Making Darn Good Time!

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms…I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from When Death Comes

The sun was shining and the sky was full of fluffy, white clouds the morning I left Michigan for Vermont. Everything was going in my favor all day. There was no line at customs, the traffic was light, and Audible was providing great entertainment. As I approached Toronto…which can be a race track or a parking lot…I decided to splurge and take the toll road. Somewhere, just east of the city, I received a message from my daughter-in-law asking how I was doing and whether I was going to drive straight through or spend the night. It was early afternoon and I was movin’ right along, so I said I thought I’d keep driving. “I’m making really great time. This road is wonderful. There’s no one else on it. I have the highway to myself.” One slight problem, I was making darn good time…but I had missed my exit and was on the wrong road! When discovered my error, I made a quick adjustment and was soon back on course.

In the months since my husband’s death, getting myself on the right road has been one of my major challenges. It’s difficult to get moving in the right direction when you’re not sure where you are, where you’re headed or where you hope to arrive. Being disoriented during grief is to be expected, but charting a course, setting goals, and creating a to-do list affects all of us no matter our age or station.

I once asked a group of children if it was possible to count all the individual grains of sand in a small jar I was holding. One little boy replied, “Yes, you could do it, but it depends on how you want to spend your life.” Great answer. One of my favorites. How do we want to spend our lives? Isn’t that the biggest question; the most difficult question; the question we continually ask ourselves even as we adjust, amend, refine and tweak our answers? After all, it’s possible to count the grains of sand, but is that what we really want to do?

“What are you doing the rest of your life, North and South and East and West of your life…”

Alan Bergman/ Marilyn Bergman/ Michel Legrand H

How we spend our lives is an ever-evolving, never-ending string of choices. Knowing that we have choices and that we are responsible for the consequences of those choices is often paralyzing. One false move and our house of cards may come tumbling down.

Quiet Water in The Adirondacks

On a simply glorious day, a few summers ago, I took my kayak out onto the quiet waters of a nearby reservoir. It was early in the day and I seemed to be totally alone. I paddled slowly around the perimeter mesmerized by the sunlight sparkling on the water droplets cascading from my paddle and smiling as I observed a family of turtles sunning themselves on a fallen log. I was soon joined by a pair of curious loons who swam close to my boat. I stopped paddling and drifted silently beside them. Within minutes an eagle circled overhead before settling into its nest. It occurred to me that at that moment, there was no place on earth that I would rather be. I also realized that all my life choices had led me to that place and time…my wise decisions as well as my mistakes, poor judgments, and total cock-ups. Each choice had played a part in bringing me to that glorious morning. That awareness was freeing, for even if I choose poorly now and again or make mistakes in judgment wonders and amazement still lie before me just waiting to be discovered.

Before the parade passes by I’m gonna get in step while there’s still time left…I wanna feel my heart coming alive again. Before the parade passes by.

Jerry Herman, When The Parade Passes By, Hello Dolly

I remember watching old black and white Westerns with my dad when I was a kid. Inevitably the hero and his pals would be stranded somewhere out on the plains. At first, they’d drink hungrily from their canteens, even pouring some water on their sweaty heads and faces, but as the journey continued…on foot by this point, since they always seemed to lose their horses for some reason or other…they would begin to ration the water only taking small sips…trying to make the water last. At this point in my life, I’m savoring the water in my canteen, sipping carefully and rationing my choices. My canteen has a finite amount of water I don’t want to waste a single drop.

Monument Valley, Utah
September 2018

In the end, how we make our choices, how we map our lives and plot our course is as individual as we are. Some may travel with a well-thought-out, elaborate itinerary, and pre-planned route confident about what lies ahead. Others want to leave plenty of space for the occasional detour, the missed exit, and the unplanned adventure.

Most of the choices we make…the miles we clock… are for every-day trips…short, routine, and seemingly insignificant…for which we need neither map nor GPS. It is these small moments…the simple choices…that eventually add up to the special moments of our lives. We must remember to delight in these as well. That big trip may be in the future…or…not…but our lives are now. How we choose to live it is up to us.

“…And the present is what your life is, and you are capable of choosing what that will be, darling citizen. So come to the pond or river of your imagination, or the harbor of your longing, and put your lips to the world. And live your life.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from Morning at Blackwater

I’m still not quite sure where I’m going, but the road has been plowed, I’ve got a full tank of gas, and  I’m making darn good time!

If You’re a Worm…Sleep Late

The Virtual Jar

As the end of the year approaches and thoughts of the New Year are slipping into our consciousness a simple suggestion begins to pop up on social media. Write your gratitudes on a slip of paper at the end of each day. Put the slip into a glass jar and a year from now you’ll have 365 reminders of the many blessings that you have enjoyed during the year. I immediately liked this idea when I first read about it several years ago, but being in possession of assorted diaries that are blank beyond February, I was aware of limitations…I’m not always that good at follow through. “What if I had friends willing to undertake this idea with me?” I wondered.

And so it was that in January 2014, fifteen Facebook friends, whose only connection to each other was their relationship to me, committed to one year of sharing blessings, joys, and happy surprises with each other in a secret online group. We called it The Virtual Jar. We filled the jar…the virtual jar…with the description of small joys, pleasures, and wonders as well as photos, memes, poems, and paragraphs about the large events in our lives as well. The group commitment kept us all involved and at the end of the year we were indeed able to all look back on the blessings and gifts in our lives. Sharing the riches of our lives, was uplifting and encouraging, but the added bonus of this exercise was listening as these women reframed misfortunes, disappointments and sorrows into a positives worthy of gratitude. By their example I discovered that on the days it’s a challenge to find something to smile about simply changing your point of view could make all the difference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective in the past few months as I went through the process of moving from Vermont to Michigan. Many of my friends…in Michigan and Vermont…knew of my decision, but of course nothing is totally official until it has been posted on Facebook. When I finally made my plans public the juxtaposition of the comments made by my two groups of friends was quite humorous. My Vermont friends left messages of shock and sadness, while my Michigan friends left messages…in the same thread, I might add…of surprise and delight. The same facts, but the reaction was totally based on perspective.

Change Your Perspective

One November, decades ago while Dave was in the UP…Upper Peninsula…of Michigan deer hunting, I came home from shopping to discover that my electric blanket had been smoldering all day and my mattress, while not yet in flames, was also slowly burning. I called my friend and asked if her husband was home. “Yes”, she drawled. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” I replied, “Could he come down and help me? My mattress is on fire.”

Yes, I know the situation left the door open for all kinds of joke telling…husband away…hot mattress and all…but at the time I was just concerned about getting the bedding out of the house. I also know I should have called the fire department, but…like I said…I just wanted that hot mess out the door. Of course, once the smoldering fabric hit the oxygen of the outside air, flames erupted and it made quite the sight out on the lawn until we doused the blaze.

The next day at work my friend said, “Boy, you were really lucky.”

“Well…I was thinking that if I were really lucky the fire wouldn’t have started at all.”

“But you are lucky,” she said. “You are very lucky that you have a house that could have burned down. Not everyone has a house that they could lose. You do.”

I’ve often thought about that logic and being prompted to look at the situation from another vantage point.

My sister and her husband live on the Muskegon River. Shortly after carpenters had completed a project installing new gutters on the front of their house a large tree fell onto the roof, taking a large chunk out of the brand new gutters. When they surveyed the damage they noticed that although the roof and the gutters would have to be repaired…again…without the tree blocking their view they were suddenly able to see the beauty of the river much more clearly. Like the 17th Century Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide, who wrote: “Barn’s burnt down –now I can see the moon,” they were literally given a new way of seeing, but more than that, in the case of the poet and also in my sister’s case, looking at the entire situation in the less obvious way gave them a new perspective. Instead of lamenting what was lost they rejoiced at what was newly discovered. Well…at least until they get the bill for the gutters.

Changing the way we look at things can be healing and helpful. Leaving Vermont was like suffering another loss; another grief. I mourned as the Green Mountains of Vermont gave way to the plains of Ontario. For more than four hundred miles I was leaving a place and people I love until suddenly, just as anticipated, my perspective changed. I was no longer sadly leaving Vermont I was arriving in Michigan with a sense of excitement, adventure and looking forward to being with other people I love.

I-89 North of Montpelier

If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.

Mary Engelbreit

When my son was young we took him to the eye doctor. After the exam, the doctor said, “There’s nothing wrong with this boy’s eyes.”

“But his teacher said he can’t see the board,” I exclaimed in a puzzled voice.

“That’s ’cause Bruce’s head is in the way.”

As far as I know, the ability to change how we think about something is a uniquely human experience. For the most part, we can control where we stand to watch the sunset. We can choose where we sit to gaze at the stars. If Bruce’s head is in the way…just move our desk.

Sunset on Simon Pond, Tupper Lake, NY ADK

Peacemaking, acceptance, understanding and compassion are also the result of a change of perspective. Looking through another’s window might help to explain the way they see the world. We might not agree on what we see, but it is a beginning. At least we’d be looking.

It’s all just a matter of perspective.

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you’re a bird, be an early early bird–
But if you’re a worm, sleep late.”

Shel Silverstein, Early Bird, Where the Sidewalk Ends

Learning to Dance with a Wooden Leg

“The death of a beloved is an amputation…At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” 

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The anniversary of my first solo trip around the sun is fast approaching. Facebook reminds me of the everyday things that were happening last year as we moved, unknowingly, toward the head of the line where together our tickets would be punched, but where we’d board separate flights. How could I have known that that morning I would come home to discover that Dave had left his body…bad knees, painful legs, and bad heart…behind in his favorite chair, coffee still warm in his cup, to journey to an unknown realm without me?

I was still posting photos from our latest adventure. Dave loved life. He lived without an agenda taking each day as it came and finding joy, wonder, and delight all around him. Traveling expanded our world, giving us even more opportunities for pleasure, adventure and amazement. While we were able we went as far as we could, as often as we could, for as long as we could. When his mobility declined to the point that he could no longer join in on walks in the city or short hikes in the National Parks, Dave would happily find a bench and wait patiently for my return. Knowing that he would be waiting gave me confidence and courage to take my limited hiking skills and head out alone on unknown trails.

Suddenly there was no one waiting for my return, no one waiting to see my photos, no one waiting to hear of my escapades, no one waiting with a warm car…no one waiting. I had to decide whether to store my trekking poles or learn to move forward on my own.

Scenes from our last trip…Colorado and Utah, September 2018

One of the greatest challenges of grief and loss is learning not only to live without the one you’ve lost, but learning to live without the person you were when you were with them and learning to live as the person you have now become. I, only half jokingly, wonder if that is why senior citizens are asked whether they’ve fallen recently. With each loss we have to regain our equilibrium without the stability of what once was. With a part of ourselves missing we have to teach ourselves a new way to find our balance.

Stability often eludes me, but I am learning to live my life with that wooden leg that C.S. Lewis talks about. There are times that are really difficult, the nights are especially sucky, and tears still come unbidden, but now and then I hear Dave’s voice encouraging me to find joy, seek adventure, and laugh as often as I can.

Bloody Marys on the Deck
Basalt, Colorado, September 2018

If I have died; and you refuse to live because I am gone, I died two times. But if you take the joy I always had in life, and live it for me in your own, and past on to others then I’ll know that the world will stay a better place for I was here awhile.

Nadine McLaughlin ‘Death Wish’

Years ago…almost two decades now, Dave, my friend, Suzette, and I went out to dinner. It was Suzette’s suggestion to try a new Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened in her neighborhood. Dave and I agreed to give this new cuisine a shot. We all knew we were in trouble when we were met at the door by a waitress who asked, “Would you like a booth or a basket?” Basket? Basket? What the heck did that mean? We opted for the booth. It was pretty much down hill from there. We ordered the Ethiopian Feast for Three. When the meal was brought to our table the chicken portion was represented by a single drumstick. The rest of the meal was also rather scant, but easier to share. On the other hand, none of us liked it at all. Thus, to paraphrase Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall…the food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it. Life too, can be painful and hard, but most of us still want more. Even with the pain, darkness, and the aloneness of grief, life is still worth the living.

One Afternoon In Maine, October 2019

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Ecclesiastes…and of course The Byrds…remind us that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

About that dancing…Anne Lamott says that the loss of a loved one “is like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly…that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but,” she says,” you learn to dance with the limp.”

A few years ago, as part of our church’s Coming of Age program…think Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation…the youth and their adult guides were exploring the idea of death. One of the facilitators asked the group, “How many of you are grieving the loss of someone or something?” Nearly everyone raised a hand…adults and teens alike. I’m approaching an anniversary, a date on the calendar, but I am surrounded by people…friends, family, and strangers…who are also just putting one foot in front of the other and moving slowly down the same path. We link arms at times to steady those for whom those wooden legs are new and as yet untried, but we all move toward the time when even momentarily we can leave our weeping and mourning to laugh and dance.

I know this anniversary will be difficult. I’m sure there will be weeping, the ugly cry, runny nose and the whole shebang, but I also know that I’m learning to dance. The dance may not be pretty considering the whole balance thing, the limp and wooden leg, but…there is still dancing and laughter. Dave is waiting patiently for me somewhere…but for now I’ll journey on by myself…dancing and laughing whenever I can and recognizing there is still a time to mourn and weep when I can’t.

Following My Own Path
October 2019

Where We Love Is Home

Where we love is home… home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts…The chain may lengthen, but it never parts!

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The Little House by Virginia Burton

I love my old house.

The center structure was built in 1810. Veterans of the Revolutionary War must have walked through her doors. She heard the first cars rattle past and listened to the bells on horse drawn sleighs moving past in the winter. A rather unassuming little house she has stood as a silent witness through two centuries of sunshine, rain, and snow.

The first owners and builders came from Scotland. The laid-up stone and granite foundation are a testament to their skills and artistry. Above my head I can see the cut-marks made two hundred years ago by an unknown craftsman as he took his adz and skillfully shaped once sturdy trees into the straight, sharp-edged, hand hewn beams that span the width of the room. In some places in the house evidence of the original paint remains…blue, red, and ocher. The wide boards lining the stairway are a silent reminder of the enormous trees that stood with outstretched limbs collecting the sun’s energy on long forgotten summer days. The village records report…although there is serious debate about the accuracy…that one hundred years ago, the room in which I sleep was a corn crib and more recently a kitchen.

My House on Cassie Street

I often think about all the people who have lived here, loved here, laughed and cried here, and yes, died here too. The previous owner recently shared that he and I are merely caretakers. “This house will be standing long after we are gone,” he said. But it was here we made a life, we made memories, and we, too, became a part of her story.

Both of my granddaughters took their early steps in this house. There were weddings, family reunions, card games, carol sings. book discussions, talks that went late into the night, lots of laughter…side splitting laughter…and plenty of tears too under this roof.

My grandchildren decorated Christmas cookies and dyed Easter Eggs at the kitchen table, played with puzzles and games on the floor, and watched episodes of Curious George from the living room couch and when I listen, I can still hear the voice of my mother and the heavy footfalls of my husband echoing within these walls as well. Leaving this old girl isn’t going to be easy.

Several years ago, I spent time with friends in a rental house near Booth Bay, Maine. One day we paddled our kayaks to a small nearby island where we stopped for lunch and to hike the short trail through the woods. I’m much slower than my friends, so within a few moments I’m pretty much by myself. I rather enjoy going at my own sauntering pace. On that particular hike I was surprised and delighted to find near the edge of the trail a rather crude little fairy house created from the moss, twigs, and smooth round pebbles. It was enchanting. I stood for a while smiling and imagining the creation of this wee abode.

When I was growing up, the kids in the neighborhood spent hours creating houses and forts…communities really…in the grass of the nearby fields and vacant lots. We’d flatten the tall grass into silken little nests that would be our own special, private place. My favorite was on an incline with a slight dip that just fitted me perfectly. Even as children, we are drawn to building and creating houses, hideouts, and sanctuaries…a place of our own…our regular pew, and like Sheldon, on The Big Bang…our spot.

“We may leave a house, a town, a room, but that does not mean those places leave us. Once entered, we never entirely depart the homes we make for ourselves in the world. They follow us, like shadows, until we come upon them again, waiting for us in the mist.” 

Ari Berk, Death Watch

By a curious coincidence, a week before I put my house on the market…the last house that Dave and I bought together…the first house that we bought was also listed for sale. Feeling slightly voyeuristic, I clicked through the picture on Zillow. In the more than three decades many changes had taken place. My cheery yellow kitchen was now a teal blue and the hanging light fixture that Dave insisted we leave had been replaced by two modern ones. Parts of the house were unmistakable and others I hardly recognized.

Our First House
Carson City, Michigan

That house ceased to be ours a very long time ago and yet the home we had created there was still very much with me. I laughed when I recalled the afternoon we experimented with one of the first microwave ovens in town. “Let’s see what happens if we put this in there?” I had forgotten the built in oven, but seeing it reminded me of the morning-after surprise…we were much younger…when I opened the oven to discover that someone at our party had filled it completely with empty beer cans. I remembered hayrides, pool parties, and the time Dave brought the fire truck home to get it ready for an upcoming parade only to back the ladder through our garage door. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked incredulously. “I did,” I replied while cracking up with laughter.” “You couldn’t hear me, because you were running the siren!” What little boy hasn’t dreamed of driving a firetruck and engaging the siren? The door got fixed, but the story lives on.

“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,”

Edgar A Guest Home

Edgar A Guest, was the poet laureate of Michigan in the 1950s and my mom was a big fan. I can still hear the first line of his poem “Home” in my mother’s voice. With his words she taught me that a house is just a building, it only becomes a home by the living that happens within it.

Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute; 
Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it; 

Edgar A Guest Home

We may leave many houses over our lifetime, but if we’re lucky the homes we create within them will go with us wherever we are. We leave our mark on the places we live with paint, nails, and adz, but the echo of our laughter, the roadmap of our tears, and the hope, joy, and wonder of simply living our lives also remains. We leave a bit of ourselves, but we take the very best parts…our memories…with us when we close that door for the final time and hand the key to the next caretaker.

Hold Me Closer Tony Danza

It’s official. My house is for sale. There’s a sign out in front to entice casual passersby and to confirm the location for those who are searching. So, it’s definitely happening. All we need now is a buyer.

A buyer and…oh just a few…tiny details to be addressed before one arrives.

The woodchuck. They are normally shy little vegetarians. Not at all as pushy and greedy as the squirrels that attacked my bird feeder last winter. This one, however, decided to take up residence in the corner between the house and garage. Not a wise choice on her part. I’d rap on the window and shout from the porch…and just like Elizabeth Warren..”Nevertheless, she persisted.”

I hired a professional trapper at the suggestion of the Vermont DNR. He was a very quiet, gentle man who was very non-intrusive. He promised that I’d hardly even know he was there. The first day he arrived with two have-a-heart traps and by the next morning one of the traps was occupied by a raccoon. I never saw the trapper come to empty the trap and I didn’t ask what happened to the raccoon, but I’m pretty sure he was sent to a farm in upstate New York. After a couple weeks the groundhog, too, had been removed and his burrow filled with cement. When it came time to pay the trapper in a very Vermont-like manner he explained the bill and said, “I only charged you for trapping the woodchuck. You didn’t hire me to trap a raccoon. The raccoon was free.”

Vegetarian Delight…Luckily Woodchucks Can’t Jump

As part of this house-selling adventure I’ve met some really wonderful people. Shortly after the ground hog challenge. I met Ryan, septic tank man…the first septic tank man. When Ryan arrived I pointed out where I thought the tank was located. He said by the contours of the lawn I was probably correct, but if he had a problem he’d let me know. When he knocked on the door, I knew it couldn’t be good. Without going into too much detail or getting too graphic, let’s just say…there was a problem. “Come see this,” said Ryan. I really didn’t want to see anything that Ryan wanted to show me, but, I can now say that I have…looked…into…the…abyss. I will NOT be looking again, but…get this…Ryan suggested I take photos in case I needed documentation! Ewww! Gross!

The short version of this tale is that I decided the next owners deserve a new septic tank, so next Thursday, Jordan, the second septic tank man, will be delivering a brand spankin’ new septic tank. Who needs diamonds or jewels when you can spend your money on a state of the art septic tank.

The very next day, I discovered a tree out in the back had come down while I was out of town. Only $400 and the tree was cut up and hauled away. Sadly, it was one of the few remaining Ash trees not infected by the Emerald Ash Bore. It just blew over in the wind after losing its grip on the huge rock around which it had chosen to put down roots.

Well…if things come in threes as they say…I’ve met my quota. I’ve even got one in the bank, if we count the slight mishap with a malfunctioning dehumidifier.

Now that I’ve made the decision to sell, I want someone to come to my door tomorrow morning and say, “Please let me buy this house. I promise to love it as much as you have, but I think you’ve priced it too low. Allow me to give you more money. I insist.” Of course, it doesn’t happen that way.

You go through the preliminary steps of which there are many…photos, disclosure statements, de-cluttering, documents to sign, and finally the post on the internet and a sign in your yard…only to reach the most difficult phase…the waiting. All you can do is wait….and wait…and wait…and wait.

So tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

The Kinks Tired of Waiting for You

My house is over two hundred years old and it has been inhabited for nearly every one of those years, so I know that soon someone’s path will lead them here, but in the meantime, I’m going slightly crazy. I hate to admit it, but if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll confess. I’m a worrier, a what-if-er, a person easily stressed. Apparently, I also have very little patience and I hate the suspense of not-knowing.

The House on Cassie Street
Barre, VT 2019

During the waiting phase there is very little you can do, but I thought I should try everything possible. I remember hearing my Catholic cousins talk about burying a statue of St. Anthony in their yard when they were selling their house. I’m not sure what he’s suppose to do, especially from that location, but what could it hurt? Of course…I remembered…I don’t have a statue of St. Anthony. Anthony…hmmm…Tony… I’d print a picture of Tony Danza and plant him in the yard somewhere. Shoot! The printer is on the fritz. Maybe it would be just as good if I just sang that Elton John song…you know the one. So…I spent the afternoon singing.

Then the friendly folks at Google informed me that it was St. Joseph… not St. Anthony and he was supposed to go into the yard head first. I do have a statue of St Joseph. I made him in high school as part of a Nativity set, but a couple years ago his head snapped off and I have yet to repair him. So…does he go in headless or do I tuck the head in with him in the approximate position? There’s so much to know.

It’s a good thing from time to time to be reminded that there are some things in life we simply can’t control. We just have to have faith, trust the Universe, and accept the help of friends. As a Unitarian Universalist I have friends from many faith traditions. My Christian friends are praying; the Buddhists are meditating; the Hindus are slipping beads through their fingers; the Pastafarians are heating up the sauce; the Humanists are studying statistics of past sales in the area; someone’s burning incense; and the Pagans are snaking off their clothes and dancing naked around the fire. I don’t actually know if they are Pagans, but a couple of my friends were up for the naked dancing, so what the heck. I want to cover all the bases. I’m breathing in and breathing out and learning to be patient. After all it has been ten days!

Gettin’ In The Water

One afternoon last week, my three grandchildren and I piled in the car and drove up to the neighbor’s for a swim in his pool. We plopped our towels and other paraphernalia down and prepared to enjoy the inviting crystal clear water. I watched as the three children excitedly approached the pool. I watched my grandson gingerly putting a foot into the water at the first step and immediately pulling it back onto the sun warmed cement deck. “Ooooo. That water is cold,” he giggled before trying once again. Our teen decided to sit on the edge and dangle her feet in the water to get acclimated before taking the plunge. This back and forth activity went on for quite a while…first one body part and then another. Perhaps, they thought, going slowly, bit by bit, would be the easiest way to get fully submerged in the cold, but enticing water.

The middle child walked confidently away from the steps to the side of the pool. She adjusted her goggles, took a breath, and then just went for it. In a seven year old’s version of a cannon ball she was immediately wet from head to toe, and after regaining her breath, momentarily stolen by the frigid water, was soon paddling around like a little otter while the other two were still trying to work up the courage to actually get in.

When I was younger I might have opted for the dive-in method, but now it takes me longer and longer to get into the water and adjust to the temperature. With age and experience comes caution. I’ve experienced that shock of frigid water and I carry that memory with me. I want to get in the water; I mean, what’s the point of swimming if you only wade in up to your knees, but yikes! You can put it off, but if you’re going to swim, sooner or later you’ve just got to get past the tender bits and duck beneath the surface.

As I exercise my decision-making muscles, I recognize that I make many choices in much the same way. Sometimes I make a cannonball determination. I run forward, pull my knees to my chest, make a huge splash and displace a lot of water. There’s no turning back and there’s no second guessing. You’re in baby! From head to toes you’re fully committed. On most occasions I’m more of the toe in the water kind of gal; moving slowly toward a decision while weighing every possibility, each step deliberately taken, hesitating momentarily, yet still moving forward down the path toward the beach.

Prince Edward Island, 2018

Several year ago, three women friends and I decided to spend a glorious summer day exploring some of Vermont’s nude swimming holes. Yes, you read that correctly.

Interestingly enough, in Vermont, it is not illegal to be nude in public, but it is illegal to disrobe in public. You can leave the house without clothes, but you can’t take them off in the public square once you leave your house. Skinnydipping is not only permitted in some cases it’s encouraged and expected. Most kayakers I know have at one time or another stripped down on a hot summer day for a quick dip. Getting back in the boat can be a challenge, but trust me, it can be done.

We are always looking for new adventures and nude swimming certainly seemed to fit the bill. It was absolutely something none of us had ever done before. There was a limit to our bravery however and we were only interested in swimming where the bathers would be limited to the four of us and even then there was discussion about whether we’d go in sans undies or not.

All it takes is one brave soul and before you know it you’re at the edge of the pond in the all together, wrapped in a towel, trying to figure out the most discreet way to enter the water. I stepped to the edge of the shore and before I could give my modesty and my entrance any consideration the gravel beneath my feet began to slide and I was propelled backward on my bum and sliding with great rapidity into the drink. No time for uncertainty or indecision. Within seconds, I had lost my balance, my towel, and the internal argument of should I or shouldn’t I. I was in and after the initial shock it was quite delightful.

Skinny Dipping in the Mill Pond
Summer About 2010

I know the adage about not making any hasty decisions when your partner dies…give yourself time to test the new and unfamiliar waters…but a few weeks ago when I decided to sell my house it didn’t seem rash or unwise since Dave and I had been weighing the pros and cons of it together for a long time. It was definitely not a cannon ball leap toward something new. For months it was absolutely a toe in the water situation. Until unexpectedly one day it wasn’t. Without even realizing I’d made the decision I was suddenly at the pond knowing that the gravel was sliding and so was I…feeling vulnerable, exhilarated, scared, and excited. Yep, I was going for it!

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” 

John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”

Whenever any of us stand and contemplate whether to get in the water or remain on the warm deck, it’s good to remember that most likely the worse that will happen is that we’ll get wet and maybe a little chilly. As I prepare for my next adventure I know that if the water’s too cold or I’m getting a little too ‘pruny’ I can always get out, towel off, and see what else I can find along the shore or maybe I’ll just grab a beach chair and just sit in the sand for awhile.

Standing at the Irish Sea
June 2015

Jump!

“When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your entire life.” —

Oscar Isaacs as Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year

While walking through the park the other day I watched a group of little girls running along the top for five picnic tables which had been arranged in a long straight row. The elevation of the tables provided added excitement and the girls giggled with the sheer delight as they dashed from one end to the other and back again. As I got a little closer, I noticed that there were two little girls standing at the end of the last table in line. A girl in a pink and white sundress stood on the ground while her friend remained at the edge looking down at the ground. “Jump. Jump,” the one in pink implored, but her friend hesitated. I wanted to stop and ask the one considering the jump what she was thinking. What was she weighing in her little mind? Was it the distance from table to grass? Was it the fear of a hard landing? Was it peer pressure that caused her to consider jumping in the first place? I walked on while the hesitation and the cajoling continued, but I’ve thought a lot about those barefoot girls in their summer dresses.

Summer Morning
Star Island, 2019

About fifteen years ago my sister, Kelly, invited me to join a group of women on a white water rafting trip down the Gauley River in West Virginia. The morning of the promised adventure the eight of us, in various sizes, colors, ages, and levels of fitness and only loosely connected by a shared relationship to my sister, climbed into the raft together.

The first test came when our guide, young Captain Mike, who at that time was still under the impression that he was in control of a boatload of middle aged women, informed us that we were approaching Jump Rock. “This is Jump-Rock,” he said in his most authoritative voice. “It’s not Climb-Up-There-and-Decide-Rock. Once you’re out of the raft there’s only one way back in. You have to jump.”

I’m usually pretty timid about such things and I hate heights, but as I gazed up at the cliff face I suspected that the tenor of our entire adventure hinged on this decision. I was going to climb up there and jump. When the others who were hesitating saw me…old, chubby, and out of shape…preparing to make the trek up rocky path to the top they too gathered their courage and we all jumped off that rock.

She took a leap of faith and grew her wings on the way down. 

David Brinkley

I suppose you could call my jump…holding my nose, my eyes squeezed shut, and yelling all the way down…a minor leap of faith. I’d watched others do it before me. I was confident in what lay ahead. I knew that eventually I’d hit the icy water, sink momentarily beneath the surface and then pop up gasping for air and, I imagined, feeling exalted. It took a fair amount of courage on my part to move from tera firma, but in doing so I was given the wings of self-confidence, fearlessness, and moxie. From that point on we were bonded; we were invincible! That day was one of my peak life experiences. I sometimes wonder, would that have been the case if I’d remained in the raft and merely watched?

White Water Rafting
Pixabay Photo

Often of late, I find myself standing at the edge of what feels solid and comfortable contemplating whether to jump or not. The loss of my partner has also meant I’ve lost a part of who I am or at least who I was when I was part of a team. I am trying to discover, create, or at least identify who am becoming. That journey involves risk and taking chances. Sometimes the metaphorical jump is just a matter of going to the movies by myself, walking into a restaurant and asking for a table for one, or checking into a hotel and only needing a single key. Do I jump or do I stay in the boat?

A Soft Day in Scotland, 2014

On a trip to Scotland in 2014, Cousin Doug, coaxed and teased me into taking a short hike up a. steeper than I’d like, hillside to see one of Rob Roy’s hideouts. I wasn’t planning to hike that day and was ill prepared, without proper footwear, or my hiking poles. Then it began to drizzle. it was Scotland after all. I was soon wet, tired and the trail had turned to mud. Oh, the evils of peer pressure!

I finally convinced Doug that I was in beyond my skill level and needed to turn back. Taking a different…supposedly shorter…return route we came to a very small stream…a trickle really…that Doug hopped over effortlessly.

“Jump,” he said. “You can do it.”

“No, I can’t,” I replied.

“Sure you can. Just jump.”

“Jump into the middle of things, get your hands dirty, fall flat on your face, and then reach of the stars.”

Ben Stein

Moments later I lifted my head from the mud where I had landed face first, to see my sweet cousin convulsed with laughter.

Life presents us all with choices. Do we stay with what we know or do we take a risk and discover something new? Do we jump and learn to fly or are we content to hang onto the branch for a while and enjoy the way it sways gently in the breeze ?

“The sparrows jumped before they knew how to fly, and they learned to fly only because they had jumped” 

Lauren Oliver, Liesl and Po

The real leap of faith is learning to trust ourselves to know when it’s right to step off and when we need to stand firm. It’s perfectly fine to wait on the edge, contemplate, and step back for a while or to decide not to jump at all. No one is ever forced to climb Jump Rock and we can always just wade through the stream or we simply slide off end of the picnic table. Then again…flying is pretty cool and if you get a face-full of mud it makes a good story.

Jump or not…the choice is ours.

Long I Stood

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could…”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
The Sound of Yellow Aspen
Santa Fe, NM October 2015

“You know, when it comes to poems meant to inspire us, I think The Road Not Taken is one of the most over used,” she told me. And yet, once again, I find myself drawn to it. Not for the last stanza where attention is usually focused. “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” No, I find myself stuck on the phrase “long I stood.” Most often we focus on the outcome not the process. The traveler stands at the crossroads deliberating for what they think is a long time before eventually lifting their foot off the ground and taking that first step.

For over forty years I stood in that yellow woods with another traveler. I seldom made grand decisions on my own. I was the one who would point out the differences, the possibilities, and the pitfalls of each decision. Dave would often listen without indicating that he was actually hearing what I was saying and then suddenly declare with confidence and finality which direction our path would take. Occasionally, I’d feel rather annoyed. Why did he get to have the ultimate say? At times I was really irked at him for getting the last word and at myself for ceding that power to him. I’d attribute it to the male/female thing, but in actuality it was the difference in our personalities and how we saw the world of choices and decision making. His world was black and white while mine was a blaze of color, glitter, and flashing lights. Together we found a satisfying balance as we chose our path beneath the banner of golden leaves.

Hidden Valley
Rocky Mountain National Park, September 2018

With his death I find that my life in many ways is off-kilter, off balance, and out of focus. Making decisions is one of the many ways this manifests itself. I keep exploring all the options, weighing the pros and cons, and considering all the angles, but there is no longer anyone there to announce that the deliberations are ended and a choice had been made. I miss Dave’s decisiveness. I feel myself on a constantly repeating loop like driving on a roundabout without ever finding the exit. I know it’s there and when I find it I’ll be able to move forward, hopefully in the right direction, but in the meantime, it’s nerve wracking and exhausting.

Frankly, I’m getting quite tired of standing at that tedious crossroads among those yellow trees. I’m also tired of the mosquitos, black flies, and thoughts that keep buzzing around my head with their constant drone of what if, what if, what if. As lovely as the woods are, I am beginning to yearn for a wider vista. Any day now…I’m going to brush the mud off my Keens, tighten the laces and…actually move.

“Did you ever have to make up your mind? And pick up on one and leave the other behind? It’s not often easy and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind? Did you ever have to finally decide?And say yes to one and let the other one ride?There’s so many changes and tears you must hide. Did you ever have to finally decide?

The Lovin’ Spoonful, Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?https://youtu.be/CV9DMgVF-Nk

I’ll go left. I always go left. Decision made. Then the second guessing sets in. Oh Bummer! I want to join Jean-Luc Picard and “seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!” Then I think of the traffic, remember that I get motion sickness and begin to doubt whether or not I can read the map.

“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, and irrational fear of the unknown. There is no such thing as the unknown. Only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” 

Captain, James T. Kirk, Starship USS Enterprise, The Corbomite Maneuver
View From the Porch

It’s puzzling to me that making decisions has become so difficult. Life itself is merely a continuous chain of decisions, but maybe some of my trepidation is recognizing that being a solo decision maker there is no one but myself to blame if I mess up.

People tell me to listen for Dave’s voice when making decisions. Unlike me, Dave didn’t generally share his opinions when he was alive, so I’m not expecting to hear his voice from the beyond anytime soon. I gradually learned over the years that he made decisions for all kinds of reasons. If you ever played cards with him you know exactly what I mean. Some of his decisions were well thought out, some were just based on a gut feeling and others were just made to shake things up, provide a laugh, or…well usually to provide a laugh. His decisions met with varying degrees of success. Perhaps that’s the message he’s sending. That it’s OK if I choose poorly, if I make a mistake, or if I should have painted the kitchen Wild Oat instead of Jewitt White. It’s all good and quoting a friend, “It’s probably not a pivotal moment in history.”

It’s true that “way leads on to way”. Any savvy shopper knows that if you find a pair of jeans that fits, buy them immediately. But Robert Frost lived in another time and was never privy to the dulcet tones of a disembodied voice instructing…”When possible make a safe and authorized u-turn.” It is possible to go around the block, dig yourself out of a hole, or simply choose again. The Merlot not so good? Next time select a Riesling.

Learning to make decisions on my own is difficult and it’s going to take some time, but I know with each choice I make I’ll grow more confident, positive, and comfortable. So, just for the practice…and since it’s chilled and open…I will choose the Riesling.

Pay Attention. Hurry Up. Slow Down.

No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has to come, think of the present because thats where you are. 

Kazi Shams
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Edited

The recipe called for one half cup of butter, softened. My butter was rock hard, but it was a warm day and the sun would speed this process along, so I put a stick of butter on the railing of the deck. I returned to the recipe and began to chop the nuts and maraschino cherries. I measured out the coconut, chocolate chips and mandarin oranges setting them all aside ready to be added in turn to the mixture. Finally, in another bowl I added the flour, salt, and, oh dear, I was out of baking powder. It would only take me a minute to run to the neighborhood store to buy a new container, so I slipped out of my wear-these-only-around-the-house clothes, washed my hair because it was sticking up all over the place, and headed off to Quality Market. But wait, if I was going out, I might as well take the mail down to the mailbox. I had several items in envelopes ready to go, but one needed to be printed. I got my laptop and opened it to the letter. The printer hasn’t been working properly for awhile, so it was necessary to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the machine. I’m getting rather skilled at this task and it was quickly accomplished. One of the letters needed special attention, so instead of the mailbox I’d stop at the post office on my way to the grocery store. Arriving at the post office I waited as two cars cleared the parking lot, leaving the space closest to the door available. I smiled as I went inside and discovered that there was no one inline ahead of me. How lucky. I ordered my stamps and requested that the last letter be sent via certified mail. I needed to fill out the label which would be affixed to the envelope. As I completed the questions on the attachment another woman approached the counter. She was hard-of-hearing which slowed the exchange somewhat, but the clerk was patient with her and realizing that she was obviously hungry for conversation listened to her tales and added one of her own. I was happy to wait and was moved by the kindness and caring of the clerk. I’m a fan of the postal service. I reached the store without complication and was in and out in no time. I returned home to find the ingredients still on the counter waiting for me. I’d get back to making the bread in a minute, but first I’d hang the sheets on the line. Carrying the wet fabric to the porch I was just about to rest the sheets on the deck rail only to remember…THE BUTTER. It was definitely softened.

Funny How the Package Kept It’s Shape Even Thought the Butter Didn’t
July 2019

I always thought I was fairly good at multitasking. As a mother and elementary school teacher it was a necessary skill, but it’s not one that I have maintained. Maybe no one is ever really good at it. Multitasking is such a misnomer, an illusion. It is impossible to focus on even two projects at once. In actuality we split our attention between them not giving our full consideration or effort to either.

How often have I walked into a room only to discover that I have no clue what prompted me to go there in the first place? I can lose my focus from one room to the next! Who knew that walking and remembering would be taking multi-tasking to the outer limits of my ability? The older I get the less often I’m able to hold two ideas in my head at the same time. My brain is slowing down like an old computer that needs to be taken to the Apple Store and swept for duplicate, unnecessary, and obsolete files. After all, do I really need to have the procedure for threading a reel to reel projector or the lyrics to The Monster Mash still taking up memory.

I’ve also begun to realize that there are two competing and mutually exclusive philosophies at work in my life these days.

Speed up! The clock is ticking!

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.” 

Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance

Slow down. Smell the flowers.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”   

Eddie Cantor

At this end of life, and especially since Dave died, people are constantly telling me to do what I want to do. “This is your time,” they say. But what do I want to do? Yes, the road is wide open and while I hope the end is far off in the distance I know it’s out there and I’m not sure how long the tread is going to last on my tires. Do I hurry and fit in as much as I can or do I relax and simply be? Do I move along the coast collecting lighthouses or do I sit quietly in the sand and contemplate the way the waves lap the shore? I’m still searching for the answer.

Lighthouses on Prince Edward Island, August 2018
Lido Beach, Sarasota, Florida 2016

Back to the melted butter. Do you suppose it was the result of the overstuffed files with their loose bits of minutiae scattered across my hippocampus or was it the result of simultaneously trying to bake, do the laundry, and sing along with the cast of Hamilton? It was probably a combination of the two if the truth be told.

I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing me to “Pay attention. Watch what you’re doing.” It used to be about spilling my milk, but now I think she’s telling me that whatever speed I choose going forward and whether I’m off bagging lighthouses or getting sun on my face and sand in my undies I should be present wherever I am. “Keep adventuring,” I hear her say, “but remember to stop the car at the scenic overlooks, get out, and stand in awe at the wonder of life.”

Hurry up, slow down, and… by all means pay attention to the butter.

Someone Move the Cookies!

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing.”

Maurice Chevlier

Dave and I both enjoyed playing cards although he played more often than I did. Throughout our married life he played in a weekly poker group. In retirement he added weekly cribbage matches and the occasional pop-up Texas Hold ‘Em extravaganza to the list. Together, we played Spades, Hearts, Do Dirt to Your Neighbor, Ninety Nine, and lots of Euchre. Euchre is very popular in the Midwest where we grew up. If you played cards and you lived in Michigan chances are you played Euchre.

Rank of cards in a game of Euchre

When I decided it was time for me to reach out to friends and add some fun back into my life, playing cards, Euchre in particular, seemed like the perfect way to begin. We’d start a women’s card group. There are lots of expats from Michigan living in central Vermont, so it wasn’t difficult lining up friends who knew the game, were excited by the idea, and willing to play. We’d just need to find a night that worked and get started. That should be easy.

Remember when Friday and Saturday nights were reserved for nighttime fun? In retirement every night is Saturday night. One problem…there’s a twenty year age spread between the four of us so although technically, by the local senior center standards, we’re all senior citizens, half the group is still employed. We’d have to plan around their work schedules. Then of course our calendars are also filled with volunteer commitments, family obligations, and previously planned fun of various kinds, but we eventually found a date that suited us all.

As the hostess, I had certain responsibilities. I had to be sure to clear a path through my house to the kitchen table where we’d play, but these were good friends who wouldn’t mind a little dust and since I’d had workmen in my house the previous week …stripping wallpaper and painting…there was a fair amount of dust to be found. Have you ever noticed that when you dust it just all comes back? I think that’s God’s way of letting us know she wants it there. Who am I to question divine wisdom?

OK, dust or no, I’d concentrate on the snacks. The days of popcorn and soda or pizza and beer appear to be over. I’d have to put some thought into this. I settled on wine…red and white, lemon-ginger ice tea and I had the handy Keurig as backup if someone wanted coffee, but we’d need finger food too. Something easy to hold along with a handful of cards. Between us we had…vegetarian, no dairy, no gluten, no eggs, no soy, and one who was game for anything. Bless her heart. The spread was an interesting combination to be sure including olives, peanuts, carrots, cookies, chocolate of course, hummus, and corn chips. Seemed about right…and besides there was wine.

Finally, we were ready to bring on the cards and get the game underway. Euchre has many variations, so our first order of business was clarifying which rules we would follow and how we’d keep score. The game is played using only the cards from nine and above. That leaves the fives as the perfect counters for score keeping…a talent in itself. The bottom five pips…suit symbols…would count for the first five points. Then the top card would be turned over exposing the final five. We’d just need to remember to actually take our points.

“We use the twos to keep track of trump.” I’d never heard of that, but it sounded like a good idea. When trump was called the two from that suit would be on top of a stack of four. What a clever idea.

“Do you play that the dealer can steal the deal?” Having the deal is a great advantage and you have to be sneaky, quick, and clever to be able to pull it off.

“Of course, ” we agreed. With all that decided, it was time to let the games begin.

Finding the rhythm and refreshing the rules took a bit of time but soon we were all playing like Las Vegas card sharps. As the game progressed it became evident that I was sneaky, clever, and an accomplished deal-stealer, much to the annoyance of the more trusting players. “OK. I have an idea. Let’s put the cookies on the left side of whoever is supposed to be the dealer.” Of course, that plan depends on someone actually moving the cookies.

“Wait. Who called trump? We need a little figurine to put in front of the person who made trump.”

“Nothing compares to the stomach aches you get from laughing too hard with your best friends.”

Unknown

Picture it. We now had glasses of wine, small plates for our snacks, fives for counters, twos for keeping track of trump, and a rotating bowl of cookies as well as the actual cards for each hand all vying for space at the table.

Playing Euchre as senior citizens is more complicated than those games we played in our youth. In addition to remembering whose turn it is, which card was led and how many tricks were needed we also have to flip the trump-tracking-twos, remember who called it, and of course… move the cookies. More of a challenge to be sure, but with an even greater reward…joy. Oh, we all wanted to win, but that wasn’t necessarily our final objective. Levity, laughter, and hilarity were the order of the day…not competition. We just wanted to have fun! Our laughter was unrestrained, genuine and bountiful. My tummy hurt and my cheeks ached by the end of the evening, but my spirits were lifted and I felt lighter than I had in quite awhile.

Anne Lamott says that “laughter is carbonated holiness”. That seems like the perfect definition to me. I am so blessed to walk my path in the sacred effervescence of laughter. We’re playing again next month. I have the perfect figurine to help us keep track of who called trump. Her name is Remembrance.

Her name is Remembrance
A gift from Kathy, 2019