STORY POWER 2016: from experience to story and back again

This is an experience, it became a story. It also became a new approach to my New Year goal.

Last Saturday morning I woke up shivering under three layers of blankets. A cold sweat created a breeze under the covers. My icy feet reached out for a warm spot under my husband’s leg. He didn’t move. He didn’t take the hint that there was a problem. Finally, I dragged myself out of bed and checked the thermostat. The outside temperature was 13 degrees, the thermostat was set for 71 degrees, but the actual temperature in the house was 65. It’s a big house. Our bedroom hangs out over open air above a patio. Our room was even colder than what registered on the thermostat. It took a few seconds for me to wake up and face the fact that the furnace was not working.

I shook off nightmares of frozen pipes and expensive emergency calls to a repairman. If we had to, we could turn all faucets to drip and go to my son, Dan’s, house. Ralph continued in deep sleep. He had been fighting a sinus infection and I hated to wake him. “O.K. I’m an intelligent person. It’s not my area of expertise but I can do something about this. I don’t need my husband to rescue me.”

First thing:  do we have fuel getting to the house from the buried propane tank under our lawn? It was possible that the line was frozen. We live in a somewhat remote subdivision which is not connected to a natural gas utility. It was also possible, though unlikely, that Suburban Propane had failed to top off the tank in the fall as contracted. “Ah, yes, I can check for supply line problems and warm up the bedroom and living room by turning on the two fireplaces.” Sure enough, they both worked, and warmed me up in minutes. We wouldn’t have to flee the house anytime soon.

Next: Hooray! Ralph woke up and started trouble shooting. Our HVAC is no ordinary forced air system similar to what we’ve had in the past. It’s a high-end sophisticated heat pump system. For the last three winters, that system has worked and we didn’t worry about understanding it even though we had questions. Now we had to get answers. The complex thermostat was sending messages that were completely foreign to us. After a couple of hours of Ralph scratching his head, I realized that the mystery wasn’t getting solved. The body language, the muttering to himself, telegraphed “Don’t leave me alone with this one.”  Neither of us had the energy to take on the task. But I had a little more than he did. I opened my laptop and started searching the internet.

What is aux. heat? What is E-heat. Why does the heat pump keep turning off. What kind of auxiliary heat do we have? Electric or propane. After a half hour of study, I felt that I had a grip on how it all worked.

Here’s a basic outline. A heat pump is an energy efficient way to cool and heat a house. It moves heat from one place to another rather than producing heat. However when outdoor temperatures become too cold for the system to keep up, then the heat pump calls on an auxiliary source to take over heating. The aux heat kicks in automatically as needed to supplement a lagging heat pump overly taxed by below freezing temperatures. In some homes those heat sources are electric, in some they are fuel burning: natural gas or propane or oil.  E-heat (emergency heat) is a setting you can choose to use if your heat pump breaks down or if you want to feel toastier air flowing out of your vents. A heat pump doesn’t produce a hot blast of air from the vents. It maintains a comfortable balance as it draws air from outside and extracts heat for heating and cooling.

We managed to keep our house warm over the weekend by babying our system and using the fireplaces. On Tuesday, we called in an expert. By this time, we knew a few things that he didn’t. We knew we had a propane furnace and a heat pump. We knew we had a complex electronic control panel. We didn’t know how to get these components back on track. The tech explained that our propane furnace is the auxiliary/emergency heat and that the malfunction was in the propane furnace, not the heat pump. Water was dripping from a vent pipe leading from the furnace burners up to the roof. Once the dripping water was blocked by a piece of sheet metal the system fired up. No new parts necessary. Once the snow on the roof melts we will check the vent chimney for damage. We now understand how that system works and where things can go wrong. It’s no longer scary. I am more fully acquainted with the living breathing house-creature that I live in. Dispelling my ignorance empowers me and removes fears.

And that is my story for this week. A story that gave me a novel idea for my New Year’s goal. I am going to create new experiences for myself by studying and becoming more acquainted with one subject every month. I will take my experience with those subjects and share them as stories. Stories I hope that will empower me and those that I share them with.

A story is never just a story. Experiences become stories when we mine them for knowledge, insight, and wisdom and then share them. Other people’s stories become our experiences giving us greater empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge.  We don’t always have to tell someone “here is the moral of the story.”  Many stories are better simply relayed without spelling out the message. But there will always be a message even if it isn’t the one the author supposed.

This year, I want to save and share stories: small, simple, and hopefully enjoyable.

Advertisements

SMALL MIRACLES: a Christmas story

“Mark, quit playing Jingle Bells on the glasses!  This is probably the last meal you’ll have for awhile so you better make sure you don’t spill it all over.” Sharon grabbed a tottering glass of milk just in time to avert disaster.

Another expectation dying in a moment of painful reality. Five-year-old Mark, usually so self-contained and polite, would pick this moment to be a normal, fidgety boy. He really didn’t deserve her abrupt scolding. She sighed wearily, fighting a wave of  misery.

Mark dropped his spoon. It clanged on the floor adding to the din of dishes clattering and cheerful  conversations competing with jazzed up Christmas music. Sharon scanned the buzzing dining area, her Christmas hopes fading:  the smell of baking cookies, sitting by the fire sipping cocoa, peaceful carols from an old phonograph filling her parent’s living room with magic. Certainty. Security.

Their waitress, Jen, breezed by setting a paper cup full of crayons and three  kiddie placemats on the table. She refilled their water glasses then reached down and stroked the baby’s white-blond hair and cooed, “Oh, she’s such a doll, what’s her name?”

 “Actually, his name is Michael.  We just can’t bring ourselves to cut off his beautiful curls.” Sharon pulled the high chair closer to the table to get it out of the way of the restaurant traffic.  “Wouldn’t you know,” Sharon thought. “They would seat us right by the kitchen.”

Sharon fingered three wrinkled ten dollar bills and some change in her coat pocket.  It was the last of their money.  One more big meal then they’d have to wait until they were paid at the end of the haul. Steve was at this moment picking up a load at a nearby freight center. Between now and then it would be crackers and cheese and the last few cans of  juice and formula they had in the truck.

 They spent the last week living out of the cab of their semi-truck.  Three kids and two adults traveling across the country looking for better trucking jobs. Steve’s cousin said there was plenty of work out of Denver.  They sold everything they could, packed the rest in the truck, and departed Greensboro just in time to leave family, friends, and everything familiar behind at Christmas time. They had engine trouble a few miles east of  St. Louis.  Nothing on a big rig can be fixed without spending gobs of cash. They parted with most of their savings at a Truck Center, Inc in Illinois.  Steve finally landed a contract with a distributor in Aurora. He dropped Sharon and the three children off for breakfast while he met up with the load broker.

 Andy’s Hometown Grill was a combination of fifties diner and 90’s remodeled restaurant kitsch. Shiny green garlands with red bows hung from the dining room partitions. A miniature lighted Christmas village lined the booth walls and giant silver snowflakes glistened in the windows.  Outside a thin dusting of snow began to fall.

 “Well, at least we’ll have a white Christmas,” Sharon grumbled

 “I want Daddy!” wailed three-year-old Rachel.

Then all Sharon’s efforts to rescue it failed as Rachel’s fist crashed down on her glass of milk. Creamy liquid spread across the paper placemats, under the silverware, and dripped down the edge of the table.  Sharon grabbed a handful of napkins and threw them on the growing puddle. She felt as if the whole diner full of people was staring at her unruly brood. She was dead tired and famished.  “Where was their food?”

As if she had heard Sharon’s mental scream, Jen came out of the kitchen carrying a huge tray of platters. She balanced the tray on the edge of the table while Sharon finished mopping up the milk. Then the waitress briskly set the table with plates of crisp bacon, steaming hash browns, scrambled eggs, and piles of fragrant pancakes with syrup.  Sharon quickly arranged the food in front of the children. Pacified by a mouthful of pancake soaked in syrup, Rachel stopped whimpering.  Mark commandeered more than his fair share of bacon. Sharon felt short three or four arms as she tried to serve, feed and keep disaster at bay.  Finally, with everyone satisfied and quietly stuffing their mouths, Sharon turned her attention to her own plate. She had just swallowed a couple of heavenly bites when Steve burst through the restaurant door and crossed the room with hurried strides.

 “Daddy!” cried Rachel, reaching her arms up to greet him.

 “Give me the thirty dollars.”  His tone left no doubt that he was dead serious.

 Sharon reached into her pocket and grasped the moist bills protectively.  “You have got to be kidding!  We’re eating already.  How will I pay for all this?”

 Steve’s tone softened slightly, “Look, they won’t load the truck until I pay for some kind of loading permit. The permit costs thirty dollars. They won’t wait for the money until I get paid at the other end. No permit, no job, no income.  There’s nothing I can do about it. As soon as I get the truck loaded, I’ll come back here and we’ll figure out something. I don’t see that I have any other choice and I’ve got to hurry back or we’ll lose the contract.”

Sharon reluctantly drew the money out of her pocket and handed it to Steve.  Without a word he spun on his boot heels and was gone. She could hear the roar of the semi truck’s engine as he pulled the oversized beast out of the parking lot.  

Originally, she planned to take the children across the street to the mall after they finished eating. They were going to window shop to kill time until Steve met them at Santa’s Village near the main entrance. Now, she would have to keep the children entertained right here at the table for a couple of hours. And how would they pay?  Could you really wash dishes to pay for a meal? They had been through lean times before but never this close to the edge. She felt thoroughly humiliated:  noisy children, spilled milk, and now completely broke.  She tried to eat but her appetite had vanished.  

“Here, Mark, you can have my bacon.” Sharon slid her plate over.

 “Mommy, what’s going to happen?” Mark looked pale and worried.  It hadn’t occurred to Sharon that he might understand what was going on, that her five-year-old son tuned into the conversation. Suddenly her distress about paying for the meal evaporated. It was the anxiety in Mark’s sweet face that concerned her most.

 “Mark, help me get the baby and Rachel fed. I’ll have Jen bring us some new placemats and we’ll keep busy coloring and eating until Daddy gets back.  And Mark, maybe you could say a little silent prayer to help us stay calm.  Everything will be all right, I promise.”

 “Just great, now I’ve made this a test of my son’s faith,” she thought, bitterly.  She was playing a risky game with God.  “Hey, if I’m not good enough for your help, my little son’s faith is on the line here.”

 She suddenly felt too tired to worry anymore. She scooped Mark into her arms and hugged him tight. “Just keep busy. We’ll take this one minute at a time.”

 She looked over at the baby.  Scrambled eggs covered his face.  His eyes drooped and his head nodded.  Sharon spread a quilt on the booth seat.  She gently cleaned Michael’s face then pulled him out of the high chair and wrapped him in the quilt.“One blessing already, he will nap for at least an hour.”

Mark and Rachel continued eating quietly. Sharon decided she may as well enjoy some hash browns and orange juice after all.  It cheered her immensely to have the baby asleep and the other two children settled down. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them now that their noise had subsided.

 “Look, Mommy,” Mark nudged her harm.  “I drew a picture of Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  See here’s Grandpa sitting by the fire and there’s Grandma decorating the Christmas tree.”  Sharon nodded absently.   Her mind was caught up in memories of Christmas back home. The kind of Christmas she wanted to giver her children. Whatever had possessed them to take off  like this?  It had seemed like a great opportunity to get their trucking business going, an adventure even.  But now it seemed more like a disaster. Back and forth her thoughts flew.

“Stop. What’s done is done.  I’ll go crazy rehashing what can’t be changed.”

 She took a deep breath and blew it out.  Their plates were just about empty.  Rachel stuffed the last of her pancake in her mouth, stretched out on the seat, and put her head in Sharon’s lap.  Sharon covered her with a coat. She glanced out the window. The snow had changed to large soft flakes. The breakfast rush was over and the dining room was quiet. Another blessing: they won’t be unhappy with us for taking up valuable space.

Just then, Jen swept out of the kitchen and up to their table with another tray.  She began setting out three large mugs of hot chocolate topped with tall swirls of whipped cream.

“Wait, I didn’t order these.”  Sharon protested.  “I really can’t pay for them . . . “ she said. “Or any of it.”

“No problem, don’t worry about it.”  Jen broke in.  “Look outside, right out front. See the white-haired couple getting into that red pick-up.  When they paid for their breakfast, they paid for yours and threw in the hot chocolate, some sandwiches, and a dozen donuts to go.  They said to tell you it’s an early Christmas present.”

Sharon watched as the red truck pulled out onto the snow-covered highway and disappeared into the storm.  For a moment, she felt a twinge of discomfort; embarrassment that someone had noticed them and their problems. She hadn’t dared wish for or expect anything like this. She felt a surge of gratitude wash over her. A miracle for her little family. In an instant, the anxiety that coursed through her body transformed into joyful relief. A miracle for her little family. “Thank you,” she whispered out loud.

“Mommy,” said Mark.  Can I drink my hot chocolate?  I already said a thank-you prayer.”

“Yes,” said Sharon, still gazing out at the falling snow.  “Yes, Mark, you can drink your hot chocolate now.

 

THE ENDLESS GRIP

Certainly you have experienced this feeling. If you are human, if you are equipped with a searching and hungry ego (and even if you think you aren’t– but then you’d be lying to yourself). Surely, if you have lived in society and not in a monastery your whole life, you have been discomfited in this way. An irritating seed of ambition niggles at your psyche like a raspberry pip in your teeth which your tongue can’t leave alone. This sprouting ambition, nebulous, nameless at first, doesn’t have a specific target, just the desire to achieve something not just remarkable but unlikely. Spurning more natural, inborn talents, this naive seed of ego casts about for a more remote even impossible option for greatness: an Everest, an Olympic Medal, or perhaps just breaking 100 in the game of golf.

In the summer of 2008, after a battle with cancer, as I labored to regain my physical strength, and vent the fighting spirit that cancer engenders, my husband, Ralph, took me golfing at Palmer Golf Course, Palmer Alaska. Strangely, in spite of the briefest of seasons for lush fairways and velvet putting greens, golf is a highly popular pastime in Alaska. According to the sales person who ushered me through the aisles of tees, gloves, hats, and golf shoes one Saturday, the Sports Authority in Anchorage is one of the chain’s highest sellers of golf equipment. With the long summer hours of daylight, Alaskans have the luxury of tee times well into the evening hours.

In pictures of those first few rounds, I look gaunt, slightly hunched over, a bundle of skin and bones sitting in the golf cart pretty much just along for the ride. As the summer progressed, the game got into my blood along with the strength to walk a full 18 holes. I would describe myself as a singer, a dancer, an artist, not the athletic type. But that all changed that year as I plowed my way through round after round at 14 strokes (or more) per hole.

I didn’t suspect the transformation that golf would ultimately demand. This is not just a sport. It is a mental breakdown in slow motion, round after round. The seed of my golfing ambition planted itself firmly as I looked forward with enthusiasm to punishing myself mercilessly on the course along the banks of the Matanuska River. Thorny emotions got tangled with the mechanics of the swing. Prickly weeds of confusion ran riot over the tender skills of chipping, putting, and keeping track of way too many strokes. My voice, made husky by radiation, succumbed to fertile expletives which had never before passed my lips. But given one terrific drive and a handful of well-struck putts and the strangling vines of frustration dropped away. I would leave the course happy and hopeful.

In the summer of 2011, my husband signed us up to play in a Cancer Society fundraiser best-ball tournament. This was a graduation day of sorts for me. I was healthier and stronger. The florid scars of cancer treatment had faded. The energy of my cancer battle had fully transferred to my improbable crusade to golf well. I am not competitive. I am profoundly self-conscious. I prefer not to have anyone see my pitiful golfing skills. Nevertheless, there I was playing in a tournament with veteran seekers of par. Ralph and I arrived at our shotgun starting hole before any other teams. I stanched my fear of being watched by jumping to the tee first. I planted my feet solidly and hit the ball with a satisfying ping. A well-timed rush of adrenaline sent my drive sailing high, straight, and long right down the middle of the fairway into the face of Pioneer Peak. My husband’s drive duck-hooked into the woods along the river. The other two men on our team sliced their drives into a grove of birch and highbush cranberry. My drive was the best ball. I marched proudly down the fairway to hit my second shot. I was captivated. I was also completely ignorant of the fact that my progress in the game up to that point was an illusion; a combination of tenacious will and pure naive luck.

In 2012, we moved to the Boise, Idaho area which is blessed with a wide array of golf courses from the mediocre to the deluxe. We bought a pass to River Birch Golf Course, a friendly and mildly challenging course with wide fairways and refreshing views. With the encouragement of our real estate agent, I joined the Boise chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. At the opening chapter event of the 2013 season, the veil of my Alaskan golfing experience was stripped from my eyes. These women could really golf. They outdistanced my childish strokes by dozens of yards. I was in way over my head. By the end of that summer season, I was both frustrated to the point of nervous exhaustion, and still, even more serious about the game. Golf is a game of inches, not yards; of delicate body placement, not just crudely wrangled clubhead speed. Both the mechanics and the mindset require a humble assessment of things you thought you knew, and things you never supposed about who you are.

I dragged out every back issue of Golf magazine we owned and studied like a freshman hungry to get on the dean’s list. I developed a taste for viewing golf tournaments on television, which my childhood self would have found stupefyingly boring. I jealously examined the techniques of my fellow players. I drooled as I watched 11-year-old, 100 pound, Lucy Li’s 250-yard drives. It finally dawned on my brain, clear as the sunrise over the ball choked ponds at River Birch Golf Course: the golf swing is not about thousands of infinitesimal golf tips and the minutiae of equipment specs.

The golf swing is raw physics. The right movement of the body, in the right space, with the right rhythm, at the right pace. Grasp that firmly first.  Only then can you manage to keep the physics clean AND increase clubhead speed with the whipping action of the club. Swing with your body, not your arms. My mind was blown. Everything I had been doing to improve my game was all wrong. Just a random set of categorically unrepeatable actions.

My epiphany about the physics of the golf swing focused my attention on the science behind how my body should move. However, my mental state was as out of sync as my motions. I was too tightly wound. My heart raced. My thoughts shot about wildly resembling the wayward hooks, and slices of a crowded driving range. My hands gripped the club like it was the edge of a capsizing canoe sinking in a deep water hazard. I would run from ball position to ball position as if an Alaskan grizzly was chasing me. Quite simply my head was not in the game.

A bit of luck gave me the opportunity to attend a seminar on irons by a well known Boise golf pro. This man is the embodiment of ease and grace. He languidly moves through the golf swing with relaxed focus. His first instruction:  make no exclamations of dismay for bad hits and applaud every good one. His second instruction: never go out on the driving range and feverishly hit ball after ball after ball getting more and wound up and out of breath with every stroke. He encouraged hitting four or five balls, then stepping back to rest, slow down, and establish peace of mind.

The swing is physics, the mindset is calm. The pros don’t jog from position to position as if they are in a race with their opponent. They saunter. When tempers flare, they quickly shake off their nerves and irritations or they lose. The LPGA pros are even more collected.

No more racing, no more ranting, no more unwelcome worries on the course. Play one stroke at a time with full attention. This is the ultimate triumph of my crusade to break 100. I am fascinated by the physics of golf, but more importantly, the game has changed my inner life. I am learning to saunter, to slow my heart, to shake off anxieties, to move away from my ego. My golf ambition propelled me into a new phase of self-discovery: the peace of mindfulness, the endless grip of now.

 

 

Body Surfing, Birth, and Death

My father taught me to never turn my back on a wave. Dive under, jump over, ride a wave until the water is so shallow that you skin your knees. Still, never turn your back on a wave.

When I was six, my family moved to Palos Verdes, California. Several beaches were within a thirty-minute drive from our home. We tried many of them—Cabrillo, Hermosa, Lunada Bay, Redondo Beach—until we found the best one for swimming. The best beach had easy access from the street, showers that wouldn’t take the skin off with the sand, and the shore sloped gently into the water. Our favorite spot was Avenue I, Redondo Beach. Apartment buildings towered above steep pedestrian ramps that funneled the crowds onto the beach. The tang of sea spray mixed with the scent of tanning lotion, sun-baked bodies, and the ubiquitous fragrance of ice plant.

My first visit to the beach became a game of “keep-away”—keep away from Daddy so that I could keep away from the water. When he finally caught me, my dad convinced me to at least get my feet wet. He took my hand and we jumped over the frothy edge of each breaker as it came ashore and sizzled over the scorched sand. We ran toward the sea as it retreated and then turned back to keep the incoming wave from tagging us. Eventually, I was waist-deep in the foaming green water, my skin slick and gritty with salt and sand. My father’s clever method having dissolved my fears in the pleasures of surf and sand.

The waves at our beach attracted avid surfers. Flagged areas separated the surfboarders from the swimmers. Surfboards were longer and heavier back then. A loose board driven by the surf could be lethal. Body surfers beware.

I was ten years old when I first learned how to bodysurf. I first had to overcome my anxiety over strange creatures lurking beneath the surface. My friends and I would exchange horror stories about jellyfish and sharks. We dug for tiny sand crabs that could be found swimming in the mud underneath our sandcastles. We corralled dozens of harmless sand crabs. Never was there seen a shark, and only once did we see a jellyfish washed ashore, helpless in a tangle of seaweed.

I began to venture further and further into the water, throwing my body against the crashing waves. Later, I learned to conserve energy by diving below the breakers. While floating in the swells, waiting for the right wave, I searched the seafloor with my feet hoping for the telltale bump of a sand dollar to dig up with my toes. Some would still be alive, a velvety purple, others were empty shells blanched white, a delicate flower design etched on the porcelain surface.

Catching a wave and riding all the way to shore takes patience and precise timing. I watched each swell for the perfect moment to turn and then swim furiously toward the shore; hoping to catch the curl at just the right point to avoid either a disappointing floater, or terrifying pounding when caught in the crashing foam.

“Here it comes, wait…wait…now…swim.”

The wave would lift and carry me along its crest. The churning water suspending my body and then propelling me onto the beach. The power of the wave was, for a brief moment, mine.

That power would serve me a decade later when I gave birth to my first child. As the due date approached, I tried to imagine what childbirth would be like. I watched fearfully and joyfully for the first signs of labor. Once the contractions started in earnest, my anticipation and dread were replaced with carefully practiced and conditioned responses. Relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe. Cleansing breath, deep chest breathing, up a gradual curve over the top and down the slope…cleansing breath. Then early labor slipped away and I struggled to manage the swelling tsunami wracking my body.

A machine tethered to my belly registered the onset and shape of each contraction. But I felt them first: an almost imperceptible flutter of discomfort, then tightness across the top of my inflated uterus pushing down, cramping around the bottleneck of the cervix pulling up, thinning, dilating and gripping with a saw-toothed steel band of pain. The rhythmic surges pressed from the diaphragm, advanced down the belly, marched through the intestines, and strained open and out through the upside-down mouth of the volcano of my uterus.

I had forgotten to bring an object or picture to use as a focal point to enhance my concentration, to help keep my mind from wandering into panic. But a powerful focal point came to me, one ingrained in the memory of muscle and bone. Each contraction must be prepared for, watched for, caught at the right moment and ridden like a wave . . .

“Bobbing lightly on the water, my body is supported and relaxed by the surface of the ocean. I am lifted up, then dropped back on my feet by the wind-driven swells. A ripe swell rises, sucking water, building an overpowering green glass wall. Along the top a white ruffle emerges, the wall bends and its smooth curl spills into the pull of the earth. Swim too soon and you float over the top. Swim too late and the wave swallows and wrings you out. Be patient, wait…wait… now turn and swim. The wave pulls me into its roots and propels me up and forward, foam churning around my ears. The ride ends as the wave spreads across the sand, shallow, spent…as I am spent, but the baby is finally here. And the power of the wave is mine.”

When I was eight, we visited friends in El Segundo where beaches are surrounded by rocking oil pumps and blasted by jet traffic from Los Angeles International Airport. We went to a beach called Playa Del Rey. It sounded like “a place to play.” While the adults set out the picnic, I wandered down to the water. With a bucket and shovel, I molded sandcastle turrets, dug a moat, and watched it fill with foaming seawater. Grimy from sand, I splashed and kicked further and further into the water. The tide gradually drew me twenty yards north of the picnic area.

As turned toward the shore to locate my family, I turned my back to an oncoming breaker. The heedless wave knocked me to my knees and then the ocean-bound water grabbed my skinny ankles and sucked me further and further out. Undertow. Riptide. Those words summon a picture in my mind of my father running down the beach into the water, my arms futilely extended to him, my legs too weak to escape the siphon pulling me down the slope into the mouth of the sea.

Before my father could reach me, another breaker rolled me over and over like a pebble in a rock polisher. I couldn’t tell where up was through the turbulent sand and water. Where was air? Desperate for breath clenched my mouth tightly trying to stave off the blackness that engulfed me. Finally, Daddy yanked me out of the surf and carried me to the nearest shower. Swimsuit, hair, skin were clotted with sand. I received a stinging scrub and an urgent lecture about paying attention to my surroundings to never, ever, turn my back on the waves. Bundled in a towel, cradled in my father’s lap, I shivered uncontrollably until I fell asleep. This was the first time it ever occurred to me that my life, or anyone’s, could easily and suddenly end.

The ocean nurtures a rich variety of invisible life in its soupy waters, life that occasionally works a peculiar display of death. Red tide arrives in Southern California with a stench that clears the usually crowded beaches. My dad explained that a shift of the ocean currents hundreds of miles away causes the water temperature to rise drastically disrupting the normal balance. Protozoans overpopulate and taint the water with secretions that poison other marine life. This bloom gives the surf a reddish hue and the smell of death.

After dark, Daddy and I walked along the strand and watched the fluorescent sea foam ignited by microscopic life. Microbes stimulated by the churning water, gave off an eerie greenish light. A couple of times on warm summer nights, we went body surfing in the tepid rusty breakers. Every stroke of our arms and splash of our legs invoked a glow: ghostly waves haunted by luminous human wraiths. We relished the deserted beach and bathed in the mystery of red tide.

Many miles inland from the tidal pools and beaches that I explored with my Dad, after body surfing through the birth of three more children and going home to share grandpa’s beaches with them, I found a new need for the imagery of the wave. On Memorial Day 1987, at some point along I-15 outside Scipio, Utah, my parent’s van left the highway, slammed into an embankment, and burst into flames. My poor shell-shocked brother sat me down and told of the accident and death of my beloved Mother and Father. There was no time to conjure up in my mind a metaphor for those words, “they were both killed.” The wave was simply there: unrestrained, unstoppable. I felt it swelling in my intestines, ripping through my diaphragm, smothering the breath in my throat, and receding only to rise again and again. With unrelenting power it towered over and inside me.

At first the wave rose up in every unoccupied moment and unfilled hour. So I avoided inactivity. I packed my life full obsessively. I fled from quiet thought-filled moments. Contemplation brought no peace, only the surge and impact of the wave. The endless minutes of silent darkness before sleep were the most painful. It took continual busy-ness to push the wave out of consciousness, to avoid the repeated physical wrenching of the incessant emotional tsunami.

I thought I would ride it out. I thought life should have prepared me for this crisis. I had been so lucky, blessed; it was only fair that I have my turn to suffer. Tragedy had finally caught up with me. After all, I had been taught many sweet clichés about what death brought to those who passed on. But my superficial grasp only led me to turn my back on grief and let it overpower me.

The moment I said, “I can handle this,” I was sucked into the undertow and pinned to the ocean floor. I became a bottom dweller gazing up through the murky light. I thought I could still see, breathe, move, live: that my life would simply go on. But I was suffocating. Like the fragile sand dollar the shell of myself remained, but the creature that existed before my parents death was gone. Without these loved ones taking up their intricate place in the ecosystem of my being, I had ceased to exist as the same person. Cut off from the familiar coastline of my former life, I moved in the viscous dream-motion under the wave.

Childbirth required that I maintain carefully choreographed control. I could ride that wave with just the right responses of relaxation, breathing, and pushing. But there is no handbook of conditioned responses for grieving. The stages wash over you unannounced and undefined. And there is no concrete reward to anticipate at the end. Grief seems endless.

To survive the wave of grief, I had to let go. I had to let go of control and get hysterical, weep and mourn with abandon. I had to mourn hundreds of imagined futures that now would no longer include my parents. I had to face the wave of pain: touch it, taste it, wade, and then bathe in it. I had to talk and talk and talk and talk about thousands of griefs that were part of the loss of my parents. But that wasn’t all. This enormous loss dredged up hundreds of submerged ones that needed healing. The broken flotsam and jetsam of my life rode in on the tide and revealed itself unbidden and would no longer be ignored.

Finally, I had to go back to the labor of birth. The birth of a new me. Perhaps that is the most frightening thing about grieving. Deep down inside we know that we have been shaken to the core and can never, ever go back to being the same person we once were. This requires an enormous amount of work. Sometimes we think we will never have enough energy to do all that work.

I still feel the tide of grief keenly. Having once had that enormous breaker let loose, I don’t grieve gently anymore. But having turned my back on it, bathed in it, ridden it to great depths and heights, I would not want to be the person I was before. I keep learning how to harness the power of the wave, to be born again, and again, and again knowing that I may never reach the shore.

WILD AFTER ALL

Reed Lakes Hike

It was five dollar Tuesday. I was sitting in a darkened theater with my family, comfortably imbibing heavily buttered popcorn and bootlegged sour Jolly Rancher gummies while watching the movie “Wild”; a contemplative character study starring Reese Witherspoon. One particular scene evinced a vivid memory of one of our family’s own “wild” experiences. When Cheryl Strayed (the protagonist), settles down after the first exhausting and painful day of her trek, she attempts lighting her new WhisperLite backpacking stove. Run ragged and starving, she assembles the contraption needed for heating her dehydrated meals. But something’s not right with the delicate assemblage of wire stand, micro-burner, and heat reflector. She consults the stove manual and discovers that she bought the wrong fuel. Now miles and miles from any remedy for her predicament, this realization inspires low-blood sugar rage, and the fuel bottle gets ungraciously kicked out of camp…literally. That’s when my son and I turned to each other and whispered, “Reed Lakes.”

We were living in Alaska. My husband, Ralph, along with our youngest two children, Mike 17, and Amara 15, and I went on the fabled hike to Reed Lakes. The trail head was an easy one hour drive from our home in Eagle River, through Palmer, and up to Hatcher’s Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. On that June day , we got a late start, but the weather was warm and deceptively fine. Sunshine broke through scattered clouds whose ruffled skirts now and then exposed a peek of the blue sky beyond. Which meant that none of us started out the hike with our coats on. After parking the car at the trail head, we rechecked the backpacks and rearranged a few items here and there to better balance the load. We stuffed in last minute items, among them knit caps and several plastic ponchos in case it rained which seemed unlikely. My husband’s jacket was stashed somewhere deep in the bowels of the largest pack, so it wouldn’t topple the load of sleeping bag and tent. Each of us carried some form of backpack with enough food and equipment for a night under the twilight of the Alaskan summer sky.

The first leg of the hike is a faded dirt road headed up the valley toward the abandoned Snowbird Mine. After scrambling around the decaying scrabble of mine ruins we stopped to snack on a handful of M&M gorp and water. By now the dirt road had petered out into a willow fringed pathway with a gradual rise in elevation as it meandered across a broad meadow traversed by a winding stream and wood plank bridges wide enough for one person at a time. Energetic and and light hearted we pressed on.

The sunshine and gurgling water inspired a sense of well-being and excitement over being intrepid adventurers. We had torn ourselves away from our tidy patch of civilization, and I do mean patch, on the banks of the Eagle River. We were partaking of a sacred rite of being Alaskan; trekking out into the wilderness as opposed to just living on the edge of it. We were giddy with the beauty of the landscape and proud of ourselves for escaping the ease of our suburban life. Our path was, clear, and we were Alaskans whose birthright was being at home in the wild.

In short order, our idyllic walk through the lush green vegetation and flowers of the meadow was brought to a sobering halt. A steep hillside loomed above us criss-crossed by steep switchbacks. Our booted feet dug into the moist dirt and pulled us along, calves aching, lungs gulping for air. We rested and sipped water at every turn in the path.

The view above and below us opened up into a spectacular bowl of greenery over which towering gray cliffs and peaks presided. Something that did not catch our attention yet, were the patches of snow that clung to the talus littered mountain flanks. At the top of the hill we paused to rest, raking our hands through unripe patches of blueberries. The dark green, low rising shrubs, held the promise of a bumper crop of the tart juicy fruit. We promised ourselves a return trip solely for berry picking.

This leg of the trip stopped abruptly at the edge of a steep tract of boulders precariously balanced in an irregular up and down cadence of ankle breaking crevices and dark holes where a misplaced foot could get firmly wedged. The scramble over the rocks, at first, was a welcome change from trudging up the steep switchbacks. Then in one terrifying instant the sole of my boot wobbled on a dagger of broken rock. I stumbled, the weight of my pack yanked me off my feet and downhill, throwing my body backward into the steep pile of boulders, arms and legs waving in the air like a turtle helplessly stranded on its back. We froze in shocked silence realizing that only the width of my backpack breaking my fall kept my head inches shy of a serious concussion or worse. It was a sobering reminder of how quickly we could get seriously injured and our joyous encounter with wild Alaska turn into a 6 o’clock news story about rescuing an unconscious hiker from the mountain. We slowed our pace and took greater care finishing our boulder crossing.

At the upper edge of the boulder field we faced a grassy ravine, creek flowing right down the middle between a steep “V” of gray rubble. Here, it became all too clear that mid-June was not yet summertime at this higher elevation. A cold wind flowed down from the frozen heights above and a frosty smattering of rain began to fall. The cold forced us to stop and don jackets and knit caps. All of us except Ralph. In the midst of our tightly organized packs and tidy zippered pockets none of us could locate his jacket nor one of the ponchos. At that point we were in such a hurry to find a camping spot we hoped was only minutes away, we abandoned the search and kept hiking upward.

Our pathway became slippery and gooey as it crossed dozens of weeping snow patches from which water oozed into the creek. On every dry knoll of grass elevated above the mess of water and mud, groups of hikers were setting up tents. We were hungry and tired and ready for dinner but we were also anxious to get away from the crowds of partying teenagers who were oblivious that their high spirited antics and laughter were spoiling the wilderness experience for the less exuberant. So we pressed on in the freezing rain up the steep ravine. We found every dry level spot occupied. With deep blue summer twilight darkening the unstable path, we finally emerged over the ridge into the bowl surrounding the first of the Reed Lakes. Thankfully this area was deserted. We were all by ourselves on a damp patch of threadbare grass surrounded by icy peaks. The creek we had followed the whole way up poured out of the heights above over shelves of broken and water-polished granite. Below us lay the ice crusted blue-green surface of lower Reed Lake.

We had no time to appreciate the view. The wind picked up and freezing rain fell steadily. Having still been unable to find his jacket, Ralph was shivering and on the verge if not fully into a state of hypothermia. We did a flash mob version of setting up the tent and then quite literally threw our backpacks, tools, and bodies into the barely comforting shelter of our dome tent. We were cold, hungry, and all vestiges of our earlier sunny dispositions had vanished. In the riot of gear and tangle of sleeping bags we huddled together for warmth. Out of the dark, above the sound of flowing water and our chattering teeth, we heard Amara’s pained but sweet voice ask, “Um, can we, uh, organize the tent?”

There was a split second of silence, then the hilarious futility of her request sunk in and we all burst out laughing. Amara’s plea for cool heads and orderly process fully expressed our frustrations. Where was Ralph’s jacket, where was the dang WhisperLite stove, matches, and hot food! First we had to get Ralph in better shape so we tucked him down into the warmest sleeping bag we had. Once he had stopped shivering, and maneuvering from the opening of his sleeping bag, he set up the tiny stove and began the process of lighting it. One match after another fizzled out. Finally the minute puddle of fuel was nursed into flame which promptly set the floor of the tent on fire.

We frantically smothered the flames and again broke into hysterical laughter having survived another close call. We gave up on lighting the stove and ate a cold dinner of cream cheese and ham sandwiches washed down with plain water. Enwrapped in hats, hoods, jackets, and sleeping bags we spooned close together and finally got warm enough to doze off.

Ten minutes later we heard the drunken giggles of clueless teenagers who had decided to take a midnight hike up to the lake. The group tromped around nearby laughing and talking for over an hour before disappearing back over the ridge toward their camp in the ravine below. Finally, no longer shivering and blessed with silence we fell into exhausted slumber.

Somewhere, I have pictures of us on that mountainside above the lake laughing and playing in the snow. It still being winter in the bowl of lower Reed Lake there was lots of snow. I don’t even remember the hike back down the mountain the following day. I just remember that every moment of delight and discomfort on that memorable hike is filled with joy. The joy of the wild. Not just the wildness of the wilderness, but the joy of surviving the wildly unexpected surrounded by such danger and beauty. And although we don’t live in Alaska any longer the wildness of that place, the resourcefulness it provokes, the memories created there will stick with us always. Wild after all.

Launched: 2015 A New Year Odyssey

“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us,

cause our destiny lies above.”

Cooper to his father in the movie Interstellar

earth_1-jpg

Imagine hitching a ride on the Rosetta spacecraft as it sped into the darkness of space in March of 2004 for a ten-year flight to rendezvous in 2014 with comet 67P/C-G. (http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/).

First, you’re  launched along  a  trajectory  of visual splendor following the cloud veiled, blue-green face of Earth for  a year-long orbit around the sun.  From there, a gravity assist flings you into a close flyby of ruddy and hopeful Mars, laced with tantalizing signs of alien mysteries and microscopic ancient life. The miracles of astrophysics slingshot you to the asteroid belt, back to earth, and to the belt again. You have traveled to the furthest reaches of the solar system, nearly a billion kilometers from the sun, its warmth and light growing so dim that for a time Rosetta shuts down all but the most essential functions to conserve energy.

Finally, in November of 2014,  you watch the first ever landing on a comet as Rosetta’s robot lander, the Philae, alights on the surface. Comets have both terrified and fascinated humankind for millennia, and now, humans have a presence on one of those comets and can closely monitor its fiery transformation as it approaches the sun. Pictures are taken, analysis of the comet’s composition and other data are transmitted and jubilantly welcomed by knowledge hungry scientists back on earth.

At the end of its mission, Rosetta  will usher the comet to  its closest pass of the sun, termed perihelion. Then, the lonely wanderer will have fulfilled it’s purpose: mission accomplished, mission terminated. And you need a ride back to earth.

Round-trip passage on Rosetta is not possible, but we have launched into a new year and quite literally another odyssey around the sun; through space and time we embark on Mission 2015

Ever since my teacher,  Mrs. Hawkins, read A Wrinkle In Time to my fifth-grade class, I have dreamed of space travel, of vaulting the limits of the known  in order to visit other worlds.  Madeleine L’Engle’s book is wrapped in wonder, and filled with starlight, alien creatures, and mind-bending  tesseract spacetime travel. Ideas  like these still propel my hopes and fuel my imagination, sending me to the theater nearly every time a real science fiction film is released.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.” (A Wrinkle in Time)

In the spirit of the movie Interstellar, I fire up the imagination of  childhood  to make plans for 2015. With such imaginings, plans become journeys and shirk the mundane. For this year’s journey I have decided to work at seeing things differently, adopting an active spirit of inquiry.  I’m searching for a more evocative approach to the fresh slate of time and space awaiting me on  this journey across 2015.

We are literally hurtling through space.  Vast amounts of  data bombard  us every single moment, second, nanosecond. This sensory overload pulls at us like the gravity of a neutron star, inescapable,  though we manage not to let it consume us.  Every day there are limitless options, but always a limited amount of time. The closer we get to that neutron star, the singularity of too much information for the mind to handle, the faster our time leaks away like oxygen through a growing pin prick in a  space suit. Thus the need for balance, a delicate orbit where the sensory data can be observed and understood without becoming our destruction.

At NASA everything is planned down to the fractions of each second in order to accomplish highly technical and highly refined projects. Mission control is all about engineering the perfect plan and foreseeing all the variables;  with hope directing every second, every motion, every calculation.

The demands of my own personal “astronaut training” here on spaceship Earth have been daunting: physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s daunting for all of us.  At times I’ve been tempted to cut loose and simply drift, foregoing any hint of NASA like planning of my life.  But I can no more choose not to act with intention than I can choose not to breathe. Choosing to drift would still be a choice with consequences.

I shouldn’t and indeed cannot tighten  up control of my life  with NASA-style precision ;  but there should be and will be planning.  In 2015, I am taking inspiration from the beauty and brilliance of the cosmos, respecting the organic flow of my  life in a fashion similarly to the astronaut’s and astrophysicist’s, the engineer’s and mission control specialist’s respect and reverence spaceflight and exploration.

My Mission Control for 2015:

Silence: I will give my mind and body more restful, rejuvenating, silence.  Silent time away from noise, data, conversation.  Even time silencing my thoughts. Think of the silence in the vast spaces between the stars.

Slow Down:  I am going to slow down: move slower, think slower,  find calm, use the pause and the breath. Think of motion in the absence of gravity: graceful, flowing, floating.

Move with intention:  Too often instead of controlling my life, life controls me.  Whatever is in my face gets my attention and action.  I will take a lesson from the finely tuned precision of a NASA flight plan,  paying more heed  to  intentions and priorities, doing what is most important  now,  for love of and commitments to myself and others. If I’m always swept up by that immediate impulse to take care of what’s in my face seizing my attention, all that’s being satisfied is that impulse, and not the plans and intentions built from a place of desire and caring.

Mindfulness: Certainly a ten year journey to the asteroid belt would give an astronaut plenty of time to meditate, contemplate the wonders of the universe, and gain greater self-awareness.  My hope is that by tending to a few key practices, I can create a similar, albeit less isolated space for greater mindfulness in hopes to cultivate an atmosphere of contentment in mind, heart and body.

My mission Statement for 2015.  

It may not give me the ability  to tesseract my way to far off solar systems, but hopefully exploring  my own soul creatively using the imagery spaceflight will foster travels in inner space as  awe inspiring as the splendors of the universe.


“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”  
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The Fading Art of Christmas Card Giving

Downtown caldwell lights

 

“Jean!  Don’t take the Christmas cards before I get a chance to read them.”  That’s my mom scolding ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, etc. -year-old me.  I was one of those kids that went Christmas-crazy.  My wise mother found ways to channel my youthful enthusiasm for the season, she planned all sorts of  projects: baking, sewing, making ornaments, crafting wall hangings, making and wrapping gifts.  The constant over all those years was the Christmas card wall. This was our own original tradition.

The Christmas cards became my medium to create.  I kept watch for the mail, waited for my parens to read the newly delivered greetings (if I resisted the temptation of ripping them open first),  at which point I’d put  them up in a decorative zig-zag pattern on the wood pillars dividing our living room from the hallway.  Here was  my artistic and festive display that signaled that Christmas was indeed upon us.  The more cards, the greater my repertoire of colors and designs to draw from. In my mind, the photo cards were duds.  I favored the ornate: the sparkling gold, silver, and bright red beauties, the quaint village snow scenes, or mysterious dark skies over Bethlehem with richly dressed magi gazing at a magnificent star.

With time, I looked forward to having my own Christmas card list and sending cheerful greetings to friends and family. As a poor newlywed, the stamp price was indeed a sacrifice but this was my once-a-year chance to show my far flung loved ones that my husband and I were thinking of them. I realized that there was more than just the addressing, stamping, and mailing.  There was the yearly quandary over culling the list.  I never crossed someone off the list just because they didn’t send me a card.  Mostly, I just lost track of addresses, people moved, or I didn’t want to guilt-trip the remiss into feeling like they had to send me a card.

And then it wasn’t enough to send a card with simply “Best Wishes” or “Much Love” and a signature.  No, there should be a brief handwritten note, a more personal touch.  And I do mean brief, this was before we owned a computer. Eventually, we acquired a clunky Apple desktop with a word processing program, and I joined the trend of composing a yearly family newsletter; sometimes with a family picture  enclosed, and always stuffed in a glittery  decorative card so they wouldn’t be “duds”.  Eventually,  I compressed the family news portion and started writing and sending stories of the season. A few were my own fictional stories of the season, others were based on family events. Some were essays of personal reflection. It was a holiday blog via snail mail before blogs were ever blogged.

Ever being one to increase the interest level,  I began creating  handmade Christmas Cards as well; inspired by  the stamping and scrapbooking trend.  It was fun to get together with friends and share ideas and be motivated by each other to make our own special greeting cards. Does this all sound way too complicated? (Yes, I do have a tendency to over-do things as my imagination and expectations get a bit out of control.) But my Christmas card obsession was leading me toward my inner creator.

Down one path came my writing, down another, the embellishment of the Christmas cards inspired the budding photographer in me. For many years we lived in Alaska with myriad opportunities to take photographs of spectacular scenery and beautiful wintery vistas. With the advent of digital photography and the acquisition of a great camera, I had hundreds of pictures begging to be shared. I began using my photos not just for Christmas cards but for greeting cards of all kinds.  This was a lot easier than stamping and paper crafting and for me a great deal more satisfying.

Gradually, the stack of Christmas cards received by mail diminished. The advent of email greetings, tweets, and facebook shout-outs took a huge bite out of Christmas card traffic. Then we moved out of Alaska. This sea-change swamped my life and I had to let go of sending Christmas cards . I am now lost to most of my former correspondents and there are no cards to tape up on any  wall.

In 1843 Sir Henry Cole invited his artist friend, John Horsley, to create the first Christmas card which they printed and sold for one shilling each.  Cards could be mailed for a penny.  Christmas card giving spread to the United States and became a very popular tradition for sending a bit of Christmas cheer and the sharing of goodwill and peace. Dare I say, the pre-computer age facebook?  No, I think not. Likely, no one used Christmas cards for political rants or for determining which latte flavor defines them as a person.

Recently, an email from my best friend from high school (a faithful Christmas card sender) revealed that she is facing a second battle with cancer. This sobering news and my desire to comfort her reignited my desire to share a bit of personally  crafted holiday cheer in hard copy format. I still have many megabytes and counting of photos to share and more importantly people to reach out to.

Time is more and more scarce and valuable,  a dizzying array of entertainments clamor for our attention.  Perhaps resurrecting a graceful tradition of a slower lifestyle  would calm our over-stimulated brains and put us in touch with our inner resources.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stuff this essay in a Christmas card, and mail it.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!