The Stratford Gang

I have wanted to write about this part of my life for a very long time.  
Here is a condensed version of the story.  I hope you enjoy it.

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”

John Leonard
The Festival Theatre
Fall 2019

“Someday, I’d like to go to the Shakespeare Festival,” I said.

“Well, set a date,” she replied.

Those words changed my life when they were spoken nearly forty-five years ago, and they continue to guide my choices and agenda. “If you really want to do it, just set a date,” she continued. “Once it’s on the calendar, you’ll move in that direction and make it happen. Set a date.”

So we set a date. The birth of The Stratford Gang began just as simple as that. What started as a one-time weekend adventure became our decades-long autumnal commitment to The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Every ensuing year, on a weekend in September or early October, we would cram our suitcases into a van, and as soon as school was out on Friday afternoon, we’d head for the Canadian border.

After a Play…Near the Festival Theatre
A Long Time Ago… The Early 1980s

Our earlier trips across the Blue Water Bridge and through customs and immigration included questions regarding tobacco and alcohol. One year, when the officer asked if we were bringing any alcohol into the country, I responded, “I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean you don’t think so? Aren’t you the driver? Don’t you know what’s in your vehicle?”

“Well,” I continued. “Not anymore. They finished it on the bridge.” Green Frosties…limeade and vodka…drunk through a red licorice straw, was just the beginning of the fun that year. Together, we laughed often, long and loud. The same jokes and stories of past years were recounted over and over. The punch line or a quick “remember when” would have us laughing until our sides hurt.

Fun Dressing Up at the Costume Warehouse

As wrinkles appeared and our hair became laced with threads of silver, the questions at the border morphed into whether we had mace or pepper spray and whether we were coming to Canada to get our flu shots and drugs cheaper.

The group configuration was in flux in the earliest years, but within a few seasons, we had solidified into a steadfast band of six…sometimes seven…women…teachers, nurses, and one retiree: Lois, our designated drinker, and chocolate advisor. Lois introduced us to Dark Chocolate-Covered Ginger, the eating of which became a required yearly sacrament. We were all in complete agreement that a visit to Rheo Thompson’s candy store was a requirement. We might miss a play, we said, but we’d never miss the chocolate shop. We said we’d miss a play, but we never did.

Leaving the Original Rheo Thompson Candy Shop…1986
We thought it was so hilarious that The Candy Store was right next to a dentist’s office.

Oh, the plays! Sitting together in the dark, we saw hours and hours of fantastic theatre. Dramas, comedies, a few of the Shakespearean histories, and later we added every musical we could…Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway revivals, and some productions that went on to Broadway.

In 1980, we saw Maggie Smith in Much Ado About Nothing. She had joined the festival to earn her chops as a stage actress. My friend and I met her by happenstance outside the theater after the performance. What a thrill. I have her autograph…and amazingly…I know where it is.

We witnessed the Canadian actress Seana McKenna in one of her first roles in a production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” set in the 1920s, where she sang most memorably…With a Hey Nonny, Nonny and a Ha Cha Cha.”

Over the years, we watched the career of the amazing Colm Feore, who my granddaughter now knows from The Umbrella Academy, a television show based on the comic book series of the same name. I was sitting in the front row of the Festival Theatre in 1988 as they filmed the production of Taming of the Shrew, in which Colm played Petruchio, and I almost became part of the show. During the dressmaker scene, a yardstick was slammed down on the table. It splintered and flew into the audience, impaling itself into my foot. They used footage…pun intended…from the second night of filming. Other than backstage tours, that’s as close as any of us came to being on stage.

Stratford has four theatres, but our favorite, The Festival Theatre, built to resemble the original tent used in 1953, became the holy shrine towards which we made our annual pilgrimage. Our call to worship was the fanfare played on heraldry trumpets and drums. The sound of the canon was the prelude reminding us to get settled, for the magic was about to begin.

Listening to the Fanfare
Summer 2019
Photo Credit: Kelly Daab Green

Theatre is such a uniquely symbiotic experience. The cast and crew have the power to bring a room of 1,800 strangers to tears or cause them to laugh out loud in unison. The audience then offers the gift of their response in the form of applause. Sharing this exchange with friends heightens the experience making it almost spiritual in nature. Our original bond was the plays, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, our relationship and our connection became stronger and deeper and went far beyond the activity on the stage.

Over decades, we watched each other age, mature, and mellow. We listened and prayed with those who went through illness and divorce. We cried with our friends who suffered the death of a spouse. We bragged about the accomplishments of our children, shared the delight of grandchildren, and rejoiced at the discovery of new love and second marriages. We didn’t always agree on matters of religion and were never able to sway each other from one political party to another, but that did not stop us from having rousing discussions. We always knew that we could safely discuss our beliefs and feelings openly without risk or judgment. Well…maybe a little judgment…but we also allowed, encouraged, and recognized growth and change.

Everyone has a friend during each stage of lifeBut only lucky ones have the same friend in all stages of life.”

unknown

Lois was with us the fall she was eighty-nine, but that Christmas Eve, she entered the hospital. She died on Epiphany…the 12th Day of Christmas…January 6th, 2002. We were heartbroken. Although she was much older than the rest of us, she was never a mother figure. She was our contemporary, and we adored her. She was who we all wanted to be when we grew up. We gathered after her funeral to discuss what we would do going forward. We each thought she had been the glue that held us together. What would happen to The Gang without her? What we discovered in that short meeting was that though we loved Lois immensely, we loved each other just as much. None of us wanted to let go of this wonderful thing that we had created. None of us wanted to spend an autumn without our time in Canada.

We All Adored Lois
This Was Her Final Season with Us
Fall 2001

That was twenty years ago.

We continued to make the yearly trip…until we couldn’t. Cancer, Parkinsons, bad knees and hips, and life changes eventually meant that we were no longer able to continue as The Stratford Gang. Our love for each other and the place that brought us together remained, but after more than thirty-five seasons, our trips together eventually came to an end. A couple of us continued to make solo trips. My husband joined me once, and my friend Bettie joined me on another occasion too. Then one fall…I went alone. It’s funny, I expected to feel a great sense of loneliness, loss, and grief, but it was quite the opposite. My friends were everywhere. I could see them hurrying through the park, shuffling leaves with their feet, hoping to arrive in time for the trumpets; I could hear them laughing in the washroom during the short intermission, and I felt them beside me as I got comfortable in my seat. Life goes on, and so does love.

“A strong friendship doesn’t need daily conversation or being together. As long as the relationship lives in the heart, true friends never part.”

Unknown

In the summer of 2019, a new Stratford group was created when my two dear sisters and my darling granddaughter agreed to join me for a weekend of theatre. Just as the leaves change every autumn, my Stratford group changed as well. I will always miss that time with The Gang and those young green lives that once were, but the beautiful autumn foliage reminds me that change can be wonderfully glorious.

Summer at the Festival is Also Wonderful with People You Love

I’ll buy our ticket for next year in November, just as soon as we set a date.

Finding 92 Year-Old Men on the Thirty-Ninth Floor

“We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

John Rusking

“Go around the block again.  The entrance has to be here somewhere,” she said. “This is definitely the address.”  

“I just wish there weren’t so many one-way streets,” I added.

Last August, my granddaughter Fiona and I made a rather quick trip to Toronto. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been condensed from two plays… a six-hour-two-ticket commitment to a big more manageable single, 3-hour production. The new version could only be seen in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, Tokyo, Hamburg, and Toronto. Broadway might have been closer, but we are more comfortable and familiar with Toronto, so our plan was hatched. As soon as tickets went on sale, we’d be ready to pounce. The box office opened, and I was ready with my credit card. I chose our theatre seats carefully, but in my haste to secure lodging, I inadvertently booked us into the wrong hotel.

“There must be a front door somewhere. Let’s go around again.”

Night was falling, and we were deep in the heart of the city. Fiona, the patient navigator, and I, the frustrated and very tired driver, were anxious to get out of the car and settled into our room.  We were in an area with which I had limited prior experience and was not at all acquainted with our hotel on the corner of Yonge and King.

“This looks like an alley.  Do you think it’s the entrance?” we wondered aloud as I pulled onto the narrow side street.

Finding our hotel amid the forest of concrete and glass, eventually, parking and checking in was the welcome culmination of a very long day of driving.  Fiona and I both enjoy the benefits that cities provide, but we’re basically small-town girls, even though we live in the capital city of Vermont. We are more accustomed to structures left from the Victorian era than the tall, imposing structures of the 20th century.  We dragged our small suitcases into the empty elevator, pushed the button, and rode in silence to the thirty-ninth floor. The doors opened onto a bank of elevators next to an enormous window that looked out onto the adjacent buildings. Our view was filled with a quartet of huge Art Deco faces smiling directly at us! What an unexpected surprise. They were magnificent!

View From the Elevator Bank on the Thirty-ninth Floor.
August 2022

I was mesmerized.  As luck would have it, our room was also opposite these smiling gentlemen. My first instinct was to grab my camera. These new friends were willing subjects.  Smiling patiently as I took shot after shot.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that in addition to the quartet I had originally seen, there was an entire men’s chorus of twelve visible concrete heads and an additional four on the far side of the building for a total of sixteen.

I had so many questions.  What was the significance of these enormous faces, and even more puzzling to me…why were they constructed so far above any passersby on the ground? 

The Canadian Bank of Commerce Building about 1930
“Hey! Let’s add sixteen massive heads that will be almost impossible to see.”

The Canadian Bank of Commerce Building was built between 1929-1931.  At the time, it was the tallest building in the entire British Commonwealth. It retained that distinction until the early 1960s.  Although towering and impressive,  it is now somewhat dwarfed by the slender concrete, steel, and glass structures that surround it. As Toronto’s first skyscraper, it must have been an imposing presence.  Until it was replaced by the CN Tower, it was from here that curious Torontonians would arrive to see the city spread before them like a patchwork quilt.  The arched openings at the 32-floor observation deck…no longer open…also gave tourists an up close and personal look at the massive bearded heads, albeit from an unusual angle.

From the top of their heads to the bottom of their flowing beards,
each of the gigantic sculptures measures 24 feet high.
August 2022

I was drawn to these steadfast gentlemen and their perpetual smiles.  From my vantage point at nearly eye level, I could see that the 16 men shared two distinct and alternating faces with subtle differences indistinguishable at street level. With a little Google sleuthing, I discovered that they shared four names as well: Courage, Observation, Foresight, and Enterprise, and were said to symbolize the forever watchfulness of the bank. 

Great buildings that move the spirit have always been rare. In every case they are unique, poetic, products of the heart

Arthur Erickson

I appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the natural world, but I am also drawn to the stories told and the mysteries not yet unfolded of great works that humans have built and sustain.  I imagine the council fires where ancient visionaries first pitched the idea of building Mesa Verde, Stonehenge, or Donottar Castle.  Knowing my cautious nature, I’d probably have been among the skeptics.  “You want to build what? Where? With what?”  And yet our forebears built cathedrals, castles, bridges, and towers that many thought impossible.

I watched as the light of the early morning golden hour transitioned to the velvety richness of the night sky and the glow of countless city illuminations played across each face. 
August 2022

So, why did they place these heads so high above the city traffic below? Google couldn’t help me with that, but perhaps it’s like lacy underwear. Few, if any, other people see it, but you know it’s there. After all, does beauty need a reason? Maybe beauty is the reason.

It was the magic of Harry Potter that drew us to Toronto on this trip, but if we are observant, pay attention, and are open, we can find magic and beauty all around us without the use of a magic wand or whispered incantation. How much I am missing, I wonder, by keeping a steady forward gaze? I must remind myself to anticipate, be aware, and expect to find gifts of wonder, beauty, and delight that others have created for me to discover and appreciate.

Sometimes, booking the wrong hotel can be the right thing to do.

One Man’s Trash

“After 40 it’s patch, patch, patch.”

Seen on a T-shirt

“After 60, it’s pitch, pitch, pitch.”

Sally Daab Armstrong

Downsizing! It seems that I’m at it again!

My recent return to Vermont found me in a condo one-third smaller than the one I left in Michigan. Sorting, tossing, and recycling have been a necessity. It’s impossible to retain everything I brought with me, but another round of jettisoning the treasures and minutiae of my life has not been easy.

I was raised on the 1950s black and white Westerns…movies, and television shows…Gun Smoke, Ponderosa, and every Sunday night…Wagon Train. I was both distressed and curiously intrigued when inevitably, it became necessary to lighten the load and leave something along the trail. I’m not sure why but I found the jarring clang of a piano tossed from the back of a Conestoga or the crash of a crate of heirloom china being unceremoniously flung over the side especially heartbreaking. How did those people decide what to toss and what to keep? It’s hard to let go of things that connect us to other times and places, but in the end, they are just things. The memories and connections remain; it’s just “the stuff” that we lose.

Then again, couldn’t they keep just one of Grandma’s teacups? Maybe tucked into a flour sack? I suppose that’s what makes this task so challenging for me. I can only do it in stages. I keep the “just one thing” for now, but in a few months…as the purge continues…I might decide that it is indeed just a cup, not the memory, and I can set it free.

The famous Japanese lifestyle coach Marie Kondo says we should eliminate excess clutter and put away all the things from the past that no longer contribute to our lives. Thank each item in the Goodwill box for the joy it brought us or the comfort it provided, and then…as they sing in the Disney movie…let it go. I still have much more than I need in this tiny condo, but I’m getting better at bidding adieu to things that, at one time or another, I thought I couldn’t live without.

“Have gratitude for the things you’re discarding. By giving gratitude, you’re giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”

Marie kondo

I’ve made many trips to Goodwill and The Restore and joined a local Buy-Nothing group. Everything offered in the group is free to whoever can use it. The next owner will continue to breathe life into my rejects, creating new histories instead of sending them to the landfill.

Free Pile #1

Knowing how difficult it is to reduce the inventory, I find it very curious…puzzling even…that I involuntarily slow down for anything along the road with a Free Sign. Who knows what sidewalk gold awaits me? Within split seconds, I’ve designed a new seat for the chair with the broken caning, and I’ve chosen a paint color that would add charm and delight, making it a lovely addition to my front porch. Then I remember…I don’t have a front porch, and I don’t need more stuff…especially broken, discarded stuff.

That doesn’t seem to stop me. I keep looking. I keep imaging.

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” 

Gloria Steinem

Maybe I could repair the sagging shelves of the bookcase, repurpose the metal plantstand, or mend the flannel shirt. I wasn’t looking for another book to add to those next to my bed waiting to be read, but the cover is so shiny, and the title is intriguing. Could I successfully incorporate these finds into my life? This entire reaction generally lasts but a few seconds at best. Thankfully, my better angels take over, and I don’t come home with something new which would be destined for my giveaway box.

Free Pile #2

Buying second-hand, frequenting flea markets, looking for bargains, and hunting for treasure is nothing new and not certainly not unique to me. Perhaps this practice is one of the remaining vestiges of our days as Hunter-Gatherers. We don’t search for bargains and treasures out of greed, although there is an element of saving money and making the most advantageous transaction. It is more a matter of imagining our world just a wee bit differently. What would it be like to possess something new and unexpected? Could our world be different? Improved?

Maybe that’s true of ideas and thoughts as well. We keep what works, what gives us clarity and meaning. We’re open to new thoughts and imagine incorporating them into our lives but then, often as not, we drive on…leaving them in the grass at the edge of the road…without employing them or making them our own.

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 

Thomas merton

When I was a teenager, we often passed a rather ramshackle building on our way to the city. It always appeared ready to collapse. Held together with spit and a promise, it was filled to overflowing with all kinds of fascinating and enticing bits of wood and metal…Sleazeman’s Junk Emporium. It was a dilapidated, rundown collection of…well…junk, but the name was so clever and inviting. This memory reminds me to be careful what I bring into my house or into my thinking, for that matter. Sometimes what appears to be gratis is a costly problem with a jazzy name…the couch with fleas, the appliance with the wrong cord, or conclusions without basis in facts.

Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.

Albert einstein

And so…I slow down, look, and imagine even as the purging, shuffling, and reducing continues.

Special Delivery

WARNING: Be very careful accepting any parcel post from me in the next few weeks. You may be an unsuspecting participant in my downsizing adventure. I imagine how any number of my cast-offs…I mean treasures…could change your life.

Finding The Kelpies

“It seemed like the world is moving too fast and I wanted it to stop or at least slow down, so that I could keep up. I wanted the time to wait for me. Then I realized, life goes on, and I have to live with it.”

Kcat Yarza

Our quest to see The Kelpies began in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. The main hall is stunningly beautiful and rather imposing for three small-town women. Buying a ticket, finding the correct platform…among the twenty available…, and boarding on time was a challenge, but we did it…with a wee bit of help from a local. With the first phase of our mission accomplished, we settled back in our seats, pleased with ourselves and full of anticipation for what lay ahead.

The Waiting Hall at Waverly Station
Edinburgh 2022

The Kelpies, located about 30 miles northwest of Edinburgh, are the largest equine statutes in the world at nearly 100 ft high. These horse head sculptures depict mythical shape-shifting water spirits and were created to honor the horse-powered heritage of Scotland. The magical power of these enormous beasts seemed to pull us toward The Helix Park in Falkirk, where they were awaiting our arrival.

I had seen these impressive statues before from the M9 motorway with my late husband, Dave. He didn’t stop…of course not… but as we approached the position of best visibility, he’d lean back so I could take a photo. Of course, it goes without saying that shooting past Dave out the window of a moving vehicle was not optimal for getting the best picture.

Best Shot Out the Window on The M9

On a sunny day in October, during my first return trip to Scotland after COVID travel restrictions, I saw them from within the park with my sister, Kelly…our intrepid driver…and her husband, Bill. What a treat. Now, in April, I was looking forward to sharing them up close and personal with my sister, Penny, and my granddaughter, Fiona.

The train stopped several times as we made our way out of the city and into the countryside, with additional brief connections in towns on the route. Beyond the city and villages, we sped by fields of brilliant green spring crops dotted with sheep and edged with the ever-present, vibrant yellow Gorse, but my memory has reduced this all to a modern art smear of yellow, green, and sky blue. We were moving too fast for clear memories to form.

“Life is ephemeral; each moment passes quickly a blur of color on a fast moving subway car. There and gone and all we have left is the imprint of what once was.”

jacqueline Simon Gunn

My life has been moving at breakneck speed for the past few months. At times, I watch it pass before me as though I’m watching from the window of a train. I hardly have time to savor one event before it has morphed into the next. Perhaps that’s why I am seldom without my phone and its built-in camera. Maybe the pace of our lives is why so many of us carry this memory grabber in our pockets, ready in an instant to freeze the moments of our lives into bite-sized glimpses to appreciate and enjoy later; tangible confirmation and future memory joggers of our adventures.

As we trundled on toward our destination…not giving too much thought to how we would get from the station to the park…another adventure in itself…we had time to relax and simply be. The world was rolling past our windows, and it would spin just fine without us for a while. I rather like the cadence of an event-filled vacation…life…but it is also sweet to simply sit back and enjoy the ride from time to time too.

Rest is not idle, is not wasteful. Sometimes rest is the most productive thing you can do for body and soul.

Erica Layne

A few days earlier, through the magic of modern technology, I’d sold my house in Michigan from our flat in Edinburgh, just off the Royal Mile. Still, as we continued our quest for The Kelpies, I had no way of knowing that within a month, I would have stored my worldly goods, spent quality time sharing hugs, laughter, and goodbyes with friends and family, and returned to Vermont. I hadn’t yet been invited to live with my children until I found a place. Nor did I have an inkling of how in Montpelier’s tight housing market, I’d miraculously find a small condo in the perfect location on the North Branch of the Winooski River by the beginning of July.

North Branch of the Winooski River
Summer 2022

Now, in late August, the slightest hint of autumn is in the air, reminding me that shortly the leaves will turn, and this long hot summer will only be a memory. Sweaters will replace t-shirts, wool socks will be added to my Birkenstocks, and it won’t be long until mittens and boots emerge from their summer lodging. The seasons provide a natural rhythm to our lives. There is imperative to gather the harvest and busily prepare for a time of quieting and slowing down.

There is ebb and flow. Leaving and coming. Flight and fall. Sing and silent. Reaching and reached.

Ally Condie

I find it such a delight to fill in the little squares of my planner with activities and plans. I often find myself creating the itinerary for my next adventure before I’ve finished the final glass of wine of the trip I’m on. The challenge isn’t to remove all the hustle and bustle of life. The real challenge is ensuring that our calendar is filled with activities that add joy and meaning to our lives and that we’re not merely on the hamster wheel going nowhere but actually enriching our lives. Leaving some empty squares in the planner and allowing time to rest, recover, and regroup is essential. Our short time on the train afforded us a brief respite before we would complete our pursuit for The Kelpies.

“No mortal ear could have heard the kelpie passing through the night, for the great black hooves of it were as soundless in their stride as feathers falling. –

Mollie Hunter

Standing before these massive sculptures, at last, with people I love, experiencing their expressions of wonder and awe, was a reminder that my life is full of blessings, simmering moments of amazement, and occasions that can only be described as grace. I don’t want to move so fast that I recognize them only as blurred images.

My Granddaughter and My Sister
An Adventure Together 2022

“Untether yourself from the engines of busyness…Instead, consider your life–who you love, and why, how blessed you are to be here, resting under a shower of birdsong, or what strange bright luck it is to be the owner, for a few years, of this beating heart, these wondering eyes, the ears into which the kingfisher spills her small chuckle as she dips across the water…”

Kathleen McTigue…An excerpt from “Summer Sabbath”

Two Lovers and a Glass of Wine

“Wine enters through the mouth, Love, the eyes. I raise the glass to my mouth, I look at you, I sigh.” 

― William Butler Yeats

As I arrived at my book club meeting, I was met by the evening’s hostess. “Welcome,” smiled Tina. “Would you like a glass of wine? I have Pino, Chardonnay, or a nice Cab.”

When it comes to wine, all the women in my group know much more about it than I do. I know I really enjoy Baco Noir, Malbec, and the occasional glass of chilled Riesling, but the rest are a mystery to me. They might be beautiful in the glass and pleasurable on the tongue, but I’ll admit…I really don’t know one from the other. Many years ago, on a trip to France, my husband, Dave, and I attended a delightfully instructional wine tasting in a local wine cellar. It was fun, but even that didn’t improve my understanding of wine. I remember that the aroma, color, and the way it swirls in the glass are all supposed to add to the enjoyment, but in all honesty, I’m not sure why or how. On the other hand, when the discussion led to the philosophy of terroir, I understood and could easily relate.

Terroir is a French word that translates as land. As I understand it, the soil and environment affect the grape’s development, taste, and quality which are ultimately reflected in the wine. The same grape grown on one hillside may taste entirely different from one produced on an adjacent field.

Grapes Grown for Williamsburg Winery
Virginia 2011

I realize that terroir in this context refers to grapes and perhaps other crops as well, but I think it also may apply to people. Where we are born, raised, and eventually settle affects what we believe and how we behave. It shapes who we are and who we come to be.

Last Fall, I heard an original poem read by a woman who lives part of the year in New England and the other in Florida. Through her writing, she acknowledged that her friends in either place really only know a part of who she really is. Without an understanding of the ethos of New England, those in Florida would only ever know one side of her. Conversely, those in New England could never comprehend the Florida part. Dave and I were born in the midwest…Michigan, to be precise…but we spent most of our married life together in Vermont, so unless our friends had similar backgrounds, they never truly knew us.

A man can be in two different places and he will be two different men. Maybe if you think of more places he will be more men, but two is enough for now. –

Elmore Leonard

As Dave’s mobility decreased, we discussed downsizing from our 1810, four-bedroom house to something more manageable. Once when I asked him what he would do if I died and he was alone…as we age, we think of such things… he responded, “I’d move back to Michigan.” So, when he died, and I was alone and unable to find a suitable place to relocate in Vermont, I sold our big house and moved to a small condo in Michigan near my sisters and within an hour’s drive of women with whom I’ve had decades-long friendships.

Within months of my move, we entered the time of Covid. In the blink of an eye, the world changed for everyone. The life I had anticipated was impossible. Most of my connections with family and friends were virtual. I was living…as were most people…through my computer screen. Church services, family gatherings, chats with my grandchildren, and monthly book club meetings were conducted on Zoom or Facetime. My groceries were delivered outside my door, and I relied on UPS and the US postal system more than I’d like to admit. I enjoyed my little condo with its cozy fireplace, and I spent a good deal of time alone on my deck with the birds and squirrels for company. I walked the city parks and binge-watched several British and Canadian television series. Weekly small group meetings with other solo women and our minister also kept me going. It was a comfortable…yet very lonely…way to weather the storm. When we could meet outside…at a distance of six feet or inside with masks and excellent ventilation…I was able to see my sisters and friends, but we were never close enough to hug…or even touch. It was a strange time but not unique to me. The entire world had been locked down.

My Little Deck and Container Garden
Summer 2021

Each of us has our own pandemic story. Being isolated and alone kept me safe from the virus, but my life was often framed by loneliness. However, my friend, Suzanne, says that adults are responsible for their own good time, and even amid the restrictions of the Covid time, I was able to make memories, share laughter, and enjoy the blessing of time with those I love. However, I slowly realized that I was becoming collateral damage to the pandemic. I have never been able to put down roots or make genuine relationships within the new community in which I found myself.

The plains of central Michigan have their own kind of beauty: the red barns, green fields, and expansive sky; nevertheless, I longed for Vermont’s mountains, streams, and cedar scented air. Although there are many people I love…deeply love…in Michigan, my heart and soul…not to mention my children and grandchildren…are in Vermont. I had to return.

I listed my beloved condo with a realtor in mid-April, and surprisingly…to me anyway… it sold within a week. So I am putting the accumulation of my life in storage and packing my clothes, sundries, computer, and the book I haven’t finished in Andy…my Mini Cooper…and trekking back to all I love in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I’m moving forward in the faith that I’ll be able to find a place to eventually unpack, settle, and successfully revive and nurture the roots that have lain dormant during my time away.

As I wrap my breakables carefully in newsprint, I often have two songs from decades ago playing alternately on a loop in my head. The chorus of the Mary Wells Motown hit…Two Lovers...is regularly on repeat. “Well, I’ve got two lovers, and I ain’t ashamed. I’ve got two lovers, and I love them both the same.” But, perhaps the 70s Pop/Soft Rock recording by Mary MacGregor, Torn Between Two Lovers, with its sensitive lyrics and haunting melody, is closer to expressing the ache of having two intense and conflicting loves. When I exchange the idea of place for the other person in the song, it comes close to articulating my feelings.

Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool
Loving you both is breaking all the rules
You mustn't think you failed me just because there's someone else
You were the first real love I ever had
And all the things I ever said
I swear they still are true
For no one else can have the part of me I gave to you

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be completely happy, for I will always be drawn to one place while at the same time missing the other. The people of Vermont and Michigan each possess their own unique terroir, and I have drunk deeply from the rich, sweet wine of both. But, I suppose, in the end, all I can really do is linger over the exquisite glass before me…enjoying the aroma, the color, and the way it swirls in the glass…knowing that I’m not limited to one bottle and can always return and fill my goblet once again from the other.

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.’

Mirium Adeney

Everyone Loses!

This is a different kind of post for me. I debated with myself whether or not to post it. 
 In the end, I decided I would. 
My heart is breaking with overwhelming sadness for the people of Ukraine, but I also have compassion for the ordinary Russian people who are also going to suffer because of 
Putin's Senseless War. 
There is only pain and anguish for all those involved. Everyone loses! 
I am greatly inspired by the dedication, valor, and resolve of the Ukrainians, but I am also encouraged by the Russians who are marching...at significant personal risk... in the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cities across their country. 
To be clear....this post is about the ordinary Russians I met two decades ago...not Putin's Government and as always just thoughts that are swirling around in my head.
Ukrainian National Flower
Photo credit: Pixabay

 If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he’s just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It’s one world, pal. We’re all neighbors.”

—Frank Sinatra

In the summer of 2002…twenty years ago…Dave and I took a two-week river cruise from Moscow to St.Petersburg. Growing up in rural Michigan, this was an unusual step for us. We were Cold War kids who grew up with the Russian threat an ever-present part of our lives. We hid under our desks during air-raid drills…as if that would have protected us. We watched Khruschev on the evening news banging his shoe and vowing to ‘bury us’, and we held our breath during the Cuban missile conflict. But…after the fall of communism, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, traveling to what Ronald Reagan once described as ‘The Evil Empire’ seemed both improbable and yet…very possible. So…why not? We bought our tickets, packed our bags, and left on a very long flight toward the east.

Stepping off the plane in Moscow, we were immediately struck by the size and condition of the airport. In the intervening years since our visit, the airport has been enlarged and expanded, but twenty years ago, it was about the size of the airport in Burlington, VT. Also, surprisingly, there was no orderly plan for how passengers would be processed through immigration. Instead, it was an exercise in ‘survival of the fittest’ with lots of jockeying for position. Raised with midwest politeness, we couldn’t return push for push or shove for shove, so we were the last two people from our group to eventually exit into the waiting area to meet our guides.

Our ship, the Tolstoy, had once been the pride of the Communist Party reserved for high-ranking members of the Politburo. The decore and amenities were classic 1970s. Luxurious, it was not…but it was comfortable enough and would be our home for the next two weeks. Our hosts were paid to take care of us, of course, but soon we became aware of the many times the crew went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and comfortable…always with a smile.

Outside St. Basil’s Near Red Square
Moscow, June 2002
Dave and I got totally lost inside St. Basil’s.
There were plenty of twists and turns, and all the signs were Russian.

On our second night, we were taken to the Russian circus. “Don’t worry. We will have a bus to take you back to the ship at intermission if you don’t wish to stay.” Dave, who was always just a big kid, absolutely loved the circus. So we stayed until the end. Yes, the circus was amazing, but I was much more interested in watching the faces and reactions of the children who were sitting behind us. Wonder, delight, and oohs and ahhs needed no translation. It was such a joyous experience.

As we traveled, it was interesting to speak with Russians about the changes taking place. Of course, lacking Russian language skills, we could only talk to educated people who spoke English. The older Russians who had good jobs and status due to their skills with English missed the security of employment under communism. Now they had to find work in the private sector, as guides for visiting Americans, for example. On the other hand, the younger Russians welcomed the changes and were hopeful for a future under their new leader, Vladimir Putin.

Leaving Moscow, we traveled north toward St. Petersburg via the Volga River stopping at towns and villages along the way. At each port, we were met by friendly people who were proud, enthusiastic, and excited to share their country with us. After living for so many years under communism, they were happy to be reclaiming churches and religious sites and couldn’t wait to show us. There was scaffolding and signs of progress everywhere as well as the unavoidable and ubiquitous signs of decay, neglect, and poverty. One of the Russians Dave met told him that the Russians knew that we were afraid of them during the Cold War but that they were never afraid of us. “What do we have that you would want? Nothing. We have nothing.”

Taking a Break
Outside St. Sergius Monastery

In preparation for our trip, I dabbled with the Russian language using a primitive program on my computer. In the end, although I never actually learned the language, I learned how to say five simples phrases…good morning, good evening, please, thank you, and I’m sorry. All of these phrases came in handy, but I could recognize other random nouns, even though I couldn’t really employ them, which turned out to be very serendipitous.

The Doma and Kiosk in Goritsy

Walking down the road into the village of Goritsy, we passed rustic kiosks set up in front of several houses. Most offered linen socks, dried fish, and flowers. As I lingered at a stand that also displayed small carvings and little wooden toys, the Russian owner began to speak to me…in Russian. As she spoke, gesturing toward her house and husband, I recognized one of the random words…doma…house.

One of the reasons Dave and I were such good traveling companions was that while we were pretty timid individually, together, we were brave enough to take risks and even break the rules if necessary. So, when the woman’s husband beckoned me, I followed him into the house. Dave followed along as well, all the while muttering, “We shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be doing this.”

I don’t know why I was singled out to be invited in. I’m not even totally sure why I followed, but I’m so glad that I did. The first things we noticed as we entered the house were the intricate carvings…all swirls and ripples…that adorned the door frame. Communicating with gestures and charades, our host showed us into his workshop, where he had created a primitive jig-saw by connecting a metal wire to electricity. With the wire glowing red hot, he cut through thin boards to fashion his decorations and some of the small toys we had seen at the kiosk. Next, he led us farther inside his home, inviting us to look around and take pictures if we chose. The house was primarily one big room with a thick wall a few feet shy of the ceiling dividing it into areas. Colorful images cut from newspapers, magazines, and calendars adorned the walls throughout. The kitchen was dwarfed by a vast stone oven behind which the children slept…probably the warmest place in the house. He was obviously proud of his humble home, especially his color television resting on a brightly colored tablecloth. As we were leaving the house and ending this incredible encounter, we noticed several items hanging on the wall, like those at the booth. Indicating that we’d like to buy the double-headed eagle…a symbol of Russia…our friend said the only words we all understood…”Dollars? Rubles?” He removed the artwork from his wall, wrapped it in a newspaper, accepted our dollars, and posed for a photo. We never learned his name, but we felt very blessed by our encounter. We simply referred to him as our Russian Friend.

Hanging on our Wall for Twenty Years

“If you doubt that we are all one, tell me, what language is laughter, what color is love?”

minnavanna

A dozen years before we went to Russia, Billy Joel…another Cold War kid, visited what was then The Soviet Union. In many ways, his experience mirrored ours prompting him to write the very moving song Leningrad.

Today the memory of our Russian adventure leaves me filled with a strange emotional soup of conflicting feelings. When I think about our time in Russia, I think about the people we met. Do they know what’s happening across the border? Are they marching in the streets, or are their sons driving tanks?

Dave and I often spoke of this trip as one of our favorites. Traveling and meeting people lowers the veil, and we see one another as the siblings that we are. We can’t help but notice how much alike we are…how much we share. In another place and time, we might have been good friends. Instead of what might have been, we are all locked in a horror story with only losers.

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”

Jimmy Carter

Flowing Like a River

“Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.” 

Henry Van Dyke

Last December, I received two gorgeous calendars as Christmas gifts. I’m sure that each was chosen primarily for the stunningly beautiful artwork as well as for their practicality and function. I generally use the calendar on my laptop or my phone, but holding a paper calendar is an experience not equaled by a glowing screen. For in addition to the colorful prints and the monthly grid of empty squares, you literally hold in your hands the promise and potentiality of another trip around the sun…three hundred sixty-five days of possibilities. A pretty wonderful gift, I’d say. I am confident that fewer calendars are ahead of me than behind me, so I think a lot about how I’ll fill those empty squares.

The February page reminds me that my mom’s birthday is fast approaching. One of my childhood friends shared her birthdate with my mom. “Gee,” Fran exclaimed on one of those birthdays years ago. “We’re getting old. I mean, we’re pushing thirty!” That year, my mother was precisely twice her age. Mom was forty-two years, and Fran…and I… were merely twenty-one. With Fran’s mathematical logic, I suppose we are both pushing eighty this year! How quickly a lifetime has passed.

Time, flowing like a river.
Time, beckoning me.
Who knows when we shall meet again, if ever.
But time keeps flowing like a river into the sea.
-Alan Parson’s Project, Time
Flowing Like a River
Near Pitlochry, Scotland 2021

For more than two years, our lives have been ruled in one way or another by Covid-19. While the memories of the terrible isolation and loneliness I experienced during the lock-down and waiting for the vaccine are fading, I’m still wearing a mask in public and avoiding being too close to others. I also weigh the risks and benefits of activities I once took for granted. Now, for example, I consider whether the hoops of fire through which I must jump are worth the reward of travel…one of my favorite activities. Like everyone, I have a finite number of trips and adventures left on my calendar, but not knowing how many pages are left increases my desire to fill each square with meaning. At times I have wanted to whine and cry about what Covid has stolen from me, but as I grieve my losses, I know that the entire planet is filled with people who have sacrificed so much more than I. Of course, I empathize with their loss, but that doesn’t negate mine. It’s painful.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.”So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

― J.R.R.TOLKIEN, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
River Dochart Just Beyond the Falls
Killin, Scotland 2021

I’ve been searching for the word that best describes my Covid experience…two opposing ideas that both are seemingly true. I’m not sure if ‘paradox‘ is that word, but it comes close. Covid was and remains a callous, nondiscriminating thief of time. The list of treasures stolen is long, universal, and personal. (Universally personal…an ‘oxymoron.’ That one I know.) Graduations, weddings, even funerals became solitary events, if they occurred at all. Trips, plays, ball games, and family gatherings were put on hold or canceled outright. Connections with friends…old and new…even worship services were relegated to Zoom or Facetime. The precious time that we lost can never be regained.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to save every day 'til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you
-Jim Croce, Time in a Bottle

Yes, Covid was a robber that took that which was most precious…bits and pieces of our lives. On the other hand…this marauder left behind unexpected blessings. The virus grabbed cherished time with one hand and bestowed the gift of time with the other. Paradox?

We had quiet time to think, read, write, and simply rest in isolation. Without other obligations and distractions, family Zoom gatherings became a weekly highlight enabling us to empathize, support, laugh, and connect from across the country. With worship services on Zoom, Facebook, or Youtube, we could attend when and wherever we chose. On the second Easter of Covid, I attended a United Methodist service in South Carolina, my local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship gathering in Michigan, the service in Montpelier, Vermont, and at the UU Meeting House in Provincetown. Later in the day, when a friend on Facebook suggested I check out the message from her church in Pennsylvania, I fast-forwarded to the sermon. I’m not especially religious, but…I had the time and absolutely nothing else on my calendar. The gift of time… enjoyed with a handful of jelly beans.

Sylvan Solace on the Chippewa River
Fall 2021
"Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' Into the future"
-Steve Miller Band Fly Like an Eagle

As the Covid situation morphs yet again into what seems like a more manageable and less devastating phase, I…like many, many others, am beginning to think about how I can add plans to those calendar pages. I’ve purchased airline tickets, booked a Christmas river cruise, selected plays I’m hoping to see, and registered for the Arts Retreat on Star Island. Will all of those adventures come to fruition? Who knows, but I’m moving forward in faith that they will.

“Do not wait: the time will never be ‘just right’. Start where you stand, and work whatever tools you may have at your command and better tools will be found as you go along.”

― Napoleon Hill
Mill Pond Park, Mt Pleasant, MI
August 2021

I remember one of my teachers trying to explain the concept of time and our perception of it. “A minute with your sweetheart goes by in a flash, while a minute on a hot stove is unbearable.” It feels as though time is picking up the pace while I’m slowing down.

The clock is ticking, and I’m crossing off boxes on my calendars at an alarming rate. With each passing day, I am reminded that this is my time…our time. In the words of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” So, I’m taking out my pen, grabbing a calendar, filling the squares with plans, and riding with the current to the sea.

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 onto 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.