Apparently, I Would

“If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Moms Everywhere

“You and I are friends. You cry, I cry. You smile, I smile. You hurt, I hurt. You jump off a bridge, I’m gonna miss your emails.”

Unknown
Upper Falls, Old Man’s Cave
Hocking Hills State Park, 2021

“You know,” said my friend Sarah, “This decision would be a lot easier for you if you didn’t suffer from FOMO.”

“FOMO? What’s that? I asked, puzzled by this new term.

“The fear of missing out,” she replied

Lately, I find the idea of FOMO a stronger motivational force than at any other time in my life. As Senior Citizens, we are encouraged to prioritize our to-do list…a reminder to get busy checking things off while we’re still able.

As my senses and abilities slowly diminish, I recognize that I can no longer run my fastest or jump my highest. I know that there are choices I can no longer make, but I also know that I still want to experience the wonder, savor the sweetness, and enjoy the adventure of life. Perhaps, then, it was FOMO that prompted me…someone terrified of heights… to accept an invitation to join my sister, Penny, and granddaughter, Fiona, on a zipline tour in Hocking Hills of southern Ohio.


We bought our tickets months ago when snow still covered the ground. I figured it wouldn’t break my bank if I decided to chicken out at the last minute, but if I didn’t have a ticket to begin with, I wouldn’t have that option on zip-day. If I chose not to clip in and go, it would still be good, but if I were feeling brave, I’d be ready. In truth, even though I found the entire prospect frightening, I anticipated that eventually, I’d have a great time. So, I bought my ticket and tried to put the whole idea of actually stepping off the platform in the back of my mind.

“You’re not going to chicken out and even if you do…it’s all right.”

Sally Van Cise

Years ago, Kelly, my other daredevil sister, and I joined a group of women to go white water rafting down the Gauley River in West Virginia. One of the women in our raft was afraid of water, didn’t know how to swim, was terrified the entire time, and wouldn’t help paddle or assist with the raft. She had decided to join the expedition as a test of her faith which was fine, but she put everyone in the boat at risk and, at the first possible moment, was removed from the river by the rafting company.

I did not want to be that person…and yet…I knew there were similarities.

I began to gather more information about zipping and, more importantly, zipping for people afraid of heights. As the zipping date approached, I sought confidence in lessons from the past. I told myself to be present, take it one step at a time, and paraphrasing Rev. Bill…don’t leave the platform until you leave the platform…anticipating the fear would only multiply it. Breathe in. Breathe out.

My husband’s death left me suddenly without my partner, the other half of my act. Neither of us was especially brave or daring alone, but together we made a great team. He drove on the scary Rocky Mountain roads, and I led the way as a Russian man beckoned us into his home. I had no trouble understanding the Scottish brogue, and he could keep complicated directions in his head. I booked the flights, and he carried the heavy bags. We were a strong combination and had such fun together. Without my teammate, would I be like a Sea Star that can grow another appendage when one is missing and navigate the ocean flawlessly, or would I be like a two-legged three-legged stool that is fit for little else than kindling? Would I be relegated to adventures that didn’t include steep mountain roads or long, high bridges? Would I only be able to return to easily navigated routes or tours specially designed for Senior Citizens? So many questions begging for answers.

If you want to learn to swim, you have to get in the water. If I wanted new adventures, I’d have to be open to them, I’d have to say yes when the opportunity arose, and I’d have to be ready to face my fear if necessary.

We arrived a Hocking Hills Canopy Tours shortly after noon on a simply glorious day. Our guides, Todd and Kelsey, introduced themselves and our fellow Zippers. We were a group of nine; I was the oldest, least fit, and the most terrified. 

My strategy was to take one step at a time, be present, and not focus on what was to come. How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.

The harness. The helmet. The gloves. The instruction. The demonstration. The practice.

Stepping up and clipping on to the trial zip was absolutely horrifying. We were only feet off the ground, but it was at that moment that zipping through the trees became more than a theoretical exercise. It was actually going to happen. I thought I might cry or pass out, but I put my left hand on the carriage, my dominant hand…the braking hand…on top, stepped off the platform, and did it. Not well…but I did it.

Thoughts of that rafting trip returned as we were being transported to the first zip. “This is Jump Rock,” said Captain Mike. “It’s not Go Up There and Decide Rock. Once you get out of the raft, there’s only one way back in. You’ve got to jump off the rock.” Once we were clipped onto the zipline, the only option was to zip.

“You’re going to love it. Just don’t be first and be careful not to twist around and come in backwards.”

Shalini Suryanarayana

As I was contemplating this adventure, Fiona, assured me that, “The only difficult step is the first one. After that, you’ll be having fun and won’t even think about it.” That was true for just about everyone in our little squad, but it never really happened that way for me. The first two zips were conditioning me to the idea of being up so high, but I quickly learned that height wasn’t my only concern. Somewhere in the middle of the third zip…Screaming Eagle…couldn’t one of them have been called Floating Feather on the Wind…I began to twist. We had been warned not to come in backward…don’t let yourself twist. As I was trying to adjust my trajectory, I was racing toward the next platform. Where’s the braking signal? I can’t see the signal. Then…slide my right hand onto the line. Push down. Don’t let my feet crash into the tree. Adrenaline rush for sure. Ya, know…I discovered Adrenaline isn’t all that great!

Rope Bridges…Glad I Did It…Don’t Want to Do it Again!
Photo: Hocking Hills Canopy Tours

Between several platforms, we also encountered swinging rope bridges. You’ve seen the movies. As soon as the protagonist steps foot on one of those bridges…it is doomed to break. Gingerly, I propelled myself slowly across the wooden planks with the aid of the ropes and cables. I felt embarrassed about my glacial speed, but once again, it was one step at a time…and…by the way…don’t look down.

Don’t Let the Smile Fool You
June 2021

My son is an amazing athlete who pushes himself to do all kinds of difficult hiking, biking, and climbing challenges. He perfectly describes my experience zipping as Type Two Fun. Type Two Fun occurs when what you’re doing is so hard that it is not enjoyable, pleasurable, or bringing you joy. TTF kicks in afterward when you look back, smile, and say…” Hey, I did that.”

Yes! That’s Actually Me
June 2021

I’m not a big fan of flying, but it’s really just the take-off and landing that I don’t like. Stepping off the platform and trying to avoid crashing into the tree at the next platform was never fun for me. Take-offs and landings. I never got over being utterly terrified, but soaring through the trees was, maybe not first-order fun, but pleasurable, pretty cool…and…I did it!

Isn’t life itself an incredible ride? I’m glad I had a ticket. Take-offs and landings round our lives…birth and death…connected by a long ride through the trees if we’re lucky. Along the way, we have coaches and guides like Todd, who made sure that I was safely secured, given words of encouragement, and then sent on my way, and Kelsey, who would catch me on the next platform, usher me away from danger, help me gain my footing, and give me space to steady my nerves before the next zip. Along with coaches and guides, we are accompanied on the journey by others who have fears and challenges of their own, who wish the best for us, who wait patiently while we summon our courage, and who are there to cheer us on when we meet the test. In the end, no matter our style or comfort level, we all walk the same path back to the jeep, strip off our gear, get a certificate, and have the very same bragging rights. We did it!

I did it!

And Now the Slide Back to Earth
June 2021

*The vast majority of people who decide to zip through the trees like the birds or move squirrel like from tree to tree can manage their fears and actually have great fun. My sister and my granddaughter, for example, did two more zip tours after this one. If you are considering such an adventure, I highly recommend Hocking Hills Canopy Tours near Hocking Hills State Park outside Logan, Ohio. They are truly a class act! Ask for Todd and Kelsey. Tell them a big chicken with a certificate and bragging rights sent you.

The Depth of My Seeing

I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day.

Jimmy Cliff, I Can See Clearly Now

As I was getting ready to take a bath, the door suddenly opened, and without knocking, in walked my little sister…not an uncommon occurrence in my family. There’s not a lot of privacy with two younger sisters. I had already taken off my top and snaked off my slacks as well. While water filled the tub, I stood waiting in my panties and brand-new training bra.

Interesting concept that…an instructional undergarment. I never truly understood the function of a training bra. Training for what? But I digress and that of course is a discussion for another day.

Penny hesitated momentarily at the door with her mouth agape, shocked by the sight of her older sister sporting a brassiere. She quickly exited down the hall in the direction of our mother, pausing only long enough to shout back at me, “I’m telling Mom you’re wearing a breer!” Slipping into the bathwater I smiled. Yes, I was proudly wearing a “breer” and taking another step toward coming of age.

Don’t we all share similar milestones along our life’s journey? Losing a tooth, learning to drive, graduating from high school, the first job, marriage, children, grandchildren, all leading sooner than we imagined to retirement and Social Security. Cataract surgery, too, I now recognize as a senior citizen rite of passage.

During the past month I checked that off my list. Whoo! Hoo!

The local experts specializing in cataracts have refined the experience to a smoothly functioning assembly line…timed, efficient, and every detail carefully thought out, planned, and practiced. Throughout the entire process…start to finish…I probably saw my surgeon for less than an hour…including the procedure itself…as he moved from patient to patient, eye to eye. He was friendly, proficient, highly skilled…and he looked like he was about 20 years old. On the other hand, as I sat with my fellow patients waiting for our pupils to dilate, it was very evident that we all grew up with Howdy Doody, watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, learned to drive on a standard transmission, and remembered when kids played outside until the streetlights came on. None of us could remember getting old so quickly. By the way, if for any reason, you should ever need to find a collection of senior citizens, the waiting room of a cataract surgeon hits the jackpot!

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine

Over the years, I’ve asked many people what they recall about getting their first pair of glasses. Most told me that they were amazed to realize that there were leaves on the trees…not just a mass of greenery, but individual leaves! Of course, they knew theoretically that there were leaves, but until they got glasses, the leaves remained an amorphous green cloud floating above a solid grey trunk. The removal of my cataracts provided a similar experience. Within a couple of hours of the surgery for my first eye, I was amazed at the clarity, brightness, and color of the world around me. I felt like I was going from an old model television to high definition. When I tried to explain this phenomenon to my granddaughter, who has only known HDTV, she said, “Oh, You mean, like when you get a new iPhone”? Yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly.

I had to wait four weeks before I could get my second eye repaired. Even with one very good eye, I was still finding it difficult to read. My frustration with reading prompted me to proceed with the surgical option in the first place. I struggled to read the required texts for my class, and if I couldn’t get my book club pick in large print, it was a nightmare. As the scheduled date for my second eye approached, I began to wonder. What if it isn’t my eyes that are making reading difficult? What if I’m losing my ability to concentrate? What if I’m just not a reader anymore? What if? What if?”

Surgery for the second eye was scheduled for Wednesday morning at 8:25. A few days later, I found myself lost in the pages of a book. By Tuesday afternoon the following week…a mere six days later… I had finished a book of 566 pages! Granted, this was a book I was highly motivated to read, but it proved that I could still enjoy reading!

I was back!

I was overjoyed at my ability to find pleasure in reading again, but what really surprised me was how quickly I forgot how challenging my sight had been before the surgery. I am already accepting clear vision as a matter of course. Unless I get a smudge on the lenses of my glasses, I forget how difficult it had been to see.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly;

I Corinthians 13:12 KJV

Our brains are so amazing that unless we really focus on an experience and try to hold on to the memory the present pushes it to the back of our minds. The beauty of a summer day, the smile of a grandchild, or the taste of a ripe strawberry will easily supersede the pain of negative experience and while not truly forgotten it is nevertheless dulled and diminished…at least for a time…allowing us to enjoy the blessings of life that remain. Once the bad haircut grows out it is forgotten.

It has been a little more than a year since I wrote a blog post about what I thought it might be like coming out of the pandemic. I imagined that we were all standing on the threshold, moving from before to after. Of course, at the time, none of us could have envisioned just how vast that threshold was. We knew there would be a time after the pandemic, but it was as nebulous as the leaves on the trees pre-glasses.

As more of us are vaccinated and can once again gather in person, I find that it is becoming difficult to remember how painfully lonely I was for months on end as we avoided one another and kept each other safe by social distancing and self-isolating.

The weekly Zoom calls that provided at least a modicum of human interaction during the dark winter months are slowly being discontinued in favor of tentative in-person connections. Mask mandates are being relaxed and I’m finding that lipstick is once again part of my beauty routine. Our lives are quickly falling into a pattern that is comfortable and familiar. We can’t say we’re back, but we’re definitely on the way.

I don’t ask for the sights in front of me to change, only the depth of my seeing.

Mary Oliver

I am no longer worried that I may die from this dreadful infection, but I am worried that we…I…may forget the lessons learned about the value of human connection, human touch, and what’s really important. Rather than seeing the pandemic as the tree with undefined leaves, I might gather those truths that rest among the first leaves of Spring like the blossoms and press them to my heart instead of between sheets of waxed paper. This time of COVID has been painful, frightening, frustrating, and dangerous, but it also revealed a great deal of beauty in the way people supported one another with love, understanding, and kindness. Perhaps, as we emerge, we could remind each other of the blessings and gifts of grace this unique time has given us. Together we might be the people we hoped we’d be…the people we were meant to be.

Coming Out of Hibernation

“You have been asleep since November,” said Frog. “Well then,” said Toad, “a little more sleep will not hurt me. Come back again and wake me up at about half past May. Good night, Frog.”

Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Are Friends

Did you ever wonder why the famous February groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, retreats into his burrow, or when he does, what happens in the seclusion of his home? It seems to me that if the sun was shining, he’d want to take advantage of it, not spend more time in darkness and isolation. Either way…sunshine or shadow…he heads back underground. The only difference is how long he stays there. So what’s the deal? Once he’s ventured out, why doesn’t he just stay?

Maybe, just maybe, this is what is going on.

Phil peeks his little nose above the edge of the burrow just to check things out, assess the weather, and perhaps grab a cup of coffee and a muffin before waking the Mrs. He’s not expecting company, yet, suddenly he’s hoisted into the air on full display for the paparazzi. He just woke up, for heaven’s sake! He’s lost at least half his body weight during the winter, and his coat is a mess. Back down the tunnel, he goes where he gives his partner, Felicity, a shake. While she yawns and stretches, he finds a mirror and begins to take stock of his appearance. Together they agree that they’re definitely not ready to face the world and vow to remain below the ground until they’ve spruced up a bit. With the goal of a Rubenesque physique, Phil and Felicity put on some pounds with the food leftover from their winter hibernation and try to bulk up a bit…probably lifting weights and adding protein powder to their planet-friendly plant-based diet. They finally emerge six weeks later to greet the sun, green grass, and delicious Spring flowers with a bright coat, plump figure, and a smile. Too bad the paparazzi left weeks ago.

I’m Ready for My Closeup
Photo credit: Pixabay

Of course, I spent the major portion of my life in the company of children and I still often see the world through their eyes…so…perhaps that’s not be exactly what transpires down there in the burrow…but…it could happen.

Lately, I have been empathizing with hibernating animals, which are just waking up after a long period of inactivity in northern climes. The other morning I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and immediately thought…Mama Bear. Granted, my hair was without the twigs and leaves present after sleeping in a den, but it was totally unruly. Unlike Mama Bear, however, who was shocked at her weight loss after my forced hibernation of the past year, I’m shocked at how easy it was to pack on that extra Covid-19.

As the time approaches when we can venture farther from our burrows and dens, many of us are spending time getting back to our before-time selves or at least working to be able to snake into a pair of blue jeans or slacks with a zipper.

Along with extra pounds from recreational eating and lack of mobility, I developed Covid-feet. Yes, I thought it was just me, but evidently, it’s a real thing. Who knew that after a year of wearing slippers around the house without supports, my poor feet would suddenly rebel. The discomfort is real but can be assuaged by forcing my tootsies back into my trusty Keens. The first challenge, of course, was digging out my shoes from the back of the closet, then…squeezing my splayed feet into them. Oh, I so empathize with Cinderella’s sisters!

After the shoes, I moved on to a new, multi-step skincare routine suggested by my daughter-in-law, Jenna. I love how the products feel on my face, and I was quite pleased with how young my skin looked. I learned a bit later while preparing for a Zoom meeting that the disappearance of 70 years of lines was probably due more to good lighting than the beauty products I was applying. Still, it’s become part of my daily routine, so I keep smoothing it on and hoping for a miracle in a bottle.

A Miracle in a Bottle?
Photo credit: Pixabay

Once the skincare routine was underway, I began a plan of making better choices with my diet and exercising more. I track my steps and try to steadily increase the number I take in a day. When I can’t get outside, I have developed a route inside my little condo. I walk with small weights in time to an endless variety of Beatles’ songs, but to pick up the pace, occasionally I crank up the volume for a little Lynyrd Skynyrd and zip around the place to the 70’s version of “Gimme Three Steps.” It’s the perfect length between the eyedrops I was prescribed after cataract surgery…yep, check that off the list, too… and I get a five-minute mini-workout. I suppose to the neighbors, I look like one of the shooting gallery ducks going back and forth past the window, but hey, I’m getting steps in.

I’m almost ready to venture out and be seen by the world again. The problem, of course, is that just like Phil and Felicity, I’ll soon discover that the paparazzi is not waiting for my triumphal return. My wise and funny friend, Suzanne, said, “Never worry about what you look like in a group photo. No one is looking at you. Everyone is looking at themselves.”

No One’s Looking at You
Young ladies of Notman’s printing room, Miss Findlay’s group, Montreal, QC, 1876

As the world begins to spin once again and the momentum increases, the group photo shot philosophy will become more apparent. We’re all going to be more concerned about taking our own steps and finding our own balance and equilibrium than worrying much about anyone else.

It’s amazing how quickly our brains were able to sort and reorder the information of our everyday lives. The ability to judge six feet of distance, make sure you always had a mask, and safest place to get groceries suddenly took precedence over whatever occupied our thoughts a year ago. The fact that as time went by, it became more difficult to even remember our time pre-pandemic daily activities was astonishing and a bit disconcerting.

When I haven’t used an app on my iPhone for a long time, it is transferred to the cloud. Nothing is lost; it’s just not taking up space on my device. When I need it again, I simply call it back. Our memories work in much the same way. Those folders full of the minutiae of my life have been filed in the far reaches of my memory. When I need them, I’ll just call them back from the cloud and replace all that no longer useful information…where to get the best masks and hand sanitizer…with how to interact with other humans…the how-to for tasks I used to take for granted. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy, but I’m confident it will happen…eventually.

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

―Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

The pandemic is far from over, but our lives are gradually returning. We’re almost ready. Before we know it, just like that Punxsutawney pair, we’ll venture from our burrows, slink timidly to the edge of the field, and hurry across the lush green grass until we find ourselves once again back in the familiarity of Farmer Brown’s garden.

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”

―Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Gardenal
New Miracles Everyday
Photo credit: Pixabay

Doing My Homework

After this long winter of isolation, when my church offered a class on spiritual exploration, I jumped at the chance. Who knew there would be actual…homework? I haven’t done homework in years. The first assignment was to write a spiritual autobiography documenting our personal religious journey. These we would share together in class. Yikes!

Writing an autobiography of any kind would have been easier if I had taken notes along the way.  As it is, my memories are written on post-it notes, scraps of yellowing paper, and captured in photographs without location or dates…all stuffed in boxes, tucked between the pages of books, left unattended in old suitcases, and scattered across the top of my desk.  To truly make sense of all this ephemera would take much longer than the time allotted for the assigned task, but perhaps I can begin by sorting the debris into stacks and piles.

Gathering the bits together, I realized that I have forgotten a great deal of my life. That realization caused me to feel embarrassed and somehow lacking until I recalled the words of the Irish priest and poet John O’Donahue. “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  I think that is pretty much how I’ve lived my life… simply being carried along by the current, paddling hard through the rapids and around the rocks, enjoying the sun on my face when drifting on the quiet water, and approaching each new bend with curiosity, wonder, and courage…as well as a wee bit of trepidation and hesitancy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking back at the water that carried me.

The Chippewa River…Sylvan’s Solace
October 2020

Creating a lifeline and guessing where I am on it reminded me of when a new woman was invited to join Book Babes, my Vermont book club. She said that she’d like to ask three questions to get to know us.   All of them were unusual for getting acquainted questions, and I’ve forgotten two of them, but the third stuck with me.  She asked each of us in turn how long we wanted to live.  I replied that I wanted to live until I died.  My answer was in no way intended to be cheeky or flip. As I age, I realize that It’s not the length of life that concerns me. It is the loss of meaning, purpose, and joy that worries me. On the other hand, my definition of meaning, purpose, and joy are also constantly evolving.  I have had the example of women who lived…and are living…wonderful active lives well into their nineties, but I have also seen my grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. Yes, I definitely want quality…but then… quantity would be nice too.

There are a finite number of marbles in my jar…just so many big trips and grand adventures left.  I’m angry that the pandemic has robbed me of some of those cat-eyes and clearies…places I wanted to go and plans I wanted to make…but in some sense, living through a pandemic is a pretty big shooter as marbles go…a once in a century adventure… just not one I would have chosen.

An Unknown Number of Marbles in The Jar
Photo credit: Pixabay

 “I was going to decide whether I had a marble-worthy day based on how I felt, not based on what I did…I want to approach my time moving forward with an infinite mindset. I want to “feel” supported, loved, seen and I want to depend on my circle of truth-tellers who I’ve chosen to be there for me.”

Maria Shriver, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper

Even with so many pieces of my spiritual journey misplaced, lost, and forgotten, I am finding the task of condensing it to a manageable size without resorting to an “and then” story very challenging.  Deciding what…or how much…I want to share is also part of the process. Then, too, as I continue my sorting, I discover with very few exceptions…people, places, and events don’t fit easily into a single category.  Most of them overlap, very few stand-alone.  The same people and places keep appearing, transforming, and reappearing. So, I continue to sort and re-sort then sort again.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African Proverb

As I modify and alter the collection of souvenirs and guidebooks from my spiritual journey, a pattern emerges.  Throughout my entire life, I have been supported, shaped, and influenced by my relationship with people…my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children, my teachers, my long-time friends, my new friends, and even momentary connections with strangers. Together we have shared deep discussions about life, spirituality, and ethics, as well as the going rate for the tooth fairy, which way the toilet paper should hang, and jokes on the level of a Fifth-grade boy.  We have held each other in times of loss and pain and spent hours just sitting side by side in silence.

These people have joined me in my travels too. Together we have stood in awe in the mountains of Sedona, been lost inside St Basil’s Cathedral, slept in a wee cottage on the shore of Loch Fyne, watched a storm brew in the Atlantic Ocean, emerged from a 5000-year-old burial mound at Newgrange, and enjoyed countless hours in a darkened theatre in Ontario. Each experience has revealed another facet of what I recognize as sacred and divine. Through my relationships, I have understood, found meaning, and been blessed by these revelations.

“A good friend listens to your adventures. Your best friend makes them with you.”

Unknown

As I stuff all the bits and pieces back in the containers from which I gathered them, it occurs to me that perhaps we write an autobiography not so much for others as for ourselves. Through writing, we give voice to what we already know. I may leave out the twists and turns in the telling, but my path has led me to the perfect destination…the realization that human connection and traveling are spiritual practices. Talking with friends, being with my sisters, planning short jaunts and long trips are no longer inessential distractions or rewards. They are necessary, important, and sacred—what a delightful surprise.

“Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, airplane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

Of course, during this pandemic, those were the most difficult things for us to do…travel and be with others, yet we are resilient. We have discovered ways to connect and share our lives without being physically close. We read maps, make plans, and create itineraries for future adventures even as we explore new ways to make meaning and find purpose from our living rooms, dens, and kitchens. And so, the journey continues, and isn’t that an adventure in itself?

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi

I completed my assignment with time to spare. It was then I remembered the second part…the additional task…write your own epitaph. If one day you stumble across a slab of granite with this one carved into it…you’ll know that it’s me.

“I told you I was sick”

Cemetery on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT

Shaking My Own Keys

What a pleasant surprise to discover that I am still learning and discovering things about myself even at my age. My latest revelation is that even if there is no one else available…which, let’s face it, for the last year, there hasn’t been…I will shake the shiny keys and amuse and distract myself. Let me give you a case in point.

Just What I Need…A Shiny Set of Keys
“delightful click-clack sound for auditory and visual stimulation” Fisher-Price
Image: Pexels

I haven’t been lying exactly, but lately, I have found that sometimes my answers are less than truthful. I suppose in the strictest definition, being less than truthful might technically be considered lying, but I prefer to think of it as responding with a fanciful answer.  I simply imagine reality as I wish it to be rather than it is. 

These days, I seldom give a completely truthful answer to the question, How are you?  I usually answer with a short, positive statement.  “I’m fine.”  “Pretty good.”  “Can’t complain.” “Couldn’t be better.” I found an online site teaching English as a second language that suggests five responses to that question…all in the affirmative.  Negative responses are in the advanced lesson. I answer that I’m fine because that’s how I’d like to be…how I’m hoping to be…how I will be…but that’s not always truthfully how I am.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

When I’m asked that question, I want to say things…shout things… like… I’m really tired of this pandemic; I’m getting sick of Zoom and FaceTime; I’m weary of being alone, yet even with the vaccine, I’m still hesitant to be with others; I don’t think I even remember how to be with people; I’ve forgotten who I once was, and all these people who still refuse to wear a mask or social distance are making me crazy angry. I’m pretty certain that if I gave voice to any one of those responses that I’m holding back…assuming the person inquiring had time to recover from my rant…I’d be joined by a cacophony of other voices shouting, “Me too, me too.” 

But…I don’t.

Instead, I smile and say, “I’m fine.” “I’m doing well.” “Everything is all right.”

My Love-Hate Relationship With Zoom
Image: Pexels

In our society, the phrase, “How are you?” has been reduced to a perfunctory greeting…a simple formality…a nicety. Does anyone actually expect or even want a completely truthful reply?

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Swedish Proverb

Sharing our joy is easy…social media is filled with photos, videos, and posts expressing joy and happiness…but for many, it seems…sharing sorrow is more difficult. Problems, heartache, fears, and worry are universal. No one can escape sadness. Bearing such burdens would be easier, of course, if we reached out to each other. Instead, we stoically lift them to our shoulders and trudge on. We cover our fears, our uncertainties, our sorrows with a mask of “all-rightness.”

I suppose it is the risk of revealing our soft, tender places that prompts us to give the brief expected response. “I’m fine. How are you?” Exposing our vulnerability…sharing our pain demands a certain amount of trust and confidence. We enjoy the game, but we hold our cards close to the breast.

Years ago, when I apologized for a slight I thought I had committed, my friend, Carol, replied, “You know, you worry about the wrong things.” I know for her it was a casual, off-hand remark, but for me… an accomplished worrier…it became a challenge.

I worried about what I was worried about, and then I worried about what I should be worrying about. I suppose giving a less than sincere answer to a question as innocuous and commonplace as, “How are you?” is one of those things that come under the heading of…wrong things to worry about. Still, I must admit, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering such things.

“One thing I can suggest is that when you start to go to a dark place, for you to consciously redirect your thoughts. Mind over mind. Make yourself think of something completely different. An image of something joyful or silly, and focus on that.” 

Sue Halpern, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library

Some people do jigsaw puzzles; some people run for miles; some people read stacks of books; apparently, I spend hours pondering the correct response to a cursory question.

Some People Make Jigsaw Puzzles
Photo Credit: Pexels

Recently, I discovered a long-forgotten, thirty-five-year-old scrap of paper that I had tucked inside a book. I had written several paragraphs comparing the benefits of showering vs. soaking in the tub. At the bottom of the page, I included a message to my future self explaining that I had spent time writing this wee document to take my mind off the troubling situation that was occupying my life at the time.

While unbidden or sudden distractions cause us to take our minds off the goal or our eyes off the road, they also invade our thoughts and lead us down paths we would rather avoid. That constant chattering monkey-mind that clutters our meditations or won’t allow us to fall asleep can be really annoying. Paradoxically, it seems to me that seeking diversions can be quite beneficial, calming, and ultimately helping us to focus. When we’re thinking about edge pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle, we have no time to think about when our children will be vaccinated, when the Canadian border will open, or if going to the grocery store in the afternoon is a wise idea.

We have filled an entire year with diversions of one sort or another. The list is long and varied. We have exhausted all our usual ways of filling time on a rainy day, and we are longing to get back outside and into the sunshine of our lives once again. We’ve helped each other through this challenging time, and we’ve discovered interesting solitary pursuits. I’ve never run a marathon, but I have the experience of long car-trips. When you have driven all night, those last couple of hours are the most difficult. That’s when you turn up the radio, roll down the windows and sing like a Rock Star.

Roll Down the Windows and Sing Like a Rock Star
Photo credit: Pexels

We’re almost there. We can make it. I’ve learned that even when there isn’t anyone else around…I can always shake those shiny keys and distract myself just a wee bit longer.

Masking Up

“Wear a mask.”

Dr. Anothny Fauci, CNN Interview, May 21, 2020
Masks Now Have Their Own Container

Almost exactly…one of my favorite oxymorons…one year ago, the entire world went into isolation. Suddenly, we could no longer visit friends and family, gather in church on Sunday morning, or cross the border into Canada. “I have a feeling we won’t be doing this for a while,” said my sister, Kelly, as we enjoyed her fabulous Friday night pizza together. That night we had no way of knowing just how prophetic her words would be. Now, just one day shy of an entire trip around the sun, we will complete the two-week wait after our second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. We’re still anticipating more guidelines from the CDC regarding what we can and cannot do after we’re vaccinated, but we know that sharing pizza and a glass of wine will be in our future once again soon.

The First Mask…Bandana and Rubber Bands
April 3rd, 2020

” He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock, That shadows a dry thirsty land; He hideth my life in the depth of His love, And covers me there with His Hand, And covers me there with His hand.”

William James Kirpatrick and Fanny Crosby, He Hideth My Soul

I grew up in a small town in central, rural Michigan. Our neighborhood, full of kids, exemplified the post World War II Baby Boom. On warm summer evenings, it was common for a large group to join in games of Hide and Go Seek or one of its variations.  The coming darkness and the element of suspense that it provided enhanced every game. The street light on the corner of our yard was often home base.  The person who was “It” would cover their eyes and count.  5, 10, 15, 20——85, 90, 95, 100 Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie. Who’s not ready holler I…Ready or not.  Here I come.  The rest of us would seek a safe place to hide…to take shelter…all the time wondering if the place we had chosen was good enough.  Could we be seen?  Would we be found out?  Could we tag home without being caught?  I don’t know when I discovered it, but I found that there was the perfect hiding spot behind the shrubs beneath my parents’ bedroom window. The way into this hidey-hole was tricky, but once there it was almost impossible to be seen.  I remember the smell of the piney branches and the damp earth as I waited for the seeker to move far enough away from the base to allow me to slip out, run, and tag myself free.  I used the protection of my sanctuary over and over with great success.  One evening however one of the younger kids…they were almost all younger kids…was in a panic. 55-60-65-70. She didn’t know where to hide.  The seeker would soon turn and discover her.  I watched…but made my decision within seconds. How could I have enjoyed the safety I’d found if I’d watched her be tagged out?  I leaned out from behind the bushes far enough to be seen as I beckoned her towards my hiding place.  Not in a cleft in the rock like the old hymn, but certainly a cleft in the shrubs. There was room for both of us…85-90-95-100.…we were both safe.  We were both free.

Tie-on Style
Thanks Bettie

“I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I can’t change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit.” 

Charles de lint

Now that I am almost fully vaccinated the chances of me contracting the virus are small and the chances of getting serious illness and dying are almost nil, but the jury is still out regarding whether or not I can spread the disease to others. I have found my place of refuge, but many family members and friends remain unprotected. Strangers on the street or pushing carts down the aisles of the grocery store are still desperately seeking the safety that I have found. So until they can tag home without being caught I continue to wear my mask, wash, sanitize and remain socially distant.

On the Dunes at Lake Michigan
August 2020

“If you’re not making someone else’s life better, then you’re wasting your time. Your life will become better by making other lives better.” 

Will Smith

Yes, I do what I can to keep others safe, but I didn’t reach this safe harbor, where I’m presently mooring my boat, completely on my own. This past year there were unnamed others taking risks…leaning out…to keep me safe. When the threat was high, others collected and delivered groceries right to my door. The mail carrier, those who provide my WiFi service, the truck drivers for UPS and Fed Ex, the magicians that keep Zoom working, and the myriad strangers who masked-up have all made it possible for me to remain behind the lines in this battle.

Standing Up for LGBTQ and Fighting Disease…a Multitasking Mask
Thanks Jen.

For me, continuing to wear the mask is simply an act of gratitude, compassion, and reciprocity. Yet, I am often overcome with an almost overwhelming feeling of connection and grace when I see others wearing masks too. It is something we do for each other. It is truly a physical manifestation of love, hope, and kindness.

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

Scott Adams

On the other hand, we’re all sick of wearing these darn things and are really ready to go maskless again, even as we acknowledge that the game’s not quite over and that this isn’t the time to give them the ol’ heave-ho. 75, 80, 85, 90. After all, no one wants to be tagged out in the final minutes of the game.

A couple years ago, on a trip with my friend, Anne, we found ourselves in a small Alsatian village often frequented by tourists…which of course we were at the time. At my suggestion, we ventured into a Kathe Wohlfahrt shop. I wanted a closer look at some of the Erzgebirge folk art I had seen in the window. Inside it was jam-packed with Christmas decorations and all things German. I suppose we could have turned around and walked back out after the first quick look from the door, but once inside it was too late. We soon discovered that the store had been set up in such a way that forced patrons to wend their way past all the displays on a winding path through the entire store. Bad choice on my part. Sorry, Anne. We could only move as fast as the people in front of us and the option of a retreat was negated by the people behind us. There was no other way out, but to go through the entire store.

“Lord, how long? As long as it takes to get me there. Going down to go up, Approaching heaven via hell, No other way. The only way out is through.”

Kathy Fuson Hurt, The Way Out

Until all of us have received the gift of hope in a syringe, the only real way out of this pandemic is to keep moving forward, moving through what lies ahead, providing safety for those still waiting, and avoiding “it” until we can all tag home together.

So…In case you were wondering, I’m still masking up.

Finding Wisdom in the Rocks

Late last August, my sisters and I decided that if we were careful…lots of ventilation, masks, and social distancing…we could safely travel north together to an out-of-the-way beach on Lake Michigan that would be perfect for hunting Petoskey stones…the state stone of Michigan.

Once at the beach, the three of us trekked down the embankment toward the water carrying sunscreen, sunglasses, and containers for our finds.  It was a gorgeous Michigan summer day and although we brought our swimsuits with us we left them in the car.  We’d be fine in our shorts. 

As we moved along the beach our goal was to get as far away from any people as possible. 

We were seeking solitude and safety but most importantly we hoped to find a stretch of the lake where no one had yet picked over the rocks that had been churned up by the waves and left near the shore for us to find. 

Dry Petoskey Stones Hiding in Plain Sight
August 2020

We clamber over tree trunks that had fallen into the water, large stones that jutted out from the shore, and piles of assorted slippery rocks and pebbles that acted like ball bearings pulling us toward the drink in our quest for the perfect spot. Presently, we reached the place, that by consensus, we agreed looked like the best place to begin our exploration.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were going to get wet…very wet,  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had those suits?  Since Penny is the most in shape we agreed that she should make the trek in reverse and go get our bathing attire.  In the meantime, Kelly and I would scour the rock-strewn beach and shoreline for treasures.

I had, of course, seen Petoskey stones, but I’d never found one.  They aren’t impossible to find in central Michigan where I grew up…but…I don’t remember it ever happening. As kids, we found lots of fossils, but never the coveted Petoskey.

These distinctive stones are the fossilized exoskeleton of a coral that lived about 350 million years ago in the warm waters of what was then an ancient sea. At that time, geographically, Michigan was near the equator and covered with waters that were perfect for clams, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, trilobites, fish, and many other life forms.

The Pattern Pops When Wet
Photo credit: Pixabay

The living part of the coral was called a polyp.  The dark spot in the center of the hexagonally shaped chamber was the polyp’s mouth. The animal had tentacles like most modern corals, that grabbed plankton as it drifted by then fed this food into its mouth. Like most things, knowing what you’re looking for makes it easier to find.  Even so, Petoskey stones often remain hidden until their distinctive pattern is revealed by water.  That’s one reason so many people hunt for them along the shores of the Great Lakes.

When Penny returned we snaked off our shorts and t-shirts and in the seclusion of our bit of beach we wriggled into our garments of nylon and spandex.  In truth, for me at least, it was more like the gyrations of a geriatric contortionist, but eventually, I had all my bits covered and was ready for the water.  Lake Michigan is like a smaller, tidier version of the Atlantic without the briny scent or the dependable tides.  When hunting for seashells at the ocean one merely has to wait for the water to recede with the tide and collect the bounty the waves have deposited on the shore.  Along the lake, you may find treasures in the sand, but hunting for gifts of the current in freshwater often requires looking beneath the waves.

Treasures Lie Just Beyond the Water’s Edge
August 2020

Yards from the shore Penny hollered, “Come on, you two.  If I knew you weren’t going to get out any deeper in the water than that I’d have never gone for the suits.”

She’s right, I thought, but before I could go more than a few feet out into the water I slipped on a hidden rock and went in face first.  Surprised and gulping for air, I got to my feet only to be kissed right on the lips by a huge wave.  Down again.  Spitting water and making my way to the shore,  I rose once again, but…those rhythmic waves just kept coming and I was down once more.  This time I held my head above water and swam-crawled to the sand only to discover my dear, sweet sisters laughing hysterically.

“Are you OK?” Kelly asked between fits of laughter.  Such sympathy and concern.  

Climbing from the water I made my way to one of the fallen logs to take a break.  Just as I did, the water that I was dripping, revealed the Holy Grail.  My first Petoskey!  It had all been worth it.  She was a beauty.

My Beautiful Friend and Teacher

“There’s a flame of magic inside every stone & every flower, every bird that sings & every frog that croaks. There’s magic in the trees & the hills & the river & the rocks, in the sea & the stars & the wind, a deep, wild magic that’s as old as the world itself. It’s in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small. Even the dirt I’m sweeping up now is stardust. In fact, all of us are made from the stuff of stars”.

Kate Forsyth

“Listen to the rocks and mountains,” instructed my Native American friend. “They have great wisdom.”

At the time, I dismissed this thought out of hand. What could a non-living thing teach me? Over the years my sensibilities and understanding have undergone an awakening. I have begun to recognize that there is a deep connection that exists between and within all inhabitants of the natural world. The same elements…the same atoms…the same stardust that is in me is present in all that surrounds me. Life is too complicated to leave all the lessons to sentient beings. Perhaps, if we listen closely we’ll understand the tutorials of the quaking Aspen and the rhythmic crash of the ocean as it kisses the shore, or the lessons taught by the intertwining roots of the Giant Redwoods and the Sunflower always keeping her eyes on the prize.

“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”

Morihei Ushiba

As a novice collector, I soon learned that many tedious hours of hand-sanding…with water and increasingly finer grit sandpaper… is the most common way to bring out the hidden pattern of Petoskey stones. I’ll admit, after hours spent together, I developed a friendly relationship with this once-living creature as I worked and like any good friend, she taught me a great number of lessons. Oh, there was the obvious lesson of patience, perseverance, and purpose, but there was also the unexpected message of rebirth and redemption.

One of Mom’s Favorite Beaches to Hunt Petoskey Stones
Point Betsy, August 2020

Imagine it. For a time beyond my comprehension, this piece of calcified coral has been on a journey to find me. It traveled north with the movement of tectonic plates, was buried during the ice age, was scraped up by the glaciers, and buffeted about beneath the waves of Lake Michigan until it came to rest on the beach where it waited for me to recognize it, pick it up, and joyfully carry it home to be sanded, polished, and treasured.

She is a determined instructor and her lessons are still being taught when I focus and listen, but for now, it’s enough just to know that the universe is full of unimaginable adventures still awaiting me and that I really have no way of knowing upon which rock-strewn stretch of beach I’ll be found.

Just Waiting For My Turn

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

Back in December, after having lived through a very challenging year, several of my friends began to contemplate the idea of choosing a word that would guide them through the coming year, a word that would become a mantra of sorts and one upon which they might meditate in the days to come. These friends shared the words that had guided them in previous years along with the words they were considering for 2021. I found this entire idea rather intriguing.  What word would I choose, I wondered.

When I settled on patience as the word that would guide me into 2021, I optimistically envisioned myself sitting before a fire with a glass of wine, the warm glow of candles, and snow softly falling just outside my window, as I crocheted, read, or was absorbed in something entertaining and life-affirming on the television.  I’d be uncomplaining, calm, and perhaps even serene as I waited for my turn to get the COVID vaccine or Spring…whichever came first. 

“It is strange that the years teach us patience; the the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Reflecting on the word I chose, now only three weeks into the new year, I’m reminded of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Thinking he has found The Holy Grail, the villain drinks from the golden goblet and soon shrivels away to dust.  The Grail Knight, who has been guarding the true chalice, then remarks in a slow, deliberate tone, ”He chose…poorly”.  I think I too, may have chosen…poorly.

In truth, there was a fair amount of hubris in my decision. Certainly, I’d have the strength of character and the fortitude that comes with age, to be able to postpone the gratification that would arrive with the vaccine…or…Spring.

Spring Flowers Are A Long Way Off

But, wait a minute. Who was I kidding? I realize that I have to wait, but I don’t know what gave me the idea that waiting would be easy. After nearly a year of COVID isolation, I have crocheted the same pattern at least five times, I have trouble reading unless I get large-print text, and I’ve already binged watched all fifteen seasons of my favorite detective series. I am almost out of wine and I’ve been out of Diet Coke for a week.  There is snow outside my window…but it arrived with ice and slush as well.  Not exactly what I had envisioned. 

Public school prepared me to stand in line and wait my turn.  I never push or shove and although I might think about cutting the line, my conscience makes it a near impossibility. I immediately merge when the sign says lane closed and never try to pass cars expecting to squeeze in ahead of others. And more than once I’ve stood outside a closed bathroom door giving the present tenant privacy and time to complete their tasks only to discover that it had been unoccupied the entire time. I understand the morality of waiting, taking turns, and remaining in your place in line. I was taught well.

I really don’t mind standing in line when everyone is waiting equally.  I like take-a-number and I appreciate serpentine lines where you move up one at a time. You reach the head of the line after those before you have been served. Then…as it should be…it’s your turn. 

The British Crown Jewels

Twenty years ago, I joined a long line in The Tower of London to see the British Crown Jewels. It’s not often the approach to an event is as memorable as the event itself, but I have remembered this experience for two decades. The line of courteous visitors wound through two adjoining rooms. Videos of the Royals wearing the pieces we were about to see played on the walls.  When we reached the cases filled with the royal treasures, we stepped onto a moving walkway that carried everyone, at a snail’s pace, past the crowns, scepters, and the rest of the collection.  There was no jockeying for position because tall and short visitors had equal access. At the end of the walkway, people could exit the building. If, however, you wished to take another quick look, a docent would direct you back to the people-mover and you’d take your place once again.  It was such an orderly, efficient, and just system.

The worst standing-in-line experience I can remember was in Moscow in 2002. It took us two hours to go from our plane through passport control. It was a small airport and there weren’t many arriving passengers. It wasn’t that the officials were that thorough or that the process was complicated. The problem was that the line was very fluid.  People pushed, elbowed, and bullied in front of others who were ahead of them. My public school line-training and years of Sunday school lessons wouldn’t allow me to return a shove for a shove or even put up much resistance.  All in all…it was not a pleasant experience.

Four Wonderful Words!
Photo Credit…Pixabay

Standing in line for the loo is a uniquely female adventure and has taken place in every country I’ve ever visited.  There’s a special kind of bonding that takes place in the brief connection of women in bathroom lines. Of course, like any other kind of line, some remain silent and keep to themselves, but generally, women in long lines exchange smiles at the very least and often strike up conversations, share tissues from their purse when the TP has run out, and point out stalls that have just become available.  It is a temporary community of common need.

When we reached St. Petersburg, on that trip to Russia, we were treated to a fantastic lunch and entertainment in the Music Pavilion on the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace. While most elegant in every other aspect, there was no running water and no plumbing. Two porta-potties had been set up in the back. Presently, I found myself outside the familiar blue buildings in the ubiquitous line of women. 

The Music Pavilion Nineteen Years Later…Upgraded to THREE porta-potties.
Photo Credit: Visit-Petersburg.ru

Irene, who had quite a commanding presence on an ordinary day, proclaimed in a voice of added authority, “I’ve had just enough vodka to be assertive.” she said forcefully.  “We are all going to wait equally.  None of this his and hers stuff.  It will be first-come, first-served.” 

“Yes!” the rest of us exclaimed with smiles and muffled cheers. 

You can imagine what happened when my husband found himself in need of the WC.  Seeing two units and a single line of women, he assumed that, as is normally the case, the one without a line was standing at the ready for the next man to arrive…him.  Hilarity ensued as the women quickly put him in his place at the rear of the line.  I was told that one of the women even threatened with her cane, but I can’t swear to that.

This isn’t the first time I’ve waited for a vaccine. In the 1950s, my classmates and I were herded into the school gymnasium where we took our places in a long line that snaked around the room. I was too young to understand the promise the polio vaccine held for us. All I knew was there were a lot of kids crying. I wasn’t in a big hurry to get to the front of that line. How times have changed! Today it is the elders…those same kids from the ’50s and ’60s…who are counting on the promise that comes in a syringe. This time all the tears are tears of relief.

“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.

Unknown…Probably a Woman

Perhaps there was more wisdom in my selection of patience as the word to lead me forward than I thought, for it has already taught me important lessons. I know that kicking and pushing won’t get me to my goal any faster. Even if they would, my belief in the inherent fairness of taking turns is so ingrained that I would never employ them. I know that friendship, connection,  kindness, and sometimes even humor are possible in the communal act of standing resignedly together in a line waiting. I know, too, that no matter how long the queue there is always an end and the eventual reward is worth all the effort. If life is indeed a journey, not a destination, then it may follow that waiting is also a journey. The length and speed of the line…like life… are out of my control, but whether I find a way to enjoy the trip or rail against it is up to me.

I’m considering cookies or maybe chocolate as my word for next year.

Chocolate, cookies, and tea.
Photo credit…Pixabay

Down The Rabbit Hole

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Right This Way to Adventure

One snowy Saturday in mid-March, I found myself quite unexpectedly falling headfirst into the gaping entrance of a rabbit hole, tumbling down toward completely unknown territory. Try as I might, it was impossible to stop or even slow my descent as I continued to gain momentum through the dark twisting tunnel. Like Alice, I had been caught off guard.  It happened so quickly that I had no other choice but to continue my free-fall and hope for a gentle landing when I reached the bottom. Once I entered that rabbit hole there was no way of knowing how deep the tunnel was or whether I’d know if I had reached the bottom or was merely resting on an outcropping before once again resuming my fall.

During these COVID-times, we’re all traveling through one rabbit hole or another.  Life, as we knew it a year ago, is not the life we are living now.  I suppose that’s always the case though.  For thousands of years, we’ve known what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out,  “The only constant in life is change.”  We expect change, but we have also been led to believe…mistakenly perhaps…that change comes in some logical or linear progression.  We may not welcome the changes, but at least they can be understood or explained. Cause and effect…that sort of thing.

The surreal world where up isn’t just down but sideways might make for interesting art and theatre, but no one wants to actually live there.  Lots of folks stand in line at Cedar Point to buy a ticket to ride the Corkscrew, but they eventually want the ride to end so they can move on to the snack stand. Falling through the tunnel of the rabbit hole is an adventure to be sure but unless, perhaps, you’re a rabbit you ultimately want to leave it and live amongst humans once again.

Alice didn’t want to fall into the rabbit hole either, but while she was there she explored the wonders of the world in which she found herself and tried to make some meaning of it all.  I’ve been trying to do that too. Recognizing that COVID is not my life on hold, but rather my life as it is, helps a bit as I try to navigate this world of butterflies, hookahs, and cats that wander through Zoom calls.

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand-and melting like a snowflake.”

Sir Francis Bacon

The strangest thing about my life in the rabbit hole is the total distortion of my concept of time.  When I was a girl, the JC Penney catalog arrived every year with a special holiday wish-book edition. I was always intrigued by the section of frilly nightgowns and fancy underwear.  I was especially fascinated by the day-of-the-week panties.  Each pair was a different pastel color complete with a different day embroidered within a lacey heart.  I always kinda wanted them instead of the utilitarian white ones worn in my family, but not enough to bump something more desirable off my Christmas list. I could certainly use a set of those panties now.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what day it was in the morning?  As it is,  I’m marking the days with my pill container.  Each evening when I take my bedtime pills and supplements, I say to myself, “Oh, today was Tuesday…or Wednesday, or Thursday…whatever. Hmmm.  Nice to know. “  

Time Keeps on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’ Into the Future.

I don’t think I’m alone in this confusion.  One of the local television stations has a brief moment each day where they display a graphic asking, “Do you know what day it is?”  There is a pause of a few seconds and then another graphic reveals the day.  Not the date mind you, just the appropriate day of the week.  The entire process concludes with a final graphic declaring congratulations for all those who guessed it correctly.  I don’t tune in every day and I’m really not much of a game player but there is a great deal of satisfaction when I’m among the winners.

This time distortion phenomenon might be unique to senior citizens or those who have been self-isolating for months on end. Without the clear delineation of work or school, the days blend together into a vanilla pudding kind of sameness.  In the summer when we could safely gather outside there were markers that made one day different from another, but once those of us in the colder climes moved indoors those markers became fewer and farther between. We were no longer sitting together at the picnic table with friends and family under the big tree in the backyard or gathering around the fire pit for conversation at the edge of the river. For safety’s sake, our winter-time human connections are nearly all virtual.

`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Seemingly overnight the rabbit hole experience transformed all the meaningful events of our lives into virtual events. In an instant, we accepted that interactions with our grandchildren would be done over FaceTime, that we’d reach out to friends for support on social media, and that gatherings of all kinds would be done over Zoom. I attend Sunday morning church services…often in three different states on the same morning…via YouTube and Zoom. Moving important lifetime affairs to virtual platforms was met with varying degrees of success. Our weekly family gatherings and reunions, for example often evolved into seances.

Can you hear me?

Are you there?

I can’t see you, but I hear your voice.

Oh, we’re lost her again!

Maybe she’ll be back.

I have come to realize that virtual life is real life. We are not together physically, but the time we spend together is real. The sand in the hourglass of my life has not ceased to flow. I am just experiencing life in an unfamiliar and unconventional way. It truly is getting curiouser and curiouser.

“Don’t slide down the rabbit hole. The way down is a breeze, but climbing back’s a battle.”

Kate Morrison, The Clock Maker’s Daughter

Perhaps I have reached the end of the downward slide. I feel that like Alice, I am emerging into Wonderland. Not the world that Alice found full of unique people and places…although that’s surely possible…but a place where I am pondering, questioning, predicting, planning, and…yes…wondering about not just how I’ll extricate myself from this time warp, but what I’ll find on the other side. What happens when I climb out of this tunnel?

It’s very easy to cocoon myself in front of the fire, watch the world from my window, and simply wait for the time I can fling open my door and once more hug my neighbors, but I must find a way to create meaning, purpose, and make this disorienting tumble through the mud worth it. Perhaps that is the challenge of now. What an unusual, unique, and disorienting journey…this ride…this time…has been. Rabbit hole or not, it is the time I have been given…might as well enjoy the slide.

Lately it occurres to me What a long, strange trip it’s been.

The Grateful Dead, Truckin’

Christmas Conversations with That Little Voice in My Head

One semester my high school art class focused on crafts including ceramics. While others busied themselves making giant ashtrays and long-haired cats, I concentrated on smoothing seams, selecting colors, and painting a version of the Holy Family…Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger. For over half a century these three have held a place of honor in our family Christmas.

The Art Class Creations of a Teenager

Most nativity scenes…aside from a massive display I saw in Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg that included an elephant…imagine that on the streets of Bethlehem…portray the birth of Jesus as a quiet, solitary affair.  In fact, until the shepherds and the magi show up, it’s pretty much just M, J, and J along with the livestock.

A Section of the Nativity…Complete with Elephant
Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

In the countless retellings I’ve heard over the years, the story is pretty much the same.  Mary and Joseph arrived in town. They couldn’t find a room in the local inn, so they took refuge in a stable and that very night, without the need for pain relief or assistance, Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus, by starlight and the gentle, soothing sounds of the curious animals. 

Perhaps it is because I am alone so much these days but that little voice in my head…I really should give her a name… has been especially chatty and persistent lately. Our conversations are prompting me to reconsider that 2000-year-old narrative and to contemplate the details that might have been omitted, overlooked, or cast aside. I also keep thinking that if a woman had been consulted while the Gospels were being written we would definitely have more specifics. Women know that every birth comes with a story and that young mothers are usually eager to share the details. I’ve never heard another birth story as short as…it was time to give birth so she did. Have you seen “Call the Midwife”?

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”

Luke 2:6-7 NIV

Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Not the most efficient plan in my estimation, but it seems governmental bureaucracy has been around, literally, since biblical times. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home…basically his hometown. He had deep roots and many family ties to the small city. Surely, he still had friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and perhaps even grandparents living there.  

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;

Luke 2:4 ASV

As it happens, my son was unintentionally born at home.  While my mom stayed with me, my poor father rushed to fetch a near-by friend, a nurse, to help with the early arrival. Dad entered her house without knocking…totally out of character…and said, in a voice cracking with emotion, “I need help. I have a new baby at my house and I don’t know what to do with it.”  Within half an hour of his birth, my son was surrounded by his sister, my sister, my parents, the nurse, her entire bridge club, and the next-door neighbors as well. Knowing the excitement around the birth of my son on a quiet November night in rural Michigan,  I find it difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph in a crowded city full of family would have faced the birth alone. The women would certainly have been there to soothe Mary’s brow and tell her when to push. They would have fetched the swaddling clothes, washed the wee one, and rocked him while Mary rested. Seems to me the authors left out all the best parts.  

And what about Joseph?  He seems to get short shrift in this tale.  It’s true that the Joseph in my nativity set lost his crook years ago and has had to have his head reattached a couple times, but I doubt he was merely a bystander in Bethlehem? If Mary was chosen to be the mother doesn’t it follow that Joseph was also chosen for his role?

One of my fondest Christmas memories happened during the annual church pageant a few years ago. Just as the procession was about to begin, the second-grader playing Joseph, looked up at me and with a voice full of tenderness and hope, asked, “Can I hold the baby, too sometime?”  Of course. Wouldn’t Joseph have wanted to hold the baby sometime too?  Most of the depictions have him relegated to the background, pushed aside by the shepherds all the while looking on beatifically.  He must have been tired and perhaps overcome with the miracle and wonder of the moment, as he gazed upon Mary and the baby, but he was not unimportant. He gathered hay for bedding, made sure that the sheep and cows kept their distance, and kept Mary and Jesus warm and fed. I have no doubt that then he held the baby too.

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Joseph seems a little on the old side to me, but who knows?

The Gospels tell us about the shepherds, the angels, and the magi, but what about the people who actually got rooms in the inn. There were no streetlights in Bethlehem, so what must they have thought when the light of a brilliant star…a star bright enough to be used for navigational purposes…was suddenly beaming in through the window?  How could they get any sleep with something that bright shining in their eyes?  Did they drape blankets over the window; did they cower in their rooms in fear; or did grab their robes and sandals and rush out to explore? 

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 

Matthew 2:9

If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because it was Joseph’s hometown, so to speak, what about Mary’s family? Where were her parents?

This year, when so many of us, are wishing we could be with our children and grandchildren, I feel a strong bond with Mary’s mother, who is unnamed in the Gospels and completely left out of the story.  She must have worried, not knowing whether the women of Joseph’s family would support and coach Mary through the birth and oh, how her arms must have ached to hold little Jesus…her grandson. Without Zoom, cellphones or even a reliable postal system to comfort her, how was she able to focus on her daily chores during the years the young family was in exile in Egypt?

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519
While ignored in the Gospels she does get a name in the Apocrypha

I have so many more questions and there are so many stories within stories in this ancient narrative.  Perhaps that’s the lesson the voice in my head is trying to teach me.  Look beyond the soloist in the spotlight to the angels in the chorus and beyond the shepherds in the stable to the one who had to stay behind to watch the sheep. Just like these unnamed characters with uncredited roles we all have a part to play and a story worth knowing.

Throughout my lifetime I have seen myself as the frightened shepherd who nonetheless curiously ventures forward, the seeker who journeys toward a promise and a goal, the young mother rocking her child, and now in the autumn of my life, I am the grandmother, yearning to be near her family. If we look carefully we will each find ourselves somewhere in the narrative.

The Arrival of the Shepherds
Photo credit: Pixabay

This holiday season, in the manner of Mary’s mother, I will patiently wait for the time we can all be together again. I will wear my mask, social distance, and wash my hands, keeping myself safe until then.

In the meantime, like the folks in the inn, I’ll have to decide whether to cover the window and ignore the star or find new ways to safely join the celebration.