Thursday, April 30, 2009

It still hurts

I just received a wonderful email from my nephew Joey, who is stationed in Iraq. He communicated with the (then) captain who made my visit to Germany for my son Chris' funeral so memorable. Joey sent him an email, then (now) Major Lawrence answered him with a story about Chris that I didn't know.

It's been seven years since Chris died. How can it still hurt so much? This picture of him was the last one I took, probably in the early 1990s. When I went to Germany, I gathered every photo I had of Chris over the years, and I guess he has changed quite a bit, because several people who knew Chris asked if it was his brother.

I realize that I live my life without dwelling on the past, but I keep the triangle box with the flag and his medals on a special shelf, with a picture of him (that is the one surrounded by stars here) and a small picture of Stephen, his brother who died long ago as well. But I don't look at the memorial, I don't look at the box unless it's when I dust it off. My mind just slides right by. But today I feel a squeezing around my heart, as I read the story Major Lawrence told about Chris. I beg his forgiveness for my choosing to put it here without asking permission first:
I have so many stories you may not the day following 9/11 when our unit was guarding Warner Barracks Kaserne in Bamberg. We had limited ammo that had been left over from a range so each Soldier only had a few rounds.....well your cousin, my armorer at the time, decided this wasn't a good thing; people had just been killed by terrorists so he went up to the DIVARTY headquarters marched into the DIVARTY S3s office and said "I am SPC Heath and my unit needs ammo now, not tomorrow but now, if we are guarding a Kaserne then let's do it right".... I received a call about 10 minutes later from the DIVARTY S3 telling me he had never seen such a thing in his entire career but he would be damned if SPC Heath wasn't right...the next day every Soldier had a basic load. This was the kind of Soldier he was, tell it straight whether you wanted to hear it or not. It is so be able to remember this like yesterday.
My son. My precious beautiful Chris, who knew what was right and what was wrong, and he did what he thought was right whether it followed the chain of command or not. I heard this over and over when I was in Germany. Chris, I still miss you. I hope you will be hanging around up there waiting for me, so that when I cross over to that new land, I will be able to hug you once more.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jet lag and circadian rhythms

Yep, it's over. I'm here sitting at my beautiful iMac blogging from home again. I've been awake after all that travel and the 9-hour gap in my day won't be missed after a day or two or three. Just about the time you get completely adjusted to the time change, it's time to turn around and come home. Yesterday I started the day watching the sun come up in Zurich at 6:00 am, and then it didn't go down again for 20 hours, traveling with the sun. Arriving in Seattle at 8:00 pm, the sun was just going down for the first time since I watched it rise in Zurich.

But I'm home now, and I'm determined to stay awake until somewhere near the normal time to sleep. I started my usual routine, although I couldn't stay asleep and woke at 4:00 am. Wikipedia explains why jet lag is supposedly more difficult traveling from east to west. Here they use two scenarios, traveling east from LA to London and traveling west from London to LA, an 8-hour time change:
The first scenario is equivalent to staying up all night and going to bed at 6am the next day — 9 hours later than usual. But the second scenario (eastward) is equivalent to staying up all night and going to bed at 2pm the next day — 14 hours after the time one would otherwise have gone to bed.
Maybe that's why I seem to have more problem traveling east to west: my circadian rhythm seems to be shorter than normal. Most people's circadian rhythm (their normal sleep/wake cycle) is slightly longer than 24 hours. Studies also seems to show that it takes about a day per time zone to recover. Of course, that would mean that I didn't fully recover before it was time to come home, but I know I did.

It sure helped to work out at the gym today, and visit my friends at the coffee shop. This is a wonderful place to live. Yesterday when we arrived at Dulles and stepped off the plane, it was a shock: more than 90 degrees F and, being a Sunday, packed full with people, almost every flight oversold. And stepping off the plane in Seattle, the air was crisp and cool, aahhh, Pacific Northwest, you are my home. I now proudly call myself a Bellinghamster...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

An unexpected stay in Zurich

Here I am looking out the window at 7:00 pm, watching the sun go down here in Zurich (and the day is just starting for you across the water). Macedonian Air (MAT) came through with shining colors. After putting us on a 10:25 am flight on Helvetic Air (a small Swiss airline), we arrived here with our bags and no prospects of getting home. There is no United desk here, but the SAS counter had an absolutely wonderful young man who helped us talk MAT into acknowledging that we were their problem.

Long story, but they have paid for a hotel room for us, dinner (which I just finished, it was salmon and truly lovely), breakfast tomorrow, and we will take our original flights home, just one day later than planned.

The shock of having no warning at 5:30 am of what we had to face today, and its successful conclusion, allows me a little room for rumination. Interesting to me how many people smoke in this part of the world. I sort of expected it in Macedonia, but here in Zurich I went out to the garden outside the restaurant for a beer and had to leave because people arrived with their conversations and cigarettes. It reminds me of the way it used to be in the States but is no longer.

Tomorrow we will finish our journey home, and I can starting thinking more philosophical thoughts, not the all-consuming travel issues. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stranded after Ohrid

Well, this happens to all travelers now and then: you get somewhere and you can't get out. It's happened to Mickey (my ex-boss) and me here in Macedonia. Our flight out was scheduled at 6:30am, we showed up at the airport and immediately noticed that our flight was not scheduled on the departure board. Hmmm. After many frantic attempts to communicate, we learned that the airline has folded -- as of last night! Nobody at the desk, windows shuttered, no way to find out what to do next. We called our local organizers (they're sitting a table away with Mickey while I blog) and think that another airline will take us four hours later to Zurich. Of course, this means we will miss our connections, but if we can just get to a place that has a United Airlines ticket counter, we can get home. So now we wait.

But yesterday was another completely different story. Ohrid lived up to all expectations, it's so absolutely lovely. The tectonic lake is as big as a sea, very beautiful and absolutely stunning. The lake and old town are protected UNESCO sites, and now I see why. Take a look at this beautiful old church overlooking the lake:
And the sky was clear, the gentle breeze off the lake just perfect. We had a great day, I went home and packed, and now here I am in the airport, the not-so-great Alexander the Great International Airport. It's 7:00am in the morning and I've been up for three hours, looking at a long slog home but I'm feeling better now that I have a friend who speaks the language AND English. It's so unnerving to feel so vulnerable, unable to communicate or find out what is going on.

All I need to do to feel better is to remember that lovely lake, the fields of flowers, the wonders of Macedonia to forget that I'm stranded here. More later.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Skopsko and Ohrid

No, these are not the names of a pair of lovers (although the names are lovely enough, they could be). Skopsko beer is some of the best beer I've had in a long time (not to mention its 7.5% alcohol level), and I've been happily having at least one every day, and sometimes for lunch AND dinner. My South Beach diet went out the window for the duration of this trip, and I'm not at all unhappy about it, although when I get home, it's back on the wagon.

We will finish up the conference tomorrow (Thursday) by compressing a bunch of stuff so that we can make a field trip to Ohrid. This city of 3,000 churches is located on the edge of the largest tectonic lake in Macedonia, a lake that has been here since the Ice Age. I found this wonderful website about Ohrid. From the site:
According to the myths and legends [Ohrid] was built during the times of other classical civilizations such as Phoenicia and Troy in the 2nd millennium B.C. Whatever the actuality is, Ohrid was and is a secret and sacred land. It is a city where mysterious royal golden masks have been found, where the Goddess of destiny, Isis, used to have her cult, where grandiose basilicas were built as Christianity evolved, where the famous scholars Sts. Clement and Naum founded one of the first universities of Europe.
We will travel there on Friday, all of the workshop participants, and I'm really looking forward to it, although our flight out of here at 6:30 am on Saturday will make me a tired puppy by the time I return to Bellingham. It's a three-hour trip to Ohrid into the mountains and three hours back. We are going to leave at 6:00 am and return by 6:00 pm.

I forgot my camera when I went out yesterday (because I was busy downloading pictures and left it in my room) but it was raining anyway so it wasn't really critical. Tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two days down, three to go

I have made it all the way through the first and second days of the conference, with 15 pages of single spaced notes handed to Mickey and then I walked home from the university while he stayed talking to the other organizers. It's a different world out there today, the first day we have been here since the four-day Easter holiday has ended. Amazingly different: the streets were hard to cross, and the university students packed the hallways. Yugos (still around here!) and other small cars are all you see in the streets, other than an occasional motorbike.

Dragena (from Bosnia) and I managed to dress almost identically and we laughed about it. I love these three women from Bosnia-Herzegovina, they are so smart and pleasant. I left the conference while the participants were doing a cognitive mapping exercise and I was not needed. A long day from 6:30 until 5:30, with two hours for lunch, which was walking around and eating Macedonian "fast food" near the university (a spinach and cheese quiche-like thing), much better than McDonald's -- which BTW, there is one just down the street. I will, if I can think of it, take a picture of the inside for comparison.

Tonight Cvetanka and I will go shopping for my souvenirs, while Mickey goes yet one more time down to the square. I've now been there three nights in a row, and I'd like to see something different. I am really tired of taking notes and need a break from thinking about the conference. It does look like we might be able to take the half-day on Friday and compress it into Thursday so that we can go on a field trip to Ohrid Lake, which everyone says is spectacular. It is several millennia old.

The phone just rang, Cvetanka will meet me in twenty minutes. If there are great pictures from tonight, you will see them tomorrow!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Happy Easter (Orthodox)

This photo shows a young Macedonian waitperson serving red Easter eggs on Orthodox Easter to the patrons at the restaurant where we had some very good food, and I had Skopje beer, which is quite good, by the way. I'll enjoy it again before I leave.

Today was a Bellingham weather kind of day: some light rain, sunshine, clouds, and then full sun after we took shelter from a cloud with lots of thunder rolling in the background. Felt right at home, at least weather wise. Most people don't speak much English, although the satellite TV has plenty of British channels. I was taken aback by all the sex channels, pretty explicit in what I considered to be a rather strict government ("Hot Arab Sex!" "Iraqi Sex Kittens!"). It does make me wonder if repression of women's rights leads to men objectifying women in this way.

Take a look at this statue we happened upon. Mickey is "talking" to her as she carries on with her cell. She's got such a low-cut dress that in real life she would be arrested in the US for indecent exposure. I notice a lot of the women dressing in what I would consider revealing attire.

And then just around the corner from that bronze statue is a shrine to Mother Theresa, who was born in Skopje. It's a lovely place with a small garden and a bronze statue (seen in yesterday's blog post) and another beautiful marble statue seen here. Since it was Easter Sunday, everything is closed down (and will be tomorrow, Monday, as well). They are observant Christians here in Macedonia, pretty much, with definitely contrasting cultures. I was going to attend Easter services, but I opted instead to go outside of two churches during services and light candles for the souls of my departed children. Mickey also lighted candles, but he chose to light them for the living Macedonians who are suffering in political and economic difficulties.

I see by the clock on my computer that it's almost 10:00 am on Sunday morning in Bellingham, while I'm looking at the clouds again covering the sky as it nears 7:00 pm in the evening. Tomorrow the meeting begins, and I will be working hard to help it become a success. Most of the participants have arrived at the hotel, and I notice that several of them speak little to no English, which is supposed to be the conference language. Should be interesting to see what happens. I also see Mickey is pulling one way while the other organizers are pulling in another.

See you tomorrow! Hope you are enjoying reading these as much as I am enjoying writing them. By this time tomorrow I will have recovered completely from jet lag, but right now I'm beginning to fade a little. A glass of good Macedonian wine should do the trick when I need it tonight.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Skopje arrival

I am almost not conscious right now, 4:30 pm on Saturday here in Skopje, but all is well, I made it here in one piece, and Mickey made it here as well, although his flight was delayed from Boulder by over an hour, so he barely arrived before we had to leave for Skopje. I caught this great picture from the plane of the Swiss Alps (we had barely left Zurich when I spied this picture).

The arrival at Skopje Alexander the Great Airport was kind of, well, surprising. It's one of the tiniest international airports I've ever seen, and there were signs of recent political and economic unrest. Once we deplaned, we were herded into the customs area and the door was locked behind us. We were met by our hosts, Cvetanka and Juvin, and driven to the center of town and then to the hotel. I am on the fourth floor but the elevator takes longer than to walk up, so I may decide to move down a floor or two. The room is nice enough, though.

Mickey and I took a walk around town to see some of the local sights:
This is main street in Skopje. That's downtown off in the distance, where we just did some walking around and grabbed a quick sandwich and I had a Heinekin with thoughts of Linda and Bob.A local shop I found interesting, although I didn't go inside, because it's Holy Saturday and everything is closing up early, with Monday also a holiday. Mother Theresa was born in Skopje, and I saw this statue of her.Since this is about all I can do with as little sleep as I've averaged for the last two nights, I'm going to call it a day and resume this journey on Easter Sunday here in Skopje.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In Dulles, part 2 of 4

I got here in Dulles right on time, although there was a very wimpy jetstream wind behind us. We arrived a little late, but that was due to not having the usual push. I watched two movies, which were really wonderful to help pass the time: Yes Man (with Jim Carrey) and An Unfinished Life with Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. By the time I was finished with those two, it was almost time to land.

What blew my mind is how much I enjoyed the Jim Carrey movie. I would never have watched it on my own, but now I feel differently. It was funny, sensitive, and enjoyable. I would not hesitate to watch another Carrey movie. I had already seen the other one, but I enjoyed it also. And my two seat mates were interesting and friendly (and not huge).

I arrived here at Dulles and wandered around for awhile wondering how to connect. (Seattle connection sucks, BTW; I spent an hour trying to connect to ATT&T while paying them $7, but it never happened so I gave up). Then I saw the United Red Carpet Room with a sign outside, saying, "Sign up for a Day Pass." So I went in and found that I could use 7,000 miles (or $50) for a 24-hour day pass, including connectivity and food (not to mention a nice safer feeling venue). It will also work for Zurich's two-hour layover, so I did it, and here I am.

I have had my evening Cabernet, although it's really only 1:30pm in Bellingham. I have another half hour here, then I leave for Zurich. My fellow traveler from Denver (my ex-boss Mickey) may or may not make the connection, since the snow in Denver delayed his flight for an hour. But I will be met at the Alexander the Great with or without him!

Check out Linda Collison's blog, as she's also live blogging from Amsterdam on her trip with Bob! This is fun, at least so far! It's only early afternoon in Bellingham, but I still have two long legs to go...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In Seattle for the night

No pictures, but I wanted to say: here I am in Seattle at the Clarion for the night. Leave at 5:00am to get to the airport by 5:30 and fly out at 7:30 to Dulles. Two hours in Dulles, and then a flight from there to Zurich. A couple MORE hours, and then a flight to Skopje, making my arrival somewhere around 12:30pm on Holy Saturday before Easter.

The 3-hour bus trip from Bellingham made me happy I was not driving. The traffic in Seattle is so heavy and non-stop that I was sure several times we wouldn't make it within three hours (it's a 90-mile trip). But we did, thanks to the expertise of our driver.

In Skopje, Friday and Monday are holidays, although we will be having our meeting begin on Monday. What a trip! I am happy to be on the road, but tomorrow will come far too soon, so I'm signing off after all, in order to hit the sack.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Going to Macedonia

You would think I would be ecstatic about traveling to Eastern Europe, starting tomorrow (the 16th) when you have the ticket and travel expenses paid for. But no, I am actually dreading it. This will entail more than a day of travel in each direction, and I am not going to take any personal time of my own.

In my former life I did this a couple of times a year: travel to a foreign spot with Mickey (my old boss) and sit through conferences (filled with pontificating academics who use twice as many words as necessary), taking notes on my laptop and writing up the report afterward. Occasionally I am quite interested in the proceedings, since they involve climate change and extreme events, and I am now pretty well versed in those subjects.

I am being called to do this once more, as the UN organizer (who I worked with in Hanoi) asked Mickey if I could be persuaded to help with one more conference. I agreed, mostly because I feel that Mickey and Claudio are good guys, and I know I could help with the website and the report (link takes you to the website as it exists prior to the conference).

The meeting will be held in Skopje, Macedonia. I have provided a link to the time and weather that really helped me figure out what to bring (I'm still in the packing stage, however). The city is very old (inhabited since at least 4000 BC) and has lots to explore between working hours. This old aqueduct was built in the Roman era sometime after 148 BC (nobody knows for sure but that is when this area became part of the Roman province of Macedonia). So I will be thrilled to learn more about this part of the world.

In a strange twist of fate, Skopje is also only a few miles from the place where my son Chris died in 2002. He was stationed at an Army base between Kosovo and Macedonia, and I will be in Skopje for Easter. I am very much looking forward to going to church on Sunday and hopefully lighting a candle for Chris' soul. Years ago, but not long after he died, I had a very vivid dream: Chris and another deceased friend were walking along a path towards me, smiling and laughing. They waved at me, and Chris said, "see, Mom, we're doing just fine!" The sunlight was shining down on their shoulders, and that image has stayed with me as if I had seen it in real life.

With what I have learned about the brain, I now realize that within my memories, that picture is every bit as real as those I remember which actually took place. So I will spend this time in Skopje appreciating what I can find out about this ancient part of the world, to which I have a very special link. Today Skopje is very much a modern city with a wide range of cultural monuments. I will arrive at Alexander the Great Airport. How cool is that?

I also look forward to the Skopje Bazaar. According to Wikipedia,
In the past all economic activities in the city were taking place in this bazaar. In the period between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Old Bazaar reached its urban and economic zenith, developing into one of the largest and most significant oriental old bazaars in the Balkans. It is full of bustling shops that beckon visitors. This bazaar is an interesting mixture of Eastern and Western culture.
In the past, it was my habit on these trips to buy some small trinket for friends who would not be able to visit such an exotic place, and I will do that again with my new friends here in Bellingham. In China, it was silk scarves; in Vietnam, little carved boxes. What will it be in Skopje?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Brain lock

Okay, this is the last post (at least for a while) about the brain. This one is about brain lock, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The chapter I've just finished is called "Brain Lock Unlocked" in the book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007).

Many of my skydiving friends will recognize the phrase "brain lock" because it is often used to explain what sometimes happens to us in freefall when we cannot remember what we are supposed to do next. It also is used to describe the brain process that doesn't allow us to move on to the next thing, such as continuous hand washing, or as Doidge says, doesn't allow us to turn our mental page. This is what happens: you make a mistake (or get exposed to germs), and you get a nagging sense that something is wrong, and then you get anxious about it and try to correct the mistake. When you have corrected the mistake, your brain moves onto the next thought or activity, and the mistaken feeling and the anxiety disappear.

But in OCD, even though you have corrected the mistake (washed the germs off your hands, for instance), the anxiety doesn't stop, so part of the brain mechanism stays in the "on" position and you get brain lock. I distinctly remember (with a good deal of embarrassment) a skydive where I was supposed to take a particular position after the initial formation, and I could not remember what it was, although we had rehearsed the skydive numerous times on the ground. Two of the people on the skydive helpfully tried to point to my position, but I was at a total loss, and we could not complete the formation. On the ground, afterwards, we discussed what had happened, but it was definitely brain lock and nothing could move my mind past that spot.

The reason all this is so fascinating to me is that I and most of my siblings seem to have some form of OCD in our basic behavior. We all tend to be good at our jobs because we are detail oriented and scrupulous in our lives. Just take a look at the definition for the word:
scrupulous (of a person or process): diligent, thorough, and extremely attentive to details. Very concerned to avoid doing wrong.
Uh-huh. I recognize that, and I see it in every one of my siblings. I know that scrupulosity (isn't that a great word?) can become OCD if the brain becomes stuck in any part of the process. The good thing, and the reason I wanted to put all this down in the blog, is that now there is a recognized treatment for it. It's a four-step process, and works with great success if a person is motivated.

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior, offers the following four steps for dealing with OCD:

  1. RELABEL – Recognize that the intrusive obsessive thoughts and urges are the result of OCD.
  2. REATTRIBUTE – Realize that the intensity and intrusiveness of the thought or urge is caused by OCD; it is probably related to a biochemical imbalance in the brain.
  3. REFOCUS – Work around the OCD thoughts by focusing your attention on something else, at least for a few minutes: DO ANOTHER BEHAVIOR.
  4. REVALUE – Do not take the OCD thought at face value. It Is not significant in itself.

Source: Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders

The book I'm reading now is probably the last of these self-help books about the brain that I'll be reading for a while. Although it's all incredibly fascinating, I need to integrate and process what I've learned. I know my ability to reach saturation is very high, but then so much of it doesn't stick in my memory. And if I put the book down to come back to it later, I don't do that. I just move on, and one day I'll see the book with all those bookmarks sticking out of it, and maybe I'll pick it up, wondering why I ever put it down.

Ah yes, the plastic brain. My brother says he has a silly putty brain, not a plastic one. His status update on Facebook the other day:
Buz Stewart would not be just a nothin' his head all full of stuffin' his heart all full of pain, he would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if he only had a brain.
And I can't even LOOK at those words without the tune coming into my head. I sure do love my siblings!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tending my garden

Well, more about this "garden of the mind" business. Yesterday I watched "I've Loved You So Long," a French movie about a woman who spends 15 years in prison after murdering her 6-year-old son. You don't find out the details until the end of the movie, but it is very moving, especially to someone who has lost a child. She explains that she wanted to go to prison, because the loss of a child is a prison from which there is no escape.

I stopped this morning on my way out of the gym to watch the little toddlers playing in daycare, and I remembered there was a time when I could not even be in the same room with an infant without extreme emotional pain. Now I relish them, and I watched a baby around six or eight months old figure out how to put a building block into a holder. His fat little fingers and chubby arms used to cause me to experience severe pain, merely looking at him and realizing that my own little guy would never return.

There is escape from the prison of emotional pain. The passage of time and basically just continuing to live in the world helped to heal my wound. It took a decade before I realized that being around small children once more brought me joy. In Jill Taylor's book (mentioned in the previous blog, this link goes to her own website, My Stroke of Insight) gives the reader specific ways to change what you want to change by tending the garden of your mind, and gives you tips on how to do it.
Regardless of the garden I have inherited, once I consciously take over the responsibility of tending my mind, I choose to nurture those circuits that I want to grow, and consciously prune back those circuits I prefer to live without. Although it is easier for me to nip a weed when it is just a sprouting bud, with determination and perseverance, even the gnarliest of vines, when deprived of fuel, will eventually lose its strength and fall to the side.
The hard part is recognizing what is a weed and what you want to cultivate. In her book, she gives, over and over again, ideas about how to access the right hemisphere of your brain: feel how something affects your body, whether you like the way a person (or experience, or an emotion) makes you feel. When her left brain was compromised and she couldn't understand language, she knew when someone visited her who cared for her and would talk to her in a soothing tone of voice, she would relax and smile -- just the opposite would happen when someone shouted and expressed anger at her.

So, my task for the next few days is to notice these things: what makes me feel good, and what makes me feel bad. Writing in this blog definitely makes me feel good, and communicating with you, dear reader, makes me feel the bright laser beam of conscious thought between us is growing my garden in a way I enjoy. I'm digging in the fertile medium of words, playing.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Being in my right mind

Last night I finished reading My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. It seems that this woman who had spent her professional life as a neuroanatomist had a stroke that destroyed the functions of the left hemisphere of her brain. Besides being really lucky she was able to get help (she was transported into a state of bliss where she felt everything was perfect just as it was and she couldn't remember words or numbers like 9-1-1), she recovered and wrote a book about her experience.

Fascinating, especially after my most recent ruminations about what remembering and knowing really are. In fact, it was while getting a massage that I mentioned to my therapist about memory and how the brain works, and she told me she was reading this book, which I went right out (afterwards, that is) and bought it.

Taylor really demonstrated to me how necessary both parts of our brain are, and how our brain communicates between the hemispheres. At first, I was all "well, the right brain is where it's at" until I realized this:
One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories. ... It functions by taking whatever details it has to work with, then weaves them together in the form of a story. Most impressively, our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data (p. 143).
Oh, well, then: if I want to write and create, I need both hemispheres! Dang! Just when I was getting used to thinking I would spend my time cultivating my right brain centers so I could become a creative writer. She mentions, in the chapter entitled Tending the Garden, that "how we choose to be today is not predetermined by how we were yesterday." We can choose to change, grow, evolve, based on our intentions.

Okay, that's where I will focus my day today: seeing my body and my mind as malleable, changeable, and help to evolve the planet, one step at a time, into a more peaceful and loving place. I can do/be that!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Working out and wearing out

By the time I was in my early thirties, I had been a cigarette smoker on and off for more than a decade. In the sixties, you could smoke anywhere and at any time. I smoked at my desk at work, at church, and at restaurants when I had dinner out.

(One of the reasons I love to watch Mad Men is remembering how it used to be back then; everyone smoked and thought nothing of it.)

But one day, I knew I had to stop. I was 33 years old and could not walk up 25 stairs without stopping halfway up to rest. Knowing that if I didn't stop smoking, I wouldn't be very happy living in my body for much longer, I decided to quit, finally. Frankly, it was the hardest three years of my life, getting myself to the place where I didn't light up any more. Anybody who has successfully kicked this habit knows what I'm talking about. What was the secret weapon that gave me the ability to kick this habit? Exercise.

Buying myself a good pair of running shoes and lacing them up that afternoon and heading over to the high school track. A quarter of a mile around the track, and I figured I'd be well on my way. Hah! Within less than a mile, I gave up and made my way back home. The next day, even with the little bit of jogging and walking I'd done, I had shin splits. I headed over to the running store and learned that I would need orthotics, which I had to purchase to control my overpronation, and I put them in my shoes and never stopped.

I was one of those people who kept on trying, and eventually I ran several 10K races (6.2 miles) in Boulder. Last December I walked a half marathon (13.1 miles) with my family, although I can't run any more. Throughout my mid-thirties until I was in my mid-fifties I jogged several times a week. It really is addicting. And now I'm addicted to exercise, although now I work out at the gym and take classes. Being that I am currently in my mid-sixties, this is perfectly acceptable. Our bodies do indeed wear out, and if you continue to use yours like I did, it will wear out sooner.

I love to feel the endorphins kick in after a workout. Nowadays I hike 6-10 miles once a week with the Senior Trailblazers, a bunch of Senior Citizens who give me the endurance part of my workouts (more than a short burst, you need longer, lower intensity workouts occasionally to keep your heart in good shape).

This picture was taken last week at Baker Lake here in Bellingham, by one of my fellow Senior Trailblazers. That's snow, not sand, and that's Mt. Shuksan (I think) behind me. I started going out with them in order to keep up my fitness level, but I'm the one who is benefitting from their company and learning about hikes near my new home. And it all started more than three decades ago with a pair of running shoes and some old-fashioned grit.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poets and poetry

Today at the bookstore I picked up a new Mary Oliver book of poetry (Evidence). She's been a favorite poet since a friend gave me The Leaf and the Cloud a few years ago. The new book has a CD in the back, which I assume is filled with Oliver (or a surrogate) reading the poems inside. And friends are busy writing poems on their blogs, even sending me websites (here's Milkweed's e-poems) that connect me more than ever to current poetry.

I have been guilty of spending whole days of my life sitting around reading poetry of one kind or another (usually when I'm in love), and sending poems in emails to others. But what is a good poem? Some people I know are so prejudiced against poetry that they consider them to be just fluff. I have often wondered if a good poem is sort of like a sculpture: you remove all that is not the poem, and what remains is the poem. (A sculpture in this sense being where you remove and eliminate what is not the sculpture in order to reveal the underlying form.)

My favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, said this about poets:
I reckon - when I count at all -
First - Poets - Then the Sun -
Then Summer - Then the Heaven of God -
And then - the List is done -

But, looking back - The First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole -
The Others look a needless Show -
So I write - Poets - All -

ED, 1862
But of course she was one of the greatest poets, so it might look that way to her. There are people who have spent their entire lives studying her poetry, becoming Dickinsonian scholars. To me, a good poem is one that I read over several times and feel satisfaction afterward. A great poem is one that I read several times and I'm somehow expanded and elevated by having read it. I'm more than I was before, the poem is more than it was at the first reading, and my life is enriched.

Emily Dickinson was a real enigma. Only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime (all of which were altered by well-meaning editors), and it was only because her sister Lavinia found Emily's ebony box of poems after she died that any of them were eventually published. For the last two decades of her life, Emily never went out of her home and had no physical contact with others. When she had visitors, she sat on one side of the door, they sat on the other and they conversed. Although she had a very rich inner life and a lively correspondence, she ordered that everything except that box of poems be burned when she died, and so much of who she was in the earthly sense has been lost. In the book Ancestor's Brocades, by Millicent Todd Bingham, a quote offers a tantalizing clue:
When Colonel Higginson asked Emily whether "she never felt want of employment, never going off the place, and never seeing any visitor," she replied, "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time," and added, "I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough."
I myself believe that she was so attuned to her inner self and inner life that going out and being involved in the world would have tainted her somehow, so she lived in her father's house, in a real ivory tower. She fascinates me, because this person who lived as she did has expressed herself in poems that live on and on, long after her physical self perished, touching on the whole gamut of earthly life.

So many of us pass through this world and leave little or nothing behind for others. And does it really matter if we do? Who knows? But I thank God for Emily and for Shakespeare, and for Mozart, and...

If (When) Memory Fails

(Picture taken of me and my son in 1967)

While at the used bookstore last month, I looked for a good read that I knew I would enjoy, so I looked at books by some of my favorite authors. Pat Conroy's books, especially The Prince of Tides, are remembered as having been really good. I rummaged through the books and found a big fat one, The Lords of Discipline, and after having looked through it, figured I'd found a good read.

The book is about a military school and the way these schools break young men to become leaders. It was, indeed, a good book. But when I reached a point somewhere in the 400-plus range, I realized, for the first time, that I had read the book before! Something happened in the story that triggered a memory. But I did not remember any of the story until that moment.

This started me thinking about memory, and I went on line (of course) and found information about remember/know judgments. Our memory is not only faulty, but when we remember or know something (which is how we usually use our memory), there is no way to determine if what you remember is correct, except by external verification.
Remembering and knowing are states of awareness that accompany the retrieval of facts, faces, and experiences from our past. Although originally intended to separate episodic from semantic memory, the dominant view today is that recollection-based decisions underlie remember responses, whereas familiarity-based decisions underlie know responses.
What made me wonder about my not remembering the story until I was well into it was that I could not figure out which of these fit my forgetfulness. I have since determined that, since I read the story when I was in my twenties, I basically was not the same person who read the book in her sixties. My frames of reference are different, my life experiences are much more vast, and the young girl who read about a military school had very little to hang her mind around at the time.

I am now much more familiar with human conditioning that leads to behavior modification, and while I was a pliant, malleable person then, I was also not very reflective and seldom pondered deeper meanings of books of fiction. After thinking about writing this post, I wondered if my readers have experienced anything similar, or is it just that my brain has become so full that my memories are now spilling out my ears?