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, July 26, 2015

Sleeping on the ground

My tent without the rain fly
Last Wednesday night I was reminded of an adventure I used to enjoy, before I started skydiving and everything else faded into the background. I was a backpacker and explored many Colorado trails, both with others and also by myself at times. I even had a five-day solo trip I took in the summer, packing in over a pass and making a loop, coming out over another pass. It was around forty miles in total. These days I wouldn't even think of doing something like that, but it was long ago.

It had been so long since I camped out I didn't even remember how to set up my old tent. Frankly, I have forgotten when or where I bought this tent, but it's a good one and has been used many times. With Carol's help, we figured out how to set it up, and as we worked, it all came back to me. I didn't put the rain fly on it (it's that blue plastic lying on the left), because I wanted to see the stars and let the air flow through as well. Since we were car camping, I could take whatever I wanted, so I brought along an extra blanket in case my sleeping bag wasn't enough. I didn't need it, but that teddy bear doubles as a pillow for me, and I put him in the front window to guard everything from intruders. Linda and Ward's dog Riley was a little wary of him.

The orange thing in the middle is my inflatable Therm-a-rest mattress. Back when I bought it, they came in long or short versions. This is the short one, since I was looking for the least weight to carry. It's only inflated a small amount, just enough so that when you lay down on it, it conforms to your body's contours and keeps you from feeling the ground. They don't even make these any more, but I find it to be the lightest and most comfy (that's a relative term) pad I've used over the years. I wasn't sure that it would be appropriate for a septuagenarian, but it was. If I were starting over and not needing to worry about backpacking it in, I'd buy one of their suspended ultralight cots like this one. But it makes little sense for me to spend a couple hundred dollars on something I will use so seldom.

But who knows? Now that I've stopped skydiving, maybe I'll take up car camping and explore the wonderful wilderness campgrounds in this part of the country. It was my first time in one of them last week, and I was very impressed with how well kept the campgrounds are, and I realize that there really is nothing to keep me from it. I was quite comfortable last Wednesday night, and I slept like a log, waking a couple of times during the night but once I turned over I went right back to sleep. One thing I noticed is how quiet it was. Although I am not conscious of all the sounds you hear inside a house, once I was disconnected from any electronics, it was incredibly quiet. At least until the birds began their morning songs at 4:00am. It was fun.

The routine of breaking down the camp the next morning, after breakfast but before our hike, brought back many memories of times and places where I'd performed those same rituals. Once I started skydiving, I would go to many week-long events (known as boogies) where skydivers from all over the world would gather to jump together, with lots of specialty aircraft as well as the two most popular ones, Twin Otters and Skyvans. The Skyvan has a rear exit, so that instead of climbing outside the door to exit, you just jump off the end, like you were jumping into a pile of leaves. But instead of leaves, you jump into the air and then you play around until it's time to separate from your friends and open your parachute.

I would set up my tent in the designated area for tent camping, and then I'd spend the entire day jumping with my friends. They would have organizers to get people together to make skydives, and I'd make five or six in one day. I paid for a professional packer so I didn't have to pack up my main parachute each time, or I would be limited to maybe three in one day before I'd be worn out. They have showers and places to eat right at the Drop Zone, so I'd spend a week without ever needing to leave. It was glorious, and just thinking about those days brings back such memories.

One day right at sunset, I was packing up my tent at the end of the day, feeling a little sad about the boogie being over, having made thirty or so skydives and now it was time to leave, when I heard a low rumble in the sky. Oh! It was the flyover! Far off in the distance low on the horizon, I could see them coming: five aircraft, with the largest (a DC-3) in the lead, Twin Otters and Skyvans in formation beside it. And they flew right over my head at a VERY low altitude, the Drop Zone's way of saying thank you for a wonderful boogie. With the sunset in the background, and the planes overhead, I could not have been happier. That memory flooded back when I folded up my little tent last week, reminding me of days gone by.

Today I will join my friend Judy for a bus trip to Seattle to see Wicked, a Broadway play that is making the rounds in some of the larger cities this summer. Today is the last matinee performance before they pack it all up and head elsewhere. I'm looking forward to it very much. It's not like my life has become any less full because I've left skydiving behind, but it's different now. Everything has a time and place, and I'm rather proud that I was able to make the decision to stop on my own without it having been made for me, through injury or worse. I'll always have those 4,239 skydives in my logbooks to peruse if I need to be reminded how lucky I am. And I've still got my tent for new adventures.

Now I'll get up and start my day before driving over to Judy's to enjoy her company for the day, and a marvelous play as well! I'll let you know what I thought of it, next Sunday when we meet again. Until then, I wish you every good thing and loads of your own adventures. Sometimes I need to be reminded of how really fortunate I am, and when I think of you, my dear friends who are reading this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Be well until next week.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My sister Norma Jean

Norma Jean Stewart
I recently sent my sister Norma Jean a birthday card to celebrate her upcoming seventieth birthday. Before I write here again, she will join me, her older sister, in the dubious honor of marking the beginning of her eighth decade of life. I had found the most perfect card for her, which said that there are worse things than having a birthday: your mom could still be cutting your bangs! I looked for this picture but couldn't find it, so I sent one with my own bangs cut similarly by our mom. When she received the card, she sent this picture to me, saying "is this the one you were looking for?"

Norma Jean has always been blond. I love the way her braids and bangs are multicolored from the sun. She is wearing a coat and hat that Mama had made, one for each of us, out of burgundy corduroy fabric. I can still see those coats clearly in my mind's eye. Back in the days when we were small, we were often dressed alike, and it has always made me curious about whether it was just the times we lived in or whether Mama actually enjoyed dressing up her little girls.
Norma Jean and me
I know we were always together, even though two-and-a-half years separated us in age. And we have always been very different people. Recently I read an article disputing the adage that birth order affects siblings in a predictable fashion. (I just tried to find it but was unsuccessful.) I've often wondered if being the older sister made me naturally protective, or whether it is the reason I seem to be naturally bossy. I know that I have always been a risk-taker, and Norma Jean is naturally risk averse. That comes from our very different personalities, I think, nothing to do with birth order.

Nobody, least of all me, could have predicted our lives as they unfolded. Norma Jean met and married her husband, had two children, a boy and a girl, and stayed married until Pete died in February 2011. I also married and had two children, two boys, but both of them have died and I had three turbulent and rather disastrous marriages, before marrying again successfully at the age of fifty. Norma Jean has two grandchildren and I have none, but I enjoy hearing about their exploits from her, and I love to be around small children when I can give them back after awhile. My coffee shop buddies includes little Leo, who is now six, and I see him several times a week. He's not a morning person, though, and sometimes these days he doesn't want to talk or visit with me, but other times he's very gregarious. When he was younger, we played together daily.

I have other siblings, but because we were so close, I consider Norma Jean to be the sister of my heart. When her husband Pete died, I flew to Florida and spent three weeks with her, and at that time I realized that if life had turned out differently, we could have been the kind of sisters that end up together after our children and husbands were gone. Instead, I have a wonderful relationship with Smart Guy, my partner and life companion for the past quarter century. I visit my sister and we use video chat for a few hours every month to keep in touch. Her son Peter lives with her now, and just in the past few weeks her daughter Allison has moved nearby. This means that Norma Jean will see her grandchildren often. I'm sure that when I visit I will also get to spend time with them. Her life is full and she no longer needs any sort of protection from her big sister.

It's interesting to see how the tables have turned: I now get very anxious when for some reason we don't get to have our usual two-hour video chat. That family connection I derive from her is very important to me, and it's a rare day that I don't spend some time thinking about her, whether it's a memory from the past, or wondering how she's doing with various projects she's got going. Our connection fills a very definite need in my life. I'm so glad to have my beautiful sister in my life, and now that she is also turning seventy, we have seven decades of shared memories together. She has never known a world without her big sister, and I don't remember my world without her in it.

We now have the opportunity, I sincerely hope, to be old women growing older and sharing the trials and tribulations of aging with one another. She is as active as I am, swimming a mile five days a week, vigorous walking if she doesn't swim. She also takes one day off from exercise, as I do, unless of course she ends up playing golf with some of her friends in the 55-and-older community where she lives.

She is an avid reader, taking after our mother in that respect. Mama would go to the library and check out a box of books (a BIG box) and read every single one. Norma Jean reserves books online from the library that she wants to read or she downloads them to her Kindle. One of the things we both do is watch for books that we think the other would enjoy. She reads mysteries, which I don't, and I read science fiction, which she doesn't. But there have been many books over the past few years that we have both enjoyed very much. Right now I seem to be into memoirs, a genre we both enjoy. Finding a book to recommend to her is a pleasure. I wanted to give her one for her birthday that I particularly liked, but she told me to keep it, since she doesn't like to have actual books cluttering up her home; these days everything is either electronic or borrowed and returned to the library.

I realized just now that I am pretty much the same these days. I ordered and downloaded a book to my Kindle and have five books checked out from the library sitting next to my favorite chair. The only reason I have so many right now is that I put a hold on them and for some reason many of them will arrive at the library at the same time. Even my favorite independent bookstore, which I make an effort to support, now offers books electronically. They are a little more expensive than getting them from Amazon, but it's worth spending a little more to keep that store around. I had to download their electronic reader but it works quite well on my Kindle or iPad. How times have changed!

I marvel at how different the world will be for today's young ones who have never known a world without electronic gadgets. I do hope that actual books and libraries will survive this period, because there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hands, turning pages and getting lost in another place. But our world will continue to evolve and change. I just hope that I get to share it with my sister Norma Jean for a long time to come. Happy birthday!

And for the rest of you, my dear readers, I wish you a very full and happy week until we meet here again next week.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Learning to deal with loss

A type of spiraea flower, taken last Thursday
Although right now our forests are abnormally dry, there are still many beautiful flowers for us to enjoy, like these spiraea blossoms on the Yellow Aster Butte trail. If I hadn't seen this same trail many times before, I don't think I would recognize the extreme dryness that shows in the flowers or the trees in the distance. This is the third day since our heat wave broke, and the temperatures here in the lowlands have stayed in the normal category, in the low 70s. It's such a relief. But it's not even the middle of July, which begins our hottest time of the year. I feel such a sense of sadness that so many different places are feeling the effects of extreme weather. We have just been officially declared to be in a severe drought. I wonder how wildlife manages to cope with it. They must travel long distances just to find water sources.

There are several reasons that I decided to start with this topic: loss. The first is that yesterday I got on Facebook and learned that my nephew Joseph (he's the son of my late sister PJ) went to his father's home because his dad wasn't answering the phone and he got worried. He found his father lying on the kitchen floor, dead. Ken and my sister PJ had been divorced for a very long time, but I saw him last at PJ's memorial service last year. He looked the same, only much older.

For Joey (as he will always be known to me), he has now lost both his mother and his father before he turns fifty himself. I'm glad he is surrounded by family and friends who care for him,  because he will get over this with their help, and time. It's pretty shocking to discover someone you love who has died unexpectedly, I'm sure. It's never happened to me and I hope it never does. But I sure know how to deal with loss, which comes in many shapes and sizes during our mortal lives. Just getting older means having to deal with the loss of our youth, our mental and physical faculties, and as we age we deal with the loss of our parents and other older relatives. That's just in a normal life, but sometimes we must find ways to recover from other, more unexpected loss.

Last week I wrote about the importance of our social circles, the people we love and who love us. The downside to that is caring about the welfare of so many people, because they will continue to grow old, sicken and die, just like we will. I suppose that one reason why some of us decide to limit our interaction with other people is to minimize our losses. Then as we try to insulate ourselves from loss, we close ourselves up and make our lives miserable. I've seen that happen more than once. No, it's better to just take the pain and suffering, which is part of living anyway. I wonder if that is where hypochondria has its roots: hoping to be vigilant enough to catch something going awry in our body before it goes too far. Or maybe it's simply a way to occupy one's mind.

Dealing with loss is never something one gets good at, even though we have so many chances to practice. I am learning to find other things to do on the weekends, when it occurs to me that I would normally have been driving down to the Drop Zone. I realize that it was definitely the right time by the contentment I feel with my daily life, in spite of having quit that activity. I'm learning to take care of myself in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, back when I was a youngster of 65. There are times when I catch my reflection in a glass and don't immediately know who that person is. Time goes by, and those little imperceptible changes accumulate in a single instant of recognition.

There are even harder losses to deal with than those that come with the passage of time: loss of reputation, for instance. When someone does something despicable and thinks he got away with it and then is discovered (I'm thinking of Bill Cosby here), he must deal with the aftermath for the rest of his life. I am amazed at how some powerful people believe that they are above it all and can do what they want to others. Well, his legacy is gone forever. How very sad, all of it. Every one of us must find ways to deal with the loss of loved ones, but not many of us will walk in his shoes, thank heavens.

I saw a movie yesterday that got me started on this track, I guess: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It's a movie about a high school senior (Greg), his best friend Earl, and Rachel, a girl who develops leukemia and how Greg's mother forces him to become friends with Rachel during her chemotherapy treatments. It's an excellent movie, and there are plenty of laughs and poignant moments to appreciate. I walked out of the theater with tears in my eyes but so very glad to have seen it. I may watch it again. It's based on a book, so my next step will be to read it; I've put a hold on it at the library, but I'm #15 in line so it will be awhile. Often I do this: put a book on hold and then when enough time passes, I cannot remember how I heard of it. It's kind of a nice way to be surprised when I get a notice from the library that I've got a book waiting for me. And I usually enjoy them and even if I don't, I can just return them to the library unread. I do that, too.

For whatever reason, I'm filled this morning with rather strong emotions, feelings of loss and the passage of time, of those I have loved who are gone. I realize that their memory still lives within me, and thinking of someone I haven't laid eyes on for decades does not diminish their importance to me. In some ways, they are even more present. Sitting with an old picture and remembering when Mama and Daddy were young and vibrant, when I was a child, can feel joyful, if I let it and don't try to hang on to what was.

Mercy! Another post got written while I wasn't looking. Another Sunday has begun, and I have fulfilled the first task of the day. All is quiet outside; for some reason I don't hear any birds singing (oh, there they are), and I notice that we once again have overcast skies instead of unrelenting sunshine. It's not quite 7:00am in the morning, and this habit I have of sitting in bed while my partner sleeps next to me is so familiar and reassuring. I am remembering to notice all this, because there will be a day, hopefully far in the future, when this will be a memory, too. Until next Sunday, I wish you all happiness and that you, too, will be smiling many times between now and then.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Holiday weekend and friendships

Me, Carol and Linda cooling our feet
Some Sunday mornings I wake with a good idea of what I want to write about, but not this one. I slept fairly well, after listening to the booms and whistling of firecrackers for what seemed like several hours. It started around 9:30 and went on until around midnight. Somewhere in there I fell asleep and only woke a few times afterwards when a stray boom jolted me awake. It's all quiet now, and the sun is just over the horizon on this soon-to-be sultry Sunday.

My habit in the morning is to get up and make myself a cup of tea and bring my laptop back to bed in order to read the news of the day. I think this is the first time in many years that I have woken the morning after the Fourth and not seen several pictures of exploding fireworks. Not on the Bellingham Herald site, the Washington Post, or even Yahoo News. It must be because it fell on a Saturday and Sunday's papers usually have a broader perspective. I'm not sure why, but I noticed the difference. I was going to snag a picture of fireworks for my picture, but instead I used this picture of the three waders from last Thursday's hike. It makes me thankful for my friendships.

Friendships. I have to say that as I have grown accustomed to becoming a retired skydiver, I still gaze at the pictures of my friends in freefall and enjoy the excitement of the sport on my Facebook page. Probably a hundred of my Facebook friends are skydivers from around the world, and I notice that I'm glad for the opportunity to stay connected to my old buddies and see what they're up to. But I also notice that I don't seem to have any need to join them; my appreciation for their happiness is not diminished by my decision to retire. I'm getting used to this idea of letting go of activities that filled me with such delight not so long ago. The activity is not less enjoyable, but the need to participate as I once did is fading away.

I realize how fortunate I am to have established the circle of friends that sustain me. My friend Judy, whom I met at the Y, is my go-to-the-movies pal, and she and I will travel together later this month to Seattle to see Wicked, which is coming there for the month of July. I've gone to numerous movies with her and we've dined at our favorite places for the past seven years, and now she feels like family.

The friendships I've formed from my Thursday hikes are also around seven years old now. I started hiking with them in 2008, after moving here when I retired from work, and I would never have guessed that my days would be so enriched by this activity. We meet every Thursday; nobody has to say ahead of time whether or not they're going, so the people who show up vary from occasional hikers to regulars. I'm one of the regulars, but I also made a decision after last week to skip those difficult hikes when we have such hot weather. I just don't have nearly as much fun when it's so hot and I feel my strength draining away as I struggle to keep up. I'm happier in cool or cold weather, which is one of the reasons I moved to this part of the country.

Two of the long-time hikers in the group encouraged me to join their walking group on Saturday mornings. It took me awhile before I did join them, but I finally started walking with them at Lake Padden on New Year's Day 2010. One of the nice things about having a blog, I can look up the date since I wrote a post about it. I never expected it to become a regular thing, since I spent summer weekends at Skydive Snohomish and didn't want to give that up. But that was then. Now I look forward to it; it's how I start almost every weekend these days.

Yesterday the walking group gathered at our leader's home (Cindy's) for our annual Fourth of July potluck. There were fifteen of us, all women I've grown to cherish as friends. As in my hiking group, you just show up and the number varies as do the people. Men are also welcome, but they don't seem to come more than once or twice and then we don't see them again. We laughed about it yesterday and figured they might feel intimidated by all of us. We also discussed books we've enjoyed, and Cindy talked about how next year will be her tenth anniversary of having started this group. She'd like to do something special, so we'll try to think of some ideas. They also feel like old friends after five years of walking together. After the walk we usually go out for coffee and chat. It's a really good group.

I'll bet you know about the other group that gives me such pleasure, don't you? You should, since you're part of it. There are probably two dozen or so fellow bloggers whom I have come to care about (and worry about), and we write posts and comment back and forth to each other. I thought briefly about listing some of my blogging family, but then I realized I might forget somebody who is crucial and then I'd feel bad about it, so I'll just say how much I appreciate my online pals. Who would ever have guessed a few years ago how the blogosphere would become such a significant social outlet? Not me, that's for sure, but I am eternally grateful that it has. And this October, I'll join five other bloggers for our third annual gathering on Vashon Island, staying at the wonderful Lavender Hill Farm.

I read often about the importance of staying connected to social groups in order to improve one's mental health. My family is scattered around the country, but I keep in touch with them through Facebook, and my sister Norma Jean and I video chat a couple of times a month. Norma Jean is the sister I'm closest to, but I love and appreciate my other siblings, as well as their extended family, which is pretty large. And then there's the guy who is lying next to me, the one who shares my daily life and makes sure I have good food to eat (he's the cook in the family). Now who could ask for more than that? As I recount all the friends and family I have in my life, I realize why I'm not feeling more of a lack as I move away from skydiving. There's a hole, for sure, but it won't be there for long.

Until we meet again next week, stay safe and, if you feel like it, you might take stock of all those people who sustain you, too. Somehow since I've written all this down, I am feeling very wealthy, very blessed, and ready to start my day surrounded by love.