Never Pray for Courage

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

L Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

A friend once told me that there are just some things you should never, ever pray for. “Think about it,” she said. “If you ask God to teach you patience or courage or empathy how do you think those lessons are going to be delivered? God is going to place something in your path that is going to require those skills. It’s going to be hands-on learning, take-home exam, and definitely pass/fail.” That was enough to convince me; I sure wasn’t looking forward to any of the lab work. As it turns out you don’t even need to pray for those skills; sometimes the course work just arrives at your doorstep unbidden.

Last Spring, as I recovered from a broken ankle, I had plenty of ‘thinking time’. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m a senior citizen, but surely, I concluded, I’m much too young for my days of travel and adventure to be over. There’s still so much I want to see, taste, and do, but without my travel buddy, if I am going to see the world, I’ll probably need to be brave and learn to do it on my own.

After pondering how I could return to Scotland alone…Dave always did the driving and I never learned to drive on the left…I decided that if I stayed in a city I could easily travel using shank’s pony and public transport, so last Spring I booked a place in Edinburgh. I would spend the month of April in a two-bedroom flat just off the Royal Mile.

St. Giles Cathedral,
One of my favorite places. The bagpipe-playing angels live here.
  • December 25th: Christmas Eve, While we were singing carols and lighting candles the first publicly reported collection of virus samples was taken from a patient in China suffering from pneumonia of unknown cause.
  • January 8th: I was excited that the installation of my new flooring was underway while scientists in Wuhan announced the discovery of a new coronavirus. That same day South Korea identified a possible incidence of the virus coming from China.
  • January 21st: The first case of what is now called COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States.
  • January 31st:, Travel to the US from China was restricted.
  • February 26th:, My granddaughter arrived on her first solo trip from Burlington to Detroit. During her week-long visit deciding whether or not to roll the dice again and risk wiping out our score in a game of Farkle was our biggest concern other than wondeingr whether or not a snowstorm was going to keep us from getting to and from the airport safely.
  • March 8th: The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was found in Vermont. Two days later, the first confirmed case was diagnosed in Michigan.

I canceled the flat on March 11th. There were 1,267 cases of COVID-19 in 43 states. Later that day, the first case was recorded in Scotland.

Edinburgh Castles
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Making the decision to cancel my long-awaited and much-anticipated return to Scotland was heart-breaking. At the time we were getting such mixed messages. It was like trying to find your way across an unknown room in the dark. Possible, but really difficult. At the time, making a prudent choice seemed unnecessary and overly cautious. After all, the planes were still flying, the numbers of cases were proportionally relatively low and the CDC was advising travelers not to cancel their flights or travel plans to the UK. I agonized about making the right choice. I really, really wanted to be in Edinburgh. Was I overreacting? Shouldn’t I just go ahead with the trip? Couldn’t I tempt fate in Scotland as well as in The States? What was the brave reaction to these facts? What was the courageous thing to do and doesn’t courage demand action?

“Perhaps there were worse things than being afraid of the dark.” 

Holly Webb, Return To The Secret Garden.

President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear“. The fear remains, but he suggests, you can conquer it with action. It’s true, bravery and courage often require us “to do something”, but I am learning…we…are all learning that it also requires a great deal of daring, guts, and, strength “to not do something”.

Young Girls on a Field Trip to Edinburgh Castle

COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world with great rapidity. Had I waited, my choice would have been made for me. Across the globe, millions and millions of people are making similar choices. We desperately want to have the party, see the play, take the trip, hug the grandchildren, and do a myriad of other things. We have canceled, postponed, or found creative ways to be together…while apart. We are staying hunkered down and not doing those things which only a month ago we took for granted.

“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right”

JK Rowling, Dumbledore, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Finding myself in a high-risk group for the coronavirus, I have chosen to isolate myself. It is strange, but when I go out for a walk I change my route if another person approaches. I haven’t spoken to another living being face to face in over a week. I miss those squirrels that plagued me so much last winter and long for birds to light on my porch rail. It is a lonely existence that lmost makes me wish I had a cat, but then there’s that whole litterbox thing. No, I guess, not.

From my window, I watch as birds build nests in the large pine tree in the back yard. Around the world people, too, are creating nests, dens, even blanket forts in the living room; places of comfort, peace, and refuge; settling down, retreating, and sheltering where they are. In this crisis, we must protect each other, the vulnerable and those on the frontline. Remember, it is what we choose not to do that will test our courage, demonstrate our bravery and demand our strength.

Please, Stay home! Flatten the Curve!

Robin Seen in Chip-a-Waters Park, First Day of Spring 2020

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!

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.