Shaking My Own Keys

What a pleasant surprise to discover that I am still learning and discovering things about myself even at my age. My latest revelation is that even if there is no one else available…which, let’s face it, for the last year, there hasn’t been…I will shake the shiny keys and amuse and distract myself. Let me give you a case in point.

Just What I Need…A Shiny Set of Keys
“delightful click-clack sound for auditory and visual stimulation” Fisher-Price
Image: Pexels

I haven’t been lying exactly, but lately, I have found that sometimes my answers are less than truthful. I suppose in the strictest definition, being less than truthful might technically be considered lying, but I prefer to think of it as responding with a fanciful answer.  I simply imagine reality as I wish it to be rather than it is. 

These days, I seldom give a completely truthful answer to the question, How are you?  I usually answer with a short, positive statement.  “I’m fine.”  “Pretty good.”  “Can’t complain.” “Couldn’t be better.” I found an online site teaching English as a second language that suggests five responses to that question…all in the affirmative.  Negative responses are in the advanced lesson. I answer that I’m fine because that’s how I’d like to be…how I’m hoping to be…how I will be…but that’s not always truthfully how I am.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

When I’m asked that question, I want to say things…shout things… like… I’m really tired of this pandemic; I’m getting sick of Zoom and FaceTime; I’m weary of being alone, yet even with the vaccine, I’m still hesitant to be with others; I don’t think I even remember how to be with people; I’ve forgotten who I once was, and all these people who still refuse to wear a mask or social distance are making me crazy angry. I’m pretty certain that if I gave voice to any one of those responses that I’m holding back…assuming the person inquiring had time to recover from my rant…I’d be joined by a cacophony of other voices shouting, “Me too, me too.” 

But…I don’t.

Instead, I smile and say, “I’m fine.” “I’m doing well.” “Everything is all right.”

My Love-Hate Relationship With Zoom
Image: Pexels

In our society, the phrase, “How are you?” has been reduced to a perfunctory greeting…a simple formality…a nicety. Does anyone actually expect or even want a completely truthful reply?

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Swedish Proverb

Sharing our joy is easy…social media is filled with photos, videos, and posts expressing joy and happiness…but for many, it seems…sharing sorrow is more difficult. Problems, heartache, fears, and worry are universal. No one can escape sadness. Bearing such burdens would be easier, of course, if we reached out to each other. Instead, we stoically lift them to our shoulders and trudge on. We cover our fears, our uncertainties, our sorrows with a mask of “all-rightness.”

I suppose it is the risk of revealing our soft, tender places that prompts us to give the brief expected response. “I’m fine. How are you?” Exposing our vulnerability…sharing our pain demands a certain amount of trust and confidence. We enjoy the game, but we hold our cards close to the breast.

Years ago, when I apologized for a slight I thought I had committed, my friend, Carol, replied, “You know, you worry about the wrong things.” I know for her it was a casual, off-hand remark, but for me… an accomplished worrier…it became a challenge.

I worried about what I was worried about, and then I worried about what I should be worrying about. I suppose giving a less than sincere answer to a question as innocuous and commonplace as, “How are you?” is one of those things that come under the heading of…wrong things to worry about. Still, I must admit, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering such things.

“One thing I can suggest is that when you start to go to a dark place, for you to consciously redirect your thoughts. Mind over mind. Make yourself think of something completely different. An image of something joyful or silly, and focus on that.” 

Sue Halpern, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library

Some people do jigsaw puzzles; some people run for miles; some people read stacks of books; apparently, I spend hours pondering the correct response to a cursory question.

Some People Make Jigsaw Puzzles
Photo Credit: Pexels

Recently, I discovered a long-forgotten, thirty-five-year-old scrap of paper that I had tucked inside a book. I had written several paragraphs comparing the benefits of showering vs. soaking in the tub. At the bottom of the page, I included a message to my future self explaining that I had spent time writing this wee document to take my mind off the troubling situation that was occupying my life at the time.

While unbidden or sudden distractions cause us to take our minds off the goal or our eyes off the road, they also invade our thoughts and lead us down paths we would rather avoid. That constant chattering monkey-mind that clutters our meditations or won’t allow us to fall asleep can be really annoying. Paradoxically, it seems to me that seeking diversions can be quite beneficial, calming, and ultimately helping us to focus. When we’re thinking about edge pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle, we have no time to think about when our children will be vaccinated, when the Canadian border will open, or if going to the grocery store in the afternoon is a wise idea.

We have filled an entire year with diversions of one sort or another. The list is long and varied. We have exhausted all our usual ways of filling time on a rainy day, and we are longing to get back outside and into the sunshine of our lives once again. We’ve helped each other through this challenging time, and we’ve discovered interesting solitary pursuits. I’ve never run a marathon, but I have the experience of long car-trips. When you have driven all night, those last couple of hours are the most difficult. That’s when you turn up the radio, roll down the windows and sing like a Rock Star.

Roll Down the Windows and Sing Like a Rock Star
Photo credit: Pexels

We’re almost there. We can make it. I’ve learned that even when there isn’t anyone else around…I can always shake those shiny keys and distract myself just a wee bit longer.

Finding Wisdom in the Rocks

Late last August, my sisters and I decided that if we were careful…lots of ventilation, masks, and social distancing…we could safely travel north together to an out-of-the-way beach on Lake Michigan that would be perfect for hunting Petoskey stones…the state stone of Michigan.

Once at the beach, the three of us trekked down the embankment toward the water carrying sunscreen, sunglasses, and containers for our finds.  It was a gorgeous Michigan summer day and although we brought our swimsuits with us we left them in the car.  We’d be fine in our shorts. 

As we moved along the beach our goal was to get as far away from any people as possible. 

We were seeking solitude and safety but most importantly we hoped to find a stretch of the lake where no one had yet picked over the rocks that had been churned up by the waves and left near the shore for us to find. 

Dry Petoskey Stones Hiding in Plain Sight
August 2020

We clamber over tree trunks that had fallen into the water, large stones that jutted out from the shore, and piles of assorted slippery rocks and pebbles that acted like ball bearings pulling us toward the drink in our quest for the perfect spot. Presently, we reached the place, that by consensus, we agreed looked like the best place to begin our exploration.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were going to get wet…very wet,  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had those suits?  Since Penny is the most in shape we agreed that she should make the trek in reverse and go get our bathing attire.  In the meantime, Kelly and I would scour the rock-strewn beach and shoreline for treasures.

I had, of course, seen Petoskey stones, but I’d never found one.  They aren’t impossible to find in central Michigan where I grew up…but…I don’t remember it ever happening. As kids, we found lots of fossils, but never the coveted Petoskey.

These distinctive stones are the fossilized exoskeleton of a coral that lived about 350 million years ago in the warm waters of what was then an ancient sea. At that time, geographically, Michigan was near the equator and covered with waters that were perfect for clams, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, trilobites, fish, and many other life forms.

The Pattern Pops When Wet
Photo credit: Pixabay

The living part of the coral was called a polyp.  The dark spot in the center of the hexagonally shaped chamber was the polyp’s mouth. The animal had tentacles like most modern corals, that grabbed plankton as it drifted by then fed this food into its mouth. Like most things, knowing what you’re looking for makes it easier to find.  Even so, Petoskey stones often remain hidden until their distinctive pattern is revealed by water.  That’s one reason so many people hunt for them along the shores of the Great Lakes.

When Penny returned we snaked off our shorts and t-shirts and in the seclusion of our bit of beach we wriggled into our garments of nylon and spandex.  In truth, for me at least, it was more like the gyrations of a geriatric contortionist, but eventually, I had all my bits covered and was ready for the water.  Lake Michigan is like a smaller, tidier version of the Atlantic without the briny scent or the dependable tides.  When hunting for seashells at the ocean one merely has to wait for the water to recede with the tide and collect the bounty the waves have deposited on the shore.  Along the lake, you may find treasures in the sand, but hunting for gifts of the current in freshwater often requires looking beneath the waves.

Treasures Lie Just Beyond the Water’s Edge
August 2020

Yards from the shore Penny hollered, “Come on, you two.  If I knew you weren’t going to get out any deeper in the water than that I’d have never gone for the suits.”

She’s right, I thought, but before I could go more than a few feet out into the water I slipped on a hidden rock and went in face first.  Surprised and gulping for air, I got to my feet only to be kissed right on the lips by a huge wave.  Down again.  Spitting water and making my way to the shore,  I rose once again, but…those rhythmic waves just kept coming and I was down once more.  This time I held my head above water and swam-crawled to the sand only to discover my dear, sweet sisters laughing hysterically.

“Are you OK?” Kelly asked between fits of laughter.  Such sympathy and concern.  

Climbing from the water I made my way to one of the fallen logs to take a break.  Just as I did, the water that I was dripping, revealed the Holy Grail.  My first Petoskey!  It had all been worth it.  She was a beauty.

My Beautiful Friend and Teacher

“There’s a flame of magic inside every stone & every flower, every bird that sings & every frog that croaks. There’s magic in the trees & the hills & the river & the rocks, in the sea & the stars & the wind, a deep, wild magic that’s as old as the world itself. It’s in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small. Even the dirt I’m sweeping up now is stardust. In fact, all of us are made from the stuff of stars”.

Kate Forsyth

“Listen to the rocks and mountains,” instructed my Native American friend. “They have great wisdom.”

At the time, I dismissed this thought out of hand. What could a non-living thing teach me? Over the years my sensibilities and understanding have undergone an awakening. I have begun to recognize that there is a deep connection that exists between and within all inhabitants of the natural world. The same elements…the same atoms…the same stardust that is in me is present in all that surrounds me. Life is too complicated to leave all the lessons to sentient beings. Perhaps, if we listen closely we’ll understand the tutorials of the quaking Aspen and the rhythmic crash of the ocean as it kisses the shore, or the lessons taught by the intertwining roots of the Giant Redwoods and the Sunflower always keeping her eyes on the prize.

“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”

Morihei Ushiba

As a novice collector, I soon learned that many tedious hours of hand-sanding…with water and increasingly finer grit sandpaper… is the most common way to bring out the hidden pattern of Petoskey stones. I’ll admit, after hours spent together, I developed a friendly relationship with this once-living creature as I worked and like any good friend, she taught me a great number of lessons. Oh, there was the obvious lesson of patience, perseverance, and purpose, but there was also the unexpected message of rebirth and redemption.

One of Mom’s Favorite Beaches to Hunt Petoskey Stones
Point Betsy, August 2020

Imagine it. For a time beyond my comprehension, this piece of calcified coral has been on a journey to find me. It traveled north with the movement of tectonic plates, was buried during the ice age, was scraped up by the glaciers, and buffeted about beneath the waves of Lake Michigan until it came to rest on the beach where it waited for me to recognize it, pick it up, and joyfully carry it home to be sanded, polished, and treasured.

She is a determined instructor and her lessons are still being taught when I focus and listen, but for now, it’s enough just to know that the universe is full of unimaginable adventures still awaiting me and that I really have no way of knowing upon which rock-strewn stretch of beach I’ll be found.

Just Waiting For My Turn

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

Back in December, after having lived through a very challenging year, several of my friends began to contemplate the idea of choosing a word that would guide them through the coming year, a word that would become a mantra of sorts and one upon which they might meditate in the days to come. These friends shared the words that had guided them in previous years along with the words they were considering for 2021. I found this entire idea rather intriguing.  What word would I choose, I wondered.

When I settled on patience as the word that would guide me into 2021, I optimistically envisioned myself sitting before a fire with a glass of wine, the warm glow of candles, and snow softly falling just outside my window, as I crocheted, read, or was absorbed in something entertaining and life-affirming on the television.  I’d be uncomplaining, calm, and perhaps even serene as I waited for my turn to get the COVID vaccine or Spring…whichever came first. 

“It is strange that the years teach us patience; the the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Reflecting on the word I chose, now only three weeks into the new year, I’m reminded of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Thinking he has found The Holy Grail, the villain drinks from the golden goblet and soon shrivels away to dust.  The Grail Knight, who has been guarding the true chalice, then remarks in a slow, deliberate tone, ”He chose…poorly”.  I think I too, may have chosen…poorly.

In truth, there was a fair amount of hubris in my decision. Certainly, I’d have the strength of character and the fortitude that comes with age, to be able to postpone the gratification that would arrive with the vaccine…or…Spring.

Spring Flowers Are A Long Way Off

But, wait a minute. Who was I kidding? I realize that I have to wait, but I don’t know what gave me the idea that waiting would be easy. After nearly a year of COVID isolation, I have crocheted the same pattern at least five times, I have trouble reading unless I get large-print text, and I’ve already binged watched all fifteen seasons of my favorite detective series. I am almost out of wine and I’ve been out of Diet Coke for a week.  There is snow outside my window…but it arrived with ice and slush as well.  Not exactly what I had envisioned. 

Public school prepared me to stand in line and wait my turn.  I never push or shove and although I might think about cutting the line, my conscience makes it a near impossibility. I immediately merge when the sign says lane closed and never try to pass cars expecting to squeeze in ahead of others. And more than once I’ve stood outside a closed bathroom door giving the present tenant privacy and time to complete their tasks only to discover that it had been unoccupied the entire time. I understand the morality of waiting, taking turns, and remaining in your place in line. I was taught well.

I really don’t mind standing in line when everyone is waiting equally.  I like take-a-number and I appreciate serpentine lines where you move up one at a time. You reach the head of the line after those before you have been served. Then…as it should be…it’s your turn. 

The British Crown Jewels

Twenty years ago, I joined a long line in The Tower of London to see the British Crown Jewels. It’s not often the approach to an event is as memorable as the event itself, but I have remembered this experience for two decades. The line of courteous visitors wound through two adjoining rooms. Videos of the Royals wearing the pieces we were about to see played on the walls.  When we reached the cases filled with the royal treasures, we stepped onto a moving walkway that carried everyone, at a snail’s pace, past the crowns, scepters, and the rest of the collection.  There was no jockeying for position because tall and short visitors had equal access. At the end of the walkway, people could exit the building. If, however, you wished to take another quick look, a docent would direct you back to the people-mover and you’d take your place once again.  It was such an orderly, efficient, and just system.

The worst standing-in-line experience I can remember was in Moscow in 2002. It took us two hours to go from our plane through passport control. It was a small airport and there weren’t many arriving passengers. It wasn’t that the officials were that thorough or that the process was complicated. The problem was that the line was very fluid.  People pushed, elbowed, and bullied in front of others who were ahead of them. My public school line-training and years of Sunday school lessons wouldn’t allow me to return a shove for a shove or even put up much resistance.  All in all…it was not a pleasant experience.

Four Wonderful Words!
Photo Credit…Pixabay

Standing in line for the loo is a uniquely female adventure and has taken place in every country I’ve ever visited.  There’s a special kind of bonding that takes place in the brief connection of women in bathroom lines. Of course, like any other kind of line, some remain silent and keep to themselves, but generally, women in long lines exchange smiles at the very least and often strike up conversations, share tissues from their purse when the TP has run out, and point out stalls that have just become available.  It is a temporary community of common need.

When we reached St. Petersburg, on that trip to Russia, we were treated to a fantastic lunch and entertainment in the Music Pavilion on the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace. While most elegant in every other aspect, there was no running water and no plumbing. Two porta-potties had been set up in the back. Presently, I found myself outside the familiar blue buildings in the ubiquitous line of women. 

The Music Pavilion Nineteen Years Later…Upgraded to THREE porta-potties.
Photo Credit: Visit-Petersburg.ru

Irene, who had quite a commanding presence on an ordinary day, proclaimed in a voice of added authority, “I’ve had just enough vodka to be assertive.” she said forcefully.  “We are all going to wait equally.  None of this his and hers stuff.  It will be first-come, first-served.” 

“Yes!” the rest of us exclaimed with smiles and muffled cheers. 

You can imagine what happened when my husband found himself in need of the WC.  Seeing two units and a single line of women, he assumed that, as is normally the case, the one without a line was standing at the ready for the next man to arrive…him.  Hilarity ensued as the women quickly put him in his place at the rear of the line.  I was told that one of the women even threatened with her cane, but I can’t swear to that.

This isn’t the first time I’ve waited for a vaccine. In the 1950s, my classmates and I were herded into the school gymnasium where we took our places in a long line that snaked around the room. I was too young to understand the promise the polio vaccine held for us. All I knew was there were a lot of kids crying. I wasn’t in a big hurry to get to the front of that line. How times have changed! Today it is the elders…those same kids from the ’50s and ’60s…who are counting on the promise that comes in a syringe. This time all the tears are tears of relief.

“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.

Unknown…Probably a Woman

Perhaps there was more wisdom in my selection of patience as the word to lead me forward than I thought, for it has already taught me important lessons. I know that kicking and pushing won’t get me to my goal any faster. Even if they would, my belief in the inherent fairness of taking turns is so ingrained that I would never employ them. I know that friendship, connection,  kindness, and sometimes even humor are possible in the communal act of standing resignedly together in a line waiting. I know, too, that no matter how long the queue there is always an end and the eventual reward is worth all the effort. If life is indeed a journey, not a destination, then it may follow that waiting is also a journey. The length and speed of the line…like life… are out of my control, but whether I find a way to enjoy the trip or rail against it is up to me.

I’m considering cookies or maybe chocolate as my word for next year.

Chocolate, cookies, and tea.
Photo credit…Pixabay