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, June 24, 2018

Being old and being happy

Clouds, sky, mountains
I took this picture last Thursday and would have used it in my other blog, except that it was almost ruined by my thumb covering much of what I tried to capture. You can see the remnants of it after a severe crop in the upper right-hand corner. Sigh. When will I ever learn?

It was a wonderful hike, which I wrote about on my other blog, here. We didn't make it to our destination because of too much snow, but it was a beautiful day spent in the wilderness with good friends, so I was very happy. When we stopped for lunch, I had a moment of well-being that filled my heart and soul with joy, and that moment is with me still today, three days later.

I was a little down in the dumps before our hike, I think because of all the memories I stirred up in last week's post. My missing children, all that I have lost, people and things I don't forget but also don't dwell on either. Usually I rejoice at stories about my friends' grandchildren and listen with affection about their exploits and accomplishments. Recently, though, I felt myself feeling sorry that I will never know that joy personally.

What has also helped me this week is a new book I picked up at the library. It was one of several that I'd put a hold on, and it's very popular. More than twenty people are still waiting for it, so probably today I'll finish it and send it back to the library. It's a book by a journalist, John Leland, who interviewed six people who are in the category of being "oldest of the old," eighty-five and up, and followed them for over a year. He wrote a book about it, which has become a best seller. Happiness Is a Choice You Make is available both in hardback and electronically.

Even though during the year that he wrote the book, two of the six died, he found that in general these oldsters were still enjoying life and in some cases, looking forward to the final chapter of their lives being written. Not one of them feared death. On page 42 of the book, he quotes one of the women, Ping, and it resonated with me: "When you're young, the future is so far away, and you don't know what will happen to you and the world. So when you're young, you have more worries than the elderly. But I don't worry now."

I have ten more years before I will join this group in age, if I make it that long, and I do look forward to not worrying about the state of the world. Or wondering whether I'll contract some dread disease and die a slow and lingering death. But even now, I don't spend lots of time worrying about these things, because there's really not much I can do about either one. And I'm a good one for worrying. The book gave me hope that I'll outgrow that pesky mental activity.

There are many tips that Leland has learned from his research and friendship with these people. For one thing, he realized that the final phase of life is not without some wonderful compensations, like learning to truly live in the moment and appreciate small joys. All of them lived simply and as they lost mobility, found pleasure in the tiniest accomplishments. They didn't dwell on what they had lost (mostly), but rejoiced in what they still had. None of them felt helpless in their lives, but found ways to work around their limitations.

One researcher, Laura Carstensen, who wanted to determine why some people are better than others at aging, discovered something she calls the "positivity effect." For more than a decade, she and a team of researchers at Stanford began a study of this effect. They gave electronic pagers to 184 people between the ages of 18 and 94 and paged them five times a day for a week, asking them to write down immediately how strongly they felt each of 19 emotions. This is what they found:
The results were striking. Older people consistently reported just as many positive emotions as younger participants, but had fewer negative ones. They also had more mixed emotions, meaning that they didn't let frustration or anxiety keep them from saying they were happy. Consciously or unconsciously, they were making the choice to be happy, even when there were reasons to feel otherwise.
Although I'm only halfway through the book, I'm enjoying it very much and learning a great deal. It also explains to me why I felt sad after dredging up those old memories, and why I felt so good when filled with endorphins from exercise and laughing with friends. Sometimes I feel like I should be spending more time remembering those loved ones who had died, but then something like this book will remind me that it's counterproductive to happiness. There's a fine line between denial and accepting reality as it is, and I find myself trying to stay on the right side of that line. Mostly I succeed.

I have the usual aches and pains that accompany aging, but fortunately they don't bother me, unless they keep me from doing what I love. Old knees, creaky joints in general, and diminishing strength, are part of my daily life. But things like yoga, walking, and time spent outdoors in the wilderness continue to fill me with joy and, I think, give me hope that I can continue for a while yet, doing what I love. When I can no longer hike, I'll walk. When I cannot touch my toes, I'll touch my shins. And so on. When I've lost my ability to see clearly, I'll learn to love the shape of things.

I've got plenty of role models to cheer me on, such as Mary Oliver the poet, whose poems fill me with tremendous happiness. She's just entered the realm of the oldest old, born in 1932, and continues to write some of the most amazing poems. She's the one who wrote
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
With your one wild and precious life?
Well, I plan to continue to learn, and love, and enjoy my wild and precious life in the company of my loved ones, my dear virtual friends, and remembering those with much love who joined me in my earlier years. I hope I will continue for a while longer, but if I died today, I can truly say it's been a great ride. Until we meet again next week, dear ones, please remember to find at least one thing to smile about every day, and give thanks. Be well until then.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day 2018

Derald Heath
This is a picture of my first husband, Derald, who was also the father of my two boys. Today, they are all on the other side of the veil, no longer living, but my memories of them are as much a force in my life today as if they were. So many of my loved ones have passed, but I am still here, so today I'll take a few moments to remember what a great guy Derald was. I didn't always think so; when I divorced him all those long years ago, I was convinced I deserved better. These days, I think he deserved better than the sorry wife I was.

This is what he looked like when I met him and ended up marrying him, although we had only known each other a few months. You can see why I was enchanted with his smile, his good looks. He was an airman working in the hospital when my mother was admitted for some reason I can't remember now. He wore a white coat just like Vince Edwards did in Ben Casey (an old TV series), and he wore it open at the collar, just like in the movies. I was in heaven. When I brought my mother's things to the hospital, Derald asked me out. I was eighteen and smitten.

On our second date, we had sex. It was my first time, and we were in my parents' little Austin Healey Sprite. If you know what the car looks like, you know how challenging it must have been to actually do the deed in that little car. Derald didn't own a car, it was my parents' car, and we drove to an abandoned gravel pit. Romantic, I know. The moon was full, and I remember very well seeing the mound of white gravel reflecting in the moonlight. It was over before I thought it had begun, and I was confused and totally inexperienced. I was eighteen and he was twenty. I know you can probably guess what happened: our son Chris was conceived that night.

I know it was that night, because it was the only time I allowed that to happen, and it was too late. I knew within a few weeks that something amazing was happening in my body. We were married on March 1, 1961, and Chris was born in November. Derald died in 1990, many years ago, and Chris died in 2002.

We had a second son in 1964, Stephen, who was healthy and beautiful until he contracted spinal meningitis at thirteen months. He died in just a few short hours. It was this traumatic time in our lives that broke up our marriage for good. Some people face an event like this one together, and it makes their bond stronger. For us, it was the end. And I was only 22, and the life experience I had was not enough to help me through this period. Derald and I separated shortly afterwards.

But today I am looking back at my life and realize that Derald was not only a good man and a good father and if I would have known what I know now, we would have stayed married and probably made more beautiful children. Derald went on to remarry and had two more sons in his second marriage. He had a heart condition that went undetected, and he died in his sleep at the early age of 51. Chris would eventually die of the same thing, at 40.

One day, Chris convinced me that I should talk to his father. He had been trying to get us to talk to each other for ages, but I was resistant. It was important to him, and he knew and loved both of us, so with much trepidation I made the phone call. We ended up talking for hours, and I realized that Derald had matured into a wonderful person and I felt regret for the choices I had made back then. Of course, I didn't know we would never talk again, that he would soon die (I think it was only a matter of months after), but I was more than a little blessed to have been able to heal over the wound of our separation. He was happy in his life, and I was happy in mine. Chris was thrilled that we had reconciled. I have never forgotten the gift that my son gave me.

I have written many times on Father's Day about my own father, and I thought it would be appropriate to mention the man who fathered my children, and to give him the credit that he is due for being a good father for as long as he lived. He never abandoned his first son, even after he remarried and had a new family. For awhile, Chris lived with them and worked alongside his father in construction projects. I remember Chris telling me about the two of them replacing an entire roof, just the two of them. They were both relatively young and healthy at that time.

At my age, most of my friends have lost their parents, although now and then I'll overhear somebody my age at the gym talking about visiting a parent in a nursing home. No member of my family has ever lived long enough to end up in one. Years ago I volunteered in a nursing home for a short period and found it to be a horrible, horrible place: the vacant stares, the smell, the hopelessness.

But you know, all of those people were at one time vibrant, healthy, productive people. What happened to them? What is real? If we were to actually survive death, in another life, what person emerges into the spiritual realm? If the beautiful infant who was my son Stephen was transported into heaven, did he continue to grow into a man? Surely other people must wonder about these things.

When I think of my departed loved ones, my parents, my children, my previous husband, and the life I am blessed with today, I realize that we will only know the answer to these questions when we join them, if we do even then. My reflections today include the hope that the two of them are hanging out together, maybe working in cloud construction. In my mind's eye, I just got a glimpse of them both laughing and sending their smiles through the thin veil that separates us.

I hope this Father's Day will give all my loved ones a chance to reflect on our own fathers, or those who have acted in that capacity, and take a moment to send them a bit of gratitude. I hope also that until we meet again next week, you will have many moments of grace surround you and your loved ones. I wish you well until then.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Family and friends

Whatcom Falls
Yesterday my sister-in-law Luena returned back to her home in southern California, after a four-day visit. Although we have been married for a quarter of a century, this was the first time a member of SG's family has ever come to visit us. I knew little about her, except that every day on his birthday she called him, and he did the same for hers. Luena had married a man that SG didn't much care for, and consequently they stopped having frequent personal contact. Her husband died a few years ago, and Luena has sold their home and moved into a gated community.

By the time I came into his life, almost every one of SG's relatives had died, and Luena is the only living relative that I knew anything about. Long ago, when SG was married to his first wife, I think they socialized a little, but as he has grown older he does less of it and has become more settled in his ways. It was interesting to watch their interaction; at first tentative and after they became more comfortable with each other, there was more reminiscing and plenty of laughter.

It's so different from my own experience of family. When you come from a large family, you have lots of relatives and it can be overwhelming to someone like SG. He came to visit my family once, when my mother died, and it was difficult for him to find any peace and quiet among the tumult of so many of us. And we tend not to be very quiet when we get together. Of course, it feels normal to me, but for others, it can be overpowering. I know this from experience.

Now, after twenty-five years together, we are family to each other, and I've grown quiet and serene in our own world, with little need for the kind of experience that was once normal to me, with huge gatherings for holidays and plenty of drama going on all the time. Once a person reaches the eighth decade of life, you need the peace and quiet that we now enjoy, rather than being constantly on the go. Times change; people change, but every once in awhile you can get a glimpse into the way things used to be.

Although I have five siblings (well, four now that my sister PJ has died), with all the concomitant relatives, it's an amazing spectacle when we get together. The only one of my siblings that I visit annually is my sister Norma Jean. We grew up together and share memories that now no one else is alive to remember. I talk to her on FaceTime a couple of times a month, and fly to Florida every winter for a visit, and I look forward to it very much. I travel alone, which is how it should be, to my mind. SG looks forward to my absence, when he can do as he pleases without thinking of my needs. Everyone needs a break to appreciate how good it is when you're back together.

I am closer to some friends than I am to other family members. It doesn't really matter to me if I've known someone for a long time or grown up with them; it's how important they are to my daily life. When I think of my friend John at the coffee shop, I realize how much I enjoy just sitting next to him and commiserating over the state of the world, or sharing a bagel and laughing together. I appreciate his sense of humor and have learned a great deal about gardening from him, too. He's an important person to me, and sometimes I wonder just how that happened. When I first met him, I didn't like him at all, but as we spent more time talking, I realized that his outward appearance had made me think he was just an old rednecked farmer without any redeeming qualities. How wrong I was! Appearances can be deceiving. I'm learning that lesson on a daily basis, it seems.

Friends are just family that you didn't grow up with, ones you get to choose rather than having a relationship you've been born into. When I think of how important some people are to me that I've never even met, such as my blogging friends, it gives me a lovely feeling of inclusion in the larger world. I learn about their lives, their worries and accomplishments, and I rejoice that I have so many friends who really matter to me.

I just spent a good deal of time trying to find the right quote about friends and family to add to this post, but nothing seems quite right, so I guess I'll skip it for today. Wait: I'll give it one more try.
My friends and family are my support system. They tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear and they are there for me in the good and bad times. Without them I have no idea where I would be and I know that their love for me is what's keeping my head above the water. --Kelly Clarkson
Well, that about sums it up and gives me a good place to end this post. I've finished my tea, partner just went to the bathroom and now has snuggled back into his spot in bed, and the day is calling me. After the coffee shop, I'll be going to see the movie Book Club with my friend Judy. It's got a few of my favorite actors of a certain age in it, and although the reviews aren't great, I'm just looking for a little entertainment.

I hope that between now and when we get together again next week, you'll have found some time to spend with family and friends, too. If not, come visit me here and we'll catch up. Be well until we meet again, dear ones.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Hope is the thing with feathers

One of our strawberries
It is now strawberry time in our garden. Mine aren't doing so well, but Lily picked this gorgeous specimen out of Hedi's garden spot. We must get to them quickly, or the slugs will take bites before we get a chance to eat them first.

About the title of my post this morning: it is the first line of a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, which goes like this:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
With the news in the world feeling so shaky these days, not just in my own country but throughout the globe, I keep trying to find a silver lining, a way to keep my own hope alive throughout. A blogging friend, Linda, wrote a wonderful post about being "drenched in privilege," which gave me pause. And then after reading it carefully and thinking about it, I realized that yes, I am also very much drenched in privilege, and since it surrounds me so completely, I am mostly unaware of it. I am retired, have a decent (if not huge) monthly income, thanks to Social Security and a pension (actually annuities) from my previous job. Enough that I can pay the bills and still have a little bit left over to pay for yoga and other activities I enjoy.

I have a place to live that continues to increase in cost, but until I can no longer afford to live here, I'll be grateful for a roof over my head, a garden spot in the back yard, and plenty of lush greenery to soothe my soul. And I have to continue to be grateful for the gift of sight, which is all too tenuous as I go through my days. My macular degeneration continues to progress, even though I am now wearing dark sunglasses and eye shades whenever I go outside, slowing the degeneration for as long as possible.

There is a young blind woman at the gym, who has someone help her take showers. Often as I am leaving the showers, I will see the two of them entering. The helper is fully clothed as she leads the young woman into the shower area, and I have wondered whether the blind woman has someone with her for the rest of her day. She looks like she's in her early twenties. I'm again very grateful for my own ability to see and realize that I will probably always be able to get around and take care of myself, even as I lose the ability to drive and to read books like I do right now. The good part of AMD is that you keep your peripheral vision as you lose the ability to focus in the center. I still have my central vision and hope (there's that word again) to keep it for as long as possible.

I am happy to focus on the positive aspects of my life and realize that it does absolutely no good to concentrate on the negative. Some of us are natural optimists and tend to see the good in everything. I like to think that I am that way, but sometimes these days I find myself despairing that things will get better and let myself become afraid of the future. When I think there is nothing I can do to change things, I feel my hope begin to ebb. Some very wise person (Harriet Tubman) once said:
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. 
Is it possible to experience a world at peace? A place where everybody has a home, enough to eat, and freedom from fear? That's my dream. And since I've only got my own environment, my own life to work with, I'll start right there and imagine the dream emanating out from this little spot in the universe, reaching for the stars. That's my little feathery hope you feel tickling you behind your ears, on its way to the moon.

As I look around at my world, I see plenty to give me hope. My partner sleeps contentedly next to me, cloudy skies are bringing us some showers today, which my garden will appreciate, and I'll wear my raincoat to keep myself dry. And this morning, I'll skip the news cycle so I can concentrate on more positive parts of my day. I'll be heading off to the coffee shop to enjoy some time with my buddies there, and then off to the movies with my friend Judy. What's not to like about a day like that?

 If I keep hope in the forefront of my thoughts, I believe my soul will soak up some of those nourishing raindrops. And I am wishing the same for all of you, my dear friends, the blogging universe that reaches out to you with love and desire for a very good week ahead for all of us. I wish you well until we meet again next week.