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, August 27, 2017

Time for a change

Cindy's picture of me last Thursday
My friend Cindy took this picture of me last Thursday, while we were hiking on Hannegan Pass. She didn't send me the picture but posted it on Facebook, where several of my dear friends commented on it, and how beautiful it all looks. Uh-huh. That's not how I felt when I saw it. Can you guess why?

That roll around my middle is NOT the look I was hoping for. But it has finally made me face the truth: I need to lose some weight. As hard as I have tried to deny it, I am getting fat, once again. Yes, I weigh myself every morning, hoping as I step gingerly on the scales that they will not tell me what I already know. A careful step while holding onto the wall before allowing all my weight to be measured, not being happy at the number but rationalizing to myself that it's not so bad. This picture finally has given me the incentive I've needed to fix it.

In January 2011, at my annual wellness exam, I realized that I had gained more than ten pounds over the years, and they were all right there, around my midsection. One thing about exercising a lot is that my arms and legs don't tend to accumulate the excess fat; it all goes to my middle. I'm what is called an "apple" shape: excess poundage makes me round, and my rear end and hips don't grow much, if at all. Apples tend to be more prone to diabetes and heart disease, which makes sense considering my family history. Yes, in my family we are all apples. I come by it naturally.

I lost almost fifteen pounds over the period of a year back then, more than five years ago now, and gradually it has begun to accumulate. A real positive side effect of keeping a blog is the ability to go back and remember when things happened, decisions were made and followed through with, and I remembered something while looking back: I used an app on my phone to help me count calories at the beginning, and then I picked up a book recommended to me by a fellow blogger: Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. I have it on my Kindle and I read it avidly and became a believer that wheat is one of the insidious foods that help to make us gain weight. I changed my diet to remove wheat (not an easy task!) and found that I was able to keep the weight off, and even lost another few pounds without trying.

But that was then, and now I realize how often I consume wheat. What started as an occasional treat has now changed into a daily habit, and I find that I want more of it. Maybe it's true that certain foods make it harder to lose weight, but more than anything I know that the amount I take into my body and the calories I expend are no longer in balance. Something has to change, or that roll around my middle will only expand, and I'll be forced to come to grips with it at some point. Why not now, this minute?

Sometimes change comes gradually, and other times all at once. When I decided to lose the excess weight six years ago, I did it without much difficulty. In fact, I find that when I get into the mode of wanting to see the numbers on the scale recede, I can become unwilling to eat anything extra, the opposite of where I am today, wanting to eat everything in sight! I struggle these days to stay away from ice cream, especially in the summertime, because I love it so much. Just one little ice cream cone won't hurt me. And of course it doesn't: it's the accumulation of an entire summer of just one more.

I cannot imagine how it must feel to have to lose enormous amounts of weight, like fifty or a hundred pounds. It must seem like a huge mountain to climb, impossible to achieve. Yet people do it all the time, although few of them keep the weight off. They must get into that same mindset I sometimes can find of not wanting to get derailed, so they eat less and less. I do have one blogger I follow who has managed to lose a great deal of weight but struggles over the long haul not to fall back into her old habits when under stress. She has always been one of those people who yo-yo's up and down the scale, and as I read her posts I can recognize myself in her words. However, I also am so uncomfortable when I've gained ten pounds that I usually get to where I am today, looking for ways to push myself into action.

After having said all this, I realize how fortunate I am that this is what is on my mind today, rather than some awful calamity like my house being washed away by a hurricane, or having been diagnosed with a terrible illness, like my friend in Portland. She has recovered from her ordeal of the operation and is now beginning chemotherapy. I am worried for her. She recently put a picture of herself on her blog after having gotten a port implanted in her chest to receive the chemo. She wrote about having to become a professional patient, something she never wanted to happen to her.

She is struggling now to keep weight on, after that awful surgery and being unable to eat more than a few bites, even of foods she loves. She had written about looking forward to eat all the ice cream she wanted, but now she doesn't want it and wishes she did. So I am feeling just a little ashamed of myself for being so obsessed about losing a little weight. It could happen to me tomorrow, and I'd be looking back on the times when I was able to hike ten miles and shaking my head for having gotten stressed out over a few excess pounds.

As far as I know, I am in good health, and at the last doctor visit I had only gained a small amount of weight, nothing to be concerned about, according to my doctor. Of course, before I went there I had donned the lightest clothing I own (since I knew I was going to face the scales) and had removed my shoes, phone, wallet and loose change from my pockets before stepping up to see the dreaded number. That was six months ago. This summer, however, I seem to have picked up some bad eating habits and had not really noticed the change until I couldn't find any way to rationalize the morning visit to the scale into something positive. I still weigh myself daily, because it's become part of my routine, and you know how I am about routine.

One thing I have learned over the years, that making resolutions about dieting is not the answer. They come and go, and it's impossible to maintain a diet for the long haul. For me, the trick is simply stopping any and all between-meal snacking and thinking about what I put into my mouth, rather than eating mindlessly. That's an easy thing to do when I'm binge-watching a new exciting show, or when I'm choosing to forget that I got full quite awhile ago and am still eating.

Another thing that helps me is writing it all down, like I'm doing this morning. I'll be forced to confront myself with whether or not I make any progress or just forget about it. It sure would be nice to be going down the scale rather than up, that's for sure. You, my dear friends, will notice, won't you? And you don't even see my physical self, just the parts I choose to reveal. It took a little courage to put that picture on the front of the post, because I really don't like it at all. Maybe someday I'll be able to look at the picture and take in all the REST of it, like where I am fortunate enough to be standing.

And it has finally come to this: the end of the post, with my tea gone, partner still fast asleep next to me, and the day ahead stretching out with infinite possibilities. It's another beautiful summer day, and I can spend it however I wish, now that I have fulfilled my one daily obligation of writing this post. I think I'm feeling better, now that I've come clean about what's on my mind. And we'll see if I actually am at the beginning of a change, or whether it will simply evaporate as time goes by. We'll see.

Until we meet again next week, I do hope that you will be well and that you and your loved ones, near and far, are safe and sound. And don't forget to acknowledge all that you have in your life that is good. You are part of what's good for me. I send my love and wishes for all good things to come to you.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Remembering and forgetting

Field of lupines on our Thursday hike
On the Thursday hike, I saw fields and fields of fragrant lupines as we followed the eight-mile-long loop, and we enjoyed them, along with many other flowers, but these were the ones I enjoyed the most. Last year, they were sparse and didn't do very well, although I did see them now and then. No fields of them like this, though. It's interesting how different these hikes can be from year to year.

I was thinking about what's on my mind right now as I fell asleep last night, knowing that my first task on Sunday would be to write this blog post. Trying to figure out what has been happening in our country right now, and listening to people talk about the events around the world but especially in our home town, I am amazed at how fungible the truth seems to be. The same event experienced through different hearts and minds bears no relation to how I experience it. It makes me wonder if there is any absolute truth, or is it always this way?

When I tell a story about my childhood, I realize that it's gone through so many iterations that it probably bears little resemblance to how it actually was. That's because now the only part of my childhood that still exists resides in my memory banks, or in old pictures that solidified a moment in time, and I remember little about that period that is actually correct. I move in my life from one day to the next, and nothing seems different, but if I look at a picture of myself from a decade ago, I know that much has changed, incrementally I moved from one decade to the next. Getting up and starting my day today seems little changed from yesterday. But the changes are there.

What started me thinking about all this was wanting to relate a story about something that happened in my past, and I realized that I didn't actually know whether the facts I remember are at all what occurred. Then I thought I could embellish it a little, making it more interesting (I think all writers do that), and finally I gave up the effort. The only person still alive who remembers my childhood is my sister Norma Jean. When we reminisce about things that happened, certain events in our recollection are completely different from each other. I mean, completely: what is real?

And actually, now that we are both elderly, does it even matter? If I were to write my memoirs today, how much of it would be based in actuality? I can no longer tell the truth of my early years, because they are changed by my brain's incremental alteration from what was to what I remember about what was. And my brain is no longer the young supple multitasking machine I had several decades ago. Now, I struggle sometimes to recall a simple word, and when I think of the past, I'm suspicious that I've simply forgotten most of the essential moments in any particular event.

But there are moments in the past that are burned into my brain, and they don't seem to change from one recall to the next. But how can I know that for sure? When I was around three, I remember getting separated from my parents on a beach in Puerto Rico (I know how old I was because we were there at that time) and realizing that I was alone. A very large (to me) crab scuttled sideways in front of me, clacking its claws, and I was so frightened that the moment is one I have never forgotten. I can recall that moment clearly. At least I think so. I know that the crab was probably not as large as it seemed to that small little lost girl, but here I am seven decades later with a complete memory of that moment in time.

I found an interesting article while thinking about this, from the BBC, written by Lesley Evans Ogden in 2015, about how extreme fear shapes what we remember. That little girl's amygdala was activated, probably for the first time in her young life, and created a vivid memory.
When a memory is particularly striking and unexpected, it activates this emotional memory system. That may be partly why there are a plethora of anecdotes about how sensory cues, out of context, can take you right back to emotional memories – perhaps you associate the scent of a certain perfume or cologne with your first kiss because the memory is higher fidelity.
Fascinating, isn't it? I also have memories from things that have happened more recently that I can recall that vividly. But that was the first, and it occupies a very important place in my mind. I can remember nothing more about the event, although I'm sure Mama or Daddy came to find me and comforted me so that it seemed in the moment as though nothing of that moment would survive, but here I am today, in 2017, remembering again that feeling, that vision of the enormous crab, and a frisson of fear moves through me today.

There are moments that I have tried hard to forget, ones that only bring me emotional pain when I recall them. I'm pretty sure that they are not activated by the amygdala but some other part of our ability to recall. Just now I started to write about one of them, when I last saw my son fifteen years ago, but I am overwhelmed by the emotions that came up as I tried to frame them into words. So I'm not going there this morning. Instead I am going to form some new memories at the coffee shop, probably nothing that will stand out in my memories even later today.

When I started this post, I wanted to contemplate what causes us to alter our recollections of past events, and I haven't even gotten around to that part, and it's already been more than an hour that I've struggled with how to begin. But what's become obvious to me in the struggle, I am not going to be successful today in writing about anything more profound than remembering and forgetting.

My partner is stirring a little, making me realize I've been here longer than normal. My tea is gone, and memories are roiling around in my head, and if I were to see a cartoon of myself right now, there would be a cloud around my noggin with all sorts of images all vying for attention. I am now taking each one of those images and gently erasing them, one by one, and replacing them with images of flowers and smiles and... maybe even a latte.

I hope that your week ahead will not have any amygdala-inspired memories, unless they are positive ones. And I also hope that you will take a moment out of your day to give thanks for the love and smiles that you alone can share with another. Our lives are blessed by our ability to interact with one another. I am blessed by your presence in my life, so thank you.
We accept the love we think we deserve. --Stephen Chbosky

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mid-August musings

Tomatoes at the market
My first garden tomatoes are beginning to ripen. Although the Sun Golds (little cherry tomatoes) ripen quickly, I am unwilling to let them stay long enough on the vine to get really sweet. They seem to pop off and into my mouth on their own while I'm out there watering or weeding. I am watching my own larger tomatoes beginning to turn, but the ones in the picture above must have come from a greenhouse, since they're already ripe. Beautiful, aren't they? I can't bring myself to buy any since it looks like I'll have a bumper crop one of these days.

Our weather has changed from hot with smoky skies from the fires north of us to cool, breezy and mild. For the next week, the temperature should not reach above the low 70s F (around 20C) and I'm thrilled. Instead of a strange alien yellow sky without clouds, pretty fluffy clouds grace our blue skies once again.

The change started on Thursday with our Senior Trailblazers hike. Because the air quality was so poor in many spots, we decided to head over to the coast where the onshore flow cleared the air much better than would have been the case going up into the mountains. It was almost cold by the time we arrived to start our leisurely hike up Goose Rock. Instead of sweltering in the heat, we were able to enjoy a lovely walk without bugs. Since our leader Al was unable to attend, I volunteered to lead the group.

The week before had been such an unpleasant hike, with biting black flies and oppressive heat as we climbed up Skyline Divide, I worried about how I would handle the scheduled Church Mountain, a challenging hike at any time of year. I laid in bed for two nights stressing over it, wondering why in the world I had agreed to be in charge. As it turned out, we couldn't go there anyway, because we didn't have enough people show up who have cars that could make the drive up the forest road. So we had to find an alternative, and Goose Rock is a favorite wintertime hike. It turned out to be perfect.

My point is that I spent all that time and energy losing sleep over something that didn't happen. It reminds me of an old quote about how living in the past makes one depressed and living in the future makes one anxious. To be at peace, one needs to live in the present. I felt the wisdom of that saying as I walked along at the front of the group on Thursday, smiling to myself and wondering why in the world I had to imagine the worst-case scenario. It was partly because the week before had been so awful, I guess, and without our leader I always feel a bit unmoored. To put myself in his place is uncomfortable. And he's going to be gone for awhile yet, he told me by email.

Yesterday I didn't walk with the ladies, and although I missed the camaraderie of visiting with them, I was with my friend Lily, who didn't want to go on the scheduled walk, a rather strenuous uphill one. Instead we walked from Bellingham into Fairhaven, stopping for breakfast before returning the way we had come. We were parked right by the Farmers' Market, but we were both full from our breakfast and didn't spend much time there before heading home. Lily lives here in the apartment complex and is starting a new job on Monday, so we wanted to celebrate what we hope will be the beginning of a fresh new start in her life.

I remember what it feels like to start a new job. There's anticipation and a little anxiety, but mostly it's exciting. Sometimes I forget that I'm done with my working life and consider what I might do if I wanted to return to work. And then I realize that nobody would hire me at my age! There would also be no reason for me to do that anyway, since my retirement annuities and Social Security are enough to keep me from having to continue to work. I was very fortunate to have worked in a place that doubled my own contributions to my retirement funds. Plus I was required to contribute at least 5% of my salary, meaning that over thirty years it added up to a tidy sum. Now I receive a monthly stipend, which makes all the difference between having to scrimp and having enough to get by. We are not wealthy, by any means, but I wonder how it will be for many millennials when they reach my age.

Tuesday is the anniversary of Chris' death. It will be fifteen years since he died, but if I allow myself to bring back all the memories, he is still present in my heart and will never leave. I just realized he hasn't visited me through a dream lately, so he must be busy up there in heaven. He almost always appears to me in a dream as a teenager or very young man, but he would almost be a senior citizen himself if he were alive. His widow sends me occasional Facebook posts, and I know she will not forget the date this year, either. It's difficult for me to think of him very often, because although it's been a long time, it can also seem like it happened not so long ago. I guess grief is like that; if I want to remember, all the pain and suffering return as well. I still remember his laugh, and smile when I hear it inside my head.

I've read that suffering is actually beneficial to the spirit. There seems to be plenty of suffering in the world right now, and I have to limit the amount of news I let in or I'll get really depressed. Fortunately for me, I have many distractions that I can indulge in to take me away from the reality of the woes of the world. These days between Netflix and Amazon, I can watch a movie or a series any time I choose. Today Judy and I will go to the movies together, though, to see Al Gore's latest movie about climate change. I'm pretty sure it won't be uplifting, but I feel the need to see it. I'll come home and peruse the books I've got on my shelf to read and will look for one that will make me feel better. I just re-read Mary Roach's book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. I bought the book a few years ago and kept it and was trying to remember something she said, and when I picked it up I couldn't help but read it again. It's that kind of book. If you want a treat, you might want to read one of her books. My favorite of hers is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I know, I know; it doesn't sound very uplifting, but believe me, it will make you think as well as laugh out loud.

Although suffering might be beneficial, it sure doesn't feel very good while one is deep in it. I've had plenty of suffering in my life and don't see any need to dwell on those memories. I keep trying to find ways to enjoy life, and mostly I am successful. One way I truly find joy is through friendships and community. It amazes me how much it matters to me that my family and friends are within reach, even if it's through electronics and not through physical presence. The world is a friendlier place when I concentrate on what really matters to me: my dear partner (still sleeping next to me), my friends and acquaintances, and of course, you. I hope that the coming week will bring you love and joy and a minimum of suffering. However, I'll leave you with this quote:
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”  --Kahlil Gibran

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August wildfires and more

Sunrise from my front porch
For the past several days, this is what the sunrise looks like from my front porch. When I have gone out to do my exercises, it feels like I'm on an alien planet, and the sunsets look just as strange. Orange skies are caused by the wildfires north of us in British Columbia, and they have made a huge impact on our projected heat wave. Yesterday we only reached a high of 68°F (20C) and although there were no clouds in the sky, the sun didn't have any warmth to it. It's really rather scary to think of what must have happened in the world when we had cataclysmic volcanic events that affected the weather for years on end.

I remember in the early 1990s when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. Although I was otherwise occupied at the time (I had just started my skydiving career), I remember learning about the global effects of the volcanic eruption.
This very large stratospheric injection resulted in a reduction in the normal amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface by roughly 10%. This led to a decrease in northern hemisphere average temperatures of 0.5–0.6 °C (0.9–1.1 °F) and a global fall of about 0.4 °C (0.7 °F). ... The stratospheric cloud from the eruption persisted in the atmosphere for three years after the eruption. 
Three years!  I guess I shouldn't be complaining about a week or so of diminished sunlight around here. The wildfires in B.C. are still burning, with more than 1.2 million acres lost already. This has occurred at just the beginning of the wildfire season, and it makes me fearful for the future. We've had a local fire right at one of my favorite wintertime hikes, Lost Lake, and although it's now contained, the area is still closed to recreation. And when I visit it next, it will look very different indeed.

Change. I'm not a fan of change for its own sake, but frankly it's the nature of living, isn't it? Every time I turn around, I'm reminded that one thing or another in my body is deteriorating and needs shoring up. Although my knees seem stable for the moment, it's just a matter of time before I'll be hauling out my knee braces again. My eyesight is deteriorating, too, and I am very happy for being in the care of a retina specialist and a good ophthalmologist, but they cannot do anything much for my eyes except delay the inevitable. I forget how bad my eyesight has become until somebody will point something out in the distance that I cannot make out, and that's with my glasses on. Without my glasses I feel practically blind; I'm so nearsighted that I cannot make out much more than colorful blurs.

I'm beginning to wonder if all those years of skydiving are partly responsible for my deteriorating eyesight. I did go up and down through 13,000-14,000 feet (4 meters) of atmosphere, in freefall for 68 hours in total, and it was after a particularly intense period of ten days and fifty skydives that I first began to notice some visual changes in my eyes. Although the visual disturbance cleared up after a few days, they were never quite the same. I'm now pretty sure that the activity affected my eyes permanently.

And all those injuries I experienced throughout my lifetime are beginning to come home to roost: I have aches and pains in all those places that were broken and healed up. I guess this is to be expected; if you use your body the way I did in previous years, it will continue to remind one that there is always a cost involved, even many years later. Oh, well, I wouldn't change any of it. I had a great time and am glad I was able to skydive for more than two decades, even after starting at almost fifty years of age.

It's all relative, isn't it? I am still active in my mid-seventies, and all the injuries are manageable. Most of the time I feel pretty lucky to be able to carry on the way I am still capable, but I also realize that I should be counting my lucky stars that I'm not in a wheelchair. That might come about one day, and I'll look back on the days when I could hike for ten miles and wonder why I didn't appreciate my mobility more. So here I am, busy appreciating what I have in my life right now. I've got a smile on my face thinking of our five-mile walk yesterday in the cool air, happy to be one of the dozen or so women who meet every Saturday morning for a brisk walk together. And it was cool, as I've mentioned, even if the air quality was not good. At least we were walking early, and it did get a little hazier in the afternoon. Today is supposed to be worse, but I don't mind since I consider Sundays to be my day off from exercise.

The gradual changes that I experience as I grow older sometimes rise up unbidden, wondering when it was that I could no longer run even short distances. I can walk briskly for short distances, but if I try to make my old body pick up the pace to a run, well, it just doesn't happen. It's a little bit like watching an ancient beloved pet forgetting for a moment that he's not a puppy any more and collapsing after a short distance. Yep, I'm past my prime and heading towards more time spent in my easy chair with a good book. It's not a bad thing, it's just that I sometimes forget that I'm not a young sprite any more.

Even though things change constantly, I think I might be able to enjoy a few more years of relative health and wellness. I'm sure doing everything I know to make that happen. And I look forward to seeing what might spring from my fingers on a Sunday morning when I sit down with the laptop and start typing. Everything is just the way I like it: I'm almost done, my partner is still sleeping next to me, the tea was lovely but it's now gone, and I've got a coffee shop with friends waiting for me to arrive about an hour from now. Just right!

I do hope that you might take some time today to look around at your life as it is right this moment and appreciate the good things that you are able to enjoy or look forward to. I've got friends who are recovering from intense surgeries, from all kinds of other difficulties, and they continue to inspire me to keep on keeping' on. I hope your week will be a good one, filled with reflection on the beauty that surrounds us all. And I'll leave you with this quote that speaks directly to me today:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.  --Clarence Darrow