Given a Choice…Choose Laughter

A smile starts on the lips, a grin spreads to the eyes, a chuckle comes from the belly; but a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, overflows, and bubbles all around.

Carolyn Birmingham

It amazes me how short the distance is between laughter and tears. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced those times when you are laughing so hard that your cheeks hurt, your belly muscles burn, tears begin to stream down your face, and you hope that you don’t pee yourself from laughter. I’ve discovered the opposite can also be just as true. You’re deep into the ugly cry…nose red and running, face wet and tear-stained, and shoulders shaking with sobs…when suddenly the absurdity of the situation or a long-forgotten memory morphs the crying to smiles, chuckles, and laughter.

If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy. Crying and laughing are the same emotion. If you laugh too hard, you cry. And vice versa.

— Sid Caesar

Yes, tears and laughter are simply mirrored expressions of the same emotion. They come unbidden and usually without warning or restraint. And yet, a good laugh or a good cry offers a whole range of benefits, from increased immunity to a flood of “feel-good” hormones…both cleanse the soul. And while I appreciate the benefits of a “good cry” and recognizing the interconnectedness of laughter and tears, when given a choice, I’ll still pick laughter every time.

Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.

W.h. Auden
Photo Credit: Pixabay

One morning during my first year of teaching, I walked into the high school’s main office, intent on completing one of the never-ending bits of bureaucratic business required of teachers. Crossing the room toward the attendance officer’s desk, one of the holes in the floor mat proclaiming Eagle Pride caught the heel of my shoe. As I began to hop, skip, and fly through the air, I beheld horror and amazement on the faces of the three secretaries and assorted high school student-aides who watched dumbfounded. My flight ended as I landed on my bum in the middle of the floor, dress hiked up above my knees, glasses askew, and my dignity splattered all over the walls. Onlookers stared with wide eyes and open mouths. Without skipping a beat, I looked up and said, “And, for my next trick…” Instantly, the entire room’s atmosphere changed as everyone slowly exhaled the breath they didn’t even realize they had been holding and joined me in laughing at the absurdity of my position.

I could have reacted to the situation differently; however, growing up in a family of great storytellers and jokesters, I learned to search for humor in every circumstance. So when I metaphorically slipped on the banana peel, I was ready to see it not as the humiliating situation that it could have been but as some great piece of spontaneous slapstick humor.

Photo Credit: Caroline-Hernandez
Unsplash

When I chose to view the incongruity of the office setting with a teacher sprawled across the floor with laughter, I took control of the situation. I controlled the reaction of the others. My laughter caused them to relax, gave them permission to join the fun, and provided a break from the ordinary. By choosing laughter, I gave the others the gift of laughter as well. I lost my balance with my heel in the floor mat, but I regained it quickly with a quip and a chuckle.

Laughing doesn’t always put you in control. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite. Nearly everyone has had the experience of nervous laughter that comes without restraints at the most inopportune time…with a police officer at the side of the road, during a conference with your boss, or the most dreaded…in church during meditation or prayer. Yet, even during those times, I still think laughter wins out.

In the late 1950s, each child in my Sunday School class had a piece to recite in the annual Easter program. Paul and Steve were selected to say theirs as a duo. The two of them climbed the stairs to the front of the sanctuary and turned to face the congregation. Neither could say a word. They were like deer in the headlights. One of them began to giggle, then the other joined in. They’d stop for a second or two then the giggles and laughter would grab hold of them again. Before long, the entire assembly of children and adults waiting in anticipation for uplifting words regarding resurrection and renewal completely forgot about the story of Jesus and were instead joining in the laughter. It was infectious and highly contagious. As one of the children present that day, I can only tell you that it was terrific! I have no idea what their message was supposed to be, but I continue to carry the sound of the joyful, unbridled laughter that rang out on that glorious Spring morning until this day. In one sense, Paul and Steve lost control of themselves and the situation with their irrepressible laughter, and yet…I don’t think they ever did have to deliver their lines.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Sometimes, choosing laughter is a conscious choice we make in response to that which would cause us to weep if we allowed it. Late-night comedians make a living helping us find the humor where none is apparent. In a sense, it is self-care…a bit of self-protection.

My grandmother had a wonderful sense of humor that was often a little left of center, and oh, what a laugh. When my father died, Grandma was deep into Alzheimer’s. She had been a minister’s wife and always knew just the right thing to say. Even after she had forgotten almost everything else, particularly remembering or understanding that she had just come from the memorial service of her only son, she still retained her manners. Understanding her condition nudged me towards laughter instead of tears as she said goodbye to me after the funeral. She looked up at me and said, “I’m glad we could all be together for such a joyous occasion.” The words and their implication tore at my heart, but I smiled back at her and said, “Yes, I’m so glad we could all be together.” Sometimes, you just have to make a conscious choice to laugh. The alternative is just too painful.

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I was often reminded that this was the fourth Christmas without my husband or my mom. In the evenings especially, I’d get somewhat melancholy, sad, and weepy. Usually, a brief cry would wash away some of the pain and help me regain my equilibrium to move into a sunnier space. Memories of past holidays allowed me to move from tears to moments of laugh-out-loud joy.

The first Christmas after we were married, Dave went Christmas shopping with his friend Dan. He was so proud of the gifts he had selected, and I was looking forward to Christmas morning. I’m sure there were other surprises that morning, but I clearly remember the bathrobe he chose. It was quilted with a zipper up the front that required stepping into it. It was a cheerful little number with schoolhouses, school bells, rulers, and pencils printed on the fabric. Just perfect for a new teacher, he thought. I pulled it from the packaging, and at Dave’s insistence, I began to climb into and draw up the robe. It was tight over my hips, but it was impossible to zip past my ample breast.

“That’s as big as they come! That’s as big as they come!” said Dave incredulously. Just what a woman wants to hear on Christmas morning. He always was a sweet-talker.

“Well, Dave,” I replied. “I don’t feel too bad since you bought this in the girls’ department.” That first Christmas was merely a preview of all the exciting gifts and laughter ahead.

Photo Credit: Nathan-Dumlao
Unsplash

“Laughter is more than just a pleasurable activity…When people laugh together, they tend to talk and touch more and make eye contact more frequently.” 

Gretchen Rubin, 

Anne Lamott says Laughter is carbonated holiness. I consider the sharing of a hardy laugh an intimate, sacred act.

Laughter can diffuse an argument. It can lower your stress level and blood pressure. In addition, laughter can shorten the distance between strangers, give ease to visitors, and comfort the worried, the frightened, and the lonely.

Of course, tears come when they will, but when given a choice…Take off your belt, put your false teeth in a cup, throw your head back and let go with a laugh! No, really…let go and laugh. Try ten Ha Ha Ha’s in a row…just for starters. It always beats the alternative!

The Little Black Dress

The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.”  ― C. JoyBell C.

In the months before the vaccine, I spent many solitary days in my cozy little condo.  I was isolated, but I wasn’t really ‘hermit-like’ alone.  Other humans helped me stay safe and sane. Strangers filled my orders and delivered groceries at my door; a small group led by my minister became weekly support and connection with other women who were isolating singularly; endless Zoom meetings…Zoom Church, committee meetings, and family gatherings, and the daily Minister’s Minute provided by Rev Kate of the UU Meeting House of Provincetown on Cape Cod all sustained me through those often dark days.

Although I am still wearing a mask and being careful to sanitize, I am no longer avoiding the grocery store.  The small group dissolved in the spring when we could get outside. In-person gatherings and Zoom-exhaustion have reduced the number of virtual meetings.  Rev Kate’s messages are now delivered occasionally rather than daily.  Life changes and life continues.

It’s funny the way our lives evolve and transform in completely unexpected ways.  Robert Frost saw two roads diverging in a yellow wood while I see a maze of highways with on-ramps, off-ramps, and roundabouts…none of which has a clear signpost. I may have an idea of where I’m headed, but the destination is never really defined, and detours, roadwork, and slow traffic are pretty much guaranteed. 

The Yellow Wood
Sylvan Solace

One of Rev. Kate’s minutes took me on a path I had not expected nor would have considered in other circumstances. In less than two minutes, Kate got me thinking about what I wear. Now, I’m a strictly jeans and flannel shirt kinda gal, so why was I so drawn to this particular posting…The 100 Day Dress Challenge?

In the clip, Rev. Kate models a dress that she purchased from Wool&.  The company offers $100 toward a reward dress to anyone who wears the dress for 100 consecutive days…and… agrees to take a photo wearing the dress each day. The idea behind it…in addition to being a great marketing strategy…was to encourage limited consumption.  Buying one thing that is well made using sustainable fabrics rather than throwaway garments of fast fashion that many of us take for granted would be better for the planet.  Rev Kate modeled the versatility of the dress she chose, dressing it up and down with items from her closet.  She decided not to do the challenge, but she had gotten me thinking about it.

The first step was joining a Facebook group…touted as the friendliest corner of Facebook…to see how other women were implementing this idea in their own lives, how they wore the dresses, and the lessons they were learning about fashion, sustainability, and themselves.  Don’t forget there was the daily photo requirement to be considered as well.  I was a lurker in the group for some time.  Finally, I decided, what the heck. Why not give it a go?  It was something new, and I didn’t have anything else looming on the horizon.

Of course, nothing is quite that easy.  First, I had to decide which style would be right for me and which color could I imagine myself in every day for three months. I decided on a sleeveless, black Sierra…with pockets!  I ordered the dress in June.  It was on backorder…as most of the dresses were…and would arrive at the end of August!   

Crossing Off the Days
Image Credit: Pixabay

While I waited for the dress to arrive I made a few purchases in preparation. I bought a new deodorant that is safer for humans and wool dresses. I ordered a washing liquid that was specially made for wool.  I also bought several pairs of wool tights from a socially responsible company in Scotland. Buying those things at first seemed a little counterintuitive to the idea of limiting consumption, but then I began to think of it as priming the pump. If I added a little at the beginning, I’d make the 100 days easier and the possibility of success all the more probable.

I will admit, that I went into the entire adventure as a bit of a lark. If I didn’t enjoy the experience, I could always quit. It was a personal challenge, after all. I’d read stories in the Facebook group of women who had thrown in the towel. It wasn’t for everyone, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t follow through…but…maybe I’d learn something, and perhaps it would even be fun.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” )― Lao Tzu

While I waited for my dress, I began to educate myself about the benefits of wearing a merino wool dress.  Not only would I not be investing in new clothes, but I’d also be saving the planet by lessening my laundry. The dress would not need to be washed often. It could be spot cleaned and would naturally repel body odor. Additionally, I learned another trick.  Each night I’d spray the pits with straight vodka.  Yep, vodka…an old theatre trick. Coming home with my first bottle, I thought about Eleanor Oliphant’s weekend pizza and a bottle of vodka. This could be a slippery slope.

Vodka
Image credit: Pixabay

The wearing of this dress has been similar to my becoming a vegetarian. At the time I wasn’t sure if I could do it forever, but I knew I could do it for that day. As the days became months and months became years, I discovered that although I really missed seafood…especially salmon…I was doing something greater than myself. While observing the practices of ethical eating, I was learning how my daily choices affect the planet. I was putting my beliefs into concrete actions. I’m not, however, suffering from sacrificial abstinence. I actually enjoy the foods I eat. Aside from that salmon, it hasn’t been difficult at all…especially when I discovered veggie bacon that isn’t half bad and Beyond Meat is pretty tasty too.

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Jane Goodall

I’ve learned a lot through this experience. While haunting thrift shops for the occasional bargain cashmere or merino sweater, I have been blown away by how much of what we buy is made from petroleum-based fabrics that will remain in a landfill long after we’re gone. The amount of clothing we cast off is also staggering. It seems I’ve moved from lessons on ethical eating to ethical wearing.

By the way…vegetarianism and wearing a little black dress for 100 days are my choices. Of course, they might not work for you. But, you’ll find other ways to serve and heal each other and the world.  There are many roads in that yellow wood.  

The daily photos taught me to make peace with my body. I’ve also learned that a photo taken in good lighting can really diminish wrinkles and improve my mood.  I also confirmed that people don’t look at me as closely as I thought they did.  After all…do you really pay attention to what others are wearing?  What a freeing concept.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” 

― Rumi

I haven’t quite made it to the 100 days yet…but…I am confident that I will.  Today is Day 75…a little more than three weeks to go. While I am refraining from sharing all the photos or giving you a play-by-play of our activities together…the dress and I…have driven from Michigan to Vermont, attended the theatre in Stratford, Ontario, hugged grandchildren, and ridden in the car with my granddaughter at the wheel. I’ve spent time on the rocks of Star Island, walked miles with my sister, Kelly, through the local parks, and marched in a protest for reproductive freedom with my sister, Penny. Next week the two of us…the dress and I… will fly to Philadelphia and then on to Vermont. 

On my recent trip to Scotland, when I was separated from my luggage for eight days in addition to an extra shirt or two, I had…the dress.  The first night, when we were out for dinner, Kelly and Bill ordered beers and…much to the surprise of the young man taking the order from this old lady…I asked for a shot of vodka.  When the glass arrived, I poured the contents into a small spray bottle that had once contained eyeglass cleaner.  The dress and I were good to go. Of course, a shot isn’t that large, requiring the purchase of yet another bottle of vodka before I was reunited with my bag. Yikes.

I joined the challenge on a whim, but I’ve learned a lot more than I anticipated. I have many questions about my personal consumption, but I also have nearly 100 photos of me having fun!  If this challenge had been burdensome, uncomfortable, or boring I doubt I’d have finished. But, I did have fun…and if you’ve seen me in person, virtually, or through photos since August 23rd…you’ve seen the dress. Did you notice?

I’m not sure what I’ll do on day 101, but there is another Facebook group for those who have reached that milestone.  I can’t wait to see what goes on there. After that, who knows where my path will take me.

I’m considering the purchase of a tiara for the 100th photo. I’ve never had one, and this seems like as good a reason as any.  Stand by.

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

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.

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.  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

The story is pretty much the same In the countless retellings I’ve heard.  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 spending so much time alone 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 prompt me to reconsider that 2000-year-old narrative and contemplate the details that might have been omitted, overlooked, or cast aside. I also keep thinking that we would have more specifics if a woman had been consulted while the Gospels were written. 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 nearby 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 undoubtedly would 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. It 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 of 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 selected 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?  Unfortunately, most depictions have him relegated to the background, pushed aside by the shepherds 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, ensured 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 of shepherds, angels, and magi, but not a word about the people who made reservations and actually had 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, cower in their rooms in fear, or 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 wish we could be with our children and grandchildren, I feel a strong bond with Mary’s mother, who is unnamed in the Gospels and entirely 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 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 could she 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. Like these unnamed characters with uncredited roles, we all have a part to play and a story worth knowing.

Throughout my life, 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, the grandmother, yearning to be near her family. We can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative if we look carefully.

The Arrival of the Shepherds
Photo credit: Pixabay

In the manner of Mary’s mother, this holiday season, 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 that time.

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 join the celebration safely.

Update: Christmas 2021…A year later, the threat of covid still hangs in the air, much like the decree from King Herod following the birth of Jesus. However, unlike M, J, and J, there is no escape into a foreign land. Grandmothers around the world face the same threat and the same dilemma.

And yet, as I await Christmas morning, I chuckle to myself. The wee ones are looking forward to a visit from a chubby, old, white-haired guy in a sleigh, while I, a chubby, old, white-haired woman driving a Mini-Cooper, can hardly wait for the arrival of those little children. So I am vaccinated, boosted, tested, and masked…a small price to pay for smiles, hugs, and the closeness of family.

 

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.