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, April 28, 2019

A slave to routine

Fields of tulips
Two days ago, my friends Lily, Cindy, and Maria and I all gathered together early on a sunny morning to travel down the highway to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. As we drove, we noticed low clouds moving in, but I assured everyone they would burn off before long. Not that I'm much of a prognosticator, but given that this happens often on our Thursday hikes, I was pretty sure I was right. Well, guess what? The clouds stayed around; we had a few sun breaks early on, but otherwise we had a brisk wind and low clouds, making me wish I had my down jacket.

Nevertheless, it was a wonderful day spent with great friends, and between us we snapped hundreds of photos. Cindy's phone ran out of battery power and shut off. We kept going until most of our phones were very low. And then we went off to the town of La Conner for lunch. It was a simply lovely day.

My usual Friday routine was completely off the rails. I didn't go to the Y to work out, and I missed my Friday yoga class. Considering that I was having a good time doing other things, I didn't think I would feel so unsettled about the change in my routine, but yes, I did. It makes me realize how much I have become a slave to my routine. Is that a good or a bad thing? I really don't know.

However, I was reading last week in a book by BKS Iyengar, the founder of the style of yoga that I practice, and he reminds me that most of us want to turn negative habits into positive ones. But he says that from there, you turn them into no habits. In learning to act in freedom, you act appropriately, unconditioned by the past. Just considering living every day without my daily habits gives me a sense of unease. As I sit here with my laptop on this early Sunday, I am typing away writing this post, a habit I can hardly imagine going without. Getting up, brushing my teeth and dressing, going to the front porch to do my early morning exercises before heading off to the coffee shop—I can't imagine doing something different.
We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we'll also have a lot more joy in living. —Thich Nhat Hanh
Now that I can probably manage: taking a break from my routine and paying attention to my surroundings. It amazes me how many times every day I see people with their total focus on their phones, whether they are on the bus (which now has free wifi), strolling on the sidewalk, or enjoying a meal. The art of conversation seems to have taken a big hit with the advent of smartphones. When I sit at the coffee shop with my friends, we have our iPads or phones open, too, but when one friend shows up, he insists that we all close our devices and visit with one another. At first I resisted, but now it's become a—you guessed it—a habit to close them when he walks in.

It's a worthwhile endeavor to examine my routine, I suppose, and perhaps even change a little of it now and then, like taking a Friday off and spending it with my friends. It certainly does make me aware of how much of a slave to routine I have become. I started doing the Five Tibetan Rites in early 2014, five years ago now, and I have not missed a day. They only take about ten minutes to perform, and I cannot imagine not doing them before heading out for the day. When I am traveling, it means getting up a little earlier, but as you must realize about me by now, I am definitely a creature of habit.

Sometimes, like when I was reading Iyengar's book, I think about trying to find a way out of my routine. When I do the same things day after day, as one gets older, sometimes I wonder if I am actually forgetting to do them, thinking that I have, when it was really the day before. When a habit is so ingrained that you are no longer even conscious of what you are doing, I can see how that would end up being a detriment to living a full life.

Of course, all habits and routines are subject to change, as we grow older and become unable to continue in our daily life as we have for so long. Illness and infirmity are also in my future, which will force me to adapt to another reality, but for now, I really don't know whether it's worthwhile to stir things up too much. I suppose that it would be much better to be conscious of my daily habits and not get too far into autopilot. That seems much more doable: bringing awareness into my routine.

This conversation has been going on inside me for awhile now. I have been thinking about my actions as being the ground under my feet, the only possessions I can keep. And apparently this conversation has been going on among humans for a long, long time:
All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire. —Aristotle
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C., so yeah, it's been awhile. As I continue to enjoy my daily routine, I am taking it upon myself to become more conscious of every act, so that I can exercise my mental processes and have a fuller life. My tea is now long gone, my beloved sleeps next to me, and the sunlight is streaming in the windows. It must be time for me to get going, as my post is now finished for the day.

I do so hope that the coming week will bring you plenty of happiness and that love will surround you as you move through your days. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday

Our Easter finery
My father took this picture of Norma Jean and me almost seventy years ago, in front of what must have been his pride and joy, our family car. I pulled this picture up at the coffee shop last week, and we discussed what kind of car that was. I heard names of automobiles that brought back old memories: Studebaker, DeSoto, Packard. We were never able to agree on what this car might be, but it's got two cuties standing in front of it, Easter baskets in hand.

I think Mama might have made our dresses. Mine is pale yellow, and Norma Jean's is pale pink, and hers has more of a ruffle on the bottom, but otherwise they are identical. I have used this picture before on this blog, but I never thought much about the car before. At the coffee shop, we perused many different makes of 1950s cars online but never saw any that look quite like this one. You can also see our home in the background, believe it or not. We lived on Travis Air Force Base in a duplex tar-paper shack, which housed enlisted servicemen and their families.

I am hopeful that the military no longer uses tar paper to make these buildings, because it contained a high quantity of asbestos in those days. We didn't live there too awfully long, but I wonder about our exposure to it at the time. These buildings were constructed as temporary housing, I'm sure. It's interesting to see such a fine automobile in front of such a home, don't you think?

For many years, I have wondered just what we did after this picture was taken. We never went to church when I was growing up, so did we just get all dressed up for the occasion and then play with our Easter baskets? It's a mystery to me, and unfortunately there is nobody still alive to ask. Neither of us remember all these years later.

The reason for Easter was never discussed, either. I'm sure that the religious aspect of the holiday never occurred to me. It was a time for a new dress and a basket filled with hard-boiled eggs and jelly beans, with maybe a bit of chocolate. There was never any mention of Jesus or any of that. Being raised in a home without any religious instruction seemed normal, because I didn't know any different, but now I wonder if it was really a blessing in disguise. I know many people who have rebelled against their family religion, but since I was free to learn all about it myself, I was able to choose what fit me best.

When I was a teenager living in Georgia, I started attending the nearby Episcopal Church, and before long my sister had also joined. We went to weekly services, and Norma Jean even began singing in the choir. I don't think I did, but I do remember going to Midnight Mass at Christmastime and truly enjoying all the pageantry. I was hungry for religious instruction and read the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer all the time, alarming my parents. At one point as a young teenager, I considered entering a religious community. The important thing for me at the time was how attractive the religious habit was; Episcopal convents weren't all that numerous, but I did study which one I'd like to join.

Obviously, that phase didn't last. But what has remained with me all these years later is the realization that I need some kind of faith to be happy and fulfilled. I don't attend church any more, but I did join several more denominations in my quest to find my own place. I was a Unitarian Universalist for many years, and then I moved on to study Buddhism and Hinduism. Now, in my later years, I realize that much of these religions are now part of me, without differentiating how much comes from each. They all live in my heart and soul.

Easter is filled with new beginnings and comes at a time of year when the environment is coming alive again after the winter period of dormancy. The birds sing, flowers bloom, and green shoots sprout up in every corner. When I walk to the bus early in the morning, I see changes from day to day, with tiny buds becoming flowers overnight and raindrops glistening on the leaves. A smile comes unbidden, my steps become lighter, and the beauty all around me fills me with gratitude.
We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won't need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don't fire cannons to call attention to their shining - they just shine. —Dwight L. Moody
Today I feel like letting my light shine, all day long, while at the coffee shop, digging in the garden, or writing this post on Easter Sunday. My partner still sleeps quietly next to me, my tea had turned cold before I finished it, but it's gone too, and the day beckons. I hope this day will be a wondrous one for you, my dear reader, and that whatever you decide to do with this day, you will also let your light shine. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all good things.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Enjoying the season

Everywhere I look, flowers in bloom
It's the middle of April already, and everywhere the flowers are bursting forth with fragrance and beauty. It's enough to make anybody smile, and it doesn't take much for me to enjoy the season. Even with all the rain we've had lately, it only makes me feel happy to be in the Pacific Northwest. A couple more weeks and I'll be able to finish planting my vegetable garden. What's out there right now is able to withstand the cold rain, anyway I hope so.

We've had almost two inches of rain in the past three days, which is considerable for a place that often gets precipitation at this time of year, but only a drizzle or mist, not a downpour. However, when I set out to walk yesterday morning, it was raining. Not a sprinkle or two, but real rain. I wore my rain pants, my newest rain jacket, a rain hat, and my waterproof shoes, so I was pretty dry, considering, but it's still not my favorite weather. I went to the movies with my friend Judy yesterday, and when I walked out of the theater, the clouds were gone and brilliant sunshine greeted me.

Lately I've been wondering how much of my disposition is innate, and how much of it is a choice I make. I am usually happy when I wake up in the morning, with only a few aches and pains that dissipate as I move around, and I look forward to the day. It's Sunday and this post is the only obligation on my schedule for the day. Of course, I'll get up and do my morning exercises, dress and make my way to the coffee shop, and I look forward to that, but that's it. The whole rest of the day stretches out in front of me without a plan. That's not usual for me, but I'll enjoy being able to make it up as I go along.

My sister and I were discussing our family the other day, and it came as a bit of a shock to realize that she and I are the only ones left who remember our grandparents. My maternal grandmother lived with us for awhile, as well as our paternal grandmother long ago. We were both quite young; Norma Jean was a preteen and I was lost in the drama of being a teenager when Mommy (that's what we called our dad's mom) lived with us. She had suffered a stroke and was unable to live alone and somehow she stayed with us until she was either moved to an institution or died, I don't remember which. She is the only relative that I ever remember having gone into a nursing home, if indeed she did.

I was involved with my own life and didn't spend any time that I remember talking with Mommy when she lived with us, but Norma Jean did. My sister was much more empathetic, while I fear I wasn't interested in spending time with old people. There's a bit of regret involved in my memories of those years, because I see how self-centered I was, unwilling to consider that she might have been an interesting person. Mommy told Norma Jean that she wasn't afraid to die, and that she had lived a good long life and was content with that. To a young girl with her whole life ahead of her, that was unfathomable.
Daddy, Mommy, Norma Jean, PJ, and me
As I sit here thinking about the past, I realize I have only a few pictures of Mommy. Our mother must have been behind the camera in this picture from long ago. This was before Mommy had moved in with us, but she visited often during these years. I don't know why she insisted that we call her by that name, but it's the only one I have ever associated with her. Her actual first name is the same one I share with her: Dorothy. She is the reason I was saddled with such an old-fashioned name, but I have always been called by my middle name, Jan. It wasn't until I grew much older that I decided to incorporate the first initial into my name, and now as I settle into old age, I'm simply becoming "Jan" again, and I don't mind. I still get an internal smile when someone calls me "Dee-Jan" instead of the much less distinctive "Jan," but these conceits are falling away as the years pass.

Now that I am old myself, I understand somewhat the idea of having lived a good long life and being unafraid of dying. However, it's not something I look forward to. I am so enjoying being in relatively good health and being able to plow through the days and months with a look forward towards the future. At some point that will change, but for the moment it's springtime in the Pacific Northwest. I've got friends and family, and a partner who is much more of a sweetheart than I deserve. Although I'm no longer that self-centered teenager, she still lives inside me. Fortunately for me, life has given me enough fodder to grow into an interesting person myself.

A person with a blog, too. Something that I have enjoyed for more than a decade now, and it certainly helps me discipline my errant and active mind into a single direction once a week. Writing all this down does help me to consider who I am today and who I once was.
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. – Confucius
And with that, I conclude this foray into my Sunday deliberations. It is now time for me to take a look around and start moving into the day's activities. Tea is gone, partner still sleeps next to me, and the sun is actually going to shine for at least a portion of my day. Rain is still in the forecast, but it's much less and I might actually be able to get into my garden today.

Until we meet again next week, I wish you, my dear reader, the best of weeks ahead, with lots of love and blue skies in your forecast. Be well until then.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Change is inevitable

Rain gear being well used
We are in a period of rain right now, and although this picture was taken last year, it could be us this coming Thursday. After weeks and weeks of sunshine and blue skies, we're in a rainy patch. I really don't mind, and yesterday I got some of my veggie starts into the ground, and they will be very happy to have the moisture. I feel gratitude every day when I get up and once again realize how lucky I am to live here, rain and all.

I've been thinking about the Five Buddhist Remembrances, which I've written about before, not long ago in fact. But they keep coming up to me, reminding me once again about how change is inevitable in life. The first Remembrance:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
There's something about having passed my seventy-fifth year that reminds me of this fact. If I were to die today, nobody would remark that it was premature. A few years ago, I found this lovely article in the Atlantic, about the author hoping to die at 75. Having just re-read it, I realize I have lived a full life, and I'm grateful for every day of relative health and activity I enjoy. Yesterday I walked five miles and listened to bird calls and took pleasure in the burgeoning spring. The second Remembrance:
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
Aches and pains come with the territory of age, and I have my share of them. Although I do what I can to mitigate them, they will not ever leave me permanently. Sometimes I wonder if this ache or that pain is something worse, something that will eventually kill me, but there is nothing to be done about it, since we all know where we are headed. Sorry if I have to remind you, but that is what remembrances are for. The third Remembrance:
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. 
This is true of everything and everyone who has ever been born. Now that I am in my twilight years, one thing that has become more important to me is gratitude for the life I have now, with the realization that at any time it might change, just as the weather has changed from sunshine to rain. We need it all. The fourth Remembrance:
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
No way to escape being separated from my beloved? How can that be? Oh, right: he's mortal just like me. Those beautiful, noisy birds in the trees are mortal, as well as the trees themselves. Every living thing is "of the nature to change." There is only one way I know to deal with this pesky fact: enjoy every moment, and be grateful for all that comes my way. And of course, the fifth Remembrance:
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
 After pondering the first four Remembrances, this one gives me comfort. It makes me realize that, although everyone and everything else in our lives is ephemeral, our actions are our only true belongings. That what I choose to do with my life, my day, my blog post, can make a difference. I like the part that reminds me that "my actions are the ground upon which I stand." That is what remembrances are for: to remind us once again about what is real and important.

During my long life, I have had many tragedies and disappointments. I could focus on those if I wished, or I could instead think of the inevitability of these events in everyone's life, and think about the good, beautiful moments I enjoy every single day. I have a body and brain that function moderately well, you might even say magnificently if you consider my age and relative ordinariness. My beloved partner and I share a life that I find fulfilling, my friends enrich my days with their presence, and I live in a modest but functional apartment that keeps me warm and dry. Why wouldn't I choose to focus on all that?

Yesterday I watched this YouTube video that also reminded me that all creatures know about suffering and loss, even if they are puppies watching the Lion King:

I was amazed that this puppy realized what was on the screen and reacted to it, with empathy and an obvious realization of loss. It is a reminder to me that we humans share our lives with wonderful creatures who know all about love.

And with that little gift, I'll move on to the rest of my day. I'll get up and go to the coffee shop to join my friends there, and then to the movies with my friend Judy later on. Plus a bit of time in the garden to see how my plants fared after last night's rain. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all the very best week ever. Be well, dear friends.