Doing My Homework

After this long winter of isolation, when my church offered a class on spiritual exploration, I jumped at the chance. Who knew there would be actual…homework? I haven’t done homework in years. The first assignment was to write a spiritual autobiography documenting our personal religious journey. These we would share together in class. Yikes!

Writing an autobiography of any kind would have been easier if I had taken notes along the way.  As it is, my memories are written on post-it notes, scraps of yellowing paper, and captured in photographs without location or dates…all stuffed in boxes, tucked between the pages of books, left unattended in old suitcases, and scattered across the top of my desk.  To truly make sense of all this ephemera would take much longer than the time allotted for the assigned task, but perhaps I can begin by sorting the debris into stacks and piles.

Gathering the bits together, I realized that I have forgotten a great deal of my life. That realization caused me to feel embarrassed and somehow lacking until I recalled the words of the Irish priest and poet John O’Donahue. “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  I think that is pretty much how I’ve lived my life… simply being carried along by the current, paddling hard through the rapids and around the rocks, enjoying the sun on my face when drifting on the quiet water, and approaching each new bend with curiosity, wonder, and courage…as well as a wee bit of trepidation and hesitancy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking back at the water that carried me.

The Chippewa River…Sylvan’s Solace
October 2020

Creating a lifeline and guessing where I am on it reminded me of when a new woman was invited to join Book Babes, my Vermont book club. She said that she’d like to ask three questions to get to know us.   All of them were unusual for getting acquainted questions, and I’ve forgotten two of them, but the third stuck with me.  She asked each of us in turn how long we wanted to live.  I replied that I wanted to live until I died.  My answer was in no way intended to be cheeky or flip. As I age, I realize that It’s not the length of life that concerns me. It is the loss of meaning, purpose, and joy that worries me. On the other hand, my definition of meaning, purpose, and joy are also constantly evolving.  I have had the example of women who lived…and are living…wonderful active lives well into their nineties, but I have also seen my grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. Yes, I definitely want quality…but then… quantity would be nice too.

There are a finite number of marbles in my jar…just so many big trips and grand adventures left.  I’m angry that the pandemic has robbed me of some of those cat-eyes and clearies…places I wanted to go and plans I wanted to make…but in some sense, living through a pandemic is a pretty big shooter as marbles go…a once in a century adventure… just not one I would have chosen.

An Unknown Number of Marbles in The Jar
Photo credit: Pixabay

 “I was going to decide whether I had a marble-worthy day based on how I felt, not based on what I did…I want to approach my time moving forward with an infinite mindset. I want to “feel” supported, loved, seen and I want to depend on my circle of truth-tellers who I’ve chosen to be there for me.”

Maria Shriver, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper

Even with so many pieces of my spiritual journey misplaced, lost, and forgotten, I am finding the task of condensing it to a manageable size without resorting to an “and then” story very challenging.  Deciding what…or how much…I want to share is also part of the process. Then, too, as I continue my sorting, I discover with very few exceptions…people, places, and events don’t fit easily into a single category.  Most of them overlap, very few stand-alone.  The same people and places keep appearing, transforming, and reappearing. So, I continue to sort and re-sort then sort again.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African Proverb

As I modify and alter the collection of souvenirs and guidebooks from my spiritual journey, a pattern emerges.  Throughout my entire life, I have been supported, shaped, and influenced by my relationship with people…my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children, my teachers, my long-time friends, my new friends, and even momentary connections with strangers. Together we have shared deep discussions about life, spirituality, and ethics, as well as the going rate for the tooth fairy, which way the toilet paper should hang, and jokes on the level of a Fifth-grade boy.  We have held each other in times of loss and pain and spent hours just sitting side by side in silence.

These people have joined me in my travels too. Together we have stood in awe in the mountains of Sedona, been lost inside St Basil’s Cathedral, slept in a wee cottage on the shore of Loch Fyne, watched a storm brew in the Atlantic Ocean, emerged from a 5000-year-old burial mound at Newgrange, and enjoyed countless hours in a darkened theatre in Ontario. Each experience has revealed another facet of what I recognize as sacred and divine. Through my relationships, I have understood, found meaning, and been blessed by these revelations.

“A good friend listens to your adventures. Your best friend makes them with you.”

Unknown

As I stuff all the bits and pieces back in the containers from which I gathered them, it occurs to me that perhaps we write an autobiography not so much for others as for ourselves. Through writing, we give voice to what we already know. I may leave out the twists and turns in the telling, but my path has led me to the perfect destination…the realization that human connection and traveling are spiritual practices. Talking with friends, being with my sisters, planning short jaunts and long trips are no longer inessential distractions or rewards. They are necessary, important, and sacred—what a delightful surprise.

“Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, airplane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

Of course, during this pandemic, those were the most difficult things for us to do…travel and be with others, yet we are resilient. We have discovered ways to connect and share our lives without being physically close. We read maps, make plans, and create itineraries for future adventures even as we explore new ways to make meaning and find purpose from our living rooms, dens, and kitchens. And so, the journey continues, and isn’t that an adventure in itself?

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi

I completed my assignment with time to spare. It was then I remembered the second part…the additional task…write your own epitaph. If one day you stumble across a slab of granite with this one carved into it…you’ll know that it’s me.

“I told you I was sick”

Cemetery on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT

Down The Rabbit Hole

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Right This Way to Adventure

One snowy Saturday in mid-March, I found myself quite unexpectedly falling headfirst into the gaping entrance of a rabbit hole, tumbling down toward completely unknown territory. Try as I might, it was impossible to stop or even slow my descent as I continued to gain momentum through the dark twisting tunnel. Like Alice, I had been caught off guard.  It happened so quickly that I had no other choice but to continue my free-fall and hope for a gentle landing when I reached the bottom. Once I entered that rabbit hole there was no way of knowing how deep the tunnel was or whether I’d know if I had reached the bottom or was merely resting on an outcropping before once again resuming my fall.

During these COVID-times, we’re all traveling through one rabbit hole or another.  Life, as we knew it a year ago, is not the life we are living now.  I suppose that’s always the case though.  For thousands of years, we’ve known what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out,  “The only constant in life is change.”  We expect change, but we have also been led to believe…mistakenly perhaps…that change comes in some logical or linear progression.  We may not welcome the changes, but at least they can be understood or explained. Cause and effect…that sort of thing.

The surreal world where up isn’t just down but sideways might make for interesting art and theatre, but no one wants to actually live there.  Lots of folks stand in line at Cedar Point to buy a ticket to ride the Corkscrew, but they eventually want the ride to end so they can move on to the snack stand. Falling through the tunnel of the rabbit hole is an adventure to be sure but unless, perhaps, you’re a rabbit you ultimately want to leave it and live amongst humans once again.

Alice didn’t want to fall into the rabbit hole either, but while she was there she explored the wonders of the world in which she found herself and tried to make some meaning of it all.  I’ve been trying to do that too. Recognizing that COVID is not my life on hold, but rather my life as it is, helps a bit as I try to navigate this world of butterflies, hookahs, and cats that wander through Zoom calls.

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand-and melting like a snowflake.”

Sir Francis Bacon

The strangest thing about my life in the rabbit hole is the total distortion of my concept of time.  When I was a girl, the JC Penney catalog arrived every year with a special holiday wish-book edition. I was always intrigued by the section of frilly nightgowns and fancy underwear.  I was especially fascinated by the day-of-the-week panties.  Each pair was a different pastel color complete with a different day embroidered within a lacey heart.  I always kinda wanted them instead of the utilitarian white ones worn in my family, but not enough to bump something more desirable off my Christmas list. I could certainly use a set of those panties now.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what day it was in the morning?  As it is,  I’m marking the days with my pill container.  Each evening when I take my bedtime pills and supplements, I say to myself, “Oh, today was Tuesday…or Wednesday, or Thursday…whatever. Hmmm.  Nice to know. “  

Time Keeps on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’ Into the Future.

I don’t think I’m alone in this confusion.  One of the local television stations has a brief moment each day where they display a graphic asking, “Do you know what day it is?”  There is a pause of a few seconds and then another graphic reveals the day.  Not the date mind you, just the appropriate day of the week.  The entire process concludes with a final graphic declaring congratulations for all those who guessed it correctly.  I don’t tune in every day and I’m really not much of a game player but there is a great deal of satisfaction when I’m among the winners.

This time distortion phenomenon might be unique to senior citizens or those who have been self-isolating for months on end. Without the clear delineation of work or school, the days blend together into a vanilla pudding kind of sameness.  In the summer when we could safely gather outside there were markers that made one day different from another, but once those of us in the colder climes moved indoors those markers became fewer and farther between. We were no longer sitting together at the picnic table with friends and family under the big tree in the backyard or gathering around the fire pit for conversation at the edge of the river. For safety’s sake, our winter-time human connections are nearly all virtual.

`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Seemingly overnight the rabbit hole experience transformed all the meaningful events of our lives into virtual events. In an instant, we accepted that interactions with our grandchildren would be done over FaceTime, that we’d reach out to friends for support on social media, and that gatherings of all kinds would be done over Zoom. I attend Sunday morning church services…often in three different states on the same morning…via YouTube and Zoom. Moving important lifetime affairs to virtual platforms was met with varying degrees of success. Our weekly family gatherings and reunions, for example often evolved into seances.

Can you hear me?

Are you there?

I can’t see you, but I hear your voice.

Oh, we’re lost her again!

Maybe she’ll be back.

I have come to realize that virtual life is real life. We are not together physically, but the time we spend together is real. The sand in the hourglass of my life has not ceased to flow. I am just experiencing life in an unfamiliar and unconventional way. It truly is getting curiouser and curiouser.

“Don’t slide down the rabbit hole. The way down is a breeze, but climbing back’s a battle.”

Kate Morrison, The Clock Maker’s Daughter

Perhaps I have reached the end of the downward slide. I feel that like Alice, I am emerging into Wonderland. Not the world that Alice found full of unique people and places…although that’s surely possible…but a place where I am pondering, questioning, predicting, planning, and…yes…wondering about not just how I’ll extricate myself from this time warp, but what I’ll find on the other side. What happens when I climb out of this tunnel?

It’s very easy to cocoon myself in front of the fire, watch the world from my window, and simply wait for the time I can fling open my door and once more hug my neighbors, but I must find a way to create meaning, purpose, and make this disorienting tumble through the mud worth it. Perhaps that is the challenge of now. What an unusual, unique, and disorienting journey…this ride…this time…has been. Rabbit hole or not, it is the time I have been given…might as well enjoy the slide.

Lately it occurres to me What a long, strange trip it’s been.

The Grateful Dead, Truckin’

A Handful of Pieces

“A marriage, willy-nilly, requires you to trust that your spouse will tell your story truthfully and lovingly when you are no longer around to tell it yourself.” 

Kate Braestrup, Here, If You Need Me
Spring Break on Cape Cod
Photo credit: Fiona Rollins

In what now seems like another lifetime ago, my sisters and I met in Chicago for an evening of amazing theatre. For two hours and fifty-five minutes, we were mesmerized by the story, the music, and the fast-paced lyrics of Hamilton. The musical is jampacked with memorable moments; however, it was the final song…the final scene..that reached in and grabbed my heart. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. At the time, having been a widow myself, for a scant six months, I immediately connected with Eliza who accepts the responsibility of telling Alexander’s story and honoring his legacy.

Every life is a mosaic of tiny bits and pieces. When it comes time for our story to be told we can only hope that the storytellers scoop up the shiny, brightly colored bits. Then too, it would probably be nice to have some of the dull and broken tesserae thrown in as well…just to add some contrast and perspective.  In the end, the chroniclers can only use the tiles they have collected and the way the light shines on the bits they hold to tell our stories.

Covid-19 Spring
Barbara Abraham

It makes me a little sad, to think that there are many people in my life who never met my husband, Dave.  I’m sorry, too, that I can only tell his story with the pieces I have.  Granted, after forty-three years of sharing a life together I’ve got an awful lot of pieces, but after decades of living side-by-side, our individual bits have all been dumped into the same box. I’m afraid that trying to separate the jumble of my life from his would be a rather dusty, time-consuming, and ultimately futile endeavor.  

So, with a mound of those tiles cupped in my hand, I’ll give you a tiny glimpse into one part of the man I knew.  There’s still an abundance of pieces remaining in the box for another day.

Dave and I both come from families where a sense of humor is held in the highest regard. Storytelling, practical jokes, playful innuendoes, quick retorts, and snappy comebacks were what we were both raised on.  We have a professional comedian in our family for heaven’s sake and several other family members who can probably hold their own with him.  In fact, my mother’s final words were the punchline of a joke she liked to tell. Humor and laughter are in our DNA.

Over the years, the two of us sometimes worked as a comedy duo. We often played off each other with the hope of making our friends laugh.  Our repertoire ran the gamut from Archie and Edith to Lucy and Desi, often switching roles between the comic and the straight man. The biggest challenge and the most fun was getting the other to laugh or catching them in a joke.  I have to say, especially since Dave isn’t here to object, but I know he’d agree, that in this game I was most often the victor. I think Dave was just too naive and trusting.  I’d get him to fall for the easiest stuff…hook, line, and sinker.

“I have always felt that laughter in the face of reality is probably the finest sound there is and will last until the day when the game is called on account of darkness. In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can”.

Linda Ellerbee
Do You See a Resemblance?
Entrance to the Kröller-Müller Museum

In a recent documentary, I watched a group of archaeologists trying to reconstruct the floor of a Roman villa. Most of the clay tiles were missing, but there were some sections that were bright, beautiful, and close to being complete. There are stories about Dave that are much like that restored section of that ancient mosaic floor.  They have been told so many times that they have been worn smooth but they are so funny and familiar that they are continually repeated.

Ready for Duty, Captain
Jamestown, VA 2011

On Valentine’s Day, 2007, a massive snowstorm hit Vermont dropping between two and three feet of snow in a twenty-four hour period. For several days people were clearing snow from sidewalks, driveways, and rooftops.  On the third day,  after hours spent on the roof, Dave came in to give a report.  He had worked his way to the front of the house and was vigorously moving shovelful after shovelful from the roof to the drifts below.  As he worked, instead of warming up from the exertion, as he expected, he was getting colder and colder.  What he had failed to notice was that with each shovelful he tossed from the roof a fair percentage had blown back and collected in the pockets of the pants he was wearing.  When the pockets reached maximum capacity…weight, gravity, and maybe just because the snow wanted to return to the roof…Dave’s pants slowly slid down his legs and gathered around his ankles. Our house was on a fairly busy street.  One wonders how many people he mooned before he realized that his arse was on display for the entire world to see.

Dave was not a small man and he frequently used his size to great comic advantage. When our church instituted an annual Christmas Pageant, he was one of the Wise Men. After several years in the role, he decided to mix it up and play the part of an angel.  I assume that angels come in all shapes and sizes, but I’m pretty sure that until the moment he appeared on the chancel no one in Montpelier had ever seen anything quite like his rendition.  To complete his angel ensemble he and his cohort, Bob, also dressed as an angel, carried small bells that they’d ring occasionally and then look to see if either of them had gotten their wings.  “Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  

He’s The Angel In The Christmas Play

I supposed his greatest achievement at visual humor was The Great Shower Caper. One summer, while I was spending a week at Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, he got together with my friends, Bettie and Nancy. The three of them were aided by my daughter-in-law who photographed the entire escapade. Nancy, Dave, and Bettie, posed in such a way as to create the illusion that the three of them were enjoying a playfully nude romp together in our outdoor shower. I can’t imagine that this was Dave’s idea, but the fact that he was willing to go along with it was classic. The rest of the plot involved having prints made for each of the participants to hang surreptitiously in their house to see how long it took their spouse to discover it. I can only imagine how much fun they had creating this bit of visual hilarity. I keep a framed print in my bathroom. I look at it every day and always smile.

Ain’t We Got Fun
Nancy, Dave, and Bettie

When you are a joker you have to be ready to take a ribbing as well as dish it out. Dave was always a good sport when it came to being the butt of the joke, so to speak.  One of his favorite stories involved his friend and surgeon, Larry.  We were living in a small Michigan town where everyone knew everyone else.  Dave had gone to the doctor for a cyst that had formed at the base of his spine.  The doctor, Jack, told Dave that the best course of action was to have it lanced.  “Just go over to the hospital. Larry is still working and he’ll take care of you.”  Dave arrived next door at the hospital and sure enough, Larry was ready to take care of the problem. 

The set-up for this story also involved Larry telling Dave that although some of the numbing-agent had gotten into his eyes he was sure he could see well enough to complete the procedure at hand. As a now nervous Dave was bent over the gurney with his drawers once again around his ankles…I’m beginning to see a pattern here…Robin…remember it’s a small town…came into the room and began to prep Dave for the procedure by shaving his behind. Embarrassed, Dave asked, “Does Robin have to do that?

“No,” replied Larry, “But she asked if she could and I didn’t see any harm in it.”

Dave would roar with laughter telling that story.  He loved it.

Of course, Dave was much more than jokes and funny stories… I still have lots of tiles left in the box…but it was the part of himself that he liked best. In many ways, it was the essence of his being. Who he was.

We never talked much about what happens when we die. I really don’t know if he believed in an afterlife or not, but when I read this quote from Kate Braestrup, I always hear it in Dave’s voice. “Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.