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, January 29, 2017

The nature of goodness

Smiling rainbow
I just finished reading a really good book yesterday, South of Broad by Pat Conroy. That link will take you to Goodreads, and I found out that it was not universally enjoyed. Yes, there are problems with some of it (a very long book, too, 528 pages). But I enjoyed it nevertheless. And it got me to thinking about the nature of goodness.

It turns out that Conroy was a military brat, just like me, and he went to 11 different schools by the time he was 15, as the child of a career Marine Corps fighter pilot. He never had a home town until he moved to Beaufort, South Carolina and then attended The Citadel, the military school of South Carolina. He writes very lyrically about Charleston in this novel, and I as a writer was really struck by the way he describes places, bring them right out of the page and into vivid clarity. I found this in a book review by Chris Bohjalian in the Washington Post:
I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude. My sense is that the millions of readers who cherish Conroy's work won't be at all disappointed -- and nor will anyone who owns stock in Kleenex.
Pretty much sums up the book for me. But what has caused me to ponder the nature of goodness that was triggered by that book, is the whole juxtaposition of events in a life that cause us to be empathetic to the plights of others, or completely unmoved by them. Conroy was fired from his first job as a teacher because he refused to use corporal punishment on his students. I was surprised to find that 19 states still use this method, because I thought it was illegal everywhere. I myself have been on the receiving end of spankings, as most of us of a certain age grew up when it was thought to be the only way to discipline children. As a military brat, I somehow escaped being whacked in school, but I could have been. I spanked my own children because it was what you did in the sixties.

What makes anybody a good person? It's hard for me to conceive that physical punishment makes anybody a better person, but this is not a universal belief. It's hard for me to understand how might makes right, how a beating of any kind can actually cause anything more than shame and resentment. But then again, we all react differently to our life situations, so perhaps I'm wrong about that. I wonder what would modify bad behavior in someone who doesn't feel empathy for others. Perhaps some of my fellow bloggers who are teachers have a better idea and might share their thoughts with me. I hope so.

One thing that stands out for me in the novel is the protagonist, Leo, standing in front of a beautiful old home that he has just inherited from one of his long-time patrons on his paper route. The old man who died had become somewhat of a friend, and when he got sick Leo took care of him. He never told Leo anything about his plan, and he discovered the inheritance after the old man died. Leo ponders the circuitous path that got him to this place, one he could never have predicted.

It also made me wonder about the way the world works. Things that appear to be terrible and unjust can lead to avenues that could never have been predicted, ones that open to pathways that are beautiful and life-affirming. I am thinking right now about the recent presidential election in our country, with an outcome that seems scary and alarming to me, and realizing that I have no way of knowing the trajectory or outcome of this event. Although it looks bad to me as a liberal Democrat, the women's march in my home town a week ago was one of the most beautiful and wonderful experiences of my life. There was only joy and happiness all around me, with only the occasional negative protest sign. Most of them were lighthearted and uplifting, such as "Fight Truth Decay", "There Is No Planet B", "This Is a Sign," "We Shall Overcomb" and such. No angry riots and lots of smiles. I felt so much better just being there.

And who knows what is ahead for us? I realize that thinking the worst about the world and where we are going is counterproductive, hurting nobody but me. And if I will just lift up my eyes and take a look at the longer view, there are possibilities I cannot even imagine that might come out of our current political situation. Optimism is itself a tool that can make me feel better, and pessimism does the exact opposite. I find that eating right, exercising, and hanging out with friends over coffee helps, too. Charlie Chaplin once said, "You'll never find a rainbow by looking down."

"What day is it?"
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.
(thank you, A.A. Milne)

And mine, too. I am feeling the end of this post coming up, and I'm feeling all rainbow-y and optimistic. My partner still sleeps next to me, my tea is gone, and the coffee shop opens in a short while, and I know my pals will be gathering there soon. I am hoping that you will also ponder for a minute the nature of goodness, and how much of it comes naturally to you. Be well until next week, and don't forget to give your friends a smile or two.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

O little town of Bellingham

Women's March 21 January 2017
It was a decade ago when I was getting ready to retire from my job of three decades and move to our retirement home. But where? We (my guy and me) were living in Boulder, Colorado, the town I had chosen as my own after not having one to begin with. I moved there in 1976 from California, and I never looked back. It was a wonderful place to live, work, and play.

But my dear husband had moved from San Francisco in 1992 and missed it terribly, so we decided we would move to the west coast when I retired. He was already retired, taking early Social Security as soon as he was able. We took a month-long long road trip in 2005 to discover the places along the coast that we might be interested in, and able to afford, to move to. San Francisco was out of the question because of our limited retirement income.

We discovered Bellingham just by chance. I was on the internet looking at the Chamber of Commerce websites of possible places to visit, moving up the coast from San Francisco to northern California to Oregon, and finally Washington. Bellingham's beautiful bay caught my attention, and its proximity to both the coast and the mountains reminded me of places in California I loved. When we visited in August 2005, we stayed for a week in a motel and I walked to the YMCA and took an aerobics class. It is the same one, with the same instructor, that I still take three times a week.

When we moved here, we thought if we didn't like it, the town is strategically placed so that we could move elsewhere without too much difficulty. But we love it, this town is just right for both of us. I have a community of friends, many of them started from that same class at the Y, and other exercise activities I enjoy. It's been a place that feels like home.

On November 9 last fall, I was really dismayed to learn that Donald Trump would be our next president, as I had hoped to travel to Washington, D.C. to see the first woman president be sworn in. I wasn't all that political, really, until Trump began to disparage people I care about, such as disabled persons, and when that awful tape was released about him groping women and then those who came forward saying he had been doing it for decades. His embrace of Vladimir Putin seemed really dangerous, too. That's when I began to despair, but it seemed obvious to me that he would not be elected. And then he was.

Well, as Obama said, it's not the end of the world, for heaven's sake. Just honor the traditions of our great nation and work for change. But I hadn't held any political conversations with my friends and didn't know for sure whether the vast majority of them felt as I did. As we all know, the world has become so polarized that one can listen to and watch the news and never hear anything contrary to one's current worldview. I felt sad and hopeless, and my sister in Florida, living in Trumpland, was devastated and withdrew from watching anything other than sitcoms and reading her books.

It was a month or so ago that I heard about the protest march in Washington, D.C., that was being organized, to be held the day after Trump's inauguration, as a way to bring us together. The movement states on its website that the election "proved a catalyst for a grassroots movement of women to assert the positive values that the politics of fear denies." Organizers called for people to join them "as part of an international day of action in solidarity" on President Trump's first full day in the Oval Office.

When I learned about the Women's March in Bellingham, I wasn't surprised to learn that many local women were trying to find a way to express our distress about the platform of the new administration, which plans to take away health care from the least able of us, denies that climate change is real, and will close down Planned Parenthood, for one, that supplies health care to low-income women. So I decided that I would march yesterday, in solidarity with other women I know who felt it important to gather in solidarity. I was disgusted to learn about the violent protests in Washington surrounding the inauguration, and I truly hoped nothing awful would happen in my little town of Bellingham.

I was simply overwhelmed at what happened yesterday. As I joined my group of ladies for our Saturday walk, it turned out that almost every one of them would be marching, too, so we planned to walk the few blocks to City Hall, where it would start. Never in the world did I expect so many supportive people to show up. We were probably close to 10,000 strong, in a little town of 85,000 people. I was surrounded by pink pussy hats, signs of all kinds, everywhere, and a feeling of celebration and joy in our numbers. We saw a drone overhead, and the owner has made a short video to show the numbers. Here it is.
And I learned that the numbers of women who marched around the world numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and I saw pictures on the New York Times that confirms that I am not alone in my desire to keep the new administration from taking away liberties that we cherish and hold so dear. But now it's the day after. What now? Yes, I feel better about learning that many of us feel disenfranchised by the election, but what now? I found this very enlightening article from The Guardian, that asks that very question and provides some answers.

In any event, today I am beginning a new chapter in my own life. I've decided to let despair be replaced by action. I'm surrounded by myriad ways to work in my beloved community in the little town of Bellingham and just have to decide which ones to pursue. Today I'll see the movie "Hidden Figures," which is about three African American women (a true story) who made a difference.

And with that, I'm already late in finishing up this post and heading off to the coffee shop to join my dear friends John and Gene. My partner is still asleep next to me, tea gone, and I'm beginning to feel the desire to get up and start my day driving my fingers to find a quick exit. I do hope you have a wonderful week, and until we meet again next Sunday, be well and don't forget to give thanks today for your own wonderful life.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Coping mechanisms

On top of Herman Saddle, Mt. Baker behind
I've been thinking for a day or two about what to write this morning, my Sunday morning ritual. Last week I wrote about technology and how it has changed our lives, but what has been on my mind most this week is how I get through difficulties. And why would that be on my mind? Chronic pain, both physical and psychological. You don't get to be my age without at least some of it, I don't think.

What brought this to the fore was a fall I took on the ice last Thursday. We knew that the trail where we would be hiking was likely to be covered with snow and ice, since we've had incredibly cold weather (for us) these past few weeks, and trails in town that are well used have turned to sheets of ice, at least in spots. Those of us who had purchased ice cleats strapped them onto our boots, and they worked really well. Unfortunately, I took them off before we ventured onto some "black ice" on the trail that was invisible to my eyes, but not to my equilibrium. I fell backwards and twisted my left knee, so hard that I wasn't sure I would be able to continue. I lay on my back, gritting my teeth, and waited for the first wave of pain to settle down.

I had ACL replacement surgery on that knee in 1994, more than twenty years ago, and it's given me pain now and then ever since. I had lost full flexion, being unable to pull my heel to my rear, even with help, and that's the way it bent. All the way to my butt, as I lay wedged between a rock and a hard place.

But I was out in the wilderness, with no choice except to get back up and try to walk. Fortunately I never hike without Ace bandages and knee braces, and after a few minutes I realized that I was going to be able to continue without having to be hauled out by my friends. My first steps told me that walking was actually the best thing I could be doing, because the tendons around my knee kept wanting to seize up to protect the injury. Eventually they calmed down, and I was walking almost normally within a short time. Not without pain, though.

It could have been worse. One Trailblazer told us of a friend who took a spill like that while skiing, and she hit her head on a rock and lost consciousness. Yes, a blow to the head is never a good thing, but especially when we are older. The woman came to and had no memory of what had happened and suffered memory lapses afterwards. And the older we get, the more we are at risk for falls. Leonard Cohen died recently after a fall, at the age of 82. Jeremy Faust at Slate wrote an article about it, The Major Fall. It's an interesting read.

I had my first yoga class of the winter season on Friday, and I was not sure whether I would be able to do the class, so I told the instructor about the knee injury and that if it hurt too much, I would simply stop, or modify the pose. The interesting thing was finding out what did and didn't hurt as I made my way through the class. One of the things we do while lying flat is to take a strap and pull the leg up and straighten it as much as possible. Wow, did that hurt, mostly on the back of the knee. I kept trying, though, and I was able to get it almost straight.

I noticed that after I did that, the pain in my knee was much less. I was able to do the rest of the postures without too much difficulty, and modified what I needed to. By the time I left the class, my knee was much better. Now I am convinced that the yoga poses are what have made my knees stronger and more pain free. If I had babied the knee, would it have been healing as quickly? Then yesterday morning I went walking with the ladies, my normal Saturday activity, and the knee was so much better I was amazed and very pleased.

I am never really pain free. It's a part of aging, whether I remain active or not. I want to maintain my ability to hike and walk and play outdoors for as long as I can, because I know the direction that we humans take as we age. I read a great article recently, by Erica Manfred on Senior Planet, called "I'm Not Aging "Well," I'm Getting Old, Dammit." She and I are the same age, and I know exactly what she means when she says,
People used to think of growing old as part of the natural progression of life from birth to death. Not anymore. Now we go directly from middle age to you’re-just-as-old-as-you-feel.
 “Old age” has been dropped from our vocabulary. “You’re not old!” people say when I describe myself that way. I’m 74 with an assortment of age-related ailments and a generous complement of sags and wrinkles. If I’m not old, who is?
Exactly. The fact that I can still accomplish all that I do is for at least two reasons: I keep at it and modify what I can do each and every day. I also pay attention to my body and don't dose myself with drugs to dull the pain. I find that if I take even ibuprofen when I'm hurting I tend to push harder than if I allow myself to feel the condition of my joints and muscles. My sister has arthritic ankles and had to give up running more than two decades ago, but she took up swimming instead and now swims a mile every day, then takes a three-mile walk for weight bearing exercise. She also golfs and at 71 is going strong, even if she's had to modify her activity.

This past year I also discovered another coping mechanism, just by chance. My friend John had both knees replaced and suffers from chronic pain. He started using marijuana tincture (legal in our state) to help with it, and I went down to the MJ store and talked with the budtender (isn't that a cool title?) about how to cope with insomnia and pain without getting high. He introduced me to a tincture that works very well, called "Crash" that is designed to help people sleep. I took a half dose to start, and when that didn't seem to affect me, I took a full 10-mg dose, and I slept like a baby. And I found another side effect: every single ache and pain in my body just went away! Some I didn't even realize I had, because I was so accustomed to them, like the pain in my hip where I broke it years ago. Gone. When I woke in the morning, they were all back again, but somehow they didn't bother me as much, since I knew I had a way to make them recede.

But, for the same reason that I don't take ibuprofen on a regular basis, I also don't take the tincture every night. Maybe once a week I'll treat myself to a pain-free sleep. And there doesn't seem to be the same effect when you ingest it as when you smoke it; at least I didn't notice any "high" feeling from the small amount I took. When marijuana became legal in Colorado, Maureen Dowd, a columnist with the New York Times, ate an entire candy bar (16 doses!) and freaked out and wrote about her experience here. She was warned that she should take a small amount and wait at least an hour before ingesting any more. She didn't listen, and it made me very convinced that as powerful a drug as this is, you must use it with caution.

Anyway, those are my coping mechanisms: exercise (plenty of it), fresh air and being in the outdoors, yoga, and small doses of drugs. I've modified my activities to fit my own situation. And I should probably add intellectual stimulation. I read a lot and I write blog posts, like this one. I have a full life and a community of friends to help as well. When I finish this post, I'll leap out of bed and start my day, with my usual latte with my friends at the coffee shop. I smile as I think of it.

And you, my dear readers. I'm aware of your presence as I sit here in my bed, keys clicking away as I write, with You Know Who sleeping next to me. I do hope that you will share your own coping mechanisms for difficulties you face with me in your comments. Please have a wonderful, pain-free and peaceful week before we meet again, right here, same time, same place next Sunday.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our technological age

Mt. Baker peeking through 
We've had a week of clear skies and unusually cold temperatures, and it was still beautiful when we went on our Thursday hike last week. I took this picture with my cellphone, of course. I've stopped even bothering with my camera, since my phone does everything I need. I'm not a professional photographer and only need something that will help me chronicle life events and look halfway decent.

It's only been ten years since the iPhone was first released, with a camera that now seems rather dated. The new iPhone 7 is in my near future, but I'm still trying to recover from all the expenses of last month before I tackle a new purchase. It truly is amazing how attached I've become to that phone. It is with me constantly, helping me to count my steps, or get an answer to any question with the entire storehouse of human history at my fingertips. I can even use it to make phone calls occasionally, but these days that seems to be the least important aspect of my smartphone. Let's face it, I'm hooked. And ten years ago I thought it was great just to have a little tiny flip phone!

Technology marches on, and now the whole world has them. I just looked up the statistic of how many people worldwide use smartphones, and the number is now almost 3 billion! When I was young there weren't even that many people. Now we have 7.4 billion people on this tiny planet, and every day brings more and more. Is there a tipping point? Of course there is, but what will be tipped into? I don't even want to think of it.

Yesterday I went to see a documentary at the local movie theater that I enjoyed immensely: The Eagle Huntress, about a young teenager in Outer Mongolia who wanted to take up the activity of her father and grandfather, but women had never done it before. I wrote about it here. The Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia live in yurts during the summer months and move into walled structures during the winter, when it gets down as low as -40°F. I found this pictorial taken from a photographic expedition in 2015, and I am reminded that not every place on this beautiful planet is connected to the wider world. And I'm grateful for that, since the rest of us are so inundated every day with information that it has become rather overwhelming to try to keep up.

We who live in the developed world are so accustomed to the way we live that it's hard to even imagine life without electricity, roads, laptops, and the internet. This very minute, I am writing to a group of people whom I will never meet who have become dear friends, and this is because of the internet. I've been writing blogs since 2009, which doesn't seem that long ago, but how very much of my life has been altered through technology. I have a hard time thinking about what it was like before. My little nieces have never known a life where they didn't have an iPad that connects them to the rest of the world. It's a little bit mind-boggling.

I am a fan of dystopian novels written about a post-apocalyptic world, because they cause me to look around and actually see my world with different eyes. Margaret Atwood is a favorite author of this type of work; I remember reading The Handmaid's Tale back in 1985 and was hooked on her writing then. I think I've read all of her work except for her latest book. She's written several more of these kinds of books, all of them fascinating, some more gripping than others. She is just a few years older than me, and she shows no signs of slowing down.

None of us can see the future, but we certainly know plenty about the present moment, and we can only imagine what our lives will be like a decade from now. When I think back about how much has changed in the last one, it makes me grateful for the world of today. It does feel, though, a bit like standing on a precipice and looking down at vistas shrouded in fog, wondering when the air clears just what I will see. I am filled with gratitude for all my blessings, not the least of which is this laptop that connects me to you. It's been a wonderful journey so far, and I am glad to know that, whatever happens, I am not alone and will not have to face an uncertain future without help. That is true for all of us. Remember this in the days and weeks ahead.

I found this quote from Margaret Atwood:  "Every aspect of human technology has a dark side, including the bow and arrow." So yes, it's possible that when the fog clears, we'll see things that we couldn't even imagine. I am staying positive, because I can choose my response to whatever comes into my world, even if I cannot change much more than that. So, for as long as I have this venue and you, my dear friends, to share it with, how bad can things get? (No, don't answer that; it's just a rhetorical question.)

And now, it's time for me to get out of bed and start my day. I know that the coffee shop has a latte with my name on it, and that my friends are probably already there. I get a massage today and might go see another movie, but then again, maybe not. I'm due for a trip to the library to return some books and pick up some new ones. Please, dear friends, remember that we are gifts to those around us, and stay positive and loving in the face of uncertainty. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A brave new year

Yes, welcome!
I could say so many things about my hopes for this year. Hopes for a better year than the last one, and hopes that everything in my life will improve rather than deteriorate. I'm tempted to just leave my post alone, stop it right here, so that I can turn over and retreat under the covers. But no, it's time to get up and welcome in the new year. Writing this post will be the first thing I do in the new year, other than having ventured out of bed to make a cup of tea, and so it will set the tone for all the rest of it, to my way of thinking.

First of all, I need to say goodbye to those wonderful celebrities who left us last year, starting with the first one in January, David Bowie. He was dying for the whole year of 2015 from liver cancer, but I didn't know that when he made his last album, Blackstar. He had just released this disturbing video that made no sense to me but was very scary (don't watch it unless you know what to expect). I first saw it in January and watched it again last night and realize now he was saying goodbye. He was only 69 but certainly lived a good full life. He left behind a legacy like no other.

And then a few days later, Alan Rickman (Severus Snape to Harry Potter fans) died, also at 69. That began a year where we lost so very many wonderful people. Here's a list if you want to see every celebrity we lost in 2016. Many of them weren't very old, at least from my perspective. I don't think of being in your fifties and sixties as being quite ready to leave. The year ended with the unexpected deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the very next day. I cried over the loss of both and will watch both Postcards from the Edge and Singin' in the Rain again sometime soon and will marvel once more at their talent.

Well! That was last year, and we are now at the beginning of a fresh start. Of course, dying is just the final act of our time on earth and comes to each and every one of us, but we've got some living to do between now and then. "Living the dash," as I like to think of it (the time between our birth and our death), and this new year is a symbolic moment to contemplate what we'd like to see happen in the near future. First of all, I'd like to acknowledge the enormous pile of gifts that I have received: friendships near and far, health, enough monthly income to pay the rent and buy good food, and a partner to share this life with me. If I end this year with those gifts still intact, it will have been a good one.

There has been a definite change in my ability to remember things, and I'm wondering if I would benefit from some sort of program to enhance my memory. Names have sometimes escaped me for awhile, but it's getting more pronounced. I walked yesterday with a dear friend, someone I've known for years, and I can see her face, know where she lives, and as we walked I realized I couldn't recall her name. Oh well, I thought, it will come to me. But it didn't, and last night I woke with her name almost in my mind, but it would flit away just as I got close. As I sit here right now, it's still missing.

Perhaps this is simply another aspect of aging, one that happens to all of us, but who knows? It's disconcerting, to say the least. I'm wondering if the ability to look up anything at the drop of a hat is making it worse, since I don't have to search around in my memory banks when I can just ask Professor Google for the answer. The truth of it is that I am afraid of losing my mental faculties. I have some online women friends who are caregivers for their husbands who have developed dementia, and they are no older than me. It would be impossible for me to develop early-onset dementia, since I'm already too old for that. So, I keep an eye on my day-to-day activities and try to remain positive about the future. What else can I do?

I just received an email from the leader of our annual New Years Day walk that it has been canceled this morning because of the ice and snow we received here last night. I'm relieved, because I wasn't at all looking forward to venturing out and finding out whether it's slippery. I'm such a coward when it comes to driving in bad conditions. When I lived in Colorado, I didn't mind much because I was accustomed to it, but it's been many years since I've had to deal with days and days of icy conditions, and it's only January. We've got the entire winter to navigate, and I intend to ride the bus whenever I can instead of driving. Today there are no buses, but my friend John, who has an enormous truck (and heart), has offered to pick me up to take me to the coffee shop this morning, and I'll certainly take him up on that. He's a good friend.

Do you make resolutions for the new year? I have done so many times in the past, but recently I've decided that it makes more sense to have a word or a phrase to take me through the year. The word that comes up first is "Willingness." Being willing to be open to what comes, and dealing with the trials and tribulations of life with humor and good will. Why not? It makes much more sense to be willing than it does to grudgingly face each day's challenges. Yes, that's it: willingness. It even makes me feel happy to think of it as my Word of the Year.

Looking forward, I see many different ways to deal with whatever comes next. And come it will. The one thing I know is that life is not static; it moves with each day, and we can rejoice together or grieve for what we can do nothing about. Let's choose love and light and happiness for as long as we can, and remember that whatever happens, we are not alone. I feel such love in my heart for all of you, my dear readers, as well as love for my gently sleeping partner, for my sisters and brother and their families, and for those dear friends who surround me every day. If I must choose between a frown and a smile, you know which one I'll choose. I read somewhere that smiling, even when you don't feel like it, makes you and everyone around you feel better. Plus it's easy: just tip up the corners of your mouth a tiny bit.

And with that, I'll leave you with a quote from Paramahansa Yogananda: "Let my soul smile through my heart and my heart smile through my eyes, that I may scatter rich smiles in sad hearts." Who could ask for anything better? Love to all of you, and may we share a very happy new year in 2017.