Monday, November 18, 2019

MIGHT AS WELL ENJOY THE RIDE: SOME THOUGHTS ON TURNING 70

Tomorrow is my 70th birthday.  This is a serious number, daunting even, yet it is possible that I have never felt less serious or daunted than I do today.  Instead, I feel almost giddy to find myself here, intact and thriving.  I am so very grateful. 

Here is some of what I have been reflecting on as this milestone approaches. 

How I thought about age over the years:

When I was 16, 24 was ancient, and, frankly, too distant to contemplate.

          When I was 24, I was entirely grown up, and wise enough to see that I had been but a child at 16.

When I was 28, I saw that I had been very young and quite unformed at 24.  (Are you seeing a pattern here?).  40 was the far side of forever, and frankly, too stodgily middle-aged to be on my radar.

When I had my first child at 35, and then my second at 38, and right up until the day each of them left home, I was too engaged with the eternal present to think much about getting older.  40 and 50 were in there somewhere. I sort of remember celebrating each.

When I was 56, my second daughter left for college and I looked up to find 20 years had passed since my first daughter came into the world.  I was surprised to find 60 looming ahead like an iceberg.  

           By the time I turned 60, the iceberg had mostly melted in the face of my very full life.  That life was good, if a bit overwhelming, what with work, graduate school, and an ailing mother.  I was aware of the speed with which time was passing by.  I was not pleased to think that 70 would be the next milestone; 70 looked like the beginning of the end.  

Things I could not have imagined on the road to 70:

At 70, I do not feel old.

At 70, I feel good, often great.  

          My life continues to be rich and full.

I look ahead with pleasure, curiosity, and eager anticipation.

Things I know:

80 will come.  

It will come quickly.  

There is a decent chance that I will still feel good at 80.  There is, however, no arguing with the fact that my wave is cresting.  I am sitting atop the crest.  The wave will fall, sooner or later, quickly or slowly.  In the meantime, to quote James Taylor, “Might as well enjoy the ride." 

The question I have been asking myself:  

         What do I want to do with the time, however short or long, that I have left?  

         I want to stop putting the things I should do (says who?) ahead of the things I want to do, the things I came here to do.  This is exciting.  And difficult – I have, after all, 70 years behind me of doing what I’m supposed to do. 

         So, what dowant to do?

1.    Play 
2.    Write
3.    Spend time with the people who matter to me
4.    Spend time in my garden
5.    Guard my alone time  (See 2 and 4 above)
6.    Spend less time on social media (because 1-5) 
7.    Say goodbye to perfectionism, impatience, and worry.



          Here’s the tricky part; I don’t want this to be another to-do list.  I want it to be a reminder not to waste my time. (This is not to be confused with whiling away my time.  Scrolling through my phone is mostly wasting; walking in the woods without a thought in my head is whiling). I want to wake up each morning and ask myself, What do I want to do today? Maybe some of you do this every day.  I haven’t been so good at it, even in retirement.  But I’m getting the hang of it. There’s nothing like a milestone birthday to focus the attention.  

           As I have been approaching this birthday, James Taylor’s The Secret ‘O Life has been playing in my mind. I love the image of sliding and gliding down to our finish. You can have a listen by clicking here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHWHPPHpAj8   (I think it loses something when it isn't sung, but I've included the lyrics in case you prefer the message in capsule form.*)

May the song speak to you as it has to me.  And 'til next time, try not to try too hard. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Me at 16 - On the road to adulthood

*Secret 'O Life
        - James Taylor

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain't nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to
The top of the hill
But since we're on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride

The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It's okay to feel afraid
But don't let that stand in your way
'Cause anyone knows that love is the only road
And since we're only here for a while
Might as well show some style
Give us a smile

Isn't it a lovely ride?
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride

Now the thing about time is that time
Isn't really real
It's just your point of view
How does it feel for you
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race
Some kind of lovely ride
I'll be sliding down
I'll be gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride
Isn't it a lovely ride?
See me sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

p.s. - Yes, I have written about a James Taylor song before.  See: https://woacanotes.blogspot.com/2019/09/fire-and-rain-on-time-travel-and.html No, I am not on his payroll.         


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

AMPUTATION: REQUIEM FOR A DOUG FIR

I have lived in my current home for 26 years.  When my then-husband and I decided to move all those years ago, I took on the search, and in the process, walked into – and right back out of – many houses.  Would we have to settle for just OK?  When I became discouraged, several people told me that when the right house came along, I would know immediately.

They were right.

When I walked into the house where I now live, I knew it was the house.  I knew because I had kissed dozens of frogs, and this house was obviously a prince, orange shag carpet and bordello-red bathroom notwithstanding.  I could see beyond the awful d├ęcor because nearly every house I had looked at needed a great deal of cosmetic work, and because, to my delight, the house was nestled in trees, many trees, mostly Douglas firs, or what we call Doug firs here in the Pacific Northwest.

The Doug firs, which are all over the neighborhood, had, by some miracle, been left standing when the house, and those around it, was built in the early 1960s.  (I often bless the unknown builder for this forbearance.)

The trees were big – well over 100 feet tall, and old – well over 100 years old.

And so, we settled into the house among the trees.  We tore out the orange shag carpet, repainted the bordello-red bathroom (along with the yellow and orange and chartreuse and royal blue bedrooms), planted gardens, and looked up often in wonder.



Over the years, other things changed; my then husband and I divorced; our daughters grew up and away; a new husband moved in.  But one thing stayed the same – the trees. Yes, from time-to-time a neighbor removed a tree, and occasionally one came down in a storm, but by and large the trees remained.

And then, last year, we had one of our Doug firs removed after being told it had been weakened by insect damage.  In these circumstances, removal seemed the prudent thing, given the wind storms that rush out of the Columbia River Gorge most years.  Still, we felt awful.  It was sickening to watch this tree that had been growing for over 130 years come down in two days.  First the limbs were amputated.  Then the trunk was brought down piece by piece.

It had housed birds and squirrels.  It had shaded our house.  And it had sequestered literally tons of carbon.*

Sadly, the story gets worse.  After the limbs were removed and after dismemberment of the trunk had begun, we learned that the tree had not suffered insect damage.  It was perfectly healthy.

We had committed arborcide in the first degree.

I intend no humor here.

When I was a child, I was taught in school that only humans could communicate or had feelings, that all other animals operated by instinct alone.  Plants were not even worthy of mention.  Of course, we have learned that our ideas about other animals have been all wrong.  Many have elaborate systems of communication.  But that is a topic for another time.

Lately, I have been learning about trees, about how they live in communities and, while they don’t have what we would recognize as brains, communicate through soil fungi, sharing nutrients and warning one another of insect attacks.** After reading The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben) and The Overstory (Richard Powers), I felt even more anguish about the removal of our tree.

And then there is this.  I fear we have started a movement.  Our next-door neighbors decided to have one of their Doug firs removed along with ours because its roots were pushing up their patio.  And right now, I am listening to the sound of chain saws as another neighbor has three Doug firs removed because the trees drop sap and needles on their cars.

I can hardly bear to watch.  I am so sad.

  

As you can see, many trees remain.  But each one taken down is a huge loss.  A loss for the creatures that made it their home.  A loss for our senses.  A loss for a planet that struggles to keep its air clean.

Each leaves a hole in the sky.

I hope the rest of my neighbors will safeguard their Doug firs better than we did (if only we had gotten a second opinion), and that we will all learn to appreciate and protect our oldest trees, to see them as fellow beings and not as inconveniences.  If we do not, I fear the world we leave to our children will be a poorer and more polluted one.

https://www.climatesolutions.org/article/mature-trees-are-biocarbon-heavyweights

**  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

I CURSE YOU MICROSOFT

A while back, I heard someone on the radio talking about what she called “shadow work.”  She used this term to describe the unpaid hours we spend on work that someone else should be doing for us.

As an example she mentioned vacation planning, lamenting the loss of travel agents who used to do this for us.  Now we spend hours squinting at our computer screens, trying to put together the "best deal" for our next trip. 

Yesterday I spent 3 hours on shadow work of a different kind.  Today I spent 40 minutes.  All of this on the phone with Microsoft to try to resolve an issue with Word.

I won’t bore you with the nature of the problem.  I will share that it took me nearly an hour of answering questions from a robot, pushing various numbers on my phone, listening to horrible tinny music and messages suggesting I look for my answer online, to get a message telling me a human would call me in 20 minutes.  (Of course, I had already tried to find the answer up online – why did they think I was calling?!)

When, after more than 20 minutes, I got the call back, I first answered more robot questions, then was handed over to a human who asked the same questions AGAIN, then put me on hold (where I waited through more horrible tinny music and suggestions that I look up my answer online), while I was transferred to another human because the first human dealt only with Windows and I have a Mac.  

After the second human repeated the same questions, I, holding my phone to my ear attempted to keep up with his instructions using one hand, then switched to holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder – not easy to do with a cell phone.  Eventually, I allowed him to commandeer my mouse so he could fix the problem.  After he uninstalled Office and sold me a new version, we waited for the purchase to download.  When a message said download would take 40 minutes, I agreed he could tell me what to do when the download was complete, and we both got off the phone

By now two more hours had elapsed. 

When the download was complete, I followed the instructions the second human had given.  

Alas, when I opened Word, MY PROBLEM HAD NOT BEEN RESOLVED. *

I wanted to weep.  Or scream.  

I did neither.  I called a friend and vented, then took an Epsom salt bath (the phone-holding with the shoulder having left me with a sore neck and back). I lay in the tub fondly remembering my electric typewriter, which had never demanded more of me than a new ribbon.  And then I remembered carbon paper and Wite-Out, and had to acknowledge that word processing was a life changer.

I called Microsoft again this morning – this time I knew which buttons to push to get a human, but I still got a Windows human and had to be transferred to a Mac human and I still had to answer robot questions and the same questions from each human.  

Doesn’t anyone take notes?

By the time I got to human number two, I was just the teensiest bit testy.  My mood was not improved by the fact that I could barely hear her over the voices of the other phone helpers, one of whom was talk/yelling so loudly that I wondered why he needed a phone. 

I am sorry to say I was not nice.  I am not proud of the version of myself I showed to her.  I know none of this was her problem, but a person can just take so much.

I am happy to say she solved my problem.  I am sorry to say it took another 40 minutes.  

Each human was very nice.  Each was so sorry for my inconvenience.  Each kindly told me I was entitled to free tech support any time I need it.  

Seriously?  

If it’s going to take 3 hours and 40 minutes of telephone torture for them to resolve a tech problem, I want more than free tech support.  

I want house calls.  

I want to be reimbursed for my time.

I want a gift certificate for a massage to ease my tensed up shoulders and neck.

I want phone trees to be outlawed.

I want to put Bill Gates in a room and make him listen to Microsoft’s robot voice repeating the same message over and over and over again – with an occasional break for horrible music.  

Look, I know Microsoft isn't the only culprit.  But it was the culprit yesterday and today, so it gets my wrath.

I'm on to you companies that use phone trees.  I know you know that phone trees and long wait times and robot voices are crazy-making.  I know you know you don't have enough people to answer your phones and don't intend to hire more.  I know you are hoping I will get so frustrated that I will go away and live with my problem. 

Shame on you!

I also know this is a First World problem.  I know I am lucky to have a computer and a house to keep it in and a cell phone with which to seek technical support.  The thing is, I live in the First World and, in order to function well here and do what I do, which includes a lot of writing, I need word processing.  And it shouldn’t take nearly 4 hours of my time for Microsoft to fix, or help me to install, its product.  

Thank you for taking the time to read this rant.  I am sure you all have stories of your own.  I’d like to hear them.  

Misery loves company.  



* I don't blame the underpaid human.  He could only do so much over the phone.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

FIRE AND RAIN; On Time Travel and Sombreros

           So, you’re going about your business, happy or not--thinking of something important or nothing at all.  And then it happens--the chance playing of a song that absolutely shreds you.  If you have been alive for, say, four decades, you have been around for long enough to know what I am talking about--the sudden intrusion of the past into your present.  The unbidden, unexpected injection of a powerful past emotion into your current life, bringing about a moment so charged you can hardly breathe.  
         This is not nostalgia, which my dictionary defines as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”  Nor is it to be confused with the purposeful playing of a song to bring back fond memories.  
         No.  There is no longing here.  No volition.  It is not an attempt to bring back the past.  It is the past breaking through—not a wrinkle in time, but the rending of time        
         Anyone who says there’s no such thing as time travel is simply too young to have experienced this phenomenon.  For me, today, it was James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.   February 1970.  For those too young to remember, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOIo4lEpsPY  
         I wish I could tell you why this song.  Why today.  I have loved James Taylor since I first heard him, and have loved this song, with its melancholy wistfulness, in particular.  The lyrics have always been evocative, and they mean even more to me now (at an age where the losses are piling up) than they did in 1970.  Still, I would not have predicted that the song would have the effect it had when I chanced to hear it today.  
         This wasn’t a reaction to the lyrics; this was me transported. This, from the first few notes, was me momentarily inhabiting my 20-year-old body and psyche, feeling a set of emotions I haven’t felt with precisely this sharpness in decades.  Of course, I have known fire and rain; there have been plenty of highs and lows.  But there is a quality of emotion that can only be felt by the very young when the world is new and everything is before them.  This was me at 20 again, if only for a moment.
         So, was the moment a blessing or a curse?  Maybe it was neither.  Maybe it was simply a glimpse at the nonlinearity of time; maybe it suggests that time runs in loops, rather than a straight line. 
         I’d like to think so. 
         The older I get, the less interested I am in straight lines and the more open I am to curves and loops and waves.  After all, there are few straight lines in nature; so, why should time hew to the linearity of our calendars?
         The poet Wallace Stevens understood the limitations of right angles and straight lines.  He had this to say:

         Rationalists, wearing square hats,
         Think, in square rooms,
         Looking at the floor,
         Looking at the ceiling.
         They confine themselves
         To right-angled triangles.
         If they tried rhomoids,
         Cones, waving lines, ellipses—
         As for example, the ellipse of the half-moon—
         Rationalists would wear sombreros.
         
         And so I leave you with this wish:  May your sombreros be wide and round, and may your past break through just often enough to work some gentle curves into your straight lines. 
                           

 



         
          
         

Saturday, August 17, 2019

PLEASE, GO AWAY (but not too far): CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET INTROVERT

“But you’re not an introvert.”

That is a common response when I tell someone I am an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs personality index.  (The "I," for those of you who don’t speak Myers-Briggs, stands for “introvert.’)

Well, yes, I am.  An introvert, that is. 

Here is how I confuse people (and myself at times). I am not shy.  (Well sometimes).  I am not reserved.  I have been called intense more times than I care to remember, and my interactions are rarely casual or superficial.  

So why do I, supported by Myers-Briggs, call myself an introvert?

If you do a Google search for the word “introvert,” you will find lists of characteristics, some of which I share, others of which I do not.  (All introverts are not cut from the same cloth.) Here is my basic definition:  An introvert retreats in order to recharge.  By contrast, an extrovert recharges by engaging with others. 

So, even though I thrive on engaging with those who are important to me and pop out of my hole regularly to do so--perhaps giving some the impression of extroversion, I then need to retreat into my hole in order to recharge.  And my need to retreat can be sudden.  It may even appear rude at times.  I will be happily engaged, and suddenly it is as if a switch has been flipped.  I have no more engagement in me.  

Marjorie has left the building.

I did not always self-identify as an introvert. It took me a long time to understand that I like to spend time alone, never mind that I need to spend time alone.  In my twenties, spending time alone was scary, even excruciating at times. It was not that I believed myself to be an extrovert; it was just that I did not know how be alone.  I had no real sense of myself or what was important to me, so how could I enjoy my own company?  Did spending time alone mean I was unlovable? If I didn’t make plans for the weekend, would anyone call?  And what if the alone time lasted forever?  

And then, slowly, I began to trust my alone time, to like it even.  I remember one of the first occasions when I noticed that I was really enjoying being alone. It was during a weekend away with friends when I was in my early thirties. I stayed back, while the others went off to do something and was surprised to find myself thinking, I like this.  

As the years went by, I liked being alone more and more, and, not surprisingly, when my kids came along, I found myself craving alone time, seeking out those few moments during the day when I could hear myself think.  

Now, decades after the days when being alone was scary, I have reached a point where I recognize that I feel un-centered, exhausted, and out-of-sorts if I do not spend time alone.  My task now is to figure out how to carve out such time in a life filled with beloved and interesting people and activities.  (After nearly six years of retirement, I still have to remind myself that if I say yes to everything that sounds attractive, I will wind up with a full calendar and a grumpy mood.)

Mind you, I do not want to be alone all of the time. I acknowledge that I am able to enjoy my alone time precisely because it is bracketed by time with my husband, children, friends, and extended family.  I have lived for long enough to be held in a network of loved ones. So, when I go into retreat mode, I have the luxury of knowing that my people are going about their business outside my zone of silence, and when I am recharged, I can reconnect.

I am so grateful to all of those who keep the world turning each time I step back and I am grateful to have lived long enough to be able to appreciate both the gifts of time alone and time with those who are walking through this life with me.  And if I get the balance wrong at times, and need to suddenly disappear for a while, I am grateful for the understanding of those who love me.  

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Saturday, June 15, 2019

TODAY WE (BELATEDLY) BURIED MY MOTHER

Today we buried my mother's ashes.

They had been sitting in a closet for over five years.  Every once in a while, I would be rummaging through the closet and would come across the black velveteen bag containing the box containing her ashes.  I was always surprised.  Dang.  Mom's ashes.  I would quickly shove the box to the back of the closet and shut the door.

What was I supposed to do with her ashes?   What was I supposed to do with her?  I asked my brothers.  They had no ideas.  

Those of you who follow this blog (thank you) know that my relationship with my mother was fraught, and that my feelings about her have softened since her death.   See:  https://woacanotes.blogspot.com/2017/12/today-i-missed-my-mother.html  Now that she is gone, I am no longer holding my breath or biting my tongue.  I have released my longing for a mother with whom I could talk, with whom I could feel ease.  I know that she did the best that she could.  And so did I.

Still, there was the issue of the ashes.  

Even if the relationship hadn't been fraught, what do you do with the ashes of a person who has lived in three countries on two continents?  A few months back, I tried to write about it:

For five years
your ashes
have lain in their box
nested in a velvet bag.

For five years
I have passed 
With unseeing eyes
The closet where they rest.

But recently, occasionally,
I have felt their restlessness,
their desire to be set free
from the smothering clothes
that hang above.

Where do they belong, these remnants
of you that are not you at all?
In Scotland where you began?
The place you ever turned your face
with eyes of longing.

In Canada where you spent your
days as a young mother?
In New Jersey where you birthed
a second son and raised us all?

In Florida where you warmed your
Jersey-chilled bones?
Or here
in the Pacific Northwest
where you spent your final years?

Where were you happy?
Were you ever truly happy
once you education was cut short
so that you might enter the world of work?
Are you free now of
the losses and resentments
that haunted you?

Will you be happy with your 
ashes in a local stream ?
Will anywhere do? 
Or must I travel
to the land of your origin,
the place of your happy girlhood,
to set things right for you?

In the end, I decided that a local stream would have to do.  I needed to get her out of the closet.  So, I made a plan with my daughters and their father (who was kindness itself to my mother) and my husband.  We would go to a local forest and spread the ashes in or near a stream.  We chose a date and a rendezvous place.

And then, last night, on the eve of the planned ash spreading, I knew that this plan wasn’t right. The place would be too public.  It had nothing to do with my mother.  I was thinking about the fact that my cousin Judy had recently buried my Aunt Pat’s ashes in my aunt’s garden.  A lovely idea, but my mother had resided in an assisted living facility for the 12 years before her death.  She didn't have a garden.  

It was coming on toward 9 p.m.  Too late to change the plan.  I was tired and trying to finish defrosting the freezer by whacking at the ice with a hammer – seven hours is long enough to wait – right?   As I banged away, the idea wouldn’t leave me. We didn’t need to go to a public place; we could bury the ashes in my garden. 


And so I called the others and changed the plan. This morning, my husband arose early and dug a hole.  I, at the suggestion of Anne, my eldest, made a quick trip to a nursery to buy a plant. I came home with a spirea and (of course) a couple of heather starts.

It was a cloudy and unseasonably chilly morning.  We gathered next to the place where Bill had dug, and took turns pouring ashes into the hole.  (I kept back a small portion of the ashes to take to Scotland in September.)  Roger, my ex—father of my mother’s granddaughters, offered us each a “wee dram” of scotch from the cap of the whiskey bottle he had brought with him.  Mara, my youngest, placed the plants.  

I read Rabbie Burns’ My Heart’s in the Highlands, and it all felt just right.

We dispersed – Anne and Mara going off with their dad for a Father’s Day lunch, Bill and I heading out for lunch ourselves. It wasn’t quite time to resume the day’s activities.

I felt and feel at peace now that my mother’s ashes are out of the closet and in the ground.  

I hope that you are at peace, as well, Mom.  I pray that your soul is flying free over the highlands.