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 28, 2022

Dreaming and awakening

Fragrance Lake last week

When you look at this picture of Fragrance Lake, you can see that the reflections are almost as clear as the trees, but they are distorted in the reflection by the wind disturbing the surface of the water. Sometimes when I awaken from a dream, everything seems normal, but as the day begins to dawn, my perception also changes, and the dream fades as reality reasserts itself. Or, I should say, what I think is reality. Who knows for sure?
Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.―  Zhuangzi

When I first learned of this quote, I recognized the truth of it immediately. I have had dreams that were as real as anything I've experienced in my waking moments. I have memories from some of those dreams that feel like they actually occurred. Maybe they did, and this habit I have of sitting with my laptop and tapping on the keys is no more than a fantasy. This whole idea has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

The idea of time travel has also fascinated me forever. When I look at the pictures emanating from the new Webb telescope, looking at galaxies and stars whose light is reaching my eyes after a journey that takes millions of years, I can't help but wonder what they look like now. I'm looking into the past and have no way to see anything else. Or am I? Just like a dream, reality is not separate from my perception of it. Sages throughout history have told us that what we think is real is just an illusion, but if that's true, what actually is "real"? Inquiring minds want to know!

I think I mentioned here awhile ago that I have started a meditation practice, and for months now I have not missed a day without sitting quietly and following my breath. Of course thoughts intrude, but I've mostly managed to let them drift through my consciousness and let them go, and often I am simply amazed that a quarter of an hour has passed when my timer goes off. Surprised, I also realize that I am experiencing a peacefulness in a way I don't at any other time. Before I finish emerging from my twenty-minute-long meditation, I spend some time reciting some Buddhist prayers for the benefit of all humankind. At first I had to read them, but now they are part of me. They feel somehow more "real" after a quiet meditation period.

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. —Carl Jung

 Am I more awake afterwards? Something is different, but I cannot say what it is. And although I'd like to expand my meditation practice, it doesn't seem necessary at this point in my evolution. I'd just like to be able to remember what is important and let the rest go, just as I do the thoughts that emerge while counting my breaths. It simply staggers my mind to realize that I'm breathing all the time and am usually unaware of it. When I focus my attention, that breath is always there, a perfect way to build concentration. At first, I'd sometimes realize that I had captured a thought and stopped counting my breaths, but that happens less and less often these days.

1983 in our parents' back yard

Looking at this forty-year-old picture of me along with my siblings is a bit like peering into a telescope and seeing the past. We are arranged in birth order, with me wearing a skirt, of all things, and Norma Jean next to me, looking like a model. PJ died in 2014 of heart disease, which has taken so many members of my family. Our lone brother, Buz, begins the second family, so to speak, since he was born when I was sixteen, while the two youngest, Markee and Fia, were both born after I had married and moved away. Fia is almost exactly twenty years younger than me. None of us look like this anymore, of course. When I look at distant galaxies and wonder what they look like now, there is no way to know. But my family, my beautiful siblings, are still (except PJ) able to be seen as they are today. Looking at this picture, however, is a little bit like taking a spaceship back through time.

We live in an exciting time in the history of the world, don't you think? I am able to sit here in the dark, communicating my thoughts through the ether and will share them with you as soon as I hit "publish." Each of us exists in our own corner of the universe, but we can share our lives as if we were neighbors or family. We are truly connected. Some of us are dreamers and have our heads in the clouds, but others are more pragmatic and live in the here and now. There is no better or worse here, just difference, and variety makes life so much more interesting. I am thrilled that you, my dear reader, are part of my life, and that I will get to spend some time reading about your current lives. Many of you have been with me for years, and others have just recently hopped on the bandwagon, but all of you are precious and irreplaceable to me.

And now it's time to wind things up here, so I can get on with my day. My dear partner still sleeps next to me, probably dreaming of something that has the soundtrack of the tapping of keystrokes. Some of you have asked how he is doing, now that it's been two years since he experienced that stroke and has subsequently developed a few other issues. I can tell you that he is doing very well indeed, and continues to be my rock, my touchstone. He is closely monitored by his physician. Although we are getting up in years, we are blessed to be as healthy as we currently are. 

With that, I will sign off here, and wish you, every one, the very best of days and weeks ahead. And that your heart will find some time to be filled with happiness. Until we meet here again next week, I hope that all good things will come to you. Be well, dear friends.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Light and shadows

Me, Mama and our family car

While I was looking for something to write about today, I ran across this picture. It was obviously taken by Daddy, since many of our photos from that era also have our family car in the background. I think Daddy was as proud of that car as he was of his wife and daughter. What really stands out to me, though, is that cheeky grin on my face, as if the world revolves around that magnificent person. And indeed, at that time of my life, I was as privileged and as well loved as anyone could ever be.

I do sometimes wonder what my life would have been like without having been so well loved as a child, but you can always take on the feeling of having been a happy child, even if you weren't. Remembering what I wanted to do when I was young, I realize that now, since I have become an elder in the twilight of my life, I've done everything I wanted, and then some — many things I  never expected to accomplish. Take skydiving, for example. 

It came into my life in a coincidental sort of way when a friend decided he wanted to make a skydive and had learned about tandem skydives, where you are strapped to the front of an instructor. He asked me to join him in the adventure. We called the local Drop Zone and made reservations for the event in a few weeks' time.

This is how it works: an instructor is wearing an oversized parachute, and the two of you jump out of an airplane hooked together (passenger in the front), with the instructor opening the parachute at the right time and guiding you both to a safe landing spot. For my friend, it was enough to do it just once, but I was most definitely hooked on the sensation of freefall. Why? Well, it's almost impossible to describe what it feels like to be in freefall, feeling gravity pulling you towards the distant earth, with the rushing of wind in your face and feeling pretty much unmoored from reality. If nothing were to happen at this point, you would plummet to the earth and die. 

My mind must have realized that on some level, because I became paralyzed and unable to process anything for a few seconds. Then, after what seemed like a lifetime, I saw the instructor's hand appear in front of my face, and he was pointing toward the ripcord (which I was supposed to activate). Oh! Right! I managed to make my hand grab ahold of it and gave it a strong pull, and suddenly with a whump! we were no longer in freefall but under a brightly colored parachute. My instructor released the brakes and we took a few wonderful turns under the canopy. He also pointed out our landing area, which looked quite far away, but we made some nice sashays back and forth until we landed, unhurt and right where we were supposed to be. I was transformed! I knew I had to do that again, so in another couple of weeks, I repeated the experience (my friend was not interested), and after that I signed up to take a weeks-long course to do it on my own.

The rest is history: I made several hundred skydives during my first year. I learned how to control my body in freefall, open the parachute on my own at the right time, and ended up buying my own gear within a few months. Now I am retired from skydiving, but before I finished, I had accumulated more than 60 hours of freefall time, 50 seconds per skydive (you get a certificate from the US Parachute Association for every 12 hours), had become a freefall instructor and taught more than a thousand students, and set a couple of freefall records before hanging it all up. That little girl in the picture didn't know she would do such a thing, but it is one of my lifetime achievements. 

After landing

Along the way I met my life partner (who also has thousands of jumps) and although we don't skydive any more we have a very definite vocabulary that only skydivers share. Between us we have more than 8,000 jumps out of airplanes and many of them with each other. Just thinking about it, I can recall times when we held hands in the air and looked at the horizon and ground as we fell. We were definitely bonded by skydiving, and we ended up getting married in freefall. That was almost thirty years ago now. It's part of our journey together and always will be.

The things we do during our lifetimes shape who we are today, and I am happy to say that I never did end up living another person's life, just my own. Some people never break out of the mold that someone else puts on their life, with women often becoming wives and mothers and never finding out what they wanted to do with their own lives. I wonder if having lost both of my children contributed to my personal path opening up my future. Certainly taking up skydiving changed my life's trajectory, and I look over at my dear husband and am glad things turned out the way they have.

One thing that I never did was attend college long enough to graduate from anything more than a community college in California. I am convinced, however, that had I been able to matriculate at a good college, I would have become a scientist. Maybe a theoretical physicist who discovers the mystery of quantum mechanics. Who knows? I think my fascination with it shows an aptitude that might have taken me onto a completely different life trajectory. Maybe in another parallel universe I've figured out quantum mechanics, which doesn't allow us to make absolute predictions about the future. It only predicts the likelihoods of different outcomes to happen. It doesn't say anything about which one will happen. I love the uncertainty of it all.

In many respects, I've lived a charmed life, even though it's been filled with loss. But learning to live with disappointment, to find alternate ways to be happy, has actually helped me become a more unique individual, don't you think? As I ponder all the different directions I could have gone, other than the one path I have followed, I wonder if I could have become anyone else other than who I am today. It makes me wonder about predestination and the well-known "predestination paradox" that many science fiction stories use to great effect. For a fascinating concept, read Wikipedia's page on causal loops. I never tire of considering whether what we know as reality is, well, real. Maybe all that time in freefall has altered my sense of self. 

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature. —Joseph Campbell

I hope you will have fun today, and I do believe that we are all striving to understand who we are on this beautiful ball we call Earth. I had fun writing this nonsensical post about light and shadows. I'm standing in the light and creating my own shadow, which is filled with possibilities. It's time for me to get up and begin my day, and finding my way towards happiness and joy. I wish you all good things until we meet again next week, dear friends.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

A twenty-year anniversary

Squalicum Harbor on Saturday

We have perhaps a dozen different walks we do on Saturdays. Yesterday Melanie and I took a lovely walk to Squalicum Harbor, on a cloudy and cool day in the middle of August. Weather right up my alley, in fact. I am very happy when I can exercise in this kind of weather, rather than having the hot summer sun beating down on me, making it impossible for me to enjoy myself. This Harbor walk is in full sun, so we don't do it on hot days. We walked over five miles and it was simply lovely. I try to exercise every day, even when it's hot.
Millions of Americans today are taking dietary supplements, practicing yoga and integrating other natural therapies into their lives. These are all preventive measures that will keep them out of the doctor's office and drive down the costs of treating serious problems like heart disease and diabetes. —Andrew Weil

As many of you know, heart disease is rampant in my family. It took my father at 62, and my mother at 69. But the hardest one of all was my son Chris, who died at forty of heart disease. Tomorrow it will be twenty years since that fateful day. Although I was already pretty disciplined to get plenty of exercise and keep my weight in the normal category for my own health, I never expected that Chris would die of heart disease so young. 

Although I don't dwell on my losses, I considered writing a post about all the wonderful things I remember about Chris, but as I pondered how I might do it, I realized that I still, even after all these years, have trouble going there. Although I can recall and enjoy memories of my parents, it's not so easy when I think about Chris. However, over the years that I have been writing this post, I've attempted a few times to make sense of the loss. What follows is from a post I wrote in February 2010.

* * *

Yes, this post is hard to write, but not as bad as if it were still September 2002. That's when I wrote a remembrance to my son Chris at work. He died of what is called "sudden cardiac death" while jogging. Since this happened, I have seen several young people, usually men, written up on the obituary page as having died of the same thing. Part of the difficulty of it is that there is no warning, either for them, or for their loved ones.

I had just returned from Quincy where I had a two-week vacation, if you can call it that, jumping out of airplanes at the World Freefall Convention, tanned and happy to be back at work. I remember the phone ringing at 9:00am in the office and hearing the clicks and pops of a long-distance connection, and then a hysterical woman on the other end, saying things I could not understand. (Chris' wife Silvia was German and didn't speak great English at the best of times.) When I finally put together who she was, I felt a sick feeling and asked her what was wrong. She babbled something about Chris and finally said, "he's dead!" It was like being kicked in the stomach.

Finally Chris' Commanding Officer came on the phone and told me that Chris had died while he was on a three-month tour of duty in Macedonia. He told me in the gentlest way that I was to go home and wait for the soldiers to come to my house and inform me. I have a memory of one of my co-workers driving me home, but I was in shock. Once I got home, three young uniformed soldiers knocked on my door, one of them a young woman holding flowers in her hands and looking scared. They answered my questions, and told me that Chris' wife had asked for him to be buried in Germany, and as the next of kin, she could make that decision.

Then I found that there was no provision from the Army for me to get to Germany to see my son one more time. You see, I was no longer considered the next of kin, Silvia was. But when my boss Mickey heard about this, he presented me with a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt and $500 and told me to just go. I went to Germany.  I learned that Chris had been happy and very well liked, and I spoke to his unit one morning about how glad I was that he had found his place in life.

The funeral was very tough. Nobody had told me about the Army's calling his name three times as if he were to answer, and when he didn't, they played "taps" to honor the fallen soldier. It was truly hard to bear. Some very thoughtful person had recorded it and gave me a copy of the Memorial Service. I have never watched it, but it holds a very special place on my keepsake shelf, along with the triangular box that holds the flag with three spent shells inside.

I was 59 years old when Chris died on August 15, 2002, on the anniversary of the day that his brother Stephen had been born 36 years earlier. The difference between me, the 59-year-old, and that young 22-year-old who lost her child was like night and day. If anyone were to ask me which one was harder to bear, there is no question: the poor young woman who lost her son who never had a chance to live, or the older woman who lost her other son after he had found himself, a career and a wife -- I don't have to tell you, you already know.

I also wrote another post about my two lost sons on my other blog, which I called "Amethyst Remembrance" after a favorite Emily Dickinson poem. It gives more detail, but here I want to talk about who I am today, and how the loss of my children has helped to make me who I am. When Stephen died, I could not bear to be in the same room with a small baby, whose beautiful chubby cheeks or fat arms tore at my heart and made me so aware of my loss. I turned away and avoided touching that place inside that felt like it would never be healed. Chris suffered too, because he reminded me of his brother, and I wouldn't let myself love him unconditionally. I hardened myself in ways I didn't even realize. I think this is one reason why I went from one husband to another: it was impossible for me to reach down inside and be truly authentic with anybody.

But when Chris died, I had found a job, a life I loved, and a man who supported me emotionally. He had helped me work through some of the buried grief and I learned that I was not going to find myself through another person, but through examining my own motives and desires. This is much easier to do when you have a partner who knows how to facilitate this, and I have been very fortunate to have SG, who always asked the right questions.

Because I had healed from my earlier wounds, I was able to grieve properly for Chris. I didn't look away when I went to Germany and met his fellow soldiers, when I went to the PT field and did pushups and jumping jacks in his place. I let it in. And although I miss calling him and hearing from him on Mother's Day and his birthday (he called me then, not on mine), I know that he had found himself before he died. It's all any mother can ask for.

Chris died just before the war in Iraq started. Every one of those young men I met in Germany was deployed to Iraq, and Chris would certainly have gone there too, and would probably have died there instead of in Macedonia. He never had to go to war, and for that I am grateful. His roommate in Macedonia told me how Chris would come back to their room after having been in the heat of the day, guarding the border: he would strip down to his shorts, turn the air conditioning to high, grab a beer out of the fridge, and plop down with a satisfying "ahhhhh!" That's the way I like to think of him, with a hedonistic grin and pleased with a job well done.

* * *

And now, more than a decade has passed since I wrote that, and after having read it again along with all the comments that my followers and family left afterwards, I am both humbled and honored that I was Chris' mother.  As I look forward to celebrating my eightieth birthday this fall, I will always be grateful for the long and interesting life I have lived, with two angels waiting for me to join them.

My beautiful son on his birthday

And I am also so happy that I am still enjoying my life with SG, and as he sleeps next to me, I can only hope for more days and years of joy and fulfillment to surround not only me, but all my readers who still come here on Sunday mornings looking for a little inspiration to lift their spirits. Until we meet again next Sunday, I wish you all good things. Be well, dear friends.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Finding loving kindness

A forest of kindness in Oriental lilies

I love these beautiful and fragrant lilies. Most days since winter, I've walked past them in a nearby garden, where they have emerged from little green shoots sticking out of the ground to their inevitable fruition as startlingly beautiful tall flowers. Such abundance and smell, too! Did you know that lilies represent kindness and love?
A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. —Amelia Earhart

I like to think of how much difference each little act of kindness and generosity can make in the world today. Instead of concentrating on all the terrible news of the world, I will instead make a conscious effort to look out from my eyes at all the wonderful acts of kindness from others that I see all around me.

From the first early light of the day yesterday, I could see that we are indeed entering another phase of warm weather. Not as hot as some places, but warm enough that I need to make an effort to stay comfortable and out of the direct sun. It's interesting to note what a difference I feel between standing in a shady spot or standing in the direct sunlight. If a tree's shade makes that much difference to me, how can I doubt that a small act of kindness might alter the entire world? Like Amelia reminds us in the quote above, it throws out roots in all directions. It just takes time.

Although it seems often like time is standing still, it doesn't ever really stop. Being alive takes us on this journey from one state to the next, with no way to change the trajectory (except for one). Once I was a little girl, and now I am an old woman. There was no discernible boundary between these two very different states, but here I am, unable to return to my former state. But there are many sages that say time is an illusion and doesn't really exist at all. 

Abhijit Naskar, the author of Love, God & Neurons: Memoir of a scientist who found himself by getting lost said, “Time is basically an illusion created by the mind to aid in our sense of temporal presence in the vast ocean of space. Without the neurons to create a virtual perception of the past and the future based on all our experiences, there is no actual existence of the past and the future. All that there is, is the present.” I've only read the first chapter of his book so far, but I find it fascinating.

Okay, then. If there is only the present, if I plant a seed of kindness, how will it come to fruition? Well, that's easy: if the present moment is all that really exists, it's already there in full flower! We cannot help but be in it, and I see that my acts of kindness have already borne fruit. If this sounds confusing to you, you're not alone. I'm again flailing around in search of the meaning of time itself. We've been here before on previous Sunday musings. And every time I find a book that challenges my views, you are the recipient of my mental wanderings. 

In another book I mentioned here recently, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, she tells the story of a young girl who writes a diary that somehow gets into Ruth's hands, and it seems as though the girl might have been a victim of the tsunami that devastated many countries in the Indian Ocean in 2004. More than a quarter of a million people perished, and Ruth finds a freezer bag that washed up on the shore of her Pacific Northwest island. Inside she finds the diary, a watch, and some letters written in Japanese. The story is fascinating to me, because Ruth tells of a dream that altered the past and the future. Now that I have read this book twice, I still find myself remembering and pondering some parts of it. Can we really change the past?

Since nobody really knows what life is truly all about, or whether or not we are stuck in time, or whether it exists at all, my mind goes a little crazy thinking about it. I have always loved stories about time travel, and science fiction, so my imagination is taking me to a world where loving kindness is prevalent and is sending up new shoots of kindness everywhere, creating whole trees of joy. Why not?

A world that I can imagine like that might possibly be one that I can enter in my dreams, or maybe I can make it come into my daily life just by continuing to plant those seeds. It fills me with happiness to concentrate on how I might help this new world come into being, and part of my ability to create it starts from the words I'm writing right here, right now. People have been industriously creating a world that is filled with strife, but what if we could just stop it in its tracks and change it to one filled with rainbows? Oh, right: rainbows appear after a storm, don't they? I guess we'll need a little storm now and then to create rainbows.

Kindness is the only service that will stand the storm of life and not wash out. It will wear well and will be remembered long after the prism of politeness or the complexion of courtesy has faded away. —Abraham Lincoln

Everybody needs a challenge now and then, don't you think? I'm going to attempt to change the trajectory of the world just by the power of my mind. Can it be done? There is only one way to find out. When I sit in meditation this morning, I am going to imagine that I am helping to create loving kindness radiating out in all directions. You might actually find yourself caught up in it, too, and if so, by all means come on over and sit next to me. Together we can do anything.

Well, in any event, we will make a difference just by living in love and joy, rather than despair and defeat. My dear husband is still sleeping quietly next to me as I write, and the day ahead is beckoning. How much difference can I make in my day? Let's find out! Whatever your week brings you, I know there will be love surrounding you, because we are creating it. Until next week, dear friends, be well.