Nearly a Month Ago

DSCN1899

Nearly a month ago I boarded a train and headed many hours south, expecting to be back home in a week or less.  My stepfather had passed away fairly unexpectedly, and since it was still winter in the mountain passes the train seemed like the safest and most stress-free option.  I traveled in the nearly empty Business Class car, shared a table in the dining car with three interesting people, and generally had a good, but long trip. 

Nearly a month ago I arrived at the snowy small-town train station, and was greeted by a brother in law.  It was after midnight and the train was more than two hours late.  And that was when normal stopped.  The forty-minute drive was like listening to a travelogue of the previous ten days with my mother and stepfather. An old woman with dementia, who had been beautifully loved and cared for by her husband and who proved her inability to live on her own while he was in the hospital.  An old man who was very sick from a previously undiagnosed disease, who was given great hope and believed it, until all the sudden it was the end.  It was sudden for those gathered around his bed and for me who took his regular phone calls, but apparently not for him.  He spent the day before he died giving directions, discussing financial matters, making sure his family knew what he expected of them in the coming days: love God, love each other, and get along. 

Nearly a month ago I arrived at my mother’s house in the middle of the night and found a woman who looked much older and more frail than when I’d seen her three months before.  Her confusion deep, and her memory much shorter than I could have imagined. Her clothes were not clean and she’d lost a great deal of weight.  In her husband’s declining health he had not wanted to admit that he couldn’t keep up with the responsibility of her increasing dementia.  All I heard in our regular phone calls was that they were doing okay. Everything is okay, don’t worry, we’re doing fine together. 

Nearly a month ago I boarded the slow train of dementia.  Even though I am well-trained and experienced in the art of patient, calm interaction it has required the constant work of quiet self-discipline and prayer.  The anxiety, great delight, anger, quiet hours of silence, panic, repetitious questions and comments, paranoia, amazing confabulations, hurt feelings, contradictions, laughter, and the never-ending feeding of indoor and outdoor pets fills the days and evenings. All of it in slow motion because fast movement, fast talk, fast action, fast anything fuels the upset and anxiety.  When she says, “I wish you’d just relax,” she means please stop moving. Come and sit still.  I sit still for as long as I can, looking out the window watching the quail, doves, red-wing blackbirds, sparrows and their friends coming to eat the wheat she puts out for them more than once day.  Then I get up and move again. 

Nearly a month ago I prepared food only for myself unless I invited friends over.  Here I make sure three nourishing meals make it to the table everyday—fresh, colorful, appealing food served in small pieces to make it interesting and easy. 

Nearly a month ago I packed a suitcase with enough winterish clothes to last for a week or so.  I have to wash and re-wear them so often I’m afraid they’ll be threadbare soon.  I’ve been into town often, 30 miles each way, having forgotten what it’s like to shop for a week to 10 days at a time.  Every time I go check the stores looking for a few new pieces to augment my meager wardrobe.  So far one top that works well with a cardigan or without.

Nearly a month ago I was looking forward to watching the daffodils and tulips bloom in my yard for the first time, and to see the cherry trees blossom in my neighborhood.  Instead I’m watching the daffodils and grape hyacinths just starting to bloom here in mountain elevations, with light snow still coming nearly every day. 

Nearly a month ago I could never have imagined simply walking away from my home, my friends, my church, and my job.  I sent an email to my office and said I was taking a leave of absence.  I sent a group email to my praying friends and told them where I was, and a message to my neighbor.  Soon I will go home for two weeks. And then I will be back to see if my mother will finally agree to let someone come in to help her.  Maybe after two weeks of friends and family coming into help it might seem a new normal and then it will be okay.  I can hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 12 – 19

It’s interesting to me how dates, or symbols look so innocent on a calendar when the actual living of them can take a person to edges of who they are.

We reach our edges for many reasons, but it happens when we are stretched past the norm emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually, exposing new thoughts, realizations, or clarity.  Sometimes we see deeply personal and long-felt pains come to life and resolution when hope had become a blurred shadow seen only by God.  Other times we see that piercing, crystalline essence of life in something simple, yet painfully profound. And on rare occasion we are brought into the presence of some joyful exuberance that was never part of our life before and it leaves us wondering, what if?   What if I had had the freedom to experience joy in this way before?  How would my world be different?  And the list goes on. 

I realize that not everyone thinks or lives like this.  Some say it’s a special gift, or that it’s the province of sensitive people.  Maybe so, but it’s no less real for belonging to just one type of person, gift or not.

Many people have found ways of staying grounded during these stretching and sometimes overwhelming experiences.  I saw and felt the edges of my life several times between February 12th and 19th.  It was one rolling experience after another—for eight days.  In these short and intense bursts of time I took time to talk and think with God, out loud, while I touched and handled real things, tangible things with color and texture, and light. I worked with my hands, and I experienced beauty.  Somehow that process does it for me—this is how I stay grounded.  It encourages growth and brings introspective calm, it allows me to come back to center after experiencing some of the unsettling mysteries of life, both joyful and heartbreaking.  And later I can see that my life was enlarged.

dscn1860

 

During those eight days I prepared for a celebratory Valentine’s Day dinner with a group of single women friends.  We have found our way through some difficult times through the years, and have always chosen to honor one another and the faith-bond that connects us. This year I set the table with many colorful and beautiful things that belonged to generations of women in my family.  And again we chose honor and love even though some are at opposite ends of the currently fractured political spectrum.  My love for these friends runs deep and the harmony we choose and experience, especially in hard times is more than beautiful. Hard won love takes me to the edges.

Along with a small group of friends I went to a concert at our city’s performing arts center.  It was not something I would have ever chosen, but this Naturally Seven concert took me to the edge of my musical experience with a mix of expertly and joyfully done rap, hip hop, jazz, and more.  These seven men have mastered the art of inviting the audience into the music. When the second or third piece of the encore finished my friends and I looked at one another, all asking different forms of the questions: What was this? What have we just experienced?  This was too wonderful.  We left in amazement and are still talking about it. We were changed by it.

Out of the blue I received a phone call from far away with the surprising second-hand news of a relationship being restored, exposing deep emotions and memories of years of loss. And in the same breath was given the nearly unbelievable hope or vision of something new being born—because of loss and because of forgiveness.  The initial events were so long ago that the only other person who understands the value of this news is the person who is relating the story.  I am utterly stunned.  All I can do is think and talk with God. I am overwhelmed at what this means. 

Acting as the advocate-support for a terminally ill friend I hear every part of her life exposed in a matter of fact way. I felt I should have been pained when the questions were discussed about allowing others to handle the details of the most personal aspects of her care, or about the plans for the disposition of her body.  But instead, it was the simple question that was an afterthought by comparison: How often do you trim your toenails?  In that moment it seemed like the most intimate exposure of her essence. And I was taken to the edge with the crystal clear picture of her, where she’d been and where she was going.

dscn1865

I facilitated and later participated in a very significant meeting that had the potential for being successful or disappointingly bad—no middle ground.  I put hours of thought and prayer into my preparation.  I talked with several of the participants ahead of time to gather their input and so we would all understand the goals and the questions.  I gave it my all, spreading myself so thin, transparent in my hopes and passion for the matter at hand.  Others responded in kind, and now we see each other differently.

And the last, on Sunday afternoon I went to a local theater with a friend to watch the broadcast of George Takei’s Allegiance.  A family’s story of their experience in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.  There are many things I appreciated about this production—the music, the acting, the details of camp life, and the overarching themes that fit into every family in every era of time.  Love, fear, courage, acceptance and the bitterness of regret, or the regret of bitterness.  It works either way.  The opportunity for forgiveness is golden. Don’t let it pass you by.

dscn1868Throughout the whole eight days I was either preparing for the Valentine dinner, or I was washing, drying, polishing, counting, and putting away. Enjoying the way the light was shining through the amethyst glass, loving the weight and feel of the crystal, appreciating the balance of the silver forks, knives, and spoons. Talking and thinking with God, wondering at the benefit of these large experiences, thinking about who needs to know and how I will tell the stories when the time comes.

Sun, Fresh Air and a Bargain

A couple of weeks ago we had a sunny Saturday. I was recovering from the deadly flu with little energy to go on but I was desperate for fresh air and sunshine.   I didn’t have the mental energy for wandering or driving aimlessly so I decided to head across the Columbia River to Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site with a purchase in mind, and with the opportunity for a quiet, manageable walk in sun.

dscn1819

dscn1839

dscn1816

I don’t think I’d been to Ft. Vancouver in the winter before, but as expected it was not crowded, and was interesting and very calm even with the sounds of the modern world in the background. The wind was brisk, the sky brilliant and snowy Mt. Hood provided a magnificent backdrop.  Most buildings and exhibits were open for self-guided tours, but there were living history interpreters working in the blacksmith and carpenter shops, and a guide available in the big house.  This site holds special significance for me as a fifth-generation Oregonian.  My predecessors came across the Oregon Trail in 1845 and stopped at this Hudson Bay Company outpost before going farther. We know quite a bit about their journey, but I’ve often wondered about the relief they must have felt when they finally arrived at  a welcoming, hospitable place after such struggle.

 dscn1847

 

I will admit to not being overly excited about becoming a Senior Citizen, but it does have its rewards.  Buying a Senior Pass was the small purchase I had in mind for my visit. The Senior Pass (available in person at federal recreation sites or online) is one of the best bargains in America.  https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm For citizens and permanent residents age 62 and over, $10 in person and proof of age  will buy you a lifetime pass to 2,000 National Parks and other properties managed by five other agencies: Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and Army Corps of Engineers. This pass will cover a total of four adults arriving in the same car, and children are always free. $10, for the rest of your life!  If you buy online or by mail the cost doubles, but even then it’s a stellar deal.  It’s important to note that the cost of the Senior Pass is scheduled to go up this year, with the actual roll-out date not yet confirmed.  Once that happens the pass will cost $80.

picmonkey_image

Go out, get some fresh air and see the country. It will make you feel better.

 

Winter-Fatigued

At this stage of the game there’s hardly anything more beautiful than blue sky.  Blue sky, no wind, and balmy refrigerator-like temperatures in the 40’s.  Bliss.

dscn1813

A few days ago a  report hit the internet saying that Portland could be the most winter-fatigued city in the country for the 2016-2017 season.  Five storms in five weeks, pushing and keeping us well beyond our winter norms for way too long. I would be happy to step up and accept that Most-Winter-Fatigued Award on behalf of everyone who lives in the part of the world.

It was exhausting, stressful business, especially for women who like me, live alone.  On the home-front it took vigilance to keep my pipes from freezing, and near super-human strength to dig my car out, shovel my driveway and sidewalks and then help my elderly and disabled neighbors do the same. I’d go to work on very dangerous roads and come home to shovel more, including digging out another car and getting it to a safe place. I missed one weekend day of driving my car and it refused to start again. AAA was days away from being able to respond to my call because of the area-wide state of emergency.  Because the car was dead in my driveway they suggested I wait at least 3 days before calling again. 

I am blessed with friends who are willing to help where they can, and it felt like it took a village this time.  Vera picked me up for church on Sunday morning and returned me home.  Kay came over with her battery charger which didn’t perform well for us. After a time we moved on to jumper cables, and were spectacularly unsuccessful with both attempts working in that 15 degree wind-chill.  Vera kindly returned to take me to work on Monday. Cindi ordered a Lyft car for me to get to a memorial service during the work day. While at the service friend Lori asked if she might have my car keys to give to her husband so he could have a look at my car.  The battery was not cooperative so Doug called his mechanic son-in-law for consultation. Finally the car started.  It took so much help to make one normally simple thing happen! 

My struggles were easy compared to some of the women who work for my company; many of them single parents who are just making it.  Their cars wouldn’t start, or were unsafe for driving on ice and snow. We ordered Lyft cars to get them where they needed to be so they could work, and we did the same for those who usually take public transit. Some stopped in at the office for various things, in pain from the cold and worried about what was going to happen next. It was a frightening time for people living on the edge, and lonely and stressful for many having to manage on their own.   

Reading the winter-fatigue article this morning actually made me feel better—it was validating. The difficulty was real.

Today I’m sure that all of Portland feels the hope of good days ahead with the blue sky, sunshine and balmy temps.  The weather people say we have a week of sunny days coming.  I for one am very, very thankful.

 

 

They Say I’m a Winner

I have the certificate taped up in my kitchen:

National Novel Writing Month is proud to certify

This Writer, author of An Improbable Life

As a 2016

WINNER

Congratulations, writer! This November you spent 30 days exploring your creative

universe, and defied gravity to reach your goal of 50,000 words.

Your story is a vital star in an expansive, beautifully diverse cosmos. We’re so proud

to have been part of your incredible achievement.

I was not planning to participate in 2016, in fact I wasn’t planning on ever doing it again. I participated twice before many years ago. Both times I had finished but the biggest problem was that I’d gone into it without a plan. I had no interest in doing that again because it was a lot of effort and a lot of words without much hope for further success.

But…during the last week of October my daughter (who lives and works on the opposite side of the world) sent me a message asking if I’d do NaNoWriMo with her.  How could I possibly turn down an invitation like that? So there I was on November 1 without much of a plan. Again.  I will qualify that: I had a teeny-tiny plan.

I knew that I just didn’t have the heart for trying to mine fiction from my tired mind so I decided on memoir.  It had been a very challenging year that had brought multiple facets of my life together in unexpected ways so I wrote three strands of memoir-story and attempted to braid them together as the story went on.  I am about as pleased with it as a writer can be with a first draft.  As I hoped, I had many a-ha moments along the way with clarity, insight, and questions that had not surfaced before.

I was so looking forward to having a writing buddy, especially in the daughter I only see every two years. But just a week into the project my daughter had to drop out because of increasing demands in her work place. I was disappointed but I was in so I kept at it.

It was hard.  Even harder than I remembered.  November is not an easy month to give that much time and effort—at least not for me.  In addition to the time constraints I felt the fatigue of dredging through and analyzing many life changing experiences. But I finished and they say I’m a winner!  My plan is to look at the manuscript this spring and see about two or three sections that I could develop into saleable articles.  It’s very satisfying to finally have a plan and a goal coming from so much effort.

Homebound Weekend

dscn1765

After more than a week of deeply cold temperatures and roaring, blustering wind the ice has come.  Everything is coated in ice from the freezing rain, and from where I sit (right next to the fire) I can see that the icicles are getting noticeably longer as the day goes on. 

I must admit, I love being unexpectedly homebound.  There was good potential for this storm in the forecast, and the weather-folk kept referencing a serious cold snap and ice storm that occurred more than 35 years ago.  I remember that storm well, from the three days without power to the constant noise of chainsaws cutting up downed branches and trees. With that in mind I made sure I was ready with plenty of firewood, dripping faucets to protect from freezing pipes, food that could be enjoyed cold or even better, warmed in the fireplace, and a mind made up to revel in the happiness of having one or two days at home without a schedule, by myself.

dscn1768

It’s taken time and practice to learn to live alone, and to be quite happy about it.  As one of my elderly widow friends told me several years ago, “I’ve learned to enjoy my own company.”  Part of that enjoyment comes from understanding where I find my contentment.  In the winter if I have means to make a fire, have interesting things to read, to think about or to do, food to cook, some sense of order and beauty in my surroundings, small tasks at hand, and the absence of conflict I’m good for days by myself.  For me, the kind of situation I’ve described makes room for rest and peace, and for thoughtful movement forward. It’s a time for restoring body, mind, and spirit, and for renewing faith.

This was supposed to be a church-kitchen cooking weekend for me, fixing lunch for the 30-40 people who would be un-decorating the church after the gathering this morning.  They did me an enormous favor by cancelling Sunday gatherings yesterday so there was no ongoing concern or conflict in my mind about whether I’d have to try to get there or not.  Folding loads of clean kitchen laundry this afternoon was one of those pleasant small tasks I enjoy. A good stack of hard-working blue aprons, dozens of bar towels, and several banquet length tablecloths.  Stuff that my contentment is made of today.

dscn1767

There is so much unrest and uncertainty coming from nearly every direction, and sadly, more of the same in my workplace.  At least I can turn off the media, but in my day to day Monday through Friday I carry a great weight of responsibility for helping staff stay true to our vision, and to treat each other with dignity and respect even when they don’t feel like it (which seems to mirror much of what we hear about every day). The flip side of that responsibility is to make sure that every client gets the very best of who we are, every single day. I believe wholeheartedly in what I do, but it can leave me utterly exhausted, worn out in body and spirit.  Daily I pray the prayers of Solomon, asking for wisdom and for the insight to be a good and effective leader. 

And that is precisely why folding the church kitchen laundry brought me to such a peaceful place today.  Restoring order, quiet contemplation and thanksgiving, enjoying the feel of the textures in my hands, simple beauty—all good things that helped me enjoy my own company.  I know it’s not likely to happen, but I have to say that I would really like just one more day.

The Beautiful Words of 2016

You’ll hear it everywhere you go: 2016 was a _______________ (insert word) year.  That choice of word ranges anywhere from awful to terrible—with many other descriptives in between.

I really don’t know if 2016 was any worse than many other years, but I do know that it was surprisingly challenging and wearing for me.  I arrived at the last week of the year feeling like I desperately needed to let go of a heavy weight of fatigue.  Marvelous things had happened, but the effects of sadness and stress weighed a ton.

In addition to the multiple deaths and loss of friends and family I had a very personal challenge handed me when my landlord arrived at my doorstep on April 1 with a letter in hand.  I wasn’t home at the time so my houseguest accepted the letter and put it on the mail stack without another thought.

When I saw his writing on the envelope later that day I dropped everything to grab for it. It was one of those letters I raced through to get to the bottom line as fast as I could, I needed to know the big picture story before I had brain space to consider the details. Just tell me! Tell me!  The key phrases: I retired today, putting the house on the market, buy it or move out, 90 days.  Things—everything actually, can change so quickly: News of death, news of health changes, news that your home isn’t secure….  Here in one of the craziest housing markets in the country this was not simple news and it was definitely not good news as a renter.  There were few housing options available but good decisions still had to be made very quickly.

I’ll go straight to the bottom line for you, it all worked out. It was a long, difficult, and extremely stressful  4-plus month wait to get to closing.  How I became the homeowner instead of the renter is quite a story that involves people from around the world.

To change my perspective I needed to take the long view, take the time to remember how it happened, how it worked out.  The first thing for me to remember was that people prayed. Before any decisions were made people said, “I will pray,” and they did.  Then a decision to move ahead was made with input from an expert who had offered to help.  And then, from many places came more of the most beautiful words in the world: I will help. We want to help.  Of course, we’ll help.  Will you let us help?  I want to be part of your story, please let me help.

As the year ended I stepped out from under the fatigue of the hard work and stress with an improved view.  2016 is the year that help came.  This change feels so much better and helps me look forward to the new year with a lighter, more joyful outlook.  Happy New Year.

house-pic