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, March 31, 2019

A picture from my distant past

Flint, Michigan
I received this picture last week in a text from my son's widow, who lives in Germany. She must have been going through his pictures and decided to send me this one, since she didn't know who it was. Well, that pregnant lady is me, all right. That's Chris climbing into the back seat next to a laundry basket.

At first I was puzzled by the date on the picture, because (1) that is not what it looks like in Michigan in November, and (2) Stephen was born in August of that year. Considering our clothing, I figure it must have been July, and the pictures languished in the camera for several months before being developed. You remember those days, don't you? When you had to wait for prints that came in a Kodak package at the local store? How times have changed.

There were no seat belts in that old car, either. It had definitely seen better days, but I, on the other hand, was dressed and coiffed for a trip to the laundry. Underneath that top I was obviously wearing one of those skirts that had a stretchy waist and an elastic insert for the growing tummy. It's been a long time since I've seen anybody wearing one of those. These days pregnancy is not hidden; it's perfectly okay to show everything.

Chris looks so small and vulnerable as he climbs into the car. Derald had to be the photographer and might even have been going with us. Maybe we were going somewhere else first, who knows? I don't even remember seeing this picture before. It is taken in front of our rented home, where we lived for several years. Flint was Derald's home town, and the water back then was perfectly drinkable, and the city was a quiet town of around 200,000. I just looked up the figures and found that the population began to decline after 1960, falling to 140,000 by 1990. Now, since the water crisis, it's around 96,000.

Chris, Stephen and Derald are gone now, and I am living in a different part of the country, married to another man and living in retirement from my working life. I lived in Flint for nine years before moving to California. When Chris was around 12, he stopped living with me and went back to Flint to live with his father and stepmother. I was unfettered and began to travel around the country and Mexico with a girlfriend. My, when I look back at my life, I am amazed at how many different people I've been. By the time I ended up in Colorado in 1974, I had lived in many different places and felt homeless. Boulder, Colorado ended up being the place I would call home.

I found a career in Boulder and worked for thirty years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research before retiring at 65 and moving to the Pacific Northwest, where I now enjoy another quiet town of around 200,000 people, and have a comfortable routine that will continue until either illness or advanced age changes my regimen. I love Bellingham and its surroundings and have found my second home. Interestingly, I rarely think about the past, or Colorado, or any of the other places I've lived, unless I'm writing about it, or unless a picture from the past emerges from the ether, as this one did.

I've lived a life of moderate comfort, although loss and grief have given me plenty of challenges to face. But really, it's nothing like the lives of many I see every day, or read about every day. The world has changed so very much in the last half century. Just yesterday I watched, on Hulu, a documentary that drove that home for me: Minding the Gap. It was released last year and has received rave reviews, well deserved if you ask me. (The link is to a review by A.O. Scott at the New York Times.)

It's about three young men growing up today, and covers about a decade in their lives. The glue that binds them together is skateboarding. They live in Rockport, Illinois, and none of them have much hope of making it out of their difficult lives. One of them, Bing Liu, a Chinese-American young man, is the filmmaker. He started videotaping their exploits when they were in middle school, and followed their lives as they gained skill in skateboarding. It was all that kept them going at times.
It’s not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a life saver. “Minding the Gap” is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Mr. Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.
In watching the documentary, I began to care very much about these young men and their lives. Keire Johnson is black and worked as a dishwasher for a long time before finally becoming a waiter. He was able to buy himself a car, and he describes how he has placed his registration, insurance, and license on the dashboard so he would not have to reach into a pocket or make any moves that could be construed by a policeman as threatening.

That got me to thinking about my own life, my white privilege, and that I would never have thought to be afraid that I might be shot when stopped for any reason, but that a young black man must think about that every single day. I don't know that life except through documentaries. But I have learned, through watching this one, how scary and dangerous it is to be growing up in the world today, especially as a person of color.

It's been a long, long time since that picture was taken, and the world has changed immeasurably. Now that I am in the twilight of my own life, having gone through all the heartache and pleasures that these three young men still have ahead of them. I am extremely glad that there are such sensitive and moving documentaries as this one to help put myself in their world. My own world seems quaint in comparison, but I am happy to be alive today, to experience the myriad flavors of the lives of others.

And now it's time for me to join my own circle of friends, starting my own Sunday, first with this post and second with my journey to the coffee shop. My friend Gene will not be there, since he left for a trip to Mexico yesterday to join family members there. John and I will hold down the fort until he returns.

My dear partner sleeps next to me, my tea is gone, and I'm back from my excursion into Sunday morning musings. I do hope that you, my dear virtual friends, will have a wonderful week ahead, with lots of love and adventure (if that is what you want). I myself will enjoy my routine and be grateful for every day and every week that I can continue it. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Celebrating the equinox

Moonrise and Mt. Shuksan
I saw that several people who belong to another hiking group, the Mt. Baker Club, decided to take advantage of the great weather earlier this week and take an evening drive all the way up to the High Country in order to take pictures of the full moon rising behind the mountains, on the day of the Spring Equinox. It's rare for the moon to be full right at that time. It won't happen again for another 11 years. I think this picture was taken by Mark Wheatley; he is the one who distributed this picture, anyway. Isn't it stunning?

Yesterday I pondered what I might write about this morning, and for a while I considered writing a post about my son Chris, much like one I wrote a while back about my mother. So many of my loved ones are gone now, and although they still live on in my memories and photographs, thinking about them brings their essence alive again. That's when I realized that it was still painful to think about what to write, when it comes to Chris. He died almost two decades ago, in August 2002, and still I am hesitant when it comes to composing a post that would honor my long-gone child.

It has made me realize that I have a habit of burying unpleasant memories and thoughts that make me feel uncomfortable. Maybe everyone is this way, I don't know, but for me the sense of loss is submerged by everyday life, and it only comes up when I turn my attention in that direction. Mama died in 1993, a decade earlier than Chris, so maybe that's one reason why it's easier to think about her life. Or perhaps it's because it's not natural to lose and have to bury a child. Not that it doesn't happen every single moment of every single day, somewhere in the world we live in.

Coping mechanisms vary. I know several people who have lost a grown child, to accidents or illness or suicide. Some have almost defined their continuing existence by remembering and sharing memories, long afterwards. Others don't talk about it much. But I wonder how many are like me, averting their eyes and changing the subject. I am now in my twilight years, thinking ahead of how to spend the final decade (or two if I'm lucky) of my life. Longevity does not run in my family, and I've already outlived both of my parents. One of my sisters died in 2014, and the remaining siblings are all getting long in the tooth as well.

It's all happened so quickly! I sometimes forget my age, but not often, since age has also brought its share of aches and pains. I don't mind them all that much, but I know that there's not much reason for me to try to remedy them with doctor visits and even surgery, since they are as much a part of ageing as my white hair. And as I wrote last week, the Buddhist Five Remembrances is one way to keep in mind that everything is ephemeral and subject to change. But it isn't very uplifting to think that way; yes we know all that, but is it right to consider only the downside to being alive? That it will all end one day?

I have read many books during my lifetime, and some of them I have read more than once. It's my hope that my eyesight will last as long as the rest of me, since reading enriches my life so much. I'm always looking for another good book to read and appreciate, and since my interests cover the gamut from entertaining nonfiction to escapist novels, much of how I feel on any given day might be linked to the latest book I'm reading. My friend Judy gave me a book by Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, which I'm reading now. I didn't realize it until I began the book that I had already read another by the same author, Isaac's Storm, about the deadliest hurricane in history. He's a good author and is keeping my interest in this latest book, set in the early days of the twentieth century, in London, and it reminds me of how much our world has changed since then.

One of the best ways I've found to cope with difficulty, whether it's with the loss of our loved ones, or of youth, or any other cherished object, is humor. It comes with the territory of growing older, being able to appreciate the humor in just about everything that comes our way as the days and weeks and years pass. My friend John sends me emails filled with humor, and I find that as I laugh heartily at them, I feel ever so much better. Now that I have seen and felt so much of life, I think that I will choose to be a lover of all that makes us laugh. This brings to mind a poem that always makes me smile, written by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland (just a couple of stanzas here):
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."
If you want to read (or remember) the entire poem again, I've linked it here for your enjoyment. That will be what I will share with you to celebrate the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere in 2019. 

Now that I've written this post and didn't get all maudlin as I was afraid I might, I'll start the rest of my day. My sweet partner is still sleeping quietly next to me, and my tea is long gone, so it's time to finish. As always, I wish you, my dear readers, a wonderful week ahead, filled with lots of laughter and light. Until we meet again next week.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick's Day 2019

Carter in our community garden 2019
It's St. Patrick's Day today. How did it come around again so soon? It's the story of my life: I barely finish the Sunday post and it's already Sunday again. My days are flying by at an alarming rate. In a couple of days, spring officially begins, and another winter will be behind us. In fact, this Wednesday at 2:58pm here in the Pacific Northwest, it will be SPRING. The Tulip Festival in the Skagit Valley is only two weeks away, but this year the tulips will be late, because of all our cold weather in February. I suppose with all this warm weather we're having right now it means that the early tulip varieties will begin blooming within another week or two.

Today I'll start planting the flowers I purchased yesterday into my front porch planters. It's such a good feeling to see the sun shining and everything greening up. Our wonderful community garden is in the best shape it's ever been in, since we have one new resident, Carter, who has helped to create a fine environment. He was out there improving things all winter long, so instead of going out to see the winter weeds having taken over, my own plot was quietly doing nothing under a bed of straw. I need to think about what I want to plant out there, but first I'll brighten up the front porch with lots of pansies and primroses.

I hardly know where to begin with my usual post ruminations. It's curious to me how sometimes I can barely decide which of many directions to take, and others my mind is a complete blank. That's sort of where I am today. I first looked up the history of St. Patrick's Day, wondering who he was.
According to tradition, Patrick returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The Declaration says that he spent many years evangelising in the northern half of Ireland and converted "thousands." Patrick's efforts against the druids were eventually turned into an allegory in which he drove "snakes" out of Ireland, despite the fact that snakes were not known to inhabit the region. ... Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, céilís, and the wearing of green attire or shamrocks. 
So he was another one of those guys who was converted and believed it was his calling to convert the whole rest of the world to Christianity. Since here we are in 2019 wearing lots of shamrocks and other greenery and drinking green beer, he was sort of successful in turning a regular day into a festival In Chicago, where an entire river is dyed green. You can read about it here. A video shows that it's really a vivid color and people love it. It's only done when the holiday falls on a weekend, apparently, so it's been six years since it was last turned green.

I've got some Irish ancestry in me, which I discovered last year when I spit into a little tube and sent my DNA off to be tested. I'm about half British and Irish, with no way to know how much for each one, but somewhere in the distant past my ancestors probably danced an Irish jig or two. And wore shamrocks too, perhaps. I'll find something green to wear today.

This past week was a challenge in being able to recover from some rather intense exercise. I had my usual two yoga classes, both of which were hard enough to make me sore, and then on Thursday we hiked up Oyster Dome, a couple of thousand feet of elevation, on ice and lots of snow. It took me a few days to recover from it; my knees don't do well traipsing through soft snow, and I was reminded once again that my cardiovascular system isn't what it once was. I struggled, but slept like a rock that night. Now that it's been three days, with a nice five-mile walk yesterday to work out the kinks, I think I'm mostly recovered.

I keep putting off joining the slower hiking group, because I don't want to leave my old friends behind. I look forward to being with them each Thursday, but this latest hike was just one more reminder that this summer I will not be able to keep up on the harder hikes into the High Country. It's good to push myself, I think, but still I must remember that everyone slows down, and there is a reason for me to pay attention to what I can and cannot do. Even as I write this, I feel a sadness come over me for having to face the inevitable.

This does not mean I will not continue to do all I can to stay fit and healthy, but there really is a change from year to year that I cannot deny. It does sometimes make me wonder if there is an underlying problem that my body is telling me to pay attention to. One of our regular hikers discovered that he has pancreatic cancer, but he was keeping up with us until one day, he just couldn't any more. I worry about something like that happening to me. It's the one cancer I fear the most, because there are no tests to detect it until it has spread. It's scary to contemplate.

But make no mistake about it: something sooner or later will surface to cause me to modify or reduce my vigorous activity. I am reminded of the Five Remembrances of Buddha:
  1. I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.
  2. I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.
  3. I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.
  4. Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.
  5. My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.
I have written about these remembrances before. But I conveniently forget as I live my life that they apply to me, too. And that I am no longer young, so it's evident that the vagaries of age are catching up to me. Pondering this, I realize that it's time for me to start focusing on that last remembrance: that my only true possessions are my actions.

But I must not forget that happiness springs eternal and that digging in the dirt and planting flowers are a wonderful source of delight. On St. Patrick's Day this year, I will be sure to spread around a bit of happiness into each soul I encounter. That begins right here, right now, with you, my dear readers. Let me wish each of you a wonderful day and week ahead, and that you will find happiness.
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
― Marcel Proust

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Springing forward

Pretty purple crocuses
One of these days, soon, I will be seeing crocuses in the yards and gardens around here, in the ground and not just in planters. Yes, spring is right around the corner. In fact, it's only ten days from now: Wednesday, March 20, at 2:58pm PDT. It's been a hard winter for many of us, and I look forward to the last of the icy patches being gone from our usual hiking and walking trails around town. Just yesterday, March 9, we had to change our usual walking destination to one less likely to cause anybody to get hurt trying to get some exercise. And we still encountered hard ice in shaded areas. We carefully made our way across without anybody slipping.

This morning I checked all our clocks to see if any of them didn't make the time change, and sure enough, one in the kitchen will probably need new batteries before it recognizes the change. Doesn't it seem like we just went through this? It's been four months, and I'm really beginning to think it's a waste of time, not to mention an hour of lost sleep, messing around with the clocks like this. Some places don't bother, and there is a movement afoot here in Washington State to stay on Daylight Saving Time year round. I'll vote for that.

We are in the midst of an astrological phenomenon known as Mercury Retrograde. Most people don't believe astrology is real, and especially something as esoteric as the apparent backward movement of a planet. But I've been fascinated by it for a long time, and I've paid attention to whether there really are more miscommunications and snafus during this time. Whether it's because I'm paying more close attention or not, things seem to break down more often during this period.

Our television lost its picture a couple of days ago. Hmmm. Although we still had sound, the picture was completely gone, so it was time to find a new one. These days, flat screen TVs are so cheap that it made no sense to try to repair it. Off we went to Costco yesterday to find a new one. For a few hundred dollars, we got another similar to what we had, and installed it in place of our old one. It works fine, but we'll keep the box it came in for a few days, just to be sure. We went from a 36-inch to a 43-inch screen, and although for some people that seems very small, for us it's just right. Now I need to figure out how to dispose of the old TV screen, since you cannot simply throw them into the trash.

Fortunately, looking online it was easy to find recycling centers nearby that will take our old TV. Apparently we can even take it to any Best Buy store for recycling. But it does make me think about how different our world is today. Just check google for information, and then look for what you want to recycle. How did I ever get by before I had this? Oh, right: telephone books and whatnot. You know, old school stuff. When was the last time you used a telephone book?

Need to check the weather? I pull out my cellphone and there it is, available at a glance. Some people even buy all their clothes and shoes online, using their computers instead of going to a store to shop. I myself like to see what I'm buying and try it on first, but I realize that's pretty old school for many people these days. Our world is way different today than it was even two decades ago. I read that there is only one Blockbuster store left; I remember when they were everywhere. Who rents movies any more? Now you just stream it onto your TV or computer. Some of us still go to movie theaters, but we are more the exception than the rule. Even new movies are available to stream pretty quickly after release.

I remember reading recently about two young men who were given a rotary phone and asked to make a call on it. Predictably, they had never even seen one in use, and couldn't quite figure out the dial. I remember when phones were connected to the wall and the concept of carrying one around in your pocket was science fiction. Much of our lives today seems that way to me, when I think back to the days when we didn't even have TV, much less all the other bells and whistles we take for granted today. In developing countries, cellphones are everywhere. While most people don't have smartphones, almost everybody everywhere has a mobile phone. This website tells of the changing world and how technology has the ability to lift people out of poverty. It's very inspiring to think that people who don't have access to educational opportunities are getting them through their mobile phones.
Mobile phones and tablets are bringing teachers to students in underserved regions like never before, thanks to dropping hardware costs. Rumie’s low-power tablets, pre-loaded with entire libraries, first got sent into action during the Ebola crisis, when schools in Liberia were shut down for months. 
There are many advantages to the technology of today's world. I feel very fortunate to have been around during this period of history. And I ponder what wonders will still become reality during my lifetime. I found this lovely quote from Steve Jobs:
Technology is nothing. What's important is that you have a faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them. 
I believe that, too. As I sit here typing away on my laptop while still in bed before the sun comes up, I think about all the other electronic wonders that fill my life: that brand-new TV in our living room, the cellphone in my pocket, and the high-speed internet that connects me to the vast universe of information, giving me the opportunity to write this post and send it out into the blogosphere to be shared with all my virtual friends, all in the blink of an eye. Wow!

Well, it's getting later as I sit here, and I think about the day ahead. I will be going to the movies with my friend Judy and then sharing a meal at a local restaurant with her. But first there will be my morning gathering with my local coffee shop buddies. It's become such an important part of my day. Plus I've got a couple of books from the library to read, and a great partner to share my life with. I am indeed a fortunate person.

I will end this post with a wish for all of my dear readers: that you will take a few moments to appreciate all that you have been given, however much or little it might be, and that you will share your gratitude with your own loved ones. They might not even be on the planet any more, but they are still loved. Perhaps they are with us in ways we cannot fathom. In any event, I wish you all good things until we meet again next week.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Pondering the passage of time

Mt. Shuksan in 2013
While searching around in my pictures for something else, I rediscovered this picture I took of Mt. Shuksan six years ago. I've been hiking with the Senior Trailblazers since 2008, and it was right around the time I took this that I changed over from using a regular camera to using my cellphone to capture all my pictures. This is one of the last ones I took with the camera.

I feel very fortunate that I can still make it into the High Country during the summer months, because it's not only very beautiful and soothing to my spirit, but I also have an incentive to keep myself fit enough to continue with this activity. And that's saying something: the inevitable passage of time means that several of my fellow hikers are no longer able to do it. One day, that will be me, but not today, not this year (I hope). I've gotten much slower going up steep terrain, but so far I haven't needed to turn around and retreat on any hike. There have been a few close calls, though, and it's been enough to make me think twice before heading into the wilderness this coming year on a sunny day with a difficult hike. There is always the option of heading out with the other group, which goes slower and doesn't push quite as hard. But I would miss my dear friends, so we'll see what the summer brings.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. —John Muir
How is it possible that more than a decade has passed since I began the pursuit of spending every single Thursday learning about this area? If you think about how many weeks that would be, how many drives on old logging roads to get to trailheads, how many pairs of hiking boots worn out, well, it's a significant number. I didn't set out to accomplish more than one single hike. It's been a wonderful journey so far, and I don't know when it will end. But I do know that it will. That's what happens as we move through our days.

This winter has brought major changes to many of my friends. I learned recently that two of my favorite fellow gardeners in our community garden will no longer be planting. One has moved away, and the other is no longer capable of carrying out the bending and stooping that gardening inevitably requires. Another reminder that nothing is static in this world. It saddens me, but I will certainly not be giving up my own spot in the garden this year. I actually like the soreness that comes after a day out there preparing the soil to receive tasty vegetables. I look forward this year to enjoying tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, and maybe a bit of fennel and kohlrabi from my little plot.

One of the good things about keeping a blog is being able to look back and remember what my life was like five or ten years ago, to reminisce about my first years here in Bellingham and what I expected from our move into our retirement. It's been way more rewarding than I would have expected. Sometimes I think about all those years I spent skydiving, and how I believed that I would never want to stop, but time passes and things change. Now, it's difficult to understand how I ever managed to do hundreds of skydives every year for over a quarter of a century. That was then. It's not who I am today.

That lesson tells me that there will come a day when I will not be hiking every Thursday and spending time in the wilderness. And there will come a time when I will also give up my spot in the garden. Is it a good idea to consider what and who I will become in another decade? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that it's almost always a slow process, imperceptible change but change nevertheless.

I don't mind. One of the realities of growing old is realizing that as things change, our spirit becomes stronger as our bodies begin to fail. There is never one vantage point that stands out as the pinnacle of success, of accomplishment, of "having arrived." Wherever I stand in this wonderful world, the ground will shift under my feet and I'll be somewhere else before I know it. Looking at the magnificent scenery from atop a mountain peak is gratifying, but then one must turn around and begin the descent. And sometimes that descent is just as delicious, with the right mindset, anyway.

Well. It is now time for me to begin my descent into the day's activities, now that I've finished this post. Or almost finished it. I believe it will be another sunny day, with a stiff northeast wind, so I'll bundle up as I head to the coffee shop to see my friends there, to drink my favorite latte, and to share the conversation and concerns of my dear coffee-shop friends. Then I'll come home and putter around, maybe begin to think of what flowers I'll want to plant on my front porch this year, who knows? The day is new and fresh and hopefully will be bringing all of us something we can appreciate and delight in.

My partner is quietly sleeping next to me, my tea is gone, and it's time to get going. I'm always surprised at how I begin to get restless after sitting here and writing for awhile. I do hope that whatever you decide to do with your precious day, it will bring you to the end of it with some satisfaction. I'll be doing just that myself! Be well until we meet again next week.