ROADS NOT TAKEN. . .

IMG_2278As I stood by the lake, it felt familiar—like visiting an old friend. The mirror-like surface of the water reflected the billowy white clouds and the stark ridgeline of the mountain that rose up sharply from the water’s edge. A breeze stirred, sending tiny ripples across the water. The aspens along the shore began to quiver; their delicate leaves that danced at the end of fragile stems shimmered in the dimming light. I stood quietly, drinking in the the stillness. It felt like medicine.

This was my first trip to the Yukon. Long ago, when I was young and strong, I used to dream of such places, of a life that was not soft and conventional. I would imagine homesteading on the shores of a remote lake, living by my wits and physical might; homeschooling my daughter; hiking supplies in on my back; hunting and foraging for food; experiencing the splendor of the northern lights, the break up of the ice in the spring.
   

In 1973, I pinky-sealed a deal with my husband. If I put him through his last two years of college, we’d move to the wilderness. He promised we’d point our truck north to Alaska when he had that degree in his hand. But instead—without my vote—he decided to sign up with the Forest Service to work in a mosquito-filled valley town in California. I went from my vision of mountain lakes to living in the middle of rice paddies.  

That wasn’t the first time I thought we were headed down one road only to find ourselves going about-face in the opposite direction. In 1968, hubby and I had completed Peace Corps training to go to Afghanistan. Our destination was Kandahar; I would be a nurse working with local health workers under primitive conditions, he would go on surveying expeditions. We had learned to speak Farsi; I was raring to go. But suddenly—twenty-four hours before we were to board the plane—he unilaterally decided we should bail… His reasons were all very vague. Something about not wanting to be part of a corrupt bureaucracy, though I learned later that his “go/no-go” decision process was always a crapshoot when he had to walk his talk.

These abrupt turns in the road were not easy for me. Both times, it was like my locomotive had suddenly fallen off the tracks, bringing me to a dead halt, while the wheels kept spinning in the air for a long time, going nowhere. As with any shock, it took a while to get upright and find my way again.

Those particular changes in course happened because I deferred to another’s decision for reasons that puzzle me now but seemed appropriate at the time. And even though there were many times when I boldly stepped through doors when they opened, not hesitating to take a leap, there have also been occasions when I myself have gotten scared and backed down from something, been unable to take the next step because I feared the unknown, had doubts, lost confidence, lacked faith, or just couldn’t summon the energy.

Sometimes it was impermanence—divorce, a death, a house fire—or illness, a change of heart that altered the trajectory of my life, sending me down roads I would not have imagined or chosen for myself. Once, it was a simple coin toss. I was with hubby at the airport in Port Moresby, New Guinea with two duffel bags full of all our worldly possessions. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments: heads we’d go to New Zealand, tails we’d go to Spain. Imagine the freedom of that! We’d been in the tropics for a year, and when the nickel came up tails, we headed to Europe in the middle of their winter and promptly got sick. One week later we were back to the US. I’ve often thought how differently our path might have unfolded had we landed in New Zealand in the warmth of their summer months.

Drinking in the beauty of that Yukon lake four decades later, I took a moment and bowed to that young woman who once yearned to live in the wilderness. I honored not only her spirit but also the spirit of who I have become. I have aged with grace. My life is simple and cozy. Circumstances have changed; I fully embrace the ease and convenience of indoor toilets, electricity, running water, warmth, grocery stores. I am content. And who knows…maybe that road not taken spared me from becoming dinner for a grizzly bear!

 

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AN HOMAGE TO AGING HANDS. . .

my handsWhen I look at my hands they don’t let me forget that I am aging. The skin is thin and adorned with liver spots and wrinkles. The veins stand up tall and proud. They were never my best feature, beauty-wise, but they have always been capable hands and have served me well for many decades. I wear a star sapphire ring that belonged to my mother, and it reminds me that I come from a lineage of women who have strong hands and know how to use them. We come from good Serbian peasant stock.

Years ago I was a midwife at a birth that was attended by a young girl of seven. She watched intently as her baby brother was born. Later at the first post-partum visit, she handed me a picture she had drawn about her experience. I looked at it, puzzled. “It’s a picture of your hands,” she patiently explained. “They are so smart and know just what to do.”

I hear that women can go through an entire pregnancy now without a human hand ever touching their bellies, just an ultrasound transducer schlepping over their gel-covered abdomen every prenatal visit, impersonally recording data about their babies. A dear young friend of mine had her baby in an Asian country some years ago, and when I inquired once about how many centimeters her belly was measuring, she said she had no idea; no one had ever measured her. When she asked at the next visit for them to do just that, they gave her a look of incredulity. Seriously. That is so old school now and very inaccurate. Really? Since when? Assessing the size and position of a baby in utero using one’s bare hands and a measuring tape has worked for hundreds of years, not to mention the fact that women love to have their bellies touched.

The further away I get from the source, the more out of touch I feel. When I garden I want gloveless hands in the dirt, making direct contact with the plants, taking their pulse. I love the sensual feel of earthy bread dough, feeling its life force and suppleness beneath my fleshy palms and fingers. I’ll choose bare hands over spoons any day when mixing most things, especially heaping bowls of potato salad. I do best when very little comes between me and my immediate experience, and when I can get away with it, I eat without utensils!

A western, female Buddhist teacher counseled me once: “What you think you need, is what you should be giving!” So sometimes when I am wishing for a sympathetic soul to come forward and address the pain and stiffness in my shoulders and neck, I’ll go to someone nearby and ask if they would like a little massage. And as their tension dissipates under these strong, capable hands of mine, and I hear their audible moans of relief, I actually do feel better.

It turns out that grandchildren don’t mind these aging hands. They like to affectionately caress them and squeeze the thin skin between their fingers when they curl up for a snuggle, like having a familiar, comfy blankie to rub on. . .

REFLECTIONS ON THE PASSING OF A DEAR FRIEND. . .

BIRTH AND DEATH AND IN BETWEEN

long island soundI sat on a bench outside her house, staring at the liquid gray sea that was tightly framed by heavy, dark clouds. It looked cold and lonely. Gulls flew overhead, their plaintive cries echoing the sorrow in my heart. My friend had passed away the day before. It all felt wrong and it also felt perfect. I began to sob. Emotions that had been carefully tucked away for a week now demanded expression. I felt the ripping pain of loss and grief because I love her and will miss her, as will so many others whose lives she so lovingly touched. I also rejoiced because I was deeply moved and inspired by how graciously she lived and how auspiciously she died. I thought… she has shown us how to do this. Pay heed.

She embodied the compassionate teachings of the Buddha throughout her life – in her work and in her relationships…

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MY SPECIAL DAY. . .

Rustic setting with spring flowers and homemade breadCelebrating my birthday has always been a big deal to me, and how I have done that has gone through many incarnations over the course of my long life. When I was a child my birthday took on a particular significance: It was a day of amnesty, a “cease-fire,” a reprieve from being scolded… or worse. It was my special day, and I remember each year feeling giddy with anticipation. I looked forward to it even more than Christmas. I got to choose the dinner menu (fried chicken and mashed potatoes) and the dessert (Betty Crocker’s Chocolate Cake). I felt quite la-di-da. Parties, however, were problematic. You ran the risk that the cease-fire would get called off. Once—when I turned thirteen and had my first boy/girl-afternoon-dance party—it didn’t end well. My father had had one too many libations by 2:00 and ripped the record player out of the wall, sending my friends packing. “No kid of mine is going to listen to Elvis Presley. He’s a goddam pervert. Jesus Christ, someone should cut his hair!” Having a party was always a crap shoot.

When I grew up, I still wanted my birthday to be my “special day.” I couldn’t drop my expectations, and this was a big, fat setup for disappointment—again and again. There were times when I waited… not saying anything, certain that any minute someone would surprise me with a cake, or maybe breakfast in bed, a flower, perhaps a card… and nada. When no one noticed, it broke my heart.

It took years, but then I finally woke up: I took charge of “my day.” No longer did I leave it to chance. Never again would I be vulnerable to disappointment! I planned weeks in advance about how I wanted to spend my day, what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do it with.

And over time… what I discovered was that my “special day” started to become less about me and more about the people I loved; less about what I needed and more about contentment for everything I already had. Instead, I wanted to give presents to others or cook for them on my birthday.

As I age, I feel my edges soften. The clock is ticking. I don’t have time to cling to what no longer has meaning in my life. As someone said, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!” Each morning when I wake up and find myself still breathing, I rejoice. I might have another day. I am filled with gratitude for the bounty in my life. I am infused with joy more often than not. Every day is starting to feel like my birthday!

I turned seventy-three on my most recent one. I felt full to spilling over—spending hours on the phone with old friends and family, receiving congratulatory texts, emails, and the usual birthday wishes on Facebook. In the evening I went with my daughter to a performance of the Playback theater in our local community. The topic was Growing food, Eating Food, Sharing Food. I shared my story of coming full circle: from having once been a farmer who grew pumpkins for the kids in the county and nourished my family with the food I grew and the bread I baked—to planting no food for twenty-two years—to now feeding my family once again with the harvest from my huge backyard garden and fresh, homemade bread. When I was done telling my tale, the actors “played it back” to me. It was an enactment of my life before my eyes, a coming home to an essential piece in me that I had put on hold for a long time. The evening culminated with a concert from my granddaughter of her favorite songs from the film Moana. It was a glorious day.

 

MINI-PLEASURES . . .

I went to see a new doctor today, an ENT specialist. A month ago, when I saw my dentist for my checkup, he saw a white lesion where my tonsils used to be and thought vintage flowers, coffee, bookI should have it looked at. So, there I was, patiently sitting in the exam room with my mug of steaming hot coffee, absorbed in a good book (which I always remember to bring for times like this when I may need to wait).
The doctor quietly slipped in the door. I was so engrossed in my story I didn’t notice him for a minute. He cleared his throat, and I looked up. I lay my book on the chair next to me. “Good morning,” I said, as I reached out my hand to greet him.
He was a distinguished looking gentleman, perhaps in his sixties; he wore horn-rimmed glasses. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was streaming through the window, illuminating his face in a soft golden light.
“Good morning,” he responded, as he shook my hand. He looked at me for an uncommonly long minute, then cocked his head. His eyes were twinkling. He turned to stare out the window, then looked back.
“Are you a gardener?”
“Uh… yes I am,” I replied, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, looking at you just now, it came to me that it all went together somehow: coffee, a book, gardening. . .” His smile was warm.
“Yes, absolutely. They do go together!” We both chuckled and then proceeded to chat about vegetables. Eventually, he proceeded with his exam.
“I don’t see anything there now,” he said. “Must have been schmutz.”
“I’m good with that. Schmutz. That was exactly my diagnosis. I wasn’t worried.”
We grinned and shook hands. “Have a great, rest-of-your-day,” he said as I departed.
It was no more than a fifteen-minute visit, but in that brief interlude, we touched. He saw me. I am exactly who he thought he saw. And he knew that I knew that. And he felt seen, knowing that I knew that. It was a “moment.” A simple but exquisite moment. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., says in Kitchen Table Wisdom: “The places where we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings.”
This is what a friend of mine calls “mini-pleasures,” those times during the day when we pause and show up for the little things, wherever we are. Some are deeply human moments, like this, where people come together momentarily—like birds on a telephone wire—touch in, and then go on their way, feeling fuller, plumped up with good juju. Other times, it may be the flight of a hawk, the dew on a leaf, a grocer’s kind words to an elderly woman fumbling in her wallet for change, or the miracle of a spider’s web that makes us pay attention and rejoice.
As a hospice nurse, I have been at the bedsides of dying people who have lamented: “My life is over and I missed it.” It’s a heartbreaker. Yet, how many times throughout the day are we unconscious, missing what is right before us, waiting for life to be more, holding out for something bigger?
So, thank you, Dr. R. I don’t have throat cancer, and you made my day.

 

 

 

 

THE BODY NEVER FORGETS . . .

INo More Secretst was the early 80s. My colleague walked into the office at our women’s health care clinic where I was finishing the last of my charting. “I’ve decided to set up a domestic violence hotline,” she announced. “The phone will go in our clinic. I’ve wanted to get this going for a long time. The need is huge,” she added. “There’s a list of people who want to be volunteers. The training will be in two weeks. By the way. . . it would be good if you went to it.”

I stared at her. Hard. I felt my pulse racing. . . “NO! Absolutely not. I don’t want any part of that hotline or the training, and I certainly don’t want a phone in our clinic! What are you thinking? Innocent pregnant women come here. It won’t be safe. What if an angry man finds out and comes beating on our door.” I suddenly felt nauseous.

“No? What do you mean—no?  Our clinic will just be a physical location for the phone; the calls get forwarded to the volunteer’s number. This is not a big deal. What’s scary and really dangerous is having women and children being hurt and there being no one available they can reach out to for help.”

I took some deep breaths. She had a point. But. . . why does this feel like a big deal, and why does my chest hurt? Maybe I’m having a heart attack.
“Okay,” I finally allowed.”But, I don’t want to be involved. This whole idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.
“You don’t need to do anything,” she assured me, “but, it would be helpful if you at least did the training so you would know how to respond. You know—just in case.”

So there I was, two weeks later, in a conference room with other women, listening to an expert speak at length about domestic violence and child abuse. She shared heart-breaking stories. She went on and on and on . . .

I broke into a sweat and gripped the table. I think I’m going to pass out. I began to shake; tears streamed down my face. My colleague looked at me. “You’re white as a sheet. Come with me.” She took my hands and pulled me into the hallway. “What on earth happened in there?” she asked.
I found it difficult to breathe. “That woman is talking about my family!” I finally sputtered.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said: That woman is talking about my family. She just described my entire childhood like she had been peering through a window watching me grow up, documenting every detail. And. . . she said what happened to me as a child was wrong! And not only wrong but criminal! Like, against the law. I had no idea. I thought it was normal to suffer. No one spoke about it—ever. These were our family secrets, and we held them tightly in a code of silence: what happened behind closed doors, stayed there, and then you forgot about it. That’s how it was.

I felt like I had been hit by a logging truck. I’m over forty years old. I’m an intelligent, competent, professional, high-functioning adult. How could I not have known this?

My body knew, though. It never forgot. No wonder I was scared.

THE NIGHT I ALMOST MURDERED MY FATHER. . .

Revolver-Gun-Table in sunlightSixty years ago I almost murdered my father. I was only twelve years old, not your average killer. And yet, there I stood one night outside his bedroom door—a vulnerable young girl with a big knife in my hand. It wasn’t rage or revenge that lead to this decision. Rather, I felt a moral responsibility to kill him to protect the people that I loved.

It was never my intention to write this story, but last week I had two successive dreams that were exactly the same; every detail intact. Images from that night vividly appeared in front of me as if on a computer screen. I could hear the script typing itself out in my head, and I couldn’t make the narrator shut up. Some words popped up in bold type: KILLERS – GUNS – KILLERS – GUNS. I woke up drenched in sweat with my heart pounding. With horror, I realized that that could have been me. If there had been a gun in our house that night, it would have been so easy in that moment to pick it up and pull the trigger. I would have joined the thousands of others who respond to a heated moment, a confrontation, a difference of opinion by momentarily losing their minds, reaching for a gun, and blowing theirs or someone else’s brains out. Even a sweet, young girl like me—had a gun been accessible—would have felt justified in picking it up and killing my father. That truth is why I decided to tell my story: to use my voice to support gun control in this country.

My father had returned from WWII a broken man, or so said others trying to rationalize his violence.  I only knew him as someone who drank too much and took out his rage on my brothers and me. It never stopped. Mealtimes were the worst. We were prime targets: sitting on the edge of our seats, backs straight, elbows off the table, mouths shut unless we were spoken to first. He controlled everything. Our plates were always stacked in front of him, and he doled out the food. If it was something you hated, and he was in “one of his moods,” he gave you double portions, and you couldn’t leave the table until you ate every last bite . . . or suffer the consequences!

Lima beans were on the menu that night. Uh oh. I glanced quickly at my brother who was ten. I knew he was in for it. Sure enough—soft, pale-green lima beans covered half his plate. He picked at the food around them and then just sat there staring at the green heap remaining on his plate. Tears welled up in his eyes. He put a small bite in his mouth and chewed and chewed and chewed. But when he tried to swallow, he gagged and retched.

“Don’t you dare spit them out,” my father shouted. “You eat those beans, you son of a bitch.” My brother began to sob as the pulverized beans dribbled out the side of his mouth. “You skinny, worthless runt. You’ll sit here and eat those beans if it takes you three goddamn days. I’m the boss here, and you will obey me.” My father’s rage reverberated off the walls as he continued to scream and berate my brother.

Something broke open inside me. For the first time—ever, I spoke. “Stop. Stop hurting my brother!” I blurted, my body shaking. I looked up at him. Big mistake. His eyes became hard as steel. I bolted from the kitchen into my room and cowered in a corner, making myself as small as possible. I heard his huge frame lunge up and knock the chair over. I’m dead, I thought. He stormed in and started beating me with his fists. “I don’t talk to my colonel that way. You don’t talk to yours. I don’t talk to my colonel that way. You don’t talk to yours,” he repeated over and over with each blow. When he finally stopped and headed for the door, he turned around: “You shut up that crying right now. I don’t want to hear it. If I do, I’ll come back in and whip you some more.” I curled up in my bed, whimpering softly. It was then that I decided: I had to kill him. This violence will never stop. My mother is too scared to protect us. It’s up to me.

Later that night, when I stood outside his bedroom door with the knife in my hand, listening to his snoring, I lost my courage. The knife was not that big, and I knew I would have one shot at this. If I missed, he would kill me. I froze. . . I couldn’t do it. I tiptoed back to the kitchen, returned the knife to the drawer, and quietly left the house to go across the street to sit in my safe place: the hidden wooden crotch of a giant fig tree. In that moment everything seemed hopeless. I knew I had nowhere to turn. It was 1956. Child abuse was commonplace and even condoned, especially in military families. I cried through the night and just before dawn, crept back into my room. He never found out. No one ever knew because I could not speak of that night for decades.

Eventually, I was old enough to leave and create a peaceful life and a home of my own. I became a Buddhist practitioner and try to do my best to help and not harm other living beings. Meanwhile, my father stopped drinking. He mellowed; his rage fell away. He took up fishing in a little boat. He became a respected and beloved citizen in his community. He believed in giving back. “There are takers and then there are doers. I’m a doer,” he would say. He was Santa Claus at the local school. He started watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie in the early hours of the morning because he said the show was deep and made him think about the importance of family. Well, that gave me pause. . .

I have come to realize that life cannot be reduced to simple, immutable tenets. People have layers of complexity; they change. He was more than just an evil person. I discovered he had qualities and goodness that were hidden beneath the surface of his cruelty. This insight does not in any way absolve him of the abuse my brothers and I experienced; it has taken a lifetime to work through it. But I am eternally grateful that I did not succeed in killing him. Who could have known that my father’s hatred of guns and his refusal to have them in the house would one day save us both.