Archive for the ‘Living and Learning’ Category

Ambiguities of Aging

July 26, 2021

One of the blessings – and curses – of my life has been my engaged, analytical mind also capable of synthesis and of so-called right brain activities like artistic design. Blessing in that it enabled me to attend Swarthmore College where, for four years, I was surrounded by people of comparable “smarts” and thus where I fit in. The experience was a soothing balm after the social exclusion and general disregard previously afforded me in school, where I was dismissed as a mere nerd. Blessing also in that I found myself, over the course of my life, able to work effectively in a wide range of fields – law, education, government, health care – and to engage with all sorts of people, across cultures, races and economic and educational levels.

The curse began with that nerd label and has carried forward in what people express (those who make the effort to express themselves) as being intimidated by my intellectual ability. In too many work environments I encountered co-workers – mostly male – who could not accept that I was as able as they were at planning, writing, envisioning, managing. I very consciously, in one totally male dominated position, chose to emphasize my femininity in dress at the same time that I showed the full extent of my mental skills. The two other women classified as professionals, in that workplace of 100 or more where I found myself in my early thirties, were both already mature (late 50’s) and treated as invisible by the men, in the way so many older women have been disregarded for generations, in U.S. society.

The blessing extends into the present as an interest in reading and responding to essays and op-ed pieces in the various outlets that send their email newsletters to my inbox. The curse extends to having so few face to face opportunities to discuss and debate those topics. During my long work career, I rarely had time for non-work-related discussions, but I did have access to people with whom to debate. Since retirement just a year ago, I have had too much free time, and extremely limited options for interesting discussions. One extreme to the other, in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, has not been an easy transition.

In the blessing column I need to list the fact that my mental skills continue undiminished so far, except for a curious, recent tendency to come up short on names. Once I stop trying to recall the place or person’s name, it rises up into awareness, fortunately often while I am still involved in the conversation that requires it. In the curse column I probably should list a propensity, now that I have so much “spare” time, to do what my spouse calls “overthinking” situations, rather than relaxing and just letting them unfold.

A current client uses the terms Harvard mind and Stanford mind to identify two different styles of communication. He feels able to deal with either, but finds it challenging to switch quickly from one to the other. He says he admires that I can work with both simultaneously. If I understand him, he is referring to tightly reasoned “intellectual” discourse (Harvard) contrasted with a more emotionally directed interpersonal connection (Stanford). A dichotomy kin to the traditionally perceived left brain/right brain dichotomies of thinking that have increasingly been relegated to the status of outdated, inadequate explanations of mental differences between people. For my easily distracted client, having both capacities with neither under good control is decidedly more curse than blessing. For myself, having both and knowing when to use each is clearly a blessing,

About those ambiguities of aging – I am attempting to decipher whether my mental skills are blessing or curse or still a mixture of both, as my opportunities and situations change with advancing age. Having skills without much occasion to use them is frustrating and contributes to feeling old and past one’s “sell by” date. Recognizing that mental skills are of limited value for advancement in spiritual endeavors, it is a blessing to be able – at least at times – to just stop thinking and allow myself to be guided minute by minute throughout days that in retrospect show themselves full of accomplishment that “I” don’t claim credit for. What has been achieved has been done through rather than by me. The ambiguity lies, perhaps, in my hesitance to accept that I have reached the age when what I “should”, per societal dictates, be focusing on is a less engaged, more abstract appreciation of the simple acts of daily life, with perhaps a bit of legacy wisdom dispensed. The trouble comes from the fact that I have never easily done what society expects I should do.

Others have written extensively about the disconnect between chronological age, with its more or less decreased physical function, and their self perceptions as still vital and engaged persons frustrated by the limits to engagement that they keep running up against. In all that writing I have not come across any useful guides to follow, to be less frustrated. I have not so far found much comment on how the recommended activities with which one is urged to fill retirement – to ease the transition from work life to a more measured pace – when pandemic isolation, and now because I live in the West also wildfire smoke, force me indoors and into increased isolation. 

Yes I can email, I can and do talk on the phone, I read, I write essays and letters to the editor in response to opinion columns that catch my interest. I run my home, filling my time with a variety of tasks and I rarely encounter my blessedly few physical limitations. These are all Harvard brain activities.

What I miss is the interaction, the human to human contact necessary for my Stanford brain to feel itself heard and engaged. That bit of self feels like the small girl, the unsiblinged and sadly overlooked nerd child still crying softly “see me, look at me, hear me, I have something to say and to contribute, if only someone would take the time to notice and listen.”

How too many of us feel like that these mid (I regretfully do not feel we are yet at post) pandemic days!

Alike – and Not

July 7, 2021

Emerging from my lockdown solitude, I have recently interacted with two couples with whom I have a number of things in common, and some significant differences. All five of us attended the same college at approximately the same time. Three of us graduated together, the others a year and two years behind the three. The two couples each married upon graduation, becoming additional statistics in what has been affectionately labeled “the Quaker matchbox.” They are still married, roughly 50 years later. I too married just after graduation, and I too have been married just short of 50 years – but my total is accumulated across several relationships instead of a single long-lasting one.

All of us live in the fire threatened, drought stricken Southwest, within a day’s drive of one another. All of us do our part to care for the environment, and we have all had careers that emphasize making life better for others – in medical care, teaching and the arts. We are all retired and, to the extent that circumstances permit, either working part time or otherwise engaged with activities generally labelled “contributing to society.”  

One couple, my classmates, live in an intentional community, or what they refer to as co-housing. Some twenty four families have their homes clustered along two graveled walkways radiating from a Community Building which has a kitchen and expansive meeting/dining/activity area all centered within some 340 acres of ranchland, with animals, gardens, greenhouse and necessary support buildings and infrastructure maintained communally. The housing area is, courtesy of a good, carefully protected and rationed well, a riot of trees, flowering and native plants, an emphatic green thumb imprint on the adjacent dried grass fields. 

The second couple live in a shaded urban residential area within the largest city in our state. They too have a landscaped and flowering front yard and a small vegetable garden behind their home. Their street is a block long dead end, creating a sense of community among the neighbors who perforce coordinate to care for plantings dividing the block into a U, one side in and one out, rather like a circular drive moving past and uniting the several homes.

By contrast, I live in rural solitude in a small home on four acres, my neighbors barely in view. I have no landscaping, only wildflowers, assorted grasses and a persistent army of encroaching mullein stalks that I do my best to weed out. I have started a small, one vegetable garden, to grow my husband’s favorite greens.

All of us have dogs. I am the only one to also have a cat.

All of us have maintained a positive attitude toward our health and longevity, focused on what we can do rather than what now limits us.

All of us follow, to some extent, current politics and express our similar views in the voting booth.

They have children, I do not – except now in my later years, by step-parent status.

Using my driving time during recent visits to both couples, I have been reflecting on my life overall, undoubtedly part of the process of emerging from pandemic isolation. Also part of the ongoing process of considering who I am as a retiree, and what I wish to do now that the focus of my life is more my own to discern.

The one clear direction I am following is to be guided more by inner prompting (listening to that of God within, as Quakers would express it; Hearing, and Being the Sound Current as MasterPath reveals it) than by outer demands. 

What does that have to do with the comparisons with which I began this reflection? 

As a child, I expected that the course of my life would be more like that of the two couples – finding a compatible mate and living our lives out together. It still surprises me to see that instead I learned and grew through a sequence of relationships, mostly to partners of different races and ethnicities from my own. Yet I have evolved in a quite similar pattern to my college mates as regards values, professional roles and lifestyles.

What if anything meaningfully sets me apart?

My marital relationships have been cross race/ethnicity/culture whereas theirs are not.

I have had longish periods of functioning as a single person; they have not.

They have articulated their goals for the next several years; I do not know mine.

Or rather, I only know that it is time for me to have goals of my own, and to make them as much of a priority as I have, over my lifetime, made it a priority to help my mate(s) meet his/theirs.

Now the work begins – first to define my goals and then to teach myself to keep them front and center. 

Fortunately I know that the only place to seek my new goals is within myself, as I complete my daily spiritual practice. Which means that defining the goals is not work, merely an extension of what I already do.

As with so many questions in life, the answer is simple once “overthinking” is curtailed.

Quiet the mind and let inner wisdom speak.

Sounds and Silence

May 24, 2021

A good friend, who is a multi-talented musician, just told me about a project he completed in a week of intense collaboration with a former student – she wrote a play, he wrote the music and she submitted the ten minute musical comedy score to a competition. It was so well received that it will be performed at the awards presentation. My friend described the hectic back and forth of the week, as the script was modified and his music had therefore to be adjusted as well – all under the pressure of the immediate deadline. “Sometimes that is what it takes to get me composing” he concluded.

Apparently it takes something similar to get me writing these days. I have been posting my reflections on the events of my life with regularity, despite a demanding work schedule, for many years – until sometime last autumn. Retirement was supposed to expand my time to write, but instead it seems to have shut me up. While Covid prevented my engagement with many of the activities I anticipated would fill my days, it cannot be held responsible for the silencing of my written voice.

Or can it? Whereas I have mostly felt that I needed time away from interactions with people to reflect and write, is it in fact the case that I need interaction with people to stimulate the reflection that produces writing? Is the reality that I and most of those around me have been vaccinated and can begin to meet in person, out least in outdoor venues, enlarging not only my physical boundaries but also my verbal ones?

Is the persistent urging of a writer friend, that I submit an essay or story for a project she has undertaken, also a  necessary condition (and perhaps a sufficient one) for me to haul out the laptop and start putting words together? It would seem so, as here I am, writing. The criterion for inclusion in the pending project is a connection with northern New Mexico, one I easily meet as I have lived in this beautiful high mountain community for more than forty years. In newspaper columns, blog posts, short stories and even an unpublished novel, I have written about the foibles of local culture, weather anomalies, the healing tranquility of vast open sky, highly talented local performers and, in the words of Anna’s Siamese king, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

Called on now, under almost as tight a time constraint as that faced by my musician friend, to produce an essay worthy of inclusion in a book focusing on my home region, what new do I want to say? 

That on May 17 it is spitting snow? The weather in this area is absolutely uncertain, changing from summer back to winter and then summer again, not just day to day but often hour to hour. The only aspect of weather that is certain is wind. Enough sunny days, most years, for solar power to be an effective alternative to carbon-based energy and what feels like enough wind to power the world. Two benefits of living with permanent weather uncertainty.

That yesterday I watched antelope running free across a neighbor’s pasture? We have quite a variety of wildlife sharing our space. Deer, wild turkey and the antelope are seen frequently. A herd of elk also ranges over the open pasture beside the county road where I go for my walks. Covid shutdowns have limited dining out, and prevented me from attending classes at the nearby NM Highlands University but have not otherwise hampered my routines. I walk (weather permitting) amid pastures occupied by cows and the elk and antelope. I raise my chickens, eat and sell their eggs, and have ample space for a garden. The unpredictable weather means mostly growing only hardy vegetables until I can place a roof over the beds. When that will happen is another uncertainty, on a par with when the university will reopen campus classes. 

We are doing very well here on the Covid front, and are national leaders in vaccination rates. More activities are now permitted at the same time that people remain vigilant, masked in indoor  spaces and mostly caring for the health and safety of our neighbors and communities. I am told by those living in more urban areas that the noises of social activity have increased. I would not know – where I dwell the predominant theme, Covid or no Covid, is the semi-silence of the natural world.

Another friend, a music lover, actor and writer who lives 140 miles away in Albuquerque mentioned recently that he appreciates silence at home in ways he did not used to do – choosing to play music only when he intends to sit down and listen to it with focus, whereas he used to have music playing almost all the time. We talked, without reaching a conclusion, about whether this change is a function of aging, or is another curious adaptation to life with Covid.

I consciously avoid any created background sound when I am alone at home, preferring the silence that is not silent. I hear my rooster crow, and the several hens who lay each day warbling their productivity. Occasionally a woodpecker is attracted to one corner of my house. After an hour of his intermittent drumming I squirt him with a water pistol, to regain some semblance of peace. Winds vibrate metal trim on the house, creating a whistling that cannot be terminated with a well aimed shot from the water pistol. Those I have learned to ignore, knowing the wind is both intermittent and perpetual, one of the factors that must be accepted as central to life in this area.

On warmer, less windy days, I hear the zoom of hummingbirds, and always there are the rowdy crows and less rowdy but equally insistent doves making their presence known audibly as they compete with the chickens for daily grain rations. My active guard dog barks away most four-legged intruders, keeping me aware of what is going on around the edges of my acreage. 

Some years ago I had house guests for the summer, two African girls who had graduated from the United World College nearby, but were stranded waiting for arrangements to travel to their next destinations. Both were urban-raised and admitted to being afraid of the quiet. While I was away during the day at work, they would play their music loudly, covering over the sounds that to me are evidence that this country is not silent. They managed to hear my car engine pulling into the driveway despite the music and would turn the volume down to what I consider a “listenable” level as I entered the house. In the three months they spent with me, I did not succeed in my efforts to help them hear the natural sounds within what they thought of as intolerable silence. I try to keep that failure in mind, when I talk with others about the pleasures of my home environment, reminding myself that not everyone has the same preferences.

It has been many years since I recognized that I was unlikely to ever have the kind of income that would permit much travel. I have been grateful to live where I do, in the high mountain desert where I would choose to come on vacation, if I lived elsewhere. And of late I have been especially grateful to live where, despite the pandemic, I have been able to enjoy the outdoors, continue my walks, work safely and comfortably from home, and appreciate the noisy silence of an airy, uncontaminated natural environment.

For those who seek the same, welcome to my world.

Fighting Back

December 10, 2020

The combination of retirement, a dip in overall health, and the isolation of self protection from Covid have combined to push me toward being what I have most disliked over my life until now – an old person talking constantly about health complaints. How else can I view myself, when the few calls or inquiries made of me begin with “How are you doing? Are you okay?” and while the overall answer is “Alright, just rather bored and tired” the more specific answer is “Aggravated by the sequence of health challenges that have arisen since I stopped work” which in turn rob my energy and focus, and when combined with all the pandemic-imposed restrictions, prevent me from engaging with anything that can stimulate my interest or give me the opportunity to discuss substantive issues with others.

Minus the pandemic, I know I would be enrolled in a sketching class, probably teaching workshops, and certainly driving out to visit friends or meeting them for a meal and conversation in a restaurant. I would still have the health issues that affect me (residual apparently from something toxic inhaled along with the smoke from the West Coast fires) but I would have distractions, and a schedule of activities to motivate me to do more than read my daily news feeds and the novels that I still enjoy.

Transitioning from very full time, demanding and people-interactive work to retirement is a challenge. Isolating at home to keep safe and relatively healthy is a challenge. Adapting from having one’s mate always present to his being away all week and only home on weekends is a considerable challenge. Combining all three at once and layering on a coating of decline in health seems to be enough to turn me into a stereotype of an old person. Only my hatred both of stereotypes and of whining, complaining people stands between me and overwhelmed defeat.

Thank heaven I live in a rural environment, can get out and walk freely around my property, and at times am treated, as this morning, to the delight of deer effortlessly completing a standing jump over the fence and onto my land. It is a gray day, with dropping temperature and possible rain predicted, after a week of warm, sunny autumn weather. Without the deer my mood would most likely not be great. Instead, as I see the picture of my spiritual teacher smiling at me, I understand His gift just provided to me.

For you, today and all days, may similar blessings be.

Who Knows? I Don’t!

November 25, 2020

Why is it so hard to do nothing?

And equally hard to use mandated “do nothing but rest” time for tediously aggravating projects like emptying Dropbox or deleting old email?

Shouldn’t the latter give some focus and purpose and sense of accomplishment to the former?

Sadly, I am not finding it so.

Doing nothing has come to mean relaxing on the couch either reading books or playing solitaire and word games on my phone. I did label and file some emails that I will want to reference in future. And I thought about scrolling through Coursera for any classes that might interest me – but didn’t even do that.

Is my current lack of energy so pervasive that sedentary mental activities are beyond me? Or does it take a particular type of motivation to tackle those ever-on-the ‘to do’ list organizing chores that so many of us keep postponing? I don’t know.

I do know that I don’t have the motivation to find out why I don’t know.

Enough of tangled sentences. 

What I do know is that I just read an essay by Bruno Maceas of the New York Times (How Trump Almost Broke the Bounds of Reality) that delightfully answers the tormenting question of how so many decent people can continue to support – and just now to vote for – our current president. It has given me much to think about and the realization that implementing any bridges over the deep divides in our country will require both sides to develop a common language, something we do not appear to possess at this time.

The essay explicates Trumpism as a cult, and to my mind effectively supports this hypothesis. Sadly, what immediately came to mind was 900 people committing suicide with poisoned Kool Aid, at the behest of their cult leader. It seems now that too many elected leaders in both houses of Congress are drinking political Kool Aid at the behest of a man who does not deserve that devotion. What cult leader ever does?

If people can continue – as they have done – to lie dying of Covid in ICUs while insisting the virus is a falsehood promulgated by left wing media, how can we possibly succeed in freeing their compatriots from the illusory cult world to which they have committed themselves.

Again, I don’t know.

Reading in the NYTimes about women who have made new opportunities of the pause Covid has imposed on their lives, the consistent message is to accept the need to slow down, recognize an opportunity to reset, refocus, redirect the course of one’s life and draw on historical strengths to find motivation to move forward. For some those strengths were the voices of older family members, or of cultural traditions. For others the strengths came more immediately from their own prior achievements. In all cases, the main thrust of their new efforts was toward some form of engagement with others. Isn’t that what women do? Nurture and care for others in whatever manner they are able to?

Filing or deleting old emails does not support caring for anyone at all, not even myself. No wonder I consider it an unnecessary chore. The emails, mostly newsletters from various groups in which I have some interest, have accumulated because somewhere in each is an item or two that, at first reading, I thought would be relevant to a future writing project. Only in that sense can they be conceived of as having anything to do with concern for others. Does that slanted view of the value of organizing them help motivate me?

I don’t know.

It looks as though 2020 will be recorded in my personal history as the Year of I Don’t Know. 

So be it.

To Be is Sufficient

October 27, 2020

First cold winter snow of the season, though not the first snow of the season. That one was back in mid-September, 80 degrees one day, snow the next, then warm again the day after. This one is taking its time spread over at least two days and with night time temperatures in the teens. Perfectly timed, from my point of view, to allow for a quiet day indoors resting from extra activity over the weekend. Apparently also allowing those government workers actually on site to come in late and go home early. No shortened hours for the majority, however, who are working from home. And it remains to be seen if our primary phone and Internet provider is ready for the season. Last winter when I was still working the more-than-full-time my job demanded, frequent outages seriously hampered meeting mandatory deadlines. One of the stresses I am happy to be liberated from, now that I have retired.

I am most grateful to the several friends who have themselves recently retired, for the heads up they unanimously gave me, that the transition is not an easy one, particularly for those of us whose work was in some aspect of the helping professions, engaged daily with a variety of others. All that interaction is suddenly gone at the same time that Covid has prevented taking a campus class, joining a gym, participating with a meditation and/or yoga group. And at the same time that my spouse was returned to work on site, after three months of being home based due to the pandemic. Texting to friends and an occasional phone call do not make up the difference. 

Not that I am unfamiliar with alone time. Not that I didn’t crave occasional alone time over the past years when work and home/marriage responsibilities took up all my waking hours. But so very much of it, all at once, definitely takes getting used to. 

I began by tackling the very long list of “clean up and clear out” tasks that have accumulated in 30 years of living in one place (moving is not easy, but it does precipitate a useful trimming down). I would say I’ve gotten maybe a third of the way through, then stalled out because the other primary aspect of retiring, about which I had also been warned, caught up with me. My energy level has tanked. Yes I was sickened by something, seemingly a toxin that both my husband and I inhaled while sleeping. Possibly something in the smoke from the West Coast fires? We both work up at the same time, choking and unable to breathe. Temperatures rose immediately thereafter, sending us to Public Health for Covid tests which thankfully came back negative. We both recovered in a few days, he more completely than I did, in that he returned to his normal pace of work and school while I remain far too easily tired, and prone to repeat, relapse, recovery cycles more than a month later. I am now awaiting an appointment with a specialist to find out either what attacked us, or what I still need to do to help my system properly recover. Meanwhile, the house decluttering process has pretty much halted.

What has not stopped is my rearrangement of my inner house. It was a bit of a shock to realize that despite my range of interests, and the many things I had thought I would enjoy “if only I had the time” I had nonetheless become someone whose sense of worth was defined by the work I did, and how much of my time was given to being of service to others. The people who care for me kept saying I had “earned” the right to relax, to “only do what makes you happy”, to sleep all day if I wished to, or to take care of myself first, and only attend to others if I have the energy to do so.

My spiritual Path teaches the goal of manifesting Soul, rather than following the dictates of mind. One way that this can be translated is to focus on finding one’s worth within, then funnelling that wisdom outward, instead of seeking worth through one’s outward actions. I rather thought I had a grasp of the inner to outward directive, until retirement and exhaustion brought me to a stop and I felt adrift, without any meaningful sense of self. I am a devoted enough student that I have been following my teacher’s instructions regarding spiritual practice, and am seeing myself transitioning from an uncomfortable void to a pleasant certainty that Being is sufficient. A am confident that appropriately focused doing will be forthcoming without my having to plot and plan for it to take place.

Just as this snow storm has come perfectly timed to “allow” me to relax and rest from my weekend’s endeavors, so too has retirement apparently come perfectly timed to allow me to transition from outer to inner imperatives directing my activity. My only obligation now is to practice the patience I learned in the period of 2000-2012 when I was held in place, seeming not to make progress or to be permitted to change employment, change residence, change anything whatsoever. 

I think we humans tend to fall into two patterns – one often self described as a “control freak” needing to regulate and direct and charge forward, the other more laid back and reliant on “what will be will be.” A fair amount of life learning seems to involve each group recognizing their status, seeing the opposite, and hopefully seeking a closer approximation to a balance of the two ways of being. 

I can now identify the ten year period referenced above as the time for me to learn patient acceptance of the fact that nothing would change despite my efforts to make change happen. I was being asked to master that lesson so that, in maintaining balance, I could take wing. Again, from my spiritual teaching, the image is of a bird needing both wings flapping in harmony in order to fly. Just personal effort, or just awaiting some outside determinant, do not get anything off the ground. 

Until the snow stops, until my energy is restored, until the pandemic restrictions are lifted, until what I am next called to do, I will do what I can. If what I can is simply to rest, stay put, and Be, let it be so. It is sufficient.

Patience – again

September 19, 2020

Quite some time ago, when I was educating myself on Twelve Step programs in the course of learning about addictions, I was told about a phenomenon noted among participants that was too often a contributor to relapse – the emergence of serious health challenges in the months after sobriety was achieved.
“I was never sick when I was using, except for withdrawals when I couldn’t get a new supply.”
“I didn’t have any health problems until after I got sober.”

It never occurred to me that there might be a similar response to retirement and its accompanying cessation of the adrenalin rush which faded with the end of deadline pressures.

Feeling somewhat at sea, unsure how to structure one’s days, seeking a new balance of tasks and relaxation – those were feelings I anticipated or had been alerted to expect, and ones that seemed reasonable. A marked decrease in interpersonal contacts would also be inevitable, given the necessary isolation already in place due to the pandemic. Loss of energy would naturally follow from a drop in adrenalin. I was prepared to avert a parallel mental/emotional sag that could seem misleadingly like depression.

I was not prepared to experience the above referenced upsurge in health issues.

The explanation generally accepted in the Twelve Step situation is that the addict/alcoholic/codependent has been too engaged with the focus of their addiction to care for themselves. Not so different a situation as that of health caregivers who ignore their own needs in the process of tending to their parent or partner ill with cancer, Alzheimer’s or other care-demanding conditions. Once attention returns to the individual, previously ignored symptoms become salient and require attention.

I did not need a day of sick leave in the last 4 years of my employment. I maintained – still do – a regular weekly schedule of health support treatments. I am an appropriate weight, have never smoked, drink very sparingly, and exercise daily. I do not have any “underlying conditions” to make me vulnerable, other than being somewhat up there in years (late 70’s) and having lived through a 5 year period, some 35 years ago, of a bad time with bronchitis. It has not been an issue since, beyond a bit of congestion if I become seriously overtired.

So why, 6 weeks into retirement, free of stress and sleeping well, am I experiencing an upsurge in frequency of ocular migraine headaches and an aggravating bout of bronchitis?

The more rest I get, the less energy I seem to have. Breathing in an unknown contaminant last week apparently triggered the bronchitis (Covid test negative) that now refuses to subside. Yes our air in New Mexico is seriously smoky, downwind from the West Coast fires and that undoubtedly is exacerbating the bronchitis flare up. But why is this lung irritation stubbornly persistent while I am relaxed and rested, when it never did so while I was highly stressed and working 50 plus hour weeks?

Probably the question I should be asking is “what, that I have not yet identified, needs my attention just now?” such that I am being slowed down, held in place, prevented from moving into new activities until I recognize the missing element. At least, that seems to be how illness has played out in my life so far.

Sometimes, when I frame the question, I get the answer promptly. Other times, I get to practice the difficult lesson of patience. This seems to be one of those latter occasions.

I’ll let you know when the insight arrives.

Waking Up

September 14, 2020

The best part of waking up is … was it Folger’s in your cup? Another coffee brand? Don’t remember that detail, only the tune and the ad line, as I wake to another silent morning, alone without anyone present to greet me as I greet the day.
I think that is, for me, the hardest aspect of days alone. Once I am up and going, with tasks to be done and responding to messages and emails, or checking news feeds, I no longer feel so isolated. I have never been one to have music playing in the background and I don’t have TV (hate the blah blah blah background in spaces where the TV is never turned off though not being attended to) but maybe the former will need to change? Might having a musical greeting alter my sense of aloneness?
Guess that is one more “you won’t know until you try it” item on a long list.

I enjoy music, but recognize that my greatest pleasure comes from words – a cleverly written sentence, a challenging crossword puzzle, a lively discussion with a compatible partner, whether over coffee or – as now required – distanced and by text.
There is a qualitative difference between written and spoken words, and I am finding in this enforced aloneness a fatigue with reading that I never thought I’d encounter. I put down my book and play hands of solitaire to “zone out” and let my inner self refocus.
Would it be different with music in the background?

I won’t know until I try it (smiley face).

The Meaning of Alone

September 10, 2020

Alone but not lonely
Lonely even though not alone
Sleeping single in a double bed
No one to talk to
No one who cares
No one trusted enough to share with
No one who will (or can) listen

Free to make one’s one decisions
Empowered to act without waiting for approval or agreement
Challenged to be creative

Look Ma, no hands
Wheeeeee
Crash

I want to hold your hand
I want you to hold me, please
Babies with adequate hygiene and food but not held do suffer and die from the lack of touch
A variant of marasmus

Touch deprived adults may fall into depression, poor health
A may die prematurely

Alone can be content
Lonely cannot

What makes the difference?
Attitude
Faith
Upbringing
Insight
Learning
Choice

All challenges to the Self
That enhance growth

But mostly, I think, that last one
Choice
Think about it.

I Still Go for Walks

August 26, 2020

My walks these days are mostly down and back up the steep hill in the long driveway from our house to the mailbox by the road. I started with just a single trip, to collect the mail and take a break from the computer and phone of my work day. Now that I am untethered from those bindings, I make the trip an increasing number of times per day, usually 3-4 in the cool of morning followed by single or double hill climbs a couple more times until evening. I have been using the morning walks to prioritize the activities pending in my day, both cleaning out the house of its years of accumulated stuff, and organizing a new laptop with files saved from 8 or more years ago when I set aside my writing career to resume being an overworked but productive peon in the health care system.

In the course of the file retrieval, I came upon a piece I wrote probably ten years ago, that resonates with me now. I have welcomed input from friends both about what to do next in my life, and what changes to expect in how I will feel and how my physical self will respond to the lessening of the stress under which I have lived for so many years. My essay reconnected me with another important source of input still salient despite the fact that the person described passed on more than 45 years ago.

Enjoy the encounter with me.

A Walk with My Grampa

“I Went For a Walk in the Forest” was the book title and first phrase I learned to read, precociously at age three, sitting on my Grampa’s lap as he read the story over and over to me. The book was paper bound, about 6 inches high and 10 inches long, with a black and white cover sketch of the forest surrounded by a pumpkin-orange border. If you opened the book out flat, so that the back and front covers made one whole picture, all the animals met on that forest walk could be seen hidden among the trees. In the delightful manner of children’s fantasy, the animals collected in that forest ignored the habitat restrictions which would normally prevent them meeting, except perhaps in a zoo.

From the safety of Grampa’s lap I learned about lions and horses, a giraffe, an elephant, deer and antelope, and a monkey. When the reading walk was done we rested. He smoked, and I trapped the smoke rings he blew into a wide mouth bottle, where they magically retained shape until the genie who also lived in the bottle stirred them into a fog to give himself shelter.

I went for a walk at the zoo, with my Grampa, most Sundays from when I was seven until I was twelve. He would come down on the train from Baltimore to spend the day with us, and would take me for ‘our’ time. Not always to the zoo, sometimes to the park or just for a walk around the neighborhood. He would ask me about my week in school, what I had learned and what I was reading, and he would tell me about the poem he was working on, or the article he was writing (in Hebrew, or Yiddish) for The Forward (which he pronounced as though a “v” began the second syllable). It was important to him to pick just the right Hebrew word from among several choices for his poems, to convey mood and spirit, as well as meaning.

I went for a walk on the beach – alone now, a world away from my Grampa, he still in Baltimore and I on the sand at Nha Trang, picking up tiny pink and black and pearl-colored shells which elderly Vietnamese refugees from the north collected to string into elaborate necklaces. I wore a small gold pendant my Grampa gave me, with the Tree of Life etched into it. A link, he said, that would stretch from Vietnam back to Maryland, to keep us sharing our walks. Those were harder years, without his immediate presence and gentle wisdom to balance the emotional stresses of my early teens.

I missed him still, when I went for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne during my high school years. I wrote to him, sitting on a sarcophagus in Pierre La Chaise cemetery, one of the few places in bustling Paris that I could find solitude and quiet. Those were very hard years, for both of us. He was no longer working in his dental practice and had fewer places to publish his essays and poems. He was no longer as able to care for himself, and not very aware of time, so his replies to me were intermittent, and rarely responsive to the questions I asked.

I went for a walk in the Crum Woods on Swarthmore’s campus, during my college years, and felt his presence through the guitar in my room, a fine instrument I’d found in a pawn shop, which he gave me the seventy-five dollars to purchase. I’d asked my parents for the money, but my mother had responded in her usual fashion. “Why don’t you prove your interest in playing guitar by learning on a borrowed one before you ask me to spend my money on something you may not pursue?” Fifty years later, that guitar stays easily in tune and it’s tone is admired by everyone who plays it.

I went for walks by the Chicago shore of Lake Michigan, and along the Charles River in Boston, after helping my mother to settle Grampa in Miami, where the better weather and the presence of a few close friends made it easier for him to manage. We talked on the phone since his eyes had failed to the point that he could not write, nor easily read. With a metal-bound, rectangular, hand-held magnifying glass left from his collection of dental tools, he would slowly read the daily Yiddish press, sharing his opinions with me on the events which he didn’t trust TV news to present fairly. He worried, after the Six Days War, that while its outcome improved Israel’s security at the time, there would come from it a negative turn in world opinion toward the Jewish state. He would, I know, be distraught over the actions and decisions taken recently – the wall, and the West Bank settlements which have become symbols of oppression rather than statements of freedom.

I went for one last walk with my Grampa, along the path beside the railroad tracks in Lamy, here in New Mexico, after he could no longer live on his own. My mother and I moved him into a nursing home outside Santa Fe, where I visited with him several times a month, and brought him to my little converted boxcar house for an outing, the one weekend he was strong enough to come. I told him the story of looking out the train window, age twelve and on my way to Vietnam, seeing Lamy as a strange, wild and western place – missing him desperately and never imagining that we two would walk together there. He answered that it was good to walk with me, though he didn’t really grasp where we were, and complained to me that there were people in his nursing home whom he could hear speaking Yiddish from a distance but who, when he came close and spoke to them, would not answer. I tried to explain that they were speaking Spanish, not Yiddish. He was by then seriously deafened, hearing just enough scraps of language to know when it wasn’t English being spoken. Like most speakers of more than one tongue, with advanced age Grampa’s communication abilities lasted longest in his first language, or in his case his first two, Yiddish for everyday and his beloved Hebrew for poetry and praise.

My grampa died within days of his official 91st birthday. Official, rather than real, because he had to transfer a birth date from the Jewish (lunar) calendar used in what he called the “dot on the map village outside the dot on a map town” where he was born in Russia, to the western calendar he encountered when he entered the US as a twenty year old man in 1907. Knowing Shvat to be a spring month, he arbitrarily called it March. He equally firmly rejected the proposed Americanizing of his name to Hill, insisting that “no, my name is Domnitz, Aaron Domnitz.”

I go for walks now, often a brisk measured mile by Storrie Lake, or a leisurely stroll along Bridge Street, and realize I am just a bit above the age my Grampa was as my parents prepared to take us (his only close family) across the world to Vietnam. After 14 or more years of weekly trips from Baltimore to DC (he began them when my mother became pregnant with me), how great a change – and loss – that must have been for him!

I wonder – but obviously have no one to ask – why my parents didn’t bring him with us? Perhaps it was discussed and he refused? More likely, I’m afraid, my mother determined that she “didn’t want the responsibility” as that was her standard reply with which to block everything from my having friends for a sleep over, to helping host visiting dignitaries whom it was my father’s job to entertain. Blessedly it was also her response when Grampa needed nursing home care, so that I got to have him close to me for those precious last 18 months of his life. We went for so many lovely walks, in our talks, during my on-my-way-home-from-work visits with him!

Because life in his natal village had gone virtually unchanged for centuries before he left it, his awareness bridged nearly 300 years. Thus, we talk-walked streets of the 1700s in Russia as readily as those of Santa Fe in 1975. He shared the concern of many, that our technological skills so far exceed our ethical advances. “Will we now bring war to the moon?” was his question after that one giant step for mankind.

Grampa’s dental cabinet, filled with a fragile, gaily decorated porcelain tea service from Vietnam, sits in my Sapello home. I use his magnifying glass when I need stronger eyes. The guitar provides music from many cultures, when I entertain students from the United World College. I pick my written words with care, respecting the importance he gave to nuances of meaning.

My Grampa started me reading about a walk through a forest to meet different animals. He continues to guide me on my walk through life, meeting its varied challenges. Some of that guidance arises from one of the last things Grampa said to me, shortly before he died. I’d asked if he had his life to live over, what he might have done differently. His answer was that he had only two regrets. The first was that he thought perhaps my mother might have been a happier person if he had remarried (he raised her on his own), but he’d never found the right woman. The second was that he wished he’d learned to play the mandolin. No wonder he supported my learning the guitar!

However long my own life walk turns out to be, I hope that when it ends, I will have as few regrets as my Grampa did. With his gifts surrounding me, and his ethics a part of me, I have every reason to succeed.


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