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, April 26, 2015

Time traveling

Me and Chris in the 1960s
I've used this picture before on my blogs, as it's one of my favorites of all time. My then-husband Don took it and he's gone now, along with Chris and that young mother. However, I've managed to continue breathing in and out, continued to sleep and wake for another fifty years since that picture was taken.

The other day I saw a poll to find out whether people think time travel is possible. Interestingly, three-quarters of the respondents said yes. And I guess it really does depend on how you define it, since I've been time traveling just looking at old pictures and reading old books. Yesterday I finished re-reading Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and I have to say that if I really did read it long ago, that person didn't have the background to understand it, because it was like reading it for the first time. My recollection is that I read it, but my sister recently told me it was her favorite book of all time and I wanted to remind myself about it. It's possible that I read it because it was an assignment and not because I wanted to read it and it left no imprint on my mind.

While I was reading it this week, I was transported back into time, into the days of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and the migrant experience that Steinbeck captured so perfectly. He wrote the book in a few months and famously said, "I've done my damndest to rip the reader's nerves to rags." Well, once I got into the book I found it impossible to set aside for long, and I found myself ruminating on the meaning it has for me, almost a century later. Is this time travel? I went back to those days while I was immersed in the book, and after I finished it, the world around me continues to look different.

I've also been thinking about what it means to live a long life. I used to say that I can no longer claim that my hair is prematurely white, because now almost everyone who is my age has white hair. It's also true that I am getting to the place where I wouldn't be able to say that I died a premature death, since I've lived much longer than many people ever had a chance to live. I've watched myself pass through all the stages of life, and now I am at the final one, where the cells in my body are getting tired and worn out, and one of these days something will give up or give out. It's possible I might have another decade or two, but I am not so naive as to believe that the time will be filled with robust health. I do everything I can to keep sickness at bay, but there's just so much a person can do to stave off the ravages of time. But that doesn't mean I'm not a happy person, glad to have had the chance to live a good life and be grateful for each day as it comes. I've got a family, a community, and a partner who all contribute to my ability to look forward to each day with optimism.

I know that some people believe that once they die, they will live again in another body, reset the clock to zero and start over again. Years ago I studied the Tibetan Book of the Dead and learned about the bardo, the time between death and the next rebirth. In Buddhism, as I understand it, you spend your current life trying to finish things up so you won't be reborn, attempting to remove your soul from the wheel of reincarnation. Sometimes I experience things that seem to have come from another lifetime, but there's a whole lot of memories from this life that are lost to my conscious mind. All I know for sure is that I won't experience what comes after death until I've gotten there, and if there's nothing afterwards, well I won't know it, will I? Therefore, living a virtuous life is a prudent thing to do, and plus it makes me feel good to do so. A quote from The Grapes of Wrath that stuck with me:
There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. 
I've been trying to understand the whole concept of time, since it seems to be a construct we humans have created in order to understand the passage of time. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it. If you look it up on Google, you will get an entire array of ideas. I especially like thinking about time as the fourth dimension, which is independent of events and things simply occur in sequence. That would make it possible to actually travel backwards and forwards in time. But frankly, I think it's much more likely that time is neither an event nor a thing, so it wouldn't be possible to travel along it.

The young girl in that picture above is me, but that is not the me of this moment. I find it fascinating to think about what time actually might be, whether it's an illusion or simply a way to measure and order events and the intervals between them. When I was reading my book yesterday, part of me was sitting in my chair, and another part of me was back in the Dust Bowl days, packing up my belongings and setting out for California. When I woke this morning, I left the world of dreams, yawned and got up to begin my day. The dream world I inhabited with one part of me sure felt real, but it didn't travel with me into the present moment. This moment is now beginning to change as I finish up this post, thinking about the upcoming day, one with what looks like sunshine outside, and an entire universe to explore.

I'm enjoying my life, whether it's just the this moment or thinking back about other moments, other lives that travel inside my mind right into the present. I'm reminded of that quote that "every moment is a gift; that's why we call it a present." So I will leave you, my dear readers, with that quote while I venture on into my Sunday. Be well and be sure to give your loved ones a present.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mid-April already

A tulip that almost looks like a rose
I took this picture when I was out at the Tulip Gardens in Skagit County on April 8. I'm sure by now these are already gone, but back then I was captivated by the look of them, all those pretty petals edged with pink, making it look less like a tulip and more like a rose to me. It's already the third week in April, and today, another sunny one, I'll be planting some of my starts in the garden. It's time.

On Sundays I don't have any scheduled activities, except for writing this post. It's already light outside and I'm starting everything a little later than usual. I just didn't want to get out of bed this morning and now it's already the time when I would normally be publishing my already-written post. Not today. I'm still trying to get my mind around the loss of another acquaintance I made a few years ago.

It was just a year ago that I traveled to southern California to attend a Masters Skills Camp and make the record skydive of 9 women over the age of sixty in a formation together. Last week that record was broken, with 16 women attending this time. It's interesting to notice my feelings around it; I'm glad they made the record, and I'm just as glad I didn't travel there. I made a decision after last year that it would be the last time I would attend, and considering how few skydives I've made since then, it seems it was a good one. I'm really fading from the scene, and although I can still enjoy an occasional skydive, there are no more thrills attached to the activity.

What happens in early April at Skydive Elsinore is a gathering of skydivers all over the age of sixty to try to make an attempt at breaking the record, which now stands at exactly 60 skydivers all hooked up in a formation, all over the age of 60. Since I haven't got any desire to actually be on that enormous skydive, I have attended for a couple of years simply to get current in the air, and spend time with the wonderful friends I've made. Thinking of seeing them again almost made me consider going this year. And then I thought of the expense, the travel, and the desire faded away as quickly as it came. I'm moving on.

I've been watching and reading on Facebook of the progress of the skydive attempts to break the record, and until yesterday, everything was going well. Today, Sunday, is the last day of their attempts, but I saw that one of the people I met and jumped with was killed yesterday. Bud LaPointe was on the JOS record attempts (Jumpers Over Seventy) when I first met him in October 2013. He was the oldest skydiver back then, and he was 87. He died yesterday at the age of 88, in a skydiving accident at Lake Elsinore. The details are still sketchy, but it looks like he was on one of the attempts and ended up pulling his parachute too low, and the automatic opener on the reserve fired, giving him two canopies out. He landed hard and I'm still looking for more details. There are so few people at his age who have the strength and courage to be doing what he was until the very end.

Some people might think that he had no business at his age doing something so risky, but Bud wasn't like that at all. I'm sure he was still making hundreds of skydives every year, being a southern California native and a regular at the two drop zones he lived nearby. He was my hero on the JOS attempts, when I learned how old he was and how he still kept on going. It almost made me want to keep it up myself, but when your heart isn't in it like it once was, it's time to stop. And now Bud is gone, and it breaks my heart to think he died skydiving and will be remembered for that, not for all the many skydives he made. He started jumping as a paratrooper in World War II and kept it up for seventy years. I am glad I got the chance to meet him and spend some time talking with him, a real legend in our sport.

Learning of that incident at Elsinore yesterday evening kept me from falling asleep easily, thinking of my friends in southern California who are out at the event, hoping to set a new record, and now they are processing what happened yesterday, too. I suspect not many of them slept well last night, either. And today they will give it everything they've got to hopefully set that new record, without Bud, on this last day of the record attempts. I've got my fingers crossed for their success but I will be spending my time in the garden, putting my tomatoes into the ground, along with the lettuce and the broccoli.

This is my fourth season as a gardener, and I'm really surprised at how peaceful and satisfying it is to spend time pulling weeds and getting my hands in the dirt. The rich soil has been giving me plenty of wonderful vegetables for the past three years, and I have learned a lot about what it means to be a gardener from my neighbors, who have been doing this much longer than me. Of the original ten gardeners who started four years ago, only two of us are left, with everybody else moving on, their plots taken over by new tenants. That's the only real problem with renting: your neighbors often don't stay for long. There is one woman in this 26-unit property who has been here almost forty years, but she will be moving into an assisted living facility soon. Things change, and that's one of the lessons I've learned in the last few years, to let things evolve without trying to hold on too tightly. After all, it's the way of things to change, even if I'm not always happy about it.

The cycle of the seasons here in the Pacific Northwest has given my life a certain rhythm that I find soothing and fulfilling. In the summer months I travel into the High Country with the Senior Trailblazers and enjoy both the adventures and the company. The weeks year round are defined by my excursions to the YMCA to attend classes and use the exercise machines. I see the same people there day after day, year after year, and I realize I've grown very accustomed to their routines as well as my own. The woman who teaches the M-W-F classes pulls into the same parking space at the same time every day while I'm on the treadmill, and now I look for her and watch her as she gets out of her car and puts exactly six coins in the meter. It makes me smile as I gaze out the window from the fourth floor.

Life goes on, moving as it does both quickly and imperceptibly at the same time. I look up from a book that has captured my attention and realize that hours have passed and I've been unaware of it. I notice the arc of the sun as it moves across the sky from season to season, wanting sometimes to slow its journey so that I can savor the moment, but it just keeps on going. I think this is one reason I've grown to love photography so much: the moment is captured and I can keep the memory alive. I took this picture of Bud last year, and it will help me to keep his memory alive. Blue skies, Bud! I'll plant my tomatoes today thinking of you.
Bud LaPointe 1927-2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An unsettled week

I don't know what kind of bird it is
There's a reason I don't go on bird counts. I can hardly recognize any of them, with only a dozen or so of the most common ones easily recognizable to my eyes. When I was at the tulip display gardens last Wednesday in Skagit County, I kept hearing this bird in the tree above me. Its call is a long chirr repeated over and over. Using the telephoto lens on my camera, I was able to capture this shot, which delighted me. It was a beautiful day and the bird was singing his heart out. I know just how he was feeling.

I got somewhat behind in my routine last week, since it was such a busy one. Having been in that class both days last weekend started me off with the feeling of being behind. Since both days were simply beautiful blue sky days, I wished I had spent some time in the garden, but I was cooped up learning about death doula duties. When I wrote last week's post, I was halfway through it all. Sunday was spent learning how to prepare a dead body for a vigil. In the old days, the person's body would be displayed in the parlor for a day or two before being taken out to the cemetery for burial. Nowadays it's all different. I learned about advance directives, so that I can make my wishes known and followed upon my death.

Having prepared our wills, my husband and I thought we had taken care of all the details of the death process. No, it's not true: there's more to be done. Although the rules for disposition of your body are different for every state in the US, you can download a copy of the advance directives for your own state here, at Caring Connections. I learned about the green burial movement and other options. I had planned to have my body cremated, not realizing that embalming regularly takes place beforehand. It's all rather confusing as to why in the world you would need to embalm a body that will be incinerated and not viewed, but apparently funeral homes often find numerous ways to charge the grieving family for services they didn't realize are not required.

Anyway, by the time the two-day class was finished, I was overwhelmed with all I had learned. For one thing, I learned that most of what a death doula does here in Whatcom County is related to the immediate dying process and the days that follow death. When I volunteered for Hospice, by the time the dying person had reached that stage, my job was done; I simply supported the primary caregiver by staying with the person while he or she took a much-needed break. I'm going to have to rethink what my part might be in this process. Take a look at the website for A Sacred Passing and what is offered. For now, I am in the process of preparing my own advance directives and figuring out what it is that I want for myself. That is taking some time.

Of course, as soon as the class was over the weather turned rainy and blustery again, so the garden still remains untended, which is weighing on me as planting should be done soon. And then the next fine day, Wednesday, I drove down to Skagit Valley to visit the tulips and spend time with a wonderful family in the tulip gardens and fields. I put up a bunch of pictures on my other blog here, but still, my day was filled to the brim. No time for the garden.

Thursday was spent on my regular hike with the Senior Trailblazers. It was a hard one, more than ten miles and lots of elevation as we summited Stewart Mountain on a poorly maintained trail. It was another beautiful day, and I collapsed when I came home with little desire to do much more than rest from my exertions.

And then the weather turned rainy and blustery again, just when I had time to garden. Yesterday was totally uninviting, with wind and heavy showers interspersed with moments of sunshine. I went on my usual Saturday walk anyway and got pretty wet. Then I went to the movies with my friend Judy and saw Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren. Although the reviews have not been stellar, we both enjoyed this true story very much. If you go to that link, you'll see that the audience enjoyed it much more than the critics. Sometimes I think I'll stop reading reviews before I head off to the movies, since I cannot figure out what critics are looking for in a movie. But what am I thinking? Birdman won Best Picture this year, after all.

Looking back, this week started off feeling off kilter because of the class, and then it just got more so as the days went by. Now I am starting a new week, and the process of writing this post has already helped me put into perspective what has caused me to have the sense of being behind and struggling to catch up. Partly it's because my entire schedule has been altered by events, with little chance to get my regular exercise (and we all know how much I depend on it for equilibrium). Driving around a rental car for the past week also didn't make me happy, as it was so different from my own car. I am NOT a fan of cars without much visibility out the back, making me totally dependent on the side mirrors.

My own car, which I picked up Friday, looks beautiful with its shiny new bumper and headlights, and now that I've gone through that particular unpleasantness, I can start fresh. And this is a brand-new week, with what I hope will be lots of routine and some actual time in the garden. Today I might jump ahead and get out to the garden store to buy some flowers and vegetable starts for the upcoming planting. It will make me feel better, I just know it will, even if the plants don't get into the ground for a few days. Who knew that digging in the dirt could make me so happy? Certainly not this person who is just getting ready to experience her fourth season as a gardener. I'm still a neophyte with much to learn, but it's wonderful to pull out weeds and see lots of worms and rich dark earth under my hands.

And look! Another post written, even if it's a bit uneven this week. It has been a perfect mirror for me to look into and figure out how I want to proceed with this brand-new day, looking ahead to a Sunday that belongs completely to me, to spend however I choose. My only scheduled task, this post, is now behind me. It's time to say farewell for this week and to wish you, my dear readers, the very best of weeks ahead. It's a beautiful time of the year in both hemispheres. I am sending you a virtual hug, since it's the best I can do through the internet, and I do hope you pass it along to someone you love.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday 2015

Easter eggs from the Internet
So many previous Easter Sundays have emerged into my thoughts as I sit here in the dark this morning, fifteen years into the new century. Well, not so new any more. It's already a teenager and we all know that a fifteen-year-old wouldn't appreciate being called "new." 

So long ago, when I was a young girl, I loved the new dress my mother would have made or purchased for me and my sisters, although we rarely if ever went to church. We just dressed up and went on organized Easter egg hunts and visited nearby relatives or friends. I never heard anything about why it all happened on a Sunday in spring; it never even occurred to me to ask.

I wonder what my mother thought about Easter, as she was a lapsed Catholic married to an agnostic. I think as a military wife and mother, she never felt that her thoughts mattered to anybody but herself, and maybe a few female friends. I knew there were times when my mother wasn't very happy when we were growing up, but she was a hard worker and created a beautiful home and yard wherever we were stationed. We lived in Fairfield, California during most of the 1950s, and I remember our huge back yard, with fragrant geraniums along one side of house, where Norma Jean and I would play with our dolls in the green and red forest. Mama bought and planted a weeping willow tree in that back yard, and I can still remember watching her from inside as she hoisted the young (but not small) tree upright with ropes until she was satisfied. I think we were kept inside for safety, but who knows? It was so long ago. I hope that tree is now huge and strong and making shade for everyone who gets to enjoy it. I just had a pang of missing Mama in my life, and she's been gone since 1993.

Easter. I'm resurrecting my mother's memory as I write, thinking about who she was to me. When she was alive, we sometimes had difficulty with each other, but all that is now long gone and all that remains to me is the love I have for her, which lives on long after her departure from the planet. I see her in my sister's face, and in my own now and then, but in my memory she was much younger than we are now and very pretty. When we were little girls, she liked to sew and would make us matching outfits. Norma Jean and I are a little more than two years apart, and my sister PJ was born when I was seven, so the two of us were often dressed alike, with little PJ in a different outfit. Now that I'm thinking back, I wonder if my mother actually enjoyed sewing, or whether it was just what she was expected to do. I never thought to ask.

Yesterday was the first day of the Death Doula class I'm taking. Remember awhile back when I went to the memorial service for my friend Beth who died? I learned about death doulas then, and decided to find out more about them and now find myself halfway through a two-day-long training class. Today, another sunny beautiful day, I'll spend part of it learning how to prepare a body for a three-day-long vigil, and about other duties of a death doula. The word "doula" is Greek for a woman who assists other women and is usually used in the sense of assisting with childbirth. Now the word is also being used for those who assist the dying person through our final transition out of life. 

Who dies? All the little deaths I face every day, all the emerging changes that I remark upon in my body, in the world around me, it makes me wonder about this thing called Death. We all know it, and we all know that it comes to everything that is alive. But my mother is not in those ashes that lie in the ground, and here I am now an old woman who remembers her own mother as a young, vibrant beautiful woman with long flowing hair. Nothing seems to hold still long enough to name it and say that is what she is or what she was. But today, this Easter Sunday, my mother has been resurrected in my memory and is as alive as she ever was. When she visits me in my dreams, she is always beautiful and loving. In my waking thoughts of her, there are plenty of other aspects of her personality that come to mind. But, in a sense, I have resurrected my own ideal mother and who is to say what is real and what is not? I know she is alive to me today. 

It's unfortunate that it isn't until we are ourselves old that we begin to appreciate what it was like for our own parents, our ancestors who traveled this same journey through life that we are on. It's a one-way trip, and now that I am old enough to have gained some knowledge of my life's purpose, I realize that every single day of it is precious and to be savored. I learned yesterday that there are many ways to assist our fellow sojourners through the doorway, and that if done with awareness and heart, it does not need to be a difficult journey. I am reminded of something Cicero said: that when a young person dies, it's like an unripe fruit being pulled from a tree. It takes effort. But when an old person dies, it's like a ripe fruit that falls naturally off the tree with no struggle at all.

I'm glad I will learn these new techniques to help others, so that when it comes my time to fall off the tree, it will be on my own terms, with others who will support me in my final journey. We are beginning to rediscover that which has been lost in the nursing homes and hospitals: that death is a natural part of our living and not something to be feared. This was well known through millennia before modern medicine came to the rescue, taking us from the natural to, for example, the unnatural attempt to resuscitate a 90-year-old.

I've got a full day ahead of me, and it looks like I'll be gazing out the window at the budding trees and flowers while I remain inside. You might think it's not where I would choose to be on a beautiful day like this, but you would be wrong. I'm actually looking forward to spending my day with these other people who are learning along with me.  It looks like spring has finally arrived, and here I am on Easter Sunday, sitting here with my mother enjoying a spot of tea together.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter Sunday, wherever you are, and whatever you choose to do with the day. If you are fortunate enough to have family with you, remember to ask those questions you might have about their lives while you can. I think I'll ask Mama those questions I forgot to ask when I was little.