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 30, 2014

How I deal with difficulty

Cold and windy Samish Bay
I took this picture yesterday afternoon on a very cold and windy hike with three friends. If you enlarge it, you can see the whitecaps on the water, as the wind was blowing hard, dropping the already low temperature even lower. In no time at all, my formerly warm self (from climbing up to this spot) was so cold it was scary. We hustled back down into the trees as quickly as we could, but for the rest of the hike I was unable to get really warm again. After I came home, I drank warm tea and sat in my recliner with a blanket over me, until finally I felt the chill of the day leave me.

Last night I had a strange dream. I was in a familiar place which had gone through renovations since I last visited. Although I knew where everything was, it was slightly out of place from what I felt was normal. I kept trying to deal with it, and there was a man who took delight in tormenting me and trying to make me feel bad about my discomfiture. This morning I can still feel the uncomfortable feelings he raised in me. I remember in the dream having to make a decision about how to respond to him: to treat him the same way, fight back, or stand up for myself in some other way.

Although it was only a dream, it stays with me this morning. Partly I think it's because the way I decided to respond was to calmly ask my spirit guide to help me; in other words, I turned the predicament over to my higher self. And even though this morning I cannot remember what I said to him, I remember my feeling of serenity and a look that appeared in his eyes, almost of fear. What he had tried to do didn't work, and he didn't know how to act in response.

What this dream reminds me is that fighting conflict with more conflict is counterproductive in my life. It's always been that way, even though my initial response to someone trying to harm me is to retaliate in kind. But that is not the only way, as many of our sages have told us through millennia. And meekly turning one's belly to the sky like dogs do, as a way to placate a stronger foe, is not the way either.

I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of feeling bad about myself when someone makes fun of me, what happens when I feel ridiculed. When I was young, moving from place to place with my parents, I learned some coping mechanisms for being the "new girl" for much of my early life. It was easy to be enigmatic and mysterious when nobody knew who I was. But eventually there would be some bully who would try to make me lose my composure, and it almost always worked. I would make an effort to placate him or her, and that never turned out well. As an extrovert, I would usually make new friends and avoid the bully, but inside I always believed that I had been found out as being somehow defective.

As I grew older, I began to realize that the people that I surrounded myself with made more difference than anything else I could do. Knowing that I would never be one of the cool kids and hanging out with people more like me made all the difference. It also helped that we never stayed anywhere more than a few years, and I would have the chance to make new friends again. But always underlying my interaction with my peers was a vague sense that I had to hide my true self in order to fit in with them.

What is my true self? What is that part of myself that I call my Higher Self? Who is that spirit guide I call on in times of need? I'm not really sure I can put it into words, but I know it is there. When I have been at my lowest and most distraught, there is a presence that makes itself known to me, and I realize that I've learned to access it through calling that presence my spirit guide. The hardest part, for me, is realizing that I am not really in control, that I go astray when I think I myself, my ego, can figure out how to carry on. Surrounding myself with good counsel, whether external or internal, is how I've learned to cope with difficulty.

Being uncomfortable and in conflict with others, or our environment, is part of life. How one learns to cope with it makes us each unique and valuable. The main thing I've learned is that nothing stays the same, nothing and nobody is permanent in this world. Everything changes. Maybe that's one of the blessings of growing older: one's trajectory of life contains both magnificence and despair, and all those peaks and valleys begin to even out as the years pass.

Yesterday when I was coldest, with my fingers like blocks of ice, I knew that if I kept going, I would soon feel differently. And it was true; I've learned that nothing stays the same. When I was up there in the icy wind, I felt its incredible power and knew that if I had stayed there, it would take my life from me. But I didn't stay and moved back into the trees where we were sheltered from the wind. We kept on going until we were warm again. And I was not alone.

The sun is still not up, but my tea is gone, and my partner still sleeps next to me (that's for you, Friko). The day is filled with promise and the wind has died down. It will be sunny and cold here for the next few days, and I'll enjoy them to the fullest, no matter what they bring. I hope that you will do the same, and remember, you're not alone, either. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving week

Foxglove in midsummer
Yesterday I was looking for some pictures to send to a friend who is creating a blog and asked for some of my pictures of flowers. I came across this one and for some reason I really like it. The pink against the soft green just delights me. It was taken on one of our Thursday hikes a few years ago, and it sure doesn't look anything like that today. The flowers are all gone, and the green, while still there, is muted with lots of brown. But come spring, it will all pop back up again.

But it's not ever quite the same from year to year, I notice. I've looked for this spot and haven't been able to find it again. I'm not sure what the green plant is, and I'm sure it only looked like this for a short while before changing its appearance. In any event, this picture reminds me of one of the reasons I love to go into the High Country once a week during the summer months.

We have already begun our winter hikes around the Chuckanuts in town. Although we'll take a few trips south to Baker Lake and Whidbey Island, for the most part we'll get in cars and drive a very short distance to the trailhead. That is in contrast to more than an hour's drive up the Mt. Baker Highway in the summer, through the little towns of Maple Falls and Glacier. And then there is usually another half hour from Glacier to the actual trailhead. It's a good thing the days are long, because we spend three hours on average in the cars, getting there and coming back home. Plus five or six hours on the trails.

It might sound like I'm complaining here, but I'm not, not at all. It's time well spent, and even the time together in the cars is pleasant, as I find out what's going on in the lives of the others. I rarely drive myself, since my car is small and not happy about navigating rough logging roads. But the biggest reason is that after the long hike, I don't feel quite up to driving back with a full load of people. Fortunately, we have several regular hikers who don't mind driving and have SUVs designed for the back country. And who can stay alert for the long drive home.

This week we will not be hiking, since it's Thanksgiving. And because Christmas and New Years fall on a Thursday this year, we are going to miss three regular hikes. Just thinking about that makes me sad, since it's part of my life to spend the day outdoors, rain or shine, on Thursdays. Plus, the buses won't be running and many stores will be closed to allow their employees to enjoy the holiday, too. I don't really mind that part; I'm glad that there are days when we lay down our usual activities and take the time to celebrate friends and family.

Unfortunately, in many homes it will be an excuse to overindulge with food and watch football games and whatnot on TV. It seems like these days many people are interacting with their devices and spend less and less time communicating with each other. When I'm on the bus, there are moments when I'm the only person not looking down at a screen. Or with earbuds listening to music; sometimes it's so loud coming from their earbuds that I can hear the raucous din. What must it be like inside at full volume, I can only imagine.

Our world has changed so much in just a few decades. I myself have lots of devices, and I enjoy reading books on them, getting caught up on the news, reading posts from my blogging friends, and streaming videos. In some ways, I realize that I'm no different from everybody else, but somehow it seems wrong to spend one's life connected to a little screen and not to notice what's happening in the world around you. It wasn't that long ago that we walked out of our homes and into the wider world, rather than bringing our micro-worlds along with us. There was a time, not so long ago, when our phones were connected to the wall!

Oh, dear. Now I'm sounding like my parents, who would often say, "what is the world coming to?" Yes, I am old enough to remember a time when we didn't even have a TV in the home, and we would gather around the big old radio and listen to Fibber McGee and Molly. And the telephone looked like this one. I had to laugh when I saw this cartoon, and I figured it might lighten up my mood. As I was writing this and thinking about what the world is coming to, I realized I was losing my sense of humor.

I will enjoy my Thanksgiving this year, with my partner, and we'll probably go for a nice walk together, nothing long and taxing, but something pleasant around town. We live in a place that has so many options for exercise, with lots of green parks and trails within walking distance. Or just a short ride to other parks, it won't be a problem enjoying the outdoors.

However, I'm also thankful that Christmas and New Years falling on a Thursday won't happen again for awhile. I hope that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving week, celebrating it in whatever way gives you pleasure. If by some chance you are alone on Thanksgiving, thanks to technology, you can still call your loved ones, or even say hello by video chat. It's one of the best parts of the new world.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The state of my state

The bridge at Whatcom Falls
Here I am again, sitting in the dark in my bedroom, drinking tea and pondering what in the world I will write about this morning. I took that picture on one of my walks with the ladies on Saturday morning. It was miserably cold yesterday, but still more than a dozen of us showed up to walk together, since it's a wonderful way to begin the weekend and have coffee with friends afterwards. We only waited a few minutes for latecomers to arrive, because we knew that once we began to move in the cold we would warm up. It was in the mid-twenties (-4C) and my hands were frozen, even with heavy gloves. Yesterday's walk was on trails that would take us up some elevation quickly, and I knew that by the time I had gone a mile, I would be warm. But what a hard mile that was! My toes finally warmed, but my hands took quite awhile.

But then, suddenly, I realized that I was no longer cold anywhere and was toasty warm inside and out. My metabolism had been revved up by the walk, and for the rest of the outing I chatted with friends and enjoyed myself. We covered more than five miles before returning to our starting place. Cindy (the leader of the group) lives nearby and knows the trails intimately. Several of us commented that we had no idea where we were during much of the walk, although it's one of our usual ones. I've gone to the same area by myself and can never figure out the maze of trails and usually just stay on the ones I know so I won't get lost. My skill as a route finder is extremely low, which is one reason I like to have someone else lead me.

I feel very grateful that I am still able to walk briskly and hike every Thursday. My classes at the gym are simply habits to me now; they don't push me at all, but I need them to raise my spirits and give my day some structure. I'm sure that most of the people whom I see at the bus stop every day at 7:30am have no idea that I am actually going downtown for exercise and not going to work, as they are. I see the same people every day during the week, and I know those who go to the university by their absence when school is closed. It's a habit I cherish, and I will continue as long as my body holds up.

That's just it. After having read the book I mentioned last week, I realize that I need to appreciate every single day that I have the ability to continue my activities. Yesterday I woke with a pain in my back that defies by ability to ignore it. I get these every once in awhile, but this one, located between my shoulder blades, hurts like the dickens when I turn my head sharply to the right. Ouch! It's still there, today, a little better, but I never know when something will not get better. My knee that I hurt last year has gradually, a little at a time, gotten less painful, and now I don't need the brace all the time. It's returned to its pre-injury condition.

A couple of months ago I started getting a pain in the back of my right heel, with a hard lump right under the surface. It's worse after a hard Thursday hike, so I thought maybe it's my boots and got another pair to alternate them. I looked online and the symptoms fit something called "Haglund's Deformity," which is caused by irritation and will get better if you wear soft shoes. Well, there was no way I was going to be able to hike in those, so I just kept on treating it with ice afterwards and taking ibuprofen. It's gotten better, but it's still there and usually a bit on the sore side on Friday. It doesn't hurt at all in the soft running shoes I wear for the walks around town. It's progressing in the direction I want it to go: away.

All this is a prelude to my biggest dilemma of all: whether I have actually made my last skydive or not. Since October was a pretty wet and dismal month around here, I was only able to make it out to the Drop Zone once, and now the season is over. My gear will be out of date at the end of this month, and I have to make a decision about whether or not to get it inspected and repacked or not. I simply cannot reconcile myself to never ever having another chance to get under my wonderful canopy and fly it around in the sky. But now that my knee is better, should I take the chance of hurting it again on landing? Not to mention all the other parts of my body that are wearing out. You don't have to be an athlete to skydive, but it sure helps to be in good shape and able to recover from the inevitable bumps and bruises that one gets from the activity.

When I was in my fifties and sixties, I would make as many as a dozen skydives on the weekend, most of them teaching students and having someone else pack up my chute for me. But now I'm past that, no longer teaching, only jumping for the fun of it. And it's definitely true that it takes me much longer to recover from things these days. I'm almost positive I'll take my rig to the Drop Zone and get it ready to skydive, whether I use it or not. I've got to stop sometime, and it was so much easier to think of that last jump as being somewhere in the future, rather than having already done it. The whole activity occupied such a huge part of my life for so long, it's hard to consider myself finished.

Not to mention I have Facebook friends who are busy encouraging me to sign up for the SOS (Skydivers Over Sixty) women's record attempts in southern California that will be held in April. And I find myself considering it. That's where I hurt my knee in the first place, but I went back again and made another dozen skydives there, wearing a brace, and it didn't hurt it at all. Decisions, decisions! I know some of my followers are probably smiling right now, thinking "I told you so," and they were right. I will let you know what happens, but for now it's a moot point. I'm done for the season and will need to make that decision in the spring, not before.

Sitting here and writing on my laptop, I can feel various aches and pains reminding me that I am an elder, no longer a spring chicken but an old bird, probably not even fit for the soup pot. But even old birds like to feel the wind beneath their wings, lifting them up, up into the air. As long as they work, shouldn't one flex one's wings?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What matters to me today

Mt. Shuksan and cloud
I am very tired this morning, but I slept like a log and feel more rested than I thought I would. A creature of habit, I deviated quite a bit from my usual Saturday activity yesterday. I got up an hour early in order to make it to the meeting spot before dawn and start a trip up into the High Country. I took that picture yesterday. Because the weather has been so warm, the snow hasn't begun to cover the trails to make them inaccessible, so five of us decided to give one of our summer favorites a try. It was a wonderful day, but after the almost-nine miles we covered on Thursday, with only a day in between, I knew I would be pushing it if I went.

We piled into Fred's large SUV, and I sat in the middle seat in back, with Steve on one side, and Al's daughter Lisa on the other. Most people think it's no fun to sit in the middle, but I prefer it. I have a perfect view through the front window as well as nice warm bodies on either side. Whenever we must use that seat, I beg for it. But then again, I'm strange that way.

Hiking along in the alternating sunshine and clouds, I had plenty of time to think about the book I'm reading right now: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. It's a book that lingers in my mind, thinking about life and loss. I have saved the last chapter for today. Not a long book, you could read it quickly and forget about all the issues he raises, or you could, as I have, take your time and consider what he has to say. It's a very personal book; as a physician he says he learned many things in medical school, but nowhere was he taught how to deal with death and the dying process with his patients. And, of course, we all have that to look forward to, not only with our parents and friends, but also with ourselves.

Since I have lost both of my children, people often use the phrase "no one should have to bury a child" or something similar when they learn of it. And then they will often retreat from the conversation because they don't want to consider how they might one day have to go through that same ordeal. "I don't think I could go on if that happened to me." I hear that one, too.

What does that mean? How does one NOT go on with life? I remember well when Stephen died I was a young mother of 22. I couldn't fathom how I would go on. Although I had another child, four-year-old Chris, my world had shattered around me and I fell into a deep depression. I can still remember weeping uncontrollably and Chris coming to put his arms around me. He said, "I'll go up to heaven and get Stephen so you will be okay again, all right Mom?" He couldn't think what to do to keep his own world together. That moment must have reached through my anguish, because I can still remember it after more than half a century. And it still hurts.

One doesn't really pass through such a fire without being permanently changed. Within a few short months, my then-husband Derald and I had divorced. We were both hurting and couldn't help the other. Even though I survived those awful years, I managed to add to the pain and suffering of those I loved, but I didn't care because I couldn't see past my own suffering. There are many, many things I would do differently today. There was no such thing as a bereavement group for me to attend back then, and I made many mistakes in my effort to cope. I know that if I had known anyone else who had gone through something similar, it would have helped. But although there were certainly others, we all endured our agonies alone, as if we were the only people who had ever gone through such situations.

But it happens all the time, you know. Not everybody lives to be old, like I am now. And now that I am old, I have my own decline to look forward to. We laugh about it, make jokes about it, but the truth of it is that, as Atul has pointed out in his book, it's going to happen to everyone, and making some rational decisions about our options, thinking about what's really important to us, is essential to having a good life and a good death.

As I read in his book about people who struggled between the decision to stop or continue treatment even though the outcome of their illness was certain, I realized that there are some upsides to having heart disease being the agent that took my parents from me. No long-drawn-out dying process for my dad: he was vigorous and active right up to the heart attack that caused him to die three days later. Long enough for us all to come home and say goodbye, to be surrounded by my other family members. But he was only 62 when he died, and my mother was angry at him for not having been willing to endure bypass surgery so he could have lived another decade or so.

My son Chris was jogging when he was felled by sudden cardiac arrest at the age of forty. He also lived a good life, was happily married and loved his job. He had hobbies that fulfilled him, and he was well respected by those who knew him. When I went to Germany for his funeral, I learned many positive things about my son that I didn't know. It made me very glad to learn more about him, but I still suffered plenty of pain and agony during that time, as well as the months and years that followed. But when I compare the two losses of my children, the first was much, much harder. It was my first loss and I was completely unprepared for it. When Chris died, I was sixty and had lost both parents by then.

And the truth of it is that the young woman who mourned the loss of her beautiful, healthy infant was not the same woman who lost her grown son. The loss of our loved ones changes everybody; it's part of life. It's like everything else that happens to us: we have choices to make all along the way. Becoming inured to it with drugs and attempt to escape is one option; the other is to let it have its way with us. Going through the pain and suffering means that you come out the other side with a renewed sense of the brevity and beauty of every day. That's what it means to me, anyway.

As I put one foot in front of the other on my journey to the pass yesterday, I felt the sun on my face and looked around at the incredible beauty I was privileged to see. I can still travel many miles with a pack on my back, go to places that fill my heart with joy, and enjoy it all in the company of others who share this journey with me. Although one day I will no longer be able to do what I did yesterday, I will still be able to decide what's important to me. And I know that as long as I can feel the sun on my face and experience the beautiful outdoors, I'll be fine. I won't always have to hike to the top of mountains to appreciate the beauty all around me, but for now, I'm enjoying it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Day of the Dead

Bayview Cemetery on All Saint's Day
I used this picture in my other blog yesterday, but it's just too perfect for the season not to share it in this post as well. It also gives me a chance to think about this strange holiday that marks the end of October and the first few days of November. Not just Halloween, but also the Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, and Samhain. They merge together to mark this particular time of the year.

Not to mention that the clocks also changed last night from Daylight Saving Time to Pacific Standard Time, giving me an extra hour of sleep. I tried so hard to stay up later last night in order to wake at my usual time, but it didn't work. It makes me wonder why we still even use this system: now we wait until November to change the clocks, and we will change them back (when we lose an hour) in early March. This means that the sun will set around here before 5:00pm tonight, and in another month, it will be dark at both ends of the day. We are so far north here, almost 49 degrees latitude, that the days get shorter and shorter, the sun lower and lower in the sky, until by the beginning of winter the days are only 7 hours long with little sunshine. Mostly rain and gloomy skies. Fortunately I don't suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but I learned a few years ago that those of us living so far north should take Vitamin D all year round. So it's been added to the numerous vitamins I take every day: those for my eyes, not to mention even a prescription drug (statins) for cholesterol.

I did see the retina specialist last week, and he found no change from my previous visit, which made both of us happy. My macular degeneration has slowed in its progression, and I credit much of it to good diet and all those vitamins. That doesn't mean it's stopped; when I asked the specialist if I could see him once a year, he did not agree. Some people see him every three months, and even a few must visit him once a month. When I found that out, I figured I'd better count my blessings and be glad I'm not needing eyeball injections or some of the other awful treatments he provides. But I'll do whatever it takes to keep my eyesight for as long as possible.

Back to the holiday. In some cultures, especially in Mexico and other Latin American countries, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a bank holiday and families celebrate it by creating altars and putting place settings at the table with foods enjoyed by the loved ones. I found this quote on that Wikipedia link:
On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children's altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.
And there you go: a full three-day-long holiday celebrating our loved ones who have gone before us. Instead of this wonderful holiday, here in the United States we get an orgy of candy, a chance for kids to dress up in costumes, and an excuse for a costume party for the adults.  I saw quite a few interesting costumes on Friday and enjoyed them all. Once upon a time, I never missed a chance to put on another  identity and looked forward to Halloween. When I left Colorado, I got rid of a fair number of wigs I'd accumulated over the years. These days I enjoy the excitement of others and the chance to use my camera to capture their creativity. Just another one of those things I seem to have outgrown.

Samhain (pronounced SAW-win) is an ancient Gaelic festival that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark days of the year. It's halfway between the autumnal equinox and the first day of winter, and it is seen as one of those times during the year when spirits can more easily enter the world of the living. It makes me wonder when so many cultures over such a long time find this particular date in our annual calendar to be when the doorway begins to shimmer with ghosts and goblins, when the demarcation between the worlds becomes thinner. Some people like to watch scary movies at this time; I'm not one of them. There's too much horror in the world already without trying to add to it. All I have to do to get really scared is watch the news of what is happening worldwide. Is it just me or is the world getting scarier in general? Or are the newscasters just concentrating on the frightening stuff?

Okay, I've wallowed around in the spookiness of the season long enough, and now it's time to think of happier things. Perhaps the trick to staying balanced and content in the world today is to concentrate on the positive side. I believe there are plenty of good things happening everywhere, but I sure don't see anybody telling me about them. I must go out of my way to find them, but they are there, if I will only look. This is one way that blogging has changed my life: there are myriad souls in this blogosphere who give me different perspectives, and many who are making a real difference in their own communities. Almost every day I will be inspired by some fellow blogger, and I realize that getting bogged down in negativity helps no one, especially not me. Those unwarranted fears take over only when I allow them to.

Today I'll pull out some old photographs I have of my loved ones who have gone over to the other side, and remember the good times we had together, honoring their lives and who they were to me. My sister PJ is also on the other side now, and the idea of them all having a feast together, remembering when they were down here in corporeal form, gives me a great deal of pleasure. PJ was a great cook, as was my mother in her younger days, so I can imagine PJ's fantastic apple pie and Mama's incredible turkey hash among the spread. If I listen carefully, I might be able to hear distant laughter and the clink of silverware.