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, December 28, 2014

The year in review

One of the very best parts of writing a blog, other than the fellowship with my followers, is having a way to recall the past. It's like an online journal in that respect. I have written 155 posts on my other blog so far in 2014, and just thinking back about the year, I'm sure much of what I don't remember can be brought back by reviewing the year through my posts. The ones I write here on Sunday mornings are usually much more contemplative, so I will skip them.

I just went through the posts I wrote in January 2014, and I found that much of what is going on today is the same as a year ago: hiking every Thursday with the Senior Trailblazers, walking every Saturday morning with the Fairhaven walking group, and attending the aerobics classes at the Y four days a week. January was not much different than this December, with a few changes. When I looked at the pictures of our hikes, Amy was with us and now she's unable to join us because of health problems. She held the Christmas party anyway, but she said she's not likely to be able to join us any more and won't be having the party next year. There were several other former hikers at the party, and it made me realize that I need to be thankful for every single day that I can continue to enjoy the beautiful outdoors with good friends.

In February I traveled to Florida to be with my sister Norma Jean in the sunshine, but it was cut short by the death of another sister, PJ, who lived in Texas. We both traveled there for the celebration of her life, and then I flew home, catching a bad cold in the process. I missed a hike and walk, instead staying home and being miserable. I'd forgotten it was in February that I caught that cold. If you had asked me, I would have said I hadn't had one all year. That just shows how unreliable my memory is.

By the time March rolled around, signs of spring were popping up all over the place, and I began to prepare my garden for the season. In April I traveled again, this time to southern California where I participated in a skydiving camp and was part of a new record, the largest number of women skydivers  over the age of sixty in a formation together (9). It was a great time, and for once I didn't catch a cold. I had traveled first class because of a $300 credit that Alaska Air gave me to compensate for delayed travel the previous fall, and I needed to use it within a year's time. I also got my first garden starts into the ground during April, and it turned out to be the best year yet for the garden.

May and June were wonderful months spent in the outdoors, with my garden coming along wonderfully. Our hikes into the High Country, my favorites, were attempted a time or two, finding ourselves turned back by snow, as we expected. So nice to go back and be reminded about the wonderful summer season we enjoyed together. July and August had little to remark upon, either, other than being able to skydive on the weekends and spending the weeks doing what I always do in the summer months. Nothing stands out in the next several months as well. My life just kept on cruising along right up to the present day.

The only glitches I see in the past year are ones that I well remember anyway: the trouble I started having with my right heel, which continues to this day. It started in mid-July as an annoyance and now I've grown used to it, but it's not gone and bothers me still. If it were something that kept me from my activities, I'd have gone to the doctor by now. I don't know about you, but I find that going to a doctor with a complaint like this usually ends up with me knowing little more than I did before. And it costs me a fair amount every time I visit him, so until it gets worse, I'll just keep icing it and paying attention. I did go to my doctor about a sticky eye problem, and all he did was send me off for a CT scan of my head. Nothing there, he said with a smile, and I take care of the eye with over-the-counter eye drops. Hummpfh! Why bother? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to have a doctor to see when I really need one.

So, in looking back over the past year, I can see that it's been a good one, other than having lost my sister. I spend every other Wednesday in a video chat with my sister Norma Jean, keeping our connection current. She's doing well, too, with her son living with her and doing a lot of the cooking, which she enjoys. He's got a full-time job now but still continues to prepare much of their meals. Norma Jean is really a lady of leisure! Golfing, swimming and walking in the Florida sunshine.

When my mother was in the same situation as we are now, she wasn't very happy. I realize from my own experience that it was caused by her isolation from close friends and not making a successful transition from married life to being a widow with grown children. Her days were spent reading and watching TV, with occasional visits from us. I've found a real community here in Bellingham, but it has come from joining exercise groups, mainly, and it's expanded from there. My coffee shop crowd has become like family to me, and I can honestly say I don't feel isolated or lonely at all. Of course, I'm also not a widow, as I have my partner to share my life, and that makes a huge difference. Although we live together, we each follow our own pursuits. No being joined at the hip for us!

He's sleeping quietly beside me now, as I finish the last of my tea and look forward to the day ahead. I'll go visit John in the nursing home where he's recovering from having received two bionic knees last Monday. He'll probably be there for a month or so until he can get around on his own. Right now, less than a week later, he can get himself out of bed and, using the walker, get to the bathroom on his own. That is simply amazing to me. I've got my fingers crossed that he'll have a full recovery.

Another non-contemplative post. I hope you'll hang in there until I again feel the need to dig down deep into my thought processes. These days, when I look there, nothing seems to pop up to be weeded, but I'm sure it'll come around again. Just like the garden, there's always something that needs tending, if I pay attention to it. Be well, my dear readers, until next Sunday. It will be a new year!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter solstice

Still lots to buy on the last day of the Farmers' Market yesterday
It was a little poignant to see the last Farmers' Market of the year close yesterday. I didn't have anything particular to buy, as I've finally finished all the small bits of shopping I do every year. Without any kids to buy for, and staying home from visiting family, I only buy a few things for Smart Guy and a few things for myself. I ended up with a pair of earrings from my favorite jewelry vendor yesterday. They feel festive, so I'll probably end up wearing them every day during the coming week. I do give gift certificates to the three children in the apartment complex, but that hardly qualifies as shopping.

Today marks the Winter Solstice (3:03pm PST) in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. The sun doesn't rise here until 8:00am and sets at 4:15pm. That's only eight hours and fifteen minutes of sunlight, that is IF it's not continuing to rain all day long. Yesterday we had a half-inch of rain on top of the half-inch we got the day before. It's soggy out there, not to mention warm. We've been having a really warm spell and all the snow that fell in the mountains has melted under the rain. The ski areas are not happy, since Christmas break is usually a big money maker for them. Mt. Baker usually has lots of snow by this time. It's an odd weather year over the entire country.

One nice thing about keeping a blog is being able to go back and look at the same time in previous years. We got just a small dusting of snow last year, but it wasn't until February, so it's not unusual for us to be deprived of a white Christmas. They'll have more of it than they want on the East Coast, it seems. I'll take this scenario, thank you very much. But rain? We've had plenty of it, it goes with the territory.

Have you ever heard the phrase "right as rain"? I was thinking about it the other day and wondered where it came from. I found this information on The Word Detective, which gives a humorous explanation for different idioms. I read the entire thing and learned that it's been around in print since the late 19th century, meaning "everything is great." I would think that unless you have too much of it all at once as they did in California last week, rain brings all kinds of good things, including rainbows. I am now the proud owner of four different raincoats and a rain poncho, rain pants, and a waterproof cover for my pack. The only time I find rain to be problematic these days is if it's cold and windy and blowing the rain sideways. Then it's definitely time to spend some time inside.

You may have noticed by now that I'm rambling a little, with nothing much on my mind to mull over and write about as I usually do on Sunday mornings. Of course, everything else is just as usual: partner asleep next to me, my tea within reach, and plenty of quiet time before the day begins. Last week was emotional and I needed to write about that, but this week is calm. And Christmas Day comes on a Thursday this year, meaning there will be no more Senior Trailblazer hikes until next year! We also won't go on New Years Day, but I'll have a nice celebration with the Fairhaven walkers that day, so I will get some exercise. The gym is also closed both days. Sigh.

I realize that I am very much a creature of habit, and that is only getting more pronounced during my years in retirement. Some of my readers have commented on it, usually with humor, but it's funny that I didn't realize that about myself. I always thought I was a spontaneous person, wanting little to do with routines and familiarity. Boy, how untrue that is! I realize now that I really really need things not to change too much every day, or it causes me to get stressed out. It's probably that as I've gotten older, I need to conserve my energy and spend it in ways that I prefer, since it's no longer boundless. By early evening after dinner, I'm ready to settle in and am almost embarrassed at how early I will sometimes go to bed. There are times when I'm in bed four or five hours before my Other Half! But he's a night owl and I'm an early bird: he gets much of his sleep while I'm writing (like right now). It works just fine for the two of us. I will sometimes wake in the middle of the night and reach over, realizing that I was so fast asleep when he came to bed that I didn't wake up at all. It's always reassuring to know that he's there.

On Christmas Day, we will have a really nice dinner together, with salmon from my fisherman friend Gene, some winter squash and a hearty salad. It's a change from the usual steamed veggies that we eat almost every day, but I've realized that my usual diet has kept me healthy. Last week I went to two parties in one day, and I ended up eating way more sugar than usual. I figured that since I had eaten a good deal of excellent foods, eating a couple of the desserts wouldn't hurt me much. Boy, was I wrong about that! By the time we left, I felt horrible, a stomach ache and felt downright ill. It didn't go away quickly, either. All the next day I felt like I had been on a bender, with no energy or appetite and just feeling miserable. Of course I went to the gym and worked out anyway, which made me feel somewhat better, but it wasn't until after a good dinner of steamed veggies and rice that I began to feel normal again.

Diabetes runs in my family, and that's basically why my sister PJ died last February at the age of 63. From the reaction I have to concentrated sugar, I have no doubt that if I ate a normal American diet of processed foods and little to no fresh veggies, I'd have it by now. Something about the pancreas and insulin uptake, I guess. Whatever it is, I'm once again reminded that staying on the straight and narrow food path is a much better idea for me. The cost is too great, and now even the thought of that pecan pie that tasted so good when I ate it is unpleasant. And fortunately for me, I have a husband who makes sure I always have good food to eat already prepared. Yes, I am definitely a lucky person, and I give thanks for him and my life every day.

I've got to finish this up and go answer a FaceTime chat with a friend, who wants to talk. I told him he could call me any time after 6:45 and he just rang. He lives alone and will be having double knee replacement surgery first thing tomorrow. I am anxious for him, and want to be there in whatever way I can. Listening to him is one thing I know how to do. So I'm going to get out of bed and start my day with my post written and virtually hold John's hand. Until next week, dear friends, have a wonderful Christmas holiday!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A different kind of volunteer

Bridge and reflection at Bagley Lake
It's taking me awhile to get started this morning, since the subject that's on my mind is not an easy one to write about. As I mentioned on my other blog yesterday, I attended the memorial for my friend Beth in the morning and have been thinking about it ever since. I learned some interesting facts about the dying process that have changed tremendously in the past few years, and it's really got me thinking.

We all have different ways of dealing with the fact that death comes to us all, some with religious beliefs, and others with just as firm a belief that there is nothing beyond this short life on Earth. The fact is, none of us will ever know with certainty, until we have passed through that veil. Either there will be life after death, or there won't. For some people, it makes a difference in the way they live their lives, thinking that a good life will be rewarded with heaven and an evil life will be punished with hell.

I listened to a podcast yesterday that was titled "Regrets," and two people were interviewed who talked about regrets they have had during their lives. One guy really amused me, and even though he was a bit rough around the edges, I could feel the person as being someone I'd like to know. He had made lots of mistakes in his early life and spent more than a decade in prison. He had had a tattoo of a question mark on his arm, and during his time in prison got it covered up with a swastika. He said the tattoo meant nothing to him, other than a sign of white supremacy. He knew nothing of the Holocaust, but after his release he happened to read an obituary of a Jewish man who had survived the extermination camps and described them. In horror, he realized that he was wearing the Nazi symbol and wanted to get it off, or covered up somehow.

He explained that now that he is getting older, he was worried that he might die with that tattoo intact. He said, "I don't want to die and have God see it." I smiled at the thought of what he might think about the afterlife. Whatever he might think, it's very different from my own ideas about how the universe works. The thought that somehow our bodies survive death seems very foreign to me, but I know that many people refuse to be cremated because of a belief that the body will be resurrected.

When my mother died, we (my siblings) were with her, and I remember being struck by how peaceful she looked right after she stopped breathing. We surrounded her head with flowers from the many bouquets she had received, and the memory of that scene will live forever inside my heart. But it wasn't more than an hour later that she no longer looked like my mom, but instead like an old shell that had been discarded. Shrunken and inert, the husk left behind, Mama was gone. I felt oddly comforted by all that, although I'm not sure exactly why. She was there, and then she wasn't, but that's just what I experienced from my own limited point of view. Today my memories of her are nothing like that, but of her being vibrant and beautiful.

Although it's always hard to lose a loved one, we almost always make it through, and time softens the edges of the grief so that looking back is no longer so painful. I've had plenty of chances to learn how that works, and I realize that even though the thought of my own demise isn't pleasant, it's no longer foreign to me. I figure that by the time I get there I'll be ready. For two years I volunteered in Boulder's Hospice program, and I learned so much and spent time with people whom I will never forget. And yesterday I found that yet another kind of program has come out of the Hospice movement: death doulas. Beth had one, and now that I know of them, I am amazed that it's taken so long for the idea to come to fruition.

The word "doula" comes from the Greek, meaning "woman who serves." I have always thought of one as a helper to a midwife, since birth doulas are common. It only makes sense that we have someone to help us through the end of life, as well as its beginning. A death doula helps the family members come to grips with the situation, as well as offer comfort and companionship to the dying person. I had thought that I might become a Hospice volunteer again, but now I'm thinking that I'm ready for the next step: to become a death doula. I'll let you know what I learn.

I found that right here in Bellingham we have a Death Café that gives people a chance to meet monthly and discuss whatever those who attend want to talk about regarding death and dying. The next meeting is on January 21st, and I will find out more then. From that link above:
Death Cafés are part of a global movement to challenge attitudes and raise awareness of how talking about death can enrich our lives. In the U.S., Lizzy Miles was the first person to offer Death Café in Columbus, Ohio, and the idea is spreading rapidly to other cities and towns across the country. 
I know it might seem a bit ghoulish to some of my readers to think about becoming a death doula, but for some reason I find myself drawn to it. I've been pondering for awhile what I might find to occupy my desire to take risks once I stop skydiving. This might be it.

It's taken so long for me to get this written that my partner has already left the bed and is making his own cup of tea in the kitchen. Mine is long gone, and although the nights are so long at this time of year that the sun is still a half hour away from rising, it's time to finish and get the day started. I hope that all this talk about death and dying hasn't been too depressing to my readers. I wish you all a wonderful week until we meet again.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A week of ups and downs

Snow and berries
It's almost impossible for me to get used to how quickly time is passing this fall. It was a week ago that I was getting ready to celebrate my birthday, last Saturday when I went for that hike in the cold and wind with a few friends. The blink of an eye and another week is gone into the past.

I'm struggling here to get started on this post, because although I know what I want to write about, it's not easy. First of all, on our hike last week I was walking along behind Al, and we were talking about how I celebrated my big day. As I've begun to explore other ways to celebrate than sitting down to a big meal, I decided to schedule a massage for my birthday, and it was wonderful. Al mentioned that his massage therapist had recently died, and I suddenly realized he was talking about Beth!

A couple of years ago when my regular massage therapist was temporarily unavailable, I asked for some recommendations from friends, and Al suggested I try Beth. She was not only a massage therapist, but also an accomplished Rolfer, so for three months I saw her regularly, and then afterwards I received three Rolfing sessions with her. We became friends, if only in a client/therapist sense, and two months ago she called me and asked me to have tea with her. She had recently been diagnosed with IBC (inflammatory breast cancer), and she remembered that I told her my mother had it, too.

She was in the midst of some aggressive chemo treatments and suggested that we wait until she was feeling a little better before our tea date. After two weeks had passed, I sent her a text and asked if she was ready for that tea, but she said she'd let me know, as she was pretty sick. Well, as things happen, I didn't hear from her again for the next few weeks, and then Al told me she had died. I was devastated, as I felt that I had let her down. I should have been more insistent, if only so that I could see her once again before the end. But she was relatively young and certainly healthy when I last saw her.

I learned that the cancer was well advanced when she learned of it, and that there was really no hope of recovery, and by the time we would have had our visit, she was already in Hospice care and knew she would not be leaving. Her memorial service will be next Saturday, and I will attend, as we know that these are for those of us left behind, and I need to have some closure. I spoke with her last on October 31st, and within a month she was gone. It was so quick!

When you don't see someone very often, you almost always picture them being the way they were when you saw them last, but as we all know, that's not always true. As I have thought of Beth this past week, I remember the feeling of her fingers pressing into my back. She helped me with some annoyingly persistent pain, and told me that she believed damaged nerves can regenerate. And my own pain was much relieved after a few sessions with her.

Last night I had an intense dream. In the dream, I saw little puffs of smoke coming from tiny holes in the wall of my apartment (although it was a different place than this one), and I called the manager to tell her I thought there might be a fire inside the wall. She ignored me, but I kept insisting she pay attention to my concerns. And then suddenly there was fire everywhere! I went to the bedroom to rouse my son Chris, who was still sleeping, and I pushed him out of the room. I remember throwing books and possessions from the window onto the ground below. And then there were the firemen, coming through the window with equipment to fight the fire. That's when I woke up, my heart hammering from the fear and excitement.

As I lay in my bed thinking about the dream, which seemed very real even after I woke up, I wondered if it was related to my anxiety about Beth having been unaware of the danger in her body as it was being destroyed by cancer. That if she had paid attention to the signs, maybe she would have been able to be saved. IBC is an insidious and aggressive cancer, because it doesn't form a lump and can travel through your entire system before it's detected, as happened to Beth. My mother was one of the lucky ones, since only a small percentage of people diagnosed with it survive more than a few years. The treatment, however, was what caused my mother to develop heart disease, which eventually did contribute to her early death.

Yesterday I attended a wonderful concert, the annual Christmas concert of the Bellingham Chamber Chorale singers. Al is one of the singers, and he had mentioned the concert in one of his emails. I really enjoy hearing the wonderful sound of voices raised in song, especially when they are so good. As I listened I felt a sense of peace and well-being in the room, with the audience as well as the singers engaged in a moment of grace. It's the season of dark days, but the wonderful twinkling lights everywhere, and the gathering of people together to share in such beauty for a little while, helps us to remember that the darkness is always followed by the dawn.

I don't know why I have been given the gift of long life, but I am reminded once again that it is not granted to everyone. Some of us live to a ripe old age, and others are taken early. But no matter whether it's a long or short life, it's important to cherish and appreciate every single moment. I do hope that you, my dear readers, will take some time to give thanks during this holiday season. I will be thinking of you while I am smiling into my teacup, thinking of that tea date that is waiting for me on the other side.