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.

 

A Handful of Pieces

“A marriage, willy-nilly, requires you to trust that your spouse will tell your story truthfully and lovingly when you are no longer around to tell it yourself.” 

Kate Braestrup, Here, If You Need Me
Spring Break on Cape Cod
Photo credit: Fiona Rollins

In what now seems like another lifetime ago, my sisters and I met in Chicago for an evening of amazing theatre. For two hours and fifty-five minutes, we were mesmerized by the story, the music, and the fast-paced lyrics of Hamilton. The musical is jampacked with memorable moments; however, it was the final song…the final scene..that reached in and grabbed my heart. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. At the time, having been a widow myself, for a scant six months, I immediately connected with Eliza who accepts the responsibility of telling Alexander’s story and honoring his legacy.

Every life is a mosaic of tiny bits and pieces. When it comes time for our story to be told we can only hope that the storytellers scoop up the shiny, brightly colored bits. Then too, it would probably be nice to have some of the dull and broken tesserae thrown in as well…just to add some contrast and perspective.  In the end, the chroniclers can only use the tiles they have collected and the way the light shines on the bits they hold to tell our stories.

Covid-19 Spring
Barbara Abraham

It makes me a little sad, to think that there are many people in my life who never met my husband, Dave.  I’m sorry, too, that I can only tell his story with the pieces I have.  Granted, after forty-three years of sharing a life together I’ve got an awful lot of pieces, but after decades of living side-by-side, our individual bits have all been dumped into the same box. I’m afraid that trying to separate the jumble of my life from his would be a rather dusty, time-consuming, and ultimately futile endeavor.  

So, with a mound of those tiles cupped in my hand, I’ll give you a tiny glimpse into one part of the man I knew.  There’s still an abundance of pieces remaining in the box for another day.

Dave and I both come from families where a sense of humor is held in the highest regard. Storytelling, practical jokes, playful innuendoes, quick retorts, and snappy comebacks were what we were both raised on.  We have a professional comedian in our family for heaven’s sake and several other family members who can probably hold their own with him.  In fact, my mother’s final words were the punchline of a joke she liked to tell. Humor and laughter are in our DNA.

Over the years, the two of us sometimes worked as a comedy duo. We often played off each other with the hope of making our friends laugh.  Our repertoire ran the gamut from Archie and Edith to Lucy and Desi, often switching roles between the comic and the straight man. The biggest challenge and the most fun was getting the other to laugh or catching them in a joke.  I have to say, especially since Dave isn’t here to object, but I know he’d agree, that in this game I was most often the victor. I think Dave was just too naive and trusting.  I’d get him to fall for the easiest stuff…hook, line, and sinker.

“I have always felt that laughter in the face of reality is probably the finest sound there is and will last until the day when the game is called on account of darkness. In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can”.

Linda Ellerbee
Do You See a Resemblance?
Entrance to the Kröller-Müller Museum

In a recent documentary, I watched a group of archaeologists trying to reconstruct the floor of a Roman villa. Most of the clay tiles were missing, but there were some sections that were bright, beautiful, and close to being complete. There are stories about Dave that are much like that restored section of that ancient mosaic floor.  They have been told so many times that they have been worn smooth but they are so funny and familiar that they are continually repeated.

Ready for Duty, Captain
Jamestown, VA 2011

On Valentine’s Day, 2007, a massive snowstorm hit Vermont dropping between two and three feet of snow in a twenty-four hour period. For several days people were clearing snow from sidewalks, driveways, and rooftops.  On the third day,  after hours spent on the roof, Dave came in to give a report.  He had worked his way to the front of the house and was vigorously moving shovelful after shovelful from the roof to the drifts below.  As he worked, instead of warming up from the exertion, as he expected, he was getting colder and colder.  What he had failed to notice was that with each shovelful he tossed from the roof a fair percentage had blown back and collected in the pockets of the pants he was wearing.  When the pockets reached maximum capacity…weight, gravity, and maybe just because the snow wanted to return to the roof…Dave’s pants slowly slid down his legs and gathered around his ankles. Our house was on a fairly busy street.  One wonders how many people he mooned before he realized that his arse was on display for the entire world to see.

Dave was not a small man and he frequently used his size to great comic advantage. When our church instituted an annual Christmas Pageant, he was one of the Wise Men. After several years in the role, he decided to mix it up and play the part of an angel.  I assume that angels come in all shapes and sizes, but I’m pretty sure that until the moment he appeared on the chancel no one in Montpelier had ever seen anything quite like his rendition.  To complete his angel ensemble he and his cohort, Bob, also dressed as an angel, carried small bells that they’d ring occasionally and then look to see if either of them had gotten their wings.  “Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  

He’s The Angel In The Christmas Play

I supposed his greatest achievement at visual humor was The Great Shower Caper. One summer, while I was spending a week at Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, he got together with my friends, Bettie and Nancy. The three of them were aided by my daughter-in-law who photographed the entire escapade. Nancy, Dave, and Bettie, posed in such a way as to create the illusion that the three of them were enjoying a playfully nude romp together in our outdoor shower. I can’t imagine that this was Dave’s idea, but the fact that he was willing to go along with it was classic. The rest of the plot involved having prints made for each of the participants to hang surreptitiously in their house to see how long it took their spouse to discover it. I can only imagine how much fun they had creating this bit of visual hilarity. I keep a framed print in my bathroom. I look at it every day and always smile.

Ain’t We Got Fun
Nancy, Dave, and Bettie

When you are a joker you have to be ready to take a ribbing as well as dish it out. Dave was always a good sport when it came to being the butt of the joke, so to speak.  One of his favorite stories involved his friend and surgeon, Larry.  We were living in a small Michigan town where everyone knew everyone else.  Dave had gone to the doctor for a cyst that had formed at the base of his spine.  The doctor, Jack, told Dave that the best course of action was to have it lanced.  “Just go over to the hospital. Larry is still working and he’ll take care of you.”  Dave arrived next door at the hospital and sure enough, Larry was ready to take care of the problem. 

The set-up for this story also involved Larry telling Dave that although some of the numbing-agent had gotten into his eyes he was sure he could see well enough to complete the procedure at hand. As a now nervous Dave was bent over the gurney with his drawers once again around his ankles…I’m beginning to see a pattern here…Robin…remember it’s a small town…came into the room and began to prep Dave for the procedure by shaving his behind. Embarrassed, Dave asked, “Does Robin have to do that?

“No,” replied Larry, “But she asked if she could and I didn’t see any harm in it.”

Dave would roar with laughter telling that story.  He loved it.

Of course, Dave was much more than jokes and funny stories… I still have lots of tiles left in the box…but it was the part of himself that he liked best. In many ways, it was the essence of his being. Who he was.

We never talked much about what happens when we die. I really don’t know if he believed in an afterlife or not, but when I read this quote from Kate Braestrup, I always hear it in Dave’s voice. “Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.

You Left in Autumn

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Queen Elizabeth II
A View of the Muskegon River
Penny and Dave’s, Big Rapids, 2020

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, but this year along with the foliage, the multiple flocks of geese winging their way south, and that crisp, juicy bite of the season’s first apples …quite unexpectedly…October arrived with a replay of the grief I thought I had put into a manageable box months ago. Soon, I will mark the second anniversary of my husband’s death. Of course, I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral response to a mere date on the calendar.

You left in autumn. The leaves were turning. I walked down roads of orange and gold. I saw your sweet smile. I heard your laughter. You’re still here beside me. Everyday. ‘Cause I know you by heart. ‘Cause I know you by heart.

Terrance Harrison / Margaret Nelson “I Know You by Heart”. sung and recorded by Eva Cassidy
A Singular Beauty at Plum Loco
Shepherd, Michigan, 2020

Several times in the past few weeks I have been awakened in the night by the sound of my own weeping and the chill of tears soaking into my pillow. I feel myself moving uncontrollably toward the empty pit of despair. The colored leaves that litter my path offer no traction to brake my footsteps as I slide toward the edge of the abyss. I grab saplings to slow my descent and I resist with all my might until I am balancing on the edge of the void…halted…and safe…but knowing that I am precariously perched. I breathe in and breathe out.

Leaves on the Path
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

The return of autumn colors, the sounds, the smells, and yes, the taste of sweet cider and pumpkin doughnuts…involuntarily…put me back where I was at the time of Dave’s death. Without conscious thought, I was…I am…reliving that chapter and all the emotions that accompanied it over and over again.

It seems that my nearly five-year-old grandson who was with me on the morning of Dave’s death is also having a difficult time. As little boys are want to do, yesterday, he built himself a fort complete with a picture of Dave. Later he told his friend that he was feeling very sad because he missed Papa Dave and he wished he hadn’t died. Could it be that Autumn was bringing this wee one’s memories into the light too?

Perhaps, much like the rising action of a good novel or the mounting intensity of a particularly good piece of music, this is a necessary wave of grief that builds until it is suddenly released on the anniversary where it can be acknowledged, named, and then put away until the wave crests again.

I’m not sure how that works in the heart of a little boy, however.

Imagining At An Early Morning Window
2020

Grief is so complicated. Just when you think you’ve tamed it…bam…it whacks you upside the head. At times the pain feels so raw and fresh and at other times it is just a dull ache that moves in, follows you around, and makes itself at home. There are also days when grief remains so quiet you almost dare to believe it’s gone and you spend the entire day smiling.

Grieving is a lonely business until I remember that in addition to the personal griefs we each bear, during this long and painful pandemic we are all experiencing a communal loss. Everyone on the planet has lost someone or something. Each of us…children, too…can easily create our own long list of what was taken and what we long to have returned.

The Missing-Dave part of the mourning process has taught me that when looking back over our time together the petty annoyances that drove me crazy, the minor disagreements we occasionally shared, and the less than stellar times that filled the empty spaces in our lives all begin to fade into the mist. What I remember…what I miss…are all the simple day-to-day experiences that make up life…the fun, the laughter, the mundane, and the knowledge that someone was witness to my existence.

With COVID-19 we are still in the rising action of the plot. At times the intensity is nearly unbearable, but when finally we reach the climax, falling action, and resolution will we look back and watch some of the negatives fade into the mist and remember the positives that have come out of this challenging time? Will we remember how precious the smallest things were and honor them for the richness that they bring to our lives? Will we remember the good? I wonder.

So far, I am resisting the gaping maw of depression that threatens me. I am sad…and that’s OK. Pain and joy are simply opposite sides of the same coin. When I relive the pain of loss I cannot escape the adjacent memories of love, tenderness, laughter, and joy.

Mary Oliver instructs us that “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”.

Leaves in the Chippewa River
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…” 

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Next year, Autumn will come again. The trees will swish their leafy skirts, apple trees will share their bounty, little boys will build forts, and once again I’ll be ready to ‘let it go’.

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

I have seen the Promised Land, but contrary to the milk and honey advertised in the brochure, I found a land of maple syrup, early fall foliage, and lots of mask-wearing people, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

For months…after following all the guidelines, wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and having very minimal contact with others…I still debated whether I could or should make the trip from Michigan to Vermont during this pandemic. I missed my family and the anticipated isolation of winter was looming on the horizon but was it sensible, wise, or even safe to do?

“Sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you get to the Promised Land.”

John Bytheway

One Sunday in late August, during a sermon on courage, my minister, Rev. Andrew Franz, shared the analogy of meeting a bear in the woods. “Fearing the bear in front of you compels you to choose action. Fearing a bear that might or might not be there in the bushes is not a useful emotion, ” he said. ” Fear of the abstract is not useful. It is debilitating”.

In September 2016, Dave and I visited Glacier National Park. Before the trip, my sister, Penny, gave me lots of instructions and admonitions about meeting bears on the trail. Since Dave wasn’t able to hike much farther than the parking lot, any hiking I was going to do I’d have to do alone, so I paid close attention.

One afternoon, I began a short hike to a waterfall. In less than fifty yards, I came to a sign reporting bears in the area. A little farther on, I came to a second posted alert. Perhaps, I thought, the prudent course would be to heed these warnings. I hesitated momentarily and then turned around. As I retraced my steps, I got a glimpse through the trees and down the mountain at the trail I would have taken. Hiking together in pairs and trios were several other people. Certainly, they were making enough noise to intimidate any bear. I could have done the hike and seen the falls if I hadn’t been worried about the bear that might have been in the bushes.

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

On the other hand…if there had been a bear…I’m pretty sure I’d have been the tasty morsel who couldn’t outrun the other hikers. Realizing how temptingly delicious I’d have been…maybe I made the right decision. Then again? Bottom line…I missed the view.

Was I letting the may-be-bear get in the way of my Vermont decision?

“Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Ben Horowitz

“You do seem to perseverate on things, you know”, my sister said. “No kidding, I thought, but it was clear that it was time for me to get out the map or put the suitcase back in the closet.

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

I began the preparations needed to comply with the requirements for travelers to Vermont. If I drove my own vehicle…stopping only for gas, food, to use the restroom, and short rest breaks… I could quarantine for two weeks in my own home as opposed to two weeks in isolation after arrival by plane. I rearranged appointments and reluctantly canceled all opportunities involving possible human contact and began to psych myself up for the drive.

The route through Canada is very familiar having done it innumerable times …easy peasy…but due to the high number of infections in the US, the Canadians aren’t allowing Americans in…not even to simply transit through. I know. I called. I wanted to say that I’m Justin Trudeau’s cousin…10th cousin, twice removed…but I doubted the no-nonsense woman at the other end would have been impressed. I’d just have to go south to go north.

With These Green Hills, the Vermont State Song, playing on a loop in my head, I left my house at 2:30 a.m. to avoid major construction near Toledo and to miss morning traffic around Cleveland and Buffalo, besides I like driving on the highway in the dark, and frankly, once I made the decision to go, I was like a horse heading for the barn. I couldn’t wait.

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

Crossing the Crown Point Bridge into Vermont I felt a surge of emotions that I cannot adequately describe or define. After just fifteen hours I had arrived once again in my spirit’s home. These green hills and silver waters will always be my home wherever I live, but it was the people of this ‘brave little state’ that were pulling me back. My children, grandchildren, and so many dear friends live within her borders. It made me sad to think that COVID would keep me from most of my friends and my proximity to their unsharable hugs was painful, but I would cherish the memories of the ‘before time’ and look forward to when we would be together again in the ‘after time’.

Vermont is a glorious place, but…along with moose, woodchuck, and beaver…Vermont has bears.

Along the Path

Many years ago, Dave and I were in Alaska where we hiked in Denali National Park. Granted we only did laps in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, but…hey…I’m counting it. During our laps, we became aware of for-real-hikers who were checking-in at the ranger station to document that they were setting off on an adventure or to report that they were safely returning. It was easy to recognize these people by the bear bells around their ankles and cans of bear spray hanging from their belts or backpacks. Whether the bells actually work is disputed, but those hikers were doing all they could to be ready to discourage any bears that they might encounter. The bells, the spray, and the bear-sighting board at the registration counter provided the hikers the information they needed to weigh the risks and prepared them for the hike.

The level of risk regarding COVID in Vermont is very low. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that Vermont could serve a model for the country, but reminded Vermonters to keep vigilant. Vermonters listened.

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

During my brief stay, everyone I saw was wearing a mask or social distancing outside. Small children, old men, high school soccer players…everyone, without exception…was masked-up. On hiking trails, people wore masks or signaled to those approaching that they would move a reasonable distance off the trails to keep each other safe. The few stores I entered had sanitation stations set up just inside their doors. The number of shoppers was limited and enforced. I’m sure there are maskless Vermonters, but I didn’t see any. It appeared to be…as I expected…a matter of course that we’d all wear masks; we’d all take care of each other. I was warmed by the deep sense of connection I had with all those…strangers…who were wearing masks to help keep me safe. Vermont isn’t actually Utopia. It has its faults, but I certainly felt as if I’d seen The Promised Land. A glimpse of life as it once was…the possibility of what it could be.

The compassionate mask-wearing and rule-following nameless Vermonters allowed me to be with my family and others I loved after being isolated for months. I knew, that I’d have to preserve the blessings of the simple pleasures I was enjoying, remembering and holding them in my heart, keeping them ready to sustain me through the coming months ahead so I paid close attention to the way my grandson’s tiny hand fit into mine and the weight of my granddaughter’s head on my shoulder and the smell of her hair. I memorized the way it felt to share a smile and a laugh with my daughter and the warmth of my son’s skin through his shirt as we shared a single quick hug. I delighted in the opportunity to ride in my little car…masks on and windows slightly open…as my teenaged granddaughter learned to drive. I recorded upon my heart the voices of my family and the few friends within my small COVID restricted circle. I bottled the joy, contentment, and renewal of this adventure keeping it ready to add to my cocoa…or…wine…and sip slowly on a cold winter night.

I know that somewhere a bear still lumbers among the trees and bushes…but…maybe he’s simply munching berries or settling in for a long winter nap.