Sunday, March 29, 2009

From The Book of Time

Everyone lately (that I am following, anyway) is writing poetry right now. And although I am usually thinking in prose, I really appreciate the poetic mind, maybe because I'm prosy. I share with you another favorite poet (Mary Oliver):
I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But it's spring,

and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass.

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.
That is from page 17, The Leaf and the Cloud. Ah, spring!!! Yesterday it rained here all day, was cold and dreary, and I thought today would be the same. But instead, the clouds cleared off, the sun came out, and it was gorgeous all day long. Cool, clear, breezy.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Oh wow, my hummingbird feeder is now on the local radar! They have just arrived, and I've rearranged my feeders to add one for the hummingbirds, and I hung bright red streamers to say to them, "hey, come check me out!"

I love my birdies, and right now I can see pine siskins, chickadees, house finches, juncos, and those graceless house sparrows from my window. The tube feeder has tiny little openings that are strategically placed so that the birds must eat while hanging upside down. This keeps the sparrows from them, as they are perch challenged. I saw why, when one landed on a perch and tried fruitlessly to find a hole at beak height. When he saw it was below him, he tried in vain to reach it until he finally fell off, the pine siskins knocked off their perches as well. It was comical to watch.

Now don't get me wrong, I love all my wild birds, but the rapacious sparrows are my least favorite. I see a dozen little heads peer over the railing, all at once, then here they come, like a marauding band of thieves. They shove the peaceful juncos away from the millet and the staccato beat of their heads reminds me of dozens of sewing machines going all at once. Then as suddenly as they show up, they leave, all in a flurry of wings. The juncos who have been hanging back slowly approach and resume their more leisurely feeding style -- if there's anything left.

Last week, while I was sitting at my computer, which is strategically placed so that I can gaze out the front window while composing, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a red streak checking out the feeders. It was a hummingbird! They're back! My feeder has six little holes in it and a red top so you don't have to color the water to attract them, and I found this site and will read it carefully and take it to heart. As they suggest, I'll add a hummingbird garden as soon as the weather warms up a little more.

Days pass, no hummingbirds come to check us out. And then, this morning, one small brown hummingbird has been flying within a few feet, looking. And just a few minutes ago, she landed and stuck her long beak into the sugar water. Now I keep looking up to see if she's returned. The brightly colored one I first saw had to be a male. That's about all I know about hummingbirds -- for now!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Amethyst remembrance

"Do you have any kids?"

I hesitate. In my new home town of Bellingham, I make new friends and new acquaintances almost daily. The majority of the attendees in my gym class are women, so this is a very common question. You naturally wonder about the lives of people you see every day and you strike up a conversation.

"I had two sons. One died in infancy, and the other one died while serving in the Army."

Where we go from there depends upon the response. One is extreme discomfort and what looks to be a desire to take it back. "Oh, I'm so sorry I asked." In this case, I usually change the subject and allow the awkward moment to pass.

But sometimes I get a moment of silence and then some gentle curiosity. In these cases we can start a conversation. "My son Stephen was 13 months old when he contracted spinal meningitis. He was only sick for a few hours before he died. I was 22 at the time, a long time ago."

Far more difficult is conversation about my second son, Chris, who died in 2002. He was married and stationed at an Army base in Germany. One morning at work I got a long-distance call from Silvia, Chris' wife, and she was hysterical. I could not make out what she was trying to tell me. I remember saying, "What's wrong? Where's Chris?"

"He's dead." More hysterics. I am in shock. A voice comes on the phone, a man who is telling me something about Chris having died in Macedonia while on an assignment. The man told me to go home and wait for the Army personnel who would come to see me and give me the details. Because I was unable to drive myself home, a co-worker took me there and I called my siblings to tell them what I knew.

Three young Army personnel, two men and a woman, came to my door. The woman was holding flowers that she had bought for me. Later, I realized how difficult this had to be for them, and I found out they had never done this before. (This was before the war in Iraq; now they must have done this numerous times.) Since Chris was married, the Army had no provision to get me to Germany. I was dumbfounded. I was his mother! Doesn't that count for something?

But no; I was no longer considered to be the closest living relative. My long-time boss felt this was unconscionable, so he gave me a business-class ticket and $500 and told me to go. I went. Business class was invaluable, because I was in no condition to be sociable.

I saw him one last time, behind a glass, him in full dress uniform, with Silvia's sobs providing the sound track to the memory. When I returned from Germany, I wrote a memorial to him here.

This is hard, really hard work. No need for endless details, because what I have written here has stirred up enough grief for me to process for days. It's always there, lurking and able to be accessed by myriad life experiences. And Stephen was only the first: now I have lost so many others, as well as my parents, that sometimes I wonder if I have become hardened to it all.

But every once in a while something will touch me so deeply that I cannot hold back the tears, healing tears, and grief. Emily Dickinson's poems often touch me that way. The title of this post is a tribute to one of her poems that reminds me of what I have lost.
I held a Jewel in my fingers -
And went to sleep -
The day was warm and winds were prosy -

I said " 'Twill keep" -

I woke - and chid my honest fingers,

The Gem was gone -

And now, an Amethyst remembrance

Is all I own -

ED, c. 1861
This picture is the last one that was ever taken of Stephen. He was my best friend back in 1965 when he went to join the angels. When I look at that mother's face (me) and I think of what she has ahead, what she must face, I get all soft inside and wish I could have told her it will be all right, someday you will be able to write about it, and open yourself to the healing rays of the Light.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

You're Going to Skydive?

In the early 1990s, two friends of mine died suddenly, and rather unexpectedly. One, Robert, died of AIDS, and although he was sick for a long time, it wasn't until his final few months that he began to deteriorate. I was one of his caregivers, and I would see him a couple of times a week, ask him what he needed, give him foot rubs and read to him. I loved him like a sister, and he knew it. For years we hung out together, and he would tell me of his exploits (well, at least some of them).

He introduced me to Emily Dickinson in the early 1980s when I rented a room from him and his partner. Back then, I came home from a month-long trip to Peru with hepatitis A and Robert took wonderful care of me. He brought me books, fed me good food, and basically made my two months of home care bearable. We became really good friends.

I was so sad when he died that I decided I wanted to face the fear of death, as I had dealt with the fact of someone close to me dying, and I knew someday it would come to me. I decided to make a skydive as a memorial to Robert. He died in the spring, and in order to get maximum benefit from the ordeal, I would wait until fall, and see what thoughts and issues emerged in the meantime. In a way, it felt like if I were able to leap from an airplane, it would symbolize leaping into the unknown.

The lag between decision time (making an appointment at the local Drop Zone to make a tandem jump) and the actual event also let me milk it, announcing my intention to friends and family. Of course lots of people were horrified; I was already in my late 40s and it was considered quite daring, even a tandem jump. My mother, however, when I told her, "Well mom, I just wanted to call you and say goodbye, just in case something happens to me, even though it probably won't." She was unflappable, and said,"Oh, you'll love it and spend all your money on it." She really wasn't even frightened a little bit for me!

But of course she was right. She knew me pretty well. Nightmares for the last week before the jump had me kneeling in the doorway of the airplane, begging my instructor not to make me do it, a yawning chasm of darkness waiting to swallow me up. I showed up at the Drop Zone and met my instructor and proceeded to ask question after question, hoping to delay the inevitable.

But it was time, and I boarded a small Cessna with three other people, one of whom would exit early, making a jump from a lower altitude. He could tell how nervous I was, so he tried to calm me by telling me that he had made over 3,000 jumps himself, and that the way I was feeling was perfectly normal. The tiny plane took off, with me sitting on the floor in front of my instructor, and when we were about 3,000 feet above the ground, Mike (the solo jumper) rolled the canvas door up and looked out. I shrank from the enormous hole that had appeared in the side of the plane. Looking back over his shoulder at me, a big smile splitting his face, he leapt out of the side of the plane and looked back up at me, with two big "thumbs up" framing that smile.

The door rolled down again, we climbed the rest of the way to altitude. Once it was rolled up again I, strapped to my instructor's front side, exited the airplane at 12,000 feet above the ground. I remember the wind, the gasp of fear as I followed his instructions and entered freefall. We fell out of the airplane and began to ride the cushion of air. I was unaware of anything at this point, other than a sense of ecstatic otherness, because I was not dead, I was somewhere else, and time had become meaningless. Freefall was my whole existence.

I see a hand, pointing at the ripcord, and I remember that I am supposed to pull it, do something in this environment. I pull it and suddenly the freefall comes to an end. Amazingly, I am suspended under a beautiful rectangle of color, and my instructor's voice: "Well, how was it? Was it what you expected?"

No answer. I was transported, looking at the sky, the ground still far away from us, and feeling like I had survived a defining event in my life. We glided to the ground with a soft landing, and I was a changed person.

The non-skydiver in me had been peeled away, revealing the skydiver beneath. Within two months, I had completed a freefall program that allowed me to jump solo. Now, two decades later, I cannot imagine how my life would be without having made that first leap. I met my wonderful partner through skydiving, whom I married in freefall, and having made another 4,000 skydives to this date, I now write about it for you. This is our wedding portrait in 1994. Thank you for reading about this, and I hope, truly hope, that life brings you something as fulfilling as skydiving has been to me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Patron Saint of the Internet

Long ago, when I was a young woman, I read a fair amount of philosophy. I got started by being turned on to Carl Jung, and I read his treatises avidly. Then I branched out to explore some of the other more esoteric minds, like that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He is often referred to as the Patron Saint of the Internet. Why?

Well, because he was one of a few people who thought of the universe as consisting of three parts: the geosphere (inanimate matter), the biosphere (biological life), and the noosphere (human thought). I was absolutely fascinated by his description of human thought as being born out of the other two, and leading to... where? From Wikipedia:
For Teilhard, the noosphere is best described as a sort of 'collective consciousness' of human beings. It emerges from the interaction of human minds. The noosphere has grown in step with the organization of the human mass in relation to itself as it populates the earth. As mankind organizes itself in more complex social networks, the higher the noosphere will grow in awareness. This is an extension of Teilhard's Law of Complexity/Consciousness, the law describing the nature of evolution in the universe.
Wow! I remember how deeply this impacted me then. And now, at least four decades later, I am sitting here, at this computer, blogging. In other words, I am creating the next step in evolution, according to Teilhard. I am also quite aware of the enormity of what I am saying. If evolution indeed exists, and everything points in that direction, then we, fellow bloggers, are in the process of creating something that has not existed before, at this point in time. Just like other authors before us who created stories out of their imaginations, we are creating a universe of connectivity out of ours.

I got a wonderful email from a fellow blogger this morning, who asked me to tell her a bit about my life, telling me how different my journey is from hers, and I was dumbfounded to find that parts of my life that I take for granted are not part of her own life. I have been an exercise fanatic for so long that I can barely imagine my life without it. It's been almost two decades since I made that first fateful leap into freefall. And my years as a hippie are also not part of her consciousness, not part of what she knows.

This gives me a chance to examine, articulate, and express here, in the blog, what I know. And in the process, I will have added my own existence to hers, while I fly through this blog and that blog, adding other experiences to my own, and thereby changing mine as I integrate new ideas, new ways of thinking. I am truly excited by the possibilities ahead. And, to quote my favorite poet (one paragraph of three) that states this fact with eloquence:
I dwell in Possibility -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -

ED, 1862
Through this prose, I examine the Possibilities ahead and transform my mental landscape. Thank you for joining me on this journey, fellow bloggers, and who knows where we are headed? Do we have any limits?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Speaking with Walruses

The time has come, the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings.
I woke up this morning with this Lewis Carroll poem wandering around in my head, and as soon as I logged in (which for me means I'm not even out of bed yet) I googled it and read the whole thing. Had forgotten the meaning of the poem, that the Walrus and the Carpenter were leading Oysters out of their beds and into Lunch.

After having read the whole thing through twice, I once again was struck by the incredibleness of words and word play, and the ingenuity of the human mind. Just for more fun, I went to my favorite blogs (star is the most prolific) and noticed that lscollison and star BOTH put pictures of the massive Universe on their blogs, one by linking to Astronomy Picture of the Day and the other with an educational journey through various sizes of planets, stars, galaxies.

So instead of reading the New York Times and the Huffington Post to accompany my morning tea, here I am sitting in bed with my laptop, it's still dark outside on this Sunday morning, writing about... what? Creativity. Creation. Life: what a journey we are on, feeling the remarkable and breathtaking possibilities we have, if only we take them.

Yes, we are less than a speck in this massive universe, but right now I am struck by what we can create, if only for ourselves and each other, that feels large enough to encompass the entire thing. We can imagine without limit. And with that thought, I think of Emily Dickinson, long dead, only a few decades on this planet, who wrote such an amazing collection of poems that it boggles my mind.
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.

ED, 1896
I see it's even now dark outside and my partner still sleeps next to me while I bang out these words, with a day of possibility ahead. What shall I create?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My musical journey

On Facebook, one of my relatives, who played in a band and can't be even 30 years old yet (Matt), asked people to list 25 albums that have influenced their lives. I think he said something like having "changed the way you think of things." Hmmm...

This morning I worked out with my usual Tuesday morning friends. The music we lifted weights to was a CD of the Beatles. Music I've known for 40 years or so, that I hear in elevators as Musak, in gym class, and interestingly, when I walked into the local bakery today for a loaf of bread, the Beatles were playing overhead. Now that's so pervasive that I wonder how I could classify the music of the Beatles as having changing the way I think of things. But it has, definitely.

It was in the 1970s when I first heard of the Beatles. As a young mother and then as a young divorced mother, I was oblivious to any contemporary music for several years. When I was a teenager, however, I well remember the first album I bought: Fats Domino's My Blue Heaven. I had my own record player, and this was a 78 rpm record. Perhaps the reason I remember it so vividly was that shortly after buying it and proudly laying it on my bed, I sat on it and broke it in half. I must have played it a few times, because I still remember the songs and the raspy voice I loved.

In the 1970s I had an opportunity to go back and experience what I had missed while having babies: the Psychedelic Era. I joined a hippie commune in California and sent my son to live with his father in Michigan. During this period, I learned about music and was introduced to the Beatles. We listened spellbound to two albums in particular: the White Album and Sgt. Pepper. I loved those two especially. I just looked up the reference in Wikipedia, and I was struck by this quote:
On the 40th anniversary of the album's release the Vatican issued an unusual review of the album. The official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano published a lengthy article which declared that "Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled." Forgiving John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" slight, the paper called the White Album the "creative summit" of the Beatles' career, comparing it favorably to contemporary music and taking note of the now antiquated equipment used, concluding that "a listening experience like that offered by the Beatles is truly rare."
That 40th anniversary was last year (2008), and you still hear the music everywhere. Who doesn't know about the Beatles? Who isn't continually struck by their lyrics, when you accidentally hear a phrase that strikes you as new and you wonder what it means?

I asked the young clerk at the bakery how old she is, and she replied, "Twenty-six." This means that she was born in the 1980s, so I asked her if she knew what music she was listening to. She said, "Sure! It's the Beatles. I've got a video game of theirs."

Back to the future, here we come.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Special Birthday Storeberry

When my little brother Buz once asked me to help him get some "storeberries," I didn't actually hear what he said exactly, because down there in Texas, "strawberries" could sound a whole lot different than what I heard. But he explained, "you know, you get them in the store." Then I realized he had heard "storeberries" instead of "strawberries," which made a lot of sense to a rural kid who had never seen one growing naturally.

As a little girl my father tried to teach my sister and me to play chess, and we naturally thought those little parts that you move around a lot were called ponds. Pawns were never anything that kids under 12 would have heard about.

I love language, and as I grew older I also realized that a voracious reader needed to know a whole lot of words, and I enthusiastically sat around with my sister and read the dictionary for fun. When we came across a word that sounded funny or close to another one we already knew, we would play with it like some kids played with dolls. This made perfect sense to me as a good way to pass the time.

Now one of my favorite things is to get online on Saturday to read the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the first thing I head for is William Safire's column "On Language." They even have a whole page dedicated to language, and his column is highlighted there. He picks some likely word and dissects it, telling why it is in the current lexicon, and how it morphed from one meaning to another. Very interesting!

To celebrate my brother's upcoming 50th birthday, I have reminisced about the good times we had growing up, but since he's 16 years younger than me, most of the memories I have were when I visited my family while living elsewhere. For a short time I lived with my parents during a particularly nasty divorce, and in an attempt to make a fresh start, I got a job in downtown Fort Worth and signed up for karate lessons with Buz and his friend Victor. We must have had a lot of fun, but I really don't remember much from that time except heartache.

But Buz, I wanted to give you something that might actually having meaning for a while, so I rummaged through my old pictures, and I have a LOT of them, before digital imaging became the norm, and I scanned a bunch and made a Flickr site to share. Now, if there are any in there you don't like, or want me to remove, you'll need to tell me, because I (of course) love them all, from over the years. I still love that little boy who wanted the storeberries, but I also really love my grownup, middle-aged, still filled with wonder little brother.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Threescore and Ten

I remember when I was a kid, and I would say to someone, "I'll [fill in the blank] for the rest of my life!" That connoted endlessness, in other words, "for the rest of my life" was considered to be forever. And it is, actually, since when one's life ends, forever ends too. Doesn't it?

As I got older, I realized that the phrase is not endless; I learned that the considered span of an average life is "threescore and ten" (70 years). Well, now that I'm 66, that's right around the corner! Does "the rest of my life" means four more years? Since that is an average, I assume now that I'm older it doesn't apply to me. I don't use the phrase "the rest of my life" any more, because I'm quickly entering into the era where anything after the next four years is gravy, not to be expected.

Today, I read that Paul Harvey died at the age of 90. I remember hearing him on the radio decades ago (not that I was a fan, but he did come on the strongest radio signal in Texas when I was living there in the 1960s), so I would hear him at noon. He told a narrative every day he called "The Rest of the Story" that would tell of somebody's situation, and at the end he would add a twist that made me remember the story for a long time. He signed a contract for ten years with a radio station at the age of 82 -- and he almost made it to the end. I guess for him it was his wife who died the year before that sort of took the joy of living with her. Funny how often I read about long-time couples dying within a year of each other. He also lived two decades longer than "average."

I can understand it a lot better now, because I have a partner who shares most of my day with me, and although we live very different lives, it's the sharing of our lives that gives a level of meaning to it that really adds flavor and significance to my daily life. I read this paragraph last night in my latest book by Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth):
As my parents approached their old age, she and my father had grown fond of each other, out of habit if nothing else. I believe my absence from the house, once I left for college, had something to do with this, because over the years, when I visited, I noticed a warmth between my parents that had not been there before, a quiet teasing, a solidarity, a concern when one of them fell ill.
This is written from the point of view of the daughter of a Bengali arranged marriage of two people very different from one other who moved to the United States and made a life together. I thought of my own partner, who is so different from me that it strained credibility that we would be together, much less happily together. He is on the far end of the Bell curve of introversion, and I am on the other end of extroversion. His car is neat as a pin, with nothing in the back seat or the trunk. I use my car as my extended backpack, which is also none too neat. I go to bed early; he goes to bed late.

But what he does have is the ability to analyze and examine in detail, and our conversations often go on for hours as we take stock of assumptions and discuss our differences. I think we have helped to enlarge the other's life in ways someone who is more similar in approach would be unable to accomplish. We are a good complement to one another.

As I age, I am finding it easier to let go of things I thought were part of me: sexual attractiveness, well-toned arms, a firm chin. I watch myself in the mirror as I work out (along with the other dozens of people of all ages and sizes) at the Y, and I think I look pretty good for my age. But that's the difference: now I add those last three words in my mind: for my age.