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 26, 2018

Saying goodbye

It never gets any easier
Yesterday one of my favorite politicians died from brain cancer. He was 81 and would have turned 82 this coming Wednesday. This is not news to anybody, but for me it was a bit of a shock. When I learned last year that he had developed the same kind of cancer that Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden died from, but that it had been caught early, I was hopeful that even at 80 he would prevail.

When I read over the past year about the amazing breakthroughs made in treatment of this particular type of cancer, I began to hope. John McCain was always a true fighter and, over the years, I watched him stay true to his beliefs, even bucking the party line when it wasn't what he thought was right. But I sure didn't expect to feel the way I did when I learned last week that he had stopped treatment for his condition. That told me, sadly, he also would succumb.

I felt a kinship with him for many reasons. We were both parachutists, and when I visited the "Hanoi Hilton" in Vietnam years ago, I saw a display behind glass of the gear he was wearing when he was captured by the Viet Cong. Inside, along with his jumpsuit and helmet, was his parachute, the thick lines coiled neatly and the faded silk of his canopy looking like it could be used even today. Pictures of him during his five years of captivity were arranged alongside the display. I was fascinated and spent a good long time studying it.

The Vietnam War was horrible in so many ways, both sides suffering such terrible losses while those in Washington stayed comfortably removed from the awfulness. Many years later, McCain became one of the leaders in Washington who fought to normalize our relations with Vietnam, and now many veterans from that war have returned to the country to try to make sense of it all. Today I see homeless veterans on the streets begging on street corners. I despair for our sense of fairness. What a world!

There have been quite a few people over the years whom I have mourned, even though I only knew them through the media, from Martin Luther King and JFK, to Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. Great people that I shared the planet with for a short or long time. We all end up dead in the long run, but mourning good people who pass away before we do is cause for reflection and sadness on our loss. The world will long remember these remarkable people.

I am only six years younger than McCain was when he died, and I realize that when he was 75, he was seemingly healthy, as I think I am. It's a reminder that age continues to cause our decline, and that's totally normal. Perhaps I'll make it into my eighties, but perhaps I will get sick and die before then. Normal either way. In any event, I don't think I would feel there is anything in my life that I left undone, or unsaid, or unexperienced. In these final years, I am trying to enjoy my many blessings and tie up any loose ends I've left unraveled.

I've had more than my fair share of loss over the years, starting when I was 22 and my son Stephen died suddenly of spinal meningitis. More than fifty years later, I am still trying to learn how to grieve properly. Back then, there were no grief support groups to attend, and I must say that first loss was the very hardest I've experienced. In 1993, when my mother died at the age of 69, I was able to handle it much better, and I've learned that the stages of grief are real: you don't stay feeling like your life is over for very long, and that gradually, very gradually, the scars of your loss will heal. But there will always be scars. You are never the same, just as John McCain bore the scars of his five years of torture for the rest of his life. I bear the scars of my losses, too, even if they are not visible they are just as real.

It's only when we allow our losses, which are a natural part of life, to distort us into incapacitation, make it impossible to carry on, that it becomes a problem. Today there are many ways to help us heal, ways that didn't exist a half century ago. If I were to lose my dear partner, for instance, I would grieve terribly, but I would attend support groups and connect with others going through the same thing. And I would find a way to carry on with my new scars, until I too finish my time here and move on.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” – Winnie The Pooh
Today I will spend some time watching the news, which of course will be filled with stories and remembrances of McCain's time on earth. It will trigger some memories I've had of loved ones I've lost, and believe it or not, I cherish going into those reminiscences of times gone by, people long gone.

I will also remember to cherish those I share my time with, starting with the one who sleeps next to me right now, and those whom I look forward to seeing at the coffee shop, my neighbors, my friends, those of you in the blogosphere, those with whom I also share my life. It's good to be reminded of the brevity of life every once in awhile. So, dear friends, until we meet again next week, I hope you will do a little of that, too. I wish you well and that all good things will come your way.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Changing my mindset

Red sky
We are preparing (as much as one can) for another onslaught of bad air, after two days of glorious clear skies and mild temperatures. When I woke this morning, I first checked the air quality for my area and find that it is still in the good category. Here is the current forecast:
Sunday morning update: Currently, still MODERATE in many areas. Later today, we may start to see smoke levels that are UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS, due to the fires in British Columbia and the nearby Cascade Mountains. Smoke could worsen into UNHEALTHY levels on Monday or Tuesday. We'll keep this forecast updated as conditions change.
That will be the most pressing issue on my mind for the next couple of days, I suspect. It's hard to figure out what to do when the air around you is so bad. It's not like you can decide to breathe later. There's not much else to do except stay indoors as much as possible. 

For some other reasons, I woke this morning in a dark mood. It's hard for me to watch people I care about having a hard time, and right now that is happening with a dear friend. Plus I had been doing so very well with my diet lately, having lost five pounds and feeling great, until Friday when I went off the rails. I indulged in ice cream and when I'd gone over my daily calorie budget, it was a signal to just keep going. And then yesterday I went to a barbeque gathering and had already told myself that I could stay within limits, but no, I continued to overeat. So I woke reminding myself that I need to cut myself some slack here.

Figuring that I could write a blog post that would hopefully cheer myself up, it did help a little to find that the air quality outdoors is still in the moderate range and not yet unhealthy. But the forecast is not good, so I'm bracing myself. In addition to that, I'll be getting on the scales, which I do every day, feeling resigned to whatever number I see. It was so nice to see the numbers fall and feeling my clothes begin to fit better. Sigh.

The last couple of weeks I've been able to write about compassion and that love is all you need. But today I'm on the flip side, trying to find those same emotions so that I can feel good about life, and they are elusive. I guess this is typical for everyone, feeling good sometimes and feeling bad other times, but I figure there must be a way to climb out of this well of darkness. All I need is to find some purchase on the slippery walls of gloom.

It didn't help to lose Aretha Franklin this week. She's my age, and she died from pancreatic cancer, which seems to be taking more people lately. My friend Ronni is recovering from the serious Whipple surgery and is doing well, but the statistics for how many people survive five years afterwards is scary. Apparently Aretha had that same surgery in 2011 and made it until this week. I watched some clips of her and enjoyed the realization that she was a truly amazing person in so many different ways. Sigh.
We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death. --Nathaniel Hawthorne 
I am probably making a mistake by going to the theater today to see Spike Lee's latest movie. Yesterday a friend asked me if I had seen it yet, and I told her I am going today. She said she walked out of the theater unable to speak, it was so powerful. It does say it has some comedy in it, so maybe I won't be too overwhelmed. We'll see. It's certainly getting an audience here; some of the showings are selling out.

By writing down all the different things that are bothering me right now, it sure doesn't look like it should be enough to explain my grumpy outlook. It could be so much worse, I suppose, and there are no real reasons not to simply scale the walls and emerge into the filtered sunlight and give a whoop for still being alive and kicking. Can I do that? I don't see why not. All I need to do is plaster a smile on my face and step on that scale. Take myself off to the coffee shop to join my friends and quaff a cuppa coffee together. In the larger scheme of things, I'm doing pretty well. And I have hopes for a better day today.

Okay, I'm halfway out of the doldrums, so I guess it's time for me to make it the rest of the way. Partner is still slumbering next to me, my tea is gone, and I've got people to see, places to go. There is even a smile playing across my face, thinking of the day ahead. I hope you will find some joy in the day, and that you might leave me a comment that will boost my spirits, eh? Until next week, be well and I wish all good things to come your way.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

All you need is love

Stream crossing
Last Thursday I joined more than a dozen of my friends for a hike, something I love to do every week, although it's quite difficult for me in the heat. There was a song playing inside my head during the entire day: the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love."
There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
It's easy
All you need is love, all you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need
John Lennon wrote this song for Britain's contribution to Our World, the first live global television link. Watched by over 400 million in 25 countries, the program was broadcast via satellite on 25 June 1967. I didn't realize, until I decided to learn more about this song, that it has such a complex and asymmetric time signature, according to Wikipedia's entry. I know it is still a universally loved song fifty years later, and I hear it on the radio as well as in elevator music, still to this day. But is it true?

Lately I have been feeling very out of place on these hot summer hikes, falling farther and farther behind the others as I struggle to keep going. With my legs all a-tremble and fighting back nausea, I considered whether it's in everyone's best interest for me to go along. There are easier hikes, and I wonder whether it's just my own ego that keeps me from going on them. I actually almost joined the other group last week, but they were going somewhere that would be just as hot and, as it turned out, they turned around after a couple hikers got sick in the same way I did, mostly from the intense heat and lack of shade. And I did accomplish the hike without any permanent injury to anything other than my self-esteem.

Next month, I will celebrate ten years of hiking with the Senior Trailblazers and hope that, one way or another, I'll be able to continue on for awhile longer. The coming week I will not join them, because it's a scheduled hard hike in the hot sun, with no shade at all. The other group is going somewhere I've already been this summer (and it is also a hot one), so I'm not at all sure what I'll end up doing on Thursday. It's a little disconcerting, but I really have to remember that ten years of wonderful trips into the wilderness is a gift I will always cherish and can never lose.

It's sort of like when I stopped skydiving. At one time, it was the center of my world, with my entire life shaped by the excursions to the Drop Zone on the weekends, and week-long trips during the year going to boogies (gatherings of jumpers from all over with specialty aircraft to jump out of). When I finally finished being an active skydiver after 25 years, it was because I knew that I had become the oldest person still active on the Drop Zone and that I was placing myself in danger to continue doing something I loved. It took a fairly long process over a couple of years for me to get to that realization. I seem to be in the middle of that same process concerning these difficult hikes. There are still plenty of places for me to go into the wilderness; I just have to take stock realistically of what I can and cannot do any more.

Learning to love myself and have compassion for the aging hippie inside me that never went away, never learned the lesson of moderation and tends to live in denial, well that seems to be my current assignment, doesn't it? Most of the time, I am happy and enjoy every single day, whether it's puttering in the garden, reading a good book, talking with my mate, or struggling up a hill. And, of course, I must always remember to be thankful for the wonderful life I've been given. Many of the family and friends who have mattered so much to me are already gone, and I'm still here. I've outlived both of my parents and my two sons, but it won't always be true: at some time I'll be joining them, too. Is it true that love is all I need?

Yes, I believe it is. When I think back on my life, the moments that stand out in high relief from the others are filled with memories of love. It's also true that although I suffered during the loss of my loved ones, that suffering is not what stands out when I think back: it's those priceless moments of happiness that I remember. They will never leave me, and I am blessed that I can recall myriad episodes when we laughed together until we cried.

My current assignment seems to be to find the next stage of my life, explore where the days will take me, and find myself surrounded by love everywhere I look. Waiting for me at the coffee shop are a couple of my good friends, and my partner sleeps beside me as I write. My pals in the world of the Internet are also present (that would be you, my friend) and give me great pleasure as I share my thoughts this morning.

I've managed to write another post, although this morning I had no idea what might emerge. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't. Today was one of those days when I felt the magic. I do hope the coming week will bring you some realization of the love that surrounds you. And I wish that same thing for myself. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mindfulness and aging

Glacier lilies emerging from detritus
One of the things I love most about hiking in the High Country is seeing how the seasons change the landscape. Those dead stalks were living, vibrant growth just last fall, and now they are sinking back down into the earth to sustain new growth. Glacier lilies emerge for just a few short weeks once the snow has retreated. I took this picture last month, and I suspect that this same spot is now covered with greenery, with no lilies to be seen anywhere.

This past week has been a real blessing in so many ways: first, the intense heat that we Pacific Northwesterners only occasionally experience is gone. We went from a high temperature of 90°F to a high of 68°F, with marine air finally scouring out the heat and giving us back our usual summertime temperatures. Yesterday, however, I could feel the beginning of the return of higher than normal temperatures, which are expected by the end of the week. After this lovely interlude, I don't feel the same dismay; my frame of mind seems to be rather fluid, and that's okay.

Second, I attended three wonderful yoga classes that helped me appreciate the ability my body has of recovering from the exertions I put it through. Although I hiked ten miles on Thursday and gained quite a bit of elevation, I woke on Friday feeling refreshed and happy. Very different from two weeks earlier when I could barely walk after a hard hike. I don't know what caused the difference, but it reminded me that if I give myself enough time to recover, lots of restful sleep and mindful stretching, even at 75 I am capable of more than one might imagine.

I know it's temporary, that the aging process continues apace, and that one day I'll have to change my activities, but that's not today. So today I'd like to consider the tools that help anyone to have Mindful Sustainable Aging. It's a thing, I discovered, actually, and that article I've linked will give you the whole story, if you're interested (and I hope you are). To sum up:
Learning to use mindfulness later in life can be important in terms of coping with the (psychosocial) crises of old age and the struggle to find meaning in late life. The fact that mindfulness spans both the normal and the pathological makes it capable of addressing a wide range of problems, something that this article has attempted to point out.
When I started taking yoga classes a few years ago, it was so that I might be able to regain some of the flexibility I'd lost over the past decade. Although continuing to exercise, I noticed that getting out of bed in the morning was always accompanied with myriad aches and pains, which I attributed to my age. But once I started doing the yoga poses, gradually I noticed a difference in my body throughout the day, starting with getting out of bed. Yes, there are still arthritic and achy moments, but they are much, much less. And my feeling about those aches and pains has changed to one of compassion. Last week I wrote about having compassion for myself, and just a simple change of attitude has given my days a happier perspective. Another quote from that article:
By engaging in things that demand both activity and spirituality, older people cultivate a mindful sense that is still vibrant with hope and meaning. However, older people also need time to cultivate their inner being by withdrawal from the outer realm of the doing-mode. Older adults who have made the shift from a doing-mode to a being-mode are considered to be spiritual elders.
Oh! A spiritual elder, can I become one too? That sounds like just the ticket for those days in my future when I can no longer continue to engage in my daily pursuits. I found another wonderful website from the Positive Psychology Program that gives 22 Mindfulness Exercises, Techniques and Activities for Adults, which should keep me busy reading and studying these techniques for quite awhile. I'll be sure to let you know which ones have worked best for me. I do know that writing this blog post on Sunday morning, my first activity of the day, has been very therapeutic and never fails to give me a changed perspective toward the day ahead.

Years ago, I meditated twice a day for at least a half hour, and I still remember how much I would crave to return to that state after a full day of hard intellectual work. I kept it up for what I remember to be at least a year, maybe longer. During that time I actually had moments of transcendence while meditating. I don't know why I stopped, but several attempts to take it up again have been disappointing. Part of me longs for the serenity I found back then, and maybe now that I have so many tools at my disposal, I can find my way back to that place. Or even to a new and more delightful one on my journey to become a spiritual elder.

There are so many twists and turns in one's life, and nobody can predict where a certain avenue might end up. I do know that, in my quest to regain my flexibility by taking those yoga classes, I've grown more willing to find mindfulness in everyday life. The best part is realizing that there is so much more to learn and so many ways to expand my horizons, even (or especially) as an older person.

I just looked at the clock and realized that I've spent more than an hour getting to this place, with all the reading of those two websites I linked above, and my attempt to capture it for you, and for myself at a later time. My partner lies sleeping next to me, quietly breathing, so I know he's fast asleep, not in a light doze as usual. And of course my tea is long gone, and a light grumbling in my stomach reminds me that I'm a little bit hungry. Time to finish and start the rest of my day.

Please remember that we are all surrounded by peace and beauty, if we just take a little time to search for it. Or at least that is what I desire for us all. Take a moment to think of what makes you happy and maybe it will come to you today. It is my most sincere wish that we have a wonderful day ahead. I wish you all good things until we meet again next week.