Driving in the Rain with Patsy

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Unknown
Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
August 2021

There had been a brief shower earlier in the day, but as we entered The Great Smoky Mountain National Park we were greeted with glorious blue skies filled with brilliant, white, fluffy clouds. Scheduling conflicts, limited time, and mobility challenges kept us on the Newfound Gap Road through the park, but we enjoyed what we could see from the car and stopped briefly at the occasional scenic overlook to grab a snap or two. All in all…it was a splendid afternoon.

As we exited the park onto the streets of Gatlinburg, Tennesee, the mood of those happy clouds suddenly began to shift. A smattering of raindrops eventually became an unexpected torrent. In an instant, buckets of water were thrown against my windshield. I was forced to slow down while the wipers worked furiously to keep my field of vision open. I compensated for limited visibility by following the truck in front of me and keeping my eyes on the white line at the edge of the highway. A few drivers pulled over to the shoulder to wait for the storm to pass, but most slowly and cautiously continued. I was among those who chose to simply press on.

Rain on the Windshield
photo credit: Pixabay

In June, with COVID infections declining and vaccination rates climbing we greeted friends in person, basked in the sunshine of possibilities, and were illuminated by the light at the end of the tunnel. We were once again busy making plans and looking toward the future with joy and optimism. The sudden storm of the Delta variant coupled with vaccine hesitancy abruptly changed everything. Overnight, masks were once again being required, social distancing and limiting contacts were returning even for those fully vaccinated. Plans that we’d thought possible in the spring were being reevaluated. Would we pull over onto the shoulder and wait it out, cancel everything, and prepare for another winter of isolation, or would we…could we…move forward slowly following the safety guidelines, weighing the risk-benefit of our choices…but moving forward nevertheless

“Pandora’s box had been opened and monsters had come out. But there had been something hidden at the bottom of Pandora’s box. Something wonderful…Hope.”

Lisa Marie Rice, “Breaking Danger”

When I met Patsy, in the spring of 2020, I had no idea of just how interconnected our lives would become. One of my few outings that spring was to visit a local nursery. By the time I was brave enough to venture out, most of the plants had been picked over. “Here’s a hanging basket you might like,” suggested the proprietor. He was right. She was a beauty. At first, I thought Patsy might have been called…Bea…you know…for Begonia…but she insisted that she was Patsy.

Throughout the spring, summer, and into the fall, I admired her cheerful nature and delighted in the fact that another living thing depended on me. She gave me purpose. I’m not a gardener, but I kept her watered, fed, and deadheaded until I heard it…that dreaded word…frost! Perhaps Patsy knew that she was an ‘annual’ doomed to die at the end of the season, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t allow my companion to be killed by frost, so I welcomed her inside.

She dropped leaves, became very spindly, and seldom blossomed. I kept her safe inside and she brought me hope. We were both merely trying to hang on, and together we did. As long as Patsy kept turning her leaves to the light, I could too.

The Deck…A Very Happy Place
August 2021

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: something to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”

Tom Bodett…and others

Patsy made it through the winter and the chilly days of early spring to rein this summer as the queen and wise woman of my deck. Instead of her life ending last fall, we both hung on to the hope that life would get better, full of color and blossoms once again. I smile at her every day and I’m relatively sure she smiles back.

I have begun, as a matter of self-care, to limit the amount of time I spend watching the news. It doesn’t seem to be the usual pattern of ups and downs. Lately, it’s just all downs. There is fear, sadness, and loss on many fronts, but there are still reasons to be hopeful. When I have doubts…Patsy is there to remind me.

My Friend, Patsy
August 2021

“This fourth wave is really devastating,” my daughter said. “You need to prepare for the possibility of another winter of isolation. Do you have a plan?”

“I’ve thought about it,” I replied. “I’ve decided that my plan is to be…as much as possible…positive and hopeful. No matter what lies ahead I must approach it with hope. Not hope for anything specific…just expectation and anticipation of a better future.”

“Hope reduces feelings of helplessness, increases happiness, reduces stress, and improves our quality of life.

Extern.org

“Yes,” she continued. But you should still think about what worked for you before and what didn’t and prioritize what you want or need to do before the snow flies. Remember, just because you hope for something that doesn’t make it happen.”

“I am open and I am willing. To be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us, so lift me up to the light of change.”

Holly Near, ” I Am Willing”

Faith can move mountains, but only if you get out there with a shovel and what Jennifer said was true. I need to at least consider the possibility of another winter of isolation. Maybe even make a plan…but perhaps that’s what hope is all about…anticipating, expecting, and visualizing a favorable outcome… and then moving in that direction.

I could pull off the road, grab some ditch-munchies from the backseat and wait for the storm to pass…a perfectly acceptable choice…cognizant that along with the possibility of sun, there is also the potential for wind and hail..or…to keep my tires on the road, hands firmly on the wheel, and imagine driving slowly out of the storm. Of course, I may be forced onto the verge at some point…the road may flood, the bridge washout, or I might simply run out of gas. I’ll deal with that if I have to, but for now, I will continue cautiously…mask at the ready…in the direction of my dreams, encouraged by Patsy and her steadfast hope for another summer in the sun.

I may not be as positive, optimistic, or brave in the coming days…but I’ll still cling steadfastly to hope until I feel those things again.

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

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

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

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

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

John Bytheway

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

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

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

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

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

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

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

Ben Horowitz

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

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

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

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

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

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

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

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

Along the Path

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

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

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

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

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

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

You Have Left The Planned Route

“Right now there are thirty-one satellites zipping around the world with nothing better to do than help you find your way to the grocery store.” 

 Ed Burnette, Hello, Android: Introducing Google’s Mobile Development Platform
Heather in the Highlands, 2015

The Highlands of Scotland are filled with magic and mystery. The hills fairly echo with legends and tales of clans and kings, so it’s rather fitting that it was in the Highlands that I first heard that disembodied, decidedly British voice that would eventually entice me to listen for and respond to its every command.

In the summer of 2004, Dave and I, together with our son, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, made our first unescorted trip to Scotland.   We were all so exhausted and jet-lagged when we reached our first night’s lodging that our heads barely hit the pillow that night before we were asleep. The next morning refreshed and fortified with a full Scottish breakfast we followed the map north to Cawdor Castle.  We had a lovely time exploring the castle and the grounds while talking of Shakespeare and Macbeth, but like many first-time tourists to the Highlands, we could hardly wait to reach our next destination…the famed Loch Ness.

From the Gardens at Cawdor Castle, 2004

As we prepared to leave the car park at Cawdor Castle, Jeremy and Jenna…driver and navigator respectively… suggested that we try out the GPS system that came with our car, after all, why not? At that time…sixteen years ago…none of us had any experience at all with a navigational system. How difficult could it be? It might be fun. Confident that like most techy things programming the guidance system would be rather intuitive, Jenna plugged in our desired destination, and within minutes we were off.  Our British friend guided us skillfully through the twisting streets and roundabouts of Inverness and in less than forty-five minutes we arrived on the eastern end of the northern shore of the Loch Ness. Easy Peasy.

On the Shore of Loch Ness Waiting for Nessie, 2004

We found a wayside pull-off where we parked the car, looked for Nessie, posed for pictures, and collected pebbles from the shore. It was blissful to be on this amazing adventure together at a place we had all heard about from childhood. Such a delightful morning.  As we listened to the waters caressing the shore someone shared that they had read that the southern, less-traveled side of the loch was even prettier than the more populated side. “Sounds good.” we agreed. “Let’s go that way.”

“Two Roads Diverged In A Wood And I – I Took The One Less Traveled By, And That Has Made All The Difference”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

“Sometimes The Road Less Traveled Is Less Traveled For A Reason.”

Jerry Seinfeld

We planned to go south to the ruins of Urquhart Castle, around the end of the Loch near Fort Augustus, then turn north again along the quieter side returning to our B and B for a much-anticipated nap.  We’d rely on our new found friend…Gladys…to guide us.  Surely, she’d know the best route. 

Urquhart Castle and The South Side of the Loch, 2004

She didn’t. 

Well…actually…maybe she did, but there was a slight problem in communication.

Somewhere near Fort Augustus, we made a wrong turn. What we didn’t know at the time was that Gladys would recalculate the original route and find a new way to get us to our destination.  What a disaster! Bliss became calamity. We tried to self-correct using instinct, our maps, and the conflicting and confusing instructions we were getting from Gladys. We never saw the loch again. The roads were narrow, twisty, and unmarked. We were completely lost.  Filled with frustration, Jeremy pulled the car off the road and asked to see the map for himself.  

“I’m 100% sure this is where we are,” said Jenna pointing confidently to a thin blue line.

“Jenna,” Jeremy laughed, “That’s a river!”  

With perseverance and pure dumb luck, we eventually made it back to our B and B well past nap time. The next morning at breakfast as we were lamenting our experience a fellow traveler overhearing our dilemma clued us into the rerouting feature. We had been fighting against poor Gladys for hours. She must have been so confused.  At this point, Dave mentioned that perhaps we should look at the manual.  

“There’s a manual?”  J and J said in unison.  “There’s a manual?!

”Well, yes,” Dave replied.”But I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

The kids just rolled their eyes.

“When all else fails, read the instructions”

Annonymous

Navigational systems have made advancements since those early days, but I think they could be still be perfected by the addition of an elementary school teacher to the design team. A teacher would add features that could make the entire experience smoother and much more pleasant.  For example, when making a turn or exiting a round-about successfully, a friendly voice would add words of confirmation and support to let the driver know they were on the right track and that they had made the maneuver correctly…Excellent, Nice job, or Way-to-go.  If an error was made the voice would remark in calm, reassuring tones…Whoops, Almost, or Sorry, not quite.  To avoid panic she’d quickly add…Relax. We can figure this out together.  Give me a minute to find the best way to help. Then as the route was being recalculated the driver would hear a few bars of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. “Don’t worry about a thing ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.”

Three Little Birds, 2016

For the most part, I have found my experiences with GPS to be very satisfying. The Voice-in-the Box has directed me safely through city traffic at rush hour and on backcountry roads that have no obvious names, but every so often that sweet little lady has led me on some wild adventures as well. For example: repeatedly directing Dave to turn the wrong way on a one-way street in Amsterdam; leading us to the terror-inducing pass in Colorado widely accepted as the highest standard passenger vehicle road in the United States; twice taking us to ferry crossings where the ferries were no longer running; and once in Vermont on my way to a bridal shower I was routed past two naked bike riders on their way to the Montpelier segment of the World Naked Bike Ride… yes, there really is such a thing…through a trailer park, and ending in a gravel pit with a cheerful…”You have reached your destination”.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Helen Keller

I have never worried too much about taking a wrong turn or misreading the map. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Michigan which is divided into mile-square sections and bordered by the Great Lakes. Finding your way primarily involves following roads that are laid out in right angles. Go too far in nearly any direction and you’ll eventually come to one of the big lakes. Of course, go too far south and that’s another story. Hello Ohio and Indiana.

Once, when my children were small, I became disoriented in an unfamiliar city and we found ourselves in a parking lot instead of on the highway.

“This is what I call an adventure,” I said cheerfully.

“It’s also what we call lost,” replied my young son.

True, I suppose, but the best adventures and the most interesting stories always seem to involve getting lost..literally or figuratively… and then finding your way again.

During the last several months I have often felt lost, disoriented, and adrift. Frankly, I could use some help. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a GPS to help us find our way through these distressing COVID times? Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost contact with the satellite without a clue of how to proceed. Am I heading in the direction of the beautiful side of the loch or just wandering aimlessly on the back roads? I would happily make a legal U-turn as soon as it is safe to do so if I had any idea when or where that might be. Like everyone else, I want to know how much longer I’ll be on this highway before my next maneuver and when I could expect to reach my destination. I’d also be grateful to know what other obstacles, delays, and detours lie ahead and if there is an alternate route.

Waterbury, VT, 2019

I really, really want someone to give me the kind of message I would get from OnStar. “You have left the planned route. Directions will resume automatically when you return to the route. Do you need updated directions?”

Oh, Gladys. Where are you when I need you.

We’ve all left the planned route and yes, we need updated directions.

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 wondering 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 almost 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.