it, but the sun was so bright that I couldn't be sure about what I captured until I got home and took a look. I'm pleased with it, and it was worth the effort. I didn't see that one stray stalk on the left at all, or I would have removed it. It doesn't bother me; in fact, I kind of like it. Although those bushes look like they're on fire, it's only because the sun is shining through them; if I were to stand with the sun behind me, they just look brown and uninteresting. Loaded with ripe blueberries, but certainly not pretty.

Many of my blogging friends have commented on how active I am, and it got me to thinking about it. Am I more active than most people? If I were to look at a bell curve and figure where my activity level might be placed on it, I'm certainly not the most active, but I would be past the top of the curve going in that direction. Three times a week I get on the treadmill at the gym in order to warm up before my aerobics class. I look out the window at the streets below on a busy corner, and I almost always see, like clockwork, an old man go running by. He's not going fast, not more than a fast shuffle, but he's out there. I was amazed the other day when I saw him trotting in the same manner in an entirely different part of town. Does he run all day, every day? He looks to be about my age, I think. If I ever get a chance to ask him, I'll find the answer to my little mystery.

I have been exercising regularly for so long that it's become a habit. Not just a small habit, but one I feel compelled to continue for as long as I can. As I mentioned when I wrote about Olga Kotelko back in July, I would love to be able to carry on like she did until I am in my nineties. But frankly, my genetic background doesn't make me optimistic. Neither of my parents even made it out of their sixties, and only one first-order blood relative has lived to be ninety. Several of my friends have parents who are still alive or recently died, but it's been more than twenty years now since my mom died. I read a wonderful book about Olga (it's linked in that post), and I was struck by something she said in the book: that she really didn't know what she would do with herself when she became too ill to compete in track and field any more. She said nothing else would stop her. I knew just what she meant: you must find something to take the place of those activities that give you a reason to live, to stay in shape, to feel good about yourself.

Thinking back, I realize that exercising has not actually been a lifelong habit. When I was young, back in the sixties and seventies, most people didn't do much physical exercise, other than a few outliers. Then in the 1980s, the fitness craze hit. I well remember the first time I laced my feet into a pair of running shoes. Thinking that all I needed to do was go out there and run around the block a few times. Hah! In a few days I had shin splints and could barely walk. I went to a sports podiatrist and began wearing orthotics, and it did the trick. I had moved to Boulder, Colorado in the early 1980s, and several of my friends convinced me to go into the wilderness with them and climb 14,000-foot peaks. It was painful and sublime: I struggled to the top but could not believe the wonderful 360-degree views I was treated to in that rarified atmosphere. Not much air up there, but it sure was beautiful. And addicting. I climbed 26 of the 52 peaks over the years.

When I was working, I would often exercise during my lunch hour, grabbing a quick salad and eating it afterwards, rather than socializing in the lunchroom. And then, of course, there was skydiving for a quarter century that helped to keep me in shape. I still remember jogging first thing in the morning when I would travel to various places to skydive. But I no longer run, and soon I will no longer be an active skydiver. I'll always feel that those years of running and skydiving are part of me. That will never go away.

And in my retirement years, I continue to find ways to enjoy the outdoors. My Senior Trailblazer friends are all around my age, so we commiserate about our various aches and pains, but we keep each other going, even if we sometimes don't go on the hardest hikes, we still get out there. My Saturday walking group has also become a staple of my exercise routines, and I do love many of those wonderful women. I have decided to take my own advice and hope that if I take care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

I want to leave you with a funny dream I had two nights ago. In my dream, I am getting ready to attend my hundredth birthday party. As I was talking with my friends, someone asked me when I was born. I told him, and he said, "you're not a hundred! You are only ninety!" I remember looking at him, bemused, and said, "well, I did wonder why my nineties zipped by so fast!"