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, May 27, 2018

Memorial Day weekend

Sky, clouds, water, trees
Yesterday I went to Lummi Island with my walking group, and I took this picture of the water through the trees, hoping to show how pretty it all was, but unfortunately the picture doesn't do it justice. I decided to use it anyway, because for me, it evokes the feeling I had while we walked. A brisk breeze and cool temperatures made it fairly easy to cover the seven miles. Most of the time, I love my environment, although there are times when I get tired of the incessant rain. We didn't have a drop yesterday.

Memorial Day weekend in Belllingham is filled with an unusual amount of traffic. The Ski to Sea race is today, with many hundreds of competitors in town. This relay race has seven legs and starts up at the Mt. Baker ski area and ends in Fairhaven. There are eight people on each team, starting with cross-country skiing, then downhill skiing, running, road biking, canoeing (two people on this leg), mountain biking, and then a final leg in a kayak. A timing chip is passed from one participant to the next, and it gets very competitive. There are people who do the race for fun, but many come from afar to try to win or place.

For a couple of years, I've gone down to Fairhaven to watch the kayakers come into the bay and climb out of their kayak, run up the hill from the beach to ring the bell and finish the race. It's fun to watch for awhile, but there are so many people everywhere, a bit overwhelming unless you wish to be jostled shoulder to shoulder in a raucous throng. Being short, I feel lost in the crowd and can see so little except the heads and shoulders of those around me. So I'll skip going out today. Instead, I'm planning to make a nice stew with my new Crock Pot.

One of my blogging friends sent me a couple of books to read, and I just finished one, which is the reason I bought that Crock Pot. The book, Walking with Peety, is "an inspirational and informative story about recovery, redemption, hope and achieving dreams, made possible by a doctor who listened and cared, the unconditional love between a man who thought life was over and a shelter dog who wouldn't let him quit" (from the link). Eric was way overweight and miserable and finally found a doctor who was able to help him. One of the first things she suggested is that he adopt a shelter dog to get him moving.

He had never had a pet in his life and didn't know the first thing about how to care for a dog. He also changed his diet completely, becoming a vegan following a whole food plant-based diet. Although I know a lot about food (and diets), I was moved to learn more about the difference between it and a regular vegetarian diet. Yesterday I watched Forks Over Knives, a documentary on Netflix, which was what made me decide to buy that Crock Pot and find out how I might be able to make some interesting dishes that require little work. Today it will be a vegetable stew; I'll head from the coffee shop to the co-op and get the ingredients. Looks easy enough; I've never used a slow cooker before.

On Memorial Day, lots of people visit cemeteries and remember their loved ones. I've got so many to remember, and no graves of my family anywhere, that this post will have to be my way of bringing to mind that which is never far from my consciousness: my son Chris who was serving in the Army when he died of a heart attack at the age of 40, my father who died at the early age of 62 of a heart attack, and my sister PJ who (you guessed it) died at 63 from heart disease. I take a statin to keep my cholesterol in check, but now I'm wondering if I followed this diet if I'd be able to stop taking it. Not likely, but it's worth checking out.

Right now I am re-reading a wonderful book by Paul Kalanithi, a neurologist who died at the age of 38 from lung cancer. When he realized how sick he was and that he would probably not survive for long, he and his wife decided to use IVF to have a child. He was able to be present for his daughter's birth, and he was given so much pleasure from watching her develop. He wrote the book, When Breath Becomes Air, in part as a legacy so that she might hopefully remember something of him. This beautiful book has a piece that I cannot forget and will share this long-ish quote from it with you:
Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave [Cady] a series of letters–but what would they say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is fifteen; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past. 
That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
Each time I read this, like right now, I tear up. I can't help it, it's so beautiful and says so much about how I feel about loved ones and life and love. On this Memorial Day weekend, when so many of us remember those we have lost, I'd like to also say thank you to Paul for his determination to finish this book. It was actually published posthumously by his wife early last year. In the second reading of it, many parts of the book resonate even more deeply. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

And to you, my dear readers, I give you my most sincere wish that you will have a chance to remember all your departed loved ones, and will give those you still have with you a hug (virtual or physical) and be grateful for their presence in your life. I know I am thrilled to have such a fine virtual community, and I send you my love. I wish you all good things. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Long days and short nights

Last of the tulips
The time of the year that I go to bed before the sun goes down has arrived. We have days longer than 15 hours already, and by the summer solstice a month from now, the days will be longer than 16 hours. I am staying up a little longer than I do during the winter months, because when I snuggle into my covers at the the end of my day, it seems weird to see the sun shining onto my bed. For this reason, I have a sleep mask that I use to trick myself into thinking it's really dark outside.

I know there are people who love the extra-long days and short nights, but I am not one of them. After a good day's efforts, I must somehow get my eight to nine hours of rest, or the next day isn't much fun for me. I've always been an early-to-bed and early-to-rise sort of person. My best hours of the day start about 5:00am until early afternoon, when I begin to spend more time in my easy chair with a good book. Until then, I"m active and happy to be outdoors in my garden or at the gym working out, or out walking or hiking in the beautiful area I live in. As a retired person, I seem to find plenty to keep myself occupied, and the days fly by.

It's already Sunday again, which amazes me. Wasn't it just yesterday when I sat down in my bed with tea by my side, laptop situated on my legs, propped up and ready to write a post? No, it was a week ago, because here I am again, this time wondering what the heck to write about, since nothing much has emerged from the depths of my consciousness.

I've spent much of this past week reading. The library sends me a notice when books that I've got on hold arrive for me to pick up. Mostly they are books that fellow bloggers have recommended, or ones by authors I have recently enjoyed. By the time I get that email, often I've forgotten why I asked for that book, who recommended it, or what it's about. It's like a hidden treasure. Yesterday I picked up one by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window. It is new this year, and I have no idea what it's about or why I put a hold on it. I only get it for two weeks, because there are other people waiting for it. Apparently it's a thriller, so once I begin to read it, I'll be finished with it much sooner than that.

This week I also finished the final book in the Red Sparrow trilogy, not my usual fare, but my friend Judy had the first book in the series and lent it to me. Once I grew fond of the characters, of course I had to find out more about them. A movie was made about the first book, which wasn't well received, but the book was really good, about the world of spies and spycraft, which I knew little about before reading it. Some of the characters seem taken right from current events between Russia and the US. My only objection to the books was the amount of violence that I had to read about. There is enough real violence in the world that I prefer to read uplifting books.

Once I finished the last book, I perused the books I had previously read on my Kindle, and decided to re-read The Martian by Andy Weir. Although it was only a few years ago when I read it the first time, I had completely forgotten much of the events in the novel. It was almost like a first read. I enjoyed it thoroughly, so much so that I downloaded the movie yesterday and watched it again. The book is better, I think. If you don't know the story, it's about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars when a six-person mission goes bad and he's left behind, supposedly dead, but he manages to survive in the Hab (Habitat) and figures out how to contact Earth. Although there lots of suspense and close calls, Mark Watney (the Martian) uses ingenuity and humor to help survive. Once Earth realizes his predicament, his survival becomes a worldwide rallying cry, with billions of people hoping and praying that somehow he would make it.

It made me wish that somehow or other we could have something like that to pull people together and concentrate on what we as humans share and not what makes us different. There is so much division and hate in the world today, enough to make me despair of any chance we might have as humans to one day live in harmony. Of course, anything is possible, and I wonder if I could make a difference in the world by simply living my own little life in as loving and caring way as I can. If enough people would do that, little by little, I believe we would begin to see a change in the world around us.

Albert Einstein seemed to think it would be enough. His words:
Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But maybe, by raising my voice I can help the greatest of all causes -- goodwill among men and peace on earth.
 Perhaps it's a pollyanna premise, but why not give it a chance? As Einstein says, nothing we can do will change the underlying structure of the universe, but we live and breathe on another plane of existence, too: that of like-minded people working to create a better world. We have instant communication these days, and although it is often misused, it can also (I believe) quickly create harmony and peace if we just knew how to begin. Maybe it begins now, right here, with each of us who read these words making a commitment to the greatest of all causes: goodwill among people and peace on our beautiful, precious planet.

I am reminded of the parable of the Hundredth Monkey. Do you know it? It goes like this:
The account is that unidentified scientists were conducting a study of macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima in 1952. These scientists observed that some of these monkeys learned to wash sweet potatoes, and gradually this new behavior spread through the younger generation of monkeys—in the usual fashion, through observation and repetition. Watson then concluded that the researchers observed that once a critical number of monkeys was reached, i.e., the hundredth monkey, this previously learned behavior instantly spread across the water to monkeys on nearby islands.
I lifted it from that Wikipedia link above, if you want to learn more about the history of this phenomenon. Whether or not there is such a thing as the hundredth monkey effect, it's quite possible that if enough people visualize world peace, we might actually make a difference. Who knows? What else do we have to do as we watch the world around us roiling in such turbulence and conflict?

Well, I'm starting right now. I'm looking over at my dear partner, sleeping contentedly, thinking of the sunny day ahead, my coffee shop friends, and putting a lovely circle of love and light around it all. My heart feels lighter already. I do hope that whatever you do today, you might imagine, just for a moment, that your loved ones and your world are beginning to merge with my own circle of light. Be well until we meet again next week, dear ones.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day

Me and my mama
I love this old picture, taken in the mid-1940s, judging by my age, somewhere around two. Leave it to Daddy, the photographer, to make sure our car was also in the frame. Is that an old Studebaker? He was probably as proud of the car as he was of his family. My sister Norma Jean was born two years and eight months after me, so Mama was probably already pregnant with her, but otherwise it was just me, the apple of their eye and obviously quite spoiled, believing that I am the center of the universe.

Mama was only nineteen when I was born, so she was very young and beautiful at this time, and a very good mother to me. I suppose it's normal when a baby grows up in a secure and loving environment to believe that everything was created just for her enjoyment. My childhood was a very happy one, and that was due mostly to my mother's efforts. She ended up bearing seven children, with me the first and my sister Fia the last, twenty years later. She had one pregnancy that she didn't carry to term; at seven months gestation the baby didn't have lungs developed enough to breathe on her own. These days that baby would have lived, but back then (I was a teenager at the time), she didn't make it.

The remaining six of us were raised by our parents to become productive and relatively happy members of society. My sister PJ died at 63, from complications of heart disease and diabetes. Mama herself only lived to be 69, so I wasn't born into a family destined to become centenarians. I've already lived longer than either parent, so that's one reason I take health and exercise seriously: to be more fit and active in my old age than my genetic heritage would suggest I've got coming to me.

Daddy was in the Air Force when I was growing up, so we moved often. Mama would always create a home for us wherever we were living, and I didn't suffer so much from the experience. Norma Jean did, however; she decided when she grew up that she wouldn't do that to her children and would raise them in a secure home in one place. It's interesting how differently two siblings can experience the same events, isn't it? I loved the experience of going to a new school with new friends. She was shy and would make one dear friend who she would have to leave behind when we moved. I, on the other hand, never made close friends like that, preferring to have lots of acquaintances who were interchangeable. Of course, I always had my sister, and we were very close when we grew up. We still are, and it occurs to me often that she's the only person still alive who shares my childhood memories.

My mother never felt like she accomplished much in her life, since she never brought home a paycheck, never worked outside the home except for volunteer work. I think she had the idea back then that somehow her life was lacking an essential ingredient because she never developed a career. But she was so wrong: the career of motherhood at the center of her life gave every one of us the best possible start in our own lives. And we all end up having our children grow up and away from home in any event.

There are moments from my childhood that stand out in my memories, and almost without fail they involve my mother. I remember once when I was very sick and she was taking me to the hospital. I was feverish and felt awful, but she put my head in her lap (someone else was driving) and she stroked my forehead with such love and devotion that I remember it to this day. Once a child from a large family no longer needs that kind of care, it's memorable when it happens again. Mama loved me, and all of her children, I have no doubt whatsoever.

She was an avid reader all her life. I'll bet Mama read just about everything in the local library, and I remember her going in with a box of books she had read and leaving with another full box. She'd sit on the couch surrounded by books and make her way through each one. I don't remember if she preferred any particular type of book, but I do know she devoured an enormous number of them. Norma Jean and I are the same way, having inherited the love of reading from our mother.

Mama had so many illnesses to combat in her life. She developed breast cancer in her forties, and the treatment they gave her back then, cobalt radiation after a radical mastectomy, scarred her heart and caused her numerous heart attacks over the years. She always rallied, and we began to think she would continue to fight back forever. But she had a final heart attack in 1993 that she knew was the final one. Although she lived for a few weeks afterward, giving all her children a chance to say a final goodbye, she gave away all her possessions and we knew she was ready. She slipped into a coma and for about a week she lingered before finally breathing her last.

I was privileged to be with her in her final moments. After the last gentle breath slipped away, we took all the flowers that were in her room and arranged them around her face. She was simply beautiful and her face was filled with peace. Although it was a hard time, it was one I will always cherish, having been able to be with her when she took her last breath, as she was with me when I breathed my first. We came full circle together.
Life began with waking up and loving my mother's face. --George Eliot
And so, on this Mother's Day, I remember my beautiful mother with love and happiness. I'll go out to my regular places and carry her memory in my heart and spread love and joy as far as my being allows. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all good things. Be well, my dear reader. Happy Mother's Day.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Hiking as salvation

Me, a modern hiker (taken by Bob at Maple Grove)
Since I have spent the past decade going out on hikes of varying difficulties every Thursday, I think I am stronger now than I was ten years ago. I've gone through numerous pairs of boots and a couple of backpacks, until I found one that I really like. I've got water in an internal hydration pack, and always plenty of food. And the ubiquitous trekking poles.

I realize now that I have always been an active person. Sometimes you have to get towards the end of one's days in order to look back and see a trend that would be obvious to anyone else. When I lived in Colorado, I took week-long backpacking trips, carrying everything I might need and a fairly heavy pack: dried food, sleeping bag, tent, camping stove and fuel. It was hard to start with such a heavy pack, but as the days went by, I not only got stronger, I also fell into the rhythm of the trail.

At the coffee shop last week, one of my buddies showed me a link about a book that he said made him think of me: Grandma Gatewood's Walk. I went right to the local library's website and put a hold on this book. Once I received a notice in my email that it was available, I picked it up and brought it home. Yesterday I began to learn about Emma Gatewood.
At the start of her 2,000-mile hike
In 1955, when Emma completed the entire Appalachian Trail with only a homemade knapsack slung over her shoulder carrying a few supplies, a blanket and a shower curtain for rain, no sleeping bag or shelter, I was simply astounded to learn about her adventure. She was 67 years old and had 11 children and more than 20 grandchildren by then. But Emma was no stranger to suffering: she had an abusive husband who would beat her repeatedly, going so far as to break her ribs and teeth, making her unrecognizable.

I found this interesting article about her in Adventure Journal. It sums up what I'm learning from the book, written by Ben Montgomery in 2014, many decades after her death, to celebrate the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail by drawing attention to its deficiencies:
The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction. Author Ben Montgomery was given unprecedented access to Gatewood's own diaries, trail journals, and correspondence. He also unearthed historic newspaper and magazine articles and interviewed surviving family members and hikers Gatewood met along the trail. 
In reading about Emma and all that she endured during her lifetime, I realize that all those years of suffering made her stronger and more determined than ever. Where one person would just give up or decide to die rather than overcome such difficulties, another will get up and keep going. It's very inspiring to me and a reminder that one's state of mind can help you make it through whatever difficulty you're facing at the time.

One thing that I'm beginning to understand in my own life is that all the exercise and hiking that I do is not only good for my body, but also essential for my peace of mind. They don't seem like they're closely connected, but they are. When I read about someone like Emma and think of putting myself in her shoes (Keds sneakers), I realize that I have resources inside me that I haven't even plumbed. I do hope I won't have the chance to find out how deep they go. But you never know what lies ahead in the path of Life. When I despair about the state of the world, it tends to make me sad and defeated, just the opposite of what I need to be feeling. So reading inspiring stories about people who overcome enormous obstacles without a shred of self-pity I find to be very uplifting. I'll finish the book today, and I only started it yesterday. You wouldn't think it would be that kind of page-turner, would you? But it is, well written with some history included as well.

Yesterday I made a lot of progress in my garden, with my dark glasses and wide-brimmed hat protecting my eyes, and I can only hope that I will not be forced to discover how one gets along without central vision. However, someone like Emma would not let a little thing like macular degeneration hold her back.I found this quote from Anne Morrow Lindburgh that says it all for me:
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
Ah, yes, that about sums it up. Now my heart is full of hope and the day beckons me to enjoy whatever comes my way. And if suffering is part of it, I'll just remember to add a few additional elements to change the flavor of the day. I do hope that whatever comes your way, dear reader, it will be delightful and inspiring, too. I wish you well until we meet again next week.